Contextualization: Meaning, Methods and Models by D. Hasselgrave & E. Rommen

Ed Dudek


The authors of this book (Contextualization: Meaning, Methods and Models by D. Hasselgrave & E. Rommen. 2003. 291 pages, William Carey Library, Pasadena, CA 91104)survey the history of contextualization in Bible and church history. They explore significant proposals of prominent thinkers, and evaluate these proposals (approaches for contextualization) from five different perspectives: the historical, psychological, sociological, anthropological, theological and practical point of view required to clarify the various meanings and methods of contextualization. They conclude their study by outlining their own definition and approach to contextualization, using examples to illustrate their methods.

Part 1 – chapters 1-4

Two potential hazards in putting the message in culturally relative terms: (1) The perception of the communicator’s own cultural heritage, and (2) a syncretism from the receptor culture.

New Testament contextualization: (1) Paul’s approach to the linguistic and cultural problems at Lystra (Acts 14:8-20; 15-17) (2) Jerusalem Council in Acts 15

Postapostolic church’s mission: no sending agencies like today’s, strategies carried out by lay people, foreign and home missions were identical, contextualization took the form of discerning and responding to the moral and physical needs of the world around them.

In the Middle Ages and the attempt to deal with the challenge of Islam: (1) confrontation was used on rhetorical and philosophical skill, and (2) through knowledge of their protagonists’ scriptures and thought patterns.

Contextulization is a dynamic process and not a static one.

Part 2 – chs.4-9 – Contextualizers approach contextualization tasks in a number of ways and tend to reflect the disciplines in which they are schooled.

History testifies that some sort of contextualization is necessary if we are effectively to cross cultural barriers with the gospel.

European theology – the guardian of tradition including creeds and exegetical tools for theology’s tasks. Mostly scientific and intensely practiced theology in the world.

Jurgen Moltmann – to awaken hope in people is the missionary responsibility of the church. Hope should be the constant companion of faith; this is a hope which offers the believer and church the basis for contextualized theology. Hope and joy for the unrighteous. Political theology attempts to relate faith to society in general.

Bruce J. Nicholls — all of our problems are basically theological and religion involves the deepest of culture. Dogmatic contextualization whereby the dogmatic understanding of biblical theology is contextualized. In understanding the interpreting the Bible: live the life of faith; let the text correct one’s preunderstanding; the believing community is involved with the hermeneutical task; and maintain distinctions.

Unlike dogmatic biblical theology, all contextualized theologies, though necessary, are incomplete and relative. Nicholls’ states that true contextualization is dogmatic. It begins with biblical theology and it results in a judgment upon all of cultures-some of which it rejects and some of which it recreates to God’s glory.

Charles H. Kraft: dynamic-equivalence transculturation. Reality is filtered thought the worldview provided by one’s culture. We interpret Scripture in the light of our own cultural conditioning. We must understand cultural implications assumed in a Bible passage or interpretation will be incomplete or erroneous. Just the “plain meaning”? In the Nigerian culture, Ps.23 in misinterpreted because the insane or very young tend sheep. Transculturation-communicating God’s Work into receptor cultures. Theologies reflect cultural settings and personal perspective. Western theology represents the answers to question asked by contemporary Westerners. Our churches need the appropriateness of function rather than of form to be effective and impacting. Need to modify ethics list of Titus 1 and I Tim1 to make them culturally relevant today.

Asian churches deal with international conflicts, hunger, poverty, militarism and racism. Contextualizers must respond, especially since Asian theologians generally have devoted themselves to mastering Western theological formulations for so long.

M.M. Thomas-incorporates a wide variety of views without losing its own identity. He believes that Christ is also present in secular ideologies which have some Christian roots-thus, Christ-centered syncretism using social & secular humanism.

Kosuke Koyama of Japan and his Waterbuffalo Theology: less concerned with logic than with exploring cultural issues. Key in the theology is the history of Thailand, and its focusing on Buddhists (persons) rather than Buddhism (manmade institutions). There are two Thailands: one of traditional values shaped especially by Theravada Buddhism imported from India and Ceyon. The second Thailand is a product of Western colonialism with its guns and ointments. The real Thailand can only be understood and penetrated by the Christian faith when it is seen to be a combination of hotels and temple, motor cars and waterbuffalos, which in turn should lead us in our interpretation of theology; for example, the content of the dharma (Buddhist message of truth) is the sacrificial death of Christ. Look at the persistent Gentile woman (Matt.15:21-28) through eyes enlightened by Thai historical, cultural and religious backgrounds so that her experience is their eyes is relevant and understandable to them, versus an “assault interpretation.”

