Sunday, October 22, 2006

Contextualizing the Gospel

II Cor. 11:3-4 - But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtlety, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. For if he that comes preaches another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if you receive another spirit which you have not received, or another gospel which you have not accepted...

The emergent church and its very loose definitions is in general an ecclesiastical think tank that revolves around new and innovative ways to re-emphasize and re-define Christianity and the gospel. In many corners of the boundary-less movement it goes beyond a different focused presentation, and the open discussion seems to have no ground rules and no well established precedent upon which to build. Truth is smugly acknowledged as very elusive and ever changing through cultural expansion, especially in what they call a "postmodern" world which is loosely defined as this modern, interactive world culture. It is widely accepted in these circles that traditional Christianity has interpreted Biblical truth through the pre-enlightened, pre-industrial revolutionary eyes. And with that identified as an obstacle to effectively communicating the gospel with this postmodern world culture, there needs to be a fresh look at how we understand, translate, and communicate Biblical truth. How do you describe the color red to a person born blind is a good metaphor for how do you communicate the gospel in centuries old linguistic and cultural terminology to a man born in this postmodern world with no understanding of that past culture? The emergents claim there is a built-in disconnect that is failing the world because the church by and large is intransigent in its presentation of truth. For example Spurgeon's mode of communicating truth is rapidly becoming of little use to a postmodern mindset.

Rom.1:16 - For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believes...

So one of the core new emergent "truth-sculptures" is their universal agreement in "contextualizing" the gospel. When a missionary was sent to the jungles of the Brazilian Amazon he had to learn, if possible, the language and the customs of the people he was attempting to reach so he could communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ effectively. Some tribes had no word for Savior, no concept of redemption, and no knowledge of our definition of sin. So the missionary had to contextualize the gospel message to build a bridge of understanding between him and his hearers. When you read "Through the Gates of Splendor", the story of the five murdered missionaries, you will see the different strategies they used in an attempt to bring the salvation message in way that was germane to the Indians' sphere of understanding, and that is what is generally meant by contextualizing.

So what is so wrong with that, one might ask. In our postmodern culture we still understand religious and Biblical terms, and we are linguistic enough to fully unravel the meaning of some of the more culturally stagnant terms. So in a kind of reverse understanding, when you change (contextualize) the message of the gospel in the midst of a fully conversant culture that comprehends the meaning of Biblical terms, and that can understand common explanations of truths they are unsure about, you not only confuse the definitions of those Biblical truths, you run the risk of changing them. Now the average emergent would again read that and think "so what" because many emergent writers and way-showers believe the accepted definition of the gospel is in need of change, which some would assert is only a contextual representation of the same definition while others believe the standard definition no longer accurately defines God's redemptive message as seen through the prism of postmodernsim. In simple terms, some emergents believe in a redemptive message that is defined in much more humanitarian and communal terms, while still not totally rejecting the "forgiveness of sins" concept. And yet some emergents still hold to the "sin bearing" model of Jesus while seeking to significantly expand the humanitarian role and mission of Christ.

Let us illustrate. Say a map shows the directions from point A to point B. The directions read walk one mile and turn left; go one half mile and turn right; wade the creek and climb the hill and you will be at point B. But in some postmodern maps the emphasis is not getting to point B, it encourages a major focus on the turns, the creek, and the hill. And many of the streams of emergent thought so concentrate on the experience of the journey that they marginalize the eternal destination. As a matter of fact, many emergent teachers claim that traditional Christianity has over emphasized heaven to the neglect of Jesus' earthly ministry before the cross, and that these postmodern dwellers cannot relate anymore to a "pie in the sky" gospel without an earthly engagement that reveals a greater "kingdom" view of redemption which relates to the present human village. And I realize that some emergents would take issue with some of what I have observed and I do not wish to misrepresent anyone, but the spectrum of emergent teachings is so widespread that it is possible you could say almost anything and find some emergent corner that would tacitly agree in a general way while encouraging more dialogue, the gator aid of the emergent church.

So here we are. Most Americans have been raised with a Christian understanding which includes church, holidays, television preaching, and many other cultural seeds of Jesus and His mission. So in cultural terms the gospel needs just a clarification and personalization to be effective, as well as a faithful lifestyle that would help to substantiate our message. And language is no barrier, so by changing the message they have changed the message! (yes, I said that) Jesus prophesied about faith still being proclaimed upon His return, and we humans now want to package the gospel so as to make it appealing and finding a neat fitting niche in our busy schedules. Well the decreasing subset of believing followers that still believe in retaining and preaching the same message as was given the first disciples of the Lord Jesus are hanging by a thread ourselves. If we do not commit to prayer and fasting we will slip unknowingly toward the ecclesiastical morass and the clear and sparkling gospel of Jesus the Christ will still appear the same on paper, but with little if any power...almost like it is now. And we are being marginalized into convincing people with word badminton and comfortable dialogue with men that are quietly being used of the Evil One to teach a contextualized/changed/misrepresented/ reduced/ humanized/culturized/dumbed down/destroyed/blood less/cross diminishing/Word ignoring version of the glorious gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, which is the only hope for the entire world. And as I have wondered before, what will Spencer Burke's grandchildren believe and teach after having been discipled from the cradle with a theology without even semi-orthodox moorings?

