Holy and Unholy Cultures?? (Part 1)

Much like there have been times in church history where people have embraced the idea of “holy language” (Hebrew, Koine Greek, Latin, Middle English) there have been periods of time and places where a similar sanctification has been placed on culture.

The Jerusalem Council struggled with this during the first century. Does a Greek have to become (culturally) a Jew to become a Christian? The decision, in the end, was NO. A Greek can remain culturally a Greek and still be Christian. This still left a lot to be determined. Is everything Greek sanctified and good? What about underlying beliefs or worldview?  It is pretty clear that some things need to radically change, but which things?

It seems to me that four places to get a bit of a grasp of this are:

  • Jerusalem Council (as recorded by Luke) and the Didache
  • Paul’s remarks of culture
  • Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus (chapter 5)

I will dig into none of these deeply.

1.  Jerusalem Council.  Here is the announcement as recorded by Luke regarding the summation of that council.

The apostles and elders, your brothers,

To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia:


24 We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. 25 So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul— 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. 28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.


The keyword here is Flexibility, I think. The Apostles and Elders said that they would place no burdens on the Greek Christians except minor limitations on food, and on sexual misconduct.  If you think about it, what does this mean?  Is it saying that the Council was saying that it was okay for Greek Christians to lie, to steal, to murder? Certainly this is not the case. Is it saying that virtues such as integrity, godliness, and honor are not being placed on the Greeks Christians? Again, certainly not. What does appear to be said is three things:

  • The trappings of Jewish Culture are not necessary for non-Jews.
  • The ideals and taboos of Greek culture are, for the most part, commendable. Because of this, the Greek Christians do not need to be told “do not lie” because they already know this to be virtuous even before here the gospel message.
  • Some specific areas of Greek culture may be unhealthy and set aside if one is supposed to follow Christ. (However, Jesus also challenged some aspects of Jewish culture as unhealthy as well.)

Alan Garrow has made the suggestion that the Didache was originally a longer version of the short-form of the Jerusalem Council announcement. He has suggested that the Didache is less clear on the breaking down of Jewish cultural rules. However, when I look at the Didache it seems to me to be an expansion on the Sermon on the Mount… and as such, expresses principles that are in many ways supracultural as well as principles that challenge all cultures. The principles mentioned in the Didache certain do not encourage a rejection of Greek culture but recognize that the words of Jesus challenge both Jewish and Greek cultures.

2.  Paul’s comments on Culture. I am not going to go into details in this area, but simply point people to his writings to the Churches of Corinth and Galatia.  In these it could be said that Paul took a more extreme view than the Jerusalem Council. For example, to the church of Corinth he says that it is okay to eat food sacrificed to idols, as long as people are mature enough to handle it. Since idols are nothing, and the religion of the Greeks has no power, the danger in eating food sacrificed to idols is how it affects the belief and heart of the Greek Christians. In his message to the church of Galatia, he makes a point that when Greek and Jewish Christians are together, it is better for the Jews to adapt to the Greeks rather than remain separate. I would, however, describe his view as Pragmatic. Additionally, it seems like the focus is on avoiding a ghettoization of Christianity. Jewish Christians and Greek Christians should find ways to fellowship together rather than build walls of separation. And Greek Christians should be able to interact with Greek Pagans without fear and separation. I would also suggest they were a bit ad hoc, in that his words point to how broader principles would be carried out in this specific case.

3.  Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus.  Chapter 5. This chapter can be read in another post I wrote before.  Click HERE.  When you read it, it says three things about Christians.

  • In many ways, Christians fit into the culture so well that they are indistinguishable from the culture.
  • In some ways, Christians surpass those in the culture by living up to the ideals of the culture rather than the typical reality within the culture.
  • In some other ways, Christians live counter-culturally, by rejecting some specific aspects of culture that are opposed to the teachings of Jesus.

If one looks at these references, I believe oneIdealized Culture would have to see that culture (at least within the context of Jewish and Greek cultures) is generally good or neutral. It is Neutral in that it has distinguishing characteristics that are perfectly fine for Christian and non-Christian. It is Good in that it provides ideals that are often quite commendable and worthy of seeking to live up to. At the same time, culture can be seen negatively in three major ways. First, it can be seen as failing to live up to God’s standards. But is universal for all cultures fail in this area. Second, it can be seen as failing to live up to its own standards. Most all cultures idealize certain virtues and attack certain vices or taboos— but its members rarely live up to these standards.