Liberation theology of Leonardo Boff, Paulo Freire and especially Gustavo Gutierrez and Jose Miguez-Bonino. Praxis, according to Gutierrez, is existential and active aspects of the Christian life, including social & pastoral service and spirituality. Emphasizes the political nature of Christ’s ministry. Liberation expresses the aspirations of oppressed peoples and social classes; Christ is the liberator who frees people from all injustice and oppression. Our acts are salvific when they are oriented toward a new and better society, i.e. liberation of the exploited.

Miguez-Bonino says, “revolutionary action aimed at changing the basic economic, political, social and cultural structures, and conditions of life is imperative today in the world.” Theology is an articulation of the action of faith and realized obedience. Need for “hermeneutical circulation”: obedience grows out of discernment of the Spirit and “reading the direction” of the biblical text with regard to liberation, righteousness, and peace, their complementary “elucidation in history.”

Many African theologians are persuaded that a very important need of African theology is selfhood and identity, after long foreign domination.

John S. Mbiti-a theology of ontology and time. An educated Kenyan theologian believes that the gospel has not been made relevant to Africans due to Western theology. Pre-Christian Africa knew God in a valid, albeit imperfect way. “African” time is two-dimensional-past time and present time but virtually no future time. (Versus the Western idea). Actual time moves backward and not forward, setting their minds on what has already taken place. The futuristic understanding of eschatology grows out of the Western linear view of time. An individual is not a complete person until marriage or even procreation. Kato’s assessment: ancestral worship is interpreted into ancestral respect, idolatry into worship of one God; Africans do have a concept of distant future; Mbiti’s eschatology is due to his bias in favor of universalism.

Byang H. Kato-he sees four fundamental challenges facing Christians in Africa: (1) rising universalism, (2) African traditional religions and the profusion of terms used to describe them, (3) African theology being vague and ambiguous due to liberal theologizing, and (4) the ecumenical movement largely is in the hands of liberals who reject inerrancy. Kato gives a good and insightful ten-point foundation for a contextualized approach to Africa. A few of his proposals: never allow the culture to take precedence over Christianity-express theological concepts in terms of the African situation; train men in the Scriptures; aggressive evangelism; not unity at any cost; show concern for social action but not at the expense of a message of personal salvation.

Middle East and Kenneth Bailey-to understand the theology of parables you must recapture the culture that informs the text. To do that you need “Oriental exegesis”. It involves discussing the cultural aspects of the parable with Middle Easterners, examining pertinent ancient literature, and consulting the Oriental version of the gospel. A knowledge of both the culture that informs the text of the biblical parables and the literary structures used are crucial to an accurate understanding of them. By using this approach to exegesis we are brought closer to a clearer perception of the person of Christ and a more precise understanding of Him as a theologian.

Tim Matheny-a model of evangelism to reach the Arabs by a felt need approach. One must understand the Arab value system in order to relate it to true Christian values: honor (involves maintaining proper relationships), hospitality (and how one protects and behaves toward a guest), family takes precedent over individuality, religion integrates almost every aspect of social life. Four goals for evangelism within the Islamic value system: (1) disassociate the gospel from Western forms of culture; (2) prepare evangelists to identify with the Muslim; (3) overcome sociological restructures by working within the family network in order to facilitate making a valid decision for Christ; (4) establish an indigenous church for Arab converts that includes indigenous leadership and worship. How to apply the Christian faith to an Arab setting: retain Biblically support items, maintain neutral items (types of clothing, etc) and reject items which are contrary to biblical principles (animistic superstitions, etc)

Part 3-chapters 10-14

Philosophical Perspective and the nature of biblical revelation.

There are four different kinds/genres/types of special, usually written, revelation: myths, the writing of the enlightened, divine writing, and inspired writing. Each proponent attempts to “contextualize” his/her faith in a manner consistent with the kind of revelation they claim to possess and will thereby affect translation, interpretation and communication.

