Thoughts on Evangelicalism Moving Forward, Part 8: Contextualization
Moving forward, I am not sure if there is a more important issue for evangelicals than proper contextualization (assuming we are holding to orthodox Christianity). Contextualization is the art of explaining the Bible (especially the Gospel) without sacrificing the message, to people with varying cultural distance everywhere in ways they understand. We are always contextualizing; under/over-contextualization is still contextualization. We speak differently to children than adults; Westerners, than the Near East, than the Far East. Contextualization is far too big a topic for one post, so this post serves the purpose of barely introducing the subject.
There are two obvious dangers in contextualization: Under-contextualization and Over-contextualization:
Under-contextualization [fundamentalism, traditionalism]
Under-contextualization occurs when we ignore real cultural differences that are barriers to understanding the Gospel. The fundamentalists were notorious under-contextualizers. The main mistake that most under-contextualizers make is stating that all contextualization is wrong. The problem with this kind of statement is that we can never avoid contextualization. Language is the carrier of culture. If I speak in English (or any other language), I am contextualizing. It is ethnocentric of the highest order to think that when you speak all people should be able to understand you.
I think it was Mike Glodo, who said that,
Missionaries are the best heretics.
His point is that as missionaries are advancing the Gospel in culturally distant places, they face difficult decisions on how to far to go to explain the Christian message. Do you allow ancestor worship in Japan? Do you allow polygamy? Do you worship at the mosque as a follower of Allah and Isa (Jesus) in a Muslim country? Do you think there are believers in the Roman Catholic church, and if so, do you partner with them in Italy?
The great danger of over-contextualization is compromise. We compromise the Gospel when we marry it to some other worldview/faith that is against the Gospel. It is inappropriate for us to marry Christianity to modernism (as evangelicals have done for some time), post-modernism (as the emergent church encourages), or any religion Islam/Voodoo/Oprah-Tolle. This is syncretism.
Most of us will not be facing questions of how far to go to evangelize Muslims in the middle East but we do need to think through how far is inappropriate in trying to seek the lost here in America. On this matter, Gregg Allison (Southern Seminary) has a more substantive paper addressing contextualization in the emergent church that is worth reading.
Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart was famously quoted as saying (in reference to defining hard-core pornography),
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it…
I cannot define proper contextualization, but I know it when I see it. Proper contextualization is an art and not a science. Proper contextualization requires spiritual maturity.
If you were to spend time listening/watching a single treatment of the matter, I would highly commend D.A. Carson’s speech on contextualization in this video from closing message from The Gospel Coalition, 2009. You can tell he has really though through the subject in his speech and that is likely do to his thoughtful book, Christ and Culture Revisited. Here is a snarky little snippet from the Gospel Coalition message:
Paul refuses to circumcise Titus, even when it was demanded by many in the Jerusalem crowd, not because it didn’t matter to them, but because it mattered so much that if he acquiesced, he would have been giving the impression that faith in Jesus is not enough for salvation: one has to become a Jew first, before one can become a Christian. That would jeopardize the exclusive sufficiency of Jesus. To create a contemporary analogy: If I’m called to preach the gospel among a lot of people who are cultural teetotallers, I’ll give up alcohol for the sake of the gospel. But if they start saying, “You cannot be a Christian and drink alcohol,” I’ll reply, “Pass the port” or “I’ll think I’ll have a glass of Beaujolais with my meal.” Paul is flexible and therefore prepared to circumcise Timothy when the exclusive sufficiency of Christ is not at stake and when a little cultural accommodation will advance the gospel; he is rigidly inflexible and therefore refuses to circumcise Titus when people are saying that Gentiles must be circumcised and become Jews to accept the Jewish Messiah.
The operative question is what is the proper relationship of the church to the world. Ray Pennings has a nice summary of the four Reformed positions on the churches relationship to the world:
So to summarize the discussion within Reformed circles today: The neocalvinist says the fundamental presuppositions underlying the debate need to be changed if we are to have meaningful engagement. The two kingdom perspective responds that it won’t happen; when we try to engage in discussion, we end up calling things Christian that really aren’t, resulting in pride and a misrepresentation of the gospel. The neopuritans say that that is why we should avoid a systemic approach; we should focus more on the individual needs of our neighbors and show them, both in ministries of mercy as well as by positive examples, that faith makes a difference. The Old Calvinists say that in all of this activity, we are losing our focus and getting dirty as we dig around in the garbage cans of culture to retrieve a penny or two of value from the bottom. We and our culture need heart-surgery, not band-aids.
Moving forward, my encouragement to evangelicalism is to think through this relationship thoughtfully. This will require balance, which is the final subject in this series of posts on Evangelicalism Moving Forward.