What is Contextualization?

Over the past two years, I’ve become convinced that one of the great issues that Christians need to wrestle with and understand often goes unmentioned in our churches, conferences, and seminaries. Most of the literature on this issue is thirty to forty years old, and the average seminarian will only take a course or two that touch on this topic. Fortunately, I was blessed to attend such a course at my seminary.

This single most memorable course of my seminary training was co-taught by indologist David Cashin and the late biblical theologian William Larkin. Throughout these lectures, Dr. Cashin would introduce aspects of ethnology to the class and Dr. Larkin would explain how the Bible informed our contextualization to each of these facets of culture. Given the unique approach to the course, it was little surprise to me when I heard that this specific course at my seminary had been recognized for its superior academic quality by a national board. I left the course with a practical understanding of how to do contextualization and a passion to understand the practice better.

So my goal is to produce a series of articles that will help to explain my passion for the subject in order that my readers might also gain a similar appreciation for the effort. I believe that this seemingly dry and academic term needs to be understood and appreciated not just by missionaries or pastors but also by church members who want to live their faith in their culture. Contextualization functions as the foundation for preparing Christians to live missionally in their cultures. So to that end, I invite you to join with me in this study.

So let’s begin with an initial question: What is Contextualization?

In order to answer this question, we need to consider the history and applications of the term, some definitions, and the operating assumptions that we’ll be using in the forthcoming articles.

Modern History

The term “contextualization” as we’ll be using it originated in the post-WWII missions boom. In the scramble to engage the world with the Gospel, men and women became concerned with what their message and efforts would include. So in this cultural milieu evangelicals and liberals ended up locking horns over this challenging term. Liberals saw contextualization as entering a culture, looking for ongoing “redemption” (usually defined in terms of socio-cultural changes through politics or revolution), and adapting the Gospel message to support these changes. On the other hand, evangelicals saw contextualization as a means for connecting the entire Gospel message, as spoken and lived by missionaries, with a culture, regardless of cultural confrontation or reception. In this sense, liberal contextualization was markedly existential, lacking absolutes and biblical authority, and evangelical contextualization is definitionally dogmatic, resting on the absolute authority of the Word of God. While liberal contextualization focuses on finding truth in syncretism and dialogue with other cultures, evangelical contextualization focuses on the Apostolic work of communicating truth into other cultures. For further discussion of these paradigms, see Hesselgrave and Rommen, Contextualization, 144-157 and Engle, “Contextualization in Missions: A Biblical and Theological Appraisal”, GTJ 4.1, 85-91.

Suggested Explanations and Definitions

Hesselgrave: “Contextualization…is needed to make the message meaningful, relevant, persuasive, and effective within the respondent culture” (Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally, 86).

Hesselgrave & Rommen: “[Contextualization is] the attempt to communicate the message of the person, works, Word, and will of God in a way that is faithful to God’s revelation…in the teachings of Scripture, and that is meaningful to respondents in their respective cultural and existential contexts.” (Contextualization, 200)

Hiebert: “Contextualization seeks to formulate and communicate universal truth (cognitive dimension), love (affective dimension), and holiness (moral dimension) revealed in Scripture in particular human contexts that are diverse and ever changing” (in Hesselgrave and Stetzer, Missionshift, 96)

Keller: “[Contextualization 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.” (Center Church, 89)

Kraft: “Biblically, the contextualization of Christianity is not simply to be the passing on of a product that has been developed once for all in Europe or America. It is, rather, the imitating of the process that the early apostles went through….Christianity is not supposed to be like a tree that was nourished and grew in one society and then was transplanted to a new cultural environment, with leaves,  branches and fruit that mark it indelibly as a product of the sending society. The gospel is to be planted as a seed that will sprout within and be nourished be the rain and nutrients in the cultural soil of the receiving peoples. What sprouts from the true gospel seed may look like quite different above ground from the way it looked in the sending society, but beneath the ground at the worldview level, the the roots are to be the same and the life comes from the same source” (“Culture, Worldview and Contextualization” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, 404).

Moreau: “Contextualization is the process whereby Christians adapt the forms, content and praxis of the Christian faith so as to communicate it to the minds and hearts of people with other cultural backgrounds” (Missiology, 325)

Peters: “Contextualization properly applied means to discover the legitimate implications of the gospel in a given situation. It goes deeper than application. Application I can make or need not make without doing injustice to the text. Implication is demanded by a proper exegesis of the text” (“Issues Confronting Evangelical Missions” in Evangelical Missions Tomorrow, 169).

SIM Position Paper: “[Contextualization is] meaningful and appropriate cross-cultural transmission of Biblical truth, which is faithful to its original intent and sensitive to the culture.”

Assumptions Moving Forward

When I use the term in the forthcoming articles, I’ll be dealing with dogmatic contextualization as defined and implemented by evangelicals based on the Apostolic example. As we’ll see, there is still a great deal of discussion on the application of contextualization amongst evangelicals (we’ll get to various models of contextualization at some point). A simple definition of the term for the following articles will be: cross-cultural communication of God’s truth in an understandable and actionable manner.

In Memory of Dr. William Larkin

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