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.
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.