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January 1973 · Vol. 2 No. 1 · pp. 2–6 

Cultural Relativism and Theological Absolutes

Paul G. Hiebert


There has been a quiet but profound revolution in the academic world in the past three decades which has serious implications for Christian thought. The change is not so much in the kinds of things scholars think about, but in what they think they are doing when they think—not so much in the content of knowledge, but in the processes of knowing.

A. Model Building. There are several roots to this revolution. One is the rise of psychology, which has challenged the old unexamined assumptions of science. Until the 1930s science was believed to be a process of observing the world by means of the senses, then of formulating hypotheses which would explain the observed regularities in nature, and finally of proving these hypotheses to be true by testing them in different situations. Proven hypotheses were accepted as laws of nature and were thought to be “true” in the same sense that the observed data were “true.” This view of science assumed a real world outside the observer which could be accurately perceived and described by him. It also assumed that the observer had no bias, that is, that he did not impose an order on his observations. Any order he saw was believed to exist in the real world. The scientist was outside of the system and could be ignored.

In recent years, due to the analysis of psychological processes of thinking, scientists have become increasingly aware of the part which the observer or scientist plays in the scientific process. His experiences of the world are restricted to those things which activate his senses or to instruments which extend his senses. Ultraviolet light, for example, became known only as man was able to devise tools whereby he could observe its effects.

Furthermore, the observer is highly selective in the data he uses. From all the possible experiences he has, he selects only a few for conscious thought and of these only a fraction for analysis. The rest are consciously or unconsciously screened out as irrelevant to his interests.

The scientist influences his data in yet other ways. He organizes his experiences by means of thought categories and words which are the creations of his mind, and of his culture and language. For example, an English speaker sees six colors in the rainbow unless he is a believer in “indigo” as a separate color and not as a shade of violet. Other languages divide colors into two, three, or four basic categories. Finally, the scientist uses a theoretical framework to organize and explain his data. These frameworks are called models. They are subject to improvement or replacement as new data is gained. They are not, however, “true” in some absolute sense of the term. They are simply ways of looking at the data.

If models are not “true” or “false,” by what criteria do we judge them? They are either useful or not useful, and they either fit the data or they do not. In some cases more than one model may prove useful in describing and predicting certain types of experience. In other cases complementary models which seem to contradict one another must be used to {3} explain all our observations. Old models are kept, even if they do not fit all the data, until better ones are found. There is no dogmatic commitment to any one model, for models change as new data are presented and new ideas arise. There is, however, a commitment to return to the data to test all models.

B. Cultural Relativism. A second root of the modern revolution in science is the concept of cultural relativity developed by anthropologists. The concept of culture as used in the social sciences does not mean the sophisticated, proper ways of behavior. Rather it is used for all the learned patterns of acting and thinking characteristic of the people of a society. The “culture” of a society is its model of how the world is put together and how people should behave.

All people have culture, but cultures are not the same. Just as we have different languages, so we also have different cultures. As Edward Sapir pointed out, the worlds people live in is not the same world with different labels attached. They are different worlds.

When we move into another culture our natural tendency is to judge it by our own beliefs and practices. Consequently other people appear uncouth and uncivilized; their actions make no sense to us. Anthropologists have pointed out the need for us to understand and judge each culture in terms of its own sets of values and assumptions. In short, each culture “makes sense” to the people who live in it. The attempt to understand each culture in its own terms and to avoid judgment is known as cultural relativism.


The shift in modern thinking to the use of models and cultural relativity has profound implications for contemporary theology. For one thing, it makes us aware of the fact that theology itself is a product in part of a historical and cultural setting. Theologians of the early twentieth century, like their scientific counterparts, saw their task as building comprehensive systematic theologies which were accepted as accurate statements of ultimate realities. Each theological system claimed to be true in the absolute sense of the term. Hence the bitter debates over minor points, for each system was logically coherent and closed. A theology had to be accepted in toto. Any tampering with the parts threatened the whole structure.

