It was Godwin Hlatshwayo who said, “Questions are fateful. They determine destinations. They are the chamber through which destiny calls.”

At Reclaiming the Mission David Fitch asks a brilliant question:

“Are the neo-Reformed group Niebuhrians?” – with the implication that if they are, then they will also be poorly equipped to engage a post-Christendom context.

Fitch summarizes the characteristics of the classical Niebuhrian approach to culture as follows:

A Niebuhrian is someone:

“Who elevates Jesus to a principle so that now He is in some sense unapplicable to the political-social problems of organizing our life together in the world. Jesus is relegated to a personal aspiration, not someone directly related to the course of human societal affairs.

“Who defaults to the orders of creation/nature as the source of ethics, and in so doing elevates God the Creator over God the Son as the source of ethics. Over against this move, Yoder pleads that Jesus the Son cannot be separated from the Father. A true Trinitarian ethic starts with Jesus (ala Barth).

“Who sees (as a result of the above) culture as something inherently good, stable and monolithic (Vocation, orders of creation). The church’s job is therefore to be the training ground for sending individuals into these institutions who already know what is best, bringing each order it to its true created intent. The church is NOT a dynamic culture-creating entity in itself in dialogue (and sometimes in subversion to) with surrounding culture by which culture is transformed. Instead church takes up a posture of chaplain to the culture operating out of a posture of Christendom, as opposed to entering a culture in humility. Such a church presumes to know what is best for society as opposed to living justice incarnationally allowing God to extend his work for justice in Christ into the world.”

Dave goes on to say that evangelicalism is mostly Niebuhrian. We can tell because we emphasize — actually REDUCE — Jesus to a private and personal status as Savior, separating worship from its political dimensions. Moreover, in matters of civic life we default to making judgements (I think he mans primarily ethics) based in natural law. For example, evangelicals by and large approve of capitalism based on the inherent self-interest of humankind. And finally, you can tell because evangelicals minimize the church as an agent of transformation in favor of individuals as witnesses.

So Dave’s thesis is this: NIEBUHRIANISM NEUTERS THE CHURCH’S WITNESS IN THE WORLD FOR GOD’S KINGDOM IN CHRIST. It is a Christendom theology of church and culture that renders the church impotent in a society/culture turned post Christendom.

Now, if you find this intriguing but have little knowledge of Niebuhr, Anthony Brown of FORGE Canada wrote a lively and accessible piece in the the June, 2012 issue of Missional Voice: “Christ and Culture Fifty Years On.” Anthony writes,

“Jacques Ellul offers a radical vision of Christ as transformer of culture in The Presence of the Kingdom (Helmers & Howard: 1989). As in his other works, Ellul sees the need not simply for transformation, but for Christians to be active in seeking to subvert the world for the sake of Christ. By taking up the categories of “kingdom” and “world”, rather than “church” and “culture”, Ellul alerts us to another weakness of ‘Christ and Culture’ typologies.”

Find it on the FORGE Canada website.

Craig Carter’s 2003 article “The Legacy of an Inadequate Christology” looks at Yoder’s critique of Niebuhr.

“Yoder’s analysis reveals something more profoundly wrong with Niebuhr’s view of Christ. The Christ of Christ and Culture (which is not the same thing, necessarily, as Niebuhr’s overall, considered view) is a docetic Christ who is not really embedded firmly in history. The Jesus of the Gospels is a flesh and blood, Jewish, human being who thinks like a Jew, knows the Jewish Scriptures inside out and preaches and teaches about the Kingdom of God in an effort to reinterpret (within a tradition) the meaning of messiahship.”

Find Craig’s article in The Mennonite Quarterly Review.

See also the REVIEW of DA Carson’s book, Christ and Culture Revisited (2008) Following is an excerpt from Ben Bartlett’s review, summarizing Carson’s conclusion.

“First, Niebuhr’s five views of Christ and Culture cast too wide a net. They allow for disproportional and even heretical views of Christianity. A truly biblical view of the relationship between Christ and Culture cannot allow paradigms that are unfaithful to the Biblical witness.

“Second, a view of Christ and Culture must be flexible enough to fit and interact with a massive variety of contextual problems and situations. In other words, if the Gospel is true, then a right view of Christ and Culture must give right guidance both to the rich American and the poor African, the persecuted Chinese and the free South Korean.

“Third, right understanding of the Christ and Culture interaction in a local context is promoted by a commitment to biblical theology. In other words, Christians rightly handle the Christ and Culture problem when their actions in local context flow directly from a healthy and proportional acceptance of the key claims of Scripture.”

Finally, this article by Bruce Guenther in 2005 is a good summary of Anabaptist critique of Niebuhr.

3 Comments on Niebuhr and neo-Reformed

  1. I think Dave’s suggestion is fair and accurate.

    I see a need for a robust Anabaptist theology of culture, yet feel the tension that such a comprehensive project could force itself to subvert the very ideals it’s trying to articulate.

    Thoughts? Any Anabaptist theology/culture resources to recommend?

  2. len says:

    I agree that a comprehensive treatment of culture from an Anabaptist perspective is lacking. Hauerwas, Schreiter, Yoder would be great places to start. This article by Bruce Guenther is a good survey of where things sit —

  3. Thanks Len. I’ve read lots of Hauerwas, some Yoder, and no Schreiter. I remember reading Bruce’s article a few years back – maybe he will write a book on the subject!