Third, cultures may be seen as bad based on “demonization” by outsiders. They take certain qualities and broad-brush the culture undermining virtues, and exaggerating vices.

This third area will be looked more seriously in Part II.  But for now, based on the passages above, Christians should live in a culture on three levels:

  1. Christians should live in the culture as it is lived out by its members. As such, in many key ways, Christians should be indistinguishable from others in that culture.
  2. Christians should strive to live up to the ideals of the culture, not simply the culture as it is commonly lived.
  3. Christians should also live up to, as best as possible, God’s standards, being willing to reject cultural ideals and cultural norms WHEN NECESSARY.

Where one shifts between these two, good people can disagree. Paul and Peter appeared to disagree. Mature and immature believers in Corinth disagreed.

It is Okay for good people to disagree.

(But I think Part II will cover an area that is NOT Okay)



Fun With Venn Diagrams and Context

I do like Venn Diagrams— as well as quadrants and pretty much any other diagram that presents data or sets in a way that gives clarity.

Jackson Wu had one I really liked in his article, “Why has the Church Lost “Face”? Examining Our Blindspot About Honor and Shame.” 

It is an interesting article… You can Click HERE.

Here is the Venn Diagram he used:

Jackson Wu Venn Diagram

The image blackened region 2 because that was the region he was focusing on. Instead of modifying it, I have it exactly as it was in the article. Below are the descriptions. I used some of Wu’s words, and some of my own.

Area 1 is where biblical truth overlaps with one’s theology but not the cultural context. Many of the canned evangelistic presentations fit into this area (like the Romans Road or Four Spiritual Laws). They may be Biblical Enough, and represent fairly well a (very simplified) soteriology. However, in many cultures, including fear or shame focused cultures, or cultures where hell lacks a genuine role as a motivator, the presentations really don’t hit the mark.

Area 2 is where biblical truth overlaps with the cultural context without being addressed in one’s theology. Wu mentions Hiebert’s “excluded middle.” One could add concerns about demons.

Area 3 is where one’s theology and the cultural context overlap with biblical truth, as in a high view of the family or social responsibility.

Area 4 is where elements in a theology overlap with a cultural context but not with biblical truth. Lots of these. Americanism or Prosperity Doctrine are pretty obvious. It could be argued that Gnosticism and Arianism were theologies built quite comfortably with the cultures they were in… but not with the Bible.

Area 5 is where elements in a theology overlap with neither biblical truth nor a cultural context. Wu notes Western individualism  taken to a collectivistic culture. When a missionary in Area 4 goes to an incompatible culture without contextualizing.

Area 6 is where cultural beliefs or values are inconsistent both with biblical truth and a particular theology. All cultures diverge from the Bible in some ways. So when there is no theology that connects with that aspect, one is in this area. For William Carey, he saw widow-burning and refusal to educate women as Bengla cultural behaviors that were both unbiblical and not theologically justifiable.

Truth and Dialogue– Bringing Them Together

David Hesselgrave, in his book “Communicating Christ Cross-culturally,” has an interesting figure in Chapter 9 called “The Contextualization Continuum.”

Here is a version of it.

Hesselgrave Chapter 9

I find the figure interesting in some ways, and even useful. However, there are some aspects of it I disagree with.

1.  One part of the figure I disagreed with so strongly that I removed it from the figure here. Associated with “Orthodoxy” is something called “Apostolic Contextualization.” Associated with “Neo-Orthodoxy” and “Neo-Liberalism” is something called “Prophetic Contextualization.” Associated with “Liberalism” is “Syncretistic Contextualization.” I somewhat disagree with the last one, “Syncretistic Contextualization,” but to me the terms Apostolic and Prophetic Contextualizations are used randomly. I can see no linke between the terms and the concepts. In fact, if I did feel like I had to use the terms, I would probably switch Apostolic and Prophetic. The NT Apostles (I am thinking primarily of Paul, Barnabas, Peter and John) actively promoted and/or applied the idea that Eternal truths in Scripture are laden with cultural/temporal truths. Paul, Barnabas, and Peter recognized that Greeks do not/should not embrace Jewish culture to be Christian. John, did considerable work, especially in the Gospel of John, to express Christian teachings in with Greek concepts. To me that effort is more than simply a translation process.  Since OT Prophets, at least, generally deemphasize such an openness to other cultures, it seems like Apostolic Contextualization comes closest to relating to Neo-Orthodoxy and Prophetic to Orthodoxy (at least as the figure presents them).

2.  There is no way that one should describe the Method associated with Liberalism as Dialogic. Dialogue in no way expresses an opinion about truth. Perhaps the term was chosen because of the novel tendency of Evangelicals back in 1978 (when Hesselgrave’s book was written) to understand dialogue in line with John Hick and Raimon Panikkar. Their understanding of dialogue could arguably be seen as linked to a Liberal or Pluralistic perspective. On the other hand, perhaps the terms were chosen to be clever. Aliteration sounds nice (Didactic, Dialectic, Dialogic) even when it (perhaps) misinforms.

3.  The figure could be interpreted to mean that the more supra-cultural one interprets the Bible, the more orthodox one is. In my understanding, Orthodoxy has always questioned normalizing (blessing) one’s own culture, as well as any particular Biblical culture. As such, there should be a category further to the left on the figure for Schismatic or perhaps Particularistic groups.

This figure reminds me of the figure I use for dialogue:

Dialogue spectrum

One can bring these two figures together– relating Strategies of Contextualization and Strategies of Dialogue.



The red line shows the theoretical spectrum of theology from more conservative to more liberal. The Green region would be the more normative strategies associated with the theological perspective. The Yellow region would be less normative, and Orange quite unlikely.  Of course, the redline as shown doesn’t truly exist. The range of theological perspectives do not fit comfortably onto  a single thin line.

The more conservative theologically, the more likely that the contextualization strategy is Didactic (focusing on how to translate the Bible and Christian teachings into the language and thought patterns of a target people). There is also a greater likelihood to utilize an Apologetic strategy of dialogue, emphasizing argument as a way to share the Christian message.

Of course, that is not always true. For example, many Conservatives may choose a Clarification strategy for Dialogue believing that it could be a more successful strategy. It would, however, be quite unlikely for Conservatives to utilize a Relativistic strategy for Dialogue or a “Dialogic” strategy for Contextualization since both tend to minimize the uniqueness of Christian revelation.

At the other end, being more theologically liberal, a “Dialogic” strategy of Contextualization and a Relativistic strategy for Dialogue would be more likely because of the tendency not to see Christian revelation as unique. That, however, is not automatic.

For me, I strongly support a Clarification strategy for Dialogue. For Contextualization, since I tend towards a “Counter-cultural approach” of contextualization, on this chart I suppose it is in the area close to where Didactic and Dialectic meet. That means I am not on the Red Line, but still in the Green Zone.



The Golden Rule in Cultural Application

The Golden Rule is the term often used for the command of Jesus in Matthew 7:12:

“Whatever you want others to do for you, do also the same for them.”

This positive form is also balanced by what is sometimes called the Silver Rule that says almost the same thing but from a negative sense. It may not be fair to suggest that one is “gold” and the other “silver.” In fact, one version of Jesus’ command is written in the “silver” format. This is found in Didache 1:3:

“Do not do to others, what you yourself would not want done to you.”

This rule, in both of its forms, provides a valuable guide and benchmark for ethical behavior. It would be, in fact, quite an amazing thing to see Christians (of any flavor) make an honest attempt to live according to this rule.

That being said, the rule is not as simple as it first appears when it comes to cross-cultural applications. Let me give a couple of examples.

Example 1.  I teach in the Philippines and do in fact enjoy it. I get to learn much from my students who come from many different countries— mostly in Asia. But there are some interesting challenges at times. For example, I have a number of students from Myanmar. In Myanmar, teachers are highly respected (a good thing, I think). In an attempt to demonstrate respect to their teachers, they listen very quietly and never ask questions. After all, to ask questions is to suggest that the teacher did a poor job in his/her instruction.

For me, on the other hand, I like students to ask questions. It makes the class more interesting, and gives me an opportunity to learn and grow, along with the students. Additionally, I feel that asking questions is a sign of respect. In their asking, they are showing that they are paying attention, and care about what I am talking about.

