A review of Christ and Culture Revisited. By D.A. Carson.

Eerdmans, 2008. (Available in Australia from Koorong Books)

In 1951 H. Richard Niebuhr penned his now classic volume, Christ and Culture. In it he sought to explore the “enduring problem” of the “many-sided debate about Christianity and civilization”. In an attempt to come to terms with this complex and important issue, he presented five answers to, or models of, this relationship.

The result was his famous fivefold reply: Christ against Culture; Christ of Culture; Christ above Culture; Christ and Culture in Paradox; and Christ the Transformer of Culture. Each of these models he describes in detail, and he notes both strengths and weaknesses to the five options. He suggests that believers will have to make up their own minds as to which is the preferred option.

In Carson’s new volume he seeks to carry on from where Niebuhr left off. He begins by assessing his work and the five models. He rightly notes that for Niebuhr the real issue is not so much how Christianity relates to culture, but “two sources of authority as they compete within society, namely Christ … and every other source of authority divested of Christ”. And Niebuhr is especially thinking of secular or civil authority here, Carson reminds us.

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Carson also notes some weaknesses in Niebuhr’s important volume. He did a good job of aligning various historical figures with the five models, but sometimes the fit is far from precise. For example, while Augustine or Calvin may well fit in the transformationist model, they do so only partially. And Tertullian cannot consistently be seen as fitting in the opposition (“against”) model. And so on.

Carson then discusses the biblical plotline, and what are some nonnegotiable elements of the biblical worldview. He rightly notes that we do very much have a responsibility to our surrounding culture. Believers have a relationship with God “in the context of embodied existence”. Indeed, as image bearers of God, we have “responsibilities toward the rest of the created order – responsibilities of governance and care”.

He discusses the fall and sin, and the call of Israel. But he notes that with the arrival of Christ, something new entered human affairs: “up to that point in history, religion and state were everywhere intertwined”. This was just as true of Israel as with the surrounding pagan nations.

But when Jesus announced that we should “give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” he initiated a whole new paradigm. Prior to Jesus there were no genuinely secular states. All nations were involved with gods. Jesus was the first to highlight that there are two separate and distinct realms here. They of course overlap, but are not identical.

Thus there has always been – even if imperfectly – church-state divisions within Christendom. Islam of course has never known this dichotomy, nor does it want to. And Carson reminds us that in the words of Jesus we have real differentiation between Caesar and God. However, Jesus intended that God should have the pre-eminence.

Of course how all that fleshes itself out in the daily life of both individuals and nations is the big question – the sort of question that Niebuhr sought to address. And that is what Carson seeks to further explore in this book.

Other theological givens must inform our thinking on this issue. For example, the now commonly accepted understanding of believers “living between the times” comes into play here. We live between the inauguration of Christ’s kingdom, and its consummation. Thus we live in both the old age and the new age, and tensions abound.

In the light of this biblical truth, believers should neither expect utopia on earth, nor settle for corrupt and unjust rule. We can fight for justice, although realising that perfection can never be achieved in a fallen world. Our ideals must be tempered by realism.

Carson examines other issues, such as the postmodern understanding of culture. In contrast to the cultural relativism that characterises postmodern thought, Carson argues that biblical motifs regarding culture must be adhered to. These include the awareness that there is a mixture of good and evil in every culture, and that all cultures ultimately stand under the judgment of God.

Of course the biblical belief in, and understanding of, absolute and universal moral truth makes it possible for us to evaluate and assess every culture. We can determine, albeit imperfectly, how close to, or how far away from, a culture is in relation to God’s moral standards.

Carson also devotes substantial chapters to the important concepts of freedom, democracy, secularism, church and state relationships, and power. For example, he notes how a vigorous and militant secularism becomes a competing religion and worldview. It has its own notion of the ultimate good, and a well-developed belief system.

And as secularism seeks to squeeze religion out of the public square altogether, it becomes a competing or false religion, the threat of which Christians must take most seriously. But the value of a democracy – based as it is on the division launched by Jesus – is that both camps can engage in the battle of ideas, and let the democratic process decide which side prevails.

Democracy is a great good, argues Carson, but it is not the Kingdom of God, and is limited in many ways. A healthy democracy depends upon a shared set of values and beliefs. But when this unity is frayed, then democracies tend to unravel. And as democracies disintegrate, stronger and more intrusive state powers are needed to hold things together.

