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Against Disembodiment: Why H. Richard Niebuhr was Gnostic

Questions of the relationship between Christ, the church, and culture are as old as the church itself. However, way in which such questions have been framed over the last century has been undoubtedly shaped in large part by the landmark study of H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture. It would be hard to overestimate the importance and influence of Niebuhr’s work for subsequent theologizing about the relationship between the church and the world in which it lives.

Despite its importance and influence, I contend that Niebuhr’s typology in Christ and Culture is deleterious to a proper Christian perspective on the nature of the church and her relationship to the cultures in which she finds herself. In contrast, I believe we must search for a more adequate paradigm which takes the plurality and particularities of culture seriously and is rooted in an incarnational Christology. In contrast to Niebuhr’s Gnostic tendencies (namely that of denying the inculatratedness of Christ, his human particularity), such a framework would offer constructive resources for the church to preserve her missional identity as she seeks to embody and bear witness to Christ among the cultures in which she finds herself.

Essentially, Niebuhr’s study seeks to investigate the different positions that parts of the church throughout history have taken in response to culture. Thus Niebuhr talks about those who held to “Christ against culture,” who completely rejected all elements of the wider world. Then there are those who identify Christ with a given culture, holding to “the Christ of Culture.” Then there are mediating positions (“Christ above culture” and “Christ and Culture in Paradox”) which offer some sort of synthesis between Christ and culture. Finally, there is what is clearly Niebuhr’s favorite approach, namely “Christ the transformer of culture.”

Niebuhr’s typology, like all typologies does not claim to be absolute in its accurateness. Niebuhr freely admits that his account, though “historically inaccurate”, “helps us to gain orientation as we in our own times seek to answer the question of Christ and culture.” (Christ and Culture, 44. Hereafter, CC) Pregnant within this statement are two essential elements of Niebuhr’s approach. Firstly, though his account is something of a historical study, it is not ultimately a descriptive study and if read as such would be seen to be woefully inaccurate. Conversely, Niebuhr seems to intimate here that his approach, despite masquerading as a historical study, in fact has a prescriptive agenda, namely to help his readers answer the question of “Christ and culture.”

There are numerous lines of criticism that have rightly been leveled at Niebuhr’s account. Among the central problems of his work lie in his essential presuppositions about the nature of “Christ” and “culture.” His very way of framing the question is what is most disturbing. To speak of the relationship between “Christ” and “culture” seems to clearly assume that in comparing the two, one is dealing with two different spheres or identities that must be somehow coordinated in relation to one another. “Christ” is one thing and “culture” is another. Inherent in this way of framing the question lies the barely concealed assumption that “Christ” lies outside the realm of cultural, creaturely reality. For Niebuhr, culture is simply, the “total process of human activity.” Culture is a human product, created by humankind and results in “civilization.” (CC, 32) Moreover, Niebuhr’s concept of culture which he is concerned to coordinate in relationship to Christ is admittedly monolithic. He is concerned, with culture, not as “a particular phenomenon but the general one.” (CC, 31)

That culture is such a monolithic reality for Niebuhr is seen in how he evaluates the proponents of his different models. Tertullian, who Niebuhr places among those who hold to “Christ against culture,” is faulted for being inconsistent in that he was a radical critic of culture and yet “could not emancipate himself” (CC, 55) from it. That culture might be a variegated reality, some aspects of which could be embraced, while others rejected is not regarded as a possibility for Niebuhr, rather views culture as a monolithic totality, “you must either withdraw from it all, transform it all, or keep it all in paradox.” (Yoder, “How H. Richard Niebuhr Reasoned,” 54-55) This monolithic abstraction that Niebuhr presents as “culture” which Christ must be understood in relation to is a gaping weakness in his contribution.

Perhaps more troubling, however is the way in which Niebuhr divorces Christ from culture at a fundamental level. For Niebuhr, Christ is one thing and culture is another. “Christ leads men away from the temporality and pluralism of culture.” (CC, 39) No matter which model he is discussing, Niebuhr is emphatic that Christ always calls people away from culture. Thus, no matter which model one opts for on Niebuhr’s account, ultimately the project is one of determining the limits to which one will follow Christ for the sake of according due devotion to culture. Thus for Niebuhr,

[Christ] is not a center from which radiate[s] the love of God and of men, obedience to God and Caesar, trust in God and nature, hope in divine and human action. He exists rather as the focusing point in the continuous alternation of movements from God to man and from man to God… (CC, 29)

Christ, on Niebuhr’s view is not “the center” of Bonhoeffer, but rather a point on which to focus in a larger continuum of divine–human encounter. (See Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center) For Niebuhr, though other sources of authority are not autonomous from God, “they are independent of Jesus.” (Yoder, 63) For Niebuhr, Christ will always call his followers away from culture, the question is how far it is appropriate for the Christian to follow. The working assumption is that, whatever Christ is, he is essentially acultural. Niebuhr has to “shift the meaning of Jesus’ criticism of creaturely rebelliousness within culture, so that Jesus’ call is not itself a real option within history and culture but rather a direction, ‘pointing away’ from the world, and therefore by definition incapable of standing alone, incapable of faithful Incarnation.” (Yoder, 64) As such, there is a fundamental Gnostic tendency in Niebuhr’s thought. For him Christ ultimately is found outside the embodied world of culture, calling people away from culture. The question is how far we will follow him out of the world. This stands in marked contrast to Bonhoeffer who held that rather than being called out of the world, following Jesus is only possible by “living completely in this world.” (Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 369-370) For Bonhoeffer, in contrast to Niebuhr, it is the radical worldliness entailed in Christ’s call to discipleship that calls one to live fully in the world. Such worldliness in Bonhoeffer is profoundly Christological and ecclesial in contrast to Niebuhr.