Thus, the Golden (and Silver) Rule is challenged a bit. How I want to be treated is quite different than how another may want to be treated.

Example 2.  This is based on an old story that contrasts the Asian and American attitudes regarding hospitality. Consider the figures below (from my book, “Ministry in Diversity,”

The first sketch shows an American staying in a Filipino household.


The second sketch shows a Filipino in an American household.

In both cases, the host is applying the Golden Rule with the guest. However, in both cases, there is a misfire.

These examples are not to suggest that there is an inherent problem with the Rule. However, one does have to take a step inward before going outward. In Example One, both myself as a teacher and one from Myanmar want to be treated with respect. That is the commonality where the Golden Rule applies. However, it must be filtered through culture to identify how such respect would be demonstrated.  In the second example, both hosts desire to be hospitable, and both guests desire to be treated with hospitality. However, how such hospitality is carried out so that it is recognized and appreciated, is again mediated by culture.

These are in no sense the only examples of this. If I ask someone to come to a celebration I am holding, I would like the person to think about it, check his schedule, and then tell me definitively whether he can come or not, when he knows for sure. Because of that, I am tempted to do the same thing. However, in some cultures that is highly insulting. Rather, the proper response is to immediately accept the offer, and then only later, regretfully, back out. Again, the Golden Rule applies (I want to be shown honor, and to express honor) but I must understand how this is demonstrated in that culture.

Can think of some other examples??

Consider an implication of this. One can follow the “letter of the law” by knowing oneself. However, to follow it teleologically and contextually (despite what some Christian Ethics books imply, Deontological Ethics is not the same as Christian Ethics), one must understand the other person as well.



Four Books I am Reading Now


I don’t buy a lot of books. The availability of Christian books that I am interested in here in the Philippines is limited. I also have limited resources. So I really feel fortunate when I ordered four books that were delivered a few weeks ago. All four I have found to be very useful. I don’t read cover to cover very often, I am not a reading ‘machine’ as some I know, but it looks like I am on a trajectory to reading all four completely.

  1.  “The Minister as Diagnostician: Personal Problems in Pastoral Perspective” by Paul W. Pruyser (1976). This was my least risky purchase. We have a Pastoral Counseling center here and we train in Clinical Pastoral Education. Pruyser’s book is written from the perspective of a psychologist at the Menninger Clinic, but for church ministers. He noted that pastors training in hospital chaplaincy tended to utilize the diagnostic language (and to a limited extent criteria) of psychologists. He suggested that there are diagnostic categories that are more appropriate, and more within the skill set of ministers. The language choices he uses I don’t find particularly intuitive. However, the seven basic categories for diagnosis I believe are quite useful. Some have noted the challenge of applying these categories in practice, but I believe Pruyser’s work is a good starting point. Looking forward to reading the entire, short, book.
  2. One Gospel for All Nations: A Practical Approach to Biblical Contextualization” by Jackson Wu (2015). This was my second safest choice. I enjoy Wu’s posts, many of which are related to this book, so I was pretty sure it would something I would find valuable. It has proven to be so far. I suppose I am curious about the title which speaks of “Biblical Contextualization” while the body of the book speaks of two types of contextualization– “Exegetical Contextualization” and “Cultural Contextualization.” Perhaps the author is linking Biblical with Exegetical, or the two contextualizations are seen to constitute “Biblical Contextualization.” Or maybe, the publisher chose the title. This is far less than a complaint… simply a comment. Positively, it looks at contextualization from a more Asian perspective. Living here in the Philippines, that is important to me. Additionally, it seeks to move from theoretical models of contextualization to a practical path to contextualization.
  3. “SCM Studyguide: Theological Reflection” by Judith Thompson and Stephen Pattison (2008). This was more of a leap of faith. In clinical pastoral care, we seek theological reflection in our trainees. Many struggle. Far too often, what is thought of as theological reflection is little more than verse-dropping (“This case reminds me of Psalm 23”). Other times, there is a failure to be truly reflective– simply reiterating what one already believes. This book is well-structured and deals with a number of forms of theological reflection. These methods are thoroughly orthodox in that the book does not advocate a “create your own theology” view. It seeks to connect and relate one’s faith tradition with experience. Already I find it useful, and am incorporating some of the ideas in a chapter on this topic in our upcoming book, “The Dynamics of Pastoral Care”– a sequel to “The Art of Pastoral Care.”
  4. “SCM Studyguide: Pastoral Theology.” by Margaret Whipp (2015). This book is done by the same publishing house as the previous one, and is a part of the same book series. The series is Anglican, and while the examples used in both books tend to draw from this tradition, they are broadly applicable to other Christians. This book I have only gotten into the earliest chapters, but so far I find it very valuable.  The previous book, Theological Reflection, is more structured, and I like structure. However Pastoral Theology as a subject is far less structured than many other categories of theology (systematic, biblical, philosophical, etc.), so I can hardly complain. Again, this book I am already finding inspirational for our training programs here, as well as for our newest book. Looking forward to finishing it.

