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Christian Faith And Cultures Historical Background

The practice of taking the Good News to different cultures has taken place throughout the entire history of the Church. We need only think of Saint Paul’s missionary work in relation to the Greco-Roman communities of his time to understand that the “tradition” of the gospel in different cultural contexts has been an integral part of the Christian faith since the beginning. Even in the Old Testament we can find the roots of ongoing contextualization. Israel based her faith on the belief that Yahweh was the only true God. In the sacred scriptures the people of Israel express how the relationship with this one God was lived in many different ways throughout her history. As a matter of fact, some of these ways might appear contradictory. This is because we can only understand the unity and relevance of God in the Bible in the diversity of the humanity that contemplates and describes this one Lord. God is always one, but God is described in multiple ways. Trying to limit Yahweh to one single vision, to one way of looking, would be idolatry. The followers of Christ have demonstrated their capacity for dialogue with different cultures since the beginning of the faith, inclusively in the midst of resistance and conflict.


The Gospel, and its expression as the Kingdom of God, made this possible by the very nature of the Church. The legacy of Christ was not a book (he never wrote one), but rather a community to whom he entrusted the mission of adapting the Good News to different circumstances. This reality facilitated a constructive dialogue between the present and the past, a dialogue taking place among all those who felt themselves called to believe in the Gospel. It is for this reason that we have, not only one gospel, but four approved different versions of the words of Jesus. The New Testament itself gives us the theological foundation for inculturation, many times surprising us with its boldness. Moreover, the new Christian religion was not the exclusive inheritance of one particular people or of one culture. The histories of all peoples are integrated into one common history of salvation, the history of God and of humanity, the irruption of God’s Kingdom (God’s explicit sovereignty in the lives of women and men, of whatever race or culture). In the epistle to Diognetus, dating around the 2nd Century of the Christian era.


We learn that Christians could not be told apart from others with whom they lived, “by their national origin, language or costumes,… they do not live apart in cities, or have a different language, or live in a way that calls their neighbours attention.”This demonstrates that the Christian faith was completely, culturally integrated into each context. The Church quickly learned that faith expressions that were always attached to one particular culture could become irrelevant when they were no long part of their original context. Languages, costumes and symbols change requiring the Gospel be “planted” anew each time it crosses a cultural frontier. This is the case, not only from a simultaneous perspective (different culturesexisting at the same time), but also diachronically, (that is, a culture that is transformed or changes with time). Expressions of the faith can becomeinsignificant to new generations, even becoming obsolete. When this happens, it means that the cultural frames of reference have changed.


In many cases, the local Churches’ ability to inculturate themselves in their social surroundings meant the difference between growth and expansion, or decline and extinction. History has shown that the Church retained its vitality in those places where the Gospel was culturally rooted. This was achieved by making the Sacred Scriptures available to all, by developing local leadership and a unique style of worship, and by allowing the Christian message to be totally embodied in the new cultural context in order to create a relevant theology. The Church blossomed in the places where this was achieved, even under difficult circumstances and persecution, such as the threat and Persecution by Islam in Armenia, Egypt and Ethiopia, In similar circumstances of persecution, the Church disappeared in the areas where it was not rooted in the local culture, such as in Mahgreb (North Africa) or Nubia(Sudan). In the places where the Church disappeared, it continued to be “a foreign body” in the local cultures (for example, Roman presence in Mahgreb of Bereber culture). Examples such as these help us conclude that the Gospel, as a proclamation of the Kingdom of God, should have a dynamic relationship with the culture where it is present.


This can only come about when its theology is rooted in the unique aspects of that particular culture. The Church survived in places where people lived the Christian faith as part of their unique identities. Personally and collectively, as the foundation of their culture, Trimingham, cited by Shenk, expressed it in the following manner: “isolation (with respect to the culture of origin of the one who evangelizes) helped bring about the successful translation of the Christian faith to indigenous cultural forms. When the faith was “naturalized,” it was victorious” These successful Churches understood that evangelization means much more than merely transmitting “truths.” Sharing the Christian faith is predominantly an experience of God that must be rooted in the local experience of transcendence, of the sacred. God reveals himself by giving each culture the guidelines it needs to interpret the Revelation. The early Christians found these guidelines in their cultural traditions, fortifying their identity through this new faith, sensing that their cultural heritage was converted into a place for God’s Revelation.


