H. Richard Niebuhr’s “Christ and Culture”

There is no way to complete a study of political philosophy and theology without mentioning H Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture. [1]   Christ and Culture began as a series of lectures at Austin Presbyterian Seminary in the late 1940s. It was published in 1951 and remains a classic of Christian thinking about the relationship between Christian faith, culture, and politics.

H. R. Niebuhr

H. Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962) was trained in philosophy and religion, ordained as a pastor, and served as a professor at Eden Theological Seminary and Yale Divinity School. Niebuhr also served as President of Elmhurst College. Theologically, Niebuhr was an adherent of the theological position commonly known as “neo-Orthodoxy.” Like his brother, Reinhold, Richard Niebuhr was influenced by Kierkegaard, existentialism, and the theological work of Karl Barth and other theologians of crisis. In the preface to Christ and Culture, Niebuhr credits Reinhold and Hulda, his sister (a prominent Christian scholar in her own right), as significant influences in the final form of his thinking on the issues covered by the book. He also credits Earnest Troeltsch and his monumental work, The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches, as influencing his work. [2]

Christ and Culture emerged from the predicament in which the Christian faith and the Church found themselves after the Second World War. After a brief period of enjoying the success of the Allied cause, the late 1940s were characterized by the beginning of the Cold War, the Fall of China to Maoism, the realization that nuclear weapons made possible the destruction of human civilization, the Korean Conflict, and even concern that a form of National Socialism might reemerge in the West. Perhaps most importantly, for the first time, Christianity in the United States was faced with a militant secularism that believed Christianity was not the solution to the problems of Western culture but the root of the problems of Western civilization. 1 Since these concerns exist today, reading the book is a meaningful way to reflect upon our current cultural situation. Niebuhr wrote Christ & Culture as a response to these challenges.

One must read the book to capture its essence. I believe that Niebuhr was a sincere Christian, attempting to open doors to a peaceful and productive Christian engagement with Western Culture.

Christ and Culture

As the title implies, Christ and Culture addresses the relationship between Christ and culture. In his lecture and book, Niebuhr defines and discusses exactly what he means by both. He begins by outlining what he means by Christ. He attempts a definition that applies across denominational and theological divisions. Christ for Niebuhr is the Christ we meet in the New Testament who, for Christians, is the source of the final understanding of what God and human beings are like. [3] Jesus of Nazareth, as rendered in scripture, reveals the God who is love and how love can be incarnated in a specific human life. [4] Niebuhr maintains a careful historical understanding of God in Christ. Christ is God in human form.

Christ is the God/Man. Culture, on the other hand, is a purely human creation.

It is “sum the total of all that has spontaneously arisen for the advancement of material life, and as an expression of the spiritual and moral life – all social intercourse, technologies, arts, literature, and sciences. It is the realm of the variable, free, not necessarily, universal, of all that cannot lay claim to compulsive authority.[5]

Although God is the creator of everything, including the human race, God has given freedom and capacity to the human race, made in the image of God to create. What human beings create is human culture, including all its forms, language, art, literature, government, science, social institutions of every kind, churches—everything that we human beings create in our freedom, even our loss of freedom (tyrannical governments), all these are expressions of human culture.

Niebuhr’s Options

An inevitable question is bound to be raised, “How does God in Christ relate to human culture?” How does the eternal Christ relate to the ever-changing reality of human culture? In Christ & Culture, Niebuhr outlines five different models of how culture interacts with the Christian faith: [6]

  1. Christ Against Culture. In the ‘Christ Against Culture’ model, Christianity is inevitably opposed to secular society. In this view, human sin and finitude inevitably and fundamentally compromise human society and culture. Therefore, Christians should avoid, reject, and separate from culture. Ideally, Christians should attempt to create an independent, profoundly different Christian culture easily distinguishable from the surrounding culture. One modern example would be the Mennonite and Amish communities and the work of, among others, John Yoder in his work, The Politics of Jesus. [7] Stanley Hauerwas, whom Yoder influenced, is another potential contemporary example. [8]
  2. Christ of Culture. In the ‘Christ of Culture’ model, culture is seen as fundamentally not conflicting with the Christian faith. Proponents of this view attempt to view Christian truths as reflecting cultural truth. In reality, however, cultural values often come to outweigh the importance of Christianity. Niebuhr believes that the flaw inherent in this view is its tendency towards a superficial reading of the New Testament witness, resulting in distortion of the Biblical witness and Christian faith. [9] Historic Gnosticism, Enlightenment Christianity, and Liberal Protestantism are examples of this view, which inevitably creates a kind of cultural Christianity that baptizes society’s opinions with a Christian veneer. [10]
  3. Christ Above Culture. In the ‘Christ above Culture’ model, culture represents the classical consensus between a Christianity-rejecting culture model and a Christ-affirming culture model. In this view, Culture is a product of human society and human natural capacities; however, Christian revelation perfects cultural expressions. Inherent in this view is the idea that nature and grace are two different things, and grace (faith) is necessary to complete nature. Niebuhr believes that the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches and theologians like Thomas Aquinas, who combine reason with revelation, tend towards this view. This model can lead to the institutionalization of Christianity through finite and cultural expressions, as may have been the case during the synthesis of the Middle Ages.
  4. Christ and Culture in Paradox. In the ‘Christ and Culture in Paradox’ model, there is an ever-present tension between the Christians and their interaction with culture. Despite the attempts of those in the Christ above Culture camp to create a workable synthetic consensus, there remains a tension that gives rise to this Christ and Culture in Paradox position. [11] Christians are forced to simultaneously live between the kingdom of this world and the Kingdom of Heaven, accepting some aspects of culture and rejecting others. Niebuhr believes Martin Luther is an example of this view. [12] Niebuhr observes of Luther:

