Christians have understood that their God-given ministry is to announce the good news of the Kingdom of God amongst all the people of the world to enable them respond to God's gracious act of forgiveness through Christ's death on the Cross. Since the apostle Paul first proclaimed this good news amongst the Gentiles the church has grappled with the task of communicating the gospel in a culturally communicative way and establishing culturally relevant Christian communities. The sharing of this good news in different cultures raised tensions in the church concerning which cultural practices were appropriate for Christians and which were not. Consequently, the Jerusalem Council (in Acts 15) was convened to consider the legitimacy of gentiles being Christian without observing the time honoured Jewish regulations. The Council, in relation to the immediate context determined that gentiles were not obligated to observe the Jewish regulations. The broader implication was that gentiles did not need to become culturally Jews to be Christian. The obvious corollary must also be true: Jews did not need to become culturally gentiles to be Christian. The resolution also implied, at a higher level of generalization, no one need change their culture, class, caste, or adopt a generational shift in their own culture to be Christian. Implicit in the decision of the Council is the understanding that the gospel is not integrally connected to any specific culture; although it is expressed in cultural forms.
When people claim that a particular culture is Christian there is an implicit assumption that God blesses that culture (our!) and the values of the society is confused with that of the Kingdom of God. When that happens, people assume that God endorses their culture or nation. The belief that one's own nation is uniquely blessed by God and appointed to be peacemakers in the world is not far from idolatrous allegiance to nation.
The question of the relationship between the gospel and human cultures has been a missiological issue for global mission. Within a monocultural context the question would hardly arise. Where Christians assume that the gospel is closely identified with a particular culture (usually that of their own) then there is no need to make the gospel culturally relevant in another culture. All one needs to do is transmit or reproduce all the familiar forms of Christianity of one’s own culture. This was the practice of the Catholic Church in using Roman liturgy, in many cases, wherever the church was planted. This practice was rejected by the Protestants at the Reformation but, despite that, the theology and practice of the Reformers also became unchangeable (culturally bound). Out of the Reformation, Martin Luther developed a theology and subsequently the Lutheran Church regarded his theology as normative for all times and cultures. John Calvin later recorded his matured thinking in his Institutes of the Christian Religion then the later Reformed leaders ‘set it in concrete’. Each would consider that their theology was the correct representation of the Scriptures without recognising the influence of personal and cultural factors in their theologising. As William Larkin has stated:
The hermeneutics of the Reformation … developed in a monocultural situation where the role of the interpreter’s culture was never taken into account in the process of interpretation.
The almost integral identification of gospel with western culture was the notion of Protestant missions throughout much of the western Colonial era such that to be Christian was to be western culturally. When people of other cultures adopted the western Christian forms it could be assumed that they were Christian. However, when surface level cultural forms are adopted without a conversion at the deep level of worldview then faith had not taken root in people’s lives.
We are now more aware that we are all immersed in a particular culture and that has influenced the way we see the world and the way we relate to it. Our culture affects everything we do and think. It follows, then, that it must affect our perceptions of the Bible and the way we form, understand and express our beliefs. No one comes to the biblical text without a pre-existing frame of reference and a set of assumptions. Between the Scriptures and our understanding is a hermeneutical process that is influenced by our worldview assumptions, personal experience and preferences, finiteness and sinfulness.
At the heart of communicating the gospel message in each cultural contexts is the question of the relationship between the gospel and culture. How does culture and Scripture interact in the process of theologising and how does this affect the church's mission to the world?The interaction between gospel and culture
The gospel of the Kingdom is revelatory, it is supracultural; it is not of human origin and not culturally bound or the product of a particular culture, yet to be communicable it is always embodied or incarnated in cultural forms. Just as Christ became fully human without abandoning his deity so also the gospel is God's revelation communicated in human cultures without betraying its divine character or origin.