Bad Contextualization of the Gospel

I am happy to say that I don’t hearblog_ifyouonlyhaveahammer this much anymore… the idea that the gospel message needs not be contextualized or made to be recognized relevant to the hearer. On occasion, one hears someone quote Isaiah 55:11, believing that God word accomplishes what it is supposed to do, despite us.

So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth;
It shall not return to Me void,
But it shall accomplish what I please,
And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.

Usually, rather than attacking contextualization, what is challenged is the motive behind contextualization… the belief (or perhaps fear) that contextualization is some sort of pluralistic relativism, diluting the Christian faith. Can it be that? I suppose… one can interpret almost anything as anything… that is the characteristic of pure symbols. However, such fear can be a lazy excuse to use just one presentation of God’s message, even where such a presentation would in all probability be a failure. Or it may be a lazy or selfish choice to not understand others.

Let’s consider a rather extreme case of bad contextualization of the Gospel. It is the story of Emperor Atahualpa, and the Conquistador Pizarro. You can read the story in one of my previous posts… HERE. This version of the story is from Jared Diamond in “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.” Look at the method of presentation of the Gospel, and the results.

On the quick read one might argue that it wasn’t a presentation of the gospel at all. For Evangelicals it does not push toward the tradition of the “Sinner’s Prayer.” There is also no focus on sin, repentance, and faith. Yet it does have a couple of  features that make it an even more theologically sound presentation of the Gospel. Consider the following:

A.  The friar was offering to teach the people to be friends of God. This focus on discipleship certainly places it superior to calls for belief without Lordship of Christ, or a call even to follow Christ in any meaningful way.

B.  The message of Good News was actually from God’s Word, the Bible. In fact, the friar gave the Emperor the Bible, and sought to help him use the Bible. This certainly places it superior to presentations that are more logical or clever, but clearly outside of utilizing the whole of Scripture.

So if this was such a good presentation of the Gospel, why did it fail so miserably. (Frankly, I hope most readers would identify the killing of thousands of non-Christians and the subjugation of the rest as an undesirable result of a gospel presentation.) Many of the problems with the presentation were due to the cross-cultural gap that had to be bridged. But there were other problems as well that may not have as much causation from poor contextualization. Let’s consider the contextual issues first.

  • The Word of God wasn’t really presented in a way where it could be responded to. The Incan Emperor did not know how to read Latin, so he could not have read it, to say nothing of responding to it after understanding it. Giving the Bible to someone who can’t understand it, thinking it will have a positive result is quite foolish. The power of the Bible is in the message it conveys… not some magic associated with it, and not the physical structure of the Bible.
  • The Bible was not even in a medium that the Emperor could appreciate. The Incans had no written language, so he had no concept of written language. He did not even know how to open the book. The present the Bible utilizing a medium that the people cannot connect to is much like establishing a Christian radio station in the 16th century— an impressive accomplishment, but no one will be able to receive the message. They won’t even know that there was a message being sent in the first place.
  • The message was given disrespectfully. When the Emperor did not know how to open the book, the friar tried to reach up to help. The Emperor was angry. Probably, although I am just guessing, the behavior was inappropriate when dealing with the Emperor. Of course, making the emperor angry through a social faux pas is quite likely to drive a wedge between the two rather than leading to agreement.
  • The behavior of the friar and Pizarro was thoroughly ethnocentric. It was so ethnocentric that when the Emperor tossed aside the Bible (tossing something he had never seen before– and did not look all that interesting since he could not read), the friar called them enemy dogs and the Emperor a tyrant. In all likelihood the friar did not know the Emperor well enough to know if he was a tyrant. He may well have been no more of a tyrant than the Spanish royals. Calling them dogs is a disappointingly classic form of dehumanization and of self-elevation. In the 1500s explorers and theologians struggled with the question of whether the strange beings they found in other lands were truly human or not. The wise of that time didn’t know the limits of what is, so it is understandable if there was some confusion. Still, if one was actually superior, it hardly seems appropriate (or even necessary) to degrade the others further. Certainly presuming that their deaths were less of a tragedy than one’s own people, qualifies as ethnocentric.

