IVP/Apollos, 2008, 243pp
How should Christians view their relationship to culture? The classic response was formulated by Richard Niebuhr in his still influential Christ and Culture, 1951. He suggested five possible ways of modelling the interface between Christ and culture, 1) Christ against Culture. This position set Christ in opposition to culture, emphasising the falseness of the world and the need for believers to adopt a hostile stance to to the values and achievements of society. This is the Fundamentalists' preferred model. 2) The Christ of Culture suggests an altogether more cosy relationship between Christ and culture. The culture is seen as an expression of the imminent presence of Christ in all men. Gnostics and theological liberals tend towards this viewpoint. However, the uniqueness of Christ as set forth is biblical revelation is often compromised and the seriousness of sin minimised. 3) Christ above Culture acknowledges the uniqueness of Christ, but attempts a synthesis between Christ and the culture as seen in the theology of Thomas Aquinas. He sought to integrate philosophy and theology, law and gospel into one grand system. Aquinas provided the intellectual underpinnings for medieval Christendom, where Christ and culture were unified (at least in theory). As has been pointed out, option three runs the risk of institutionalising the gospel, and conflating the Kingdom of God with the prevailing culture. Lutherans have proposed a more dualistic model: 4) Christ and Culture in Paradox. Luther knew full well that all human culture has been corrupted by sin. But he was also aware that this is God's world in Christians which have been called to live for his glory. The believer simply has to cope with the tensions of this situation, which will remain unresolved until the consummation. This paradoxical stance has led to cultural conservatism amongst some Lutherans. Evils such as slavery or the rise of National Socialism have been viewed as symptoms of the unavoidable tension that exists between Christ and the kingdom of this world, and left unchallenged. Then we come to 5) Christ the Transformer of Culture. According to Niebur, this option is in keeping with certain strands of biblical teaching and is the preferred option of Augustine and the Reformers. However, at least as Niebur understands it, this model tends towards the universal transformation of culture by the power of Christ. The problem is that in this construction, the distinction between the church as the people of God, and the world that lies under his judgement has been eroded. Yes, Christians may and should have a transformative effect upon a society, but there will be no total cultural renewal this side of the new creation.
Carson criticises Niebuhr's "five model" approach on a number of grounds. Apart from option 2, all of his models have some basis in Scripture. They are not to be set against each other as competing options. That way lies reductionism. Also, some of his models may be more applicable than others in certain cultural situations. The Bible has a positive view of the state and its powers (Romans 13), but Scripture also knows that the state can become an agent of demonic oppression (Revelations 13). Believers in the West will be aware of the many paradoxes that exist between Christ and culture. But we are also in a position to try and effect cultural change through the democratic process. For Christians living under radical Islamic regimes, where persecution is rife and cultural transformation seems pretty unlikely, option 1 provides the most relevant model. Bearing all this in mind, we are not entitled to elevate any single one of Niebuhr's models as the only option that is open to Christians in every given situation.
What then does Carson propose in place of Niebur? He suggests that we should view the Christ/culture relationship in the light of the great turning points of redemptive history namely, Creation and the Fall, Israel and the Law, Christ and the New Covenant, and A Heaven to Be Gained and a Hell to Be Feared. God created this word and declared it very good. Human beings are God's image bearers with a responsibility to govern and care for the created environment. But we sinned against God and brought suffering and death into the world. The essence of sin is idolatry, the attempt to de-god God and put man in his place. We deserve nothing but his judgement and wrath. But God did not abandon this fallen, rebellious world. He still upholds all things and showers the human race with his good gifts. This means that while all human cultures are deeply affected by sin, they are not altogether devoid of good things as a result of God's common grace. But beyond "common grace" God has chosen to bring the blessing of saving grace to the nations. He entered into a covenant relationship with Abraham and his descendants, the children of Israel. Israel was constituted as theocratic nation subject to God's law.
The promise of the Abrahamic covenant was ultimately fulfilled in the coming of Christ, the incarnate Word of God. By his, life, death and resurrection, Christ has inaugurated the kingdom of God. Unlike Israel, the church is not a theocratic nation. The church comprises the people of God who have been gathered out of all nations. This poses a question for the relationship between the Christian and the state. How should followers of King Jesus relate to the powers that be? Jesus himself addressed this issue saying that we must, "Give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's" (Matthew 22:21). Caesar's power is not ultimate. He cannot take the place of God. But the state has been ordained by God to keep law and order in society and Christians must respect this fact (Romans 13:1-7). While we aught to be good citizens and work for the benefit of society, we know that there will be no earthly utopia this side of the consummation. We have to live with the tensions characteristic of the last days where the kingdom of God has come but has not yet been fully realised. Jesus' kingly rule will be contested until he returns and only then will every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord.
Carson argues that viewing the Christ/culture relationship from the standpoint of the key stages of biblical theology will give us a robust and adaptable way of handling the subject. His approach is rooted in the non-negotiables of Scripture and is flexible enough to be applied to a whole range of cultural situations. While Niebuhr's models may be of some value, no single one of them may be accorded canonical authority and some are only of use in particular cultural settings.
In the remainder of the book Carson uses his redemptive historical grid to reflect on a whole range of issues. Refining Culture and Redefining Postmodernism are discussed in chapter 3. Secularism, Democracy, Freedom and Power are given the Carson treatment in chapter 4. The relationship between Church and State is further probed in chapter 5, before the book concludes with a summarising chapter On Disputed Agendas, Frustrated Utopias and Ongoing Tensions. Carson writes on all these subjects with great insight and understanding. He mainly has the American situation in mind, but is also aware of what is happening in the UK, Europe and the developing world. He challenges the hardline secularist vision of culture, found all too often in the West which attempts to push the Christian faith to the sidelines of society. With this in mind, Carson attempts to set out a scriptural account of the relationship between church and state. The distinction between church and state in the New Testament suggests that the church should not be established as the religious arm of the state (the Church of England should therefore be disestablished - see here). But this does not mean that the Christian faith has no role in the public square. Jesus Christ is Lord of all. While his Lordship may be contested, believers have been called to bear witness to Christ in every area of life.
In this book Carson helps us to think through the often difficult relationship between Christ, his followers and culture. He makes a helpful distinction between the task of the church in fulfilling the Great Commission and the role of the individual believer who may engage with the culture on a whole range of levels including politics, the arts and social reform. Ever the careful scholar, Carson interacts critically with a wide range of authors from Augustine to Hauerwas and Derrida to Kuyper. His proposals avoid the extremes of Fundamentalist rejection and Liberal accommodation. We must endeavour be faithful to the Lord Jesus and "seek the good of the city" until he comes to make all things new. Carson doesn't tell us whether we should like Coldplay or Chopin, though. I suppose we'll have to work that one out for ourselves.