Tag Archives: contextualization

Contextualization in Scripture


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


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…

Contextualization (1)

Revised text of a lecture for the Grade 11 Bible class at Credo Christian High School, Langley, BC in 2007.

As most of you know, for the first few years of my ministry, I served as a missionary in Fort Babine, BC, north of Smithers.  There were many difficult issues to work through as a missionary.  One of these was the relationship between native culture and the Christian faith.  There were some native Christians who said, for instance, that when you became a Christian you could no longer go to potlatch feasts.  They said the potlatch was all tied up with native spirituality.  Others said that potlatch feasts were okay for Christians or at least some potlatches were okay and others weren’t.  These sorts of issues not only come up in Fort Babine – they come up all over the globe.  In what follows, I want to look at this relationship between Christianity and culture.

I’m going to speak about something called contextualization.  I know that’s a word you may not have heard of before.  But if you ever doing any reading in the area of missions, you’ll soon come across it.  It’s probably the subject that gets the most discussion by people who study mission.

So, what is contextualization?  We can define it like this:

Contextualization is taking the gospel of Christ to a new context and finding appropriate and effective ways to communicate it so the people in that context can understand it best.  It also includes developing a church life that is biblically faithful and culturally appropriate.

There is a lot there in that definition.  But it can be boiled down to two things:  communication and identity.  First, when we bring the gospel to people from another culture, how can we effectively tell them about Christ?  Second, there’s identity.  How do people from another culture take the gospel and make it their own?  What does accepting the gospel do to their cultural identity?  When we take these two things together, we’re looking at the interaction between culture and faith, particularly a new faith that comes from outside the culture.

Before we go any further, we have to think for a few moments on the definitions of communication and culture.  First, let’s define communication:

Communication is transmitting information that influences and/or informs the behaviour and thinking of other creatures.

We sometimes think communication is just a simple matter of using words to get something across to somebody else.  But the reality is that communication is a very complicated thing.  It’s not just about words.  Whether we realize it or not, a lot of our communication is non-verbal.  We send messages with our body language.  When we communicate with one another, we also work with a shared understanding of what the world is like, or worldview.  Coming from the same culture, we share the same understanding of the various social structures – so we know that talking to our parents or teachers is different than speaking to our friends and so on.  Communication is a complicated thing.  When we’re in our own culture, we can take it for granted.  But when you go to another culture, if you want to be effective as a missionary, you have to be sensitive to the complexities of communication.

Culture is also complex.  What is culture?  There are dozens of definitions floating around.  For our purposes, we can use this one:

Culture is the complex, dynamic whole of human existence which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, customs, and the resulting artifacts.

The two key words I want you to note there are complex and dynamicComplex means it’s made up of many parts.  Dynamic means it’s constantly changing.  Someone once said that culture is like a lava lamp – very true.

So, it’s these two things that contextualization is concerned with:  culture (identity) and communication.  Up till now that sounds a bit abstract and theoretical, but we need to get a bit of background before we move into the more concrete side of things.  Let’s do that now.

Sometimes in our churches collections will be taken for Middle East Reformed Fellowship (MERF).  This is an organization that does mission work primarily among people in the Middle East who are Muslims, followers of Islam.  Over the last couple of years, there has been a lot of discussion among missionaries and mission scholars about missions to Muslims.  The hot issue is contextualization.  How can Christian missionaries effectively communicate the gospel to Muslims, people who have their own unique culture?  What does it look like for a person with a Muslim background to become a Christian?  To help in discussing and answering these questions, one missionary who goes by the name of John Travis (not his real name) came up with what he called the C-spectrum.

The C-spectrum gives a framework of different ways of being a so-called Muslim Background Believer (MBB) – this is related to the question of identity. The framework looks like this:

C1 refers to a traditional Western church that uses a language foreign to the people (English, for example).  The people in this church are trying to be culturally Western and the believers there openly refer to themselves as Christians.

C2 is a traditional Western church using the language of the people (Arabic, for instance).  The believers found here refer to themselves as Christians, but some of their language reflects their Muslim background.  However, their most important religious vocabulary is definitely Christian.

C3 is used to describe churches that use the language of the people but also other cultural forms (music, dress, artwork, etc.) that these believers consider to be neutral.  They still refer to themselves openly as Christians.

C4 is similar to C3.  However, it includes more Islamic practices that are considered to be biblically permissible.  For instance, C4 believers will pray with raised hands, avoid pork and alcohol and they will use more Islamic language.  Also, C4 believers do not refer to themselves as Christians.  Instead, they will say that they are followers of Isa the Messiah (Isa is the Arabic name of Jesus).

When we come to C5, we’re speaking about Messianic Muslims.  Legally and socially, they remain within the Islamic community.  Parts of Islamic theology that go against the Bible are rejected or reinterpreted if possible.  Others in their community regard them as Muslims and they refer to themselves as Muslims who follow Isa the Messiah.

Finally, C6 refers to small communities of underground believers.  They typically live under totalitarian governments in closed countries.  For fear of persecution, they worship Christ entirely in secret.  As opposed to C5 and the other groups, C6 MBBs are silent about their faith.  They are regarded as Muslims by those around them and they simply identify themselves as Muslims without adding anything or qualifying that further.

The C-spectrum provides a helpful framework for debate and discussion about contextualization with Muslim background believers.  Some believe that only C1 and C2 are valid forms of contextualization.  Others say that C4 to C6 are equally valid.  From this you can concretely see the kinds of issues that are at stake here.

If we bring those issues down to one main concern for those who take the Bible seriously, it is the matter of syncretism.  Syncretism is what happens when two belief systems are brought together and then the resulting combined system is a dangerous compromise.  With the example above of the C-Spectrum some people are concerned about mixing Christianity and Islam.  If you want a clear example of syncretism, we could look at the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico.  Roman Catholics around the world worship the Virgin Mary, but in Mexico and other places in Latin America it gets very extreme.  This is because when the Roman Catholic Church came into Latin America, the native inhabitants had a pagan nature goddess named Cihuacoatl.  The Roman Catholic Church replaced this pagan nature goddess with Mary, whom they call our Lady of Guadeloupe.  This has taken place in other places in the world as well.  The Roman Catholics have always very easily incorporated pagan elements into their worship.  This is what we call syncretism and this is one of the biggest concerns when we discuss contextualization.  We want to avoid syncretism because that means compromise and possibly losing the gospel message itself.

Click here to read Part 2.