In my last blog, I discussed the second of the three central motifs, Christ And Culture in Paradox, in H. Richard Niebuhr’s book Christ and Culture (HarperOne, New York, NY, 2001). He names this ‘family’ dualist as they live within the paradox of human sinfulness and God’s grace.
I now turn to the final motif, Christ the Transformer of Culture. Niebuhr aptly names this family conversionists. “What distinguishes conversionists from dualists is their more positive and hopeful attitude toward culture. … For the conversionist, however, the creative activity of God and of Christ-in-God is a major theme.” (pages 191–192) They do not focus on God’s past creative work, humanity’s Fall, Christ’s redemption, or eschatology. Their primary focus is on current human and divine actions:
“A view of history that holds that to God all things are possible in a history that is fundamentally not a course of merely human events but always a dramatic interaction between God and men. … History is the story of God’s mighty deeds and of man’s responses to them. He lives somewhat less ‘between the times’ and somewhat more in the divine ‘Now’ than do his brother Christians. The eschatological future has become for him an eschatological present.” (pages 194–195)
The Gospel of John presents the clearest example of a conversionist. “The Fourth Gospel’s historical view is characterized by its substitution of the phrase ‘eternal life’ for ‘kingdom of God.’ As practically all students of the Gospel have pointed out, that phrase means a quality, a relation of life, a present community through the Spirit with the Father and the Son, a present spiritual worship, love, and integrity. … John has largely substituted for the doctrine of the return of Christ the teaching about the coming of the Paraclete; for the idea of leaving this body in order to be with Christ he has substituted the thought of a present life with Christ in the spirit. … It seems clear that the Fourth Gospel thinks of Christ as the converter and transformer of human actions.” (pages 201–203)
Niebuhr cites three theologians who are primarily conversionists. Augustine of Hippo’s (354–430CE) Christian conversion illustrates a personal example of the work of Christ during the late Western Roman period that transformed the late Roman civilization into medieval Christendom. “Christ is the transformer of culture for Augustine in the sense that he redirects, reinvigorates, and regenerates that life of man, expressed in all human works, which in present actuality is the perverted and corrupted exercise of a fundamentally good nature.” (page 209) Augustine’s autobiography, Confessions, details his classical education, struggles with other religions, and dramatic conversion to Christianity. “Everything, and not least the political life, is subject to the great conversion that ensues when God makes a new beginning for man by causing man to begin with God.” (page 215)
During the Reformation, John Calvin (1509–1564) exemplified conversionist theology in his proactive vocation writings coupled with God’s sovereignty. “His more dynamic conception of the vocations of men as activities in which they may express their faith and love and may glorify God in their calling, his closer association of church and state, and his insistence that the state is God’s minister not only in a negative fashion as restrainer of evil but positively in the promotion of welfare, his more humanistic views of the splendor of human nature still evident in the ruins of the fall, his concern for the doctrine of the resurrection of the flesh, above all his emphasis on the actuality of God’s sovereignty—all these lead to the thought that what the gospel promises and makes possible, as divine (not human) possibility, is the transformation of mankind in all its nature and culture into a kingdom of God.” (pages 217–218)
Frederick Denison Maurice (1805–1872), an English socialist theologian, was probably the most notable conversionist in recent history. “His attitude toward culture is affirmative throughout, because he takes most seriously the conviction that nothing exists without the Word. It is thoroughly conversionist and never accommodating, because he is most sensitive to the perversion of human culture, as well in its religious as in its political and economic aspects.” (page 229)
Niebuhr does mention John Wesley (1703–1791), the founder of Methodism and my current Protestant denomination (United Methodist Church). Wesley espoused the theology of perfectionism: the belief that humans can grow through sanctification into a sinless state of perfection. “Christ is for Wesley the transformer of life; he justifies men by giving them faith; he deals with the sources of human action; he makes no distinction between the moral and the immoral citizens of human commonwealths, in convicting all of self-love and in opening to all the life of freedom in response to God’s forgiving love. But Wesley insists on the possibility—again as God’s possibility, not man’s—of a present fulfilment of that promise of freedom.” (page 219) Wesley’s advocacy of Christ the Transformer of Culture still reverberates within the Methodist Church.