Bible and Contextualization
Look for the word “contextualization” in the Bible and you won’t find it. But, like the word “Trinity,” the concept is very evident in the Scriptures. Contextualization describes the process of adapting the unchanging gospel message to a myriad of cultural contexts in the world today.
The gospel is like a diamond. The diamond itself doesn’t change at all, but the light it diffuses looks very different from different angles or facets. Each cultural context will see that unchanging diamond in its own color. It is the color of their own worldview which ‘feels right’ to them. What is good news to an American may appear very different than what is good news to a Japanese or a Balinese or a Palestinian.
Removing Stumbling Blocks
Contextualizing the gospel tries to remove unnecessary stumbling blocks to genuine faith in Christ. Some examples: the meaning of the cross is a legitimate stumbling block, but a symbol of the cross on a church or hung around one’s neck may be an unnecessary stumbling block in certain contexts. Prayer is a non-negotiable in Scripture, but the manner of praying is negotiable for different contexts. As believers in Christ, we have freedom to eat pork, but it may be an unnecessary stumbling block in some contexts.
Contextualization is simply an attempt to take off Western wrappings, which have typically become a part of worldwide Christianity, and put on ‘clothing’ which looks and feels much more natural and ‘right’ to the Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or anyone else. The Church owes to the peoples of the world an understandable hearing of the unchanging gospel.
Examples of Contextualization in the Bible
Let’s look at a select few examples of contextualization in the Bible from among many such examples.
The book of Genesis tells us of Jacob’s son Joseph, who was brought to Egypt. We are told that “the Lord was with Joseph” (Gen. 39:23). When asked to interpret Pharaoh’s dream, Joseph’s reply is, “I cannot do it . . . but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires” (Gen. 41:16). His fellowship and witness of the one true God was strong, yet he seemed able to fit into a pagan culture. “Pharaoh gave Joseph the name Zaphenath-Paneah and gave him Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On, to his wife” (Gen. 41:45). Ancient On, later called Heliopolis, was the place of a temple to the sun. Joseph looked like an Egyptian and spoke their language.
2. Daniel and His Friends
Daniel and his three friends were faithful followers of Yahweh, yet they served for years in a pagan setting. The new names given to them, Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, are all related to Chaldean gods. They were tutored in the language and literature of the Babylonians and were better at Chaldean wisdom than their peers. Eventually, they held very high positions in pagan governments. They would not compromise the non-negotiables of their faith, but obviously felt at home with a good deal of adaptation.
3. Jesus as a Jew-The Incarnational Model
In the New Testament, the prime and most radical example of contextualization is Jesus himself in his incarnation. The One we know as the second Person of the Trinity lived in a truly perfect culture in heaven as God. His acculturation was on such a deep level that he actually became a man, biologically, racially, socially, culturally, linguistically, and religiously. Jesus was unmistakably a Galilean Jew of the first century. Yet we also see that in certain cases, Jesus was willing to break the rules of his culture when necessary. A few examples would be his prioritizing being in his Father’s house rather than with his earthly parents, speaking to a Samaritan woman, touching lepers, and not following the traditions of the Pharisees when they conflicted with the law of love and the Spirit’s leading.
4. Paul Versus the Judaizers
After Pentecost, the fledgling church grew rapidly in the form of people movement among the Jews. The word “Christian” had not yet been invented, and new believers never thought of themselves as ceasing to be Jews (there were no new “Christians” on the day of Pentecost, but there were about 3,000 new believers in Messiah Jesus).
One incident, which brought a paradigm shift in the thinking of the young community, was God’s arranging a meeting for Peter with the uncircumcised household of Cornelius. Nonetheless, circumcision and obeying the law of Moses remained a thorny issue in the church. The Judaizers or “party of the Pharisees” (Acts 15:5) still considered these as conditions for salvation. Acts 15 records the watershed decision made in the council at Jerusalem: Gentile believers are not required to be circumcised.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians, his first, was written during this time period, and meets the issue head-on. Paul, the Hebrew of Hebrews, had known from the day of his conversion that he was called to be the apostle to the Gentiles. Rather than studying theology under the tutelage of the apostles in Jerusalem, he developed his own in Arabia. We see Paul practicing this contextualized theology in the book of Acts. Examine the way in which he speaks in a Jewish synagogue in Acts 13:13-43 and you will see a Jew communicating to Jews in very Jewish ways and referring to Jewish sources. Look at his approach in Acts 17:22-34 and we see a Jew consciously changing the content and style of his message to fit this polytheistic Greek audience. Here Paul uses a pagan altar as a bridge to their understanding of the gospel! Now he quotes not from the Old Testament but from a Gentile poet with whom the audience was familiar. In fact, Paul and other New Testament writers did not hesitate to quote from pagan sources. “There are at least 133 references or quotations in the New Testament taken from Jewish and Greek nonbiblical literature” (Accad 1997:26).
Messengers of the Gospel
Paul writes about the messenger of the gospel in I Cor. 9:19-23:
Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
These verses show the heart of a man who is motivated by Christ’s love. He will do almost anything for the sake of the gospel in the hope of winning some. He is willing to deny his own ethnocentrism.
‘Ethnocentrism’ is derived from the Greek word ethnos, meaning a people or race. Ethnocentrism is the feeling that one’s own ethnic group is superior to others. It is racial or cultural pride and is a problem common to all cultures. The cross-cultural messenger of the gospel must recognize the tendency toward ethnocentrism and combat it. If not, he will tend to impose his own cultural norms on those he wishes to reach. The danger is that these cultural norms become a requisite to Christian faith. This was an obvious problem during the period of colonial missions, and we are not free of it yet. “Often it is not the ‘offense of the cross’ that closes Muslims to a reflectful consideration of Christ, but the offensiveness of the messenger” (Livingstone 1993:79).
Presentation of the Gospel
We want to make the gospel as clear as possible to our hearers. Communication is not an easy matter even in one’s own culture, so when communication is cross-cultural, it requires all the more sensitivity. In each cultural context, appropriate symbols and words must be used to communicate the message, which is the gospel.
Let the Hearers of the Gospel Contextualize It!
Let me mention one more brief yet important point. We, as cross-cultural messengers, make efforts to contextualize (or ‘deculturate’) ourselves and our message for the hearers. But we also need to remember that the hearers themselves must contextualize the gospel message within their own culture. As messengers, we may have some role in guiding that process, but ultimately, the hearers/believers have the privilege, freedom, and responsibility of self-contextualizing. If they have been discipled to firmly depend on the Bible, always reading it with a view to obedience, and on the Holy Spirit (as opposed to simply copying the theological biases of the messenger), they will then ‘own’ the message, and the gospel seed can grow and multiply best in the soil of their own culture.
Accad, Fouad Elias. 1997. Building Bridges. Colorado Springs, Colorado: NavPress.
Livingstone, Greg. 1993. Planting Churches in Muslim Cities. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House.
John Bailey(pseudonym) firstname.lastname@example.org