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
pay less attention to the truth claims in Scripture. We need to hear each other's voices to get the big picture.
But I don't mean to imply that we're in the situation of the blind men who are all touching different parts of the elephant. God has not left us blind, groping in the dark. He is an effective communicator who has revealed Himself in scripture. Instead, we are all like men standing around the elephant with sight; but for too long, we have been comfortable just looking at the part of the elephant that's in front of us. We need to get up and walk around the elephant. And discussing biblical theology at the global level allows us to do that.
This leads to another issue of contextualization: how do Christians determine which aspects of their culture are sinful, and should be relinquished, and which are neutral, and which are in fact positive? When it comes to outright sins, it's pretty easy: if the Bible forbids it, don't do it.
But a lot of culture isn't that simple. Let's take an example: Suppose an animistic community holds a large yam harvest celebration. Some Christians say "This is a pagan event. The first yams are offered to dead ancestors. It's idolatry." But other Christians say, "No, we now, in our hearts, are thinking about God when we do our yam celebration. It's a thanksgiving service." And other Christians say "No, it's not a spiritual event at all. It's a large party, with no spiritual significance." While others say, "It is impossible to make an offering to dead ancestors, they have no power. They are gone. so even if people think of this as a pagan event, it has no efficacy." How can the church proceed? This was exactly the situation in Romans 14:14-23. Paul was saying "the event (meat sacrificed to idols, or yam celebrations, or whatever), in and of itself, has no spiritual meaning except that which you attach to it. For the one who thinks its a pagan event, he better not do it, because then he'd be choosing to do something he believes is a sin. For the one who sees it as a party, let him do it as a party. For the one who thinks it can be redeemed as an event that honors God. let them do that!
© 2015 Kenneth Nehrbass. All Rights Reserved.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Associate Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor