Perspectives on the Church’s Mission Part III: Missions in Cultural Perspective -- By: Greg Peters

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 136:543 (Jul 1979)
Article: Perspectives on the Church’s Mission Part III: Missions in Cultural Perspective
Author: Greg Peters

Perspectives on the Church’s Mission
Part III:
Missions in Cultural Perspective

George W. Peters

[George W. Peters, Professor Emeritus of World Missions, Dallas Theological Seminary.]

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a series of four articles delivered by the author as the W. H. Griffith Thomas Memorial Lectures at Dallas Theological Seminary, November 1–4, 1978.]

In the book Christ and Culture1 H. Richard Niebuhr discusses several theories about the church’s relationship to culture that have been emphasized in the history of the church. His chapter headings are indicative of the theories. After an introductory chapter he speaks of “Christ against Culture,” “The Christ of Culture,” “Christ above Culture,” “Christ and Culture in Paradox,” and “Christ the Transformer of Culture.”

Each of these positions has had its proponents who have wrestled with this issue honestly and in the light of their understanding of the Scriptures. The Christ-culture relationship is neither new nor simple. Because of this, Niebuhr speaks in his introductory chapter of “the enduring problem.” Unfortunately it has endured to the present day. Never before has the gospel and biblical Christianity interacted with more and widely differing cultures than it does today. At the same time never in history have cultures asserted their identity more emphatically than they do today in a time of heightened nationalism and messianism.

The Enduring Problem

Of necessity modern missions has been forced into the foreground in this issue and for three reasons. First, the Bible had to be translated into the languages of the people, many of whom had no written language while others had only a limited religious vocabulary. This has raised the question of literalness in translation or translation that in many cases would be better if given in dynamic equivalents. The second reason for lively interaction with culture was the serious intention of many missionaries and leading nationals to build truly indigenous churches, that is, churches that were so related to the native cultures that the people would feel at home in the churches and function freely in them.

A third reason for cultural interaction is the issue of revelational absolutism and cultural relativism. Questions such as these have been raised: Which doctrines and principles are absolute and which patterns and practices, forms and structures are culture-related and therefore relative? Are there ethical absolutes that are abiding and must be universalized, or is all behavior culture-related? What and who determines the stan...

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