While all human cultures have been developed by people under the creative initiative of God they are also marred by the sinfulness of human nature and are subject to demonic influence. Therefore, while the gospel is expressed in various cultural forms, it can never be closely identified with any culture and is also alien to all human cultures. It is evaluative of every culture, affirming some aspects and judging the evil structures that bind and tyrannise people. Hiebert points out that if the gospel does not perform this prophetic function in every society it is in danger of becoming aligned with beliefs and cultural values that distort the message.
Whenever the gospel is too closely linked to a given culture then it has been compromised by association and the outcome is syncretistic. No culture may be absolutised as the only adequate and privileged vehicle for the transmission of the Christian faith. While all cultures have their limitations they can all be adequate for the communication of the gospel and the Spirit may be at work in them preparing people to understand and receive the good news of Jesus Christ.An overview of three types of relationships in history
Four types of relationship between gospel and culture can been identified in the history of the church’s cross-cultural mission. These are replication, indigenisation, reactionary-replication and contextualisation.Replication
Replication refers to the reproduction of the culturally bound gospel of the missionaries’ home culture/church, ‘reproduced after its own kind’. This was the dominant model during the western colonial era.
During the colonial era, it was assumed that there was a Christian culture (Christendom) and that that culture was western. During this era, to be Christian meant one had to be western culturally so the task of mission was to westernise people or, at least, the people of other cultures were expected to become western in order to become Christian. There were Christian movements that did not follow the replication model but they were generally regarded as heterodox.
This practice has resulted in some unfortunate confusion over the requirements of the gospel. For example, one of the continuing challenges for Australian Aboriginal churches is how to manage the western structure of the church they have inherited from western missionaries; a social structure they are unfamiliar with. Some African pastors have considered that they must wear suits and ties. Some churches in Nigeria insist on using the Authorised Version of the Bible because that was the authentic message. Many Asian and African churches have sung western hymns or translations of these hymns.
This replication model continues to be applied by foreign short term mission trippers even though they may apply some superficial understanding of the receptor culture in an attempt at identification. It is also practiced by some fundamentalist Christian missionaries who believe that their expression of the gospel is the biblical one (a naïve realist perspective).
Another contemporary form of this type, a form of neo-colonialism, is the global marketing of modern western Christian music with its intrinsic cultural values expressed in the lyrics. Even within our culture the previous generation regard that their way of expressing their worship is the right one and modern methods are profane.Indigenisation
By the mid 19th century, it was noticed that the cross-culturally planted churches were dependent on the West and there had been significant failures as a result of replication of Western models of the church. A critique of the methods led to the indigenous church model. This approach, advocated by Henry Venn and Rufus Anderson, was a marked improvement. The indigenous church concept was expressed in the ‘three-self’ formula. A church was considered to be indigenous when it was self-supporting, self-governing and self-propagating. “Its most glaring weakness became evident… when churches attained the three-self goal yet persisted as foreign institutions.” However, it became apparent that the consequent church was not indigenous. It also needed to be self-theologising and culturally self-designed.
The shape of the church - its theology, its polity, its discipline, its style of leadership, its liturgy and music, its architecture - could be taken for granted, since it would be a reproduction of the model of the sending church in some Western country.
It became apparent that when the three selfs were achieved a church could still be very foreign. This approach attempted to find a ‘functional equivalent’ of the western Christian cultural church so western Christianity continued to be the norm by which others were judged. From this perspective it was still a form or replication. However, the indigenous culture was also incorporated. The culture that was drawn on was often traditional culture or, at least, an anachronistic culture. This indigenous church approach tended to be static. Influenced by functional theory of anthropology indigeneity was a process of going back in time to the traditional culture. It was the foreign missionaries who promoted this approach “with sentimental interest in exotic cultures.” From this perspective indigeniety was, in part, a replication of a static, past indigenous culture.Reactionary replication
Since the end of western colonialism there has been a western sense of guilt concerning the imposition of western values and culture on non-western cultures. Within the western church there is an awareness of the significance influence of western culture on Christianity and, for some, Christianity is seen as a social construct of western society. In these cases there is a rejection of the western cultural influence and the reformulating of Christianity in other culture contexts. The problems of a close and uncritical association with culture is repeated in a non-western culture, which potentially leads to new forms of syncretism.
