The Theologian’s Theologian

Posted by Brent.Barry on August 13, 2017


It has been said that H. Richard Niebuhr (September 3, 1894 – July 5, 1962) was out to reform the church while his older brother Reinhold Niebuhr was out to reform our politics. While it may not be that neat and tidy, Reinhold Niebuhr was much more of a public and political figure. To this day, Reinhold Niebuhr is still quoted (and many times misappropriated) by politicians on both sides of the aisle.

H. Richard Niebuhr, though, is no less significant in his contribution to theology and ethics. In fact, because of his careful, penetrating, and creative scholarship, he has been referred to as a “theologian’s theologian.” He was also way ahead of his time in thinking through many of the issues we face today in a pluralistic and relativistic culture.

For example, in Meaning of Revelation (my favorite of his in which I have highlighted at least 2/3 of the book) Niebuhr points out that while God is surely absolute and transcendent, human beings are not. Humans are a part of the flux and movement of the world. Because of this, how God is apprehended is never permanent. God is always understood differently by people at different times in history and in different social locations. Niebuhr's theology shows great sensitivity to how expressions of faith differ from one religious community to another. While this may sound common to many of us now, it was groundbreaking work in the time of Niebuhr.

His most famous book was Christ and Culture published in 1951. The material for this book was taken from five lectures he gave at our own Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 1949. In this seminal book Niebuhr lays out five archetypes for how Christianity interacts with the world.

1) Christ against Culture:

Loyalty to Christ and the church entails a rejection of culture and society. The lines between the church and the world are sharp because the church is a community whose existence judges the world. Niebuhr credits the impressive sincerity of adherents to this position, but he rejects it as inadequate for its inability to extricate itself from the culture it condemns. From the left, Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon’s more recent book “Resident Aliens” might represent this view and from the right, Rod Dehrer’s new book “The Benedict Option” would fall into this category.

2) Christ of Culture:

For The Christ of Culture position, the commonality is a lack of tension between the church and the world. Niebuhr sees this view as inadequate for allowing loyalty to culture trump loyalty to Christ, to the point the New Testament Jesus gets replaced with an idol that shares his name. His strong critique of this position likely comes from his first major book, “The Social Sources of Denominationalism” (1929) in which he is highly critical of racial, nationalistic and political forces that had made the church in their own image instead of the image of the body of Christ.  In a 1935 book, “Church Against the World” he also pointed to the "captivity" of the churches by the culture and pleaded for the church's liberation and independence from capitalism, nationalism, and humanism.

3) Christ above Culture:

This position is an attempt to synthesize the positions above. The church and culture have their own distinct roles, although the church’s is ultimately higher. God’s rule is expressed in secular (cultural) things because “his rule is established in the nature of things” Therefore, Christians must enact allegiance to both realms. Advocates of this position do not choose between Christ and culture, but rely on “both Christ and culture” as God uses the best elements of culture to give people what they cannot achieve on their own. Thus, they can join with non-Christians in a common work in the world while maintaining a distinctive Christian faith. Throughout the history of Western civilization, “synthesists” have done much good through influential contributions in many cultural fields, including art, law, government, science, philosophy, and economics. Objections to this position from Niebuhr are that the laws and reason of culture easily become equated with the laws of God.

4) Christ and Culture in Paradox:

This approach views all of  human culture, including all human work both within and outside of the church, as corrupt and “infected with godlessness”—because of the universal presence of “sin in man and man in sin” But in contrast to the “Christ Against Culture” view, “the advocate of this position knows that he belongs to that culture and cannot get out of it, that God indeed sustains him/her in it and by it” The “paradox” is that of being under both law and grace, of being a sinner yet righteous, of being under mercy and grace. Culture is not to be abandoned, instead it is a sphere in which “Christ could and ought to be followed,” yet it cannot lead to a renewed spirit and salvation Our renewed spirits, however, can encourage us in seeking knowledge and skill in the world we live. Thus the Christian must find a way to live in both the “Kingdom of God” and the “Kingdom of the world”, in the world but not of the world. The most notable example of this perspective is Martin Luther.

5) Christ the Transformer of Culture:

Like the “Christ in Culture in Paradox” model, this perspective  acknowledges that there is sin and selfishness in the world but also that creation is inherently good and redeemable. Jesus Christ came to heal and redeem sin, and God transforms creation and culture. Eternal life begins in the present now because what we do on earth prepares us for the kingdom to come. The civil rights movement functions largely out of this world view. The most notable example of this perspective is John Calvin. 

Rev. Brent Barry is the lead pastor of NorthPark Presbyterian Church. Brent and NorthPark have a deep commitment to working with the poor and hungry in Dallas, helping those with Alzheimer’s disease, and reaching across religious and cultural lines to do their part to bring Dallas together as one. 


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