With the West quickly abandoning its Judeo-Christian roots, there seems to be little on the horizon to take its place in terms of holding a nation together with a common core of beliefs and values. As people in a democracy increasingly disagree on what is the good or what it means to be free, the state steps in more and more, and people become less free.

The only real check to unrestrained statism and state power is the biblical notion that God alone is the ultimate authority, and no man-made authority should overstep its bounds. “The doctrine of God reminds us that we are not ultimate: God is” says Carson. And the “doctrine of creation tells us that we are not our own: we are responsible to the One who made us”.

Carson summarises some of the biblical data this way: “Owing to the teaching of the Master himself, Christians in the first century understood that the Christian church was not isomorphic with any nation but was a transnational community, and that the sovereign God whom they confessed had ordered the government of the state for good purpose.”

Carson reminds us that while we are to submit to the ruling authorities as good citizens and good Christians, there may be times to resist the state when the state abuses its God-given powers and forces believers to disobey God.

In the end, Christianity cannot be reduced to merely privatised religion, and we have obligations to both the state and the surrounding culture. But a Christian’s ultimate loyalties are with God, and he must be preeminent in everything.

[1177 words]

6 Replies to “A review of Christ and Culture Revisited. By D.A. Carson.”

  1. Bill,
    Of the various options you have listed above, and in your general discussion, you have not addressed the issue of the degeneration of culture. This happens whenever a civilisation declines, its culture declines with it. Thus the civilisations of Ancient Mesopotamia declined in the last four centuries B.C., until they died completely. Their culture likewise died: literature, music, language, art, common assumptions and purpose – you name it.

    Roman culture had all but disappeared by A.D. 600: Latin had degenerated as a literary and rhetorical language; all its great literature belonged to its past; art had become barbarous and crude; good music was largely a thing of the past, and so on.

    In the present climate I see exactly the same phenomenon: music both popular and serious has become barbarous and jarring on the ears; literature has become banal (a typical film script has little in the way of a story line); our language is brutalised every day, thanks both to cynical journalists and post-modern academics.

    Yet much of this has come into churches. Take music, for example: the incessant, high-decibel, beat and thump of what passes for “music” in our worship is justified on the basis of “culture” – “That’s the culture! Get with it!” runs the defence to any would-be objector. The problem I find with this is twofold:
    1. It accepts the naturalistic fallacy that what is (in this case the prevailing “culture”) is what ought to be. Where oh where does God’s Word come in? Does that not address culture? Is there no criterion by which to judge culture?
    2. It ignores the phenomenon outlined above: viz. the degeneration of culture. Wake up, Christians! All around us there are clear signs that our culture in ALL its aspects is disintegrating – and fast! We need something better than merely to accept prevailing, corrupt fashions and simply incorporate them. We need a clear contrast with the world that is passing away, and do the will of God, according to His commands and ordained pattern. Cf. 1 John 2:17.

    I could say a lot more about this subject, and perhaps I will, since I feel passionately about it.

    Murray Adamthwaite

  2. Murray is exactly right. Another way of putting this regarding the culture and the church, is to observe that the church has not changed the world – the world has changed the church.

    I have been to church services where the music, if you can call it that, has been at such loud levels that it hurts the ears. This is presumably done because it is the ‘culture’ and the young people like it that way. As a farmer, whenever I am operating a noisy piece of machinery, to preserve my hearing I wear ear protection – in fact this is an OH&S requirement in many trades. So why would someone wear ear protection at work to protect their hearing only to have it damaged at church?

    Ewan McDonald.

  3. All cultures that do not hold the Bible to be the revealed word of god create their own gods and their own “New Jerusalems”. They attempt to bring heaven down to earth so that it can be measured, weighed and made to conform to man‘s ideal. God and heaven are transformed into Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image of man.

    Cultures that have held the Bible to be the final authority have, instead, taken the dross and the rejected of this world and refined and transformed it so that it becomes a part of the resurrection process. It is the world that is lifted up and transformed rather than heaven being brought down to earth. I am thinking of the explosive power of the gospel on science, art and music that occurred during the 17th century. Nothing today compares to the music of Johan Sebastian Bach, or the painting of Rembrandt in terms of expressing humanity and the spirit of God. Today our art and music, though technically dazzling, have become dehumanised and demonic. May I recommend H.R.Rookmaaker’s little book Modern Art and the Death of a Culture?

