In religious contexts, especially within the Roman Catholic Church, inculturation refers to the adaptation of church doctrine and ritual to unreached or non-Christian cultures. In Catholicism, inculturation involves the adaptation of the liturgy to different cultures and the tolerance of various pagan practices that are deemed part of the traditional culture. But inculturation is not an exclusively Catholic practice. Any time the gospel is presented in a new culture, the matter of inculturation must be addressed.
When the apostle Paul tried to evangelize the Greeks in Athens, he was involved in inculturation to a certain extent (Acts 17:22–33). Paul began by noting that the Greeks had an altar dedicated to “the unknown god” at which they worshiped. In this way Paul related to the Greeks and their culture. From there he moved to the truth about their “unknown” deity, proclaiming the reality of the God who created them and provided for their salvation. Paul also quoted some philosophers of the day (Acts 17:28) in order to further bolster his message.
Paul’s inculturation or contextualization of the gospel began with taking the Greeks’ understanding that there was a God, although they did not know Him, and building on that limited knowledge. Paul tapped in to the universal knowledge of God’s existence (Romans 1:19–20) and explained that God is the Creator (Acts 17:24), that He is self-sufficient (verse 25), and that He ordains the means for men to come to the knowledge of Him (verses 26–27). He went on to explain God’s providence in the matter of salvation and then went to the heart of the matter—the future judgment of the world through Jesus Christ, who was resurrected from the dead, and the need for all men to repent (verses 30–31). When the Greeks heard about the resurrection, the results were mixed: some of them mocked, some put him off until later, and some believed (verses 32–34).
The elements of Paul’s message on Mars Hill point to some essential truths regarding inculturation. First, Paul used something in their own culture to open the door of their minds and hearts. He then related that open door to the gospel of Jesus Christ. But most importantly, the inculturation did not require compromise. The gospel did not change, although Paul’s presentation of it did. Paul boldly proclaimed the eternal truths of the gospel, and he did so without apologizing or softening the message. There are some hard truths contained in the message of salvation by faith alone in Christ alone, and many will reject those truths immediately. Some will procrastinate until it is too late. But the elect of God will rejoice at the truth of the gospel and embrace it and follow Christ.
Understanding that God ordains the means to save those He has foreordained is a crucial component in the process of inculturation (Romans 8:29–30). Efforts to make the gospel “relatable” to the various cultural experiences of sinful men and women should never result in watering down its hard truths or changing it in such a way as to blunt its message. Inculturation becomes wrong when it involves a toleration of sin. Idolatry is always wrong, no matter what culture practices it, and it should not be made part of the gospel message in order to gain a wider hearing. No amount of inculturation will keep some from seeing the message of the cross as foolishness, but “to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).