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Christ and Culture Revisited
by D. A. Carson
Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008
(243 pages, $24.00, hardcover)
reviewed by Brad Green
D.A. Carson has set out to critique the classic work by H. Richard Niebuhr ( Christ and Culture, originally published in 1951), offer a more biblically grounded construal of “Christ and culture,” provide an overview of the key issues involved in thinking through contemporary “church-state” relations, and—for good measure—suggest why the fascination some Evangelical thinkers have with postmodernism might be a tad misplaced. All this in the scope of 243 pages. Quite a task.
Carson is Research Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and has written specialized essays in New Testament studies, a variety of commentaries, and popular level theological-biblical exposition. He also offered his own understanding of the contemporary theological scene in his 1996 volume, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Zondervan).
In Christ and Culture Revisited, he presents his own construal of the relationship between Christ and culture, using Niebuhr’s classic work as a means to segue into his own explication of these issues. Across six chapters, he summarizes Niebuhr, attempts to tease out a type of biblical theology of culture, offers a response to so-called postmodernism, presents his own reflections on the current state of thinking related to “secularism, democracy, freedom, and power,” summarizes key historical and biblical issues related to “church and state,” and offers concluding thoughts and comments.
Carson gives a fair and balanced summary of Niebuhr, criticizing him for an inadequate grasp of both key terms: Christ and culture. Niebuhr’s “Christ” appears to be a bit broader than the Christ of Scripture and the councils. And Niebuhr’s “culture” seems to denote simply the “dominant” culture, and does not give enough attention to other aspects of what the term “culture” denotes.
A Whole-Bible Approach
“Culture,” on Niebuhr’s view, generally seems to be something “out there,” and does not recognize that Christians—whether they recognize it or not—are always a part of culture. Carson suggests: “Niebuhr’s five options tend to emphasize a selection of these biblical-theological turning points [i.e., creation, fall, call of Israel, coming of Jesus Christ, the onset and forming of an international community, and new heaven and new earth, and resurrection existence] and downplay others.” Instead, Carson suggests, “that stance is most likely to be deeply Christian which attempts to integrate all the major biblically determined turning points in the history of redemption.”
There is much wisdom in Carson’s work, and perhaps its greatest strength is its attempt to lay the groundwork for a “whole Bible” theological approach to culture. Carson writes,
To pursue with a passion the robust and nourishing wholeness of biblical theology as the controlling matrix for our reflection on the relations between Christ and culture will, ironically, help us to be far more flexible than the inflexible grids that are often made to stand in the Bible’s place. Scripture will mandate that we think holistically and subtly, wisely and penetratingly, under the Lordship of Christ—utterly dissatisfied with the anesthetic of the culture.
One potential criticism of the work is that it might be more aptly titled something like, Notes Toward the Development of a Christian Approach to Culture. That is, Carson has given his readers various taxonomies of certain positions, certain theological and exegetical insights, and certain summaries of persons or schools of thought. One finishes the volume wishing for more synthesis, and for perhaps a more full-orbed theology of “Christ and culture.” Carson himself notes,
[N]one of the powerfully advanced theories commonly put forward to explain the relationships between Christ and culture or to implement an improved dynamic is very compelling as a total explanation or an unambiguous mandate. . . . [E]ven the most intellectually robust theory of how things work, or ought to work, falters in practice within a generation or two, because human beings falter.
Carson has canvassed a wide array of options, and all come up short in various ways. His exploration and summary of these various options and answers is helpful, and lays the groundwork for further work into what has and will always tax the Church’s greatest thinkers. •
Brad Green is Associate Professor of Christian Studies at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, and one of the co-founders of Augustine School, a Christian liberal arts school in Jackson (www.augustineschool.com). He and his wife Dianne have three children, and worship at Englewood Baptist Church.