Myths as phantasmagoric narratives are thought to convey basic information about god(s), the world and men which bind a people together in a common origin, loyalty and destiny. Truth as revealed by the gods and come with the force of divine revelation. The myth provides raw material for contextualization by creating a particular mentality of the people.

Orthodox Muslims recognize two types of inspiration: ilham, subjective lower level inspiration; wahy, objective and fully trustworthy higher-level inspiration, i.e. only the Koran, given directly by Allah through a passive Muhammad. The Koran translated into another language is not really the Koran.

Contrast the inspired Word of God (II Tim.3:16)

Bible as myth: contextualizations growing out of a belief that the Bible is basically mythological usually display a profound respect for biblical symbols, stories and parables while downplaying biblical history. Extrabiblical history and culture assume unusual importance in this view.

A theological perspective-the theological soil nurtures and sustains the contextualization attempts. Four theological orientations-orthodoxy, liberalism, neo-orthodoxy, and neoliberalism-tend to yield very different contextualizations.

Orthodoxy-words of God in the historic Christian view.

Liberalism-constantly reshaped Christian doctrine from current philosophy and religious experience.

Neo-orthodoxy-some of the primary themes of the Reformation; the Bible contains the word of God in imperfect form. Kierkegaard and Barth.

Neoliberalism-God’s revelation was conditioned by human limitations, i.e., current thought & ability to understand.

The closer one gets to classical orthodoxy the greater the weight given to the biblical revelation; the closer one gets to classical liberalism the greater the weight given to human reason and culture.

Contextualization-“the translation of the unchanging content of the Gospel of the Kingdom into verbal form meaningful to the peoples in their separate cultures and within their particular existential situation.” (Bruce Nicholls)

Apostolic contextualization-prophets and apostles receiving and reporting the divine message in linguistic and cultural frames of reference. Contextualize (translate, interpret, adapt, apply) the body of truth to the people of a respondent culture in such a way as to preserve as much of its original meaning and relevance as possible.

Prophetic Contextualization-entering the cultural context, discerning what God is doing and saying in that context, and speaking and working for needed change.

Syncretistic contextualization-selecting the best insights of various major religions and evolving a faith that goes beyond any one of them.

Methods of contextualization-examining liberal, neoliberal, neo-orthodox and orthodox.

Liberal dialogical method-the context is the interfaith meeting of religious progressives seen in a world of diverse cultures and faiths. The method is to pursue new truth by means of nondisputational dialogue. The result is a new syncretistic “gospel” that is supposed to eventuate in a new day of relationships between God and humanity and among people.

Neoliberal dialectical method (like the liberation theology of Gutierrez)-the context of a Marxist interpretation of history. The method is to discern truth by participating in that struggle, and perceptively and prophetically dealing with the world’s agenda.

The result is a “political hermeneutic of the Gospel” which calls men to make the world a better place to establish the Kingdom of God.

Neo-orthodox dialectical method. The context is history as it is being lived out in various cultures. The method is to discern truth in the dialectical tension between living history and the Scriptures as one is illumined by the Holy Spirit. The hoped-for result is that the Word of God will “come through” the biblical text.

The orthodox didactic method (Nicholls, Kato, Giesler). The context of contextualization is the arena of non-Christian belief systems. The method is to establish a common ground so that unbelievers can be convinced of the truth of the biblical gospel and to teach the Scriptures to those who are so convinced. The anticipated results are the spiritual transformation of those who place their faith in Christ and the discipling of the nations.

An anthropological perspective.

Cultural context can be defined in terms of the relationship between culture and language.

Culture is the body of knowledge shared by the members of a group leading to specific forms of behavior and sets of values. It is what society does and thinks.

Language is a purely human and non-instinctive method of communicating/expressing ideas, emotions, thoughts and desire by means of voluntarily produced symbols in a given culture. It is a particular how of thought, a means of expressing the content of culture.

Social context-refers to the individual’s membership in a community, with cultural values and beliefs, and institutions and forms.

The individual’s internal view of his own cultural context, both past and present-is the ultimate key to cross-cultural understanding, communication and contextualization.

