The classic analysis of the types of relationships to emerge between Christianity and its cultural context was the work of the American Protestant theologian Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962). In 1951 Niebuhr published Christ and Culture, which sets out five models that historic Christianity developed in reflecting on its relationship to its environ-ment.4 Although Niebuhr clearly had a preference for the fifth of these models (to be described later), his work gave an empathetic account of all the existing possibilities, identifying both their biblical foundations and the nature of their application.
Niebuhr was concerned with Christianity as a whole, not specifically with Protestantism. Yet a close reading of the book reveals an important point that has been confirmed by all subsequent scholarship. Protestantism did not introduce any new models for understanding its interaction with culture. It worked within existing Christian paradigms, adapting and developing them to meet its concerns—but not developing new models of its own. Protestantism may prefer certain models over others, allowing differences of emphasis to be identified. Yet there is no sign of radical innovation in this area.
In what follows, we consider each of the five models identified by Niebuhr, noting the Protestant writers and movements that embraced them and attempting to describe their implications for Protestantism's broader relationships with society at large.
This model asserts that there is a fundamental opposition between Christianity and culture. The relationship is one of antagonism, whether arising from culture's hostility toward the church or the inverse. Such attitudes were found in some early church writers, such as Tertullian, and in monasticism. In the Protestant tradition, this attitude was initially associated with the Radical Reformation and writers such as Menno Simons and Jakob Hutter. The instinct to separate from a fallen culture is particularly well exemplified in some contemporary American Protestant movements that trace their origins back to the Radical Reformation.
The best known of these is the Amish, a diverse group of communities originating from the teaching of Menno Simons but given a new sense of direction under Jakob Amman in the seventeenth century.5 Their rejection of contemporary American culture led them to retain many aspects of late seventeenth-century rural European communities. This ethos is not primarily based on nostalgia or on a particular affection for an identity-giving past. It is best seen as a way of developing practices and behaviors that isolate the Amish from modern American culture and hence make a pointed statement about their identity and values. The best-known Amish communities are located in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; other Amish groups exist elsewhere.
This attitude toward culture is also found within modern American Protestant fundamentalism. The roots of this attitude can be traced back to John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), who founded the Plymouth Brethren and exercised a significant influence within conservative Protestant circles in the United Kingdom and North America. The rise of fundamentalism is best seen as due to social and political circumstances peculiar to the United States in the 1920s (we consider this movement in more detail later). For our purposes in this section, the important point is that this group is perhaps the best example of a community whose attitudes and values are shaped by the "Christ against culture" model.
This model argues that the Christian faith represents what "the world values most dearly," and its aim is to adjust and accommodate Christianity to be in tune with cultural norms. "Christ is identified with what men conceive to be their finest ideals, their noblest institutions, and their best philosophy." As such judgments are inevitably historically contingent and subject to cultural geography, this approach is probably best regarded as leading to temporary adjustments that are modified still further over time.
The best example of this assimilationist approach is the movement generally referred to as "liberal Protestantism," which began to emerge in Germany at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Initially associated with the great Berlin theologian F. D. E. Schleiermacher, the movement achieved its most significant successes under A. B. Ritschl and Adolf von Harnack. Classic liberal Protestantism arose in response to a growing perception that Christian faith and theology alike required reconstruction in the light of modern knowledge, attitudes, and values. To use Niebuhr's language, the "finest ideals" of the nineteenth century seemed very different from those of the sixteenth century. Protestantism needed to adapt if it was to survive. The increasingly positive reception given to Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection (popularly known as the "Darwinian theory of evolution") in the 1870s created a climate in which some elements of traditional Christian theology (such as the doctrine of the seven days of creation) seemed to be increasingly untenable.
Leading liberal Protestant writers argued that a reconstruction of belief "in the light of modern knowledge" was essential if Christianity was to remain a serious intellectual and cultural option in the modern world. For this reason, they demanded a degree of freedom in relation to the doctrinal inheritance of Christianity, on the one hand, and traditional methods of biblical interpretation, on the other. Where traditional ways of interpreting scripture, or traditional beliefs, seemed to be compromised by developments in human knowledge, it was imperative that those interpretations be discarded or adapted to bring them into line with what was now known about the world.
The theological implications of this shift in direction were considerable. A number of Christian beliefs came to be regarded as seriously out of line with modern cultural norms; these beliefs were either abandoned, as resting upon outdated or mistaken presuppositions, or reinterpreted in a manner more conducive to the spirit of the age. For example, the traditional Christian doctrine of the divinity of Christ was reinterpreted as an affirmation of Jesus exemplifying qualities that humanity as a whole could hope to emulate. Jesus thus differed from humanity in degree, not in kind.
