Biblical and Cultural Hermeneutics - Christianity and Culture

Jerram Barrs


LECTURE 1: General Principles


Introduction – A Definition of Culture:

The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought characteristic of a community or population. (Readers’ Digest - Illustrated)
The concepts, habits, skills, art, instruments, institutions, etc. of a given people in a given period. (Webster – Unabridged)

1. Affirmation
All cultures reveal the image of God, for culture is the expression of dominion. As we apply body, mind and imagination to the tasks of living in this world, so human culture develops.
The outworking of dominion, of being God’s vice-regents on earth - Genesis 1:26-28; Psalm 8.
Till the garden of this world with hand, body, mind and imagination.
Understanding, naming and exercising dominion over creation and over oneself – this leads to the development of culture.
God’s Wisdom speaks to the whole of humanity – Proverbs 8 – so there is much that is admirable in every society and every culture.

2. Sober Realism
All cultures reflect the reality of the fall. Sin is revealed alongside the glory of every culture.
Genesis 4 – we see them making tools, musical instruments and also weapons of violence.
Egypt – the building of the pyramids, but with the use of slave labor. A government that can accomplish marvels, but that kills the babies of the Hebrews.
Solomon’s wisdom is displayed in his magnificent building projects, and in his understanding of creation – 1 Kings 4:33-; yet, he has an adulterous hearts and makes his sinful alliances with other nations.

3. Warning
All cultures express the religious commitments of the human heart. T.S. Eliot wrote: "A people's culture is the incarnation of its religion."
Pride over against God is at the heart of all human sin, and this pride finds its expression in culture.
Question - Biblical examples - Babel in Genesis 11; or Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel; Law for the Jews; Wisdom for the Greeks
The caste system in India is an outworking of the doctrine of Karma in Hinduism; or as Nehru said “Our religion has never helped us to damn a stream for irrigation, etc.”
Jihad in Islam – example here in St. Louis.
Question – USA - Materialism, Freedom, Individualism, The American Dream

4. Challenge
All need to let Scripture sit in judgment, not only over our personal sins, but also over our cultures. We are all blinded by cultural prejudice.
a). Ask oneself what are the marks of one's own culture, its distinguishing features.
b). Ask a believer from another culture what he or she sees to be the marks of your culture; but ask with humility, and expect to be hurt.
c). Travel, even to another part of one's own country, broadens the mind and gives a little objectivity about one's culture.
d). Read Scripture and notice in particular those passages of the Word which you find difficult, which make you uncomfortable, which you are tempted to explain away. These will often be areas where your thinking is shaped by your own culture rather than by the Word. Notice also those passages of Scripture that you find immediately easy to read and accept, and ask: “Am I truly understanding them?”

5. Transformation
Cultures are to be transformed by the faith and obedience of believers. The Christian's task is a difficult one, both to affirm culture, and to challenge and change it.
Preaching the Word always involves a conflict of kingdoms, a clash of loyalties, for we preach that ‘There is no God, but God.’
The gospel is transforming, not only for individuals, but also for cultures. Consider the example of slavery – at first the practice of justice and fairness by individuals and the treating of people with dignity as God’s image-bearers and fellow believers (Philemon), but eventually its abolition in society as a Christian understanding begins to work like ‘salt and light.’
This makes our task particularly difficult today, for we face, not only the perennial problem of the pride of each culture in itself, but also the reign of cultural relativism. This insists that there is no one ‘meta’, transcendent, universal story to understand human cultures, and there is no ‘meta’, transcendent, universal commandment for cultures to obey.
Therefore we will be perceived, whenever we seek to challenge any culture and transform it, as arrogant, judgmental and imperialistic – the hobgoblin of political correctness.
Yet, God calls us to this task – 2 Corinthians 10:4-5

LECTURE 2: Principles of operation in another culture (including our own!)


1. Non-Identification
Never identify a particular culture as truly Christian. There may be substantial first fruits of cultural transformation, but no culture in this age becomes fully Christian.
The rule of Law rather than of men is a glorious first fruit – as was the abolition of slavery and the slave trade.
Problem for devout Moslems coming to the USA or to Europe and hearing that these are ‘Christian Societies’ – what are they to think about Christianity and materialism, personal autonomy, marriage and family breakdown, the sexual permissiveness of popular culture, etc.?

2. Humility
The importance of personal humility. Be ready to accept criticisms of your own culture with grace, and to critique it yourself (1 Peter 5:5b-6; Matthew 7:1ff).
It is particularly important for the Christian to acknowledge the failures of the church to be salt and light, for judgment is to begin with the household of God (1 Peter 4:17). We are called to judge ourselves rather than the culture (1 Corinthians 5:9-13).

3. Identity
Find your identity primarily in your relationship with Christ, and in your membership in the kingdom of God, rather than in your own culture (Philippians 3:3-9; Hebrews 11:9-10, 13-16; 13:12-14;
1 Peter 2:11-12).

