Whenever I read a book, I usually make notes afterwards for future reference. I finished reading Keller’s Center Church a couple of months ago, but I’m only finally getting around to writing my notes on it today. As I’m doing so, I’ve across something worth sharing about contextualization. Keller defines contextualization like this: “…it is giving people the Bible’s answers, which they may not at all want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are asking, in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them” (page 89). A little further in that chapter, he gives this helpful sidebar:
Craig Blomberg points out that in Matthew’s parable of the mustard seed, the sower sows his seed in a “field” (agros, Matt. 13:31), while in Luke the sowing is in a “garden” (kepos, Luke 13:19). Jews never grew mustard plants in gardens, but always out on farms, while Greeks in the Mediterranean basin did the opposite. It appears that each gospel writer was changing the word that Jesus used in Mark — the word for “earth” or “ground” (ge, Mark 4:31) — for the sake of his hearers. There is a technical contradiction between the Matthean and Lukan terms, states Blomberg, “but not a material one. Luke changes the wording precisely so that his audience is not distracted from…the lesson by puzzling over an…improbable practice.” The result is that Luke’s audience “receives his teaching with the same impact as the original audience.” (page 95)
I looked into this a little bit and it seems to check out as correct. Just one small point: I would prefer “apparent discrepancy” to “technical contradiction” (after all, fields and gardens are not exactly polar opposites). The main point is that contextualization is evident in Scripture — therefore, we need to take it seriously too. For myself, as a Canadian living and ministering in Australia, I try to use the right words for my audience. I try to avoid Canadian idioms and use Aussie ones. However, I’m quite sure that I still have a long way to go in minimizing linguistic distractions when I preach and teach.
I came across this quote yesterday in two books. It’s in Volume 1 of Pieper’s Christian Dogmatics (190). Then I also found it in a book I just received, Trials of Theology (ed. by Andrew Cameron and Brian Rosner) (30). It’s classic Luther, speaking straight words to aspiring theologians:
But if you feel and think that you know it all and are tickled with your own booklets, your teaching and writing, as if you had produced something very precious and had preached admirably, and it pleases you much to be praised before others; if you are highly pleased when someone praises you in the presence of others, and would sulk or quit what you are doing if you did not get it: if you have that sort of pelt, my friend, then take hold of your ears. If you grab right, you will find a fine pair of large, long, shaggy ass’s ears; then risk the full cost and decorate yourself with golden bells, so that, wherever you walk, people can hear you, point you out , and say: ‘Look, look! There goes that wonderful creature that can write such fine books and deliver such eloquent sermons.’ Then you are happy, and superhappy in heaven; ay, where the fire of hell is prepared for the devil and his angels! To sum up, let us seek honor and be elated where it is in place. In this Book the glory belongs entirely to God, and it says: ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. To whom be glory forever and ever. Amen!” [Deus superbis resistit, humilibus autem dat gratiam. Cui est gloria in saecula saeculorum. Amen!].
Those are convicting words! Pieper adds this exhortation: “We advise all theologians and those who would become such to read Luther’s theological methodology repeatedly, in order to follow it by God’s grace, at all times.” (190)
Dr. John Piper offers his take on this question over here. My experience was different than Piper’s. My doctoral research has definitely enriched my ministry. A big reason for that was that I was able to study with an institution that shared my values and confessional commitments. I highly recommend Reformation International Theological Seminary (RITS) to anyone looking for a doctoral program that’s both theologically rigorous and confessionally oriented. I recently became aware of another local Reformed pastor (of a NAPARC church) who is working on a doctorate with RITS. Some men you may have heard of with their doctoral degree from RITS: David Murray (professor at Puritan Reformed Seminary) and Robert Grossmann (formerly of Mid-America, now with Heidelberg Theological Seminary).