There were other problems as well:

  • Mixed motive. Pizarro was a conquistador… driven forward by the desire for conquest (thus the term “conquistador”) and wealth. The friar actually joined the group because of his desire for plunder, not hearts turned to God.
  • Mixed allegiances. Pizarro calls for the Incans to be subject to God, the the King of Spain, and the Roman Catholic church. It is understandable that missionaries sometimes identify themselves with their nation of origin or their own denomination so strongly that they struggle in separating those allegiances from allegiance to God. History does have many stories that may lead one to concern about mixing denominationalism (or creedalism) or nationalism, with allegiance to God.
  • Mixed methods. Mixing the message of God’s desire to make peace with all mankind with an army bent on destruction and colonization certainly sends a double message.

I think it is safe to say that contextualization, and proper motivation has a strong effect on how people respond to the Gospel.




What’s the Difference Between “Contextualization” and . . . ?


I sometimes get asked to distinguish a few key missiological terms.

These words often appear in missiological and theological literature. Various books and articles go into more detail than I do in this post. Nevertheless, I hope this offers some clarification without getting too technical.

contextualization (meaning?)

View original post 443 more words

Theology and Anthropology, Part 3

I think of this part as a bit more straightforward. Cultural Anthropology is important in contextual theology.

Theologian role AConsider the above image. The Bible comes to us as divine revelation that is embedded in certain source cultures (Ancient Jewish and Hellenstic-Roman particularly). If we accept that the canon of Scripture is closed, and identify that the ancient cultures are dead– no longer existing today, we can say that the Bible from this aspect is STATIC. However, the Bible also exists as translated word within different cultures… particularly the faith communities in these cultures. Since living cultures are DYNAMIC, the Bible in this sense is DYNAMIC, not static. Linking the dynamic community of faith with static divine revelation is a theological or contextual bridge (all of this can be described as “Correlation.”). Since cultures are dynamic that means that theology (at least effective theology) is DYNAMIC… changing..

So how does cultural anthropology impact this very fluid situation?

1.  In Biblical Theology. Understanding the Bible, divine revelation embedded in source cultures, requires deep understanding of the source cultures. This is necessary to interpret the meaning of the Bible. Understanding such dead cultures utilizes archaeology (a subfield of anthropology) and cultural anthropology… among other tools.

2.  In Translation. To translate from one language to another requires linguistics… one of the traditional subfields of anthropology. But solid translation also deals with culture. The Bible must be culturally accessible and relevant to be translated well. It needs to relate to and impact the culture it is embedded in, utilizing recognizable symbols. The tools of cultural anthropology are greatly beneficial here.

3.  In Theological Contextualization. A community of faith in a culture can be indigenized (locally accessible and challenging) or it can be foreign and unfamiliar… irrelevant. The message of God needs not only to be translated well, but must be tied to a community of faith with symbols of the local culture. The community must be self-theologizing… dynamically contextualizing God’s message and character to the culture. While this may be a local activity, it may benefit from both an emic (insider) understanding and an etic (outsider) understanding. Since the key character of cultural anthropology methodology is “Participant-Observer,” bridging the gap between emic and etic, there is much that cultural anthropology can offer in contextualized theology.

4.  All Theology. We sometimes act like there is real, unchanging, systematic theology and little locally contextualized theologies. But since the source cultures of the Bible are dead, God’s message is always translated and interpreted culturally. All active theologies are contextual. Some do a good job of this… while some do a bad job. Some do contextualization explicitly… while some do it implicitly (often not knowing they do it… a bad thing). Since all theology (even more so… all GOOD theology) is contextual, cultural anthropology always has something to say in the activity of theology.