4. Appreciation
Be committed to enter into another culture and to express appreciation for and enjoyment of its glories (Philippians 4:8).
Problem in USA right now of knee-jerk critical response and culture war mentality. We always need to ask ‘where is the image of God displayed?

5. Incarnation
Work at personally adopting cultural practices wherever possible. The Incarnation is your model (Philippians 2:3-11).
The incarnation is a remarkable model. It might be said that Jesus entered 1st century Palestine so thoroughly that he became an offense to some. “Is this not Jesus, the carpenter’s son, the brother of …?” “Can anything good come from Galillee?”
He was at home among the teachers of the Law in the temple courts (by the age of 12!), the country people, the fishermen, the wealthy tax collectors, the prostitutes and the lepers.
Imagine how the music of the temple compared to the music of heaven!
Our calling is to be like him and fully enter the culture to which God calls us, whether it is our own or another (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).
Yet, we are also to so love our own people that we are to be like Paul (Romans 9:1-3) and like Moses. Neither they or we can bear judgment for the sins of others, but Jesus did for us all!

6. Bridges
Search and pray for the wisdom to discern what in the culture may be used as bridges for the gospel.
Aware of the dangers, yet become ‘a Jew to the Jews’ and a ‘Greek to the Greeks.’
Example – Paul has Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3)
John using ‘logos’ in John 1
Paul using the altar to the unknown god in Acts 17
Understand a culture’s worldview, and empathize with those who hold it, rather than to ridicule it or them.
See the strong case not the weak –
- Of the Marxist, for example, the rejection of materialism, the concern for the oppressed, the passion for justice (my Dad!).
- Of the ‘New Age’ devotee, the longing for spirituality, the sense that there must be more to life than materialism, the openness to talk of God, the admiration for Jesus.
- Of the autonomous individual desperate for freedom.
- Of the anxious parent worried about moral pressures on their child.
“To honestly and sympathetically deal with the best case that any form of unbelief can make, and then show the desperate need that still remains and how it can only be met by the true God and His redeeming Son – this is the more excellent way.” Ralph Winter

7. Counting the Cost
What must you clearly not do, even if is an important part of a culture's way of life, and even though your refusal to participate may bring discredit on you and, perhaps, on the gospel?
Participation in idol worship (1 Corinthians 10:18-22)
The golden calf (Exodus 32), or boiling a calf in its mother’s milk
This not always so simple – Naaman, the Syrian, going into the temple of Rimmon (2 Kings 5:17-18)
Participation in ancestor ceremonies in Japan or Korea
Participation in Christmas (a pagan festival of the winter solstice! Or a celebration of the idolatry of consumerism!)
Participation in Halloween

8. A Sharp Sword
Never sheathe the cutting edge of the gospel which condemns certain cultural ideas and practices. The Word of God must be taught clearly, both when it is being initially proclaimed, and when new believers are being taught what the obedience of faith will mean for their lives, even if these practices are a basic part of a culture.
Don’t sacrifice to me (Acts 14:14-18)
Instructions to Gentiles (Acts 15:28-29)
William Carey and widow burning in India
Political, judicial and police corruption in many parts of the world

9. Hardness of Heart
Recognition of the hardness of the human heart will shape the way we challenge the problem areas of a culture. We teach obedience to God's Word for new believers, but allow them to let Scripture sit in judgment over their culture, make them salt and light in it, and gradually bring about its transformation.
In Poland money changing
In the former Soviet bloc and Eastern Europe bribery or gifts – when is it respect, courtesy and gratitude and when is it bribery?
What should we teach the principles of and allow time and the working of God’s Word and Spirit to undermine and replace, including cultural institutions?
Slavery in the New Testament (Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 3:22-4:1; Philemon)
Silver images of Diana’s temple and the tough consequences (Acts 19:19-37)
Polygamy > monogamy
Serial polygamy > to monogamy
In France the culture of a mistress in addition to a wife
Need for flexibility rather than legalism; there are often no easy or rigid answers available, or appropriate
Paul and circumcision – sometimes ‘yes’, sometimes ‘no’

10. Cultural Embodiment
Encourage new believers to express their Christian faith in the forms of their own culture. Our aim is that the people of every nation should offer the glory of their culture to Christ (Revelation 21:26).
If not we exercise a kind of cultural imperialism or elitism, or the authority of our own personal taste – music wars in churches
Are there even religious ceremonies that can be adopted?
Yet, having said this, true Christianity challenges all cultures by demanding change in the culture according to God’s Word. So, culture – which is often absolute (if culture is thought of as divine or as divinely mandated, as in Islam, or as the apex of civilization [even of Christian civilization!], as in the USA,) is ‘relativized’ by the Gospel.

Jerram Barrs, 08/04/2003