In Europe, throughout the Middle Ages, Christianity developed by rooting itself in new cultures as a result of the Germanic, Slavic and central Asian migrations. Strictly speaking, we can say that this was the “Europeanization” period of the Church. At this time the oriental Churches were much more successful than their Roman sister in their efforts towards inculturation, respecting the local language and traditions of the people where they carried throughout their mission, establishing national hierarchies, etc. In the Latin Church, we also see the blossoming of the national Churches with their unique theological and liturgical traditions. All of these “embodiments” of the Good News enriched the catholicity, or universality of the Church. The believers felt certain that they were led by the Spirit of Christ that gave them the freedom to go beyond cultural divisions, while at the same promoting the strengthening of unique cultural identities. Since the time of Charlemagne, however, we find a strong tendency towards uniformity in Western Christianity. This was reinforced by papal reforms in the second half of the middle Ages and reached its peak with the tridentine reform in the XVI century. The latter, in good part as a reaction to the “national” character of the Reformed churches, chose uniformity in language, theology and liturgy for the Roman Catholic Church. Since then, all of the Catholic communities had to resign themselves to this “universal” model that was in reality merely a Western European model. These policies had grave consequences, especially in Latin America and Asia where from the very beginning conscious attempts were made to inculturate the Gospel. As soon as these efforts came into conflict with colonial interests, the disputes reached the central authorities of the Church. The processes were abruptly withheld and any further development was prohibited. Because of this imposition of uniformity, for centuries the local population in mission lands was systematically excluded from ordination and theological studies. In this way, the “official” Christian faith continued to be a foreign element in the local cultures and was not seen as part of their identity. In all, there were some honourable exceptions to this tendency of uniformity. Especially important were the experiences of contextualization that took place by the famous Jesuit missionaries of the East: Valignano in Japan, Ricci in China, Nobili in India.


These experiences created a paradigm of genuine efforts towards inculturation. The approach of these missionaries towards evangelization was the result of the Ignatian spirituality they shared, a spirituality focused on finding God in all creation. The many forms this missionary effort took in the different corners of the world are based on the insistence of relating the Gospel to the local cultures where God was already present and acting. From the beginning these missionaries asked permission for the local Christians to live their faith according to their unique cultural reference. The missionaries felt called to adopt the clothing proper to the culture. They prepared the local people for ministry. Even the priestly formation process was inculturated. The missionaries also understood the importance of taking advantage of particular virtues found in the rich cultural traditions. Unfortunately, the centers of power in Europe did not understand these efforts. The famous “Chinese Rites Controversy” and the final resolution reached by the Pope in 1715 against the adoption of local practices (meaning not European) within the Christian faith terminated this model of evangelization. The disastrous consequences of this decision in the evangelization of the East are well known.
This movement towards uniformity was present in all of Western Christianity. The missionary style of the protestant Churches was no different. In fact, many of the missionaries in Asia felt that the condemnation of the Chinese and Malabar Rites by the Catholic authorities was justified and necessary. The Protestants also felt that these local cultural practices “contaminated” the Christian message. History has shown that at the bottom of this perception was an ethno-centric defense of a personal cultural identity rather than a threat to the Gospel. It was not until the XX century that the Protestant congregations focused on the model “plant the Church” in the strategic calls to the “three selves:” self-support, self-governance and self-propagation. Its principal effort was converted into reinforcing the local hierarchies of the new Churches with sufficient local resources for survival and missionary development. Nevertheless, the experience demonstrated that this was not enough for the local churches to be considered domestic since the majority of the native hierarchy continued to operate under European models. These local protestant churches ended up having the same problems of lack of identity as the Catholic missionaries had encountered.


