Thursday, April 27, 2006

Parlez-vous Anglais?

Thanks to those of you who have engaged with the last few posts – do take the time to read the comments and not just the “starting” points. The following thoughts flow out of the conversation.

Contextualisation means...

…that we recognise that we cannot challenge a culture with the gospel unless we speak the language – I do not mean merely the verbal language, but every level of communication, including shared reference points, and normative values – of that culture. The Old Testament prophets were fluent in the “language” of the pre-exilic, exilic, and post-exilic communities of Israel and Judah. Jesus was fluent in the “language” of first-century CE Jews, living in their historic homeland but under (successive) Occupation(s), trying to make sense of their circumstances by drawing on their traditions. Paul was – and Peter became – fluent in the language of the Greco-Roman world. Each, in their different contexts, used the “language” of the culture to subvert the normative values of that culture. They did not challenge the culture by imposing another culture – indeed, Paul is explicit that gentile followers of Jesus do not need to adopt Jewish culture in order to be genuine followers of Jesus.

Contextualisation does not mean...

…that we believe that our expressions of following Jesus are better than those of previous (and in particular the immediate predecessor) generations, or than other contemporary contextual expressions. In every context, Christians have got some things “right” and some things “wrong” – and we will be no different. Hindsight, and a bit of distance (geographic; theological; etc.) can be useful tools for evaluating what has been “got right” and “got wrong” – but ultimately only God can make that call. But, contextualisation recognises that even those things we believe others have “got right” in other contexts may not be “right” in our context. What we have to learn from the wider Church is perhaps more to do with principles of contextualisation than to do with reproducing (or rejecting) specific practices. We are not at liberty to opt-out of the task of engaging our context with the gospel out of fear that we might get some things wrong in the process. Indeed, we know that we will get some things wrong; but are not so arrogant as to believe that God cannot work around, and even through, our mistakes.



  1. I appreciate the clarification, both in the comment section and here in the follow-up post.

    I agree with what you're saying about presenting the Gospel in ways that will speak to our culture. And I think you're right to question weekly sermons as a good fit for our culture.

    I still think Bible study has to be something more than conversation over a meal. But I should listen and learn a bit more, because I know you're bringing something fresh to the table here, and I'm not really in a position to evaluate it yet.

    Here's a core conviction of mine. I believe that God acted in history to reveal himself and save us. (I'm sure you believe that, too.)

    Accordingly, we have to carefully examine the first century cultural settings — Jewish, Greco-Roman, Hellenist, Palestinian, — in which God acted in history. We can't begin from our culture; we must begin from that one, because that is the point in history at which God acted.

    Once we understand those cultures, we gain perspective on our own. By all means, take the Gospel and translate it for our time; and use the technologies that are amenable to people of our culture to communicate it.

    But the whole process requires careful, methodical study. Precisely because we are so culture bound, and the biblical texts are so bound to a different cultural context, it is a massive project to sort this out.

    And then we have to decide what (if anything) must come across to our culture without modification; and what (if anything) can be radically transformed to make it relevant for contemporary Westerners.

    All of which calls for careful study and — I hate to sound so modernist — historical-critical analysis.

  2. Hi Q,

    I think that I broadly agree with a lot of what you suggest, but with a number of caveats.

    I wouldn't want to suggest that a Christian community needs to include or have access to specialist Biblical scholarship in order to be authentic.

    I'm not sure it matters whether we start with the >1st century AD context or our own context - God continues to act within history.

    I studied Biblical Studies at degree and PhD level, and I am very aware that both historical-critical and literary-critical approaches have been extensively used to strip the biblical story - x didn't happen; Jesus wouldn't have said y...The Modern approach has tended to detach spirituality from the physical world and history - whether Liberal rationalism or Evangelical utilitarianism. Late Modernism detaches ourselves from history - perhaps, in part, due to the influence of humanism and Marxism, with the idea that the future is so much better than the past? In contrast, postmodernism recognises the Pre-Modern way, of grounding our present - and the possible trajectories of our future - in the stories of our past. This approach allows us to honour the Bible highly, without requiring expert knowledge...

    that's all I have time for for now - grocery shopping beckons!