Culture and the Gospel – a Bible Study
Paul in Athens
One of the most significant lessons from Paul’s proclamation of the Gospel in Athens is the priority of listening to a people, their culture and life situation in the proclamation of the message of the Gospel. Listening and dialogue are rooted in the conviction that every culture, era or society has within it something equivalent to ‘the unknown God’ of the Athenians, which ought to be the starting point of the proclamation.
In this extract Bishop Zac Niringiye considers Paul’s experience in Athens and the importance of listening to both people and their culture in sharing the Gospel.
(From ‘To Proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom (ii)’ in Mission in the 21st Century – Exploring the Five Marks of Global Mission edited by Andrew Walls and Cathy Ross DLT 2008)
Paul’s mission in Athens and his public proclamation at Mars Hill give us a model for proclamation among peoples and societies that have not yet had contact with any forms of Christianity, because Athens was such a place. On arrival in Athens Paul took time to know the city, its cultures and its peoples. He was struck and distressed by the levels of idolatry. He engaged in dialogue and debate with Jews and God-fearing Greeks in the synagogue and market places; and then in the public hall at Mars Hill, with the city’s ruling council, her intellectuals and philosophers. Evidently Paul was persuaded that the Kingdom of God was good news for all, irrespective of religio-cultural history. There is no culture or peoples excluded from it because God is the God of all history. As a messenger of the good news, Paul’s task was to make the connection between their stories with the larger story of God’s revelation in Christ.
With the Jews and God-fearing Greeks, Paul sought to show that Jesus was the Christ – the good news of Jewish messianic expectation, attested to by his death and resurrection. Among those foreign to Jewish history, he showed how Christ is the clue to understanding God’s purpose in their history. Paul clarified to his non-Jewish Athenian audience that God’s purpose for all creation is fulfilled in Jesus, because in him was the unique, full and final revelation of the ‘God who made the world and everything in it …’ (Acts 17:24). He began his discourse not just with the gospel record, but with creation because it is the God of creation revealed in Christ. He even quoted from their writings to show that there was evidence in their own heritage that God’s revelation and purposes were not foreign to them. Thus to both Jews and Greeks, and indeed any other peoples and nations of the world, Christ is the hope of redemption.
One of the most significant lessons from Paul’s proclamation of the Gospel in Athens is the priority of listening to a people, their culture and life situation in the proclamation of the message of the Gospel. Listening and dialogue are rooted in the conviction that every culture, era or society has within it something equivalent to ‘the unknown God’ of the Athenians, which ought to be the starting point of the proclamation. The God of the Kingdom that is good news to all the peoples and cultures of the world is the God of all history. Every culture and epoch in history has within it signs, pointing to his presence among them. But there is more to listening and dialogue: since the good news is about the Kingdom of God in creation, proclamation is rooted in the conviction that every culture has within it the capacity not only to receive the good news but to be a transmitter. Listening and dialogue has to do with learning the language of that culture and context in order to proclaim the message in its idiom. This is the basis for the priority of translation in proclamation. In this sense all authentic Gospel proclamation must entail dialogue and translation. This ought to serve as a corrective to many approaches that do not take seriously the listening and dialogue process. It is in listening to a people’s story that we are able to make a connection with the story of Christ; and in listening a new language is learned in which the message is proclaimed. This puts a premium on the urgency of translation for the cultures and peoples who to date may not have the Bible in their everyday language.
It is important that the language and methods used in proclaiming the good news are relevant to the particular context. Although we live in a globalised world, there is a uniqueness to the various cultures and societies. Urbanised Africa is different from the rural; post-communist societies are different from post Christian societies; and then there are the vast regions of the world where other major religions of the world, such as Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism hold their sway. Today many societies that may claim to be Christian are simply nominally so and have not yet really heard and seen the good news of the Kingdom of God. we should not assume that a method that God has used in one context will work in a different context. The mistake is made when evangelism programmes that have worked effectively in North America and Europe are transferred wholesale to Africa, Asia and Latin America.
- How does Paul engage with the people of Athens?
- What role does culture play in the proclamation of the Gospel?
- “The Kingdom of God in creation, proclamation is rooted in the conviction that every culture has within it the capacity not only to receive the good news but to be a transmitter.” How is the Gospel received and transmitted in your cultural context?
- Spend a moment in quite reflecting on how you see God’s Kingdom in your culture. Give thanks for this and ask that you might be able to help others see
- Pray for all those who translate language and culture and share the Gospel message