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image of Philosophia Reformata

Lesslie Newbigin’s book Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture opens with an interesting observation. On the one hand, the relationship between the gospel and culture is not a new subject. One thinks, for example, of the classic study of H. Richard Niebuhr who proposed five models of the relation of Christ to culture, and of work of Paul Tillich who struggled toward, what he called, a ‘theology of culture’ (Niebuhr 1951; Tillich 1959). However, the majority of work has been done by scholars who have not had the missionary experience of communicating the gospel to a radically foreign culture. On the other hand, the last three decades have witnessed a spate of studies on the issue of gospel and culture within the discipline of missiology under the general rubric ‘contextualization studies.’1 Missionaries have become more aware of the western captivity of the gospel and have struggled fruitfully with the issues of gospel and culture, and gospel and cultures. Yet while “it has sought to explore the problems of contextualization in all the cultures of humankind from China to Peru, it has largely ignored the culture that is the most widespread, powerful, and persuasive among all contemporary cultures — namely . . . modern Western culture” (Newbigin 1986:2-3). To put Newbigin’s observation another way, the missionary experience and tradition has gained penetrating insight into the issues of gospel and culture, and gospel and cultures but this tradition has not been appropriated in mainstream western scholarship to shed light on the subject of gospel and culture, and more particularly on the relationship between the gospel and western culture. To my way of thinking, this is a great loss because the missionary experience of cross-cultural witness offers important insight into the gospel-culture relation.


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