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.

Aspect 6(a): A Mission Centered on the Gospel (factionalism, non-fellowship, theological triage, liberalism, fundamentalism, Calvinism, contextualization)

(By: Danny Akin & Bruce Ashford)

Paul warns the Corinthians about the danger of factional battles in the church. In our opinion, this also applies to seminary communities, agencies and institutions, and indeed to the whole of our convention. Sometimes, the battles we fight are necessary and we wage them in an appropriate manner. But sometimes the battles are unnecessary and/or they are waged inappropriately. Often, unnecessary battles are waged because a group of people are excited about a particular idea, movement, or tradition. They begin to condescend or castigate, and seek to exclude, anybody who doesn’t share their ideas, emphasis, jargon, or agenda. The idea, movement, or tradition becomes a virtual test of orthodoxy.[1]

Perhaps no person, church, network, or denomination is exempt from such a temptation, and Baptists are no exception. Sometimes we wage unnecessary wars and sometimes this stems from a doctrine of “separation” (sometimes known as the doctrine of non-fellowship). This doctrine is based upon such passages of Scripture as Amos 3:3: “Can two walk together except they be agreed?” For some, this doctrine means merely that we should separate ourselves from worldliness. For others, it means that we should separate ourselves from those who do not separate themselves from worldliness. Still others, however, would disallow fellowship (and sometimes friendship) with those who differ from them in any matter of theology (e.g. the particulars of one’s position on the rapture), physical life (e.g. preference in apparel or music), or social life (e.g. one’s friendship with a controversial person or preacher). The result is a flattening of all theological and practical categories as if they are of equal weight and importance. For a time, I (Bruce Ashford) walked in Independent Baptist circles where such “third degree separation” is practiced. Although I admire many of these men and am thankful for what I have learned from them, this doctrine is one of the primary reasons I left those circles.

Within the Southern Baptist Convention, there have been more than a few controversies since the Conservative Resurgence. There have been public disagreements over worship styles, contextualization, Calvinism, apparel, spiritual gifts, etc. These disagreements have sometimes become major battles. One thing that is needed is a way of determining which issues are worth fighting over and which are not, as well as how certain disagreements affect our ability to cooperate with one another at various levels.

Al Mohler has proposed that the hospital emergency room provides an apt analogy for how we might make such determinations.[2] We have applauded this model on numerous occasions. Those who are reading this blog might have had opportunity to see the goings-on of the “triage” unit of an emergency room. In triage, the doctors and nurses determine the priority of the diseases and injuries that will be treated. Shotgun wounds are treated before ankle sprains, and seizures before bunions. This is because certain diseases and injuries strike at the heart of one’s well being, while others are less life-threatening.

Pastors, theologians and missionaries would benefit from the same sort of triage. When deciding with whom we will partner and in what way, and when deciding which battles need to be fought and in what way, it is helpful to distinguish which doctrines are more primary and which are less so. Primary doctrines are those which are most essential to Christian faith. Without believing such doctrines as the Trinity, the Incarnation, and salvation by grace through faith alone, one’s belief is not Christian.

Secondary doctrines are those over which born-again believers may often disagree, but which do not strike as closely at the heart of the faith. Two examples are the meaning and mode of baptism, and gender roles in the church. Disagreement on these doctrines does significantly affect the way in which churches and believers relate to one another. For example, although Presbyterians and Baptists may evangelize together and form close friendships, a Baptist and a Presbyterian could not plant a church together precisely because of their differences on church government and on the meaning and mode of baptism. Some secondary doctrines bear more heavily on primary doctrines than others.

Apart from primary and secondary doctrines, there are those which we can call tertiary. These are doctrines over which Christians may disagree and yet keep the closest of fellowship between networks, between churches, and between individual Christians. An example of a tertiary doctrine would be the timing of the rapture during the period of tribulation.

This does not mean that we avoid controversy at all costs. As one theologian (in his better days) pointed out, lack of controversy is either a sign of theological death or theological maturity.[3] We hope to avoid the former and strive for the latter. Nor does this mean that we view secondary or tertiary doctrines as insignificant. “A structure of theological triage,” Mohler writes, “does not imply that Christians may take any biblical truth with less than full seriousness. We are charged to embrace and to teach the comprehensive truthfulness of the Christian faith as revealed in the Holy Scriptures. There are no insignificant doctrines revealed in the Bible, but there is an essential foundation of truth that undergirds the entire system of biblical truth.”[4] It does, however, mean that we can have close fellowship with those who differ from us on tertiary issues but decreasing levels of fellowship when we disagree on secondary issues. The upshot of this whole discussion is that we must avoid the liberal extreme of refusing to admit that there are such things as primary doctrines, as well as the fundamentalist extreme of elevating tertiary issues to the status of primary importance.


