Indice > Dialoghi Interconfessionali > E-RC > Christology; Holy Spirit; Mission; (part 6)

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  INTRODUCTION - selezionare
6. The Gospel And Culture
  CONCLUSION - selez.

6. The Gospel and Culture

      The influence of culture on evangelism, conversion and church formation is increasingly recognized as a topic of major missiological importance. The Willowbank Report Gospel and Culture (1978) defines culture as "an integrated system of beliefs (about God or reality or ultimate meaning), of values (about what is true, good, beautiful and normative), of customs (how to behave, relate to others, talk, pray, dress, work, play, trade, farm, eat, etc.), and of institutions which express these beliefs, values and customs (government, law courts, temples or churches, family, schools, hospitals, factories, shops, unions, clubs, etc.), which binds a society together and gives it a sense of identity, dignity, security and continuity."30 Viewed thus, culture pervades the whole of human life, and it is essential for Christians to know how to evaluate it.
      It is acknowledged that Evangelicals and Roman Catholics start from a different background. Evangelicals tend to stress the discontinuity, and Roman Catholics the continuity, between man unredeemed and man redeemed. At the same time, both emphases are qualified. Discontinuity is qualified by the Evangelical recognition of the image of God in humankind and continuity by the Roman Catholic recognition that human beings and societies are contaminated by sin. The Lausanne Covenant summarized this tension as follows: "Because man is God's creature, some of his culture is rich in beauty and goodness. Because he is fallen, all of it is tainted with sin and some of it is demonic."
      We have particularly concentrated on the place of culture in four areas, — in the Bible, in cross-cultural evangelism, in conversion and in church formation.

1) Culture and the Bible

      We have already affirmed that the Bible is the Word of God through the words of human beings. Realizing that human language and human thought forms reflect human cultures, we saw the need to explore two major questions: a) what was the attitude of the biblical authors to their cultures? b) how should we ourselves react to the cultural conditioning of Scripture?
      In answer to the first question, we considered the New Testament. Its message comes to us from the context of the first century world, with its own images and vocabulary, and is thus set in the context of that world's culture. The culture has become the vehicle of the message.
      Yet within that first century culture there were elements which the Christian and the Church were required to resist, out of loyalty to the Lord Jesus. Distinctions between the new community and the surrounding culture were clearly drawn. At the same time, the Christian and the Church enjoyed a new freedom in Christ which enabled them to discern those elements in the culture which must be rejected as hostile to their faith and those which were compatible with it and could on that account be affirmed. Blindness, which leads Christians to tolerate the evil and/or overlook the good in their culture, is a permanent temptation.
      Our other question was concerned with how we ourselves should react to the cultural conditioning of Scripture. It breaks down into two subsidiary questions which express the options before us. First, are the biblical formulations (which we have already affirmed to be normative) so intrinsically conditioned by their mode of specific cultural expression that they cannot be changed to suit different cultural settings? Put another way, has biblical inspiration (which Evangelicals and Roman Catholics. both acknowledge) made the cultural forms themselves normative? The alternative is to ask whether it is the revealed teaching which is normative, so that this may be re-expressed in other cultural forms. We believe the latter to be the case, and that such re-expression or translation is a responsibility laid both on cross-cultural missionaries and on local Christian leaders.

2) Culture and Evangelism

      Christian missionaries find themselves in a challenging cross-cultural indeed tri-cultural, situation. They come from a particular culture themselves, they travel to people nurtured in another, and they take with them a biblical gospel which was originally formulated in a third. How will this interplay of cultures affect their evangelism? And how can they be simultaneously faithful to Scripture and relevant to the local culture?
      In the history of mission in this century a progress is discernible. The successive approaches may be summarized as follows:
      a) In the first period the missionary brought along with the gospel message many of the cultural trappings of his or her own situation. Then culture, instead of being (as in the New Testament) a vehicle for the proclamation of the gospel, became a barrier to it. Accidentals of teaching and practice were taught as if they were essentials, and a culture-Christianity was preached, as if it were the gospel.
      b) In the second period the gospel message was translated into terms (language and thought forms, artistic symbols and music) appropriate to those to whom it was brought, and the cultural trappings began to be left behind. Now local cultures, instead of being neglected, were respected and where possible used for the better communication of the gospel. In a word, the gospel began to be "contextualized."
      c) In the third period, in which we are living, missionaries bring both the biblical gospel and an experience of life in Christ. They also endeavor to take seriously the people to whom they have come, with their world view and way of life, so that they may find their own authentic way of experiencing and expressing the salvation of Christ. This kind of evangelism tries to be both faithful to the biblical revelation and relevant to the people's culture. In fact it aims at bringing Scripture, context and experience into a working relationship effective for presenting the Gospel.

