Contend Earnestly: What is Contextualization?

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

What is Contextualization?

I was reading erik's notes from the Shepherd's Conference and was caught by this quote by John MacArthur:

“contextualization is a curse.” The sermons we preach and the messages we proclaim should transcend “zip-codes.” MacArthur said, referring to Peter in Acts 2, “Not only did he not identify with the generation, but he said you have to be saved from it.”

So, what is contexualization? Because I believe that John MacArthur is either throwing out the baby with the bath water, or has no clue what he means by it.

First, let me say that if MacArthur is simply meaning that we don't try and change the word of God to make it easier for people to follow by taking truths out of the gospel to do so, then I agree with him. Such as. We shouldn't stop using words like sin and hell or speaking about the cross just because the current culture doesn't like to talk about certain things. That would be wrong and is downright blasphemy of the Gospel.

But, for Dr. MacArthur to simply say that "contextualization is a curse" I find to be way off...and I believe that his thoughts on Acts 2 are way off...because I believe that Peter actually contextualizes the Gospel in this very passage!

What is contextualization? First, good biblical contextualization is not what was previously mentioned, but good biblical contextualization is to know the audience and culture you are speaking to and bringing it to them in ways that they would easily understand.

I not only believe that it is okay to contextualize, but I believe that it is biblical and what Christ would have us do and what Christ actually did when he was here on the earth.

If I can give you an example:

Read John 10. The whole of the chapter is a passage on the good Shepherd, which is Christ. Why would Christ use this kind of explanation to give eternal truths? Because those in that region were very familiar with the shepherd and sheep relationship. It was very easy to see the truths that were being offered because Christ used the context, the culture that he was in, to explain the unexplainable. And Christ did this through his whole tenure as lead pastor while he was on this earth. Think seed and sower, the vine dresser, etc. All culturally relevent to those in that time.

You might be saying, "Well that was Jesus, he can do what he wants, He is God." Well...first, I don't like that reasoning for the mere fact that we are called to imitate Christ (1 John 2:6) and he is our perfect example (1 Tim 1:16) to follow in all things. But, I will play along.

First Example: Paul

Everyone knew that I would go here, but look to Acts 17. Paul is in Athens to preach the Gospel and notices a bunch of gods being represented and especially one that is called, "The unknown God." What I like here is the use of correct biblical contextualizaion. Notice that Paul uses the culture around him to illustrate eternal truths. The truths are not changed, nor are they watered down. The reason we know this is because the Stoics didn't believe in the resurrection of the dead, and yet what does Paul preach?

because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”
Acts 17:31

Paul, although in a different culture than a Jewish one, didn't ignore the truth but proclaimed it. But notice that he didn't ignore who he was speaking to either, but contextualized the gospel so that it would be more clear for the hearers, just as Christ did the entire time he was on this earth.

Second Example: John

I am not sure how many people know this but John contextualized actual God-breathed Scripture, and he did it with one of our favorite verses that prove the Deity of our Lord Jesus. It is found in John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
John 1:1

The term here, as most know, for the term Word is the Greek word logos. What most don't know is the usage of this word in it's historical context. The term logos was known to most Greeks as that "thing," whatever it was, that held the earth together.

Look at what the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament says about this word logos:

Although little used in epic,32 λόγος; achieved a comprehensive and varied significance with the process of rationalisation which characterised the Greek spirit. Indeed, in its manifold historical application one might almost call it symbolic of the Greek understanding of the world and existence.

Theological dictionary of the New Testament.
1964-c1976. Vols. 5-9 edited by Gerhard Friedrich. Vol. 10 compiled by Ronald Pitkin. (G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley & G. Friedrich, Ed.) (electronic ed.) (4:77). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

John contextualized the very pages of Scripture so that those whom he was writing to would have a greater understanding of what, and who, he was speaking of. John did his own form of speaking of the "unknown logos" by showing that they could know the actual Logos, that became flesh.

Last Example: Peter

The last example is actually going to be shown from the very passage Dr. MacArthur tries to argue his point,
Acts 2. Do you think that Peter knew who he was talking to? If Paul uses the unknown god to show who God was to the Stoics in Athens and John uses the term "logos" to show the Logos for the Greeks to understand, then what should we expect Peter to use when he speaks to those in Jerusalem? Wouldn't Peter be smart to use their very patriarchs? It is hard to see what he is doing, but if you look closely, Peter is speaking to those in Judea (Acts 2:14) and then he uses what they would know, namely the Jewish Scriptures and patriarchs. He quotes Joel in Acts 2:16-21, then quotes David and the Psalms in Acts 2:25-28, then again quotes Psalm 132:11; 2 Samuel 7:12; and Psalm 89:3 in Acts 2:30; and finally ends with a quote from Psalm 110:1 in Acts 2:34,35. Notice that the message that he preaches is the exact message that Paul preaches in Acts 17 but with some tweaks because he is preaching to Jews and not Gentiles. In Acts 17 Paul does not quote one single Old Testament verse because he is speaking to the Gentiles so he contextualizes it to their unknown god so that they would understand.

