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.


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.


*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),”

**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 (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.


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

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

Theology & Culture (2): Alternative Views

Over the course of my 36 year life, I’ve embraced several markedly different views of the relationship between Christianity and culture. In fact, I switched views more often than Madonna® and Prince® change public profiles. Early on, I was a cultural anorexic which soon gave way to a reaction that was something like cultural gluttony, which has now given way to what I hope is a view more resonant with the teaching of Christian Scripture.

The most influential mapping of historical models for understanding Christianity and culture is H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic Christ & Culture. The book is a minor theological classic, having influenced several generations of theologians with its five-fold typology. I’ll give a very brief description of his definition of culture and his typology, after which I will provide an alternative which differs from the five he mentions.

Niebuhr begins by marking out the notion of culture. He writes, “What we have in view when we deal with Christ and culture is that total process of human activity and that total result of such activity to which now the name culture, now the name civilization, is applied in common speech. Culture is the ‘artificial, secondary environment’ which man superimposes on the natural. It comprises language, habits, ideas, beliefs, customs, social organization, inherited artifacts, technical processes, and values. This ‘social heritage,’ this ‘reality sui generis,’ which the New Testament writers frequently had in mind when they spoke of ‘the world,’ which is represented in many forms but to which Christians like other men are inevitably subject, is what we mean when we speak of culture.“*

After having defined culture he proceeds to list five ways of viewing the relationship between Christ and culture. First, he writes of the Christ against Culture model (he lists Tertullian, the Anabaptists, Tolstoy, etc., as historical proponents of this model), in which Christians are “against” culture or attempt to withdraw from the surrounding culture. Second, he describes the Christ of Culture model (Gnostics, Abelard, Locke, Schleiermacher, etc.), in which the proponents are very much at home in their cultural context, even to the point of compromising Christian essentials.

The next three models fall broadly under the rubric of “Christ above Culture,” but he keeps them in separate categories. The third model is Christ above Culture (Clement of Alexandria, Thomas Aquinas, etc.), which Niebuhr describes as an attempt to synthesize Christianity and culture into a neat system. The fourth model is Christ and Culture in Paradox (Marcion, Augustine, Luther, Kierkegaard, etc.), a dualist position which recognizes the corrupt nature of human culture and pronounces it to be godless, but realizes that we cannot remove ourselves from it. The fifth model is Christ the Transformer of Culture (Augustine, Calvin, Wesley, etc.), which is similar to the previous two positions but differs in that they have a more positive view toward culture, seeking to transform it rather than reject it, assimilate to it, or hold it in tension.

Niebuhr’s typology has been helpful in stimulating Christian thinking on this topic and providing some categories of discussion over the years. However, its helpfulness is limited by many factors, several of which are: (1) as Craig Carter** has pointed out, Niebuhr’s “Christ” is mystical and eternal to the extent that he is hardly incarnate; (2) as Kuyper and others would point out, he has a severely deficient view of creation and its relation to culture; (3) Niebuhr has a weak view of the church, which kept him from seeing the robust manner in which God’s redeemed community can bear witness to him on this earth; (4) Niebuhr failed to take into account that Christians probably should deal with culture in different manners depending upon our cultural contexts. It is difficult to imagine Abraham Kuyper or Richard John Neuhaus doing what they did if they lived in Tora Bora or Baghdad; and (5) as D. A. Carson*** points out, Niebuhr’s account of culture is insufficiently Christological.

If I were forced to pick one of Niebuhr’s models, I would probably choose the fifth option. But as I am not forced to do so, I will make up my own category (although it is not stated in nearly as snappy a manner as Niebuhr’s). For the purposes of this blog series, I will not talk about Christ in relation to culture, but Christians in relation to culture. As I see it, we as Christians should live faithfully, critically, and redemptively in the midst of the cultural contexts in which we find ourselves. Our Christian communities should live in such a way as to be a foretaste of the fully realized Kingdom, a foreshadowing of our life together on a New Heavens and Earth (which itself will be a very cultural existence, replete with a city, beautiful art, embodied souls, etc.).

Does Scripture bear out such a view? Further, what would it mean to live faithfully, critically, and redemptively in relation to a cultural context? In the next installment, I will try to make a brief biblical case for the view I just articulated, and in the remaining installments, I will try to give a glimpse of what it might look like to live in such a manner.


*H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ & Culture (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1951), 32.

** Craig Carter, Rethinking Christ and Culture: A Post-Christendom Perspective (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006), 64-66.

***D. A. Carson, Christ & Culture Revisited (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), online mobile rpg