Biola University professor Allen Yeh is uniquely qualified to give us insight here in his blog article "Why Cultural Theology Is Not Relativistic," dated Nov 17, 2010. He is an American and thus a westerner. He can critique western ways because he is an insider. His Asian roots, however, give him extra insight to see some things as an outsider would see them, things that sometimes insiders cannot see about themselves. So we ought to be able to hear his arguments; he is one of us, after all. He also has an outstanding educational pedigree so he certainly possesses credibility to address these issues. On a personal note, he is one of the most enjoyable persons you could ever hope to hang out with. He is down to earth despite his intellectual ability.
Dr. Yeh is right on many fronts especially when he says that members of the Evangelical Theological Society should be spending serious time discussing world Christianity. Why should the many liberal American Academy of Religion people be discussing the issue of global Christianity and not the conservative folks at ETS? I applaud him for helping start this new globally-minded forum at ETS.
Apparently a man in the ETS forum on world Christianity asked "Why do we need to look at the New Testament from an African perspective?" Yeh felt frustration at the presumption behind the question, and I suppose some frustration is justified. At the same time if there is not some truth in the man's question then there is no core truth in Scripture or in the gospel itself to pass from one culture to another. Perhaps the man could have posed a better question along the same lines, like, "Can a particular culture focus too much on their ethnic identity when doing their theology such that it becomes ethnocentric to a fault?" I answer yes.
Many westerners wrongly assume that "...All 'ethnic' theologies are cultural, while Western theology is 'pure'" as Yeh says. Not all aspects of ethnically-focused theologies, say an African theology, are merely cultural while western theology, say dispensationalism, escapes its own cultural-isms. Western theology has its cultural biases too, a point well made by Yeh. Yet one thing distinctive about certain ethnic (non-western) theologies is that they focus on ethnicity in a way that western theology does not. Yes, many of the western-isms within western theology are present within our system just not named as such. Still our approach as American theologians is quite different than, say, if I started a movement called White Theology for Modern-Day Americans. Even if one thinks my theology is already such, my new movement would become more ethnic and race focused which is what some aspects of Asian, African, and Latin American theologies do. They are more overt in their ethnic identity, even if in the name of breaking away from western cultural values imposed on them long ago by western colonizers.
While there is truth in Yeh's statement that "Nobody has the full picture of God, and though every perspective might be true, each is incomplete in and of itself, and every cultural perspective is needed to fully understand this global God," perhaps this phrase is just a particular cultural view. Maybe we should form an intercultural board to examine this statement for its veracity, because, after all, we need other cultures to tell us what is true about God. (I will expand on this towards the end.)
"Western theology also has some serious flaws in it," Yeh says. Who can disagree? It does and this is an important observation. But sometimes it is too easy to make western theology the world-wide whipping boy and leave other cultural theologies unscathed. If we are going to be fair, let us spread the critical net a bit to include other theologies. The truth is, for good or bad, western theology has made a big splash globally because westerners took the gospel around the world. Yes, many of them probably also exported western culture, but they got there first--and something must be said about their noble attempts to evangelize the world even if they did not do it perfectly. In fact, if other cultures had taken the gospel around the world first, they would have made many mistakes too. So other cultures have the luxury of critiquing the west because western Christians took initiative to try to get the job done. For all of the faults of our M forefathers they at least deserve some honor for their attempts. I am not saying that Yeh would not give credit where credit is due, just that this is a point often overlooked when it comes to criticizing our western ways.
According to Yeh, because of "Platonic dualism...evangelism is seen as more important than social justice; non-Westerners would never make such a prioritization!" The apostle Paul's thinking was not entirely divorced of what is often labeled platonic dualism (2 Cor 4:18; 1 Tim 4:6-7; Col 4:1-4). While the apostle would not say that physical things are of no importance and only spiritual things count, he did at times distinguish between the two realms. The same seems to be the case for Matthew, a Jew, as he unfolds Jesus' activities (8:23-9:8). As he shows the authority of Jesus over all things, it seems fair to see the differences in the physical realm (8:23-28/storm) spiritual realm (8:28-34/casting out demons) and then the combination of the two (9:1-8/healing and forgiveness) without being guilty of imposing a foreign idea onto the text. Such does not prove that sharp distinctions always need to be made between the two realms just that such distinctions exist within Scripture (if of course I am not just filtering the Bible through my platonic worldview). And let it be noted that westerners, at least Americans, tend towards the other direction in their platonic thinking--things which are seen (material) are more real or more important than things unseen.
