Previously, I claimed that good contextualization requires two things: humility and hutzpah.
In this post, we want to ask a simple question, How are we doing? Do evangelicals encourage the people to have the humility and hutzpah to contextualize?
Do we foster these qualities?
It might be harder than you think to develop humility and hutzpah for the sake of contextualization. In some respects, it contradicts the ethos of much evangelical thinking. How so?
Evangelicals are rightly keen to protect biblical authority. Given the historical roots of evangelicalism, people are sensitive to avoid anything that seems theologically “liberal.” In evangelical churches, one shows courage by resisting compromise to social pressures.
Are we convicted and just dogmatic?
There is however an important side effect to all this. Having strong theological convictions can all too easily veer into blind dogmatism. Stubborn insistence on tradition, conventional formulations, and customary strategies are then considered virtues. In fact, such responses demonstrate neither biblical humility not hutzpah.
To protect against compromise, hard lines are drawn around debatable issues. Leaders urge people to affirm second and third-level issues that possibly have implications for core issues. What happens when evangelicals question conclusions that lack strong or overt support? They are threatened with labels of being “liberal” or might made to feel marginalized.
Such evangelicals learn something like a “learned helplessness” fearing they ought not wander too far from consensus views. Consequently, this subcultural context doesn't foster the humility and hutzpah needed for healthy contextualization.
What's your starting point?
Another obstacle stands in our way. Despite recent incremental progress, evangelicals are far more comfortable talking about topics within systematic theology (soteriology, ecclesiology, etc.) in contrast to biblical theology.
I’ll offer a rather simplified distinction between these two disciplines. Each has a different starting point.
Systematic theology begins with the readers’ questions and then looks to the Bible for answers. For instance, one might ask, “What does the Bible teach about the end times?” This question directs readers’ inquiry; their attention spreads across the entire Bible to synthesize the biblical message concerning eschatology.
Biblical theology, on the other hand, begins with the author’s questions. Using this approach, the literary and historical contextual constrain the readers’ interpretation. Accordingly, an interpreter of John’s Gospel will be unable to develop anything substantial about the doctrine of justification since that discussion is largely restricted to Romans and Galatians. Instead, an interpreter of John will spend more time reflecting on the theme of “new creation” regardless of his or her personal questions about justification.
Of course, the two should not and cannot be entirely separated. However, that does not mean that basic methodological differences do not exist.
Ramp Up Expectations
Elsewhere, I’ve offered constructive suggestions to address these challenges. For now, I'll mention one essential step in the right direction.
Missionary training programs need to ramp up expectations and degree programs so as to equip workers to be as proficient in exegesis and biblical theology as they are in systematic theology. Mission sending agencies similarly could provide ongoing field training and increase training standards for missionaries going to the field.
Many missions mobilizers inspire the masses with calls to sacrifice their lives in another culture. If missionaries are to do that, they would do well to sacrifice their time and mental energy to equip themselves to become perhaps “the only Bible people will ever read” in other cultures.
 Jackson Wu, One Gospel for All Nations, 175–82.
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.