See Feb. 12 for the first part of this post.
Niebuhr starts with an interesting angle that casts the Christian liberal and the fundamentalist in the same light. Both can fit under this perspective. The question is which culture they think is best that Jesus has baptized. Some think today’s is best, some want the 13th century.
This view, in Niebuhr’s view also has something to do with the growth of the early church. It wasn’t just martyrs that won the day, but the fact that Jesus was relevant to His time. People saw the best of their culture in Him. Greeks saw Socrates in Jesus. I guess this is similar to Don Richardson’s Peace Child and the idea of redemptive analogies in missions. There’s eternity in their hearts to prepare them for the gospel. Maybe the seeds of it, but it doesn't go far enough.
Whether one agrees with this view or not (and appreciation of other views, if not agreement, seems to be one of Niebuhr’s goals), it is fair to note that this view has kept the church grounded and engaging the culture when some might be tempted to make Him so other-worldly that He’s of no earthly good. And, while this view is susceptible to people creating Jesus into their own image, it also brings out facets of Jesus’ character that, while perhaps exaggerated in most cases, are true to who He is and give us a more complete picture of Him.
The first critique was just addressed. This view tends to distort the New Testament Jesus. This was written in 1951, but this is happening today as surely as it was in the 50s, perhaps even more so with the likes of the Jesus Seminar. But the biblical story smashes these odd constructions that we come up with. Niebuhr states, “He [Jesus] is greater and stranger than these portraits indicate” (p. 109).
The next critique is that this view puts reason as the highest value and makes Jesus an idol that serves the end of reason. Revelation is the realm of fools (low I.Q.s in Niebuhr’s words). But just as those who exalt revelation can’t get away from reason, so the Christ of Culture adherents can get rid of revelation. There’s no abstract “reason” for Jesus to die for our sin or that He is the Christ rather than a moral teacher. The Christian cannot escape revelation – even if their prime value is reason.
One more critique is that this view has an extreme view of sin and purity. Sin is in evil institutions or ignorant religion or structures that promote greed, but purity is found in the human spirit. While that is over-simplifying it, Niebuhr states, “The divine action of grace is ancillary” (p. 113).
Niebuhr’s introduction to this point is worth concluding with. This view has not been any more successful in gaining disciples than “Christian radicalism.” And given the almost 60 years since the book has been written, it’s clear that it has been far less effective as mainlines are taking a dive – unless there’s a turnaround that I haven’t heard about.