I believe that Dr. MacArthur is making a huge mistake by saying that "contextualization is a curse," and continues to show that he is ignoring what emerging folks mean when we say we are contextualizing for the sake of Christ and His fame.

May we continue to love those who we are evangelizing and ALWAYS look for ways to contextualize the Gospel in a way that the will understand.

Soli Deo Gloria!


Brett Royal said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Nice post. I cringe when I hear that we have to make the gospel relevant to our culture, because that usually implies watering it down and changing it's meaning in order to fit in.
We don't have to make the gospel relevant to our culture, but it should relate to our culture, and stand in contrast to our culture.

Seth McBee said...


Thanks for stopping by. I would agree...the term relevant usually means that something is no longer relevant therefore it was in need of change to be made relevant. That is definitely not what is being done with good gospel contextualization.

What I am saying, is that the preacher does need to know the audience he is preaching to. This makes the speaker take the same old school, unchanging message to a new school, everchanging culture.

The message doesn't change, but the way that it is illustrated and related is.

I would make sure that if someone said, "we need to make the gospel relevant," that I asked them what they meant by this.

What MacArthur has done has just drawn a line in the sand and thrown it out completely...I think he is mistaken by doing this.

I hope I have shown biblically why MacArthur is wrong to throw it out altogether.

Anonymous said...


I bet Steve Camp and Co. are eating that message up. What's sad is the way they are making your pastor to be some kind of false teacher because he contextualizes. Don't know if Johnny Mac comes right out and says it, but we know who Public Enemy #1 is.

Soli Deo Gloria

Seth McBee said...

Thanks for stopping by.

Yeah...I am really not a big fan of Steve Camp...but respect him and his theology.

As far as my pastor, Driscoll isn't my pastor, but I respect him a ton for what he is doing.

And I was thinking the same thing. It seems as though Mac isn't a big fan, and wants everyone to know. I wonder if this is why Piper and Mahaney aren't preaching at Shepherd's this year? Who knows...I just know that Piper and Mahaney have aligned with Driscoll and have gotten a lot of grief for it.

Oh well...can't please everyone.

Anonymous said...


Sorry, I thought I read at one time that you were attending MHC. I respect Steve Camp also. I just find it sad that they are making Mark Driscoll out to be some kind of antichrist cult leader, where as pastors like Piper and Mahaney are pulling him to the side and admonishing and dicipling him (as Scripture commands us to do) and then leaving the rest to God.

I love Mahaney's quote, "Only the humble can notice the presence of Grace in others." I've concluded that as I do with Driscoll (regarding some of his speech), I must do with Camp.

God bless you Seth. I enjoy your blog.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Kevin Williams said...

Seth, please give the whole quote brother. What you've done there is like someone claiming the Bible supports Atheism because it says "there is no God" :

"the modern cry for contextualization is a curse, its a curse, because people are spending all their time fussing around with tryin to figure out whether they should have holes in their Levi's and a skull and crossbones on their t-shirt, as if thats a means to drawing in the elect"

Seth McBee said...

Hey Kevin.

If that was truly all that MacArthur said I would agree with him, but that doesn't seem to be it. There were things I didn't put in this post because I have not yet actually heard the sermon, but just was going off a myriad of quotes from people attending the conference.

As you can see in my post, when Dr. MacArthur says that Peter did not identify with the generation I find that to be overlooking some things in the passage.

I also saw that Dr. MacArthur said in his opening sermon, but wanted to make sure before I said much on it, that he has never changed anything no matter where he has gone, he just gets up and preaches...I think just as some worry too much on the culture, MacArthur seems to care less about it. At least with the words that I have heard being conveyed.

But, notice I said, seems cause I am not being dogmatic about it and would also agree with Dr. MacArthur an awful lot on most of what he is getting at.

In the end...I wish that MacArthur would have defined what he meant of contextualization and admitted that if done correctly is completely biblical...

Thanks for stopping by...and if you have anything else to add please don't hesitate.

