Theology & Culture (6): Theology in Cultural Context

Now that we have recognized that culture is a God-given and brute fact of human existence, and have taken a look at a few historical case studies, we now must reckon with the fact that although the gospel does not belong exclusively to any one culture, it must always be understood, embodied, and spoken in the midst of cultural contexts. Oddly enough, some evangelicals think that contextualization is something that missionaries do, but not something that Americans have to worry about. Some evangelicals would even argue that contextualization is a very bad thing. But in reality, contextualization cannot be avoided. Every American, and in fact every Christian, is actively contextualizing the gospel (either well or poorly) every time they speak the gospel, embody the gospel, or participate in church life.

Every church contextualizes by the type of building and décor it chooses and the style of music that is played. Every preacher does the same by choosing, for example, a form of rhetoric, a way of relating to others, and a manner of clothing. As Greg Turner puts it in an upcoming book, “The question is not whether or not we are going to do it. The question facing every believer and every church is whether or not they will contextualize well. Anyone who fails to realize that they are doing it, and who fails to think it through carefully and Biblically, simply guarantees that they will probably contextualize poorly. Syncretism can happen as easily in Indiana or Iowa as it can in Indonesia!”* The question is not whether we will contextualize; the question is whether we do it appropriately or not.

For this reason, examples of appropriate contextualization pervade the biblical witness. The New Testament provides abundant examples of theology conceptualized and communicated contextually. The four gospel writers shaped their material for engaging particular communities of readers. Paul shaped his sermons and speeches according to each particular context. An examination of his sermons in Acts 13 (to a Jewish Diaspora), Acts 14 (to a crowd of rural animists), Acts 17 (to the cultural elite of the Areopagus), and his testimonies in Acts 22 (to a mob of Jewish patriots) and Acts 26 (to the elite of Syria-Palestine) reveal Paul’s deft ability to communicate the gospel faithfully, meaningfully, and dialogically in a variety of settings.

In light of the inevitability of contextualization, and the pervasive biblical examples of it, we want to preach the gospel, embody the gospel, and build God’s church in an appropriate manner. If we are to do so, we must do it faithfully, meaningfully, and dialogically.

Faithful Contextualization

In proclaiming and theologizing contextually, we must pay careful attention to our beliefs and practices, ensuring that we express and embody the gospel in cultural forms that are faithful to the Scriptures. In being faithful to the Scriptures, we seek to interpret the Scriptures accurately before proclaiming them within a cultural context. We push back against some scholars who view texts as vast oceans of indeterminate symbols that lack transcendent grounding, and against some missiologists argue that missionaries shouldn’t help their church plants theologize because all a missionary can do anyway is read his own cultural biases into a text. While we acknowledge that the reader does come to a text through finite and fallible interpretive frameworks, we nonetheless argue that faithful interpretation is possible.

In fact, God’s Trinitarian nature guarantees the possibility of faithful communication and interpretation, and is the paradigm of all message sending and receiving. The Triune God is Father (the One who speaks), Son (the Word), and Spirit (the One who illumines and guides and teaches); God the Father speaks through his Son, and we as humans are enabled to hear and understand that communication by his Spirit.

Meaningful Contextualization

Moreover, we must proclaim and embody the gospel in a way that is meaningful for the socio-cultural context. James McClendon writes, “If hearers were (minimally) to understand the gospel, if there was to be uptake, the preacher must understand the culture addressed.”** Indeed, we want the hearer to understand the words we speak and the actions we perform in the way that we intend, and we want them to be able to respond in a way that is meaningful in context. This type of proclamation takes hard work; learning a culture is more complex than learning a language because language is only one component of culture. Pastors and professors must work hard to teach their audiences not only how to read the Bible, but also how to read the culture.

