RPM, Volume 20, Number 20, May 13 to September 19, 2018

Niebuhr, Christianity, and Culture

By Justin Huffman

It is frequently said that Christians should be "in the world but not of the world." While this is a pithy statement, it is not actually very helpful. To what degree should Christians participate in earthly endeavors? Which efforts are worthwhile and which ones are unproductive or—worse still—destructive? What does it mean for a Christian to not be "of the world"? Surely we are still earthly people, living an earthly existence, even as we pursue eternal goals.

Many writers old and new have sought to flesh out a balanced view of Church and World, of Christianity and Everyone Else, of Christ and Culture. However, H. Richard Niebuhr's book Christ and Culture has become such a seminal work that it is virtually unthinkable to have an informed discussion regarding the interplay of the Christian religion with the culture around it, without likewise interacting with Niebuhr's framing of the subject.

So here is sort of primer, introducing you to Niebuhr's work and seeking to provide a helpful critique of his take on Christ, on culture, and on Christianity. While this article does not pretend to provide a comprehensive treatment of the subject, it will at least perhaps provide some necessary groundwork from which the discussion must proceed.

Niebuhr's Thesis

In defining Christ, Niebuhr interestingly begins by defining a Christian as anyone who believes in or follows Jesus Christ. Included among those who Niebuhr presumably sees as believing or following Christ are 1) those who understand Jesus as "a great teacher or lawgiver," 2) those who view Jesus as being himself "the revelation of God," and 3) those who see in Jesus "neither new teaching or new life but a new community." 1

Seeking to unify these desperate views of Christ under own umbrella of Christianity, Niebuhr insists they at least are all related in some way to "the Jesus Christ of the New Testament; and…this this a person with definite teachings, a definite character, and a definite fate" (12). Though one can feel the tent pegs straining under the weight, Niebuhr has at least for himself managed in this way to encompass everything from liberal to conservative Christians, from Gnostics to Augustinians, from Jehovah's Witnesses (66) to Fundamentalists — all under one tent pole called "Christianity." Seemingly to relieve this obvious tension, Niebuhr goes on to explain that at least the Jesus Christ that all these groups worship is not Socrates, Mohammed, or even Isaiah. "In short, Niebuhr wishes to be broadly comprehensive, accepting as 'Christ' the various portraits of Jesus Christ found in dominant strands of Christendom." 2

Neibuhr then defines culture as "that total process of human activity and that total result of such activity", and as "the 'artificial, secondary environment' which man superimposes on the natural" (32). Niebuhr claims this idea of "culture" is what New Testament writers often have in mind when speaking of "the world" (32).

Having thus defined his terms, Niebuhr goes on to summarize what he sees as the five approaches among Christians to "Christ and culture". Jon Diefenthaler sums these five categories up succinctly:

Between the two extremes of "withdrawal" (Christ against culture) and "identification" (Christ of culture), Niebuhr placed three mediating attitudes: the "synthesis" (Christ above culture), the "dualist" (Christ and culture in paradox), and the "conversionist" (Christ the transformer of culture). 3

At least in part, these helpful "handles" with which Niebuhr equips us are the reason his work is such a classic on the subject. They help us think about and evaluate our own, as well as others', views: do we see Christianity as against, part of, above/separate from, in paradox with, or transforming the culture around it?

These handles are so helpful that they are in some ways self-explanatory and intuitive, once Niebuhr provides the language. Yet, they are in brief: Christ against culture (represented by Amish, Fundamentalists, and by such historic figures as Tertullian and Tolstoy) is the view that Christians ought to mostly withdraw from the world around them and "resolutely [reject] the culture's claims to loyalty" (45). Niebuhr also sees this spirit in Scripture with such passages as 1 John 2:15. Christ of culture (exampled in Liberalism and the Gnostics) has a tendency to both interpret culture through Christ, and Christ through culture. While they claim Christianity as their religion, "they seem equally at home in the community of culture" (106). Strikingly, Niebuhr provides no Scriptural support for such a view.

