What we don't know about contextualization CAN hurt our
gospel ministry. Typically, people regard contextualization as a form of
communication or application. This is not mistaken; but it is critically
Contextualization most basically is
an act of interpretation. Only then can it
be understood as communication or application. Contextualization is not
primarily something we do to the gospel; rather, it is the mind’s perception of
and/or response to the gospel. This is a broad description.
In actual fact, we can further subdivide contextualization
into two kinds. The first is exegetical contextualization;
the second is cultural contextualization.
contextualization refers to one’s
interpreting Scripture from a cultural perspective.
It means locating the cultural context within the biblical
text. Accordingly, someone with an East Asian worldview will more naturally see
a number of concepts within the Bible that reflect the distinctives of his or
For example, one might more easily see themes like honor,
shame, and collective identity. Exegetical contextualization means seeing what
is true of our cultural context within the biblical text itself. I am
not referring to eisegesis, whereby one forces foreign
ideas into Scripture. Rather "exegetical contextualization" refers to
a form of contextualization where one sees what actually is already
in the text.
In short, we interpret Scripture
through a cultural lens.
What might this look like in practice? In an East Asian
context, an exegetically contextualized theology would take seriously language
about God’s people not being “put to shame,” frequently used by biblical
authors. Also, one could highlight instances of collectivism in both the Old
and New Testament, such as when individuals are able to represent entire
contextualization refers to one’s
interpreting culture from a biblical perspective.
Hence, one looks at a culture and
identifies various concepts that can already found in the Bible. It situates
the biblical text within the cultural context.
When examining a culture like China, the contextualizer
might notice that God is called Father and the church is a family. Likewise,
one might observe common features within the histories of Israel and China.
These may include each people’s suffering from imperialism and demonstrating
strong degrees of ethnocentric/nationalistic prejudice against outsiders.
Cultural contextualization means seeing what is true about a
culture as a result of one’s having a biblical lens. In this way, the Bible
provides new and true ways of assessing a cultural context.
What might this look like in a particular social setting?
One could think of rampant consumerism and the fear people have of losing face.
In light of Romans 6, we might say that people have become slaves to their
homes, cars, or even to their own families. They need God to free them.
First, recognizing these two forms of contextualization can
protect us from other mistaken or distorted views. For example, when
interpreting Scripture, one should never use contemporary culture as a function
replacement of the biblical context. In effect, this is the problem with the
work of K. K. Yeo, who seems consistently to collapse Chinese culture into
Paul’s letters, as if Paul were actually writing to modern Chinese people.
Contextualization that is faithful to Scripture will clearly
differentiate two locations––that of the reader and that which is being
studied. That is, we must distinguish between the things we are
interpreting and the perspective we use.
Breakthroughs in contextualization happen where there is
overlap between these two locations. Overlap of course does not mean
equivalence. No ancient biblical culture can be equated with any modern
culture. In addition, one should not deny the importance of biblical ideas that
are not inherent to a particular culture. In time, contrasting ideas can
complement areas of overlap. After all, no culture is complete in itself.
Two Types of
People use the term “syncretism” to refer to one’s confusing
culture and Scripture. Most often, people think of “cultural
syncretism,” wherein one reads his or her own
contemporary culture into the ancient world.
However, there is a subtler example of syncretism
syncretism.” In this this kind of syncretism,
people restrict Scriptural truth to their own theological traditions dressed in
various cultural expressions.
Accordingly, the metaphors and explanations that make the
most sense to one group of people becomes the standard to which people from
other cultures are supposed to conform. Western theologians and missionaries,
for example, run the risk of “theological contextualization” when law-guilt
metaphors are so emphasized that they functionally exclude other images and
themes, like honor and shame.
If we assume that contextualization is mainly about
communication or application, then we inevitably assume the thing (e.g. the
gospel) that we want to contextualize. However, any theological truth we claim
to know is an interpreted truth.
To put it another way, our conceptions of the gospel are
always contextualized. Bevins rightly says, “There is no such thing as
‘theology’; there is only contextualized theology.”
Consequently, we at best end up contextualizing a contextualization. We simply
provide wording or illustrations as a bridge by which the listener can
understand the cultural perspective from which we are communicating the gospel.
Our presentations are always culture laden.
The distinction between exegetical and cultural
contextualization can help people actually develop biblical faithful and
culturally understandable contextualizations. The difficulty of relating text
and context can result in paralysis.
Not knowing how to “balance” the two, people fear
compromising Scripture and thus do little to nothing by way of
contextualization. By recognizing these two orientations, one then must
consider how they relate to one another.
application. In the same way, exegetical
contextualization is the foundation for cultural contextualization. Order
matters. If the order gets reversed, unclear or problematic notions from a
culture could be forced into one’s exegesis of the biblical text.
Naturally, hermeneutics (i.e. interpretation method) is a
central component to any contextualization. This single observation has
great significance for missionary training and strategy. Missionaries should be
sound exegetes, proficient in their ability to interpret the Bible.
This kind of skill is something quite distinct from simply
being well versed in systematic theology and various biblical doctrines. When a
missionary teaches the Bible to locals, he aims to demonstrate
how his conclusions are reached.
Otherwise, what are the consequences? First of all, local
Christians cannot reproduce the given interpretation. Second and more serious,
they essentially grant greater authority to the foreign teacher above the Bible
For a more extensive discussion on
contextualization, see One Gospel for All Nations: A Practical
Approach to Biblical Contextualization.
For a more rigorous demonstration of this approach, see
Saving God's Face: A
Chinese Contextualization of Salvation through Honor and
 For examples of his work, see K. K. Yeo,
Musing with Confucius and Paul: Toward a Chinese Christian
Theology (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade, 2008); K. K. Yeo, What
Has Jerusalem to do with Beijing: Biblical Interpretation from a Chinese
Perspective (Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press, 1998).
 Bevans, Models of Contextual
Theology, 3. Emphasis in original.
 David Clark, To Know and Love God,
Photo Credit: Plexels