Gospel & Culture blog
By Ken Nehrbass
We know that the gospel is not like a plant to be transplanted, but more like a seed to be sown so it will grow on its own in soils all over the world. But how do we know what that "seed" is? Judiasm didn't have this difficulty of separating the "essentials" from the "translatables," because Judaism sought to maintain a cultural, geographic, and linguistic homogeneity wherever it was practiced.. Islam also tries to remain homogenous by translating Arabic and its umma. But Christianity tries to be limitless in cultural translatability. What parts of Christianity are essentials in each culture?
The answer to that question is not black and white. The answers fall on a continuum. On the left side of the spectrum, Karl Barth argued that only Jesus Christ was the "word" and no human language could encapsulate that word. On the right end of the spectrum, Carl F Henry and John MacArthur argue that the "plain meaning of the text" is not blurred by culture, and can be directly expressed and understood in any context. Most missiologists fall in the middle of this continuum-- there are some "plain meanings" that are transcultural, whereas other aspects of the Christian faith are shaped by the cultural context. But how do we know what falls in each of these two categories?
The church has typically answered this question through cross-cultural councils where they worked out creeds, like the Apostle's Creed or the Nicene Creed. Going back in Christian history, the affirmation that "Jesus is Lord" was a simple, non-negotiable tenet across cultures. We could look at the sermons in the book of Acts to see what Paul considered to be the "kernel" of the Christian faith. More recently, the Lausanne Covenant and Chicago declaration, which solidified a global consensus on the essentials of the Christian faith.
Why should the global church collaborate to work out the "kernel" of the gospel? Why not just stick to the wisdom of the early church fathers or to Western theologians? The reason working out this kernel must be a global project is that we are all myopic, and cannot see the full implications of the gospel. Westerners long focused on the judicial aspect of the atonement, and paid less attention to the power that Christ gives over the demonic. Pacific Island Christians often focus on the healing and wellness that Christ brings, but may
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Associate Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor