Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Christ & Culture Revisited: Critiquing Niebuhr, Part 1

The last of my Christ and Culture posts was March 8. I walked through most of Christ and Culture by H. Richard Niebuhr. (Search the Culture posts or go back to March 8 and trace them backwards, if you’re interested). In some of those summaries I leaned on the work done by DA Carson in his book Christ & Culture Revisited. Carson is grateful for Niebuhr’s work, but seeks to build on it. After spending his first chapter summarizing Niebuhr, his second chapter serves to correct Niebuhr. After this chapter, Carson will build his own theology of Christ and culture, but he takes at least two chapters (out of six!) to deal with Niebuhr’s seminal work because he recognizes it has framed the conversation for more than fifty years. This post will look at some issues in Niebuhr’s work – strengths and weaknesses. The next post will deal with how biblical theology needs to fit into the discussion of Christ and culture.

Carson applauds Niebuhr’s comprehensive spectrum while at the same time recognizing he is a man of his times, leaving out the Two-Thirds world perspective. Admitting Niebuhr can’t be blamed for writing fifty years ago, Carson does question his inclusion of Christ of Culture liberalism and Gnosticism. Quite simply, Carson says they go so far afield of confessional orthodoxy as set forth in the Bible that he finds it hard to call them Christian at all. He cites texts that make it clear orthodoxy and heresy did, indeed, matter in the early church (see Galatians 1.8-9; 2 Corinthians 11:3-4; 1 John). Carson concludes this section wondering if it should be a fourfold paradigm rather than five.

He next moves to Niebuhr’s use of Scripture. While it is noble that he attempts to ground each view in Scripture, he finds little to support Christ of Culture liberalism and he forces John’s gospel into Christ Transforms Culture Universalism. Carson takes him to task for making John say what he clearly did not say – and even Niebuhr recognizes John doesn’t go far enough in the end. This view gives up too much of the non-negotiables of biblical theology (next post).

Finally, Carson discusses the historical examples and canon. The point being that the historical examples don’t fit neatly into any of the five paradigms themselves and Niebuhr’s attempt to ground each of his examples in Scripture over-emphasizes a “canon within the canon.” Instead of picking an over-emphasis and running with it, Carson argues for a contextual approach that takes the engagement of Christ and culture from the perspective of the entire canon and letting that speak to the parameters of the engagement and letting the context decide which elements of the fivefold pattern should be used in a given situation.

Next … biblical theology!

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