Guest Blog: Biblical Foundations and Guidelines for Contextualization (Pt 2)
Editor’s Note: This guest blog is written by the IMB’s Regional Leader for Central Asia. It is a six part series, giving the biblical foundations and guidelines for contextualization, and making application to Christian ministry in the Muslim world. This series will appear as a chapter in the forthcoming book “Look What God is Doing in the Muslim World.”
What does the Bible have to say, then, about contextualization? Are their grounds for it in Scripture? In fact, the process of contextualization begins in the New Testament itself. There are several examples of it in Scripture, and these examples both establish the legitimacy of contextualization and teach us something of how we should go about it ourselves.
Theos & Elohim
One of the most pervasive examples of contextualization in the New Testament is also one of the most subtle. It is the use of the Greek word theos to refer to God. Theos in origin was a thoroughly pagan word, used to refer to the capricious and immoral deities of the Greek pantheon. In content and conception, it was light years away from the Biblical understanding of God. However, when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek in the centuries before Christ, theos was the word chosen to translate the Hebrew Elohim, and this choice was ratified (as it were) by the Holy Spirit when He inspired the writers of the New Testament to continue to use this word to refer to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Rather than transliterate a Hebrew word into Greek, or invent a different term altogether, the New Testament took the pagan word that was closest in meaning and infused new content into it. Incidentally, this precedent should be a source of relief for all English-speaking Christians. Early missionaries to northern Europe took the Germanic word “god,” which originally referred to the Nordic pantheon of deities like Wotan, Thor and Freya (whose names remain in the words Wednesday, Thursday and Friday), and infused that word with new, Biblical content. The example of the New Testament tells us that we can use a pagan word without necessarily falling into pagan idolatry ourselves.
The Apostle Paul gave an instructive example of contextualization in his sermon on the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17:22-30). First, Paul used a pagan altar to an unknown god as a bridge to taking about the true God. We already know from Acts 17:16 that Paul’s spirit was provoked by the idolatry he saw in Athens. He certainly was not condoning a pagan altar, nor was he implying that the Athenians had been worshipping the true God without actually knowing it through that altar. Still, he felt free to use something in their (utterly wrong) religious system as a bridge to bring them along to accurate thoughts about the real God. He follows this by two different quotations from pagan poets: one probably from Epimenides of Crete, and the other from Aratus. Both of these quotations make reference to Deity, but the deity they had in mind was not the God of the Bible, but rather a mix of pagan Greek idolatry and philosophical Greek speculation. Paul felt free to take these quotations and connect them to Biblical truth about the Biblical God, even though the poets who wrote these words had a very different god in mind.
In similar fashion, when Paul wrote his letter to Titus, he quoted Epimenides of Crete again, this time calling him “a prophet of their own.” (Titus 1:12). This time he is drawing a warning about Cretan cultural depravity from the writings of someone whom even a pagan Cretan would recognize as knowing what he was talking about. By calling Epimenides “a prophet of their own,” Paul is not saying that he thinks that Epimenides was actually a prophet of the Living God, nor that he thinks that Epimenides’ words were given by inspiration from God. In fact, this is quite an insult. Greek culture in Biblical times was not exactly noted for its moral purity. If even one of their own pagan writers, whom they regarded as a prophet, thought they were always liars, evil beasts and lazy gluttons, they must have been pretty bad, indeed! The point is that Paul knows pagan Greek culture, and he feels free to use it to his advantage to point people toward Biblical truth.
1 Cor 9:1-23
Perhaps the most widely-quoted passage of Scripture that teaches about contextualization is I Corinthians 9:1-23:
Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my workmanship in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you, for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.
This is my defense to those who would examine me. Do we not have the right to eat and drink? Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working from a living? Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk?
Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does He not speak entirely for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? If others share this rightful claim on you, do we not even more?
Nevertheless, we have not made any use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the Gospel of Christ. Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the Gospel should get their living by the Gospel.
But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting. For if I preach the Gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the Gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the Gospel.
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I become as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law, I become as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I become as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the Gospel, that I might share with them in its blessing. (I Corinthians 9:1-23, ESV)
This text is worth close examination. In interpreting this passage, it is important to remember that Paul was a Hellenistic Jew working in a cross-cultural setting in Corinth. In fact, in many ways Paul was a Third Culture Kid (TCK). He grew up in the Greek culture of Hellenistic Tarsus in modern-day Turkey – but he grew up there as a Jew. He trained in Jerusalem as a rabbi and a Pharisee. He had a foot in both worlds. Corinth itself was a grossly immoral and idolatrous city. The church there would face issues that the church in Palestine would never even imagine.
The specific context of this passage is Paul’s extended discussion of the question of Christians eating meat sacrificed to idols. This could only arise in a Gentile setting like Corinth. The kosher laws of rabbinic Judaism would have made this entire issue impossible, so Paul was forced to deal with something for which his theological education gave him no training at all. He does so pastorally, in the context of what it really means to love our brothers and sisters, recognizing that some brothers and sisters are weaker and some are stronger in their consciences. However, in the process, he took the opportunity to broaden the discussion to address how our freedom in Christ intersects the work of the Gospel in a cross-cultural setting.