Theologians not only argued with one another, but with scientists. Both, at that time, played the same game using the same set of epistemological rules. Both were constructing closed, absolute systems. Consequently the ultimate question was whose system was “right” and whose system was “wrong.”

Today the fundamental problem between science and theology is one of communication. Scientists of the old framework continue to debate with theologians who are constructing closed systems. But modern scientists working with models do not understand and are not understood by such theologians. They are playing by different sets of rules of thought. Each feels like a man trying to play chess with someone who persists in moving by the rules of checkers. If there is to be communication between science and theology, the problem of epistemology must be solved.

A. Models and Theology. If we apply the concepts of model building to theology, where does it lead us? Is there no truth? nothing absolute? {4} No, these are not the consequences of such a move. There will be, however, a shift in our conception of theology.

  1. Biblical Revelation versus Theologies. In the first place, a shift to modern epistemology forces us to differentiate sharply between the biblical revelation of God and the human theologies man constructs to understand this revelation. The biblical record is the “data” to which theologians go to test their theologies, just as the scientist returns to his observational data. The biblical record is therefore the authoritative source by which we test our understandings of God.

    Theologies, on the other hand, are tentative human models of divine realities. They should be rooted in the Bible; but all, in fact, have borrowed heavily from their times and cultures. Theologies must constantly be tested and revised against the biblical record to keep them true to divine revelation. They must also be culturally relevant to their times in order to communicate this revelation in human societies.

  2. A Humility of Man’s Actions. To treat theologies as models brings us to a humility concerning man’s activities and a reverence for God’s actions. We do not claim to know the totality of truth. Theological discussions are not the grounds for splits and charges of heresy, but the means to help one another follow Christ more closely. As we share what we have experienced personally of God, we help one another test these experiences against the biblical record.

    Such an approach opens the doors for communication, not only between people and denominations who differ in theological interpretations, but also between theologians and other academicians. The biblical record provides us with models of man and the universe which can successfully compete in the open market place of ideas.

  3. A Historical Perspective. To treat theologies as models is to see the Church in a historical perspective and the Christian life as one of growth. Models are working assumptions which are used in making real life decisions. Modifying them does not threaten our whole faith. As we mature spiritually, our theologies will change, while our basic commitment to the person of Christ and the process of testing our ideas against the Word remains the same.
  4. A Concept of the Church. Viewing theologies as models has implications for our concept of the Church. A church is no longer a congregation united in its agreement on a set of theological statements. It is a fellowship of people committed to the person of Christ as revealed in the Bible. There are implications for witness. Witness is not the proclamation of abstract truth to which the listener must mentally subscribe. It is testifying of our own experiences with God. Such witness is powerful precisely because it is rooted in experience.

B. Cultural Relativism and Theology.

  1. The Gospel versus Culture. How does cultural relativity affect theology? It is clear that we must differentiate between the gospel and the cultural media in which it is expressed. If we fail to do so we will be tempted to equate the gospel with our own cultural values and philosophies. The result will be confusion. Take, for example, the field of ethics. If we do not distinguish between sins defined by the Bible and those defined by our culture, we will be forced to conclude that all sins are relative. It is obvious that cultural definitions of sin change over time. It was once sin to wear lipstick for many Christians. Now it is accepted by {5} them. In the past musical instruments were banned from the church. Now we pride ourselves in their use. Then why not accept adultery as acceptable when our society condones it?
  2. The Gospel in the Cultural Media. The gospel is distinct from culture, but it must find expression in a cultural mold in order to be understood by men. Moreover it must be accurately translated into each culture so that people may understand and believe.

    That the gospel was transmitted in a cultural medium is also true of the gospel record. Many of the biblical customs can be understood only in terms of their culture and time. For example, the practice of taking several wives was culturally accepted in the world of the Old Testament; but such customs, just because they are recorded in the biblical record, cannot be equated with God’s will for mankind.


