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Theology Matters: What is Inculturation?

Acts 17:22-31

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands. … While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” 

“Inculturation” refers to the way in which the Church communicates the message of salvation to people of diverse cultures, languages, and traditions. Our ability to do so stems from a two-fold recognition. First, every culture is comprised of human beings, created in the image of and called “very good” by God. Cultures draw people into community with one another, addressing God’s concern that “It is not good for the human to be alone” (Gen 2:18). At their best, cultures allow us to express all that is good, noble, and pure in our humanity. Culture is “the milieu in which and on account of which [we] grow.” [1] Second, “the incarnation of the Word was [itself] a cultural incarnation.”[2] Jesus took our human nature, living and dying as one of us, in a particular cultural context. He lived in antiquity, came from a Jewish culture, worked with nearby Gentiles, and was subject to Roman rule. We share a common humanity with Jesus, yet we live and move and have our being in a very different cultural context. Our expression of our Christian faith necessarily includes some degree of cultural mediation.

From the very beginning, Christianity has “incarnated … in forms and manners already familiar to those being evangelized.”[3] This is evident in Paul’s cultural sensitivity with the Athenians: instead of attacking their polytheism with Deuteronomistic dogma, Paul used their altar “to an unknown God” as an opening for sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ, the unknown God they’d already been worshipping.

Perhaps the most wide-spread example of inculturation is translation of Scripture. In its original form, Matthew 22:21 reads: “λέγουσιν· ‹αὐτῷ› Καίσαρος. τότε λέγει αὐτοῖς Ἀπόδοτε οὖν τὰ Καίσαρος Καίσαρι καὶ τὰ τοῦ Θεοῦ τῷ Θεῷ.” Confronted with such a statement, most Dallasites would dismiss with a chuckled, “It’s all Greek to me!” Likewise, the earliest translations of Scripture from Hebrew and Greek into Latin, Syriac, or Coptic would stump most of us. Even the much-loved King James translation (“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”) has its shortfalls today. After all, who is Caesar to you and to me? The NRSV translates “Caesar” as “the emperor”, giving us a more generic expression of the passage; yet, most of us have no personal experience of empire against which to assess Jesus’ words. A culturally-sensitive translation for Americans today might have Jesus looking at the backside of a $10 bill, asking what building is imaged there, and directing the priests and pastors questioning him to “render unto the U.S. Treasury that which is the U.S. Treasury’s; and to God that which is God’s.”

Just as Scripture must be translated and preached in ways that mediate God’s truth to new cultures and times, our traditions within the Church must also be undergo some amount of inculturation. From the earliest Christian liturgies, we have observed that Christians have generally worshipped in a four-fold manner: we gather, we hear the word, we share a meal at God’s altar, and we are sent into the world to carry out God’s mission. Within this basic liturgical structure, Christians vary in the ways we worship: for example, in the amount (and selection) of Scripture read in worship, in the style and purpose of preaching, and in the frequency in which we participate in the Eucharist. Worship music varies widely as well: from classical Christian hymns to Gospel standards, from guitar and mariachi style music to contemporary Christian praise. All of this variety is a result of inculturation: the work of meeting people where they are with the Good News of Christ Jesus.

Inculturation reflects our recognition that God’s Word “cannot … be identified or linked in an exclusive manner with the elements of culture which bear it.”[4] Scripture and tradition have been handed down to us through the cultural lenses of the various human beings who received, retold, recorded, and (later) translated and reflected on God’s self revelation. It should not surprise us, then, that our work involves distinguishing between provisional elements of our faith that once were helpful means of understanding and worshipping the Lord and universal truths that must guide our choices, worship, and work today and forever. For though the Gospel can and should be mediated so that it speaks to people from all cultures, tribes, and nations, the heart of the Gospel is that each of us is to be transformed by relationship with God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Inculturation is the process by which we ask ourselves how to be the Church in Dallas, Texas over the long-haul in the 21st century. How to share the Good News of Christ Jesus with our culture. How to mediate this Good News to those in our cultural context so that they hear, receive, and are – along with us – transformed by the saving grace of Jesus Christ. Let us take up this question together for, in so doing, we accept Christ’s commission to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20).

[1] The International Theological Commission, “Faith and Inculturation”, 1988 (available online at

[2] John Paul II, Speech to the University of Coimbra, 15 May 1982.

[3] Charles A. Coulombe, “What is ‘Inculturation?’”, published February 10, 2014 (available online at

[4] International Theological Commission, “Faith and Inculturation.”

The Rev. Rebecca Tankersley is assistant priest at St. James in Dallas

Priests from throughout the diocese explore religious topics with depth and nuance.