God is active in all cultures around the world, even before Christianity or the Bible reach them. That’s what William Dyrness contends in Insider Jesus (which I discussed here). If he is right, the implications go far beyond missionary efforts. They encompass how we should view our own faith.
We see this when we look back at the Reformation. For all its strengths and benefits, says Dyrness, the Reformation has also distorted some of our understanding of Christianity. How is this so?
main changes the Reformation brought about was not so much one of belief but of practice, Dyrness suggests. Praying to saints, pilgrimages, novenas, rituals and what were considered superstitions of almost every kind were discouraged. Art, drama, paintings and architecture were also minimized or condemned. “If thinking is the primary locus of truth [as the Reformation suggested], all other embodied cultural forms must surely be inferior” (p. 10).
In their place came other practices–preaching, reading the Bible and learning catechisms. This had the effect of changing the emphasis from a wholistic, culture-embedded faith that combined internal devotion and external practice, to one that was largely internal (heart and mind) and separate from the wider world. One downside of this (which modernist and Enlightenment tendencies intensified) is that religion has for many decades now been portrayed as something private, separate from the public sphere. Indeed, many contend that private religion should have no bearing on culture or society.
Most of the rest of the world sees religion very differently. There is no division of private and public, of religion and society. For them, it is not strange at all that religious leaders should guide public policy. Because we Westerners already see religion and culture as separate spheres, we see no problem asking converts to separate from their culture and side with Christianity. But that may in fact uproot them from what God has already been doing in them and in their cultures. We may be working against God instead of with him.
I am sympathetic to the direction Dyrness is going, I think he unfairly makes the Reformation his main whipping boy. Certainly the Greek influence on the early centuries of the church is also important. When Judaism had no creed except possibly for the very brief Shema, how else can we explain the proliferation of fixed summaries of belief from the Apostles’ Creed to Athanasius? The Reformation stood in the tradition of the early church in this regard.
Dyrness belatedly and indirectly acknowledges this (pp. 142-43). And it is true that lived Christianity was generally more wholistic in the centuries leading up to the Reformation. Nonetheless, the magisterial Reformation leaders claimed that they were going back to the sources, back to the early church fathers in their pursuit of pure Christianity. And in regard to the emphasis of the early church on the early creeds, indeed they were.
Though I wish Dyrness had nuanced his analysis of the Reformation a bit more, he is nonetheless on a very helpful track. His book is an important, profound and needed analysis of Scripture, theology, culture, missionary activity and how we ourselves practice our Christian faith.