Anonymous said...

We definitely don't need to "make the gospel relevant", obviously because it already is relevant. But given John Mac's hostility, you would think that is the attitude he is lashing out at..... which shows how out of touch he is with what the actual issue is.

What Mars Hill Seattle is doing is awesome. I really don't see what John Mac can fault them for. They have elder leadership, iare Reformed in soteriology and Mark has been a herald for penal substitution, preaches expositorally, and he willingly confronts aspects of culture that need to be addressed like homosexuality, egalitarianism, etc.

Even my own pastor (I'm in the PCA)does not like Driscoll and seems to lump him in the same category as other emerging guys that are actually liberal, which just shows how easily people can judge others by their non-traditional methods and be a bit prejudiced against people because of it.

For the record, I've only read people quoting him from conferences, but his comments about eschatology are divisive and troubling. The Westminster divines never saw fit to articulate a specific millenial position because the church has never been in agreement and its a non-essential, but apparently Mac wants to hold a position that puts him at odds with most Reformed scholars and is arrogant enough to think everyone should just line up to be in his camp on the issue.

Anonymous said...

oops, I was referring to John Mac in the last paragragh, didn't mean to switch gears so abruptly.

Stefan said...


At one level your argument is true, if in fact what you are saying is this: Jesus, John, Paul, and Peter knew their "audience." No doubt that was true.

At another level, I think we need to be careful and cautious about how we label this.

Contextualization is a less than helpful designation. Why? Because it was not the cultural context, but the redemptive-historical context that determined both the message and the method (which, by the way, was preaching).

For instance, Jesus wasn't accomodating to a culture by speaking of himself as the Shepherd. He was disclosing himself to be the promised Messiah, the long-awaited Shepherd-King of the true Israel of God. Jesus' teaching was borne out of the reality of the new covenant, and the fact that the new covenant had dawned in him. He didn't preach so that the people would understand him; in fact, the parables tell us just the opposite. Jesus wasn't contextualizing, he was simply preaching, i.e., opening up the Scriptures clearly and plainly.

Same with the apostles. Paul's announcement of the resurrection in Acts 17 was one of the first such announcments of the resurrected Christ to the Gentiles, those to whom the gospel had now come because of Christ's person and work. Paul's teaching, like Christ's in John 10, is shaped by redemptive-history, specifically the inclusion of the Gentiles into God's covenant people. Did he want the Gentiles to undertand this message? Yes. But I don't think we can say he contextualized it so that they would understand. I think that misses the point of the passage entirely.

The only sense in which it is proper to speak of accomodation is God's accomodation to us as sinners, not as cultures. Calvin spoke of divine revelation as divine baby talk. That is, God's self-disclosure in Christ (i.e., the Bible) is of such a nature and kind that sinners are able to comprehend it (if, in fact, the Spirit grants us a saving understanding of that truth).

All that is to say this: I think we miss the point of these passages when we focus on a supposed method (e.g., contextualization) rather than the message. Jesus teaching in John 10 is not given as an example of contextualization -- and the same is true of Acts 2, Acts 17, and the rest of the passages you mention. To argue that is the case, is to argue a point not intended by those passages. It was the message of the crucified and resurrected Christ that Jesus, Peter, and Paul proclaimed. And that message was shaped by divine revelation, not by cultural contextualization.

Yes, Christ and the apostles knew something of the philosophies, world-views, etc. of their respective listeners, but they also knew that what they had to preach was not the wisdom of man, but the foolishness of the gospel. And their preaching was shaped, first and last, by the revelation of Jesus Christ, not by the cultural winds.

Should we preach the gospel so that sinners might hear and believe? Yes. I'm not denying that. But faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ. If we think it is our duty to take the word of Christ and make it fully intelligible to the world, then I think we've missed the point. Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Preach him as he is!

I realize that I have gone beyond Seth's definition of contextualization. So, Seth, not all my comments are aimed at you.

But, that's my two cents. Have at it.


Stefan said...

Uh, just noticed something in my post.

I'm not denying the perspecuity, or clarity, of revelation, just so everyone knows.

I said: "Jesus wasn't preaching so that people would undertand him."

Clarification: "Jesus wasn't using a bit of Jewish culture so that by those means they would understand what he was really saying about himself."

Jesus wasn't accomodating to the culture in order to help them understand; he was simply preaching the truth as it was revealed in him.

I hope that helps, because if Jesus didn't preach so that we could understand, we'd all be in big trouble!


Anonymous said...

