I have reviewed chapters one and two of Carsons’ Christ and Culture Revisited. Here I will continue to review chapter two and move into chapter three.
Niebuhr Typology vs. Biblical Theology Typology
Chapter two is intended to state the impact Biblical Theology should have on our understanding of Christ and culture, specifically our embrace of Niebuhr’s five-fold typology. In my earlier review I pointed out that Carson seems to misrepresent Niebuhr (certainly not intentionally), making Niebuhr’s categories more water-tight that Niebuhr himself advocates. Carson perceives this as a flaw, that the Niebuhr categories are too restrictive, that they require a more BT reading. Thus, he coins Creation/Fall, Israel/Law, Christ/New Covenant and Heaven/Hell the “non-negotiables of Biblical theology,” whereby we should pass judgment on Niebuhr’s categories (Christ against, of, above, paradox, & transformer of Culture).
Before commenting on Carson, I would like to point out that he seems to set up somewhat of a straw man. Though I can not speak for Niebuhr, I am certain that many who use the Christ and Culture typology do not use just one category in their approach to culture. Instead, most people use two or more of his categories when engaging culture. For instance, there are things in culture that must be clearly rejected, that Christ is against, and there are things that are of value and can be made more value through their transformation, which Christ is for. This is not a new way of thinking about Niebuhr yet Carson comments: “if for any reason we continue to think of different models of the relationship between Christian cultures, we must insist that they are not alternative models that we may choose to accept or reject” (62). So we use all of the categories to chart a path for godly interaction with culture. What Carson is trying to add is a plea for these categories to be chucked for biblical-theological categories. The trouble is that he is rather unclear in his explanation of how we are to proceed in this manner. Yet, I could not agree more that we must submit Niebuhr categories to biblical examination. Let’s check those categories out.
In an age that is soft on truth and sin, Carson’s section on the relevance of the Fall for engagement with culture is refreshing. He notes that the heart of evil is idolatry and that all men have fallen under this curse:
The consequences of the fall are universal and devastating because they are first and foremost revolt against the Almighty. We must be reconciled to God, for he is the One who now stands against us not now only our Creator, but our Judge. The drama of the entire storyline of the Bible turns on our persistent alienation from God. (49)
What is the cultural implication?
Christians cannot long think about Christ and culture without reflection the fact that this is God’s world, but that this side of the fall this world is simultaneously resplendent with glory and awash in shame, and that every expression of human culture simultaneously discloses that we are mage in God’s image and shows itself mis-shaped and corroded by human rebellion against God.
Agreed. Sounds like a simultaneous Christ vs. culture and Christ affirmer/transformer of culture. However, Carson continues his BT non-negotiables with very little cultural reflection. They are primary theological summaries of the categories. What we need is practical application to demonstrate sufficient reason to adopt his categories over and against Niehbur.
After affirming penal, substitiutionary atonement Carson writes: “it is simply non-negotiable for any form of Christianity whatsoever that seeks its shape in the cruciform gospel. Those that contest these fundamentals may receive high marks from the culture, but where there are competing authority claims on this sort of issue, Christians simply cannot afford to take their cues from the culture (55). I would think this is obvious to anyone who reads this book, but it is a rare cultural reflection in the mass of biblical-theological summary.
Carson notes that the already-not-yet-consummated kingdom does not mean we usher in the consummation; that is reserved for Christ and should hold in check any sort of Christian utopian or triumphalism. Yet, again there are few cultural comments to press Carson’s words into the issue of Christ and culture.
Yet, Carson is staunch about his non-negotiables, stating that it will not do to adopt some configuration of a few of the categories and then call it a Christian option. Creation/Fall, Israel/Law, Christ/New Covenant, & Heaven/Hell must all be embraced, and I agree, though I would parse them out a bit differently and make many more connections between the non-negotiables and culture (and I have in some talks I have done on the Gospel and Culture).
By way of provisional critique, Chapter Two is in short supply of examples where the BT categories trump the Niebuhr’s, and more importantly, scarce are the sentences that connect the dots between the BT non-negotiable categories and their helpfulness in engaging culture. I am not yet convinced of the need to jump ship from Niebuhr.