Tag Archives: contextualization

The Southgate Fellowship Affirmations and Denials

While our Reformed churches haven’t been lax in doing mission, we certainly haven’t been prolific in writing about it.  Our work in the area of missiology (the study of mission) has been notoriously miniscule.  This is a shame for two reasons.  First, Reformed theology has a lot to offer the field of missiology in general.  Second, in the last half-century there have been some deeply concerning developments in this field which Reformed theology is well-equipped to address.  These developments are not just theoretical, but have an immense practical bearing.  Not only would our churches and their missionary activities benefit from more Reformed missiological reflection, so would many other Christians.

To that end, I’d like to introduce you to a document developed by The Southgate Fellowship (TSF).  As they describe themselves,

TSF is a fellowship of theologians, missiologists, and reflective practitioners fully committed to the visible church and her Christ-appointed mission.  In obedience to Christ and his Word, TSF exists to advance biblical thinking and practice in world mission, as captured in the solas of reformational theology.

TSF started meeting in 2016 and participants hailed from Canada, the United States, and Europe.  The TSF Council consists of several men, three of whom are affiliated with the Presbyterian Church of America, two are (Reformed) Baptists, one is an Anglican, and one is from the Christian Reformed Church in North America.

This year, TSF published its “Affirmations and Denials Concerning World Mission.”  This document was published in the journal ThemeliosIt’s also readily available on the TSF website.  This document (hereafter AD) contains 100 sets of affirmations and denials on a host of contemporary missiological issues.  Some of those issues include:  the authority and nature of the Bible as revelation from God, extra-biblical revelation (such as dreams), contextualization, whether salvation is possible apart from Jesus Christ, and the relationship between word and deed ministry.

Appreciation

I have great appreciation and approval for almost all of AD.  What I appreciate most is that it begins with a high view of the authority of Scripture:

We affirm that Scripture authoritatively and uniquely reveals and explains the meaning of the redemptive work of God in history, centering in and accomplished by Jesus Christ, and provides authoritative and sufficient instruction for faith and obedience, including authoritative and sufficient instruction for faithful dissemination of that unique message. (1e)

AD presents a view of Scripture which every Reformed believer ought to affirm – one which is in full agreement with what we confess in the Belgic Confession.  This is solid rock on which to build the rest of the affirmations and denials.

For example, the word “uniquely” implies that no other “sacred text” is in the same category:

We deny that one can pick aspects of the non-biblical sacred texts and declare them in any way to be Holy Spirit-inspired.  (12d)

Furthermore, the Bible alone is God’s ordinary means of salvation.  Then what about dreams or visions?

We affirm that if God were to use extraordinary means today (e.g. miraculous events, dreams or visions), that these occurrences should be interpreted providentially either as pre-evangelistic praeparatio [preparation], uncommon tools in God’s hand for sovereignly drawing people to himself, or as divinely purposed tools for hardening unbelievers in their unbelief.  (15a)

I appreciate how AD seeks to do justice both to the unique nature of the Bible as well as the reports one sometimes reads of how people are drawn in through unusual means.

TSF is also to be commended for their biblical definition of mission.  AD asserts that mission involves the “verbal proclamation of the gospel, by which the Spirit of Christ calls people to turn in repentance and exercise faith, for the glory of God” (66a).  The greatest need of sinful human beings is Jesus Christ.  So where does that leave Christian acts of mercy?  They’re not mission, according to AD.  However, mercy ministry can never be separated from mission (74a); they belong together.  Missionaries who show no compassion for the suffering and needy are not carrying out a faithful ministry (73b).

There are many more positive points I could mention, but I want this brief overview to give you a taste so you’ll go and check it out for yourself.

Concerns

I also want to highlight a couple of areas that could be problematic.  Even though AD is long, it still lacks a lot of context.  There are points where I wish there was further explanation.  This is especially in the section on ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church).  For example, I put a question mark behind this statement:

We affirm the value of working across denominational boundaries (within or without mission agencies), according to biblical principles of ecumenism.  (77a)

My question would be:  what are “biblical principles of ecumenism”?  How are those defined?