The Second Vatican Council was a historically decisive moment in the Catholic Church. Change seemed to be promoted by a spirit of openness and dialogue with the world prevalent at the time of the Council. The Church recognized that it could learn from the traditions of different peoples and that one of its main responsibilities was to evaluate, from a faith perspective, what the world had to offer. These two axles, dialogue with the world and discernment of the signs of the times, were to be found in all the ecclesial documents on mission, evangelization and the relationship with cultures. The Pastoral Constitution of the Church, “Gaudium et Spes,” provided the theological framework for future endeavors in the inculturation of the Good News. It promoted a methodology
that begins with observation and the study of the present reality, followed by discernment under the light of the Sacred Scriptures and Tradition, and thus comes to relevant pastoral actions. The Decree, “Ad Gentes” concretized the missionary focus of the ecclesiology developed by Gaudium et Spes. It emphasizes the consolidation of the indigenous local churches as the goal for all our evangelization. It is in these local churches that we hope the process of embodying the gospel in the surrounding culture is brought to fruition, becoming evangelizers of other cultures in the future.


In conclusion, we can say that the importance of cultures as ways of embodying the gospel of the Kingdom and the need to express it in diverse cultural frameworks (through inculturation/contextualization), has been an integral part of the Christian mission: take the message of Christ to all nations. Since the beginning of Church history, the Good News was seen as trans-cultural. Each new Christian community, without abandoning its surrounding culture, experienced God as accessible to its symbolic universe, wishing to establish a relationship with them in Christ. This was lived in the birth and consolidation of the local churches that were rooted in the culture of its members. In all, the relationship of Christians with the new cultures was not always positive, as we have clearly seen throughout this section. Each time believers associated the Christian faith to just one particular cultural form of expression, it excluded other possibilities; thus the process of evangelization became difficult or was totally blocked.

©Hiebert, Paul G., “Gospel and Culture: The WCC Project“, Missiology: An International Review, Vol. XXV, No. 2, April 1997, 200.


Most recently, the Church has discovered that members of cultures completely different from the predominant European culture have profound experiences of God, a different kind of experience and many times complementary to their own. This helps us recognize that God is always experienced, lived and expressed in a specific culture, and that dialogue among these different ways of approaching the mystery can be mutually enriching. The conclusion is that the Christian message of salvation is relevant to all cultures and can be understood, lived and expressed with different cultural references. On the other hand, this signifies that cultures are specific vehicles God’s revelation. The Christian faith does not come to destroy cultural identities, but rather to transform them from within, maintaining their own identity. In all that has been said above, we conclude that sharing the vision of the Good News, the Reign of God and what this implies, is indispensable to having a clear understanding, explicit or implicit, of the meaning of culture. It is important to ask ourselves, “What do we understand by culture?”


A theoretical framework for understanding culture, the word “culture” evokes many meanings. It was originally used to describe the cultivation of the earth. It comes from Latin semantics, cultor cultrix, cultus, meaning the transformation of nature through human efforts for its improvement.
This meaning is applied to the physical and mental improvement of the person (cultus corpori, cultus animi). It also describes religious practices, meaning divine worship (cultus religionis, cultus deorum). It was used, as well, to express a life style, ethnic peculiarities of a people, of acivilization. This is how the term is used in modern Spanish (ex. Cultus Gallorum, the culture/civilization of the inhabitants of Galia). Now a day, the word culture is used to describe people who are highly educated. Example: When one says, “he has a high level of culture (learning). The person found to be on the opposite pole is considered uncultured, or unlearned. For our particular analysis, the word culture will apply to the description of a particular society and its way of being. Thus, culture is what humans create or transform the result of human activity.


This is different from what is “natural”, the “uncultivated”, as is. At times culture is defined simply and succinctly: “Culture is the complex expression of the spirit of a people;” “It is the way in which a group of people live, think, feel, organize themselves, celebrate and share life;” “Culture is used to indicate the particular way in which people cultivate their relationships with nature, among themselves and with God;” Other definitions are much more detailed. The notion of culture is fundamental to anthropology. Throughout the history of this social science there have been various approaches to the phenomenon of diverse cultures. At one point, the evolutionists theory predominated, believing that culture was the result of human beings adapting to various ecological contexts for the purpose of survival; the greater the versatility in adaptation, the greater the capacity for survival. This led defenders of this position (a Darwin social species or the survival of the fittest) to believe that there were certain cultures superior to others, with the disastrous consequences of racism, ethnocentrism and the lack of appreciation for diversity.

©Hiebert, Paul G., “Gospel and Culture: The WCC Project“, Missiology: An International Review, Vol. XXV, No. 2, April 1997, 200.

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