Christ and Culture: The Enduring Problem, Part 2

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By Scott Fowler

H. Richard Niebuhr set the bar for modern conversations about Christ and culture and, more particularly, what is to be done about what he called “the enduring problem” of human culture. This series is an attempt to facilitate dialogue about the enduring problem using Niebuhr’s work Christ and Culture as a foundation. The reader is invited to read Niebuhr’s book and join this conversation.

 In the paragraphs and series installments to follow, I will attempt to capture the essence of what Niebuhr is saying and in the process add my own insights. I will make every effort to clearly delineate between Niebuhr’s voice and my far less significant one.

Ethics, Christian Ethics, and an Ethics of Christ and Culture

Simply put, the study of ethics concerns itself with the human pursuit of “the good.”1 It deals with questions having to do with how people should behave and asks, “What is the good life for man?”2 The subject and study of Christ and culture is the study of ethics, though not simply Christian ethics, limited only to those who profess Christ, but rather an ethics that speaks of Christ intersecting with culture; a theory of ethics that envisions culture as Christ would order it.

Admittedly, some have expressed animosity towards the idea of Christian ethics for at least a couple of reasons. First, the many examples where atrocities have been committed in the name of Christianity such as “[the] crusades, the Inquisition, the conquest of the Americas, religious wars, the Galileo affair, defences of slavery and patriarchy.”3 Second, because Christians are perceived as not caring about the natural world and the common interests of mankind. In fact, some would say “Jesus imperils culture.”4 An ethics of Christ and culture wants to decisively address the questions that arise in the human pursuit of “the good.” It wants to define what “the good life” is for humanity.

The “Enduring Problem”

Niebuhr referred to the problem of human culture as the “enduring problem.”5 And while the Church, as representatives of Christ, would like to lead the culture, there are several reasons according to Niebuhr why the culture is suspicious of an ethics of Christ and culture.

First, he reported that the culture perceives that “Christians are animated by a contempt for present existence and by confidence in immortality.”6

It is not an attitude which can be ascribed to defective discipleship while the Master is exculpated, since his statements about anxiety for food and drink . . . the unimportance of treasures on earth . . . the fear of those who can take away life [see Matthew 6; 10:28] . . . as well as his [Jesus’] rejection in life and death of temporal power [Matthew 4]” all point to Jesus as the source of His followers’ convictions . . . .It is a baffling attitude, because it mates what seems like contempt for present existence with great concern for existing men, because it is not frightened by the prospect of doom on all man’s works, because it is not despairing but confident. Christianity seems to threaten culture at this point not because it prophecies that of all human achievements not one stone will be left on another but because Christ enables men to regard this disaster with a certain equanimity, directs their hopes toward another world, and so seems to deprive them of motivation to engage in the ceaseless labor of conserving a massive but insecure social heritage.

The second reason, according to Niebuhr, for cultural contempt towards an ethics of Christ and culture is the accusation that Jesus

“induces men to rely on the grace of God instead of summoning them to human achievement. What would have happened to the Romans, asks Celsus in effect, if they had followed the command to trust in God alone? Would they not have been left like the Jews, without a patch of ground to call their own, and would they not have been hunted down as criminals, like the Christians?”7

This approach to life flies in the face of an ethics that relies on human effort.

The third reason given by Niebuhr is that “Christ and his church . . . are intolerant.”Niebuhr prophetically describes this accusation as “the disapproval with which unbelief meets conviction.” The problem in Rome was not that Christians worshiped

a new God in Jesus Christ, but that they claimed to possess an exclusive divine knowledge and would not bow to Caesar when it was required. Niebuhr wrote:

“The Christ who will not worship Satan to gain the world’s kingdoms is followed by Christians who will worship only Christ in unity with the Lord whom he serves. And this is intolerable to all defenders of society who are content that many gods should be worshiped if only Democracy or America or Germany or the Empire receives its due, religious homage [today read: the Church yielding to the state in our present milieu of separation between Church and state.]”

Niebuhr mentions other aspects of Christianity that are abhorrent to the culture: Christ’s view of forgiveness, the requirements found in the Sermon on the Mount, the exaltation of the lowly, and the “unavailability of Christ’s wisdom to the wise and prudent, its attainability by the simple and by babes.”

In the end, the problem is between the two authoritative poles of Christ and culture and that Christians appeal to and follow Christ’s authority and want others to as well. Indeed, Jesus imperils culture.