Similarly, in the same section, there are affirmations and denials regarding the relationship of churches to mission agencies and parachurch organizations.  Two worth noting:

We affirm that visible churches bear the primary responsibility for the theological, moral, and ministry-method oversight of missionaries. (75a)

We affirm that the visible church has the primary responsibility to recruit, mobilise and send individual church members into mission. (75b)

The qualifier “primary” is what grabs my attention here.  Why not “exclusive” responsibility?  If we’re working from a biblical perspective, isn’t it the church (and only the church) which sends out, supervises, and supports missionaries?  Also, I’m perplexed about the use of the plural ‘churches’ in 75a and the use of the singular ‘church’ in 75b – I’m not sure if there’s a fine theological point being made there.

While I’m generally appreciative of the section on culture, there seems to be an overstatement of its relationship to religion.  Affirmation 87a reads:

We affirm that the word ‘culture’ is used generally to describe the shared set of artefacts, characteristics, meanings, and values that give shape to the total corporate life of a group of people.

That’s a fairly conventional definition for our day.  I would note the mention of “artefacts” – this is referring to things like eating utensils, cooking implements, and musical instruments.  Older definitions of culture by Reformed theologians like Klaas Schilder often ignored this aspect of culture, so I’m glad it’s included here.  But these statements then raise questions:

We affirm that culture and religion are interrelated, interdependent and inseparable, the latter informing the former.  (90a)

We deny that any facet of human culture may truly be a-moral, a-theological, or a-religious. (90b)

I wonder: if chopsticks are a facet of human culture, how are they, in themselves as material artefacts, related to religion?  It seems to me that their use is what ties them to religion, i.e. whether you use them to eat to the glory of the true God.  This could use some clarification.

What’s Missing?

It’s a long document and fairly comprehensive, but there are some things barely mentioned or not at all.  For instance, I’d like to see more about the historic creeds and confessions.  They’re mentioned in the section on the Trinity (22a), as well as in 71a’s affirmation about how local theologians should be accountable to “formulations of the Christian faith.”  This is good, but I wish there was more.  I also wish that AD had statements regarding worship and the place of women in mission.

Overall, AD is as faithful and comprehensive statement on mission as I’ve seen from a biblical perspective.  In 1999, the World Evangelical Fellowship Missions Commission released its Iguassu Affirmation.  While that statement had some biblical content, it doesn’t really measure up to what the Southgate Fellowship has produced.  Any Reformed believer interested in mission (which should be all of us!) ought to read and study these Affirmations and Denials.  Perhaps it will stimulate the further development and expression of Reformed missiology in our circles and beyond.


Contextualization in Scripture

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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.


Predestination in Mission

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For Reformed people who care about sharing the gospel (which should be all of us!), it is probably a given that election/predestination is not something we incorporate into our gospel message.  We do not go around telling unbelievers about the doctrine of unconditional election.  Instead, we generally recognize that this doctrine is revealed in Scripture for the comfort and edification of believers.  The common way of thinking is that this doctrine is for those already in the church, not for those we are trying to draw into the church.

That way of thinking can be partially credited to 1.14 of the Canons of Dort.  The Canons of Dort say that the doctrine of divine election “should be taught in the church of God, for which it was particularly intended, in its proper time and place…”  For a long time, I have understood this to mean that election/predestination would never have a real place in our missionary message.  By “missionary message,” I mean everything connected to the good news as we communicate it to the unregenerated.

My thinking on this has been upended by Tim Keller.  In his book Center Church, he stirs up a lot of thought in the area of contextualization (see here for some of my work in this area).  This has to do with the communication of the gospel in cross-cultural ministry.  In chapter 10, he discusses “active contextualization”:  entering the culture, challenging the culture, and then appealing to the listeners.

When it comes to challenging and confronting the culture, Keller relates a discussion he once had with a Presbyterian missionary to Korea.  This missionary was working amongst Korean prostitutes and was not connecting with them.  He spoke of God’s grace to them, about the forgiveness available through Christ, and about God’s love for sinners.  Nothing he said engaged them.  He decided to try something radically different.  He would begin with the doctrine of predestination.  Keller rightly notes that this doctrine is a challenging one for Western hearts and minds.  Westerners value democratic and egalitarian notions.  Many in the West do not want to hear about a sovereign God who chooses some and passes by others.  But what is true for Westerners is not necessarily true for Asian prostitutes in the mid-twentieth century.  Keller writes:

So he told the prostitutes about a God who is a King.  Kings, he said, have a sovereign right to act as they saw fit.  They rule — that’s just what kings do.  And this great divine King chooses to select people out of the human race to serve him, simply because it is his sovereign will to do so.  Therefore, his people are saved because of his royal will, not because of the quality of their lives or anything they have done.

