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Fall 2005 · Vol. 34 No. 2 · pp. 215–27 

The “Enduring Problem” of Christ and Culture

Bruce L. Guenther

More than half a century ago, in 1949, H. Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962) presented a series of lectures at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Texas. These lectures formed the basis for a subsequent book, Christ and Culture, published in 1951. The book quickly became a classic textbook which has been, and continues to be, used in countless college and seminary courses. It presents a five-“type” panoramic framework for understanding the variations among Christians and their responses to culture. These types—such as “Christ against culture” and “Christ transforming culture”—have become familiar reference points for theologians, pastors, historians, ethicists, and even political theorists. 1 Although it is only one of several taxonomies that have been offered to help people understand the different ways of interacting with culture that have been evident among Christians throughout history, none of the other taxonomies has had the staying power of the five simple categories advanced by Niebuhr. 2

What is essential then for the church is a model of plurality which acknowledges that varied approaches to culture are appropriate depending on the setting, the strength of the church, the strength of the opposition, and the particular issue.

The fiftieth anniversary of this old classic, which was commemorated by the release of a new edition, brought a new level of intensity to the debates and criticisms that have been generated by the book. 3 In this short article, I will offer a brief summary of Niebuhr’s five-type framework, an introductory overview of some of the major criticisms, along with some suggestions for how one might, despite its shortcomings, best use Niebuhr’s classic taxonomy.


It is helpful to consider the circumstances and motivation that prompted the publication of the book. Contemporary readers have long forgotten the context that first gave rise to Niebuhr’s taxonomy. In a lecture given in 1999 at Austin Theological Seminary commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Niebuhr’s lecture series, the eminent historian George Marsden describes the concerns in the 1940s that gave rise to Niebuhr’s work. In the wake of Nazism and fascism, the horrors of the holocaust and World War II, the new threat of international communism, and the specter of new forms of warfare brought about by the use of the atomic bomb, many leaders were caught up in a debate over how best to build a civilization free from prejudice, intolerance, and totalitarianism. 4

Marsden argues that Niebuhr’s book represented, in part, an attempt to address those social theorists who saw Christianity as a threat to a tolerant civilization and who accused Christianity of not making a positive contribution to Western culture. 5 Without denying that Christians have sometimes been uninvolved, irresponsible, and intolerant citizens, Niebuhr begins with a lengthy discussion of the “enduring problem,” that is, the ongoing difficulty of finding appropriate Christian responses toward culture. After acknowledging that there has never been a singular answer among Christians to the problem, he sketches his five-type taxonomy to demonstrate that understanding and evaluating the relationships of Christianity to culture is much more complex and variegated than many cultural despisers of Christianity have supposed. With each type, Niebuhr includes a short catalogue of strengths and weaknesses.


The first type to be considered is “Christ against Culture.” Here the emphasis is on opposition to culture resulting in a withdrawal from society. Christians using this model consider the world outside of the church to be hopelessly corrupted by sin. John Stackhouse summarizes: “The kingdom of God comes to supersede it—currently in the purity of the church, and ultimately in the messianic kingdom. God calls Christians to ‘come out from among them and be ye separate.’ ” 6 Examples include Tertullian, Benedictine monasticism, Quakers, Mennonites, and Leo Tolstoy. Niebuhr considers the impulse to separate from culture to be a necessary, but ultimately inadequate, position. 7

The second type, “Christ of Culture,” emphasizes an essential harmony between Christ and culture. Jesus is seen as the embodiment of the greatest human aspirations, as the ultimate hero of human culture, as representing the very best which culture can give. In short, the very best of human achievement is Christ, and therefore there is little or no difference between loyalty to Christ and the best a particular culture has to offer. According to Niebuhr, examples of this type include early Gnostics, Abelard, eighteenth-century rationalists such as John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and Thomas Jefferson, and liberal theologians such as Albrecht Ritschl.

The first two types serve as bookends for the next three “distinguishable families”; the first two represent the extremes or polarities between which three more moderate types belong that describe the “great majority movement in Christianity, which we may call the church of the center.” 8 “Christ above Culture,” the third type, affirms the synthesis between Christ and culture. Christ is Lord of both this world and of the other—the two cannot be entirely separated. The complexity of Christ as both human and divine is analogous to the complexity within culture, a realm of the holy and the sinful. Christ enters culture from above with gifts that human aspiration has not envisioned and which human effort cannot attain unless he relates humans to a supernatural society and a new value-center. Examples named by Niebuhr include early apologists such as Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and the medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas.

The “Christ and Culture in Paradox” type finds less continuity between culture and Christianity and emphasizes instead the ongoing conflict between Christ and human culture. Niebuhr identifies proponents as dualists for the way they recognize the reality of both law and grace, wrath and mercy, revelation and reason, time and eternity. Despite the ongoing reality of sin and corruption within culture, Christians simultaneously operate within both realities recognizing that life will be filled with inevitable contradictions. For example, Christians may need to exercise both the “ethics for regeneration and eternal life” and the “ethics for the prevention of degeneration.” But it is precisely within these contradictions and paradoxical locations that God sustains his people, and works out his will in mysterious ways. The most prominent example of this type is the leader of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther.

Niebuhr’s final type, “Christ Transforming Culture,” recognizes the corruption of culture but is optimistic and hopeful about the possibility of cultural renewal. Culture is perceived critically as perverted good, but not as inherently evil. Conversion makes it possible for human beings and culture to move from self-centeredness to Christ-centeredness. Niebuhr claims Augustine, John Calvin, and F. D. Maurice as examples of this type.


Illustrative of the polemical responses to Niebuhr’s typology are, on the one hand, enthusiastic endorsements such as Paul Ramsay’s laudatory claim that this is “without any doubt the one outstanding book in the field of basic Christian ethics,” 9 and James Gustafson’s “appreciative interpretation” in the new commemorative edition. 10 On the other hand are harsh denunciations by people such as Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon who claim that “few books have been a greater hindrance to the accurate assessment of our situation than Christ and Culture.” 11 Craig Carter, similarly, suggests that the effect of Niebuhr’s book “has often been to convince educated young people from peace church, charismatic-Pentecostal, pietistic, fundamentalist, evangelical and other nonmainstream traditions that their heritage of significant opposition to important aspects of the majority culture is something of which to be ashamed and which must be discarded if one is to become responsible and culturally engaged.” 12

Gustafson, a former student of Niebuhr’s at Yale, uses the new edition’s preface as an occasion to launch a scathing attack on those who have found Niebuhr’s categories problematic and misleading. He especially berates those who have used the book as the interpretative key to the rest of Niebuhr’s theological work, and those he thinks do not recognize and appreciate fully the ideal-typical methodology that Niebuhr was using. 13 Gustafson’s last point is well-taken: some have criticized Niebuhr’s work too glibly and quickly as historically inadequate when Niebuhr himself was the first to acknowledge that no person or group will conform precisely to only one particular type. 14 Moreover, Niebuhr is quick to say that his types are “by no means wholly exclusive of each other, and there are possibilities of reconciliation at many points among the various positions.” 15 Reminding critics that Christ and Culture needs to be evaluated on the basis of the author’s intentions is helpful, and the ongoing popularity of the book lends credence to Gustafson’s claim that Niebuhr’s book was successful in providing a heuristic device with remarkable illuminating power. But ideas of the book are not for these reasons beyond criticism.