Dialogical Contextualization

Finally, we must also allow the gospel to critique the culture in which it is embodied and proclaimed. There is an ever-present danger that Christian preachers, missionaries, and communities will equate the gospel with a cultural context, the consequence of which is devastating. In an attempt to communicate the gospel meaningfully within a culture, and in an attempt to affirm whatever in a culture can be affirmed, Christians may lose sight of the effects of depravity on that same culture. Therefore, we must remember that the gospel stands in judgment of all cultures, calling them to conform themselves to the image of Christ. The gospel does not condemn all of a culture, but it is always and at the same time both affirming and rejecting. If the gospel we preach does not have a prophetic edge, then we are not fully preaching the gospel.

Conclusion

The upshot of all of this is that we need to work hard to exegete both Scripture and culture. “In order to be competent proclaimers and performers of the gospel,” Vanhoozer writes, “Christians must learn to read the Bible and culture alike. Christians cannot afford to continue sleepwalking their way through contemporary culture, letting their lives, and especially their imaginations, become conformed to culturally devised myths, each of which promises more than it can deliver.”*** The Christian who ignores cultural context does so to his own detriment and to the detriment of those to whom he ministers.

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*Greg Turner is a pseudonym for a mission leader in Central Asia; this quote comes from an earlier blog on contextualization here at Between the Times. “Biblical Foundations and Guidelines for Contextualization (Pt. 1),” http://betweenthetimes.com/2008/08/28/guest-blog-by-central-asia-rl-biblical-foundations-and-guidelines-for-contextualization-pt-1/.

**James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Witness (Nashville: Abingdon, 2000), 40.

***Kevin Vanhoozer, “What is Everyday Theology?,” in Vanhoozer, Anderson, and Sleasman, eds., Everyday Theology (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2007), 35.

Theology & Culture (5): Case Studies (Augustine, Kuyper, Hubmaier, Lewis, Schaeffer, Neuhaus)

Upon arriving at Southeastern Seminary in 1996, I had little or no motivation to study church history and historical theology. I wanted to learn “the bottom line” on the major biblical and theological issues, and then get on with the business of sharing the gospel and defending the faith. My assumption was that I could learn the “bottom line” quickly, and ought do so through my personal Bible study and some books written by late 20th century evangelicals.

This assumption, however, was unhelpful. In relying exclusively on my personal Bible study and a handful of contemporary evangelical books, I was missing out on the instructive and inspiring stories of men and women of old, and the enduringly influential books that many of them wrote. I was naïve to think that I could not benefit from the theological and ministerial lessons to be learned from the universal church, lessons which can be learned by reading books written by Christians who lived in centuries past or by Christians who live “apart” from me geographically and culturally.

Since that time, I have grown to love and appreciate historical theology and global theology, and try to teach my courses in conversation with those theologians. In my recent Theology & Culture seminar, we discussed historical figures such as Balthasar Hubmaier, Augustine of Hippo, Abraham Kuyper, C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, and Richard John Neuhaus.

Augustine of Hippo

From Augustine’s City of God, we learned that the church needs to cultivate theologians who are able to speak with power and prescience to their socio-cultural contexts. On August 24, 410, the Alarics/Goths sacked Rome. The Roman intellectuals and common people scrambled to interpret this event, to make sense of it. Many of them concluded that the Roman gods were taking revenge because the Roman people had embraced Jesus Christ. Their argument was political, arguing that the Romans had abandoned their founding myth (Romulus and Remus, the Aeneid, etc.) in favor of the biblical narrative. It was also religious, arguing that the Romans had abandoned their gods in favor of Christ. Finally, it was philosophical, arguing that the Romans had departed from Platonism in favor of the Incarnation. On this backdrop, Augustine received a letter from Marcellinus, a Christian who walked in power circles in Rome, asking for help in answering the Roman narrative.