This made sense to the women.  They had no problem with the idea of authority figures acting in this way — it seemed natural and right to them.  But this also meant that when people were saved, it was not because of pedigree or effort, but because of the will of God (cf. John 1:13).  Their acceptance of this belief opened up the possibility of understanding and accepting the belief in salvation by grace.  They asked my missionary friend a question that a non-Christian in the West would never ask:  “How can I know if I am chosen?”  He answered that if as they heard the gospel they wanted to accept and believe it, this was a sign that the Holy Spirit was working on their hearts and that God was seeking them.  And some of them responded. (Center Church, 126)

So there are times, places, and cultures where it might be effective to use the doctrine of predestination as a missionary starting point.  It’s not that this doctrine is the complete message.  Rather, it’s a starting point to bring unbelievers onward to the full gospel of salvation in Christ.

But then what about the Canons of Dort?  Does this approach contradict 1.14?  No, it doesn’t, because 1.14 doesn’t say that this doctrine should only be taught in the church and that it may never be used elsewhere.  There’s indeed room in the Canons for a wise and creative adaptation of this doctrine to the missionary calling of the church.  Because of the pervasive influence of Western culture, perhaps the contexts where this could be done are increasingly few and far between, but missionaries should definitely be open-minded to the possibility that this Presbyterian missionary’s approach could work elsewhere.


Contextualization (3)

Part 3 of the revised text of a lecture for the Grade 11 Bible class at Credo Christian High School, Langley, BC in 2007.  Part 1 can be found herePart 2 is here.

The How of Contextualization

We could go through other examples from the history of the church, but I want to move on to look at the how of contextualization.  As we do this, we have to keep in mind that the issues contextualization addresses are unavoidable and inevitable for cross-cultural missionaries.  When you’re not there and you’re disconnected from life in another culture, it is possible to ignore or minimize the importance of these issues.  But the fact is missionaries want to communicate the gospel in a meaningful and effective way – that’s why they’re there!  And the fact is that churches everywhere wrestle with a dual identity.  On the one hand, they’re a community of citizens of the kingdom of heaven.  But on the other hand, they’re people who have an earthly cultural heritage, they are citizens of earthly nations and kingdoms with all that entails.  So, the issue here is not:  should we do contextualization?  The real issue and question here is:  how should we do contextualization?  Not “whether” but “how.”

This is a huge subject and I can only scratch the surface.  I want to do that by introducing you to some of the work of a colleague and friend of mine from the Netherlands.  His name is C.J. Haak.  He teaches missiology at the seminary of our sister churches.  Professor Haak has done a lot of studying and writing on this issue of contextualization.

He developed a model of contextualization that he summarizes with the word “metamorphosis.”  Perhaps you recognize that word from science.  It’s a Greek word made up of two parts.  Meta – is a Greek preposition which indicates a change in something.  Morphosis – refers to the shape or form of something.  So “metamorphosis” refers to the change of a shape or form.  In science, the most common example of metamorphosis is the change that happens as a pupa changes into a butterfly inside its cocoon.  This word metamorphosis is also found in the Bible.  It’s in the first two verses of Romans 12:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this your spiritual act of worship.  Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

The English words “be transformed” translates the Greek “metamorphosis” in that passage.

It’s this passage that Prof. Haak works with in developing his idea of what we need to do in contextualization.  He says contextualization is basically the transformation of people by the renewing of their minds.  Contextualization is leading people to think and act in new ways because of Christ’s work.  This is his definition of metamorphosis:

Metamorphosis is the process of the forming of new, Christian thoughts, Christian mentality, and a Christian lifestyle as an implication of the gospel.

According to Prof. Haak, this process of metamorphosis first of all means becoming a good listener and a good observer.  You have to listen to people from the other culture and observe very carefully what’s going on.  A missionary also has to be a good student of the Scriptures.  He has to have an intimate knowledge of the truths of the Bible.

Haak proposes to first take a number of universal issues (things that will always come up when interacting with any culture).  These issues are:  the worldview of the culture, how the culture views relations and classifications of things, how the culture regards the group and the individual person, time, space, causality (what makes things happen), and values.  Working with each of those items, he proposes to reframe them, redirect them, and revitalize them.  Since he was a missionary in Irian, in Indonesia, he gives an example working with that culture, what is broadly called Melanesian culture.

