I want to reflect further on some of the issues that came up in my post last week on diversity and community. God’s truth is absolute and universal, but we never receive it in a pure, abstract, culture-free form. The Gospel is always incarneted in a particular cultural context.
It is easy for us as Christians to think that we have somehow received truth from God apart from a cultural vehicle. But if you think about it for a minute, this is really impossible. Jesus was incarnated at a particular time and in a particular place. He spoke a particular language (Aramaic) and revealed Himself in the context of a particular culture. The Christian faith is firmly tied to particular events in time and space (as Francis Schaeffer liked to put it). The concept of an abstract, ethereal truth that is above and beyond any human culture comes out of Greek philosophy rather than Scripture.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I firmly believe in absolute truth and that such truth is revealed in Scripture. God’s truth, as He understands it, is not confined to or limited by any human culture. But in order for God to communicate it to us he must “incarnate” His truth into a particular culture. There may be a heavenly language, but we do not understand it, at least not yet (see Rev. 7:9-10). God must speak our human language in order for us to understand His revelation. The doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture say that God has guided the authors of Scripture to reliably record His truth in a particular human language and cultural context.
Because of this all Christian communities are particular. Although we share the same biblical truth, we each live it out in the context of our own culture. There is not a single biblical culture and we do not lose our own culture when we believe, although the Christian faith must transform all cultures. When we gather as a community of believers, we do so in the context of our own culture.
Likewise, when we bring the Gospel to others we must do it in the context of their own culture. Paul understood this when he said “I have become all things to all men” (1 Cor. 9:19-23). When among the Jews he adopted Jewish customs, but when among Gentiles he adopted Gentile ones. The implication of course is that he was with each different group one at a time. In a culturally mixed group things get more complicated (see Gal. 2:11-14).
Paul’s principle is for outreach, and we should expect that mature Christians should be able to overcome some of their cultural differences and enjoy fellowship with those from other backgrounds. Yet even here our cultural backgrounds are not erased, and a healthy church will include younger Christians and seekers as well as mature Christians.
This is a topic worth further discussion, so please share your own thoughts.