Coming from more fundamentalist roots, Niebuhr indicates that this view is not referring to those who have rejected Christ for culture. Rather, they see Christ aligning with the best parts of their culture – “the fulfiller of its hopes and aspirations” (p. 83). They, opposite of the Christ Against Cutlure folks, quite comfortable with Christ and culture. This view does not seek to sanction everything about culture, but it does try to discern those aspects of Jesus that are “rational and abiding” and to separate it from “the historical and accidental” (p. 84).
The Jesus of the Christ and Culture perspective is an educator or philosopher or reformer. Someone who shows us how to live. The carriers of this perspective would be the Gnostics – ancient and modern. These are the ones that seek to reconcile the gospel with the science and philosophy of their time. It may be evolution or it could be to “disentangle the gospel from its involvement with barbaric and outmoded Jewish notions about God and history; to raise Christianity from the level of belief to that of intelligent knowledge” for the ancient Gnostics (p. 86). This made Jesus the savior of one’s soul, not the Lord of life. He was the best, but not the only – and can lay no claims on anyone’s life in a significant way. Jesus in the Gnostic’s life was a private and spiritual thing and didn’t affect what he thought about war or idol worship or emperor worship. The one holding to this perspective is selective what they take from culture and Christ. They embrace what they believe is noble and reject the ignoble. This view, in Niebuhr’s opinion, is held by Abelard as well. (Honestly, I only remember the name from my church history class, but not details.)
This perspective, in modern times, could take the title of Dan Kimball’s recent book They Like Jesus, But Not the Church (I have it on my shelf. Looks good, but I haven’t gotten to it yet). Jesus is a great moral teacher in this view, but the church messes up His teaching to try to make it authoritative for today. Instead, Jesus is the one who comes into social situations and brings eternity with Him. He, in a sense, baptizes whatever we’re involved in. There are, in this view, two foci of faithful living: Jesus for the forgiveness of sins and attaining a perfect society. These are not thought to be in conflict. In fact, one who has embraced Jesus cannot but help to engage in civic work for the common good. Much of this section is based on the work of Ritschl.
I think there’s some good in this, but some brutal blind spots that frighten me because, as I seek to be missional, I see myself moving toward more civic engagement. The next post on Niebuhr will deal with the defense and critique of this position. But until we get there, any thoughts?