[1] We owe this point to John Frame. See his booklet published by Reformed Theological Seminary: Studying Theology as a Servant of Jesus, p.18.

[2] See R. Albert Mohler Jr., “Has Theology a Future in the Southern Baptist Convention? Toward a Renewed Theological Framework,” in Beyond the Impasse? Ed. Robison B. James and David S. Dockery (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1992), 91-117, and R. Albert Mohler Jr., “The Pastor as Theologian,” in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H, 2007), 930-32.

[3] Clark Pinnock, “A New Reformation: A Challenge to Southern Baptists,” (New Orleans: NOBTS, 1968), 3.

[4] Mohler, “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity,” http://www.albertmohler.com/commentary_read.php?cdate=2004-05-20.

Aspect 4(b): A Mission Focused on This Nation (Multi-Faceted, All-Encompassing, Church-Centered)

(By: Danny Akin & Bruce Ashford)

Our mission must be multi-faceted:

In addition to proclaiming the gospel from inside of the four walls of a church building and in addition to community outreach programs and door-to-door visitations, we must continually remind ourselves and our congregations that everything we do matters to God. Drawing upon Martin Luther’s concept of vocatio, we must teach that every believer has the privilege and responsibility of bringing glory to God in each of his callings: family, church, workplace, and community. The workplace, in particular, is an oft-neglected calling in which we are given an almost unparalleled opportunity to bring God glory and to love one’s neighbor.[1]

Further, God has given us the ability and responsibility to work out our faith in the various spheres of culture, including especially the arts (e.g. literature, music, movies, visual art), the sciences (e.g. biology, physics, chemistry, sociology, anthropology, psychology) and the public square (e.g. law, politics, economics, journalism, moral philosophy). For the gospel-minded Chrsitian, there is no room for indifference or hostility towards these aspects of human culture. We are not given the option of abdicating our responsibility to glorify God across every square inch of his good creation.[2] Instead, we are called to engage the culture arising from the society in which we live and minister, critiquing and developing it according to God’s word. In so doing, we sow the seed of the gospel throughout every dimension of our cultural context, providing a sign of God’s Kingdom.

Our mission must be all-encompassing

Not only is our task cross-cultural and multi-dimensional, but it also stretches across the geographic and demographic spectrum. We must reach both the small towns and the great cities of the United States. While evangelicals and Baptists have been fairly successful in the South, we have been less successful in the great cities of the northeast and the west. We recognize the strategic nature of urban involvement and seek to heighten Southern Baptist involvement in the largest, least churched, and most influential American cities. Urban centers such as New York, Washington, D. C., Boston, and Los Angeles are the nerve centers of North American socio-cultural activity, having massive influence on our continent and across the globe, and yet they are among the least churched cities in America.

We must reach both the down-and-out and the cultural elite. Southern Baptist churches have been fairly effective at reaching the upper and lower middle classes in the Bible Belt, but often we have not reached the cultural elite or the poor and disenfranchised. In reaching those who are “down and out,” we must be prepared to build churches that intentionally minister in the inner cities, are willing to embrace those with HIV, and are happy to include those who may never be able financially to contribute in a significant way to the church. When we minister to these men and women, we recognize that they are God’s image-bearers and deserve our love and attention every bit as much as anyone else.[3] In reaching those who are the cultural elite, we must intentionally reach out to artists, scientists, philosophers, moral and political movers, and others. In so doing, we are “swimming upstream,” ministering to those who in turn might have the most ability to influence our society and culture for the sake of the gospel.

We must build churches that do serious-minded student ministry, both for youth and college students. It will be a good day indeed when an increasing number of our churches’ student ministries are known more for sound doctrine and genuine cultural savvy than they are for cutesy Bible studies and superficial cultural gimmickry.[4] Moreover, we pray that the day comes when more of us seek, consciously and consistently, to win our nation’s college campuses to Christ. In the classrooms of our American universities sit the students who are the future of our nation and in many cases the future of our churches, as well as international students who are the future of their nations and of their nation’s churches. We must make student ministry a priority in our churches, even during those times when it seems not to bear spiritual fruit and even during those times when it does not make sense financially.

