This view recognizes Jesus as Lord of both the church and culture. His commitment to Jesus as Lord is greater than culture will generally allow and yet he is unwilling to abandon culture as fundamentalists might be. He sees God as Creator and must meet the demands of creation: sex, social relationships, intelligence, and laws. He cannot neglect culture because it, too, is God’s.
Clement of Alexandria is the example Niebuhr holds up as the earliest proponent of this view. While he gets into some odd details with his cultural law-giving as a churchman, the best picture of his thinking is how he discusses a rich man entering heaven (see Bible text). The rich man, in this position must not trust in his riches. Instead he must be grateful to God and care for others with those riches. Wealth isn’t evil, but it comes with great responsibility that flows from Christian love that, in this case, aligns with Stoic philosophy. Clement doesn’t worry about making Jesus fit culture, but chooses what is best in culture to train believers to maturity and Christ uses culture for His own ends. Niebuhr succinctly states:
“His Christ is not against culture, but uses its best products as instruments in his work of bestowing on men what they cannot achieve by their own” (p. 127).Aquinas, according to Niebuhr, is the greatest of these synthesists. Nobody has ever done it better, and Niebuhr doubts anyone ever will. His appraisal of Aquinas:
“In his system of thought he combined without confusing philosophy and theology, state and church, civic and Christian virtues, natural and divine laws, Christ and culture” (p. 130).Perhaps an example would best illustrate how this works. That man should not steal is both biblically revealed and culturally reasonable, but that a man should give all he owns to the poor is a virtue that goes beyond what culture could reasonably expect. Similarly, private property is a good thing based upon reason, but that it would be used greedily or to oppress others is wrong – both biblically and by way of reason. In short, the believer cooperates with the laws of the land, but they are expected to supersede them due to their biblical standards.
Those who are avowed Thomists today, or recently, actually don’t hold this particular view of synthesis. They’re more fundamentalist in their approach as they are seeking to maintain a culture centuries past. This view must change with culture, but not in the accomodationist sense. We’re talking about two factors that synthesize – and one is always changing.