Our series on “Mission, Culture and Being Biblical” have noted that some of the problems with contemporary missions philosophy such as that of the Insider Movement is the result of bad theology. Specifically we have seen instances of a defective theology of false religion, sin and the church. Added to this is also a defective understanding of the relationship between the Bible and Culture.
What is culture?
What is culture and how do missiologists define it? It is not an easy thing to define and missiologists do acknowledge this. For instance Lloyd Kwast, a former chairman of the Department of Missions at Talbot Seminary once said
There is probably no more comprehensive word in the English language than the word ‘culture,’ or no more complex a field of study than cultural anthropology. Yet, a thorough understanding of the meaning of culture is prerequisite to any effective communication of God’s good news to a different people group” (Kwast, 397)
The Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, a group made up of 33 individuals with theological, anthropological, linguistic and missional background has admitted in their Willowbank Report that
Culture is a term which is not easily susceptible to definition” (Lausanne Committee, 507).
In working towards understanding what culture is, Kwast finds it helpful to see culture as having several layers that addresses certain questions (see the image below):
I do find Kwast conceptual understanding to be helpful and especially insightful is that the core of a culture is one’s worldview. Those familiar with Presuppositional apologetics will definitely see how apologetics will intersect with culture (a given for most) and also missions (this is by implication, given that missions deals with unreach people group with the barrier of culture).
Dr. Charles Kraft is an important figure who co-wrote a 1979 paper on a new way to reach Muslims that set the trajectory for the Insider Movement. He describe culture in the following manner:
The term culture is the label anthropologists give to the structured customs and underlying worldview assumptions which govern people’s lives. Culture (including worldview) is a people’s way of life, their design for living, their way of coping with their biological, physical and social enviornment. It consist of learned, patterened assumptions (Worldview), concepts and behavior, plus the resulting artifacts (material culture)” (Kraft, 401).
I also appreciate John Frame Quote on What is Culture.
What are the possible relationships between the Bible and Culture?
Bible believing missionaries are to share the truth of the Bible to those who do not know Him that is situated in another culture. But what is the proper relationship between the Bible and culture? These are the possibilities:
- The Bible has nothing to say about culture
- The Bible is against everything in culture
- The Bible is for everything in culture
- The Bible is for and against different parts of culture
What model of Bible relationship to Culture should Christians Embrace?
Bible believing Christians should hold to the fourth view of the relationship between the Bible and culture: The Bible is for and against different parts of one’s culture.
The problem with the first view (the Bible has nothing to say about culture) is that since culture is something that man has made then God has the progative as the Creator of man to pronounce approval or condemnation upon man’s cultural endeavor. Recall that the definition of culture given by Kwast and Kraft who both identify that the core or deepest layer of culture is one’s worldview. One’s worldview is inherently religious (or anti-religious) in the sense that religion has been defined by Tillich as one’s ultimate commitment. Thus, Henry Van Til was onto something when decades ago he said that culture is one’s religion externalized. If culture is man’s religious expression then the Bible have jurisdiction over culture since it has jurisdiction over “religious” matters.
The problem with the second view (the Bible is against everything in culture) is that culture isn’t wrong in of itself. God’s Word does prescribe to His people answers to the different levels of questions that a culture is composed of: What is real? What is true? What is Good or Best? What is done? (see Kwast’s picture above).
God is not totally against culture in of itself as evident from God’s cultural mandate in Genesis 1:26-28:
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27 God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. 28 God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
Even after the Fall has taken place God reiterated the cultural mandate in Genesis 9:7. The God of the Bible also has not categorically condemn the material side of culture per se; rather He even empowered men by the Spirit of God to do craft work as in Exodus 31:1-6.
The problem with the third view (the Bible is for everything in culture) is that since culture involves the participation of man, man who is thoroughly sinful (Romans 3:23) will inevitably bring his corruption to his cultural activity. We should therefore not be surprised to see manifestation of man’s depravity and wickedness in every culture.
It is the third view that both the missiologists and the critics of contemporary unbiblical missiologists wishes to address but from two different starting points.
The Concern OF Contemporary Missiologists: Equivocating A Missionary’s Culture with what’s Biblical
Most contemporary missiologists are concerned that people from missionary sending church naively assume that their culture = what’s Biblical.
Concerning culture, Charles Kraft notes the problem one has of being epistemologically conscious of what is merely one’s own culture versus transcendent universal truth:
We are totally submerged in it, relating to it much as a fish relates to water. And we are usually as unconscious of it as a fish must be of the water or as we usually are of the air we breathe.” (Kraft, 402).
Unfortunately we don’t really notice our own culture until we are exposed to another culture. And if one is not aware of one’s own culture by being aware of another culture we face the following danger:
We have continually reverted to the assumption that becoming Christian means becoming like us culturally” (Kraft, 400).
The Concern FOR Contemporary Missiologists: Letting an Unreached Culture go against what’s Biblical
A missionary or missiologist can become so cautious of everything in one’s original culture that they then end up spending all their time and energy discerning against it while failing to have the same level of scrutiny for the culture of the unreached people group. Or one can be so zealous to see the lost come to know Christ that one then pragmatically use the vehicle of the recipients’ culture without as much discernment as they should be having. In both instances, one can let the culture of the unreached people people group become practically more authoritative than the Bible in one’s philosophy of missions. When this happen we see the problem of unbiblical compromises or worst: syncretism.
David Hesselgrave’ Three Culture Model is a helpful paradigm in thinking about the solution:
What Hesselgrave don’t want is the arrow with broken line between the missionary culture being transmitted to the respondent culture as Gospel truth. Instead Hesselgrave is right to note that missionaries must go back to the Bible (arrow from missionary culture pointing to “Bible Culture”) and know it really well which the missionary then brings the “Bible Culture” to the unreached people group in their culture (arrow from “Bible Culture pointing to “Respondent Culture”).
I would add another arrow to the picture: there needs to be an arrow from the respondent culture pointing back to “Bible Culture” to convey the need for the unreached people group to go back to the Bibles themselves and see that it is taught in Scripture. We see the Biblical support for this idea in Acts 17:11 when it talks about the Bereans that Paul was trying to reach:
Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.
Essentially what we need more of is the Bible! In order to avoid either the senders’ culture or the culture of the unreached people group interfering with the Gospel message and biblical evangelistic method we need to know more deeply the Bible. We need to be faithful to it and trust that it is true when it talks about the human condition and the hope of sinners. We must not lean on our own understanding and think we are wiser than the writers of Scripture just because our day and age has become more sophisticated in cultural anthropology.
We must not forget 1 Corinthians 1:18:
For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us whoare being saved it is the power of God.
Hesselgrave, David. 2009. The Role of Culture in Communication. Perspectives on the World Christian Movement. Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, eds., 425-429.
Kwast, Lloyd. 2009. Understanding Culture. Perspectives on the World Christian Movement. Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, eds., 397-399.
Kraft, Charles. 2009. CUlture, Worldview and Contextualization. Perspectives on the World Christian Movement. Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, eds., 400-406.
Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization. 2009. The Willowbank Report. Perspectives on the World Christian Movement. Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, eds., 506-528.
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