A very common criticism of Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture is that the inner structure of the taxonomy is tipped in favor of the fifth type—“Christ Transforming Culture.” Although Niebuhr claims to be offering an objective descriptive overview of the options without prescribing the Christian response to culture—and he suggests that Christians ought to celebrate the presence of all five options within the church 16—more than a few scholars have noted how the vast majority of readers align themselves with the fifth model. 17 One explanation for this, according to John Howard Yoder, is that what

Niebuhr meant by “transformation” is so inadequately defined that its popularity with readers seems to correlate with an assumption that it is more or less indistinguishable from our western doctrine of progress, i.e., that society moves forward from one transformation to the next, always getting better by coming nearer to what “culture” was intended to be. 18

Although this was never Niebuhr’s intention, it is a reflection of the assumptions that implicitly, and subversively, advocate for a particular position. The fifth type appropriates the positive values of the previous four and attempts to correct some of their shortcomings; it is not coincidental that the last type is the only one not subjected to extensive critique.

Another common criticism is that Niebuhr’s models assume that the real arena of God’s action is “culture.” He is not clear about the place of the church. The primary actors in his taxonomy are individual Christians; the church is simply seen as a collection of individual Christians who are active in culture. Some critics even suggest that Niebuhr’s taxonomy promotes a “Constantinian” or “Christendom” model of the church by assuming that Christians have a common identity with the surrounding culture, so that the church and culture mutually support each other. 19 This may be reading too much into Christ and Culture, but the taxonomy does minimize the calling of the church to live as a social reality, a community that wisely affirms or dissents from aspects of culture. 20 An ecclesiological perspective is obscured by using only the categories “Christ” and “culture.” It is worth noting that the most vocal critics of Niebuhr’s taxonomy have been those who share a commitment to an Anabaptist ecclesiology.


One of the most vigorous, frequently cited, and compelling critiques originated with John Howard Yoder. A lengthy mimeographed piece, first written by Yoder in 1958 to address the “enduring problem” of how Mennonites were classified as being against culture, circulated widely among his colleagues and students and was eventually published in 1996. 21 In it Yoder complains, among other things, that Niebuhr’s broad approach to “culture” is not differentiated enough within his various types. By culture, Niebuhr means

the total process of human activity and the total result of such activity to which now the name culture, now the name civilization, is applied in common speech . . . .; it comprises language, habits, ideas, beliefs, customs, social organization, inherited artifacts, technical processes, and values. 22

In short, culture has to do with everything that people do. Any discussion of the more specific aspects of culture, however, is absent in the taxonomy; 23 instead the term culture is used only in a general, monolithic way. Niebuhr, he points out, measures “the consistency with which a thinker responds to the entire realm of values called ‘the world’ or ‘culture.’ ” In order for his types to work, culture must be accepted or rejected uniformly as a single bloc, without any qualification; “one must either withdraw from it all, transform it all, or keep it all in paradox.” 24

While helpful in identifying particular kinds of questions about the relationship between Christianity and culture, Yoder questions whether the ideal types (at least the first four) are in fact real options. Instead, he insists that “every morally accountable affirmation of culture discriminates.” 25 Christians routinely, and quite rightly, respond in a variety of ways to different aspects of culture. 26 Yoder continues,

Some elements of culture the church categorically rejects (pornography, tyranny, cultic idolatry). Other dimensions of culture it accepts within clear limits (economic production, commerce, the graphic arts, paying taxes for peacetime civil government). To still other dimensions of culture Christian faith gives a new motivation and coherence (agriculture, family life, literacy, conflict resolution, empowerment). Still others it strips of their claims to possess autonomous truth and value, and uses them as vehicles of communication (philosophy, language, Old Testament ritual, music). Still other forms of culture are created by the Christian churches (hospitals, service of the poor, generalized education). 27

George Marsden concurs by noting in his proposal to “transform” Niebuhr’s categories that Niebuhr’s types ought not to be seen as mutually exclusive. Niebuhr’s types do capture real aspects of the ongoing cultural analysis and discernment that always needs to be present among Christians, but the types are better understood as “leading motifs” or themes with respect to specific cultural activities. Using a musical analogy to try to describe how the five types might be usefully applied, Marsden suggests that they are each like a dominant motif in a symphony where one motif may be subordinated in one part while another takes over: “Identifying a dominant motif in a particular Christian group toward some specific cultural activity should not lead to the expectation that this group will not adopt other motifs toward other cultural activities.” 28

