The Church and Cultures–Anthropology in Action

Luzbetak, Louis J. The Church and Cultures: New Perspectives in Missiological Anthropology. American Society of Missiology Series, No. 12. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1988.

In this twelfth volume of the prestigious ASM series, Louis J. Luzbetak (1918–2005; his obituary is a must read!), S.V.D., weds the missiological concern of the church with the academic discipline of cultural anthropology. While in seminary, our author, Luzbetak, entered the Society for the Divine Word (Societas Verbi Divini),[1] a Roman Catholic missionary order focusing on unreached areas. He earned his doctorate in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, after which he completed four years (1952–6) of anthropological field work in New Guinea. Luzbetak first published The Church and Cultures in 1963; the current version is a major revision and update of the original text. While writing from a Roman Catholic perspective, the rewrite grew out of the original text’s pervasive use in Ecumenical and Evangelical circles. The 1988 version reflects Luzbetak’s broad interaction with non-Catholic scholarship. The current volume was forwarded by Eugene Nida.

In the forward, Nida praises Luzbetak for his “ecumenical spirit” (xv). While the author admits to writing to a primarily Roman Catholic audience (notice in the title “The Church”), the spirit of the book is evidently ecumenical throughout; a fact to be discussed below. While comparing the first edition to this re-write may prove instructive, the author considered the present work to be a “Phase II” of the earlier volume (xvii). In other words, the author himself admits that he changed his emphases between the two works: “One of the chief differences between the Phase I and Phase II works is, therefore, the shift of emphasis from directing change mainly through “outsiders” to directing change mainly from within the community itself” (ibid.). The author’s stated audience is not the professional anthropologist but the “mission practitioner” so that they would have anthropological tools at their fingertips (xviii). While having a practical focus, Luzbetak does not fail to be thorough and scholarly. His bibliography is extensive and broad. He incorporates numerous Catholic, Protestant, Ecumenical, Evangelical and academic scholars. He methodologically interacts with anthropological theorists in the meat of each chapter; then, he concludes each chapter with application and recommended readings. In his method, no academic stone is left unturned, so to speak. Also of great value to the work, the volume concludes with a helpful index of topics.

The Church and Cultures includes eight chapters. In the first chapter, Luzbetak reveals his missionary concern. In discussing the “Theological Foundations of Missiological Anthropology”, Luzbetak begins the chapter, and thus sets the tone for the entire book, by claiming that “The mission of the Church is essentially a spiritual activity—the work of the Holy Spirit” (1). While he values anthropology as a science, he believes that “The most important and most desirable ingredient in the person engaged in mission is genuine and deep spirituality” (2). He defines such spirituality in terms of “(1) a deep, living faith, (2) selfless dedication to the needs of others, and (3) a humble, obedient, and trustful sense of personal mission” (3). These quotes demonstrate the authors intentions well—missiological anthropology is a spiritual exercise. Still, the remaining seven chapters, built on this spiritual foundation, serve to demonstrate Luzbetak’s “deep appreciation of the contribution that human knowledge and skill can make toward more effective mission policies and practices” (8).

While an extended summary of the first chapter serves to highlight key aspects of the author’s starting point, the key themes of the remaining chapters will be discussed below in a critical evaluation. The following is a brief summary of the final seven chapters. In chapter two, the author defines what he means by anthropology, missiology, and “Missiological Anthropology”. Ultimately, he defines “missiological anthropology” in terms of contextualization: “it investigates the context in which the Gospel must be viewed, understood, proclaimed, and lived by” (43). In the third chapter, Luzbetak discusses the historical mission models that have led up to the time period just before Vatican II. Chapter four includes his interaction with Vatican II and the teachings of the Church. In chapters five, six and seven, the author gives a detailed analysis of culture, worldview and culture change in the light of anthropological research. Luzbetak argues for an integrated, systematic and functional, (in other words “holistic”), view of culture. Because of this view, the author argues that in order for culture to change, change must be initiated from an emic perspective: “the chief agents of contextualization are the Holy Spirit and the local community” (354; emphasis original). In the final chapter, the author presents five views of the church, taken from Avery Dulles, that can be useful for understanding the relationship of the local church to culture. He concludes the book by re-emphasizing his purpose:

“We are concerned about cultures so that the Church may be as perfect a channel of Grace as possible, as worthy an instrument in the hands of God as possible, as good, wise, and faithful a servant as is humanly possible” (397).

Thus, a church, that provides genuine community as the People of God, that serves as a sign of the active reign of Christ, that teaches and preaches the truth of the gospel in context, that serves the physically and spiritually poor, and stands as a visible instrument of salvation, is in the best position to glorify God in a local context.