    David Skinner, UK

  4. From your review, Bill, I sense that Carson sees the possiblity of neutral ground between “a religion” and “the state” such that a city or a nation could adopt one or another religion, or remain a religion-free zone.

    If I have mis-understood that, well and good. But if that is his position, I am concerned, since all of life is inherently and inescapably religious.

    Thus a body politic of any size will have a set of beliefs, values and mores which guide “its” thinking. Its laws will express its collective view of right and wrong, derived from the religious stance adopted – either of following the true God, or of following one of the paths towards the false gods – Satan and self.

    The Church/Christendom in the 20th century has failed to fulfill its mandate to challenge the culture, probably due to failure of the preaching – we haven’t seen the full Gospel preached much at all.

    We all suffer from the consequences of pietism and cultural retreat. Thus we haven’t seen the principle of 1 Cor 6:2-3

    “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases?
    “Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life!”

    worked out in relation to the so-called “separation of church and state” issue, and beyond.

    I have seen and heard too often that this separation is to protect the state from the church, which is the modern political (call it Marxist) view, but as you and Carson point out, the proper interpretation is that the Church is superior, and the principle is to ensure that the State keeps its grubby hands off the Church!

    John Angelico

  5. I wish to agree with John’s reflection that there is, within society, no such thing as a religious free zone. Neither does The Ten Commandments seem to allow for this paradigm or scenario; there is no injunction against abstaining or being neutral with regard to acknowledging the Lord of Heaven. People either worship Yahweh or idols: “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.”

    I wish to question Carson’s proposition that Christ inaugurated the division between secularism and religion. Surely the division was inherent in Judaism, where only the High Priest, once a year was able to enter into the presence of God. God was understood as being separate and outside of his creation, whereas all other surrounding religions saw their Gods pantheistically as being part and parcel of everything – even those of the Greeks who supposedly gave us democracy.

    If I understand it correctly the Jewish state was never a theocracy in the same way that Islam is. The God of Abraham and Moses came to them and listened to their pleadings on behalf of those living in Sodom and the rebels who were consumed in the desert. When the people came to Samuel, asking for a king, He did not override their will. Go ahead, have a king, but suffer the consequences, but ultimately the people must choose whom to follow. Though it is God who graciously initiates the restoration of a personal relationship, he respects our need to choose for our selves whether to obey him or not. In the meantime he continues to graciously send his sun and rain on the righteous and unrighteous, just as any good government is instructed to do .

    To me democracy is just a another name for respecting freedom to think and freedom to choose; it is a fruit of the Judeo-Christian faith which we today no longer value – preferring instead to sacrifice freedoms that have been bought over centuries by the blood of martyrs, like Ridley, Latimer and Cranmer, in exchange for the quiet life and material comfort. There are many in society who have no desire to think or choose. Anyway, they are either too stressed out or too distracted to indulge in the luxury of thought. Whilst they collapse in front of the television, they are quite content to let the state do all their thinking for them.

    When Americans boast about the fact that they separated church from state a long time ago, they are forgetting that they owe true democracy to the Judeo-Christian religion. Throw out the Christian faith and you throw out democracy.

    I don’t know if this article throws any more light on this topic: http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Front_Page/EJ28Aa02.html

    David Skinner, UK

  6. Thanks guys

    The short answer would be to get the book and have a read. But fear not, Carson is under no illusion of some religion-free existence, or more importantly, a God-free existence. God of course is preeminent in all things, and all of culture must come under His rule,.

    But the issue here is how a believer is to interact with culture in a fallen world, while living in the “already, and not yet”. His final sentence in the book deals with this: “We will live in the tension of claiming every square inch for King Jesus, even while we know full well that the consummation is not yet”. He says there can be no such thing as privatised religion, and given our embodied existence, we will have to wrestle with culture while bowing to the Lordship of Christ in all things. But we live between the ages, and his Kingdom can never fully come in our fallen cultures. It can only be approximated in various ways.

    While not agreeing with all that he did, he looks to Abraham Kuyper and his work in the Netherlands as one possible example of how things can proceed in a fallen world.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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