From Bondage to the Desert – 1.7 Christ Against Culture? – 1 A Biblical Theology of Culture

Richard Niebuhr, in Christ and Culture, presents five possible models for the engagement of the church with the surrounding culture. These are:

  • Christ against culture – the Anabaptist model
  • Christ above culture – the Catholic and Orthodox model
  • Christ and culture in paradox – the Lutheran model
  • Christ of culture – the liberal Protestant model
  • Christ transforming culture – the Reformed model

Each of these models has its own strengths and limitations, and each may be more effective in a certain given context and at a certain given time than in others.

Although, like any other attempt at systematisation, this proposal has been legitimately criticised for its inherent and unavoidable simplifications, we still consider it a good basis for opening up discussion of this important topic and its implications for an oppressive communist context.

The natural tendency of any human community living under oppression is to withdraw in order to survive. Although such an attitude may be understandable and even justified in certain contexts and for certain periods of time, it risks hindering the ability of the people of God to function as salt and light in society, if this is the only way they interact with the surrounding culture.

1.7.1 A Biblical Theology of Culture

Defining culture is a daunting task because of the many meanings and perspectives that this concept may reflect. Yet this is precisely why we need to provide a working definition of it, so that what we communicate may be clear. So this is the meaning we are operating with:

DefinitionCulture is the totality of ideas, beliefs, values, traditions and institutions that create solidarity between the members of a certain community, giving them identity, dignity, security and a feeling of continuity.

The Bible has much to say about culture (the world) and the way in which believers are called to engage with it. Sometimes things appear to be very confusing. Thus on the one hand we read that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son’ for it (John 3:16), while at the same time we are warned to ‘Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world… For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.’ (1 John 2:15–16). How are we to interpret such statements as these? When we understand that the word ‘world’ used in these two Biblical verses has different meanings (‘fallen humanity’ in the first, and ‘human society organised in opposition to God’ in the second, things begin to become clearer.

This means that as individual Christians and as Christian communities we are in great need of a biblically informed theology of culture. This should include such things as:

  • an understanding of the holistic nature of life and reality (no separation or antithesis between the spiritual and the material)
  • a biblical understanding of humanity (anthropology)
  • a correct definition and understanding of culture
  • an understanding of the believer’s social responsibility

Otherwise we may simply follow our own impulses, the traditions of the past or contemporary trends; and even if these are not necessarily wrong, the lack of reflection with which we usually follow them puts us at risk of being out of tune with the expressed and implicit will of God for us at the present time.

Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

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