Generous (evangelical) Orthodoxy: Cultural

Generous (evangelical) Orthodoxy: Cultural August 15, 2005

This series on Generous Orthodoxy, which I think remains an evangelical movement until it can find a genuine fourth way, I have looked at a number of features that may provide a basis for conversation as we look into the shape of the Church in the next generation. I see the series a bit of a personal credo on where I’ve been and where I think we should go. I hope some of you share this vision with me.

Today’s will focus on culture.


Orthodoxy has tended to see itself as timeless, transcultural, and always relevant. Postmodernity has chased that idea down and suggested otherwise.

Everything, it is now argued, emerges out of a cultural context and reflects that context.

Even the Creeds of the Christian faith.

Which is not to deny truth or truthfulness. But, we must remember this: only God is Truth. His revelation in Christ is truth, the scriptural witness is truth, and our theology can articulate truth. But, only God is Truth. Which also means that Truth is ultimately known most completely in relationship with God.

So, if we wish to chart a path for the emerging churches we will have to recognize the place of culture in the way we express the gospel and the way we “do church.” A culture that is disoriented may need a disorienting cultural expression before it can find an orientation.


Generosity demands that we be humble about all our culturally-embedded understandings.

When it comes to culture, the generosity dimension of our generous orthodoxy means we will encourage cultural analysis, cultural expression, and cultural adaptation. No one culture will maintain supremacy on how to articulate or express truth.

Language is a part of culture, and that means our language always carries cultural baggage. Which means our language-based articulations of truth are always culturally-shaped. This does not mean that truth can’t or doesn’t transcend culture, but it recognizes with some humility that our articulations are culturally-shaped.

It also asks, rather pointedly, this new generation to come to terms with the cultural-shape of the Bible, and it should lead a new generation to see the value of Hebrew and Greek. My 11 years of teaching seminary were years when I heard plenty of students question the value of studying biblical languages; that questioning came from a generation that believed English and Western were enough. This new day, however, knows the embeddedness of culture in language, and so it knows that the Bible is shaped by a culture. As Goethe said, Willst ein’ Dichter Du verstehen, musst in Dichter’s Lande gehen (If you want to understand a poet, you must go to the poet’s land). So, we must return to the biblical text and the biblical world and the biblical cultures and languages.

Anyone with a spirit of generosity will recognize the need to appreciate other cultural expressions and other Christian traditions. Today many are coming to appreciate icons in the Eastern Tradition, while also seeing themselves as part of the Protestant tradition.

The Emerging movement has directly called into question many (sometimes too many?) features of the current Evangelical movement and indirectly the three great traditions. It claims that Western cultural traditions of power, capitalism, business methods, educational procedures, philosophical baggage, and many other things, have grown like barnacles all over the gospel and are obscuring the gospel for the emerging generation that is rejecting those features of culture.

If any or all of these questions are justifiable, then there is an admission and a challenge to recognize the impact of culture. But, not so we can become “free” of cultural expression. That can’t happen. No, this is done so that the gospel can become enculturated in a new cultural setting.

One book that puts lots of this together is Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence.

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  • As with many things, this is a tough, wonderful balance that we must steward our way to & on (I started to say “through”, but that is hopeful at best). This goes beyond “in the world yet not of it”, since we are in the world (kosmos) & are of it (in time and space). It can not help but find voice to some degree when we speak. Being products of our time shades at minimum & shapes to a degree what we say. The issues we address are shaped by the issues we face in our era. The matters left unspoken to are like wise focused by our context. We need to at least humbly admit these factors. I look forward to your further work here Scot.

  • Scot, I’ve been looking forward to the cultural aspect of the generous (evangelical) orthodoxy posts. I am left with MANY questions, but I will start with one:Given the importance of the Hebrew & Greek language, culture and worldview to our current expression of faith, would you say that, as we attempt to contextualize Christianity (ie. First Nations/Native Americans, etc) that contextualization should be done from these historic contexts?So many well intentioned missionaries, wanting to avoid the history of theological and political colonialism, have pursued contextualization, but inadvertantly sabotaged their own efforts by using their Western, cultural context as the base by which the other cultural expressions were “created”.Peace,Jamie

  • Jamie,I think you are exactly right on this. If we don’t start from the beginning, we end up propagating more culture than we need to. This is not to say that the NT is not culture-bound, for it is, but working there first keeps us from taking our Western or Eastern or Northern or Southern contextual clues as permanent.It seems to me that the love of historical context studies today is related to this need for us both to recognize our cultural context and to transcend it with the gospel.

  • Dan

    I always enjoy thought provoking conversations and the challenge of such things as you expressed in your comments. It seems that what you are saying here is a good expansion of Paul’s exhortation in Romans 12 “…do not be confromed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…””Generousl Orthodoxy” as you put it here also reminds me of Micah’s words “He has shown you, ‘people’ what is good. What does the Lord require of you? Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” The context of this verse is extreemly significant as we wrestle with the inculturation of our religious practices. I am all for the emerging generation making the faith we are seeking to pass on to them there own, which means the emerging generation will have to learn the same lessons of humility and mercy and justice as each previous generation has. May the Lord give wisdom in all this.

  • Scot, this leads me (inevitably) to the same difficult question I have been asking for some time: How, then, can we bring this appreciation to groups/individuals that would otherwise have no context to discover it or means to explore it?Again, I was work a great deal with college age young people from largely Evan/Charismatic backgrounds, who choose not to pursue academic study (in part due to dissatisfaction with academia and in part due to the inherent anti-intellectualism they unfortunately inherited). Given that, I am floundering for effective ways to translate these ideas into something they can understand and engage.Am I kidding myself? Iam firmly convinced that, no matter how important higher education is, some people are not suited to it. How can I bridge this gap for such people?Again, I know I have leveled a big question here, so if it is out of the scope (or context) of this thread, please feel free to pass on it.Peace,Jamie

  • So, if we wish to chart a path for the emerging churches we will have to recognize the place of culture in the way we express the gospel and the way we “do church.” A culture that is disoriented may need a disorienting cultural expression before it can find an orientation.Scott, Very interesting post and thoughts. But what exactly do you mean by the above, particularly as it relates to your own views?

  • Scot, when I was in Ukraine in April doing some teaching, I noted that the young teacher before me was teaching on “edifying the body.” On the whiteboard was Rick Warren’s baseball diamond. I had not seen a literal baseball diamond in Ukraine. Lots of soccer fields, though. These young pastors were importing metaphors for the church that were not birthed in nor part of their culture. I was very sad. I challenged one of the young leaders by saying “The U.S. is only 230 years old. Ukraine is 1000 years old. Don’t you have in the soil of your history and culture a metaphor for the church that fits your people better than an American baseball diamond?” He responded that the days are coming when there will be a truer and written version of “the kingdom of God” contextualized to Ukraine. Now, I know you like baseball, but in Ukraine??

  • John, I agree, but the Ukraine would be better off playing baseball than that crazy sport some people call “soccer”!