Arguably, this is a bit high-end viewing. the exact methodologies from cultural anthropology are not directly brought out here. That must be for another day. However, I would like to think that these three posts demonstrate the intimate link between cultural anthropology and theology. Such a link should not be disregarded.



Is the Bible Translatable? Part 2

This is part 2. Part 1 speaks of different views of translatability. This part looks at some practical reasons to accept the translatability of the Bible.

St. Jerome, translating the Bible into Latin

A. Since translation always happens anyway, recognizing the validity of translation helps ensure that distortion is minimized. This sounds backwards. Those who support the untranslatability of Scripture (whether it be Bible, Quran or something else) often do so with the tacit assumption that doing so removes or limits distortions. However, translation happens whether one acknowledges it or not. It happens either by skilled translaters or unskilled readers. If a person ls immersed in one culture/language and must interpret a holy writ in another language, translation still happens… but it is in the mind of the reader. The problem is that not all are equally competent of converting a less familiar language, and its associated subtlety of culture, into their own understanding. There are two ultimate choices one can make:

Translation by experts in translation versus translation by amateurs

Translation that is done and honored versus translation that is done and is disregarded

B. The Word of God is, for practical purposes, NOT the Word of God to a person who cannot understand it. When there is a language/culture gap between the Word and the recipient, the communication error is a failure of neither… unless translation is rejected and the reader is expected to do the change. I am not pulling a Neo-Orthodox inspired idea here. I am simply saying that if the message is so distorted in the mind of the reader or hearer, what they have in their mind is not God’s Word, but an untrustworthy distortion of God’s Word.

For example (considering the Quran for the moment), if a person speaks only American English, then the language and culture “limitations” of the person are a hindrance to receiving the message of the Quran. Even if the Quran is “translated” into contemporary American English, it is not considered the Quran but something else. Whose fault is it? Is it the fault of the Quran? It had no choice what language it was recited/recorded in. Is it the fault of those who are English-speaking Americans? No. It is the fault of those who won’t translate or won’t stand by their translation… yet do (effectivly) stand by the internal translation of untrained strangers.

Additionally, if a person speaks only American English then the language and culture “limitations” of the person are also a hindrance to receive the message of the Bible, IF the latest “real” Bible is AV-1611 (or perhaps one of its 18th century editings). The cultural (and language) gap between 1611 and 2014 must be overcome to understand the language. In the Philippines there are “KJV-only” churches. Many of the preachers and membership struggle with a dual language gap— mentally converting 1611 English into Filipino English and then into a Filipino heart language. There is a lot of place for error on that torturous route.

C. If the Bible is translatable, it is NOT appropriate to think of certain sacred languages or cultures. While in Islam there may be something sancrosanct in the culture and language from which the Quran was recited (or developed), with the Bible should hold no such sacred status. The Pre-exilic culture of Israel, the exilic culture of the Jews in Babylon, the post-exilic culture of Judea, and the Hellenized-Latinized culture of the Eastern Mediteranean in the first century are no more holy in culture or language than any other (although I do find some Christian groups here in the Philippines who seek to embrace a faux Hebraism because they think it is untainted by cultural distortion… not considering whether labeling a different culture as God-blessed is already a distortion of the message). God gave his message into and through those particular cultures… but the message could have come to and through any culture and have enriched it and have been enriched by it.

D. Related to the prior, if there are no sacred cultures, but find God working in several cultures… PERHAPS God is working in all cultures. And if God is working in all cultures… then translation, drawing as it does from the symbolic wealth of language and culture of a people, potentially involves taking the revelation of God and combining in a positive not destructive manner with the present work of God.

This suggests that if the Bible is translatable, we need a more dynamic view of inspiration. For Option 1A, such as the Quran, inspiration is dictation and occurring only once. For Option 1B, KJV-only, rabbinical view of the Septuagint and such, the inspiration may happen more than once but is limited and people are still likely to have a more passive role in the process. But if the Bible is God’s revelation that is being translated with reference to God’s work in a culture, then for the translated work to be still considered the Bible, the work is a divine partnership. On some level good translation involves divine partnership… a form of inspiration/illumination— a dynamic process of bringing God’s meaning out in different words.

