Attentiveness: Seminary 2.0 – Cultural Imperialism, Part 4 - Gordon Conwell

Attentiveness: Seminary 2.0 – Cultural Imperialism, Part 4

Dr. Scott W. Sunquist

President & Professor of Missiology

This is a six-part series. Read Part 1, Part 2  and Part 3.

Context is not everything, but it is a lot.

The incarnation reveals to us that when “the Word became flesh,” it took on a particular culture, not a universal culture. Therefore, the Gospel, Christianity, theology, hymns, sermons are all culturally embedded. Christianity is contextual like few other religions.

Context matters, a lot. When I teach church history we are often looking for clues as to why Christian leaders make certain decisions: to send or not to send monks on trading vessels in the 16th century; to send children on a crusade to the Levant in the 13th century; to support the local KKK in the 20th century; to protest against abortion clinics. The historic contexts interact with theological convictions and communities to shape the decisions that are made.

We would like to think that Christians make good Christ-like decisions simply by following the Bible and listening to the Holy Spirit. It is not that simple.

I am always interested in how leaders pay attention to context in their decisions. More importantly we should all be interested in how Christian leaders were unwittingly controlled by contextual factors. Why is it that Christ decreased as culture increased? The Gospel must be enculturated, not culture dominated.

Attention to context in ministry is more important in a post-Christian culture than in Christendom. In Christendom, much of the culture reflects Christian teaching, values, and morals. We can float along with the drifting Christian culture…or so we thought.

In a post-Christian (or at least post-Christendom) culture, much of the surrounding culture presents itself as an alternative worship or as idols. We even call little gateways to the internet on our phones, “icons.” So much of our western culture today is more hedonistic than humble, more sexual than sacred, and more narcissistic than self-denying.

Because Western culture was dominated so long by the church we often assume that the western European theology, worship, language and biblical interpretation are normative for Christianity.[1] Our seminaries did not have to focus on cultures because there was a basic assumption that western European (and North American) church theology and teaching was “Christian.” So, Lutherans in Tanzania learned the Book of Concord. Anglicans in Uganda studied the 39 Articles. And Reformed folks everywhere studied Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. But in fact, each of these documents were responses to questions of the time. John Calvin was responding to the Roman Catholic Church and European Christendom of his time. His theology and ecclesiology were (I believe) faithful responses to questions posed by his context. But then, I am a Calvinist!

But (and here is my main point) in each culture where Jesus is proclaimed there are questions coming from that culture which the Gospel answers. We do not proclaim a foreign Jesus, but the Jesus of each culture. Jesus brings about the conversion of cultures as well as individuals.

Our imposition of European and North American forms of theology on other cultures is inappropriate: a type of cultural imperialism.

Today our students at Gordon-Conwell are mostly not white, Euro-American students. Our theological education must take contexts into account in every class, in every degree, on every campus. Counseling for grief among Brazilian immigrants is different from counseling among Korean Americans, suburban white Americans or Nigerians.

This makes theological education today much more diverse and complex. But, we also find that it brings us back to Scripture and basic theological commitments more often. Theology is corrected and sharpened by cross-cultural encounters. Our theological enterprise is actually deepened, corrected, and sharpened if we are attentive to one another and enter into our discussion with Scripture in our hands, and humility in our hearts.

[1] The height of this Christendom normativity may be seen in the papal Bull of 1302 by Pope Boniface VIII, Unam Sanctum where the (Catholic) Church claimed final authority in all things secular and sacred.


Scott W. Sunquist, the new President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, writes a weekly blog, “Attentiveness” which is posted each Monday morning on the Gordon-Conwell web site. He welcomes comments, responses and good ideas.