In my last blog, I discussed the first of the three central motifs, Christ Above Culture, in H. Richard Niebuhr’s book Christ and Culture (HarperOne, New York, NY, 2001). He names this ‘family’ synthesists as they are more concerned with Christian culture than trying to Christianize culture.
In this blog, I concentrate on the second central motif, Christ and Culture in Paradox. Niebuhr names this family “dualist, though it is by no means dualistic in the sense that it divides the world in Manichaean fashion into realms of light and darkness, of kingdoms of God and Satan.” (page 149) “The dualist lives in conflict. … That conflict is between God and man. … The issue lies between the righteousness of God and the righteousness of self.” (page 150) The dualist understands the theological paradox of the utter sinfulness of humans and their undeserved grace from God. They strive to hold in balance human reasoning and God’s revelation. Dualists live in a sordid earthly existence while feeling God’s presence. Their theology is dialectic which holds that two opposite realities can both be true. They don’t support natural theology which is based on reason and human experiences.
Dualists and radicals agree that human culture is “godless and sick unto death. But there is this difference between them: the dualist knows that he belongs to that culture and cannot get out of it, that God indeed sustains him in it and by it; for if God in His grace did not sustain the world in its sin it would not exist for a moment.” (page 156) No laws nor institutions can keep humans from sinful actions. “The law of God in the hands of men is an instrument of sin. Yet as coming from God and heard from His lips it is a means of grace.” (page 157) Dualists live in tension without reconciliation.
The Apostle Paul described this tension in his writings. As he traveled through the ancient world proclaiming Christ to the gentiles, he did not teach fleeing from cultural customs such as food, drink, and ruling authorities. Paul proclaimed the new life in Christ, God’s mercy, and the triumph over sin and death. Yet, he also understood human sinfulness and the need for Christian cultural ethics. “For Christian culture it provided injunctions against sexual immorality, theft, idleness, drunkenness, and other common vices. It regulated marriage and divorce, the relations of husbands and wives, of parents and children; it dealt with the adjustment of quarrels among Christians, sought to prevent factions and heresies, gave directions for the conduct of religious meetings, and provided for the financial support of needy Christian communities.” (page 164) He wanted to prevent human sin and derived his ethics from Scripture, tradition, and common sense. Yet, his ethics were not a guide to divine righteousness.
Martin Luther (1483–1546) was also a dualist. “More than any great Christian leader before him, Luther affirmed the life in culture as the sphere in which Christ could and ought to be followed; and more than any other he discerned that the rules to be followed in the cultural life were independent of Christian or church law. … A Christian was not only free to work in culture but free to choose those methods which were called for, in order that the objective good with which he was concerned in his work might be achieved.” (pages 174-75) Luther had no issue with scientific and artistic advancements since they were not related to God’s revealed truths. “If we look to the revelation of God for knowledge of geology, we miss the revelation; but if we look to geology for faith in God, we miss both Him and the rocks.” (page 176) But Luther understood human sin and had no qualms about implementing order within culture: “Here there is no time for sleeping; no place for patience or mercy. It is the time of the sword, not the day of grace.” (page 171)
Dualists have been charged with both antinomianism and cultural conservatism. Antinomianism is the Christian belief that there is no need for Biblical laws because of divine grace. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) labeled this belief ‘cheap grace.’ Paul, a dualist, wrote against antinomianism: “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” (Romans 6:1–2) He understood the complexities of the sinful world that Christ entered.
“Conservatism is a logical consequence of the tendency to think of law, state, and other institutions as restraining forces, dykes against sin, preventers of anarchy, rather than as positive agencies through which men in social union render positive service to neighbors advancing toward true life.” (page 188) One positive aspect of conservativism is its support for needed social changes. This push for cultural changes leads into my next blog on the third central and final Niebuhr motif, Christ the Transformer of Culture.