The hermeneutical pattern.

The complexity of the interpretive and communicative challenge involves three cultures-the source, the interpreter/communicator and the listener.

Two types of validity in viewing the truth of the gospel: categorical validity in which the Christian message is absolutely non-negotiable, i.e., faith, repentance, etc. Principal validity-those aspects of revealed truth which grow out of the implications of new life in Christ. They can either be explicitly stated or not so.

The effective use of any language depends upon the correct or generally accepted use of speech. The actual meaning in speech is controlled by the user.

Faithfulness to Scripture is our primary standard for evaluating contextualization.

The communication perspective. Whatever else contextualization may entail it certainly has to do with communication.

Basic elements in the communication process: context, source or sender, the message, the delivery system, and the receptor or receiver.

Persons attach meanings to words (salvation, born again, etc), they change those meanings, and they determine if a symbol is actually a word and has meaning.

It is important to ask how a word is being used or ask the receptor exactly how it is being understood.

Christian communication should be receptor oriented and to realize that receptors are not just “sitting there.” Predispositions and prejudices go a long way in determining how they will interpret and respond to a given message. Use narratives, illustrations, parables and descriptions that are true to the life of the respondents.

Part 4-chapters 15-20

Contextualization is both verbal and nonverbal. Acceptable contextualization is a direct result of ascertaining the meaning of the biblical text, consciously submitting to its authority, and applying or appropriating that meaning to a given situation. Must determine what the biblical text says and also the meaning of what has been said.

Contextualization is a process with three distinct elements: [1] revelation of God’s truth in language (author’s use and audience’s understanding) , [2] interpretation of the intended meaning, influenced by the interpreter’s own culture and that of the text and [3] application in his own sociocultural environment, once logical implications are understood and accepted.

The Seven-Dimension Grid or Pardigm

The seven-dimension grid/paradigm through which all messages must pass through to be communicated to respondents in other cultures:

[1] Worldviews-the way we see the world in relation to ourselves and ourselves in relation to the world. Giesler has likened a worldview to the eyeglasses though which a person looks out upon the world. It is made up of thousands of pieces of myths and stories and narratives which purport to have logical and historical connections. The development of systematic theology as we know it in the West is bound up with problems posed by Western philosophy, not by problems posed by tribal, Hindu-Buddhistic, Chinese or various other worldviews.

[2] Cognitive processes-the conceptual, intuitive or concrete relational ways in which people think and know.

[3] Linguistic forms-ways of expressing ideas. No two words in different linguistic contexts mean exactly the same thing. And, there are languages that do not make a distinction between past, present and future.

[4] Behavioral patterns-non-linguistic bodily (gestures, positioning, etc) and vocal elements (eg., volume) to transmit meaning. For example, in debating with a Muslim, too much agitation or any display of rancor or disdain will undermine the Christian’s argument.

[5] Communication media-ways of channeling the message.

[6] Social structures-ways of interacting with one another on the basis of social conventions and understandings where it is defined who talks with whom and in what way and what kind of message is best.

[7] Motivational sources-ways people make decisions (either by consensus or individualistic ones) that reflect attitudes, allegiances and courses of action.

Integrative theology relates theological truths and Christian life and ministry in both Western and non-Western contexts, thus making theology relevant to life and work.

People need to hear the truth of the gospel of grace in a contextualized form.

Luther’s commentary on Galatians 2 was written through the eyeglasses of the truth encountered in Rom.1:17, the indulgence issue, and conserving and communicating the truth of sola Scripure, gratia and fide.

The Need to Challenge Cultural and Subcultural Notions

In contextualization, cultural and subcultural notions need to be challenged, biblical authority needs to be maintained, and gospel truth has to be communicated.

Muslim mindset: only Allah. It’s the only non-Christian religion which makes it an article of faith to believe in Jesus Christ-a messenger of God, not deity and was never crucified.

Nominal Christianity-a secularized form of religious commitment which has been focused either on the formulation of Christian teaching [dogma] specific to one particular denomination or on the institution itself. This is a direct result of a rift between the sacred and the secular.

1. Need for contextualization of the Lordship of Christ whereby a personal decision is made to His Lordship and an empowering of the Holy Spirit.

