Christianity in Culture: A Study in Dynamic Biblical Theologizing in Cross-Cultural Perspective

Written by Charles H. Kraft Reviewed By Alan F. Gates

The author is Professor of Anthropology and African Studies, School of World Mission, Fuller Theological Seminary. He writes his book primarily as a missiologist, drawing primarily from the fields of anthropology and linguistics. Charles Kraft is not a theologian but is to be commended for his courage in venturing into the field of theology.

The author has obviously gone to great pains to provide the reader with a carefully organized account replete with a detailed table of contents, outline of models, bibliography, index and list of Scripture references. The book is well written but carries a heavy freightage of technical jargon.

The author’s stated purpose is the developing of ‘biblically grounded theological models that will enable us to be more effective … in communicating the Christian message in a multicultural world’ (p. 12). His hope is to create a kind of ‘paradigm shift’ or radically altered view of cross-cultural theologizing in the mind of the reader. For those who follow Kraft’s entire argument and agree with his assumptions and models for cross-cultural communication, little short of a paradigm shift must occur depending, of course, on one’s starting position.

In Part I, the author begins with a personal word indicating that the book is largely an outgrowth of his own struggles. He then discusses mirrors of reality reminding the reader that man’s perception of reality is very much conditioned by his ‘cultural grid’ a phenomenon which differs from one culture to another and thus results in many different mirrors of reality. The author calls upon anthropology as a sister discipline to assist in the process of building models for cross-cultural theologizing.

Part II develops a dynamic concept of culture pointing out the role of culture in determining the way man perceives reality-At the heart of the culture concept is man’s ‘world view’—a pattern of conceptualizations of perceived reality. It is a systematization of conceptions of reality to which members assent and from which their value systems stem (p. 53). World view is of crucial importance since it performs the dual function of organizing of concepts of reality as well as governing their application to human behavior. It follows, therefore, that significant change of a people’s beliefs and behavior patterns will have to begin with their world view.

The author reminds us that different world view assumptions lead to different conclusions thus the importance of understanding, for example, how a people view the natural universe whether as predictable in the west or capricious and unpredictable as in some eastern cultures.

The author next looks at culture in terms of form, function, meanings and use, distinctions which become crucial in matters of Bible translation, etc.

Kraft then develops the concepts of ‘human commonality’ (p. 81f) versus cultural relativity, a very helpful distinction. Thus, one may freely acknowledge cultural diversity while recognizing the essential sameness of man’s basic make-up whether biological, psychological, spiritual or social—an insight by the way from secular anthropology.

Part III probes the relationship between God who is above culture and man who is culture bound. God is perceived as seeing culture as a vehicle to be used by Himself and His people for Christian purposes. Kraft rejects the view of God against culture and God in culture, and opts for a God above culture but working in and through culture. He pleads for an ‘anthropologically informed theology’ arguing that both anthropology and theology are ‘human-made’ and ‘culture bound.’ Drawing upon insights from anthropology, Kraft points out with persuasive logic that while the forms employed in theological truth are culturally determined, meaning and function are unchanging and supra-cultural in nature (p. 118).

Kraft argues for a ‘biblical cultural relativism,’ or in the words of Eugene Nida, a ‘relative cultural relativism’ (p. 125). That is, God approaches all peoples in terms of their own cultural circumstances and will for legitimate reasons deal in different ways with different peoples. But the content of divine revelation is unchanging.

The author introduces ‘ethnolinguistic interpretation’ as an antidote to the ‘plain truth’ approach by which one’s perception of things is culturally determined and not valid for people of a different culture. The reader is then exposed to a fairly technical account of the communication process involving communicator (C), message (M) and receptor (R). Only as one wrestles with the biblical context, his own and the context of those to whom he speaks is he freed from the ‘bondage of western categories’ to do authentic indigenous theology (p. 146).

Part III ends with insights for effective communication and leads naturally into Part IV on Dynamics of Revelation. The key idea here is that of a ‘receptor oriented’ revelation. God does not speak into thin air. He came all the way across to man in culture especially in the incarnation. Kraft rejects revelation as primarily a matter of ‘knowledge and information’ as propositional truths. Rather he sees revelation as a divine activity stimulating man to response. Moreover, ‘revelation’ says Kraft, ‘is not merely objective and complete, it has a subjective and continuing dimension as well.’ Some readers will find difficulty with Kraft at this point for he seems to posit an ongoing revelation from God, not just illumination or enlightenment. This leads to a discussion of the Bible as ‘tether’ and ‘yardstick’ indicating that existing parameters of God’s truth have been set. Future revelations will never contradict the existing record.

Kraft’s view of the Bible as God’s inspired casebook suggests a fresh approach to the Scriptures which is helpful to cross-cultural situations.

Under the rubric ‘starting point plus progress’ the author shares helpful insights on how God begins with a people where they are and leads them from that point. The principle is illustrated on pages 245ff where a case study is given on a cross-cultural approach to sin. I found this most helpful.

Parts V and VI deal largely with the concept of ‘dynamic equivalence’ and apply it to the areas of translation, preaching, theologizing and church planting. This again while not new to missiological thinking, is spelled out in much detail and applied to these several crucial areas thus offering some excellent insight especially in the field of church planting. Readers will be helped by the author’s distinctions between ‘form,’ ‘function’ ‘meaning’ and ‘use’ in the task of communicating cross culturally. Function and meaning, says Kraft, are fixed and unchanging while form is culturally determined. This is easy to see in most cases. I confess difficulty however, in adjusting to the idea of baptism in a coffin (p. 331). Are there some forms which are more or less fixed?

Much more could be shared from the wealth of insights from Christianity in Culture. One would like to comment on Kraft’s ‘cultural conversion’ versus ‘Christian conversion’ and the danger of ‘extraction,’ transforming culture through dealing with the core of a people’s world view, and so on.

Christianity in Culture brings the reader a long way towards its stated goal of a biblical-theological model for cross cultural communication of the Gospel. The insights from the social sciences can only be applauded and welcomed. Kraft is at his best when he speaks to us and informs our theology from his expertise in anthropology and linguistics. One of the great contributions of this excellent work is the clear affirmation that every people has a right to do theology and perceive God through their own cultural grid.

I feel the intimation of the theoretical possibility of people finding salvation without knowledge of Christ an unfortunate inclusion and of little value to an otherwise outstanding work, a theological position which I rarely encountered in my own studies at the School of World Mission.

All in all, I recommend without reserve the reading of Christianity in Culture for would-be missionary candidates, seasoned missionaries as well as seminary teachers. The book is long overdue and meets a real need in the average seminary programme for missionary training.

Alan F. Gates

Alan F. Gates has been in Taiwan for 19 years, serving with the Conservative Baptist Foreign Mission Society. He is currently on loan to the Institute of Chinese Studies, US Center for World Mission in Pasadena, California.