Our mission must center on church renewal, church planting, and cooperation:

Our mission will not succeed without healthy churches. This requires, first and foremost, an emphasis on church renewal. We must always be renewing and reforming. This is the only way to ensure that our churches are sound in their doctrine, consistent in their evangelism, intentional in crossing cultural and linguistic boundaries, and contextual in their cultural forms. It is only from the wombs of healthy churches that we might see a church planting movement that is capable of reaching our own country. It is only healthy churches who will faithfully and meaningfully proclaim the gospel of our Lord and build churches across cultures and sub-cultures, languages and races, vocations and dimensions of culture, cities and suburbs, rich and poor, young and old.[5]

Second, our mission requires aggressive and intentional cooperation in church planting. The churches we plant must be sound in their doctrinal orientation, contextual in their cultural forms, and aggressive in their evangelistic and mission orientation. In order to make this work, we need renewed commitment from our churches, local associations, and state conventions. For local associations, this is an opportunity to demonstrate that their existence matters. In days gone by, local associations provided local churches with mission resources and advice that are now being provided by other institutions, networks, and people. For some state conventions, this provides an opportunity to return to their roots and stem the tide of churches that are bypassing these conventions, refusing to give money to what they consider to be inefficient bureaucracies.[6]

Third, our mission will not fare well if it is not cooperative. This includes local church cooperation with other churches, local associations, state conventions, seminaries, and agencies. The daunting nature of our task demands that if any of the above associations is unwilling to fulfill their missional calling, then healthy churches will seek other ways to cooperate in order to fulfill the calling God has given them. It is the hope and prayer of the churches of our convention that the associations, conventions, seminaries, and agencies that we now have will prove to be sufficiently willing and able to take on this God-given calling.[7]


[1] The best brief introduction to Luther’s treatment of calling is Gene Veith, God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life (Wheaton: Crossway, 2002).

[2] Among the most helpful books treating Christianity and culture are D. A. Carson, Christ & Culture Revisited (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), Michael S. Horton, Where in the World is the Church? (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2002) and T. M. Moore, Culture Matters (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2007). Carson’s text is a meta-level theological treatise on the Christian’s place in culture, while Horton’s text is a popular level, practical treatment of the church’s role in its cultural context. Moore’s monograph is a concise, intermediate level manifesto for Christian cultural engagement. David Dockery’s treatment of Christian Higher Education exemplifies the outworking of our faith across the various dimensions of culture. David Dockery, Renewing Minds: Serving Church and Society through Christian Higher Education (Nashville: B&H, 2008).

[3] In the gospels, we learn that the most “religious” people, the Pharisees, were able only to attract people just like them. They circled the world in order to find one convert. But Jesus attracted all kinds of people: tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, etc. Jesus, not the Pharisees, must be our model.

[4] This is not to degrade the solid student ministries in many of our churches. There is a revival of interest, in our churches, for theologically sound and culturally savvy student ministry.

[5] Many resources are available to help pastors and their congregation work toward church health, of which we mention the following three. First, IX Marks ministries offers a website, a journal, and more than a few books on the topic of church health: http://blog.9marks.org/. Second, Thom Rainer has authored more than a few books dealing with church health and growth. Thom S. Rainer, The Book of Church Growth (Nashville: B&H, 1993); Thom S. Rainer and Eric Geiger, Simple Church (Nashville: B&H, 2006); Thom S. Rainer and Daniel L. Akin, Vibrant Church (Lifeway, 2008). Third, Ed Stetzer and Mike Dodson’s recently published Comeback Churches, a study of 300 revitalized churches. Stetzer and Dodson, Comeback Churches (Nashville: B&H, 2007).

[6] Daniel Akin, “Axioms for a Great Commission Resurgence,” 16-18. Manuscript of sermon preached April 16, 2009, Binkley Chapel, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Manuscript available at http://apps.sebts.edu/president/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/acts-1-4-8-axioms-for-a-great-commission-resurgence-tt2.pdf.

[7] If the associations and state conventions prove unwilling or unable to invest their resources in church planting and renewal, many of our best churches will bypass those associations and conventions and form informal partnerships of their own. We do not wish to see this happen.online for mobile