This is the paperback edition of the same study first printed in 2008. The book’s aim warn is to set the reader straight over what Carson perceives as the shortcomings and even unorthodoxy of H. Richard Niebuhr’s typologies of the Church’s relation to the cultures in which it bears witness. Carson, research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, claims that “the sweep of the interpretations of ‘Christ’ that [Niebuhr] embraces is too broad, if one is trying to limit oneself to the forms of confessional Christianity that suspiciously and self-consciously try to live under the authority of Scripture.”
Carson infers that N.’s types have become normative in Christian discourse about Church and society. This leads to a lessening of the possibilities of Christian witness in the world, which must (a) focus on the concreteness of the community of believers as they struggle to understand what it means to be ‘church’ in their world at this time; and (b) take into view every aspect of the canon of Scripture. This goes to the heart of how any group of Christians understands itself as well as evaluating the culture in which they exist. Questions of ecclesial identity and mission, Carson argues, are integral to the discussion of Christ and culture.
Arguing that Niebuhr’s study does not provide an adequate context for ‘a holistic grasp of the relations between Christ and culture,’ Carson proposes an analysis based on ‘the non-negotiables of biblical theology.’ Carson rejects the notion of ‘types’ and instead asserts that each church must work out its bible-true understanding of its relations with culture. This flexibility requires, nevertheless, an evaluation of any particular culture within a framework of the ‘culture of the consummated kingdom of God’ and must not leave out any of the turning points in the biblical narrative of salvation. The Church needs a canonically solid model from which to navigate the complexity of culture and specify the task it faces, remembering that its members live both in the world and God’s kingdom.
The author foregoes discussion of the essential cultural issues that characterize “post-modernity” in favour of debunking the influence of “postmodernism” as a philosophical movement. In effect, the argument becomes detached from restraints of cultural scholarship and philosophical challenges, freeing Carson to engage in his own philosophical reflections on western culture and to outline a biblical ‘worldview that is sharply distinguishable from the worldviews around us.’ A discussion of ‘Secularism, Democracy, Freedom and Power’ provides the opportunity to define these characteristics of western culture as bringing with them the seeds of idolatry and undermining the kingdom of God.
Indeed, this conflict between true worship and idolatry is central for Christians’ understanding how God calls them to respond to culture. A chapter devoted to church-state relations ignores the shaping dynamics of civil society and the function of the public forum. The final chapter admits the difficulties involved in concretizing and finding adequate responses to the myriad issues faced when Christians ‘and the Christian sub culture to which they belong relate to the larger culture in which they are embedded.’ Carson points out the destructive tendency of partisan thinking within the church and the need for flexibility, because the biblical message about Christ and culture is grounded in the transcendence of God rather than human ingenuity or theological prowess.
The book is of a pastoral, rather than scholarly genre. Carson’s framing concepts are assumed, rather than demonstrated. Especially with viewpoints and authors with whom he disagrees his language is condescending and his arguments reductionist. Nevertheless, Christ and Culture Revisited reminds theologians that the task of thinking through the Christ-culture relationship makes serious demands on Christian realism, which cannot by-pass or merely select from the biblical witness. Certainly, Carson’s high regard among Evangelical theologians requires one to take the book seriously, regardless of one’s own theological stance. However one approaches the interpretation of Scripture, the book reminds us that Christianity is more than a religion based on pure reason and requires a constant and consistent return to the Bible and a willingness to measure theological judgment against the authority of the revelation to which it is witness.