Augustine responded to Marcellinus with a 1,000 page letter. In his letter, the City of God, Augustine argued that the Roman intellectuals’ interpretation was wrong. He did so by arguing that Rome’s story was only one small story in the midst of a much larger narrative which is grounded in Christian Scripture. He argued that there are really two cities, the city of God and the city of man. Each city has a basic love-either God or idols. Each city is symbolized in the Bible by an earthly city-Jerusalem and Babylon. Each city has a telos-eternal life or eternal death. In making his argument, Augustine not only provided a powerful biblical theology, he also demonstrated that he knew the Romans’ literature, philosophy, politics, and history. He referenced their great authors with ease, quoted them favorably when possible, and showed how they fell short of Christian truth. He unmasked their political pretensions, showing that although Rome claimed to love justice, they really loved domination. He unmasked their religious pretensions, showing that their intellectuals didn’t really believe in the gods anyway. He unmasked their philosophical shortcomings, showing that Christianity outstrips Platonism.

His critique of Rome was theological, meaningful, dialogical, timely, fair, reasoned, evangelistic, and eminently learned. Our evangelical churches can learn from this; we ought to encourage our people, our pastors, and our professors to nurture in one another the desire to exegete culture as well as Scripture, to cultivate the head as well as the heart, to always be ready to give reason for the hope within and to do so in a cogent and persuasive manner as Augustine did.

Abraham Kuyper

Abraham Kuyper’s biography and his Lectures on Calvinism showed us a Christian who, like Augustine, not only critiqued culture but made culture. He was a pastor, a journalist, a newspaper founder, a professor, a university founder, a parliament member, and a Prime Minister. From these manifold and unique vantage points, Kuyper sought to work out the implications of the gospel.

Kuyper was known for several teachings that framed his views on theology and culture. The first is antithesis: he believed that there is a great battle between the kingdoms of God and the kingdom of men, and that the intellectual elite in modern society tend to encourage a swan-step conformity to a-theistic and secular ideals. The Christian community needs to resist this conformity. The second is sphere sovereignty: he believed that various spheres of human culture (arts, sciences, politics, religion, etc.) each function because of a God-given purpose, are independent of one another as spheres, but are never independent of God as Lord. Christians, therefore, ought to resist false sacred/secular dichotomies in favor of allowing the Christian worldview undergird our culture work in these spheres.

The third is the cultural mandate: Kuyper believed that God created humans as cultural beings who ought to do their culture work to God’s glory. The fourth is the significance of culture: as T. M. Moore describes Kuyper’s view, “Redeemed culture-culture used under the lordship of Christ-is most conducive to promoting the well-being of people and the glory of God, while sinful culture undermines human dignity and leads to social and moral degradation.”* It is incumbent upon the Christian community to put forth a sustained effort in cultural matters.

From Kuyper, we learn the church’s need for a comprehensive and sustained approach to its cultural context, which includes not only cultural exegesis but constructive cultural work. We learn that we should not rely exclusively or even primarily on political coercion, but rather work in a comprehensive manner to be salt and light in every sphere of culture.

Hubmaier, Lewis, Schaeffer, and Neuhaus

Because the blog format is limited, I will be concise to the extreme in mentioning that: (1) from Hubmaier, we learn the necessity of preaching the full gospel with its prophetic edge “against” our cultural context (though truly this is to be “for” our cultural context), even if we suffer greatly for doing so; (2) from Lewis, we learn the power of speaking and writing the gospel in an aesthetically attractive manner, and of doing so through many years of hard intellectual work; (3) from Schaeffer, we learn to do deep cultural exegesis, to proclaim the gospel in the context of love and community, and to do so with confidence that the Christian worldview is the only one that can make sense of the world empirically and existentially; and (4) from Neuhaus we learn ways in which the church can retain her Christian convictions while standing in the public square seeking to glorify God and promote the common good.

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*T. M. Moore, Culture Matters (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2007), 106.

Theology & Culture (4): A Theology of Culture (Redemption and New Creation)

[Note: The material in this installment is adapted from my forthcoming book, The Theology & Practice of Mission (B&H, Fall 2011).]

The Bible’s third plot movement occurs immediately after the Fall. God gives not only a promise of death (Gen 2:17), but also a promise of life (Gen 3:15). He immediately declares that one day the offspring of the woman would destroy the serpent. Paul recognizes this promise as a prophecy of Jesus Christ (Gal 3:16), God’s Son who is “born of a woman” (Gal 4:4). This declaration, therefore, is God’s promise to send the Messiah to whom the entirety of Scripture ultimately testifies as it declares how God, in spite of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, would fulfill his promise to send this Savior.

