Part 3: Gospel Contextualization
Proper contextualization gives the Bible’s answers to the questions about life that people in a given culture are asking, using culturally appropriate language and forms as well as relevant appeals and arguments. It presents the gospel as true and also shows how it is relevant in the cultural milieu in which it is proclaimed. Contextualization can be overdone so that the teaching of the Bible is compromised, but the views of a culture should never trump the truths of Scripture. It is impossible to avoid contextualization. Every language is tied to a particular culture, and even in that language word choice, illustrations, length of time speaking, etc. will depend on the audience being addressed (we lose people by being irrelevant if we don’t contextualize our speaking to our audience). Since contextualization is inevitable, we must do it self-consciously or we will be blind to our own biases and insensitive to those we are trying to reach. We need to bridge the gap between the Bible and culture, taking the Bible’s truth and reaching people with it. This requires listening to others to both learn their culture and to get help in seeing our own cultural blind-spots and assumptions. Too often our cultural assumptions prevent us from seeing certain aspects of the Bible’s teaching, or they cause us to see one side of the coin more clearly than the other. Culture and the Bible are not equally authoritative—the Bible determines what is acceptable or unacceptable in culture, not vice versa.
The Bible teaches that every culture is infected with sin and idolatry, yet every culture is also a recipient of God’s common grace and therefore contains some good. First Corinthians 9 is a key text that shows how Paul was able to be flexible in relating to different cultures, willingly waving his rights in order to prevent unnecessary obstacles from being placed in front of the gospel (while refusing to compromise on the truth of the gospel, which was an intrinsically offensive message). The most important biblical passage about contextualization is 1 Cor. 1:22-25. In this text Paul demonstrates that the gospel presents different challenges to different cultures, and it also affirms and fulfills the genuine insights and good goals of these cultures. The Book of Acts shows us that Paul adapted his style and approach to different audiences, but he always challenged their understanding of God and reality, pointed out their sinful state, and pointed them to Jesus. The biblical authors use a variety of appeals to persuade people to receive Christ: there are positive things to be gained and negative things to avoid.
If we are not active in contextualization we will still contextualize, but in a passive, uncritical manner. Active contextualization requires entering the culture, challenging it, and appealing to our hearers. In order to appeal to our hearers we need to know the Bible’s content, but we also need to know as much as possible about the culture’s thought forms, language, emphases, hopes, and questions. We must learn through study and lots of time spent in conversation. Some cultures are more analytic and logical, while others are more relational or intuitional. We need to see what values in a given culture agree with or contradict the Bible, and then utilize those points of contact. Our critique of the culture is most effective when we affirm where it agrees with Scriptural truths, but then show how other beliefs that are maintained are inconsistent with the truth. In Manhattan, secular people do not tend to take seriously the concept of sin as a violation of God’s law. When their problem is described as idolatry, however, the message resonates. Other pressure points include the commodification of sex, the tension between atheism and human rights, and the loss of cultural hope and meaning. We must move from the personal and corporate problems to appealing to, and consoling, those who are listening. We must show them that Jesus is the solution. The Bible speaks about the atonement and Jesus’ victory in different ways, but at the heart of each is substitution—he did it for us and he did it in our place.