This is the basis of Luther’s dualism. Christ deals with the fundamental problems of the moral life; he cleanses the springs of action; he creates and re-creates the ultimate community where all action takes place. But by the same token, he does not directly govern the external actions or construct the immediate community in which man carries on his work. [13]

The danger of this view is that it too easily allows human culture and political society to avoid a compelling Christian critique, as the Lutheran response to Nazi Germany often says.

  1. Christ the Transformer of Culture. In Niebuhr’s final model, Christianity is seen as a spiritual force that seeks to transform or covert culture into a greater resemblance to the Kingdom of God as it works within human society for its perfection in Christ. Although this view connects with the Christ against Culture and the Christ in Paradox types, it is distinguished by its belief that human sin does not result in an absolute break between Christ and Culture but is like a disease that warps and misdirects culture. Culture, however, as a creation of human actors made in God’s image, is not entirely fallen but only needs conversion and healing.

In this view, Christ came to redeem all creation, including human culture. Christians participate in this redemptive work in the present while awaiting his coming Kingdom. “For the conversionist, history is the story of God’s mighty deeds and of man’s response to them.” [14] Niebuhr believes that John Calvin and Augustine represent this view. [15] The great Puritan theologian Johnathan Edwards is given as an exponent of the conversionist position. [16] Significant adoption of the conversionist position also characterizes the Wesleyan tradition. [17]

From the Anglican point of view, F. D. Maurice is listed as a profound exemplar of the Christ Transforming Culture view. [18] Maurice builds his theology of Christ and Culture from a Trinitarian base in the interrelations of love among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Thus, his theological starting point is communal and relational. For Maurice, faith in Christ allows human beings to escape their self-centeredness and find restoration of relational wholeness. [19] As human beings enter a divine encounter with Christ, culture must change and evolve in the direction of the Kingdom of God.

Conclusion and Evaluation

As with any important book, Christ and Culture has been subject to criticism. Niebuhr wondered if the book positively impacted Christian ability to deal with culture. In the book, he was careful to note that the types are merely types and do not occur in an unknown diluted form in the work of actual theologians or churches. He does not view his work as conclusive or the final word on the relationship between Christ and Culture. [20] As I read the book, I wondered if the five types merely represent five ways the church might be called to respond to culture depending on the circumstances in which it finds itself.

Many criticisms focus on whether or not the first four types merely serve to introduce Niebuhr’s preference for Christ as the Transformer of Culture. I think any fair reading of the book concludes that Niebuhr is attempting to be fair to historical models but favors this model. Other criticisms focus on the inadequacy of the models. Niebuhr himself tries to defuse this objection reminding readers that the five models are just that: models for thought. Reality is more complex than any model could be.[21]

As readers of this blog might anticipate, I would like to suggest that the primary relationship between Christ and culture is one of love. That is to say that Christians are called to love the cultures into which they are born and to bring the healing power of Christ to act upon such a culture. Sometimes the faithful response is to oppose the culture. Sometimes the faithful response is to support the culture. Sometimes the faithful response is to take a position above the culture. Sometimes the faithful response is to live in paradox with the culture. Sometimes the impact of faithful response is to transform the culture.

In the end, Christ and Culture remains a monumental work that every student of the relationship of Christ and Culture should and must study.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1951). There is a newer 50th Anniversary edition available. Citations here are to the original.

[2] Earnst Troeltsche, The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992).

[3] Christ and Culture, at 11

[4] Id, at 16-19.

[5] Id, at 17.

[6] This brief explanation is partially based on Hugh Whitehead’s “Christ and Culture” Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics, at Work and Theology 101 https://tifwe.org/christ-and-culture/ (June 21, 2012) (downloaded July 18, 2023).

[7] John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1972, 1994).

[8] I intend to cover Hauerwas before this series of blogs is complete. For an introduction to this thinking, see Peaceable Kingdom (London, ENG: Notre Dame Press, 1983), After Christendom (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1991), and his most recent, With the Grain of the Universe (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), which are his Gifford Lectures in printed form.

[9][9] Christ and Culture, at 108-109.

[10] Whitehead,, note 6 above at 45-82.

[11] Christ and Culture, at 149.

[12] Id, at 170.

[13] Id, at 174.

[14] Id, at 195.

[15] Id, at 206-218.

[16] Id, at 217-218

[17] Id at 218-219.

[18] Id, at 220-229.

[19] Id, at 225.

[20] Id, at 230.

[21] Id, at 43-44.