1 Dr. Stephen Long, Christian Ethics: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2010).

2 Popkin, Stroll, Philosophy Made Simple (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1993).

3 Long, page 1.

4 H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, (New York: Harper & Row, 1951) 4.

5 Ibid., page 1ff.

6 Ibid., Niebuhr quoting Gibbons Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 5. The following quotes come from this same source: Niebuhr Chapter One The Enduring Problem.

7 Niebuhr is quoting Origen here: Contra Celsus, VIII, lxix (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. IV, p 666).

Scott Fowler is the founder of the Christ and Culture Initiative. He is a pastor/theologian living in New York. You can learn more about him at:

7 thoughts on “Christ and Culture: The Enduring Problem, Part 2

  1. I read the first section of the first chapter today, and found it so thought provoking! This was accentuated by the quite surprising discovery that I actually had in my home one of the books that Niebuhr footnoted! For now, I am planning to read the rest of the first chapter before commenting further…

  2. OK, finished the first chapter, and I am looking forward to reading the rest of the book, but I have so many thoughts about what I have read that I wanted to write them out. I find that at the center of my thoughts is a series of paintings by Thomas Cole (early 1800’s) [], particularly the 2nd painting: “The Pastoral State”. Niebuhr defines culture as the “total process of human activity and the total result of such activity.” If you look at Thomas Cole’s first painting: “The Savage State” and then at “The Pastoral State” you can see that “culture” is displayed. But what kind of culture? I cannot help but think of the culture of Genesis 6 (the descendants of Seth) and of Thomas Jefferson’s words in his “Notes on the State of Virginia”: “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.”
    Niebuhr argues that regardless of the form of “culture” (Eastern/Western/Marxist), there is always tension between Christ and human activity, and with that I agree, but with a qualification that the more a society conforms with Christ the less the tension. For example: look at the economic system set up under the Mosaic law which we see illustrated in the Book of Ruth. Provision is made for widows and the poor. Also, in the Sabbath years and Year of Jubilee, materialism and greed are dealt with.
    I kind of think of Christians as walking along a path, and as long as society conforms to Biblical values, it walks along a parallel path, but when it varies from them, society’s path diverges. Until then there is not much tension, but now the “enduring problem” manifests itself. Niebuhr describes five different approaches that Christians take to work out the problem: opposition (withdrawal), agreement (which I would define as “liberalism”), synthetism (seeing Christ as above [and thereby distant from?] culture, dualism (struggling to submit to Christ’s authority as well as human authorities), and conversionist (of men and culture). I think I have tried all of those approaches, and one would expect them to be a personal, private concern.
    However, we can see that it is not. Over the years, the corporate search of Christians for our private answers to the “enduring problem” become a public concern. In fact, Niebuhr claims that “Jews…Greeks and Romans, medievalists and moderns, Westerners and Orientals have rejected Christ because they saw in (Him) a threat to their culture.” And that is the real enduring problem.
    The question of course is why? In his “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, which Niebuhr refers to, Edward Gibbon wrote: “The Pagan multitude, reserving their gratitude for temporal benefits alone,rejected the inestimable present of life and immortality which was offered to mankind by Jesus of Nazareth. His mild constancy in the midst of cruel and voluntary sufferings, his universal benevolence, and the sublime simplicity of his actions and character were unsufficient, in the opinion of those carnal men, to compensate for the want of fame, of empire, and of success…” In other words, “This, then, is the judgment: The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).
    In his 1976 book, “How Should We Then Live”, Dr, Francis Schaeffer wrote—looking into what was then the future—about a time when Society would no longer tolerate “those who have a real absolute by which to judge its arbitrary values and who speak out and act upon that absolute.” Yet he ended his book with these words: “This book is written in the hope that this generation may turn from the greatest of wickedness, the placing of any created thing in the place of the Creator, and that this generation may get its feet out of the paths of death and may live.” Amen.