Thus, in the end when evaluating Niebuhr’s project we are left with a Christology that is at least functionally docetic, if not outright gnostic. The particularities of Christ get left behind as he is made into a cipher for how the otherworldly divine can be configured in relation to the mundane realities of the “real world.” However, for Bonhoeffer and hopefully for all Christians, it is Christ who is the ultimate truth about the mundane realities of the “real world.” The “real world” is the world redeemed in and through the cultural particularities of the human life of the Jew from Nazareth. It is this world that the church is united with through faith in Christ, thus becoming his body in and for the world. In this body, there is no question of how to relate “Christ and Culture” because in this body Christ has become a culture. The issue then, is not how to connect t
he spiritual realities of the Christan community with the “world of culture”, but rather to discern how the culture that is the Christian community is to bear witness amidst the various cultures in which it finds itself. After all there is no such thing as “culture” in the abstract!

The ultimate form of “worldliness” that is appropriate to Christian discipleship is precisely the ecclesial life lived within the triniarian communio poured out graciously by Christ and the Spirit in and through the ecclesial body of Christ. The ultimate form of creaturely existence is the spousal-sacramental communion that takes place in the life of the church, the form of humanity united to the Son in faith and hope. This is true culture. True food and true drink. True and authentic mundanity at its best. It is in and as this ecclesial sacramental body that the church learns what it means to be a culture amidst the nations of the world, calling all the reconciliation in and through the Cross and Resurrection of Christ. This is what it means to be culturally engaged.


  1. a. steward wrote:

    Thanks, Halden. This was a really helpful post. As you know, I’m somewhat fascinated by H. Richard’s brother, Reinhold, especially in the influence he has had in basically creating what for most modern Americans is political common sense. I just finished Richard Fox’s biography of him, and among other things there were some interesting accounts of the relationships between these brothers, and their very different approaches to their work. At any rate, I think you might be interested in this observation of Fox’s, which I think betrays the gaping absence of any real ecclesiology in Reinhold’s “theology”:

    “His own ecclesiology, such as it was, remained fundamentally Protestant in its stress on symbolism. There was no “real presence” of God in the sacrament, but a symbolic representation of God’s presence…. A sacramental church was too liable to passivity, self-satisfaction, too prone to believe itself sanctified…. The church was not the embodiment of god’s grace or even the place where that grace was experienced; it was the place where people acknowledged their unworthiness and prayed for the fulfillment that came through self-giving instead of self-seeking.”

    The church was simply one institution among many – helpful insofar as it kept alive the capacity for prophetic social criticism by means of the religious ideals seen in Jesus, but by no means intrinsic to the work of establishing proximate justice in society.

    Thursday, March 15, 2007 at 6:21 pm | Permalink
  2. Derrick wrote:

    I agree with Adam, great post! When I was reading your quote of H. Niebuhr’s, that “Christ leads men away from the temporality and pluralism of culture,” I immediately thought of Wittgenstein asking “to where?” Wittgenstein’s idea that there are no “private languages,” (and of course Lindbeck’s postliberal appropriation) seem to raise some interesting preliminary questions about how exactly Christ could “encounter,” through “proclamation,” without always/already being induced into the particular language games of the culture thereof. Being “acultural,” here seems tantamount to being “unapproachable.” This is so not merely because, in the abstract, it seems impossible for an acultural address, but also because the basic impetus for Jesus’ unique relation to the Father, through his particular proclamation, but most of all in the context of what “resurrection,” meant, is not an ahistorical or acultural supposition, but, as Pannenberg has championed, “…the primitive Christian motivation for faith in Jesus as the Christ of God, in his exaltation, in his identification with the Son of Man, is essentailly bound to the apocalyptic expectation for the end of history to such an exten tthat one must that if the apocalyptic expectation for the end of history to such an extent that should the apocalyptic expection…be totally excluded…then the early Christian fith in Christ is also excluded…” (Jesus God and Man, p.82; c.f. also 66-88;206-207; Pannenberg even argues that Jesus’ own self-consciousness of Himself in relation to the Father is historically mediated, p.332-337. See also Pannenberg’s 2nd volume of Systematic Theology p.325-389))

