Contextualization requires character more than competence.
Too few people talk about this. As a result, all discussion focuses on (important) intellectual issues but rarely is consideration given to the character that yields good contextualization. Yes, contextualization often requires a bit of creativity and experimentation. But what else goes into it?
You might be surprised to see what character attributes I emphasize and I how think they apply to ministry.
Nothing is more essential than humility.
Let me be clear. If you manage to figure out some helpful ways to contextualize, that doesn’t necessarily mean you are a humble person. It might simply mean you've had a series of humble moments.
Humility is required to question your own beliefs. No one likes to think seriously about where they might be wrong or biased.
Being teachable and truly listening to contrary perspectives isn't natural. We need intentionality. This is helped by having the fundamental conviction that other people might be right. They might see something you don't.
Here are two tips to help. First, make a real effort to understand another’s view such that they can recognize their ideas in what you say. Be honest and don't settle for a caricature of others’ ideas.
Second, try your best even to prove contrary ideas. I didn't say you should settle for superficial proof texts. Rather, identify what is true (or mostly true) about the view you are considering.
This does not mean you'll blindly accept opposing idea. I know this from experience. Theologically, I only affirm believers’ baptism, not infant baptism. However, in seminary I tried earnestly to persuade myself to believe infant baptism. Why? I really admired so many Presbyterians and was looking ahead to what types of churches I might work in. Also, I found most Baptistic arguments terribly weak. Nevertheless, after a year of reading every resource I could find about infant baptism, I remained unconvinced. To my surprise (and disappointment at the time), I actually became more persuaded about believers (credo-) baptism.
You don’t have to speak Yiddish to know understand what it means to have hutzpah. One dictionary defines it as having “shameless audacity.”
Put simply, we need the courage of conviction.
Biblical contextualization is possible when we set aside fears about what others will think if we question the norm. It’s a risk to question tradition. You will be accused of becoming liberal, committing eisegesis, and “proof texting.”
You can be assured that someone will at least imply you're being proud. They will remind you of all the great minds who came before you yet they didn't see the things you are suggesting. Objectors will appeal to tradition. These conversations are a bit ironic. After all, this is the same sort of argument that medieval Catholics pressed against Martin Luther and the Protestants.
It takes hutzpah to challenge intelligent and godly teachers. Yet, we mustn’t forget these qualities don’t guarantee correctness. Many wonderful church leaders disagree. If we’re willing to admit it, people tend to have bias towards the past. We give benefit of the doubt to the ideas of previous generations. If we’re not careful, we’ll unintentionally grant teachers more authority and the Bible.
However, we should expect people today to have fresh insights previously unknown or overlooked. We benefit from decades and even centuries of scholarship that past teachers didn’t have. We have access to many more manuscripts of ancient documents, both biblical and non-biblical. Scholars enjoy greater knowledge of ancient cultures that influence our reading of Scripture.
Also, let’s not forget that technology allows for more collaboration between scholars and so a greater exchange of information. In addition to keeping informed about the latest findings in research, thinkers gain a broader cultural perspective from which to consider and solve problems.
What do you think? Think about good examples of contextualization. In those instances, did contextualization require humility and/or hutzpah?
Do evangelicals foster these qualities?
In the next post, we'll consider that last question, "Do evangelicals foster these qualities?"
Jackson Wu (PhD, SEBTS) teaches theology and missiology in a seminary for Chinese church leaders. Previously, he also worked as a church planter. He has just released his second book One Gospel for All Nations: A Practical Approach to Biblical Contextualization. In addition to his blog, jacksonwu.org, follow him on Twitter @jacksonwu4china.