  3. In chapter 2, Christ Against Culture, Niebuhr divides his discussion into four sections: The New People and “The World”, Tolstoy’s Rejection of Culture, A Necessary and Inadequate Position, and Theological Problems. His thinking in the first section is based primarily on the Bible book of 1 John and the writings of Tertullian (160-220 A.D.).
    In his analysis of 1 John, Niebuhr tells us that its writer implies that “the counterpart of loyalty to Christ and the brothers is the rejection of cultural society”, and that the writer viewed the whole society outside the church—“the world”—as a realm under the power of evil, a region of darkness into which a Christian must not enter—a pagan society, a murderous order (Niebuhr, 48). He also claims that, because “the world with its lust is passing away” (1 John 2:17 HCSB), because Christ came “to destroy the Devil’s works” (1 John 3:8 HCSB), and because faith is “the victory that has conquered the world” (1 John 5:4 HCSB), the writer of 1 John is directing the loyalty of believers toward “the new order, the new society and its Lord” (Niebuhr, 48) – a “new and separated community” (49).
    Referring to several Christian writings of the second century, including The Teaching of the Twelve, The Shepherd of Hermas, and The Epistle of Barnabas, Niebuhr attempts to reinforce his case that the normal point of view for early Christians was to see themselves as a “third race”—besides to Jews and Gentiles—and “quite separate from culture” (49). And somewhat troublingly, he draws on the work of Adolf Harnack (1851-1930), from whom he obtains the idea that early Christians saw everything (and everyone?) in the world as “subject to us and must serve us” (Niebuhr, 50)
    Niebuhr also looks at Tertullian (c. 160-c. 225 A.D.), whom he assesses as early Christianity’s “greatest representative” of the Christ-against-culture type (51), which he later describes as “radical Christianity”. Drawing from this early Church father’s writings (Apology, xvii, The Soul’s Testimony, and A Treatise on the Soul, chapter xxxix), Niebuhr relates that Tertullian adhered to the notion that sin resides, not in human nature, but in Society—that “the universe and the soul are naturally good” (Niebuhr, 52). Thus, Tertullian admonished believers to withdraw from many public activities and occupations, including politics, military service, philosophy, the arts, believing that this would allow them to avoid “the stain of corruption” (55).
    In the second section, Niebuhr discusses the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), whom he describes as having “stated the radical position as vehemently and consistently as Tertullian” (57). Indeed, in Tolstoy “Christianity” seems less focused on the internal life of the believer and more on the society around him, and specifically its institutions. Tolstoy, according to Niebuhr, saw “the state as the chief offender against life” (61), and the churches as “servants of the state, defenders of the reign of violence and privilege, of inequality and property”—“an invention of the devil” (61). And Tolstoy’s prescription was nonparticipation in government, rejection of church, and renunciation of property (62).
    In the third section of this chapter, Niebuhr argues that the “radical Christian”, anti-culture position is necessary. He focuses on the sincerity of those who, throughout history, have held this position, and the “heroic” appeal of their “willingness to abandon homes, property, and the protection of government” (66), to face martyrdom, and to endure suffering “due to obedience to Jesus Christ” (66). The reason that the anti-culture position is necessary, to Niebuhr, is that their rejections of various aspects and practices of society have frequently paved the way—albeit unintentionally—for social reform.
    Niebuhr finds intrinsic value in the anti-culture position as well. “The relation of the authority of Jesus Christ to the authority of culture is such,” he writes, “that every Christian (presumably including Niebuhr himself) must feel himself claimed by the Lord to reject the world and its kingdoms with their pluralism and temporalism, their makeshift compromises…” (68).
    Yet, although the author argues that anti-culturalism is necessary, valuable, and inevitable, it is also inadequate (69), primarily because it is impossible. “Man,” says Niebuhr, “not only speaks but thinks with the aid of the language of culture… The forms and attitudes of his mind which allow him to make sense of the objective world have been given him by culture. He cannot dismiss the philosophy and science (or any other aspect) of his society as though they were external to him; they are in him (69)…”
    The final section of the second chapter of “Christ and Culture” deals with the theological problems associated with the Christ-against-culture position. Beginning with the fallacy of the idea shared by both Tertullian and Tolstoy, that “the corruption of the culture…(and) not the corruption of…uncultivated (human) nature…is responsible for the long history of sin” (78), Niebuhr points out that this thinking can lead to the temptation to “divide the world into the material realm…and a spiritual realm” (81), and ultimately to the Manichean heresy (the view of reality as a struggle between equal forces of light—led by God–and darkness—led by Satan).
    Reading this chapter of Niebuhr’s book represented quite a challenge for me because I had never read any of the early Christian works he referred to (“The Shepherd of Hermas”, et al). Nor had I known, hitherto, anything about Tertullian or Tolstoy. I did know the Book of 1 John, but had never heard it discussed from Niebuhr’s perspective. Yet, because my own Christian experience bore testimony to the validity of the author’s argument, and because of its implications for today’s church, I found myself quite intrigued by it.
