One of the significant discussion and pressure points for Evangelicals is how we understand and engage in culture. In a previous day, Fundamentalists separated from it, while Liberals (speaking theologically) accommodated to it.
The gospel creates a new person (Jn. 3:16; 2 Cor. 5:17; Eph. 2:14-16) who becomes part of a new community (Matt. 16:18), an eschatological, end-time community that exists now in the present time through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. This community manifests a gospel grounded, formed and framed culture that influences and impacts the world around them. Although Christians are in the world, they are not of the world (Jn. 17) which means they are not squeezed into its mold (Rom. 12:1-2). Rather, having been transformed by the gospel (2 Cor. 3:18; Rom. 12:2; Phil. 3:21) they influence and impact the culture.
Harold Netland, Professor of Philosophy of Religion and Intercultural Studies at TEDS, and a former ReachGlobal missionary to Japan, and Gerald R. McDermott, Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion, Roanoke College, were interviewed about their recently co-authored book, A Trinitarian Theology of Religions: An Evangelical Proposal. There is much to glean in the interview, and even more in the book. However, there was one response that was an excellent reminder about Christians and culture, and how we are to understand the gospel and its relation to culture.
Netland and McDermott write, “While the gospel can be expressed in any culture, it also judges every culture.” In response to the question “Why is it important to recognize both these truths?,” they replied,
Scholars like Andrew Walls and Lamin Sanneh have drawn attention to the “translatability” of the Christian gospel into diverse cultural settings. Walls speaks of the “indigenizing principle,” which reflects the fact that all Christians (including those within the first-century New Testament church) are embedded within particular historical, linguistic, and cultural settings. God encounters people within these contexts. Thus, the gospel of Jesus Christ can become “at home” within any particular linguistic or cultural setting. Unlike the relationship between Arabic and Islam, there is no single “Christian language” or “Christian culture.”
But the indigenizing principle must be balanced with what Walls calls the “pilgrim principle.” While the gospel can be authentically expressed within any cultural setting, it cannot simply be identified with any culture. The gospel of Jesus Christ transcends and challenges all cultures, reminding believers that they are not to be completely at home in any earthly culture. In this sense it also judges every culture.
A few questions to ponder:
- What do you find helpful about remembering the two aspects of culture – the “indigenizing principle” and the “pilgrim principle”?
- What happens if we focus on the “indigenizing principle” and neglect the “pilgrim principle”? Or what happens if we focus on the “pilgrim principle” and neglect the “indigenizing principle”?
- How has this played out among Evangelicals in our present-day discussion and understanding culture and cultural engagement?