What is Niebuhr’s typology and what does he mean by culture? The culture Niebuhr refers to is not narrow (Niebuhr, 1951: 30) but is instead general in scope (Niebuhr, 1951: 31). It’s neither only our contemporary 21st century westernized culture nor is it only an African or Asian culture. Instead, it is the social life of humanity as a whole fashioned via language, habits, ideas, customs, and social organizations (Niebuhr, 1951: 32). Niebuhr believed that culture and Christianity produced an “enduring problem” (Niebuhr, 1951: 1); a problem that requires understanding. His theory focuses on how Christians relate and interact with surrounding cultures, for example, how does a Christian be both part of the world and not part of the world? The Bible would appear to suggest both. Thus Niebuhr looked at five ways that Christians, now and within history, have dealt with this dilemma, hence his articulation of the five views: Christ against culture, Christ of Culture, Christ above Culture, Christ and Culture paradox and Christ transforms culture.
Christ as Transformer of Culture and its Biblical Basis.
This paper argues for the position of Christ as Transformer of Culture. One who espouses this view (a “conversionist”) has a “hopeful view toward culture” (Niebuhr, 1951: 191). God made things good (Gen. 1:31) and, although this goodness was tainted by the fall, human culture is still redeemable. Human culture, the conversionist believes, can be transformed “to the glory of God” (Niebuhr, 1951: 196); a position that has a supportive biblical foundation.
According to the Apostle Paul everything was created for Jesus “and through him,” (Rom. 11:36) a theme that Niebuhr suggested denotes human responsibility in a created world that is under the rule of Christ (Niebuhr, 1951: 192). All things are to carry out God’s purposes and in Jesus (God incarnate) God’s intentions became manifest in “the one who embodies the kingdom of God” (Grenz, 2000: 476). Jesus, according to exegete Flowers, came to save the world and not to condemn it as advocated in John 3:16-17 (Flowers, 2015), and thus he believed that although human culture was corrupted by sin it was still redeemable. Paul likewise believed that we are able to be transformed by the “renewing” of the mind” and to, as a result, not conform to the “pattern of this world” (Rom. 12:2) if we align ourselves with God’s will. Although human culture, at large, conforms to the pattern of this world it can be redeemed through collective, genuine, righteous Christian effort. We are also told that as we are increasingly transformed by Jesus into his “same image” we also begin reflecting the “glory of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18). Ephesians instructs us to do away with our old selves that formerly indulged deceitful desires and to embrace a renewed self in the spirit (4:22-24). Galatians shows how being crucified with Christ, via a life changing personal transition, allows Christ to live within oneself (2:20). Paul thus, ubiquitously, held that humans were able to transform their lives from that of allegiance to sin into obedience to Christ. This is an important point for if culture is exclusively human it would then suggest that transformation on a personal level could reshape culture at a larger level to reflect the image of Christ. Likewise in John’s gospel God “sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). This demonstrates, along with Paul, that although human culture is tainted by the fall it can be transformed. Christians are therefore tasked to transform culture in a way that glorifies God; as Niebuhr explains: “Man’s good nature has been corrupted; it is not bad, as something that ought not to exist, but warped, twisted, and misdirected” (Niebuhr, 1951: 194). Such misdirection is in need of realignment.
Niebuhr, R. 1951. Christ and Culture. New York: HarperCollins.
Flowers, D. 2015. The Unseen Wrath of God (Divine Justice in a Culture of Miscreants). Available: https://daviddflowers.com/2015/06/29/the-unseen-wrath-of-god-divine-justice-in-a-culture-of-miscreants/ [7 May 2016]
Grenz, S. 2000. Theology for the Community of God. Michigan: Eerdmans (7th Edition)