Since the Bible gives us a picture of non-western culture, then the question becomes, "Does Scripture ever make such prioritizations among justice and evangelism?" First, God is holy and more concerned about true social justice than any of us are, so both testaments show such concern (Micah 6:8 & Eph 6:5-9). Second, that God cares about social justice and that it has something to do with his character and goal does not mean it is the main purpose of the church. Westerner Christians have done countless projects involving social justice but here is the rub with social issues. While these types of social issues are related to the gospel, any non-believer can participate in these kinds of activities but only believers know the good news. Christians are the only ones qualified (chosen, redeemed) to take that message, with joy, into the world. It is hard for me to read Mt 1:21, 23, 9:1-8, 28:18-20 and the rest of the New Testament and think that social justice has the same priority for the church as evangelism. Is that again because I am a westerner? Perhaps some, but it is interesting in John 5 that Jesus does not heal all the sick at the pool of Bethesda. Even Jesus' quote of "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me..." in Luke 4:18-19 must be understood in light of what he says in verse 27 ("And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian") and the remainder of the chapter, especially verse 43 ("preach the kingdom of God"). His preaching the kingdom of God did not always include healing and feeding miracles. It was sometimes simply "Repent, believe, and be baptized," because that message got at the real reason for his purpose--salvation for the glory of God. Take the ordinances as clear examples: Do the Lord's Supper and baptism primarily reflect social justice or salvation issues? Even viewing the ordinances with a holistic approach does not give social issues the same weightiness as salvific concerns. We must not confuse the essence of the gospel (and the purpose of the church) with the implications of the gospel. (Click here for Mark Dever sermon.) God will use some believers in the church for social justice but will use all for the spreading of his glory directly through evangelism. To see a difference and prioritize does not equal apathy or doing nothing for social justice.
Yeh also writes that "Korean Christians who come to the West to study in our seminaries, imbibe individualistic theology, then bring it back to their communal Asian contexts. It is destructive, because the pastors end up doing theology completely wrongly in their native context." It is true that Asians have picked up some overly individualistic traits while in the States only to take them back to their home culture for ill. At the same time we need to remember that the Bible does not stress all community or all individuality. There is a middle ground in the Bible and some cultures go too far in the communal aspect. Perhaps at this point it would help to talk about community-oriented concepts that keep entire people groups impoverished or weaknesses in cultures because of their exclusiveness to outsiders. I have experienced this exclusiveness as an overseas worker on foreign soil and also while living in America ministering to non-white ethnic groups. In some "community oriented" cultures the Christian men fellowship but rarely interact with their wives and children. Also, group think or the "herd mentality" that goes with communal cultures is not always a positive characteristic.
The Spirit's Work
Mr. Yeh notes that "Pentecostalism is the fastest-growing segment of Christianity in the non-Western world today for a good reason; perhaps we in the West can teach the rest of the world about Christology; but the rest of the world can teach us about Pneumatology." Western Christians need to learn more about the Spirit's role in their daily lives. I would say also that western Christians would be better served if they were more trinitarian all together. So much Christianity in the west (and other places mind you) is so non-trinitarian in its orientation that I wonder how some truly call themselves Christian; to be Christian is to follow a triune God.
The non-western world probably could teach us a thing or two about pneumatology but we should also learn from various places around the world about the abuses that come with pentecostalism. The prosperity gospel seems to march hand in hand with it as well as the deceivers who come in the name of prophecy, healing, and tongues. I personally love the passion of the Africans when they worship; the dancing, the drums, the promenading, and the clapping are blessings to me. But things can get quickly out of hand in cultures if emotionalism is given free reign. That pentecostalism is blazing around the world does not make all aspects of it right, nor does it mean that those cultures are necessarily embracing a proper biblical understanding of pneumatology.
