It turns out that none of the four (or five, according to Niebuhr) models surveyed is free of weaknesses, and that seems to be owing to the fact that all of the models are ultimately reductionistic. Among the ones surveyed, I personally believe the two kingdoms model offers the broadest theological vision for navigating this issue, but it must be supplemented by insights from other models as well, lest it become imbalanced.
As D.A. Carson points out in his book Christ and Culture Revisited, Niebuhr succumbed to reductionism in his approach because of a failure to grapple with the whole sweep of the Bible’s storyline. The valid insights of each model are really just biblical observations that need to be drawn together in a larger synthesis encompassed by the whole narrative of Scripture.
So let me sum up by offering seven concluding thoughts on the discussion, four today and three more to come in the next post:
1. Culture, as a product of humanity, always simultaneously demonstrates the glory of God while expressing rebellion against him. This point follows from our doctrine of humanity as made in God’s image yet ruined by sin. We cannot escape demonstrating God’s glory in our very existence and activities, yet all we do is stained by the sin that inheres in our Adamic nature. Culture naturally reflects both realities, and cannot do otherwise. The implication of this truth for Christians is that our stance toward culture must be one of both affirmation of all that is good with simultaneous confrontation of all that is evil.
2. Culture is always changing. This means that Christians must constantly adapt the way they interact with it. In more hostile times and settings, cultural engagement will tend to reflect the counterculturalist approach more strongly. In settings in which Christians have greater freedom to move among the major institutions that shape culture, a transformationist tendency would certainly represent a pathway of faithfulness for them. In sum, we are not dealing with “one-size-fits-all” here.
3. No aspect of life is religiously neutral. While I believe it is biblically valid to speak of “two kingdoms,” or perhaps “two realms” in which Christians live during the overlap of the ages, we must never imagine that God’s reign extends to only one of them, or that religious commitments only matter in one of them. All of life is lived coram Deo (before God), whether public or private, whether in the vocations of daily life or in our churches. And our religious commitments will manifest themselves in all that we do. Every culture ultimately has a god at its center, and it is our cultus (worship) that manifests itself in our culture. The American ideal of a religiously neutral public square is a myth that only serves to exalt one god (the god of the American imagination) above all other gods, privileging those who worship at his temple by assuming neutrality and labeling all other viewpoints as religiously biased and thus unfit for public discourse. This is perhaps the greatest danger of a pure “two kingdoms” view.
4. Worldly power is seductive. Christians have, at various times and places, been in positions of power or have been close to power. While this has often been good for a culture, it has also often been a source of great temptation to Christians to compromise biblical conviction in order to maintain their societal standing. The current sellout to Donald Trump among enthusiastic evangelical supporters is a tragic example of how Christians can be easily degraded by an addiction to worldly power. [By the way, I chose the words of that previous sentence very carefully. I said “enthusiastic evangelical supporters” in order to indicate people who have publicly aligned themselves with Trump. If you are an evangelical who is contemplating voting for Trump, not because you support him, but simply because you see two incredibly terrible choices in front of you and feel like you want to avoid the worst of the two, I am not talking about you. I’m not there with you, as I wrote earlier, but I want to make it clear that I’m not calling you a sellout.]