God affirms that by the Savior’s stripes man is healed, and upon the Savior’s shoulders the sin of the world was borne (Is 52:13-53:12). Further, the redemption he provides reaches into every square inch of God’s creation, including the non-human aspects of creation. This redemption of the created order is made clear in major Christological and soteriological passages such as Colossians 1:13-23 and Ephesians 1:1-14. In the Colossians text, we are told that Christ the creator of all things is also Christ the reconciler of all things; God will “by [Christ] reconcile all things to Himself, by Him” (Col 1:20). In the Ephesians passage, we are told that we have redemption through Christ’s blood, and that further, “in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth-in Him” (Eph 1:10). We know that Christ has not yet reconciled all things to himself because creation still groans in bondage (Rom 8:20-22).

For this reason, Scripture points us forward to a new heavens and earth in which God’s kingdom will be realized. At the beginning of the Scriptures, we learn that God created the heavens and the earth (Gen 1:1) while at the end we see him giving us a “new heavens and a new earth” (Isa 65:17; Rev 21:1). At the beginning we are told of a garden, but in the end we are told of a beautiful city that is cultural through and through, replete with precious metals and jewels and the treasures of the nations. Christ’s redemptive work extends through God’s people to God’s cosmos, so that in the end “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:21). This world will be one “in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet 3:13), thus fulfilling God’s good purposes for his world.

Therefore, the final two plot movements tell the story of God redeeming both his image bearers and his creation. Two cultural implications are important to notice. First, the doctrines of redemption and restoration are confluent with the doctrine of creation in affirming the goodness of God’s creation. God values his creation and in the end times he will not reject it. Instead he will restore it, renewing the heavens and earth so that they give him glory. Further, he promises to give us glorified bodies in that day (1 Cor 15:20-28, 50-58). While God could have promised man an eternity floating around in a bodiless state, in some sort of ethereal wonderland, instead he promises to give man a resurrected bodily existence in a restored universe that shines with the glory of God himself (Rev 21:1-4, 9-11). This promise is yet more reason to view God’s creation as good, and our faithful cultural interaction with it as something that pleases God.

Second, the doctrine of restoration is confluent with the doctrine of creation in its affirmation of the value of faithful culture work. Because God (in the beginning) values his good creation and commands man to produce culture, and because he promises (in the end) to give us a glorious creation replete with its own culture, we ought to live culturally in a manner consistent with God’s designs. “The difference between the Christian hope of resurrection and a mythological hope,” writes Bonhoeffer, “is that the Christian hope sends a man back to his life on earth in a wholly new way.”* This new way includes glorifying God from within our cultural contexts, providing a sign of the already-and-not-yet kingdom, of what the world will be like one day when all of creation and culture praises him. As we interact within various dimensions of culture-the arts, the sciences, education, public square, etc.-we are called to do so by bringing the gospel to bear upon those dimensions.

In our evangelism and church planting, we must recognize that the gospel is always proclaimed, the church is always planted, and the Christian life is always lived within a cultural context (through human language, oratory, music, categories of thought, etc.). Instead of chafing against this reality, we may delight in our charge to make the gospel at home in those cultures, and to allow the gospel to critique them and bring them under the scrutiny of God’s revelation. “We await the return of Jesus Christ,” writes D. A. Carson, “the arrival of the new heaven and the new earth, the dawning of the resurrection, the glory of perfection, the beauty of holiness. Until that day, we are a people in tension. On the one hand, we belong to the broader culture in which we find ourselves; on the other, we belong to the culture of the consummated kingdom of God, which has dawned upon us.”** God restores his creation instead of trashing it and expects us to minister within our cultural context rather than attempting to extract ourselves from it.

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*Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers, 336-7.

**D. A. Carson, Christ & Culture Revisited, 64.