There are many positive aspects to this book. One of the greatest strengths of the book is its perspective. While being addressed primarily to Roman Catholics, the reader does not find anything in the book that would be objectionable to the careful reading of a non-Catholic. His anthropology is clean, insightful and very useful. One may find room to disagree on his view of contextualization and syncretism, but his view of culture and worldview is comprehensive. Even so, while giving credit to notable Protestant authors such as Paul Hiebert, Eugene Nida, David Hesselgrave, Charles Kraft, etc., Luzbetak often directs the reader to Catholic sources that otherwise may remain unknown to the non-Catholic reader. Furthermore, Luzbetak provides an excellent treatment and summary of the Vatican II documents from a missiological perspective (109–11ff).

While his treatment of sources is welcomingly even-handed, Luzbetak is also self-critical of some Catholic understandings of church. Most significantly, in the epilogue (chapter eight), Luzbetak identifies weakness of each of the five models of church, including the “Institutional Model.” He lists four weaknesses that stand out in contrast to what one would expect from a Catholic author:

(1) [T]he theory lacks the strong basis in Scripture and in early Church tradition that the other models discussed have; (2) its clericalism makes the laity passive and exaggerates the role of human authority in the Church; (3) it stifles theological growth; and (4) it militates against the spirit of the times, especially against interfaith dialogue and ecumenism (396).

Moreover, he takes a strong stance against other religions. While he gives a fair description of the pluralistic trend of Vatican II and defends the intention of this trend, he argues elsewhere that “the Christian community will be called upon to carry out a prophetic role and therefore will be countercultural” (160). More will be said on this topic under weaknesses of the book.

Another strength of the book includes Luzbetak’s treatment of culture and culture change. Luzbetak argued extensively anthropologically that cultures are adaptive systems, but also that they are reflected in lives of individuals (though ultimately cultures are the coping system of a society at large). However, he also identifies two important facts: a cultural system is never fully integrated (280), meaning culture cannot be conceived as a totalizing, deterministic system; and no two individuals in the same culture “play the game exactly alike” (168), meaning that culture change naturally happens from within. The role of the contextualizer, then, is to understand what questions that a culture has not answered and to build a community of individuals who can interpret the answers of Christianity. These facts, if true, may serve to undermine postmodern perspectivalism.

While many more strengths could be listed (the author’s concept of “empathy”, for instance), the greatest drawback to the book is Luzbetak’s treatment of syncretism. Whereas Luzbetak’s attitude towards his Protestant audience is overwhelmingly positive and he is self-critical of Catholic dogma where he can be (see strengths above), he struggles to find a place for Catholic Tradition in his anthropology. He cannot reject outright the universalist/pluralist theologies coming out of Vatican II; otherwise, the book is overall exclusively Christ-centered. While he identifies numerous causes of syncretism (which by implication, if avoided, could prevent it), he takes a very loose view towards the practice in light of an interesting interpretation of the Old Testament. He basically argues that God was patient with the syncretism of the Jews, including His prophets; therefore, the Church should take a long term approach to leading people through syncretism towards genuine faith. Such a task, as noble as it may be, assumes that syncretism is inevitable as the Church enters new cultures—“A syncretism-free Church is an eschatological hope, not a reality” (369). Many missionaries would take exception to that assumption.

However major this weakness may be, the book is well worth the read. The question remaining involves the value of the book for completing its purpose—providing anthropological tools for the ministry of the Gospel. First, the bibliography and treatment of the Catholic sources alone are worth the price of the book. Second, his anthropology is top notch. His view of culture would be helpful for a missionary to understand her context better. Not only does Luzbetak deal with difficult concepts like worldview, ethnography, linguistics, etc., he also included practical insights on culture shock, among other things. Third, his pneumatological and ecclesiological emphases are commendable, even if they exhibit Catholic bias. Nonetheless, the work is slightly dated. He does not treat the influence of positivism on the missionary enterprise. Also, other Protestant and Evangelical anthropologies have been published since then that are equally as comprehensive and include the philosophical discussion of postmodernism. Still, some missionaries might not be able to get past the Catholic perspective. Certainly there are terms used by both Catholics and Protestants included in this book, yet Luzbetak does not define his religious terms, such as Church, and Grace, etc. Overall, if a missionary desired to learn anthropology, this author would recommend other books as primary textbooks, but Luzbetak’s work would definitely be recommended as supplementary reading, especially if the missionary served in an area where they would interact with Catholic missionaries or churches.


[1]Society of the Divine Fathers, Internet Resource. < http://www.divineword.org/index.asp >, accessed on 1/15/2009.

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