Review: “Christ & Culture Revisited” by D. A. Carson

Christ_Culture_Revisited_DA_CarsonI went to seminary at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and had a number of classes under D. A. Carson. He is one of the most thorough New Testament scholars in the world today. However, this does not necessarily mean that he is an expert on whatever he applies his word processor to doing. In his book, Christ & Culture Revisited (Eerdmans: 2008, now in paperback: 2012) he seeks to contribute to the conversation about culture by having us re-think Niebuhr’s categories through the lens of biblical theology.

Remember, H Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture assigned five paradigms to how Christians see Christ interacting with Culture: (1) Christ against Culture, (2) Christ of Culture, and (3) Christ above Culture (which includes the two subsets: (4) Christ and Culture in Paradox and (5) Christ the Transformer of Culture).

However sincere Carson is at the task, he makes serious mistakes in this book.

Carson first seeks to define “culture.” He defines culture by quoting Robert Redfield (“the shared understandings made manifest in act and artifact”) and Clifford Geertz (“an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic form by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes towards life”). Therefore, Carson starts out the book defining “Culture” as both conceptual ideas and human artifacts. However, most of the book treats culture as simply conceptual ideas (he spends an inordinate amount of space on “church and state,” as if that is the primary form of human culture) and he very rarely talks about the things that human beings actually do to create culture.

The major problem of Carson’s book is that he failed to do exactly what he said he intended to do.

He says that the only way to properly understand the relationship of Christ with Culture is to have a thorough understanding of all the “turning points in the biblical history of redemption.” He writes, “The omission or dilution of one or more of them easily generates a truncated or distorted vision of Christianity, and therefore of the relations between Christ and culture. Indeed, much of the rest of this book can be read as a meditation on how a robust biblical theology tends to safeguard Christians against such egregious reductionisms.” (p. 82)

However, in his chapter in which he seeks to trace the turning points in the biblical history of redemption, “Creation” is quickly married to “Fall.” Carson’s understanding of Creation spotlights on human beings and their duty to delight in God—serving him, trusting him, and obeying him. In one (just one!) paragraph, Carson says that humans are embodied beings that are made in God’s image. But with only one paragraph of space given to this topic, Carson basically reduces our embodiment and image-bearing to being made “to know and love and enjoy God,” with “responsibilities of governance and care.” With that, Carson moves quickly to the fact that we are a “fallen race,” which he defines as human beings “de-godding God,” or idolatry.

The astonishing exclusion of the Cultural Mandate and a robust definition of the imago Dei as humans created to reflect God by making culture is a fatal flaw of this book.

How can a Christian theologian write about culture without a thorough discussion of Genesis 1:26-28, 2:5, and 2:15, the most important texts that biblically root the cultural call upon the human race? If Carson thinks he is providing a “meditation on how a robust biblical theology tends to safeguard Christians against such egregious reductionisms,” he fails right out of the chute: With the first and foremost moment in the history of redemption!

And his insistence on defining the Fall as simply the sin of human idolatry factors out the impact of the Fall on systems, structures, and institutions. Carson’s “history of redemption” is actually a truncated “history of the salvation of human beings.” It’s fascinating that a biblical scholar that warns against truncating the gospel does just that: truncating the gospel to just the salvation of humans. In Carson’s view, there is no robust understanding of a cosmic redemption of all things. To Carson, the shedding of Christ’s blood is only for the atonement of people.

The great New Testament scholar D.A. Carson seems to miss a crucial New Testament teaching: “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him (Jesus), and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Colossians 1:19-20)

How can Carson dismiss the cosmic redemption of “all things?”

Also, Carson speaks primarily about “church” as an institution that has, as its primary purpose, the ministry of proclamation of the Word of God and the ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, all of which revolves around the primary mandate of evangelism. According to Carson, the Great Commission is what the church does, period. Therefore, what Carson ends up doing is relegating cultural influence to what some Christians can engage in on the side – important, yes, but not as important as what the church as an institution does.

Carson’s chapter on Postmodernism is also extremely weak. He shows little understanding of postmodern philosophy. He takes on James K. A. Smith, and in doing so, shows that he should stick with biblical exegesis and theology. Another glaring shortcoming is how male-centric the book is. Nowhere does he deal with how women are affected by culture. In his preface, Carson thanks a number of Reformed pastors for their suggestions (including Mark Dever and Tim Keller). Not one of his interlocutors who read the book’s manuscript is a woman (I was hopeful that “Sandy Wilson” might be a woman, but he’s a Presbyterian pastor in Memphis).

Like I said, I studied under D. A. Carson at Trinity. He was perhaps the most respected of all the incredible scholars that were on the faculty there. But looking back, I realize now that his truncated gospel and narrow understanding of redemption had a negative influence on my biblical understanding of what God’s mission in the world actually is.

I’m amazed that I could graduate with honors from Trinity, a world-class seminary, but never seriously wrestle with the theological implications of God’s cosmic plan for the redemption of his creation.


JR Rozko said...

Good and helpful diagnoses here Bob. Carson is on about a larger project and operating out of a particular theological paradigm that each, in their own way, mitigate against what we might hope for in a volume like this. Thanks for the review.

Bob Robinson said...

JR- What do you see as Carson's "larger project?"

Chris Bryant said...


It seems like from your review that Carson is in the Radical 2 Kingdom camp. Based on your reading of this book, would that be a fair assesment?

Bob Robinson said...

Chris (and I like your avatar picture - you look vaguely familiar!),

I think Carson leans more toward two-kingdom theology than leaning toward Kuyperian theology. But I don't think he's in the more radical Two-Kingdom camp. For instance, Carson does not make a huge distinction between laity and church officers. He advocates the laity to be active in evangelism and cultural engagement. He never discourages Christians to work for positive change in their communities as two-kingdom folk do - he does not totally negate "Christ Transforming Culture" paradigm.