    To begin with, I think we have to note some problems with both Tertullian and Tolstoy that Niebuhr addresses. He points out (52) that Tertullian “comes very close to the thought that original sin is transmitted through society”, and that for Tertullian “the universe and the soul are naturally good”. This idea (that Society, and not man himself, is the source of mankind’s moral failures) has very serious consequences. We see it expressed later in history by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the writer of “The Social Contract” (1762), and for all intents and purposes, the “father” of the French Revolution and the all national social engineering projects that have followed. And Niebuhr, I think, correctly assesses Tolstoy when he says that although he resembled, superficially, the writer of 1 John, Tertullian, and the monks in many ways, he showed “little understanding for the meaning of the grace of God” (64). I would go further to submit that Tolstoy was, in actuality, not a Christian at all, but more akin to the American Transcendentalists of his day (e.g., Henry David Thoreau) in that he substituted “for the Jesus Christ of history the spirit immanent in Buddha, in Jesus, in Confucius, and in himself” (82).
    All this being said, we ultimately need to evaluate the validity of Niebuhr’s premise in this chapter—that the “Christ against culture” answer to the “enduring problem”, although “inevitable” (69), inadequate and theologically problematic, “needed to be given in the past, and doubtless needs to be given now…for its own sake, and because without it other Christian groups lose their balance (68).” Is this true? And what are the practical consequences of applying this in everyday life in today’s world? A case that immediately comes to mind would be that of Chuck Baldwin, the former pastor of Crossroad Baptist Church in Pensacola, FL. In 2010, he resigned and moved his family to Montana, explaining as follows:
    “…It is our studied opinion that America is headed for an almost certain cataclysm. As Christians, we suspect that this cataclysm could include the judgment of God. As students of history, we believe that this cataclysm will most certainly include a fight between Big-Government globalists and freedom-loving, independent-minded patriots… And as this battle escalates (and it will most assuredly escalate), only those states that are willing to stand and fight for their independence and freedom will survive–at least in a state of freedom. And we believe that God has already put the love of liberty deep into the hearts of the people of the Mountain States; and we further believe that God is already calling (and will continue to call) many other freedom lovers to those states. One thing is for sure: we know He called us!”
    I think it is correct—and biblical—to give serious consideration to the idea that the church’s first priority should be the health and protection of those under its care. Nehemiah comes to mind, who wept when he heard that “the remnant in the province, who survived the exile, (were) in great trouble and disgrace. Jerusalem’s wall (had) been broken down, and its gates (had) been burned down” (Nehemiah 1:3 HCSB). And John 10 gives us a beautiful description of the church as a “sheep pen” that is protected by a “door” and a “doorkeeper” from “thieves”, “robbers”, and “strangers”. Ecclesiastes tells us that:
    “There is an occasion for everything,
    and a time for every activity under heaven…”
    And there is a time—a necessary time—for building walls and defenses, for planting and nurturing—for separation from culture. Before He ascended into heaven, Jesus “commanded” (Acts 1:4 HCSB) His early followers not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the Father’s promise. Yet, there came a time when that waiting period came to an end. On the day of Pentecost, the church raised their voice and spoke to their culture (Acts 1:2:14 HCSB).
    In our church’s “Essentials of Discipleship” training manual, we are told that
    “The church is not meant to be a defensively postured, impenetrable fortress that safeguards itself from contact with those outside the body of Christ. Instead, it is like a frontier outpost whose purpose is to influence the culture on behalf of another controlling authority; in a sense, a colony established in a foreign land looking to spread its ideals to the hostile territory it inhabits.”
    And the Bible tells us that on the day of Pentecost, three thousand people accepted the church’s message and were added to their number. Yet, one word of caution, I think, is needed. The Bible also tells us that “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:41 HCSB). That should not be overlooked. Before the church is ready to leave the sheepfold and establish its frontier outposts, it needs to be prepared. Just as Tertullian embraced the idea of the perfectibility of man—a humanistic idea that is more in line with Greek philosophy than biblical theology—the church today is awash in a sea of postmodern deconstructionism.
    Just as Rousseau carried Tertullian’s musings further and opened the door to the deconstruction of French society, there are those inside the church today—and in many cases its critics—who, though they may adhere to a form of “spiritualism” like Tolstoy (Niebuhr, 81), and may employ the words, the language, of the Bible, may not necessarily be worshiping its God “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23 HCSB). An excellent illustration of this comes from American history, when the Unitarian movement sprang up in New England as many church-going people rejected the Great Awakening revivals that were taking place through the ministry of Jonathan Edwards. Unitarians continued, on the surface, to worship God, but as their doctrinal position began to formulate, they began to reject the divinity of Christ, and His atoning work on the cross. Yet they were among the hardest workers and strongest voices for social reform. The church, in leaving its “defensively postured, impenetrable fortress” needs to be equipped these kinds of challenges. These were, I believe, the concerns of Paul the Apostle when he said:
    “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. And men will rise up from your own number with deviant doctrines to lure the disciples into following them. Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for three years I did not stop warning each one of you with tears.” (Acts 20:29-31 HCSB)

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