The Commission of World Mission and Evangelism of the World Council of Churches (WCC) met in Salvador in 1996 to consider the relationship between gospel and culture. The theme was, “Called to One Hope: The Gospel in Diverse Cultures”. This Assembly explored the way in which culture influences our understanding of the gospel, how the gospel critiques culture and the relationship between culture and evangelism.
The Assembly determined that the gospel illuminates culture and culture illuminates the gospel. This understanding has led to the acceptance of what was one time seen as pagan cultural elements but now as authentic spirituality of the people. Clearly the time has come to reject the concept that to be Christian is to be western but the WCC emphasis has been on adapting the gospel to non-western cultures with no expectation that pre-Christian beliefs and practices would necessarily be rejected.Syncretism
We cannot understand and evaluate the relationship between gospel and culture without understanding the related topic of syncretism.
Syncretism is … the conscious or unconscious reshaping of Christian plausibility structures, beliefs, and practices through cultural accommodation so that they reflect those of the dominant culture.
The term is commonly used as a pejorative because what is regarded as syncretistic is often defined from the perspective of the group that consider themselves to be orthodox. Syncretism is the outcome of an adaptation process that goes too far in accommodating culture and so compromising the gospel. In that case, possibly all cultural expressions of Christian faith are in some way syncretistic.
Based on these considerations replication is the inevitable outcome of syncretism in the source culture and it is an ever-present risk if the gospel is made relevant to any people in their cultural context.
The following are some contexts in which syncretism may be inevitable even if unintended.
- If the cross-cultural messenger considers that he or she is the bearer of the good news and clings to the cultural boundedness of their message then it will be a syncretistic one.
- Some Christians claim that we should be just getting on with the proclamation of the gospel with consideration of how the gospel can be expressed in another culture. Such a view is naïve. They assume that their understanding of the gospel is the gospel. It ignores the reality that the gospel communicated will be expressed in the cultural categories of the communicator.
- Whenever cultural is accorded a greater value than the Bible in the contextualising process syncretism is a likely outcome.
From an evangelical perspective, the concept and practice of contextualisation arises from the understanding that the gospel is not a social construct of any human culture but must, and always is, expressed in particular cultural forms yet not identified with any culture.
The term ‘contextualisation’ was introduced in 1971 by the Theological Education Fund (TEF) from a sense of inadequacy of the term indigenisation. Contextualisation was defined as “the capacity to respond meaningfully to the Gospel within the framework of one’s own situation.”
The TEF document explains that:
Indigenization tends to be used in the sense of responding to the Gospel in terms of traditional culture. Contextualization, while not ignoring this, takes into account secularity, technology, and the struggle for human justice that characterise the historical moment of nations in the Third World.
In this case priority in theologising is given to the contemporary context. There is no mention of the place of the Bible in the process. This is consistent with the Louvain conference of Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches (WCC), in 1971, where the Scriptures were not seen as the unique and final authority for Christian life and ministry. The present human context is the starting point for interpreting the Scriptures and may be the primary source for theologising. The outcome of the WCC understanding is a gospel that is too easily adapted to any culture and so becomes closely identified with that culture (reactionary replication).
Evangelicals have generally accepted the term, but they mean something different to that meant by WCC. The gospel and culture must be taken seriously and not one subverting the other.
Contextualization is a process whereby Christians adapt the forms, content, and praxis of the Christian faith so as to communicate it to the minds and hearts of people within [their] culture background. The goal is to make the Christian faith as a whole – not only the message but also the means of living out our faith in the local setting – understandable.
Contextualization is a process whereby the gospel message encounters a particular culture, calling forth faith and leading to the formation of a faith community, which is culturally authentic and authentically Christian.
