James K. A. Smith, writing for Christianity Today, reviews D. A. Carson’s new book Christ and Culture Revisited, which is itself a reconsideration of H. Richard Niebuhr’s five models of ways that Christians relate to culture. Smith feels the critique is needed, but Carson’s attempt falls short in its execution because of its narrow views of both culture and salvation. Here’s the final paragraph of the review:

“Indeed, what Carson misses is an opportunity to finally undo our bad habit of disconnecting the cultural mandate and the Great Commission. Even those who affirm both too often see them as unrelated, failing to discern their intimate connection. Yet what is the gospel but God’s call and invitation to be restored and renewed as proper image bearers of God — who bear his image by unfolding creation’s potential in rightly ordered culture? Being God’s image bearers is a calling, a vocation, and a task, not a static property of being human (I refer the reader to Richard Middleton’s brilliant account of this in The Liberating Image). And Christ, as the Second Adam, has shown us what it looks like to do this: in a fallen and broken world, the shape of such a vocation is cruciform; being cultural agents of the crucified God is not a project of triumphal transformation, but suffering witness.”


  1. This, in part, has to do with the fact that Smith is more properly “Reformed” (albeit of the Dutch stripe) than Carson. (Carson being more like an evangelical of the TULIP variety.) I think he is right on, with his charge that, while evangelicals have caught wind of Reformed dominion theology, they generally fail to comprehend how it is related to salvation, thus producing some rather awkward ideas about the relationship between Gospel and culture. The same point can be made with evangelicals who begin to do “covenant” theology without the richness of Reformed dogmatics to guide their way.

    Of course, to balance this comment, one of my professors at RTS, John Muether, a TR if ever there was one, loved Carson’s book and intends to use it as a replacement for Niebuhr’s. (Though it’s probably significant that he is also an uber-Kline-fan.)

    Scotts last blog post..Wedding Registry

  2. Initially I agree with Scott… Smith’s criticism clearly flows from his “more” Reformed perspective. However, it’s precisely this point that makes his critique so weak.

    Neihbur intended to be descriptive- he was trying to describe the various ways the “church” engages or attempts to engage culture.

    Carson, on the other hand, is attempting to tighten those categories by setting “minimum” requirements for Christian cultural engagement theology… he argues that whatever your hermeneutic or denomination, there are certain key Biblical truths you must accept and proportionally represent in your theology of cultural engagement before it can be called a truly “Christian” perspective. By placing these restraints on cultural engagement theology, he seeks to limit and funnel our discussions of what Christian engagement should look like only to those perspectives that are Scripturally faithful. The result (in theory) would be that engagement theology that ignores the Gospel, fails to acknowledge God as creater, does not accept Christ’s promise of future consumation, etc. is automatically forfeit.

    Smith takes an odd line in reviewing the book- rather than seek a meeting of minds, he seems bothered that Carson does not commit himself to a hard-line reformed hermeneutic. In other words, he suggests there is no such thing as Christian cultural engagement theology outside of his reformed view on the continuation of the cultural mandate.

    This is akin to reading a book arguing for better gas mileage on cars nationwide, and being unhappy that the author doesn’t spend the entire book extolling the virtues of Toyota. Perhaps we would be better served if the reviewer’s desire was to respond to the problem at hand.

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  3. “Bad habit of disconnecting the cultural mandate and the Great Commission”?

    I’m curious how that really stands as a bad habit. It seems more fitting to disconnect the cultural mandate from Christian thought and practice—as it doesn’t seem to reflect anything but the terms of the initial Edenic covenant (a covenant whose terms are fulfilled first in Adam and then in Christ—and if the terms are fulfilled then they are no longer relevant).

    I mean, I could be wrong. Are the cultural engagement/dominion terms ever reiterated to those either outside of Eden or outside of the pericope of the covenant nation of Israel?

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  4. Oh cool, where?