Yeh says "...Culture...gives us instruments which help us see our Lord better.... Culture is needed to more fully see this infinite God who we worship.... Together, all our contributions make up a fabulous cornucopia of stories, images, and theologies.... This is why we all need each other, and why culture helps rather than hinders!" At times culture is a helpful instrument and at other times an obstacle that obscures our view. Jesus rejected negative parts of the culture of the scribes and Pharisees (Mt 23:1-36) and his condemnation would seem applicable to aspects of modern cultures (western and non-western). In the Bible, culture helps (Acts 17:23) and hinders (Acts 10:25-26 & 14:11, 15). That many Asians believe in some sort of God helps in the evangelism process, but that many Asians identify themselves with venerating (worshipping) their ancestors hinders the process. That most any African believes in a supreme God helps to start spiritual conversations, but that many also believe in a group of intermediate divinities (more personal spirits to interact with humans) hinders true faith in Christ. That many Americans are spiritually minded helps start discussions on the gospel, but that their lives are inundated by materialism and pluralism hinders them from bowing to Jesus as the only way to peace with God.
Do not hear me disagreeing with Yeh at the importance of needing each other and differing cultures. I believe we do. I daily have to live cross-culturally as an overseas worker, but I am modifying what he is saying and casting a little doubt on becoming too captivated with any one kind of theology or any one kind of methodology that too readily embraces culture as good.
Worldviews and Depravity
There is no doubt that culture effects our interpretations. For instance, my western background might cause me to puzzle more over how to live out some of Luke's injunctions with the poor while Christians from more impoverished and communal cultures would find the application obvious--just give your money to them. On the other hand, persecuted believers in Asia may see the "wise men" of Matthew 2 terribly unwise in the way they march into town and announce without discretion the birth of a king, only to have Herod kill all newborn sons under a certain age. I have always seen them as just the wise men the Christmas songs have taught me to see them as. So which view is right? The answer lies in the Bible. Examining the biblical texts will show us that Matthew presents the wise men as positive or neutral characters. In other words, the persecuted church contributes an insight worth considering but a closer look into Scripture (not primarily into their culture) shows us that the situations in the modern persecuted culture skew their biblical reading, just as my western background can skew some things in Luke's apparently straight-forward message about interacting with the down and out. So Scripture turns out to be more reliable, as I am confident Yeh would agree, than does culture even though none can read a passage without cultural influences.
Much of what we think about any culture will come down to not just our worldview in general but our view of depravity specifically (Gen 6:5; 8:21 Num 15:39; Ps 51:5; 53:3; 58:3; Jer 17:9; Mt 15:19; Mk 7:21; Rom 3:10, 12, 23; 5:12-19; 7:18; 8:7; 1 Cor 4:4; Tit 1:15). Because we are all depraved then culture will show many traits of man's fallenness. Some of God's image will shine through but so will grave sinfulness. So the best hermeneutic involves studying a text, interacting with believers (from other cultures for insight?), while always working our way back to the Bible to read it again and again. Grappling with the Bible and the cultures within it, not primarily our modern cultures, will lead us into truth and a correct view of culture in general (whether one takes a positivist, phenomenalist, or critical realist view of reality and perception). Again, my hermeneutic does not negate studying modern cultures; it just shows skepticism towards placing too much trust in that investigation. Scripture does not glorify culture and neither should we. In Scripture culture is a given, something taken from granted by biblical authors. At the heart of any culture, even the monotheism of Jewish culture in the Bible, lies the tendency towards idolatry. God even commanded the destruction of entire groups (cultures) because of their idolatry and sin (Dt 2:34; 7:1-5; 1 Sam 15:3). At heart, regardless of our cultures we all have leanings toward idol worship--be that an ancestor, another spirit being, a totem, a fetish, or a career with the promise of an easy life.
Is cultural theology relativistic? It seems that some of it is or there would not be so much backlash against western theology in non-western places. Parts of most any cultural theology could be relativistic. This does not mean all parts of it are relativistic just that since the human heart is given to error, sinners are prone to wander far from their God and thus cultures are going to reflect that heart condition.
Yeh himself could be a great walking talking case for some positives of the western model of theology. As a westerner with Asian roots he can criticize western culture and trends in evangelicalism as an insider with the benefit of outsider insight. As a conservative western theologian he is being self-critical (or at least critical of streams within his theological system). This self-critical trait, this free-thinking ability, is a great facet of western scholarship that I hope many non-western cultures will learn to practice more within their own systems.
Will the people at ETS benefit from a world Christianity forum? If it is more than a platform to promote the goodness of culture, and the papers presented there lead to deep biblical reflection resulting in the spread of God's triune glory to the nations, then definitely.