I was a math major but it was my college soccer class that made me feel dumb.
In our first scrimmage game, the teacher told me to kick off the ball. Since I attended school in America, I knew what a “kick off” is. So, I naturally ran up to the ball and kicked it as far down the field as I could to the other team. The problem was that we weren’t playing American football; we were playing international “football” (i.e. soccer). Accordingly, I was supposed to lightly kick the ball to my own teammate, not the other team.
The problem is that I didn’t really know much about soccer. I didn’t know why or how I was supposed to “kick off.” My teacher assumed I understood his instruction.
Likewise, we make a similar mistake when we assume too much about contextualization. First, people often assume contextualization is about evangelism more than discipleship (the subject of my previous post). Therefore, people typically assume that contextualization fundamentally concerns how we communicate and apply the gospel.
What happens when we attempt to do contextualization or tell others to contextualize the gospel? Might we assume too much and so make the same mistake as my soccer teacher?
When learning to play soccer, I needed an entirely new perspective, not merely a few simplified pointers.
In the same way, we need more than a few principles for doing contextualization; we need to reorient people’s worldview (not merely their religion).
Assuming the Gospel
In One Gospel for All Nations, I identify a few problems that get in the way of biblically faithful and culturally meaningful contextualization.
First, people tend to “assume the gospel.” Of course such a claim might sound counterintuitive, perhaps even provocative. Yet it is all too easy to assume a certain cultural expression of the gospel message as though it were in fact that of Paul, John, or any of the other biblical writers.
Evangelicals tend to have a rather fixed framework for understanding the gospel. Traditional categories and images are often prioritized that do not necessarily reflect the entire biblical context nor the ancient cultures represented in Scripture. By “assuming the gospel,” we “beg the question,” a logical fallacy in which one assumes a certain conclusion within his or her premises.
Christians might . . .
commit a similar error when they assume the gospel yet without having decided what counts as a genuine contextualization. Contextualization inevitably turns into a task of communication, application, and bridge building. One then measures biblical faithfulness by the degree to which the “contextualized” theology conveys the narrower guilt/law based message prevalent in Western theology. (Wu, Saving God’s Face, 26)
Consequently, it is possible to unwittingly “Judaize” (i.e., “Westernize”) our listeners.
Interpreting the Bible in Context
This first problem may stem from a second, more fundamental oversight. Everyone who contextualizes the gospel must first know what the Bible says; yet one quickly forgets that we all interpret the Bible through a cultural lens. Our worldview greatly influences our interpretation. It can be no other way.
We might not like it but we can’t change it. Our personal and cultural contexts act as filters to what we read. Our cultural perspective either opens up the text, giving fresh insight, or it hides certain facets of a passage (being less familiar to our own experience).
What about ancient historical documents? Don’t they help us gain the perspective of the biblical authors? Certainly this helps us but only to a point. After all, we still read those documents through our own cultural lenses.
In conversation with others, I find that people get very nervous at this point. Does contextualization then lead to “eisegesis,” whereby we force our own views into the biblical text? No, it should not. Quite the opposite––when we assume the views of our tradition, church, and organization are more complete than they actually are, then we are especially vulnerable to committing eisegesis!
Although our cultural lenses influence the way we interpret the Bible, we are not doomed to subjectivism. The Bible reveals things that are objectively true; our perspective on those realities is simply limited.
In fact, when we understand that contextualization begins at interpretation, we have an opportunity to guard against a subtle form of syncretism––theological syncretism. By this, I refer to the tendency to read the Bible through the lens of our denomination, organization, ministry strategy, etc. and therefore miss so much more of what God reveals in Scripture. When we commit theological syncretism, we assume a view of gospel that makes it difficult to contextualize in a way that is both biblically faithful and culturally meaningful.
The Practical Importance of Perspective
Contextualization begins with interpretation. This is a practical insight.
How we interpret the Bible shapes the way we communicate and apply it. When we grasp this point, a number of implications emerge. For example, we will have to adjust common methods of missionary training. We need to prioritize exegesis and biblical theology, not simply systematic theology and anthropology.
Finally, contextualization requires far more than intellectual muscle. It tests our character. We must humbly acknowledge our limitations. In so doing, we can better serve others because we are willing to question our own dogmatic assumptions and thus listen to the others’ input.
Join me in praying that we would move beyond mere principles and instead get more practical in doing contextualization, beginning with biblical interpretation.
For more on the why and how of contextualization, check out my recently published book One Gospel for All Nations: A Practical Approach to Biblical Contextualization.