    Certainly not in the inauguration of the second new creation (i.e. the postdiluvian world), which is where one would foremost expect it. We get the mandate for fruitful multiplication but not for dominion, as the need for dominion is passed.

    The Danes last blog post..HR.AuraliasColors

  5. The way you’re phrasing things, Seth, is strange to me. It hardly follows from the fact that Christ has fulfilled the requirements of Eden they are made “irrelevant” to Christian belief and practice. Likewise, you seem to take for granted that we, the Church, are both “outside of Eden” and “outside of the pericope of the covenant nation Israel.” The Gospel, for me, is that we in fact are brought into that blessing inspite of ourselves.

    Scotts last blog post..Wedding Registry

  6. First of all, I would like to say that I like having the commentLuv icon at the bottom of all these posts. It makes the comments seem that much more friendly. (And maybe kinda romantic!)

    So then, to Scott. I actually didn’t say the fulfilled covenant was irrelevant to us, but perhaps an example would clarify what I mean.

    Let’s say I owe GE Money Bank $3500. The terms of this deal are that I pay them at least $250 a month until the price is paid. Daddy Warbucks comes along and doesn’t even just take over my monthly payment, but as a gift he decides to pay off the whole shebang. The terms of my covenant with GE Money Bank are fulfilled. I therefore no longer have to abide by the terms of the contract. I can continue to pay the $250 a month if I choose, but I would be a fool to do so and GE Money Bank won’t actually accept the money anyway.

    So, I no longer find myself to be under the terms of the contract. I no longer have to pay the money. This doesn’t mean I should ignore or forget the terms or the contract I was apart of. I can reflect on these things as often as I like (and perhaps it would be helpful for me to do so). But those fulfilled terms no longer obligate me to necessary ethical action based on those terms themselves.

    On the other hand, I may or may not owe something to Daddy Warbucks. But those terms are independent of the original GE Money Bank terms (which are fulfilled).

    As far as which covenants bind us and which are used for different functions (binding people of different times and natures), it may seem that I am taking things for granted, but that may just be from a cursory observation of how willing I am to see these two covenants as fulfilled.

    The Edenic covenant was made with Adam, as first man. Not with Eve. Not with Adam’s descendants. Adam fulfilled the Edenic covenant by completing its terms to negative consequence. Christ, also having first man status (and I suppose last man status simultaneously), also fulfilled the Edenic covenant, though positively. We, as children of Adam, could play no part in the Edenic covenant, save to watch and wait for the verdict. God’s reiteration of covenant terms (save for the dominion mandate) recalls the original covenant but gives man a task much easier to accomplish: continuing to populate the globe until the promised seed at last arrives to give Noah (and his) rest.

    The Mosaic covenant seems pretty clearly delineated as a covenant made with ethnic Israel (and its tagalongs) wholly with regard to the inheritance or the confiscation of the Canaan and blessing vs. cursing. The Mosaic covenant’s terms were finally fulfilled in 586 with Israel’s removal from the land that was no longer their inheritance. This and the terms of the covenant were all typological, pointing to the inadequacy of the Edenic covenant for Adam and to the nature of the promised seed as Other.

    Neither covenant then bears necessary power over our ethic any more than I am bound by the terms set between you and your credit company.

    The Danes last blog post..20081016.YearOfBooks

  7. Wow, Dane. Darby and Scofield would be proud.

    In my mind, this discussion highlights exactly why Smith’s criticism is so weak… there are a variety of interpretations that are still well within the lines of orthodoxy- hence Carson’s purpose was to speak to all those traditions, not just Westminster and friends.

    Ben Bartletts last blog post..The Bruce

  8. Yeah, I totally pick up all kinds of awesome labels. That’s definitely the second time I’ve gotten tagged Dispy (I’m surprised you remember the first time). A couple years back I also found out I was an Anabaptist. Oh, and there was the whole Antisemite episode too (simply because I’m amillennial).

    The Danes last blog post..20081016.YearOfBooks

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