3) Culture and Conversion

      We are clear that conversion includes repentance, and that repentance is a turning away from the old life. But what are the aspects of the old life from which a convent must turn away? Conversion cannot be just turning away from "sin" as this is viewed in any one particular culture. For different cultures have different understandings of sin, and we have to recognize this aspect of pluralism. So missionaries and church leaders in each place need great wisdom, both at the time of a person's conversion and during his or her maturing as a Christian, to distinguish between the moral and the cultural, between what is clearly approved or condemned by the gospel on the one hand and by custom or convention on the other. The repentance of conversion should be a turning away only from what the gospel condemns.

4) Culture and Church Formation

      In the development of the Christian community in each place, as in the other areas we have mentioned, missionaries must avoid all cultural imperialism; that is, the imposition on the Church of alien cultural forms. Just as the gospel has to be inculturated, so must the Church be inculturated also.
      We all agree that the aim of "indigenization" or "inculturation" is to make local Christians congenial members of the body of Christ. They must not imagine that to become Christian is to become western and so to repudiate their own cultural and national inheritance. The same principle applies in the west, where too often to become Christian has also meant to become middle class.
      There are a number of spheres in which each Church should be allowed to develop its own identity. The first is the question of certain forms of organization, especially as they relate to Church leadership. Although Roman Catholics and Evangelicals take a different approach to authority and its exercise, we are agreed that in every Christian community (especially a new one) authority must be exercised in a spirit of service. "I am among you as one who serves," Jesus said (Luke 22:27). Yet the expression given to leadership can vary according to different cultures.
      The second sphere is that of artistic creativity — for example church architecture, painting, symbols, music and drama. Local churches will want to express their Christian identity in artistic forms which reflect their local culture.
      A third area is theology. Every church should encourage theological reflection on the aspirations of its culture, and seek to develop a theology which gives expression to these. Yet only in such a way as to apply, not compromise, the biblical revelation.
      Two problems confront a church which is seeking to "inculturate" itself, namely provincialism and syncretism. "Provincialism" asserts the local culture of a particular church to the extent that it cuts itself adrift from, and even repudiates, other churches. We are agreed that new expressions of local church life must in no way break fellowship with the wider Christian community.
      Syncretism is the attempt to fuse the biblical gospel with elements of local culture which, being erroneous or evil, are incompatible with it. But the gospel's true relation to culture is discriminating, judging some elements and welcoming others. The criteria it applies to different elements or forms include the questions whether they are under the judgment of Christ's lordship, and whether they manifest the fruit of the Spirit.
      It has to be admitted that every expression of Christian truth is inadequate and may be distorted. Hence the need for mutually respectful dialogue about the relative merits of old and new forms, in the light of both the biblical revelation and the experience of the wider community of faith.
      The Second Vatican Council addressed itself to these important matters. It recognized that in every culture there are some elements which may need to be "purged of evil association" and to be restored "to Christ their source, who overthrows the ride of the devil and limits the manifold malice of evil." In this way "the good found in people's minds and hearts, or in particular customs and cultures, in purified, raised to a higher level and reaches its perfection... ."
      Hence it is not a question of adapting things which come from the world usurped by Satan, but of re-possessing them for Christ. To take them over as they are could be syncretism. "Repossession ," on the other hand, entails four steps: a) the selection of certain elements from one's culture; b) the rejection of other elements which are incompatible with the essence of the biblical faith; c) the purification from the elements selected and adopted of everything unworthy; d) the integration of these into the faith and life of the Church.
      The age to come has broken into this present age in such a way as to touch our lives with both grace and judgment. It cuts through every culture. Vatican II referred to this discontinuity, and also emphasized the need for "the spiritual qualities and endowments of every age and nation" to be fortified, completed and restored in Christ.
      For Jesus Christ is lord of all, and our supreme desire vis-à-vis each culture is to "take every thought captive to obey Christ" (2 Cor 10:5).


  1. The Willowbank Report: Consultation on Gospel and Culture (Lausanne: Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, 1978), Lausanne Occasional Paper no. 2, par. 2.

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  2. Lausanne Covenant par. 10.

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  3. Here Roman Catholics will want to make reference to the Encyclical of Pope John Paul II, Slavorum apostoli, 2nd June 1985.

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  4. Decree on the Church's Missionary Activity (Ad gentes), 9.

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  5. Gaudium et spes, 58.

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