These ideas proved to be very influential in Germany, England, and the United States.6 Their critics regarded them, however, as a dilution of the essence of Protestantism that reduced it to a mere endorsement of prevailing cultural norms. All that remained of classic Protestantism, they suggested, was "an aroma from an empty bottle" (Erik Peterson). Liberal Protestants retorted by arguing that they had rescued the church from cultural and intellectual irrelevance.
The third approach identified by Niebuhr tries to synthesize the Protestant faith with contemporary culture norms. Whereas liberal Protestantism tends to accommodate its ideas and values to those of secular culture, the "Christ above culture" approach aims to subordinate those ideas to Christian concerns. This view holds that the relation between Christ and culture takes the form of a convergence of nature and grace, without significant cultural Christian accommodation and reduction of the nature of Christ or the gospel to contemporary norms. Niebuhr argues that this approach, which he finds particularly in the writings of the great scholastic theologian Thomas Aquinas, synthesizes elements from the gospel and the culture into a single structure of thought and conduct.
One exponent of this approach identified by Niebuhr is the American Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, who set out to correlate the fundamental questions asked by contemporary culture with the answer provided by the Christian revelation.7 Tillich's synthesis is set out with particular clarity in an essay of 1956 in which he explored the relation of the church and culture: "The Church judges culture, including its own forms of life. For its forms are created by culture, as its substance makes culture possible. The Church and culture are within, not alongside each other. And the Kingdom of God includes both while transcending both."8 The basic features of the "Christ above culture" approach can be seen clearly in this extract. Niebuhr himself expressed concerns about this approach, noting in particular its tendency toward cultural conservatism and the risk of institutionalizing Christ and the gospel.
The fourth approach identified by Niebuhr holds that individual Christians and the church exist in a tension with the world, as a result of its fallenness. The Christian must be thought of as belonging to two, quite distinct realms, usually designated as "the temporal" and "the spiritual." Christians cannot evade the resulting tension between these two authorities. Niebuhr sees this approach exemplified in Luther, particularly his doctrine of "the two kingdoms."9
As noted earlier, Luther rejected the medieval distinction between the "temporal" and "spiritual" estates. In its place, Luther developed an alternative theory of spheres of authority, based upon a distinction between the "two kingdoms," or the "two governments," which refer to the "spiritual" and the "worldly" government of society. God's spiritual government is effected through the word of God and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. God's worldly government is effected through kings, princes, and magistrates and through the use of the sword and the civil law. Whether these princes or magistrates are true believers or not, they still perform a divine role (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14).
Luther insists that God has ordained that order shall be imposed upon creation, for the maintenance of peace and the repression of sin. There are three hierarchies, or "orders," within a Christian society: the household or family, with the father as the head (reflecting the paternalism of Luther's age); the princes and magistrates, who exercise secular authority; and the clergy, who exercise spiritual authority. All these are founded on the word of God and reflect the divine will for the structuring and preservation of the worldly realm.
In the end, Luther's social ethic seems to suggest that two totally different moralities exist side by side: a private Christian ethic, reflecting the rule of love embodied in the Sermon on the Mount; and a public morality, based upon force. The tensions are manifest, and the result is a permanent tension.10 For Luther, that is the inevitable outcome of the nature of reality. This approach does, however, raise some difficult questions, as we shall see when we consider the German church crisis of the 1930s, which many commentators argue arose directly from Luther's inadequate social ethic.
Niebuhr's fifth and final category is clearly the one that he himself preferred. Here the theme is conversion. Although Niebuhr includes Augustine in this category, most of those he cites are Protestants—John Calvin, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards and the Puritan tradition, and the Swiss theologian Karl Barth. All of these "try to convert the values and goals of secular culture into the service of the kingdom of God." Here Christ is seen as converting people within their cultures and societies, not apart from them. This approach rejects isolating the church from the world without accommodating central Christian truths to the values of contemporary culture. While taking a more positive attitude toward culture than the paradoxical dualists, it holds that culture stands under God's judgment.
This fifth category can be seen in the works of one of the twentieth century's most significant Protestant missionary theologians—Lesslie Newbigin.11 In his 1952 Kerr Lectures, Newbigin commented on the significance of the breakdown of Christendom for Christian life and witness.12 For Newbigin, the notion of "Christendom" meant "the synthesis between the Gospel and the culture of the western part of the European peninsula of Asia" that had developed during the Middle Ages and remained in place, though in a weakened form—in other words, Niebuhr's "Christ above culture" model. Newbigin argued that Christianity had become so domesticated within European culture that it had become little more than a form of folk religion. To remedy the situation, Newbigin called for the rediscovery of a missionary perspective aimed at the conversion of culture.
Given this diversity of attitudes toward culture on the part of Protestants, both historical and contemporary, it is to be expected that a similar range of attitudes should be expected in relation to the question of social engagement. To what extent should Protestants become engaged with social issues? And which side should they take? We consider some instructive examples in what follows.
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