I have been arguing that sometimes we fail to realize that some things we think are just western are actually Christian, and we have been shaped by thinkers who worked in an at-least-vaguely-Christian milieu. Let us take an example; a theological issue current in missiological literature. Above, when I was discussing the way people from shame-cultures understand the gospel, I mentioned that very often they see the work of Christ in terms of his humiliation, shame and exaltation. Might we then, when we commend Christ to people from such cultures, explain the gospel in those categories?1 Do we need a new version of Two Ways to Live that is better contextualized? There are many good reasons to do so; not least of which is that the Bible itself understands Christ’s work in this way sometimes (eg. Is 53:3, Ps 25:3, Rom 9:33, 1 Pet 2:6). Christ has dealt with our shame as much as our guilt. He has exalted the humble, and destroyed the proud. In many ways this is a fantastic example of the way people from other cultures can help us to see better what is there in Scripture that our own culture has made us blind to. Even making this observation will be a big step forward in speaking with people of shame-based cultures about the gospel.
But we mustn’t stop there. Before we abandon penal-substitutionary atonement entirely as we witness to our Muslim friends, perhaps we should consider that there may be a reason why western Christians relate so well to this particular explanation of Christ’s death. Historical theology is of some help here. Anslem, the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Twelfth Century, wrote a treatise on the work of Christ titled Cur Deus Homo? (Why God became Man.) Strictly speaking it belongs to the western theological heritage, but it is very far from a western worldview in the modern sense of the word. In it, Anselm outlines the satisfaction theory of the atonement: the idea that work of Christ is about restoring the honour of an offended God. It is, in the end, a theory of the atonement well suited to Medieval Europe—a world that thought in terms of shame and disgrace, of honour, loyalty and nobility. When someone was offended, satisfaction of honour was required to mend the relationship. It was a rationality not too different, I would wager, from many modern Middle-Eastern countries.
So it would seem that the west used to be a shame-based culture but is now a guilt-based culture. No doubt there is a multiplicity of factors involved in this transition. But can anyone seriously doubt the impact of the protestant reformation here? Martin Luther’s analysis of the gospel played an enormous part in cultural change in 16thCentury Europe. His realization was that the righteousness of God wasn’t about God’s own righteousness; God’s intrinsic honour and glory. It was about a righteousness imputed to us; that our sin condemns us before a holy God, but that in Christ we stand justified because Christ had dealt with our guilt. How powerfully transforming was this idea in the history of western thought?
Before abandoning penal substitutionary atonement, perhaps we should consider the possibility that the west is a guilt-based culture precisely because penal-substitutionary atonement is the dominant Biblical explanation of the work of Christ. Perhaps we shouldn’t try to rid ourselves of our “western” way of arguing just yet either. Some things that we think are western and cultural might actually be Biblical. Cultures are not static, and the gospel wherever it goes will shape culture. Were it (by the power of the Spirit) to take deep root in the Middle East, then we would no doubt see a shift in the rationality and underlying value systems of those cultures also.
Tomorrow I’ll wrap up this series by talking about how I think we can speak into a Muslim world view. Until then, though, what other parts of western culture can you identify as having been profoundly shaped by Christian theology?
- I am indebted to Timothy Tennent for this question also. I commend to you his extremely helpful discussion on this issue in Theology in the Context of World Christianity. ↩