Contextualisation is applied to theology and also applies to everything that is a cultural expression of Christian faith. It includes social organisation, social structures, worship styles, communication modes, learning styles, logic, leadership styles and training processes
Such is the relationship between gospel and culture that no one can claim to simply communicate the gospel to other people without considering the cultural factors. Contextualising the gospel may lead to syncretism but the risk must be taken because not to do so will inevitably lead to syncretism when a foreign culturally formed gospel is communicated.
Is there a biblical justification for contextualisation or is it a notion that seeks support in the Scriptures? And how can we enable the gospel to be understood in various cultures without intentionally changing the message? These topics will be considered in this chapter.An introduction to a biblical perspective
The very existence of the Bible is the God given mandate and example of contextualisation. God has taken the initiative to reveal himself and his truth to humans, in human terms, within human history and within a particular culture using concrete analogies and concepts drawn from human society. God disclosed his will through the varied cultural context of the people of Israel, as nomads, slaves, desert wanderers, a tribal federation, a kingdom then as exiles. The messages arose out of varied contexts. It is mostly a contextualised message, not presented in a cultural vacuum.Contextualisation in the Old Testament
The most striking support for contextualisation in the Old Testament is the manner in which God deliberately disclosed himself by using the widely known contractual concept ‘covenant’. The concept was adapted and changed. The covenants of God were different in form to those commonly used between nations. Each covenant with God’s people was different, adapted to the context of the historical situation and existential need.
Hosea incarnated the word of God in his personal life. Amos used priestly forms to mimic and attack the religious cult, used riddles and popular proverbs. In contrast to the false prophets Jeremiah’s warning of impending judgement was related to the context.Contextualisation in the New Testament
God communicates propositionally and through the stories of people’s lives and perfectly through the incarnation. Surely the incarnation, when the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us, is the ultimate contextualisation of the gospel.
Any consideration of New Testament contextualization could not exclude the examples of Paul contextualising the gospel as can be seen in a comparison with his message to Jews and God fearers at Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-4), to the pagan Greeks at Lystra (Acts 14:8-20) and at Athens (Acts 17:16-31). At Thessalonica, Paul referred to the Scriptures of the day and told the people about Jesus as the fulfilment of the Messianic promises. At Lystra, Paul made no appeal to the Scriptures at all. He applied a contextual message starting with the polytheistic frame of reference of his hearers. In Athens he referred to some pagan texts rather than his text (the Scriptures) and connected his message with an ancient awareness of an ‘unknown god’.
For Paul, the central truths were always present but the way they were presented varied for the particular situation but there is no suggestion of Paul compromising the message. Dean Gilliland concludes:
Paul’s call to the gentiles was a call to contextualise the gospel. It demands faithfulness to the central Word of truth and openness to the uniqueness of each situation.... We must know the Word, and we must know the culture. The hermeneutic of culture will guide us in appropriating the Word, while at the same time the irrevocable truth of the Word will judge and transform the culture.The necessity of contextualisation
Contextualisation assumes that what is ‘good news’ to people in one culture may be quite different to what is ’good news’ in another. “[T]o be good news it must address the specifics of each context” just as Jesus and Paul did. It particularly focuses on the need to develop a relevant biblical theology and appropriate cultural forms that addresses the spiritual issues in each context.
When we seek to communicate the gospel in another cultural context there may be a need to indentify our cultural influence upon that message and ‘decontextualise’ it. Since all theologies are context theologies it is inevitable that our theology will be bound by our cultural perspective. If we do not adapt theology to the new context we inevitably communicate our contextual theology.
Contextualisation is seen to be a dynamic concept. It recognises the validity of all cultures and that they are in a state of dynamic change. As cultures change and our understanding of the Bible develops the contextualisation continues; it is never complete.
Much contextualising takes place in an unplanned manner. People live out their theology in song, through prayers and through ministry to one another. A study of these practices will reveal the ‘pop’ theology of the people in every culture. This theology is not always founded on the Scriptures. The following is a process that provides controls so that the process is founded on the Word of God and not developed in an ad hoc manner.Foundational presuppositions of contextualisation
A number of presuppositions underpin and guide the process of contextualisation. Some of these are listed below.
