Tensions between Christ and Culture
Early Christianity engaged the various cultures of the Roman Empire in various ways. In the Acts of the Apostles we seem to find Christianity deciding not to privilege any one race, nation, or people. In Acts 2, people from all over the Mediterranean world, visiting Jerusalem, are equally inflamed by the Holy Spirit. In Acts 15 it appears that not even the Jews should be privileged, even though the Gospel was first proclaimed by Jews and among Jews. So the Christian Gospel was seen as something which transcended the restrictions of any one culture.
Consequently, as missionaries and evangelists encountered new cultures, they often sought to express the Gospel in the new cultural forms which they encountered as opposed to seeking to impose a single culture on everyone. An early example is Paul, when he spoke to Greek philosophers on the Areopagus in Athens (pictured left, in a painting by Raphael).
How far should evangelists and missionaries go in incorporating cultural forms and wisdom? For example, was it okay for Christian theologians to make use of Plato's philosophy? From one point of view, Plato had many wise and true insights into truth and the human condition, and everyone can learn from them. From another point of view, he was a pagan who had no place in his thought for the authority of Christian revelation. Christians disagreed about the use of Plato.
And how would a Christian avoid cultural forms? Language expresses worldviews, and ideas and metaphors and figures of speech that are expressed in Hebrew can't be identically expressed in Latin. As the Scriptures began to be translated from Greek into Syriac and Latin and Coptic and other languages, the Gospel message began to sound a bit different, depending on the words available to express it, and depending on the assumptions that people from different cultures brought to it.
And, finally, what cultural understandings and social practices were unacceptable for Christians? Was it okay to venerate the Emperor, to serve in the army, to expose unwanted babies at birth, to teach Homer's Iliad with all its gods and goddesses?
Thus for a number of reasons Christians were soon engaging the cultures of the Roman Empire. Often they challenged the social status quo. Sometimes they adapted cultural forms in ways that non-Christians resented. There was a reaction. Many pagans, and some of the imperial authorities, felt distaste and fear towards this new religion. We witnessed some of this distaste and fear when we read the Roman governor Pliny's letter in Bithynia not long after 109, and the story of Perpetua and her friends in about 202.
Introducing the Apologists
"Apology" means "defence"; early Christian apologists defended Christianity against the attacks, distaste, and fear of its critics. The apologists were thus on the vulnerable front line of the engagement of Christ and culture. To be successful, they had to understand the Gospel, and they had to understand the point of view of the critics of the Gospel. Their usual approach in their apologies was to identify the reasons why pagans and others attacked Christianity, and then to present reasonable counter-arguments. One apologetic strategy was to show the errors and corruptions of pagan culture. A very different apologetic strategy was to show that Christian truth fulfilled and perfected the best fruits of Mediterranean culture.
Perhaps the best example of an early Christian apologist is Justin, who taught in Rome and was martyred about A.D. 150. Sometimes in this course we read his "Second Apology." Here's an image of him (which, of course, has no claim to historical verisimilitude).
The writings of the apologists give us some insight into how early Christians understood the distaste, fear, and zeal for persecution which they encountered in the wider culture. These writings also show us how early leaders responded theologically. Inevitably, in explaining and defending themselves to their critics, early Christians were helping to shape the Church's understanding and practice of the Gospel itself. They are sometimes seen as playing a crucial role in "hellenizing" the Gospel, that is, moving it from its Jewish roots to a Greek (and Latin) culture.
González' chapter 7, "The Defense of the Faith," briefly introduoces us to some of these apologists, suggests reasons why their pagan critics disliked Christianity, and summarizes their responses to the critics. For Justin a key point in his apologetics is that the wisest pagans, notably Socrates, were likely inspired by God, so that their philosophy could lay a foundation for society's future embrace of the Gospel. Justin himself had come to the Christian faith along a path that had led him through his study of Plato, and the idea that secular knowledge could be married to Christian revelation would shape the Church's theology, although it was never entirely uncontroversial.
H. Richard Niebuhr
Let's look for some more precise categories for describing the engagement of the Gospel with culture. Not all early Christians took the same approach to their surrounding cultures, any more than all Christians today take the same approach to our surrounding cultures.
A really classic study of the "enduring problem" of Christ and culture was presented in 1951 by H. Richard Niebuhr (1894—1962), a professor at Yale Divinity School. His book, Christ and Culture, made an immediate impact and has never been out of print. Niebuhr found that some Christians were radically suspicious of culture; other Christians, on the other extreme, were altogether too complacent about culture; and still other Christians gravitated towards one of three mediating positions. A nice short summary and reflection is offered by Bruce Guenther, a church historian at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Langley, BC. Or look at the old lecture notes linked in the left-hand column. A bit of googling shows the rather amazing extent to which Niebuhr's book is used and quoted. It's required reading in a number of history, ethics, and religion courses around the world, and it's very frequently quoted in sermons, church periodicals, and denominational committee reports. It's also frequently criticized.
Borrow a copy from the library a read it if you can. Niebuhr is a wonderful English stylist, and the book is easy to read. But he's also wise and subtle, and however much you benefit from reading it once, you'll benefit even more from re-reading it.