The More Difficult Task


A relevant question that could come up here is which is more difficult? Is it harder to to make theology relevant to a community, or faithful to God’s Word. At first glance, it may seem that it really depends on the person. For example, an untrained person who is fully enculturated (born into) culture “B” would be quite well-suited to providing a relevant theology– but one that is likely to be not true to God’s Word.

On the other hand, a seminary student enculturated and trained in culture “A” could be reasonably thought to be able to provide a theology that is true to God’s word, but is not relevant in culture “B.” But this is a mistake.

Consider the following figure.   While there are some definite limitations to this figure, it does show a couple of things fairly well. Culture “A” has within it a number of theologies that are relevant to it. The same is true of Culture “B.” Overlapping God’s Revelation with it, creates smaller regions. God’s Word as canon, provides a standard or limiter of what is acceptable to God. theologies culture

Region 1 is Theology that is well-contextualized to Culture A. It is relevant to the culture and is faithful to God’s revelation. Region 2, is a culture “A” that is conformed to or fulfilled through God’s Word. Similarly, Regions 4 and 3 are well-contextualized theology and fulfilled culture with respect to culture “B.”

But, of course, these are not all of the options. Region 7 is Culture “A” that is not conformed to God’s Word, and Region 8 is the similar situation for Culture “B.” Regions 5 and 6 are Theologies that are not conformed to God’s Word in Cultures “A” and “B,” respectively.

For a new believer enculturated in Culture “B,” poorly versed in God’s Word, it is much more likely that a theology developed by him (or her) would not properly be conformed to God’s Revelation. That is why Region 6 is shown as much larger than Region 4… God’s Word provides a limitation on all theologies that may be seen as relevant to that culture. It is much easier, and more likely, for this person to develop a theology that is relevant, but heterodox, and work towards developing a sub-culture that fails to be fulfilled by God’s Word.

For a seminarian enculturated in Culture “A” and trained in theology from that culture, the challenge is different but no less challenging. The seminarian would be challenged considerably in ministering in Culture “B.” He (again, or she… but I will use he here for simplicity of language) will be tempted to simply transport his theology over based on the presumption that it is the “correct” theology. The same struggle will occur with culture. He will be tempted to simply see the culture of his upbringing and training as the correct culture… and teach it. Unfortunately, the culture brought will seem foreign to the potential respondents, and the theology is likely to not deal with the situation of people in Culture “B.”

But suppose that the seminary graduate does intentionally seek to contextualize. He will be hit by two major limitations.

Limitation #1. His relative ignorance of Culture “B” will make it hard to find a Biblically sound, relevant theology (Region 4). It is a target easier to miss than to hit.

Limitation #2. His relative ignorance of God’s Revelation. One might assume that the seminarian is well-versed in Scripture. But he is versed in God’s revelation as it applies to his own culture (or sub-culture). God’s revelation is much greater than that.

(You may now be noting why I sort of apologized for this figure earlier. Overlapping contextual theologies, cultures, and God’s revelation is sort like overlapping varieties of apples with different forms of government– they are different types of things. Still, I hope that the relationships of the regions can make sense on some level.)

But which limitation is greater for the seminary graduate? It is the second one. Spending time in Culture “B” will gradually reveal the nuances of the culture… and subtleties that are beyond him can be filled in by host believers eventually. However, the expansion of one’s understanding of God’s Revelation to the point that it is clearly seen as it relates to a different culture is much harder. One might even suggest that without the Holy Spirit’s illumination, the task would be impossible.

An Example from the Bible

A.  As the Israelites escaped from Egypt, they eventually arrived at Mt. Sinai. There Moses went up to commune with God, while the Isrealites and the other non-Israelits who had escaped with them waited. When Moses failed to come down from the mountain after a long time, the people feared and asked Aaron to deal with the situation. In Exodus 32, Aaron makes an altar and a golden calf. Why would he do this?

In Egypt, the bull is sacred, and so he may have been drawing answers from the culture he was raised in (heterodox theology from culture A). On the other hand, knowing that they are heading to Canaan, where the bull is a symbol of Baal, “the local god,” this may have been a heterodox theology seeking relevance in culture B.

Before one get’s too critical, it must be noted that there are considerable similarities between orthodox Israelite Theology (as guided by the Mosaic Law) and Egyptian theology. According to Herodotus (The Horizon Book of Lost Worlds, by Leonard Cotrell, page 288ff), the Egyptians:

  • Practiced circumcision

  • Had a priesthood

  • Practice rites of cleanliness

  • Had rules regarding “clean” and “unclean” foods

  • Had animal sacrifice with requirements that the animals are unblemished.

  • Maintained rules of endogamy

In Egypt, the Bull was sacred to Apis, a god popularly worshiped in Memphis (Egypt) and often seen as a go-between of man and the higher gods. It is hardly surprising that Aaron might go in that direction. In Exodus 32:6, part of the worship was to “play,” suggesting the sexual activities associated with the Canaanite faith. This sympathetic magic was tied to fertility of families as well as the land. Apis, in Egypt, was also often seen as a god of fertility.

Aaron, with limited understanding of God’s will, made a pretty good attempt at guessing what God would want based on his understanding of Egyptian culture, and perhaps his limited understanding of Canaanite culture. It wasn’t all that hard.

But he was still wrong. It took God’s Word, coming through Moses, to clarity what God expected of them. The result was something that would “make sense” to most of the people, while still deeply challenging them to change.

Interestingly, God’s revelation to Moses actually was not simply to one culture, but to two. The revelation was to Israel, a nomadic people– but also to Israel, a sedentary people.

B.  In the New Testament, we find the Apostles and church leaders struggling with the issue of how God’s revelation would apply to non-Jews. The Apostles and church leaders would be seen as well-versed in Scripture, as well as the words of Jesus. Yet, they truly struggled with this. The Jerusalem Council was where this was dealt with as a body. The action of the Holy Spirit helped to sway the body to the understanding that Greeks do not have to become Jews to become Christians. Even after the council, however, struggles remained, as seen in differences between Paul’s understanding and the council decision (there is no indication at least that Paul rejected the eating of blood for Gentiles). It is also seen in the Epistle to the Galatians (if one accepts that that letter was written after the Jerusalem Council), where people who were apparently well-versed in the Hebrew Bible differed considerably from Paul and the Apostles in its application to Greeks.

Knowing Scripture is not enough. It is a huge challenge to understand Scripture to see its relevance and application in a different culture than one’s own. In truth, understanding a different culture is “the easy part.”

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