E. Translation suggests that there is a message in the Word that is Supracultural. For example, when the 23rd Psalm describes God as my shepherd and I am one of His sheep, this is an ancient Semitic metaphor. When translated into a different culture, a different metaphor may be more understandable. Yet saying so only makes sense if one understands that language is culturally informed symbolism. Behind the symbolism is a core message. The process of translation helps us separate between the message (God as one who loves me and cares for me personally and sacrificially) and word (God as a Jewish sheepherder).

Now these points may seem strange, but I believe there are reasons, primarily in the Bible itself, for believing that God’s message is translatable. That will be in the next post,  Part 3.

Is the Bible Translatable? Part I

Is the Bible translatable? Now when I am asking that, I am not asking whether the words of the Bible can be translated into another language. I am asking:

  • Can the Holy Bible be translated into another language and still be the Holy Bible.
  • Can the Bible be translated and still be reliable?

These two questions are related. If the Bible is reliable and it is remains the Bible after translated, then the Bible is reliable in translation. There are two options. Option 1 is NO. Option 2 is YES.  I divide Option 1 into two sub-options. One simply remains NO while the other is Yes…. but NO.

I believe that the Bible is translatable (Option 2), partly because of internal affirmation of this point. But first it is only fair to look at the options. Then in part 2 I  consider the pretty strong consequences of such a view, and finally in Part 3 I look at why (I believe) that such a view is accurate.

OPTION 1. NO. The Bible is not translatable. There are then two sub-options.

Sub-Option 1A (Simply No). The Quran route. In classic Islam, the Quran is untranslable, inerrant, and always has been (uncreated) in 7th century Arabic. The recitations may be translated in the sense that its content can be put into a different language, but it cannot be described as being truly the Quran. It is now “a translation of the message of the Quran.” Of course, one might actually ask the question of whether the Quran meets that criteria itself of not taking other source materials and translating and redacting them into 7th century Arabic. But textual criticism and the Quran is a touchy matter for some and I will leave that for those who are more skilled in it (and more cautious in their media outlets). In classic Islamic sense, any translation of the Quran is not the Quran. Fairly simple.

Sub-Option 1B. Christians generally are more subtle in this one. Few say that the Bible is the Bible only if it is in its autograph languages (Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek). What some Christians do is more of a Yes…. but NO.  For them, the Bible can be translated into another language… but that translation is essentailly part of the Holy Spirit’s work to preserve the message. In line with that, certain translations are blessed with an inerrant quality that puts them above criticism. These may include the Septuagint, Vulgate, Textus Receptus (compiled Greek), and KJV. Consider the Septuagint (LXX). The LXX the “official” Greek Translation of the Hebrew Bible was, according to Rabbinical tradition, created by 70 rabbis translating for 70 days. After 70 days each of the rabbis brought his translation of the entire Hebrew Bible out to share with the other rabbis. To their amazement, all of the translations were exactly identical. Now, like with the Quran, we are not considering the historicity of such a belief… but the implications of such a belief. For 70 to all translate identically is absolutely improbable… ridiculous… on a human level. What is being said is that the LXX was not actually translated by man, but “RE-REVEALED” by God. The same logic has been applied to the Vulgate (Latin) translation of the Bible, as well as the Textus Receptus (Greek), and the King James Version (“AV 1611”). The argument is that the translation was not actually a human activity so much as a re-revealing of inerrant divine word. I think you can see why this re-revelation option is still pretty similar to the Quran option. Even though there may be Bibles in different translations, strictly speaking, the Bible (as in God’s revealed revelation) only exists in one, two, or three, or so specially inspired versions. Anything diverging from that is a human construct and not to be trusted. This sub-option is more subtle than 1A, but not much.

Option 2. Yes. The Bible is Translatable. To say that the Bible can be translated and still be the Bible does not negate the possibility of special status for the original revelation. One might say, for example, that the Bible is “Reliable” (or some other word suggesting that the Bible exists as a historic revelation given or inspired by God) in its original manuscripts (in their original languages), but it is possible to bring message forward into new languages accurately enough to be considered Reliable… and not something lesser. Again, I am not going to go into issues of inerrancy and reliability… but rather consider the implications that I believe follow from saying that translation of the Bible is possible and it still being the Bible.

In the next post, we will look at the ramifications of the belief that Yes, the Bible is translatable.