In fact, it is quite possible for Christians to adopt multiple motifs simultaneously depending on the type of response that is necessary to the various dimensions of culture such as metaphysical beliefs, moral principles, aesthetic values, family, economic, and political infrastructures, means of self-expression, and communication. What is essential then for the church is a model of plurality which acknowledges that varied approaches to culture are appropriate depending on the setting, the strength of the church, the strength of the opposition, and the particular issue. 29 The first four types are perhaps best seen as different strategies for accomplishing the transformation or influence of culture described in the fifth type.


Another common criticism is that Christ and culture are not parallel terms. Niebuhr’s broad definition of culture is highlighted above, but how is Christ defined within Niebuhr’s taxonomy? The answer to this question is important because one’s approach to the relationship between Christianity and culture will be affected by one’s understanding of Christ and his mission. The term Christ, which comes from a Greek word meaning “anointed” (as does the Hebrew term for “messiah”), usually refers to the title given by the church to the first-century person, Jesus of Nazareth. Niebuhr presents Jesus primarily as an exemplary moral teacher who affirms the transcendence of the spiritual world and points people away from “the temporality and pluralism of culture.” 30

Yoder, and more recently Craig Carter and Duane Friesen, have challenged the christological deficiencies in Christ and Culture. 31 Yoder rightly observes that nowhere “does it become clear that this understanding of Jesus might be less than fully acceptable to the great body of Christian thinkers.” 32 While Niebuhr does not explicitly reject the historic Christian affirmations of Jesus as the incarnate Son of God whose death and resurrection served as an atonement for human sin and provided new living power in human experience, he concentrates instead on defining Christ in terms of his “virtues” or “excellences of character” (agape, hope, obedience, faith, and humility). These virtues are oriented to a God beyond the world of culture. Niebuhr writes,

Thus any one of the virtues of Jesus may be taken as the key to the understanding of his character and teaching; but each is intelligible in its apparent radicalism only as a relation to God. . . . As Son of God he points away from the many values of man’s social life to the One who alone is good; to the One who alone is powerful . . .; he does not direct attention away from this world to another; but from all worlds, present and future, material and spiritual, to the One who creates all worlds, who is the Other of all worlds. 33

From this orientation toward God, Jesus became the moral mediator to humans of God’s love, hope, faith, obedience, and humility. “Christ” and “culture,” therefore, are set up as two ideals in opposition to one another, creating a kind of dualism. 34

But setting up the structure of the taxonomy as if Christ and culture are inherently in opposition to one another creates a false dichotomy. The definition of Christ must begin with what Friesen calls an “embodied Christology, one that places Christ in the context of his Jewish culture in first-century Palestine.” One must begin with “a view of Christ as the concrete presence of God in the world of culture.” 35 The Jesus whom one encounters within the diverse documents of the New Testament offers a particular vision of life, a vision that sometimes conflicted with other cultural visions. The real tension, then, is not between Christ and culture but between competing cultural visions. The key question for Friesen is how a cultural vision of life, identified “in the New Testament as the ‘good news of the gospel,’ can be brought into relationship with other cultural visions.” 36

Yoder and Carter also make the observation that Niebuhr’s Christ is too abstract and, unlike the Christ of the New Testament, does not make specific ethical demands on disciples. 37 Absent, therefore, are specific criteria by which one might discern adequate and less-than-adequate transformations of culture. Writes Yoder,

The vacuity about moral substance is especially odd because of the choice of the terms “transform” and “convert” to label it. Those words for change would ordinarily, one should think, call for someone to define with some substantial clarity one’s criteria of lines of direction for change. 38

Such “categories of discernment” should come from Christ’s example, and the appeal to his disciples to live in radical obedience. 39


The renewed debate about the value of Niebuhr’s taxonomy has been helpful in drawing attention to the reality that Christians cannot divorce themselves from culture, and to the complexities that are involved as Christians attempt to respond to the “enduring problem” of how to be “in the world but not of the world.” The reminder that there is no cultureless gospel, that the church is always culturally embedded, and that the conflict is not with culture per se, is often still necessary for those Christians who have been influenced by Anabaptism and North American Evangelicalism, traditions that have practiced their faith within distinctive and marginalized subcultures, and have therefore been tempted to see their practice of faith as somehow above or outside of “culture.”

