New Zealand ended the day at 282 for six after an 86-run partnership between McCullum and Ross Taylor had lifted them out of a middle-order hole.
After winning the toss and electing to bat, New Zealand never fully exploited a wicket which offered the potential for a run-fest.
Recalled opener Jamie How top-scored with 92, easily surpassing his previous Test score of 37, but was unable to push on for a maiden Test century.
Ross Taylor, also on the comeback trail, was unbeaten on 54 at the close with Daniel Vettori on four.
However Stephen Fleming, the former New Zealand captain and now playing his final series before retirement, posted a commanding 41 before falling to an exceptional catch by Alastair Cook.
The left-hander had slashed at Ryan Sidebottom for Cook to take a one-handed catch diving to his right in the gully.
Opener Mathew Bell went for 19, also caught by Cook, Mathew Sinclair was caught and bowled by Paul Collingwood for eight and allrounder Jacob Oram was out for 10.
With Oram's dismissal, the third batsman caught by Cook, New Zealand were starting to founder at five for 191 and it was McCullum who turned the innings around.
The big-hitter who has been enjoying a golden season belting England into submission in the recent one-day series, was not prepared to slow down to suit the Test match atmosphere.
He raced to his half-century at a run-a-ball pace, with five fours and two sixes.
He brought up his 50 with a six and a four off Matthew Hoggard and Taylor drove the England medium pacer to the boundary for his 50 in the same over.
But McCullum only lasted two more deliveries before unnecessarily, although characteristically, slashing at a wide delivery from Sidebottom and being caught behind to give debutant gloveman Tim Ambrose his first Test dismissal.
Sidebottom, with two for 39 from 21 overs, was the pick of the England bowlers in which all took a wicket, while at the other end of the scale Matthew Hoggard finished the day with one for 95.
Monty Panesar claimed one for 66 after initially having the New Zealand batsmen under control until McCullum forced him off line with a destructive attack.
Panesar's performance on a wicket which started to show turn before the second new ball was taken would have heartened New Zealand who included offspinner Jeetan Patel in their playing line up to partner Vettori.
It is the first time in two years that New Zealand have used two spinners in a Test. Patel's inclusion was at the expense of seam bowlers Mark Gillespie and Grant Elliot.
England wicketkeeper Ambrose is the only debutant in the Test.
The first casualty of the match was England's Ian Bell, fielding at silly mid on, who was struck on the arm by a pull shot from his New Zealand namesake and taken to hospital.
It was initially feared Bell had fractured his wrist but x-rays revealed he had only suffered severe bruising.