Between these two extremes, Niebuhr describes three middle-ground views. 4 Christ above culture (seen in Roman Catholicism) seeks a "both-and" solution to the problem, contending that Christ is sovereign over culture and thus has authority over it. Niebuhr explains that, in this paradigm, "To the New Testament as well as to the Old Testament church the great proclamation is made, 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord Our God is one Lord'" (142). This of course, though, "leads to the institutionalization of Christ and his gospel" (146). Christ and culture in paradox (motifs of which Niebuhr sees in Paul, Luther, and Kierkegaard) sees an unresolvable tension between Christ and culture. "Living between time and eternity, between wrath and mercy, between culture and Christ… there is no solution of the dilemma this side of death" (178).

Finally, Christ the transformer of culture (represented in John's gospel, Paul (at different points), Calvin, and Niebuhr's apparent hero F.D. Maurice) believes the Christian should realistically expect to convert the culture as a whole. In its purest form, Niebuhr seems to think, "The conversionist is less concerned with conservation of what has been given in creation, less with preparation for what will be given in a final redemption, than with the divine possibility of a present renewal" (195).

Students of Niebuhr have observed that, while his commentary on the other views contains at least some criticism, he offers no negative feedback in relation to the conversionist perspective — thereby, tacitly endorsing this approach as his own.

Positive Lessons From Niebuhr

Niebuhr's critique of the five approaches to Christ and culture certainly has some positive elements to it. As mentioned already, Niebuhr's categories are helpful "handles" by which to engage in the discussion in the first place.

In addition, many of his criticisms have served to helpfully balance Christian thought in relation to our culture. The world should not swallow up our Christ—whether consciously and theologically, or practically and accidentally. On the other hand, our goal as Christians speaking to our culture should not be to force the Christian tradition or ethic upon the culture. Nonetheless, Christians should not despair of effectively communicating spiritual truth to unbelieving culture around us; rather we should be more optimistic regarding this on-going tension.

The warning that Christ-against-culture is extreme and does not express the fullness of Scripture's teaching is appropriate and undeniable. "There is an antithesis, an opposition, between Christ and the world, and therefore between the believer and the world. Significantly, however, Scripture never tells Christians to leave the world." 5 And a confidence that the Christian message can and will transform culture is biblical. "The gospel, you see, is not only a message for individuals, telling them how to avoid God's wrath. It is also a message about a kingdom, a society, a new community…a new way of life, and, therefore, a new culture." 6

These and many other contributions of Niebuhr are worthy of recognition.

A Critique of Niebuhr's Critique

However, Niebuhr's worldview—represented both in his criticisms and affirmations—is lacking in several critical areas, and thus falls short of historical, biblical Christian orthodoxy.

First, Niebuhr conveys too low a view of Scripture. This is perhaps most obvious in Niebuhr's pitting of Scripture against Scripture. He not only sees various passages of Scripture as conflicting with one another, but even individual authors of Scripture—such as John and Paul—as contradicting themselves. In his introduction to Christian Ethics, published at roughly the same time as Christ and Culture, Niebuhr explicitly claims that in Scripture "sharp antitheses occur", such as conflicting views of intermarriage, the Mosaic law, and scales of value. 7 This of course denies Scripture's own claim to being cohesive and universally inspired. 8

In addition, Niebuhr introduces the problem of Christ and culture by expressing the belief that "Christ as living Lord is answering the question in the totality of history and life in a fashion that transcends the wisdom of all his interpreters yet employs their partial insights and their necessary conflicts" (2). Such a belief in a progressive revelation through the totality of Christian tradition is a far cry from the conviction that God's Word is a closed canon that is accessible to regenerated Christian believers and speaks authoritatively to every aspect of human life. Not to mention that it makes truth in any age unobtainable, since we have not reached the end of this dialectic revelation through the whole of Christian history.