In the diagram, you can see how he works with the element of time.  Melanesian culture has its own view of time.  In the first column, “Reframing,” Prof. Haak shows first the framework of how time is viewed in that culture.  Then further down, beside the “Yes,” he suggests how the Bible would restructure that framework.  So, as in Hellenistic culture, the Melanesians believe time is cyclical.  There is no beginning and no end.  However, the Bible challenges that outlook and reframes it.  Christians in Melanesian culture are going to have a different view, namely that there is a beginning and an end.

With the next column, “Redirecting,” Prof. Haak is addressing the direction these things take.  In unbelieving Melanesian culture, time is considered to belong to people or to the clan.  Time can then be freely wasted.  However, when people become believers, the Word of God transforms their thinking.  Time belongs to God; it is not directed man-ward, but God-ward.

Finally, under “Revitalizing,” we’re looking at how time functions in our thinking.  In the old way of thinking, time is regarded as absolute and it is idolized.  With the new way of thinking, time is something we can use keeping in mind that it is destined to pass away.

As I said, this is quite a complex subject and here we can just scratch the surface.  I haven’t said anything about the role of the church and the confessions in this (Haak goes into that quite a bit).  We haven’t touched on the more recent history of contextualization.  We haven’t looked into how the missionary guides the process of contextualization.  And there’s so much more.  What I wanted to do is to simply give you a sense of the complexities involved here.  The relationship between culture and faith, and the communication of the gospel to people from another culture – these are not easy things to work through.  There are no simple answers here.

In conclusion, I want to leave you with one thought.  We’ve talked here a lot about other cultures.  But we have to be careful that we don’t assume that none of this is applicable to our own culture.  The Word of God not only transforms and challenges other cultures, it also does that to our own.  Here I’m not speaking so much about the broader Canadian culture.  Here I’m speaking about our little Dutch immigrant sub-culture in the Canadian Reformed Churches.  We also have our own ways of looking at all sorts of things.  We may not realize it, but we are quite a bit different.  That’s not always because we’re Christians, many times it’s because (with most of us) we’re the children and grandchildren of Dutch immigrants.  We would be sadly mistaken to think that Dutch immigrant culture is equal to a Christian culture.  There are many ways that the Word of God still challenges our culture.  To help you in thinking about that, I would refer you to this article.


Contextualization (2)

Part 2 of the revised text of a lecture for the Grade 11 Bible class at Credo Christian High School, Langley, BC in 2007.  Part 1 can be found here.

Contextualization in Scripture

So that gives you a bit of background on this subject.  Let’s now look at contextualization in the Bible.  In Acts, we see a number of examples of contextualization, even if the apostles and early church didn’t call it that.  Now remember that contextualization deals with two main issues:  communication and identity.

We see an example of a contextualized communication of the gospel in Acts 14:1-20.  The event we’re interested in took place in the city of Lystra.  Paul and Barnabas arrived there after fleeing from Iconium.  Verse 7 tells us they were preaching the gospel there.  As they did this, there were two problems.  First, there was the matter of language.  As you may know, there were two main languages in the Roman Empire at this time:  Latin and Greek.  Greek was the language used most often for trade and debate, and so on, especially in Asia Minor.  But in Lystra things were different.  Lystra was a unique place – it didn’t have any major trade routes running through it, so it was rather isolated.  Hellenism (Greek culture and its influences) had little impact on this backwater.  So, rather than Greek, most people spoke the local language known as Lycaonian.  Greek was not the best language to use in communicating with them.  There was bound to be a communication mix-up.

But the more important issue was with respect to the culture of the people of Lystra.  Paul and Barnabas were the new guys in town and they had no clue about the culture in this place.  They weren’t familiar with the local legends and mythology.  One of those ancient legends was about the gods Zeus and Hermes (even though they didn’t speak Greek and were not Greeks, the people in Lystra still shared the Greek pantheon).  According to this legend, Zeus and Hermes had disguised themselves as men and had come to the hill country looking for hospitality.   One couple welcomed them – and in so doing, they were richly blessed with a home renovation project:  their modest little cottage was transformed into a golden temple.  All the other citizens were punished with the destruction of their homes.

