A Biblical-theological Critique?
I have anticipated this chapter for some time. It is close to 40 pages long, so I will review it in two different posts. The second chapter of CCR explores the promise and critique of Biblical Theology as it pertains to Niebuhr’s Christ and culture paradigm. Carson commends Niebuhr for using Scripture to support his paradigm but also critiques him on the basis of Biblical theology. Carson notes that Niebuhr tends to identify and universalize certain Christ and Culture positions with certain biblical authors. For instance, the Gospel of John and the incarnation become paradigmatic for Christ Transformer of culture (John 1). However, as Carson points out, John’s gospel also advocates other paradigms, such as the Christ against culture (i.e., Jesus as judge of the world). Carson claims that Niebuhr too easily makes biblical authors synonymous with certain Christ and culture positions (41). This claim should be qualified. Niebuhr plainly states that John advocates both Christ transformer and Christ against culture positions in his writings. Niebuhr writes:
They (conversionist motifs) are suggested in the First Letter of John; but are accompanied there by so many references to the darkness, transitoriness, and lovelessness of the world on the one hand, and to the distinction of the new community from the old on the other, that the tendency of this document seems to be toward exclusive Christianity. (196)
When referring to conversionist elements in the gospel of John he calls them “motifs,” which indicates that he is not reducing John’s gospel to a “Christ Transformer of Culture” position. Commenting on the gospel of John he writes: “…it is accompanied there also by a separatist note.” In other words, Niebuhr has room for “conflicting” Christ and culture positions within a single author and single book of the Bible. He is not so “anti-biblical theology” as Carson makes him out to be. Nevertheless, the biblical theology critique will bear more fruit.
And yet here is a real concern. Many who read Carson will not have read Niebuhr nor will they read him, and if you are reading this, read Niebuhr! 🙂 Carson’s summaries and critiques are good but not gold. They fall short and are unfounded in some places. Don’t take my word, Carson’s or Niebuhr’s word; do the hard work of thinking this all through for yourself because your posture towards culture has everything to do with Christ and following Jesus.