2. Need for decontextualization by divesting ourselves of culturally-induced misunderstandings so as to not misapply the text.

3. Need for interpretation by determining the intended meaning of the text.

4. Need for application by delivering a contextualized sermon and giving a specific call to personal commitment.


Chapter 15 Contextualization That Is Authentic and Relevant was one of the two most helpful and interesting chapters to me (the other was ch.17) since it was both pragmatic and illustrative of real life situations and the possibilities posed and guidance given for contextualized communication.

Since we at the GO100 office in Minneapolis want to communicate to Africans (to start with) in the SATS program and to Chinese in the CNM program, we need to ask and answer the following questions to verify valid contextualization:

1. Are we giving little or much attention to the importance of history, myths, stories, parables, analogies, pictures and symbols in communicating within these contexts?

2. Are we continually adjusting our approaches to African/Chinese thinking and knowing that recognizes the experiences that African or oral learners in China have?

3. Are we stressing China’s emphasis on family relationship and obligations in the CNM project? Will we use word-picture artistry of non-literates?

In the SATS program that we are currently involved in, will African pastors and missionaries finish or drop out of the program after a few/several lessons do the readers make sense and are they geared to concrete relational thinking? If not, even the highly motivated African pastors and missionaries will drop out of the program after a number of lessons.

I think the SATS readers and the rest of the material could prove to be uninteresting if they do not contain color pictures of people or realistic art (like detailed black-and-white line drawings) and illustrations. In the study book, one could emphasize doing various dramas by the group when they meet together in order to help them vividly remember principles and teachings.

Application of Contextualization in Seminars

In teaching my Victorious Life Seminar, based on Rom.6-8 and Eph.5:18, I can utilize some of Hasselgraves’ ideas:

1. View students not only as students but also as artists, and have them communicate picturesquely and dramatically instead of just intellectually and verbally.

2. Ask them the meanings of particular words or phrases (“dead” to sin and to the law, “walk by the Spirit”, etc.) by their “painting a picture” that gives the exact meaning. Have them tell a few personal experiences that would describe and illustrate the person that I am using in my stories.

3. Have the students summarize in groups the teaching of the day.

4. Have them discuss how this teaching is related to community life, discipleship and similarly important topics.

5. Then later have them mime certain teachings and have the “spectators” guess the meaning. It could then be explained in further detail with a challenge given to apply it in their own lives.

Chapter 17 poses relevant issues of which I need to remind my friend, who is having my book O God, If I Could Just Be Holy translated into the Khmer, the official language of the Cambodian people. We do not want an uncontextualized translation of my English book. The biblical message needs to be understandable, relevant and compelling in its context. The book needs to have a Cambodian format, style and content so as not to have a book that is considered simply “foreign.”

I need to ask:

1. Is the message being presented in a way that will answer questions that Cambodians are asking?

2. Does it have enough stories, parables and analogies so as not to be too abstract?

3. Does it have local color? Would it be wise to add some pictures?

4. Before publication, will the book be evaluated by several competent Cambodian leaders and revised in accordance with their counsel? 5. Do the personal/group reflection sections of the book elicit opportunities for further and more in-depth personal interaction throughout their Christian lives?


D. Hasselgrave & E. Rommen. Contextualization: Meaning, Methods and Models is a scholarly treatise that is meant to clarify issues and to help those of us who are striving for ways to make the message of our Lord relevant today and to people of different worldviews, cultures and psychologies.

I realize that Hasselgrave & Romme gave much history that was to contribute to our understanding that communication must be contextualized in order that the message of Christ will be truly experienced. For me, the broad strokes of historical, psychological, anthropological and theological perspectives had limited value except when practical examples were given and shown to be relevant for today.

This is why I enjoyed Chapters 15 and 17 since I could see how these would apply to my “context,” i.e., being administrator of GO100 and my involvement in schools, BTJ and the SATS program, as well as being the author of a book that is to be published in Khmer next year.


This is a slightly revised copy of the paper submitted to the course on Contextualization taught by Dr. Sudhir Isaiah at Bethany International University, Singapore. I am thankful to him for his comments on the earlier version of this paper.


Ed Dudek
Bethany International & Bethany International University
6820 Auto Club Road, Suite A
Bloomington, MN 55438