Now when Paul and Barnabas came to town and healed a crippled man, the Lystrans believed that Zeus and Hermes had returned and so they were not about to make the same mistake as before.  The missionaries don’t seem to have been aware of this legend, but when the Lystrans started worshipping them and calling them Zeus and Hermes (names they would have understood), eventually they figured it out.  When they did, the message they preached was adapted to the situation.  They began with the Lystrans’ frame of reference in polytheism.  They urged the Lystrans to turn from useless idols to the living God, from the old to the new.  This kind of preaching was quite a bit different from when Paul and others were preaching to the Jews who were familiar with the Old Testament and for whom idol worship was repulsive.  And so, in this example from Acts 15, the apostles were looking to communicate the command to repent and believe the gospel in a culturally appropriate way.

We can be sure that Paul learned something from this experience.  In Acts 17, Paul went to Athens.  Of course, Athens was the center of Hellenistic culture, a culture Paul would have been quite familiar with.  When he arrived there, he observed the wide-spread idolatry of the city.  Idols of gods and goddesses were everywhere.  This bothered Paul and led him to do some on the spot evangelistic work while he waited for Silas and Timothy.  He went to the Jewish synagogue, but also to the marketplace where he encountered followers of different Greek philosophies.  These Epicureans and Stoics brought Paul to the Areopagus, or Mars’ Hill.  This was the central place in Athens for important discussions on morals, education, and religion.

As Paul began to speak on the Areopagus, he took his starting point from his observation of the many idols in the city.  He said he noticed an altar with the inscription, “To the Unknown God.”  He used that as his starting point to preach the truth about the God of the Bible and Jesus Christ.  I want you to note three things:

First, what we have in Acts 17 is a summary of Paul’s address.  Though it is no doubt an accurate account of what he said, it is not a verbatim record, not word for word.  In all likelihood, he said a lot more than what Luke wrote here.

Second, Paul’s introduction starts with his general observation about the idols and then a particular observation about the one altar with the inscription to the unknown God.  He establishes a common point of reference with his audience.  That common point is that there is a God who is unknown to them.  They have said so themselves and Paul agrees.  In taking this approach, Paul did not compromise any biblical truth.  In fact, the Bible agrees with his observation.

Third, in the content of his address, Paul uses the same approach.  He quotes three Greek poets, Epimenides, Cleanthes, and Aratus.  As an aside, this proves that Paul was indeed intimately familiar with Hellenistic culture.  Yet he does not base what he says on those poets by themselves – only insofar as those poets agreed with what the Bible itself says.  Much of the rest of what is recorded for us in Acts 17 consists of quotes or paraphrases of various Old Testament passages.  Moreover, while Paul starts with their frame of reference, he strongly challenges their way of looking at everything.  He turns everything upside down.

Among many Greek philosophers, the assumption was that everything is basically one.  Against that, Paul preached the biblical doctrine of creation.  While those hearing him looked at the nearby Parthenon (a Greek temple), Paul proclaimed that God does not live in temples made with hands.  Against the Epicureans and Stoics, he proclaimed the biblical truths of God’s providence and God’s revelation to each man.  When the Areopagus was built, it was said that Apollo had stated there is no resurrection.  Paul diametrically preached against that, maintaining that Christ has risen.  Further, against the Greek idea of cyclical history, Paul proclaimed clearly that there is a beginning and an end to the history of the world.  Nobody would have come away from the Areopagus that day thinking Paul was simply bringing a different form of Greek religion.  What he was preaching was radically different and antithetical, even though he used a common starting point in a simple observation.  So, in communicating the gospel, Paul took into account his audience, but not to the point where he watered down the message so that it lost its offense.  What he preached was clearly the Christian gospel.

So there you have a couple examples from Acts where communication was contextualized.  We also want to briefly look at an example of contextualization with respect to identity.  We find that example in Acts 15.  A council was called at Jerusalem to decide the question of whether or not Gentile believers had to be circumcised and whether they had to follow the Jewish ceremonial laws.  In order to guard the unity of the church, the council decided there had to be a minimum of ritual cleanness, but there could be no insistence on circumcision.  Here we see that the early church recognized that there are some things that go beyond or transcend every culture.  There are other things that can exist in one church, but do not have to necessarily in another.

Click here to read part 3…