- The notion that the gospel transcends human culture, not bound by any cultural expression and yet necessarily incarnate in a particular culture to be communicated and understood (see chapter 5).
God reveals himself in time and space and this revelation is recorded in the Bible, the inspired word from God through human intermediaries. It is objectively revelatory whether it is experienced subjectively or not. The gospel is not a social construct and central to the gospel is the cross of Jesus Christ. The biblical revelation plays a central role; it is the foundation and guide for contextualisation. A contextual message must be consistent with biblical revelation. This does not mean the scriptures must be the starting point.
General revelation can be an important adjunct to the Bible by providing redemptive analogies, wisdom, ‘bridges’ for communication but it is not sufficiently complete to lead to salvation. It “illuminates, illustrates, or enhances our understanding of special revelation.”
A critical realist epistemology. Critical realism recognises a real reality (world) outside of ourselves and that we can, at least partially, make sense of it. What we perceive represents what is real. This position avoids claiming that we know the reality just as it is; dogmatism. We understand partially therefore we may, with humility and a willingness, expand or correct or perception by interacting with others who perceive that reality differently.
The relationship between cultural forms and the meanings attributed them is not always an arbitrary one. This easily leads to relativism of knowledge. Meanings are established in the nexus of the symbol used (the word), the object referred to and the associated concept in our minds (see chapter 4).Checks on the contextualising process
Contextualisation is a necessary risky but there are also checks on the process to reduce the impact of syncretism. Some of these are:
- The final authority of the Word of God. Contextualisation must conform to the revelation the Bible claims for itself. How we understand the inspiration of the Scriptures determines largely how we will interpret, translate and contextualise the Bible message. Evangelical scholars recognise that:
Biblical revelation was given through the prophets and apostles … who received and reported the divine message in linguistic and cultural frames of reference. But they believe that the sovereign Lord ordained the cultural circumstances, the prophetic and apostolic authors, and the linguistic forms in such a way that in both the revelation and inscripturation his message was transmitted.
The guidance of the Holy Spirit by all participants in the process.
Cultural credibility. The practice must be seen to be credible and honourable in the cultural context.
Reality check. We need to test the validity of the proposed changes by subjecting it to cross-cultural reality testing. That involves considering how people in other cultures view the same issues. Does it make sense in the context?
Reference to and subject to the whole church. The church acts as a hermeneutical community that seeks to understand God's word in its particular context. However, the local church should also recognise its identity and be recognised, as part of the global Body of Christ. Christians from other cultures often see how our cultural biases have limited or distorted our interpretations of the Scriptures. This corporate nature of the church as a community of interpretation extends not only to the church in every culture but also to the church in all ages.Models for contextualisation
Various models of contextualisation have been identified and classified. Each has underlying assumptions, strengths and weaknesses. Evangelicals emphasise that contextualisation of the gospel:
[D]emands faithfulness to the central Word of truth and openness to the uniqueness of each situation. We must know the Word, and we must know the culture.… The hermeneutic of culture will guide us in appropriating the Word, while at the same time the irrevocable truth of the Word will judge and transform the culture.”
The following are a few models that are congruent with the above presuppositions. The first two are particularly relevant when communication in cultures or sub-cultures other than our own. In these cases the local people should be the primary contextualisers. Outsiders can assist the process as catalysts, resource linkers and/process helpers.The translation model
When contextualising the gospel the goal (drawing on principles of language translation) is to transfer the meaning of symbols in one culture to the equivalent meaning in another. It is considered that it is necessary for ‘dynamic equivalents’ not ‘literal equivalents’ to be used in the receptor culture to gain effective understanding. The task of contextualisation then is to differentiate between the ‘supra-cultural’ universals from that aspect which is culturally bound then translate the supra-cultural into culturally relevant forms. The end result will be a ‘dynamic equivalent church’.
This model has the potential for taking the Bible and its interpretation seriously as well as the receptor culture. It allows for adaptation of the symbols used to convey the message and be relevant to the receptor culture. It also enables the church to use culturally relevant means of worship and witness, and to deal with issues raised in their culture in a culturally acceptable way.
