Monday, August 06, 2018

Inculturating Christian faith

A common objection to the Protestant faith is that we don't find Protestantism in early church history. We don't find it in the church fathers or ancient liturgies. That objection has never had any resonance with me, for a couple of reasons:

i) We can read the Bible for ourselves. We can compare the Bible to the church fathers and various developments in church history. We can see for ourselves the extent to which patristic theology or medieval theology does or doesn't matchup with biblical paradigms. 

When I say we can read the Bible for ourselves, I'm including Bible scholarship that seeks to interpret Scripture in the original setting. There's no reason to treat the church fathers as the filter through which we must read the Bible. Biblical revelation is independent of the church fathers, and by comparing the two, we can see discrepancies. 

One problem is that early on there was a break between the church and the synagogue, so that many church fathers lose the Jewish context of Scripture. It veers off in some dubious directions. 

ii) Cultural recontextualization is an issue in missiology. Church history unfolded the way it did due to its historical and geographical point of origin, in the Roman Empire. But that's a historical accident–albeit a providential accident.

If ancient China, India, Japan, or South America (to take a few examples at random) had been the epicenter of the Christian faith, then church history would fork off in a very different direction. If that was the frame of reference, then you wouldn't find Greek Orthodoxy or Latin theology in early church history. You wouldn't find that in the church fathers or ancient liturgies, because the "church fathers" would be Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Mayan, &c. 

The expansion of the faith creates a cross-pollination between the Gospel and indigenous cultures. That carries with it the danger of syncretism. A danger that's often realized in varying degrees.

However, the Christian faith can be inculturated in diverse, but legitimate and authentic ways. For instance, when Protestant missionaries evangelize the Dominican Republic, you end up with a distinctive religious fusion. Same thing when Protestant missionaries evangelize Eskimos. Or modern messianic Jewish movements.  

Scripture isn't a blueprint for how the Christian faith must be appropriated. Scripture provides essential guidelines for ruling in or ruling out certain developments. But there's an area of freedom where Scripture is silent. 

That doesn't mean there can't be illegitimate developments. There are, and these are serious aberrations. But certain kinds of diversity in the form of worship, for instance, are permissible. In alternate history scenarios, there'd be different cultural starting-points, producing a fluid, dynamic interplay between revelation and application. It's very provincial and ethnocentric to make Greece and Rome the template for authentic Christianity. And notice how often the NT letters must be countercultural. How often the NT letters must curb the dominance of indigenous social mores and thought-patterns. There's no cultural template that's normative for Christians. Only divine revelation enjoys that status. 


  1. Another problem is that most of the saints we call "church fathers" were simply not that early. Those who were separated from Jesus and the Apostles by centuries, many of whom did not know the biblical languages, would not have had any special insight or interpretive advantage over us. Indeed, the advanced state of 21st century biblical scholarship gives US a huge interpretive advantage compared to what a 3rd or 4th century bishop would have had access to.

    And outside of the canonical writings, we have precious few Christian writings that date within the first century of the founding of the church. Even if we wanted to, there just isn't enough there to adjudicate our modern debates between Romanists and Protestants.

  2. The church fathers sometimes contradicted each other and themselves, which is the underlying reason for us not putting them on par with the authority of divine Scripture. These men, no matter how theologically gifted, were not inspired by God.

    As far as I know, Roman Catholics cannot know with certainty that all of the father's teachings are correct without resorting to circular reasoning. It is thus because Rome said it was thus.

    "...that ye might learn in us not to think of men above that which is written, that no one of you be puffed up for one against another." (1 Corinthians 4:6)