I think (I hope) that a lot of the comments go further than what you intended. If you go that far, then I can't say that I agree. I can see a legitimate and limited use for it, but I can also see it leading to widespread abuse.
I would not go as far as this seeker sensitive mega church pastor.

Yogi Taylor said...

Stefan, I have to tell you that I read your post yesterday and have not been albe to stop thinking about it. I have mentioned it (contextualization) to serval of my friends, my wife, dog (ok not really but you get the point)...

I say, this was a very thought provoking post... God Bless!


Seth McBee said...

Stefan: I definitely was not trying to convey that the point of those passages that I brought up was the contextualization of the gospel. That is why I put in the post that if you notice all three actually share the exact same gospel, but do it in different contextualized ways.

John uses "logos"

Christ uses "shepherd and sheep"

Paul uses "the unknown god"

Peter uses "OT and partriarchs"

To say that they weren't doing this to make it understandable to the people they were preaching to would, in my opinion, going too far. I believe that the reason that they bring these illustrations is for the reason to make it more understandable and relatable.

To say that Jesus spoke in parables doesn't have credence in these passages because none of these are parables. They are explanations of the truths of the gospel. Parables were used for different reasons, as far as I can see.

Brett: I would need some clarification on your comment to comment further

Yogi: were you meaning Stefan or myself (Seth)? Either way...


Jake said...

Seth - Have you read Michael Spencer (iMonk)'s post about this? It's excellent. I think the basic issue here is actually pretty simple - MacArthur seems to think that there's some sort of acultural way to go about presenting the Christian message. But his decision to wear a suit is just as much a product of culture as Driscoll's decision to wear a tee-shirt and jeans. In other words - we're all products of culture and to act as if we're not is naive. Obviously those cultures need to be judged by Scripture, but to somehow act as if one can step outside of culture to proclaim the gospel is silly.

Seth McBee said...

I haven't read it..but I will...

Yeah...I didn't bring up some of the other stuff that I have heard from the conference because I would like to hear it firsthand before I go on the "attack." But, you bring up one of the points (suits) that I was going to bring up because I believe that Mac even uses it as an illustration on why NOT to contextualize...which really made no sense to me...

Poop is Emergent Too said...

Seth: I am preaching Acts right now. and you hit the nail on the is a study in contextualization! Not only in chapter 2 but all through out.


Anonymous said...

Just a thought, because contexualization covers so many arenas. As a late entrant to this discussion, my guess is folks are not really so different in this.

All will agree the Gospel is key, and that transcends all as John stated.

All will agree God's word is presented in a multitude of ways through out scripture. Some may see this as contextualization, some may not.

I think all will agree that there are times and places for differing ones delivery. Ie, using a stick and sand on a beach when dealing with Bible campers is a vastly different context than multimedia powerpoint at a mega church. Yet both are valuable at the right time and place.

Becky said...

It's strange to me that contextualization would be so controversial. What's wrong with speaking in a language that people understand? You wouldn't speak techno babble to someone who has never seen a computer, but explain using vocabulary and analogies that make sense to that person. So, why would it be different when preaching the gospel?

Emmanuel said...

maybe a little bit late but I found the post very interesting.
I think that the fear of contextualization is sometimes fear of letting go of our own cultural securities, which we confound with the Gospel. E.g. thinking that an organ is more christian than african percussion.

My favorite quote on contextualization from Paul:

I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel,that I may share with them in its blessings. 1 Cor. 9

Seth McBee said...

It's never too late to comment...thanks for stopping by.

Spencer said...

Jesus used the imagery of the Shepherd, vine, seed, et al, because they were rooted in the Old Testament Scriptures. They are all over the place. Especially read Ezekiel 34. John 10 wasn't contextualization. It was Biblical exposition and fulfilled prophecy.

Seth McBee said...

Really? Are you trying to say that Jesus wasn't pulling from a cultural norm of an occupation of shepherding to show who he was? He actually goes into the job descriptions of a shepherd in John 10 vs a hired hand.

John 10 was very much contextualization for the people of Israel. They knew shepherds. They knew what made good shepherds vs hired hands and the imagery completely shows this off.

Psalm 23 uses imagery of the Shepherd to bring forth the understanding of David's true shepherd.

Even if I gave into you and said, "okay, okay Jesus wasn't contextualizing there..." The other examples stand on their own.

Logos by itself puts contextualization to the forefront.

I will also say, that if you've ever tried to explain the gospel to someone, you've probably contextualized..and if you haven't, you haven't been a good teacher as the example found in Nehemiah 8:8 would exhort us to be.

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