    This leads to a second, related criticism regaring another of Niebuhr’s concepts that you describe: “though [for Niebuhr] other sources of authority are not autonomous from God, they are ‘independent of Jesus.’” Of course, since I have not read either Niebuhr or Yoder (from whom you quote) I could be way off, but it seems Niebuhr’s divorce of Christ and culture seems related to an ambiguous relationship between Christ and God. I wonder what exactly a”relation to God,” could look like in and post-NT conceptualization except via the Son? Robert Jenson writes in Systematic Theology vol II that humanity (however we are to take Adam and Eve…) was initiated by God’s address, and as such our relation within the discourse, our antiphonic response to God, is itself the nature of the imago Dei (p.58) and the discourse of God, his address and introduction to us, is not other than the Son (pp.6-7 et al) and just so, “Once the conversation of God with humanity is under way, his speech to us is not another event than our speech for Him to one another…” (p.61) because our speech, theologically speaking, must be preceded by God’s speech as intitation. Just so, Jenson continues, that even the “non-Church” polities are under God’s speech “in the Son,” (p.62-63; 78-85) because, though our discourse to one another is “law” (that is, mutually obligating, because we present a future to others that we ourselves generally cannot accomplish) it is nonetheless a product (again, theologically speaking) “of the Son,” as God’s speech. It should be noted that Jenson was specifically talking about polities, but mutatis mutandis this seems also to apply to culture, which is mediated through speech! Hence, it seems, taking Jenson at face value, that any interaction “with culture,” (somehow, as “opposed” to the Church) is itself mediated Trinitarianly.

    Anyway, just my two cents.

    Thursday, March 15, 2007 at 8:49 pm | Permalink
  3. Derrick wrote:

    fUm, I just noticed that my Pannenberg quote repeats itself, it should read: “Christian motivation for faith in Jesus as the christ of God, in his exaltation, in his identification with the Son of Man, is essentially bound to the apocalyptic expectation for the end of history to such an extent that one must say that if the apocalyptic expectation should be totally excluded from the realm of possibility….then the early Christian faith in Christ is also excluded…” (p.82) Sorry about that

    Thursday, March 15, 2007 at 8:54 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Thanks Adam and Derrick for the perceptive comments.

    Derrick, on your specific question of how Niebuhr conceives of the relation between the Son and the Father, he is remarkably unsophisticated, bordering on modalism. His use of the Trinity is to legitimate the idea that while Jesus may have a radical ethic that is impossible to follow in the real world, the Father (for him, the creator) has another one that is informed by natural law. And there may also be a law of the Spirit that diverges from Christ’s ethic that Christians should follow depending on their given context.

    He has no concept of perichoresis, and basically ends up trying to use the other persons in the Trinity as ways to bypass Christ as the center of divine revelation. Yoder critiques him on precisely that point, and thus Yoder, the anabaptist ends up being radically Nicene, whereas Niebuhr, the mainline protestant ends up modalist.

    Thursday, March 15, 2007 at 9:07 pm | Permalink
  5. Michael Westmoreland-White wrote:

    Have you read Authentic Transformation, by Glen H. Stassen, D.M. Yeager, and the late John Howard Yoder? They revisit Christ and Culture with Yeager largely defending, Yoder rendering a devastating critique similar to yours, and Stassen agreeing with Yoder, but finding other resources in HRN for correcting the problems of C & C.
    This is worth checking out.

    Friday, March 16, 2007 at 4:26 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    Actually, the only part of that book I’ve read is the Yoder article, which I cite in this post. Maybe at some point I should read the whole thing…

    Friday, March 16, 2007 at 4:47 pm | Permalink
  7. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Excellent critique of Niebuhr, Halden. It is all too common to see treatments of Christ, the church, and culture placed in a transhistorical framework, which leads to this sort of gnosticism or doceticism. Ideas about Christ, the church, and culture cannot be severed from historical realities that foundational for engaging culture, that is the living and breathing incarnate Christ and that organism we call the church.

    Thanks again.

    Friday, March 16, 2007 at 9:17 pm | Permalink
  8. Michael Westmoreland-White wrote:

    Yes, read the entire book. JHY commended Stassen’s two chapters, especially. Unfortunately, Stanley Hauerwas went around getting people to buy the book only for Yoder’s chapter–which really did a disservice. Without Stassen, the book would never have seen the light of day. I know some of the behind the scenes work on this.

    The other reason for reading the whole thing is that it gives a more complete picture of HRN. JHY’s critique is valid–but mostly as a critique of C & C and not of HRN’s entire thought. Also, Stassen shows HOW to engage culture–in ways that are quite congruent with your insights from Bonhoeffer.

    Friday, March 16, 2007 at 10:38 pm | Permalink
  9. Patrick McManus wrote:

    Hi Halden,

    great piece. Craig Carter has a new one out with Brazos Press Rethinking Christ and Culture: a Post-Christendom Perspective revisiting this whole question along lines you would find quite complimentary to what you’ve outlined here.


    Sunday, March 18, 2007 at 3:26 am | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    Patrick, yes indeed. I’ll actually be doing a reveiw of Carter’s excellent book for Neue Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie with Paul Metzger. And I think I’m doing my own review of it for Cultural Encounters.

    Sunday, March 18, 2007 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

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