Dr. Ted Miller, SOR Faculty
What instructions or principles does God provide in Scripture regarding how we contextualize the gospel across cultural boundaries?
As the pinnacle of God’s creative work, human beings create as naturally as they live. Perhaps the most basic of all human creations is what we describe broadly as culture.
In Scripture, we find that although the seeds of human culture are divine, its outworking has been the result of human activity. In the Garden of Eden, every decision made by Adam and Eve was a potentially new way of doing things. As they ordered and organized their days, determined where and when to eat and sleep, how they would interact with God, one another, and with the animals, they were creating an implicit structure to their lives. Each choice was a potential habit, and each habit could produce—even in its most basic sense—a potential culture, a path along which recurring ideas and actions could be continued, or against which new ideas and actions could be explored.
We know little about human life before the fall, but it’s undeniable that Adam and Eve’s disobedience introduced a drastic change to human culture. The relationship they had enjoyed with God—a regular part of their normal life—was now marked by shame, guilt, condemnation, and death.
According to Scripture, man continues to bear God’s image even in his sinful state. Likewise, he continued to create culture after the fall, but with the obvious addition that sin—rather than sinless innocence—vied for “normalcy.” Man’s natural bent towards sin became manifested not only by his sinful actions themselves, but by his attempts to define his sin as normal and acceptable.
God response to man’s collective rebellion at the Tower of Babel marks a key development for human culture. Although we know that God introduced multiple languages with the purpose of ending man’s coordinated action against him, we should also recognize that God either introduced or accelerated the possibility of multiple cultures. As the various language groups left behind their uncompleted project, it was natural that the new distance between them would eventually result in an amazing range of “normal” ways of living. (When Christians study cultures found across the world, we fully expect each culture to contain unmistakable indications of man’s bearing God’s image, as well as frightening and shameful indications of man’s moral depravity.)
God’s fulfilling of his covenant with Abraham provides another key element for our understanding of culture. God not only promised Abraham that his descendants would have a distinct family identity, but he eventually placed them in a new land with a new and distinct cultural identity—a way of living that was unlike any other culture on the face of the earth. God was not merely leaving the creation of culture up to man; he had now established a way of “normal” life—from daily and weekly activities to the year-long calendar—for an entire nation. Israel’s diligent observance of these cultural distinctives were non-negotiable elements in her keeping God’s covenant.
Despite God’s gracious dealings in her behalf, Israel responded to God’s covenant in one of two primary ways: she either ignored God’s cultural commands (among other things), or she began to think of them as marks of her superiority to the other nations. God’s unique cultural blessing on Israel cannot be denied, and yet from the Abrahamic covenant to the prophets, we find indications that God had plans for all nations, plans that apparently did not involve their becoming culturally absorbed into what he had given to Israel.
(to be continued)
The CGO Blog
Written by the CGO staff, with guest posts from students and other faculty/staff at BJU to provide thought leadership for missions in a new millennium.