Contend Earnestly: What Is Contextualization?

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

What Is Contextualization?

This is a repost from about 2 years ago.

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!


SnatchedFromTheFire said...

Seth -
sweet! a post i am in complete agreement with! I too think MacArthur was either way off or using the phrase in a different context meaning what you initially said about removing parts of the gospel message.
I always appreciate what Chandler has said in regards to contextualization. He said contextualization is good and neccessary for gospel preachers, but if you've contextualized the gospel to the point where everybody likes it, you no longer have the gospel. Meaning, the message/underlying truth shoulnd;t change but HOW you unpack that truth can be very different. Even Christ usubg the Shepherd analogy is communicating a truth that some will accept and some will not accept, even though they both hear and understand the truth being communicated.

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Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

Who knows, maybe John (Reformedispy) MacArthur is right and the greatest Greek scholars (Google "Famous Rapture Watchers"), who uniformly said that Rev. 3:10 means PRESERVATION THROUGH, were wrong. But John has a conflict. On the one hand, since he knows that all Christian theology and organized churches before 1830 believed the church would be on earth during the tribulation, he would like to be seen as one who stands with the great Reformers. On the other hand, if you have a warehouse of unsold pretrib rapture material, and if you want to have "security" for your retirement years and hope that the big California quake won't louse up your plans, you have a decided conflict of interest - right, John? Maybe the Lord will have to help strip off the layers of his seared conscience which have grown for years in order to please his parents and his supporters - who knows? One thing is for sure: pretrib is truly a house of cards and is so fragile that if a person removes just one card from the TOP of the pile, the whole thing can collapse. Which is why pretrib teachers don't dare to even suggest they could be wrong on even one little subpoint! Don't you feel sorry for the straitjacket they are in? While you're mulling all this over, Google "Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty" for a rare behind-the-scenes look at the same 179-year-old fantasy.

[saw foregoing web bit - Louis]

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