Careless and undifferentiated denunciations of “the world” and its ways remain much too common in Evangelical everyday speech, sermons, and popular literature. Living in a pluralistic, multicultural, postmodern culture that celebrates diversity has made Christian leaders more acutely aware than ever of the need for critical discernment. The challenge is to find incarnational ways to live and articulate a vision of life that discerns how to be appropriately influential and transformational.


  1. John Howard Yoder notes in passing how Niebuhr’s taxonomy has been applied to realms far beyond his original area of interest, e.g., the missionary challenge of non-Christian cosmologies, responding to other religions, or the use of art in worship (“How H. Richard Niebuhr Reasoned: A Critique of Christ and Culture,” in Authentic Transformation: A New Vision of Christ and Culture, ed. Glen H. Stassen, D. M. Yeager, and John Howard Yoder [Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1996], 271, n.2).
  2. See, for example, Howard A. Snyder, Models of the Kingdom (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1991), and Avery Dulles, Models of the Church, 2d ed. (Dublin: Gill & MacMillan, 1988).
  3. H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001). The new edition includes a new foreword by Martin Marty, a new preface by James M. Gustafson, and an introductory essay by Niebuhr, “Types of Christian Ethics” (1942), in which he first began to work out his analytical framework.
  4. George Marsden, “Christianity and Cultures: Transforming Niebuhr’s Categories,” Insights: The Faculty Journal of Austin Seminary 115, no. 1 (fall 1999), accessed 12 August 2005; available from
  5. See especially Niebuhr’s response to three common criticisms leveled against Christians, that is, their baffling hope for eternal life that generates a contempt for temporal existence, their tendency to rely more on God’s grace than human achievement, and their exclusive and “intolerant” claim to be in possession of the truth (Christ and Culture, 5-9).
  6. John G. Stackhouse, Jr., “In the World, but . . . ,” Christianity Today, 22 April 2002, 80.
  7. Christ and Culture, 65. It is necessary as a counterbalance to those who embrace culture uncritically, but inadequate because it is illogical and theological deficient.
  8. Ibid., 116-17.
  9. Ibid., back cover.
  10. James Gustafson, “Preface: An Appreciative Interpretation,” in Christ and Culture, xxi-xxxv.
  11. Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1989), 40.
  12. Craig A. Carter, “The Legacy of an Inadequate Christology: Yoder’s Critique of Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture,” Mennonite Quarterly Review (July 2003), accessed 27 July 2005; available from
  13. Gustafson takes particular aim at the commemorative lecture given by George Marsden, and at John Howard Yoder’s critique, which he denounces as “laced with more ad hominem arguments and fortified with more gratuitous footnotes than anything I have ever read by scholars in the field of Christian ethics” before admitting that he did not manage to gain access to a published version of the critique (“Preface,” xxiii).
  14. The inclusion of Niebuhr’s essay, “Types of Christian Ethics,” does offer readers a clearer understanding of the method used within Christ and Culture, a method shaped by the influence of Ernest Troeltsch’s The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (Christ and Culture, xii).
  15. Christ and Culture, 231.
  16. Ibid., 232.
  17. This is described in Paul Ramsay, War and the Christian Conscience (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1961), 112ff. See also Paul Ramsay, Nine Modern Moralists (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1962), 149-79.
  18. Yoder, “How H. Richard Niebuhr Reasoned,” 53.
  19. See, for example, Darrell L. Guder, ed., Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 115; and Rodney Clapp, A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in a Post-Christian Society (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996), 64-65.