Niebuhr does, elsewhere, admit that the "community of faith speaks to us preeminently through the voice of the Holy Scriptures," 9 but this falls decisively short of affirming the Scriptures as our sole rule for faith and practice. As Luther pointed out, while we do not believe in the perspicacity (discernment) of the reader, we must affirm the perspicuity (clarity) and sufficiency of Scripture.

Niebuhr calls both Christ and culture "authorities" that must be reconciled or at least dealt with. This presupposes more equality between these two than the Bible expresses. The Bible declares God's Word is authoritative, and every aspect of culture is under him.

Second, Niebuhr has too small a view of sin. Niebuhr's realized eschatology is not only biblically inaccurate, but also belies his diminished view of sin. Whereas the Bible asserts that humanity is unable to respond to spiritual things without being born again of the Spirit, to faith in Christ, Niebuhr asserts that the problem of the world is "perverted good, not evil; or it is evil as perversion, and not as badness of being. The problem of culture is therefore the problem of its conversion, not of its replacement by a new creation" (194). Niebuhr therefore asserts that all of creation is basically good, and quotes John 1 in support of this premise. But as D.A. Carson observes:

When John tells us that all things were made by the Logos, and apart from him nothing was made that has been made (John 1:1-3), Niebuhr infers, "John could not say more forcefully that whatever is is good." But surely it would be more accurate to infer, "John could not say more forcefully that whatever the Logos originally made was good." For these affirmations serve, in John's argument, as a setup to expose the depravity of the world. 10

Yes, it is true that the Christian gospel can be intellectually comprehended by any culture, and therefore communication between the two is not entirely broken down. "No culture is so fallen that the Good News cannot be communicated in its terms." 11 Yet for any individual within any culture to receive the Christian gospel a radical, spiritual rebirth is necessary and this new birth is not universal to humanity but dependent on the application of Christ's atonement by the Spirit to their heart.

These, among other departures from biblical orthodoxy, lead Niebuhr to have too broad a view of Christianity. In defining Christians as anyone who believes in or follows Jesus Christ, Niebuhr attempts in vain to include everyone from Jehovah's Witnesses to Gnostics within the pale of Christian tradition.

However, by this definition even Muslims, who affirm Jesus as a prophet from God, should be considered Christians. This is particularly troubling given Niebuhr's contention that God reveals truth through the totality of Christian traditions. The question must be asked, "What about Christ do true Christians believe? How does the Bible define and describe a Christian disciple or believer?" More is necessary to be biblically faithful, or even faithful to the Christian creeds.

Surely, at the very least, a Christian according to Paul must affirm the gospel that he himself received from Christ and was passing on to others: "that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures." 12


As we review the pros and cons of Niebuhr's Christ and Culture, we cannot help but feel that, while Niebuhr has provided some helpful framework for the discussion, there is still much else that needs to be considered in order to strike a biblical balance. Of utmost importance, however, is for our goal to be exactly that: biblical balance. Anything less than a biblical Christianity will not be a Christianity at all, and will therefore have no lasting impact on any culture whatsoever.


  1. H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: HarperCollins, 2001) 12. Hereafter, page references to this book will be given parenthetically in the text.
  2. D.A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008) 10.
  3. Jon Diefenthaler, H. Richard Niebuhr: A Lifetime of Reflections on the Church and the World (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1986) xii.
  4. Some scholars, such as D.A. Carson, have pointed out Christ Above Culture is actually a heading for all three mediating views, with subcategories of synthesis, dualist, and conversionist: Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited, 25.
  5. John Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life: A Theology of Lordship (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008) 866.
  6. Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life: A Theology of Lordship, 862.
  7. H. Richard Niebuhr, Christian Ethics (New York: Ronald Press, 1955) 114.
  8. 2 Timothy 3:16, Romans 15:4; 2 Peter 1:19-21; 3:15-16
  9. H. Richard Niebuhr, Faith on Earth (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989) 114.
  10. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited, 37.
  11. Dyrness, William A. 1988. "Beyond Niebuhr: the gospel and culture." Reformed Journal 38, no. 2: 11-13. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed August 4, 2015).
  12. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (1 Co 15:3–4). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
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