Theology & Culture (6): Theology in Cultural Context

Now that we have recognized that culture is a God-given and brute fact of human existence, and have taken a look at a few historical case studies, we now must reckon with the fact that although the gospel does not belong exclusively to any one culture, it must always be understood, embodied, and spoken in the midst of cultural contexts. Oddly enough, some evangelicals think that contextualization is something that missionaries do, but not something that Americans have to worry about. Some evangelicals would even argue that contextualization is a very bad thing. But in reality, contextualization cannot be avoided. Every American, and in fact every Christian, is actively contextualizing the gospel (either well or poorly) every time they speak the gospel, embody the gospel, or participate in church life.

Every church contextualizes by the type of building and décor it chooses and the style of music that is played. Every preacher does the same by choosing, for example, a form of rhetoric, a way of relating to others, and a manner of clothing. As Greg Turner puts it in an upcoming book, “The question is not whether or not we are going to do it. The question facing every believer and every church is whether or not they will contextualize well. Anyone who fails to realize that they are doing it, and who fails to think it through carefully and Biblically, simply guarantees that they will probably contextualize poorly. Syncretism can happen as easily in Indiana or Iowa as it can in Indonesia!”* The question is not whether we will contextualize; the question is whether we do it appropriately or not.

For this reason, examples of appropriate contextualization pervade the biblical witness. The New Testament provides abundant examples of theology conceptualized and communicated contextually. The four gospel writers shaped their material for engaging particular communities of readers. Paul shaped his sermons and speeches according to each particular context. An examination of his sermons in Acts 13 (to a Jewish Diaspora), Acts 14 (to a crowd of rural animists), Acts 17 (to the cultural elite of the Areopagus), and his testimonies in Acts 22 (to a mob of Jewish patriots) and Acts 26 (to the elite of Syria-Palestine) reveal Paul’s deft ability to communicate the gospel faithfully, meaningfully, and dialogically in a variety of settings.

In light of the inevitability of contextualization, and the pervasive biblical examples of it, we want to preach the gospel, embody the gospel, and build God’s church in an appropriate manner. If we are to do so, we must do it faithfully, meaningfully, and dialogically.

Faithful Contextualization

In proclaiming and theologizing contextually, we must pay careful attention to our beliefs and practices, ensuring that we express and embody the gospel in cultural forms that are faithful to the Scriptures. In being faithful to the Scriptures, we seek to interpret the Scriptures accurately before proclaiming them within a cultural context. We push back against some scholars who view texts as vast oceans of indeterminate symbols that lack transcendent grounding, and against some missiologists argue that missionaries shouldn’t help their church plants theologize because all a missionary can do anyway is read his own cultural biases into a text. While we acknowledge that the reader does come to a text through finite and fallible interpretive frameworks, we nonetheless argue that faithful interpretation is possible.

In fact, God’s Trinitarian nature guarantees the possibility of faithful communication and interpretation, and is the paradigm of all message sending and receiving. The Triune God is Father (the One who speaks), Son (the Word), and Spirit (the One who illumines and guides and teaches); God the Father speaks through his Son, and we as humans are enabled to hear and understand that communication by his Spirit.

Meaningful Contextualization

Moreover, we must proclaim and embody the gospel in a way that is meaningful for the socio-cultural context. James McClendon writes, “If hearers were (minimally) to understand the gospel, if there was to be uptake, the preacher must understand the culture addressed.”** Indeed, we want the hearer to understand the words we speak and the actions we perform in the way that we intend, and we want them to be able to respond in a way that is meaningful in context. This type of proclamation takes hard work; learning a culture is more complex than learning a language because language is only one component of culture. Pastors and professors must work hard to teach their audiences not only how to read the Bible, but also how to read the culture.

Dialogical Contextualization

Finally, we must also allow the gospel to critique the culture in which it is embodied and proclaimed. There is an ever-present danger that Christian preachers, missionaries, and communities will equate the gospel with a cultural context, the consequence of which is devastating. In an attempt to communicate the gospel meaningfully within a culture, and in an attempt to affirm whatever in a culture can be affirmed, Christians may lose sight of the effects of depravity on that same culture. Therefore, we must remember that the gospel stands in judgment of all cultures, calling them to conform themselves to the image of Christ. The gospel does not condemn all of a culture, but it is always and at the same time both affirming and rejecting. If the gospel we preach does not have a prophetic edge, then we are not fully preaching the gospel.