Some critics consider that, using this model, the Bible is not taken seriously enough. It is also assumed that the use of dynamic equivalents in translation can be simply applied to other aspects of a culture. The relationship between forms and meanings is not as arbitrary as the experience of language suggests. A rigorous ‘dynamic equivalents’ approach can surrender too much that is essential for the sake of cultural relevance. This model also assumes that the outsider, who initiates the process, is able to adequately understand the receptor culture to be able to apply the Word to that culture. Another issue is the difficulty in identifying what is ‘supra-cultural’ and what is not or what is the ‘core’ of the gospel and what is not. Nevertheless, this is the most commonly used model in cross-cultural contextualisation.The critical contextualisation model
The critical contextualisation model involves an evaluation of aspects of the culture and the corresponding Biblical themes. These two aspects are reviewed to make a new response that is culturally appropriate and biblically authentic. Some aspects of culture will be adopted, others modified, while yet others discarded.
In dealing with specific situations Hiebert proposes the following steps in the contextualising process.
Step 1: Gather information about the particular cultural practice. Outside assistance and the Christian leaders of the faith community in the culture or subculture should guide the faith community in gathering and analysing traditional beliefs and rituals associated with the questions at hand. Then they discuss the meanings of these without premature judgement. The outsider must attempt to see the issues from the insider’s perspective and recognise the assumptions and values of their outsider’s views.
Step 2: The local fellowship of believers must then subject their cultural understanding of the particular issues to the test of biblical teaching relevant to the issue. However, insiders and outsiders need to be aware of their cultural biases in studying the Scripture.
Step 3: Evaluate the cultural beliefs and practices in the light of Biblical teaching. The local community participate in this process. It is their culture, they will appreciate the implications better than outsiders, and they will ‘wear’ the outcomes and take responsibility for that if they participate in the process. The outsider may need to question some overlooked local cultural ‘blind spots’. In the process the people may:
keep practices and symbols that are not contrary to Scripture and so reaffirm cultural identity;
modify practices or use existing practices and apply Christian meaning;
borrow new symbols and practices from other cultures (especially closely related ones) where needed;
create new symbols and rituals to express faith in a culturally appropriate way;
reject the practices and symbols that are contrary to God’s Word.
Step 4: Create a new contextualised Christian practice. A new approach is taken within the cultural that is culturally relevant and biblically consistent.
This model has the advantage of taking both the culture and the Scriptures seriously and enables host-culture Christian participation in the process. While this process is essentially linear it provides for community dialogue and anticipates and ongoing process.The countercultural model
The counter-cultural model has emerged in confronting a post-Christian society in the West. As we should anticipate contextualisation is an ongoing process that should take place in our culture as well as in others. Practitioners of this model:
take the context with utmost seriousness. At the same time, however, they are deeply suspicious of culture.… they recognise that it is tainted and not trustworthy.
The suspicion of culture should not be understood as being anti-culture, rather it is realistic about culture as a human creation that is marred by sinfulness so it includes a prophetic role within the culture. Consequently proponents of this model are critical of churches that seek to be popular in the culture and so have become captive to the culture.
This model is expressed in some missional and emerging church movement, but not all.
Contextualisation is a necessary response of the gospel in every culture. It is necessitated by a gospel that is not identified with any single culture but can be incarnate in every culture. If we do not facilitate the contextualisation of the gospel in a controlled manner, founded upon the Scriptures and guided by the Spirit then it will happen anyway, and the outcome may be syncretistic. Certainly contextualisation involves risks, but if we are afraid to take the risk for fear of getting it wrong then it is more likely to go wrong.
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 People will be familiar with Richard Niebuhr's typology: Christ against culture, Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox and Christ the transformer of culture. His work relates to the relative authority of gospel and culture. This topic is concerned with how they interact – which is particularly relevant to Niebuhr's 'Christ the transformer of culture'.