CULTURE & An Overview of Richard Niebuhr & Charles Kraft’s 4 Views of “Christ & Culture”

by Bob Whitesel, excerpted with permission from Inside the Organic Church: Learning from 12 Emerging Congregations (Abingdon Press, 2006, pp. 55-57).

Since modern culture is constantly adjusting and metamorphosing, the task of translating the Good News without surrendering its truth or disfiguring it is paramount and ongoing. This arduous task begins with thorough and careful examination of a culture. Anthropologist Paul Hiebert described culture as, “an integrated system of learned patterns of behavior, ideas and products characteristic of a society.”(1) Scrutiny of such an elaborate system is not for an immature Christian, since it requires investigating and evaluating a culture without being tainted by its more sordid elements.

There is a tension between Christ and culture that must be examined. Richard Niebuhr in his classic treatise Christ and Culture suggested that there are several ways to look at Christ’s interaction with culture.(3)

Christ … Against culture.

One is “Christ against culture” a view embraced by the early church father Tertullian. In this view culture is seen as evil, thus requiring Christians to withdraw and insulate themselves, resulting in a monastic response. Charles Kraft exposes three fallacies in this view, demonstrating it is not in keeping Paul’s view that “nothing is unclean of itself” (Romans 14:14).(4)

Christ … Above Culture (in Synthesis or in Paradox)

Another view Niebuhr called “Christ Above Culture” which he divided into sub-categories.(5)

  • Christ Above Culture in Synthesis” was held by Thomas Aquinas and views Jesus as the restorer of institutions of true society. This view believes that Christianity will one day totally transform culture, perhaps into a millennial peace. In another sub-category,
  • Christ Above Culture in Paradox,” Christ is seen above but in such tension with culture that a messy, muddled relationship results. Martin Luther grappled with this perspective, as did modern writer Mike Yaconelli who called this “messy spirituality.”(6)

Christ … Above but Transformer of Culture

However, a more valid sub-category may be “Christ Above but Transformer of Culture.” Embraced by Augustine, John Calvin, and John Wesley this view sees culture as corrupt but convertible.(7)

Christ … Above but Working Through Culture

Kraft built upon this his position called “Christ above but working through culture,” explaining that “God chooses the cultural milieu in which humans are immersed as the arena of his interaction with people.”(8) Eddie Gibbs further elaborates that “such an approach represents a deliberate self-limiting on the part of God in order to speak in understandable terms and with perceived relevance on the part of the hearer. He acts redemptively with regard to culture, which includes judgment on some elements, but also affirmation in other areas, and a transformation of the whole.”(9)

If the “Christ above but working through culture” truly defines the tension and nexus between Christ and culture, then the job of the Christian communicator becomes challenging if not precarious. Therefore, our strategy must not conclude simply with step 1, investigating and examining culture, but also must continue through step 2, sifting and judging its elements. Here the prudent communicator must make qualitative judgments based upon Scripture, ethics, personal belief and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

…The end result of this examination or sifting, must be a rejection of elements in conflict with Christ, but also an affirmation of those elements that are not so. I found that leaders of the organic church usually sift carefully through the movies, television shows, music, games, online resources and literature of young people. And they routinely explain in their sermons how God judges some aspects of postmodern culture, accepts other elements such as an emphasis on helping the needy, and has as a goal the transformation of the whole.(10)

The Christian communicator wishing to make the Good News relevant today must carefully examine the media barrage engulfing young people, understand its messages, while at the same time sifting elements that are opposed to Christ and identifying touchstones that can make connections with unchurched peopled.


1. Paul Hiebert, Cultural Anthropology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1983), p. 25.
2. Bob Whitesel, Growth By Accident, Death By Planning, op. cit., p. 26.
3. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Row, 1951). A second view is beyond the scope of our discussion. Labeled by Niebuhr “Christ of culture,” it was embraced by early Gnostic heretics. They interpreted Christ through cultural trends, rejecting any claims of Christ that conflicted with their culture. Counter to this, Isaiah 55:8 reminds us that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, or our ways his ways.
4. Charles H. Kraft, Christianity in Culture, (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1979), pp. 105-106.
5. Kraft, ibid., pp. 108-115 sees five subdivisions of the “Christ Above Culture” position. However, for this discussion only three are required. The reader seeking more exhaustive insights will benefit from a careful exploration of Kraft’s work.
6. Mike Yaconelli, Messy Spirituality (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2002). Yaconelli’s viewpoint has been popular among postmodern Christians, And, before his untimely death, Yaconelli was in demand as a lecturer. Young people often saw in his perspective one more in keeping with their untidy journey towards discipleship. To understand the angst and anxiety many young people sense today between their Christian understanding and their vacillating demeanor, see Yaconelli’s insightful volume.
7. Charles H. Kraft, Christianity in Culture, p. 113.
8. ibid., p. 114.
9. Eddie Gibbs, I Believe in Church Growth, (Grand Rapids, Mich,: Eerdmans, 1981), p. 92.
10. In my travels through the organic church, I found it’s leaders usually approached the rejection or affirmation of cultural elements in a circumspect and serious manner. Whether it was the “discothèque clubbers” of England who had to decide at what point youthful fashions became lewd, or the film clips that Freeway employed to illustrate a point; young organic leaders typically see the rejection of base elements of culture as not only required, but judicious.