What are the implications of a shift in epistemology for the mission of the Church?

A. Planting the Gospel versus Importing a Culture. The central task of mission under the new epistemology is to transplant the gospel, not to import a foreign cultural or theological system. It is to bring people to Christ and to a study of the Bible for themselves. We must trust that the Holy Spirit will guide the converts in the development of their theologies just as we are confident that He has led us into a growing understanding of the truth. Theological autonomy is the hardest of autonomies to be granted to individuals and to churches.

B. Indigenization of the Gospel. As Brother R.K. Murthy of India points out, we do not want the gospel to be brought to a new land as a potted plant. It must be planted as a seed which grows in the soil of the new culture. The greatest barrier to evangelism and church planting is not the gospel but the foreignness of the language and forms in which it is communicated.

It is easier to bring a potted plant than to plant and raise a seed. It is easier to transplant the gospel in its cultural molds than to indigenize it to a new culture. Indigenization means putting the message of the gospel in new cultural forms. This requires that we separate between what is gospel and what is culture, a task to which there is no simple solution. It also demands that we thoroughly know the culture in which we work.

The gospel cannot be transmitted as a package apart from culture. To be understood it must be translated into the ideas of the culture for communication to take place. This raises the problem of syncretism which is the loss of the message as it is mingled with the messages of the other religions. There will always be some distortion as a message is put into new languages and thought categories which arise out of the cultural assumptions of a society, but it is greatest when the communicator seeks to maintain a constant form. It is least when there is a willingness to accept new forms in order to retain the meaning. Generally it is impossible to maintain both the form and the meaning completely. But people find it hard to give up old forms which they frequently equate with the message. A girl may accept a proposal for marriage but she still feels the need of a ring to seal the engagement. It is easier to measure communication in terms of equivalence of form (verbal statements, behavior patterns, etc.) which can be seen than by mental understandings which are hard to test.{6}

Indigenization affects the culture as well as the message. If a message is communicated meaningfully, it affects the values and assumptions of the people. In time the gospel has a redemptive effect on culture.

C. Identification of the Witness. Communication proceeds best when the witness not only speaks the same verbal and social language as the listeners but also identifies with the people. This involves more than a ritual association on certain occasions or even of adopting local patterns of living. It involves a basic attitude of oneness with the people and their culture. At the core, it means seeing people as people, and not as objects.

While the witness is called to identify, it is impossible for him to go fully “native.” Having been brought up in one culture, he can never fully free himself from its forms. His foreignness can at times be an asset if he sees himself as one with the people and their cause. Identification finds its expression in mutual reciprocity and acceptance, a willingness to learn as well as to teach. Stephen Neill is right when he says that the witness becomes a brother to the people whom he serves and that he is a “missionary” only when he returns home to plead their cause before the church from which he has come.

D. Partnership in Mission. If the church is a brotherhood of sinners who have and continue to experience forgiveness and who help one another to follow Christ more closely, then the church in its mission must recognize the integrity and autonomy of the new churches. This is a fundamental spirit of mutual trust and brotherhood. The relationship is one of partnership in a common effort rather than a unilateral action on the part of one, or a negotiation between competing bodies. Barriers of geography and race break down in a common commitment to a task.

Revolutions shake the foundations of our lives. This is true also of the current epistemological revolution in the academic world. The Christian cannot close his eyes to what is going on in the world because he is part of it. He may not always accept the thinking of his day, but he must openly and honestly face the issues. It is not enough to condemn. He must offer a better alternative.

On the other hand, it appears to me that the Anabaptist theology with its stress on the individual priesthood of believers and the consequent individual interpretation of the scriptures does differentiate between theologies and Divine Revelation. As such it seems to me to be eminently modern in its approach and capable of providing us with a framework with which to face the modern world of thought.

Dr. Hiebert is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Washington at Seattle.

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