  20. Duane K. Friesen observes that Troeltsch, one of Niebuhr’s mentors, recognizes more clearly that the Christian relationship to culture is integrally connected to a view of the church (Artists, Citizens, Philosophers: Seeking the Peace of the City: An Anabaptist Theology of Culture [Waterloo, ON: Herald, 2000], 51).
  21. See “How H. Richard Niebuhr Reasoned,” 31-89. Yoder raises several objections to the way Mennonites are treated in Christ and Culture. First, Niebuhr misrepresents the intention and practice of most Mennonite groups by taking the Old Order Amish or the Bruderhof as representative of all the denominations derived from the Radical Reformation. Second, Niebuhr criticizes the Menno-nites (and others) for being inconsistent, that is, for renouncing all participation in politics and military service, but maintaining their own regulations for moderating involvement in cultural areas such as economics and education (see Niebuhr’s comments in Christ and Culture, 56). Yoder rightly points out a tacit assumption within Niebuhr’s definition of culture, which should have included the alternative cultural communities formed by certain Amish and Mennonite groups, but refers instead only to the cultural perspectives and practices of the majority within a given society (“How H. Richard Niebuhr Reasoned,” 56-57).
  22. Niebuhr essentially uses Bronislaw Malinowski’s definition from the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (cited in Christ and Culture, 32). Clifford Geertz identifies a dimension missing from Niebuhr’s discussion: culture “denotes an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life” (“Religion as a Cultural System,” in The Religious Situation, ed. Donald Cutler [Boston, MA: Beacon, 1968], 641). Culture is about systems of meaning that give people direction for how to live. See also Kevin Vanhoozer’s insightful article that examines the role of theology in the interpretation of culture (“The World Well Staged? Theology, Culture and Hermeneutics,” in God and Culture: Essays in Honor of C. F. Henry, ed. D. A. Carson, and John D. Woodbridge [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993], 1-30).
  23. George Marsden points out that Niebuhr takes his examples from two general areas of culture: the first area has to do with higher learning, reasoning, and the arts; and the second has to do with dominant cultural structures represented by government, business, and the ideologies that underlie these (“Christianity and Cultures”).
  24. Yoder, 54-55 (emph. in original).
  25. Hauerwas and Willimon similarly complain that “ ‘culture’ became a blanket term to underwrite Christian involvement with the world without providing any discriminating modes for discerning how Christians should see the good or the bad in ‘culture’ ” (Resident Aliens, 40).
  26. This observation prompts Marsden to complain that Niebuhr’s categories are not historically adequate (“Christianity and Cultures”).
  27. Yoder, 69.
  28. Marsden, “Christianity and Cultures.”
  29. See Friesen, Artists, Citizens, Philosophers, 59-63.
  30. Christ and Culture, 11-29, 39-40.
  31. Yoder, 58-65, and Carter, “The Legacy of an Inadequate Christology.”
  32. Yoder, 59.
  33. Christ and Culture, 27-28.
  34. Friesen notes that this duality arises from “the influence of Kant, who made a sharp distinction between the phenomenal and the noumenal world. This duality places religion in the arena of the noumenal and other reality in the phenomenal world . . . ; such a theology contributes to a kind of “Gnostic” Christology in which Christ is abstracted from his actual historical, cultural, phenomenal world” (Artists, Citizens, Philosophers, 301, n.21).
  35. Ibid., 53 (emph. in original).
  36. Ibid., 58-59.
  37. Yoder also complains about a “modalistic tendency” in Niebuhr’s understanding of the Trinity (61-63). This is explored more fully in Carter, “The Legacy of an Inadequate Christology.”
  38. Yoder, 42.
  39. Ibid., 70.
Bruce L. Guenther is Associate Professor of Church History and Mennonite Studies at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Langley, British Columbia.

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