Conclusion

The upshot of all of this is that we need to work hard to exegete both Scripture and culture. “In order to be competent proclaimers and performers of the gospel,” Vanhoozer writes, “Christians must learn to read the Bible and culture alike. Christians cannot afford to continue sleepwalking their way through contemporary culture, letting their lives, and especially their imaginations, become conformed to culturally devised myths, each of which promises more than it can deliver.”*** The Christian who ignores cultural context does so to his own detriment and to the detriment of those to whom he ministers.

____________________

*Greg Turner is a pseudonym for a mission leader in Central Asia; this quote comes from an earlier blog on contextualization here at Between the Times. “Biblical Foundations and Guidelines for Contextualization (Pt. 1),” http://betweenthetimes.com/2008/08/28/guest-blog-by-central-asia-rl-biblical-foundations-and-guidelines-for-contextualization-pt-1/.

**James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Witness (Nashville: Abingdon, 2000), 40.

***Kevin Vanhoozer, “What is Everyday Theology?,” in Vanhoozer, Anderson, and Sleasman, eds., Everyday Theology (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2007), 35.

  6Comments

  1. Nathan   •  

    “In fact, God’s Trinitarian nature guarantees the possibility of faithful communication and interpretation, and is the paradigm of all message sending and receiving. The Triune God is Father (the One who speaks), Son (the Word), and Spirit (the One who illumines and guides and teaches); God the Father speaks through his Son, and we as humans are enabled to hear and understand that communication by his Spirit.”

    Excellent!! Very helpful, very theological, very practical…deep, yet accessible…thank you.

    nk

  2. Micah Brake   •  

    Dr. Ashford,

    I have heard the “contextualization” issue used as an argument against short-term mission trips (especially those that include young people).

    Essentially, these individuals have said that due to one’s inability to know and understand the culture of a foreign place in a short time, he or she will prove unable to share the gospel message in a meaningful way (or, worse, the individual may say or do something detrimental to evangelistic efforts). To share one particular individual’s analogy, short-term mission trips become like “God grenades” that we drop and run from, leaving the foreign culture to figure out what to do with the oddity.

    Though I do not necessarily agree with this line of reasoning, I personally know that upon moving to Hong Kong as a missionary, it took about six months before I felt somewhat confident regarding cultural norms. Although I did share my faith during that initial half-year, it was not until later on in my time there that I began to articulate the gospel story in a way that spoke to the cultural context of male Chinese university students (my target audience).

    How should the thoughtful believer respond to these criticisms?

    Thanks,

    Micah Brake

  3. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Nathan, you are spot on. The deepest and most profound doctrines of the Christian faith are also the most practical. Christian theology always issues forth in practice, in ministry, in mission.

  4. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Micah, great question. On the one hand, yes, short term mission (STM) teams can *sometimes* be a hindrance to the gospel. In particular, American short term mission teams are unwittingly harmful when they go overseas seeking to do ministry but refusing to learn from experiences missionaries or host-country Christians. On the other hand, STM can be beautifully and powerfully productive when the STM team works hand in hand with a missionary or seasoned host-country Christians.

  5. Shawna   •  

    “The gospel does not condemn all of a culture, but it is always and at the same time both affirming and rejecting.” Thank you for this closing comment. I fear that many Christian lack the ability the engage in culture in appropriate ways. We must look for ways to build bridges while we affirm and at times reject what the context presents for us.
    In response to Micah comment, do you have any suggestion for preparation material to help train STM teams concerning contextualization.

  6. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Shawna, the best book I’ve read on STMs is a slender little volume by my colleague George Robinson, entitled “Striking the Match.” His book is not on appropriate contextualization per se, but it is about how to set up STMs that turn into church plants. Along the way, he gives sound advice that leads toward appropriate contextualization. the other book to consult is Robert Priest’s “Effective Engagement in Short-Term Missions,” which explicitly treats the issues you are asking about.

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