Years ago I started to write a book on Missions Theology. I was teaching a course on it, and as usual, I had mixed feelings about the books I had available to use. Therefore, I started writing.
But then I stopped. For one thing, I haven’t had to teach the course again, so I lost part of my motivation. Second, two courses came along that I had much greater motivation to work on books:
- Inter-religious Dialogue (Book: Dialogue in Diversity)
- Clinical Pastoral Education, assisting my wife a CPE supervisor. (Book: Dynamics in Pastoral Counseling and Training)
The first book I included a LOT of chapters that were going to being in my book on Missions Theology. The second book had less, but did have a fair bit on theological reflection and the case study method, which I consider important for Missions Theology.
So I am not sure if I will finish this book, repeating from my other books, or finish this book only with the topics that I haven’t covered elsewhere, or don’t finish the book.
So here is the first/rough draft of Chapter 2————
Relevant and Faithful Theology
A relevant question that could come up here is which is more difficult? Is it harder to to make theology relevant/resonant with 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 cutlurally relevant theology that sadly is not true to God’s Word. That may be true.
On the other hand, a seminary student enculturated and trained in culture “A” could be reasonably thought competent to provide a theology that is true to God’s word, but is not relevant/resonant in culture “B.” This also makes sense.
Before we delve into this further, this may be a good place to think about the differences between the terms relevant and resonant in the context of culture. According to Mike Aruaz:
“Cultural relevance is achieved when the audience recognizes what you’ve created as something that reflects their culture.”
“Cultural Resonance is achieved when your audience uses what you’ve created to talk to each other about something meaningful that they’ve been observing in their culture.”
Using cultural symbols may make a message relevant, but it may not strike a resonant chord with the deep interests and concerns of a people.
Now let’s consider Figure 7. It shows two Culture circles— Culture A and Culture B. Anything within those circles are culturally relevant and/or resonant. The figure is a bit false because certainly there are things that are relevant to both cultures at the same time, so certainly two cultures much overlap in some ways. For ease of visualization, however, they are shown as fully separate. Within each of thdse circles is a smaller circle of theologies that are relevant/resonant to the respective cultures. Therefore, there were be theologies that are seen as relevant to that culture, providing answers to their concerns— regardless of whether the theologies are true or not.
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. If we accept that God’s Revelation has a message that is, ultimately, relevant to all cultures, there will be an overlap of God’s Revelation with every cultural circul, including Cultures “A” and “B.” And, likewise, if God’s Revelation is relevant to all cultures, then there should be the potential for culturally relevant theologies that are true to God’s Word for all cultures.
The overlapping circles creates several regions.
- Region 1 is a contextual theology that is both comprehenisble to Culture “A” and is true to God’s message. (Region 4 corresponds to this but for Culture “B”.) This is in contrast to Region 5 which are culturally relevant theologies that are not true to God’s message for Culture “A” (with the corresponding Region 6 for Culture “B”).
- Region 2 is how God’s message is relevant or resonant to Culture A, as Region 3 is for Culture “B.”
- One could look at Regions 7, for Culture “A,” and 8, for Culture “B” as aspects of their respective cultures that are not affected by God’s revelation. For example, the food they eat, the solutions they come up to environmental needs, much of the music and customs they practice may be unaffected by God’s Word. God’s message does not call on eradicaton of all cultural variation between peoples. Thus, Christians within a culture can still be “at home” in their culture while being true to God’s Word.
Figure 7. Culture and Theology
Now, let’s return to the two scenarios at the beginning of this chapter. Consider John, a new believer raised up in predominantly non-Christian Region B. With limited understanding of God’s Word, it is more likely that his attempts to theologize God’s message to his own people will drift into Region 6 (culturally relevant theoligies that are not well-grounded on God’s Word). Additionally, John’s lack of experience with other cultures may hinder him as well in identifying what is culturally important and what is not. He may slide into ethnocentrism (Culture “B” must be right and good) or exoticism (we are messed up and must become like Culture “A’)
It in the second scenario, consider James, a Christian from Culture “A” who is seeking to serve as a missionary in Culture “B.” Without solid training long-term training in Culture “B” it is more likely that his theology is going to not be in Region 4, but in Region 1. He is likely to express God’s Message to Culture B in the theological construct relevant to Culture “A.”
James’s situation may even be worse than Thomas. He is not only inadequately trained in Culture “B,” he may also be inadequately trained in God’s revelation. Often in seminary, there is greater effort to teach the theology of the denominational sub-culture, than on teaching the God’s word. James may have a dual disadvantage.
But which limitation is greater for the seminary graduate? It is arguably 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.
Two 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-Israelites 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 (prohibitions against marrying outside of one’s ethnicity)
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 as well.
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 in some key ways.
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 of the future, 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, in Acts 15, 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 seens 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.
It is easy to use or create theologies that are not in line with Scripture when reaching out to a predominantly non-Christian culture. Young believers in the culture may lack the Biblical backing needed. Seminarians from another culture may lack cultural knowledge, AND may be better trained in the theology of their own culture or sub-culture than they are in God’s Word.
1. John in this chapter has an “emic” (insider’s) perspective of the culture in which he is ministering. James in this chpater has an “etic” (outsider’s) perspective. Both can provide hindrances to effective ministry. How might James and John do to limit the problems with their own perspectives?