And just so we don't put on the suit of self-righteousness, being orthodox in our theology is of little use without an unusual commitment to prayer, fasting, the Word, and an ever present buffer of humility. I can pick up a systematic theology book from my library, place it on a table, and proclaim "This book is orthodox!", and that book will have as much power as many of us in the "correct theology" bastions that have such little fire in our prayer closets that our presence in the world is nothing more than mere words, surely not "demonstration of the Spirit and of power". We can churn out the posts, like this one, but can we churn out elongated intercessory meetings? And we can grind our doctrinal teeth at MacLaren, Bell, and all the usual suspects, but can we weep at the porch for our wayward brothers? And it is to the point as we plumb the depths of the doctrinal melee of the present day church, that many cannot look into the mirror of God's Word and see themselves...they always see someone else. So many times the self righteous spirit in the orthodox blogasphere is palpable and safety from some of the indiscriminate attacks can only be found in congratulating the attacker.

And so the true preaching of God's message of hope seems to have very little anointing on the preachers, and the watered down and man centered versions of what used to be God's message are sometimes filled with excitement and good things. I have some bad news for us, the emergents are not coming back, ditto the seeker/purpose crowd, most of them have left the building and they are not returning. Some of us almost got caught in these growing movements, but by God's grace we remained true to the ancient landmarks. So what we need more than anything else is a massive move of God' Spirit that fills us in a way that will make us instruments of His glory and will use us to powerfully preach the everlasting gospel to the ends of the earth! But I have some more bad news for us...

This kind cometh forth not but by prayer and fasting.

And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people, Saying with a loud voice, Fear God and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment is come: and worship Him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters.


ScottB said...

And yet Paul states quite plainly in 1 Cor 9:19-23:

Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

The emphasis on contextualization is biblical and in fact modeled by its very existence.

ScottB said...

By "its very existence", I mean the New Testament.

Kim T said...

Paul never altered the gospel of Jesus Christ, the gospel of God. It was not his to alter. He never changed or updated meaning of words, or said truth cannot be known. He did not contextualize.

Thanks Rick for another excellent post.

In a sermon I listened to yesterday, preached by Alistair Begg he said, "An undefined Christianity is absorbable." and "A defined Christianity is unpopular." He was speaking to the very thing you wrote about today.

Those who claim there is a built-in disconnect from the gospel are correct. There is a built-disconnect from the gospel message because of original sin- man wanting what he wants, wanting to things his way, in his time, for his purposes, and for his own glory.

ScottB said...

Kim - you said:

Paul never altered the gospel of Jesus Christ, the gospel of God. It was not his to alter. He never changed or updated meaning of words, or said truth cannot be known. He did not contextualize.

This statement shows that you do not understand what is meant by contextualization. Contextualization is not about "altering the gospel". If you use an English translation of the scriptures, you have contextualized. You have "changed" the message from Greek to English. The goal, of course, is to maintain as much continuity between the contexts as possible. But it isn't identical.

Henry (Rick) Frueh said...

Scott - linguistic changes in order for communicative clarity were always acceptable, but what many in the emergent conclave are doing is changing the essence of the gospel from an eternal based to an earthly based. The fire insurance is a straw man, many have warned about such surface and spurious professions of faith.

I am not speaking without having listened to some of them as well as read them, no, I've listened to several of Bell's sermons (who you are familiar with) and the last sermon I heard he had people blow on a piece of paper with the "things that bug them" written on it. The person was supposed to believe that God's presence was in their breath in order to overcome those particular problems. And that was after he told several personal stories.

You are entitled to your opinion, but that is a dramatic departure from historical Christianity which may or may not be God's will. You can say that this is a move of the Holy Spirit, but you cannot claim it is not a departure. It is.

luvvom said...

Good post, Rick! Humanistic, self-absorbed people are always trying to change God's word to fit their sinful ways. Like Paul Washer says, "Twist not Scripture least you be like Satan."

ScottB said...

So let me get this straight - personal stories and blowing on a piece of paper are a "dramatic departure from historical Christianity"? It strikes me as odd, and not in keeping with what I know of Bell, but aren't you being somewhat melodramatic here? Blowing on a piece of paper has never been viewed as heresy throughout "historical Christianity" as far as I'm aware. I'd not want to comment further without hearing the entirety of the sermon.

You also said, "what many in the emergent conclave are doing is changing the essence of the gospel from an eternal based to an earthly based. The fire insurance is a straw man, many have warned about such surface and spurious professions of faith." I've mentioned this in other conversations with you - I don't know how to respond to this as it's vague and unsubstantiated. Nobody I know advocates removing the eternal dimension. If you find it, provide sources as I simply haven't encountered it. But at the same time you must agree that the gospel isn't only eternal - although it absolutely is that - it also has implications for our current existence. So "eternal" and "earthly" isn't an either/or discussion, I suggest. It's both, don't you think? I have to suggest that you also may be falling into the straw man trap. Give some context for that statement and perhaps I'll be able to understand where you're coming from.

Henry (Rick) Frueh said...

Chris - As the New Testament thoroughly emphasizes Christ died for our sins so we would not perish but have everlasting life. When a person is born again there must be a substantive change in his earthly life, but the gift of eternal life dramatically points to the life to come. As a matter of fact the Scriptures teach that our life is hid in Christ with God and we are waiting for the redemption.

What many emergents that I have read and heard try and do is to emphasize the earthly journey at the expense of the eternal destination. Driscoll himself, who is no Spencer Burke, exhorted Piper's crowd to de-emphasize the divine side of the incarnation in favor of the human side. The conservative wing of the EC is at the least unbalanced, the other MacLaren et. al. wing is heretical.

The straw man is that some people claim that traditional evangelicals emphasize heaven to the point that salvation is nothing more than fire insurance. My point was that although the essence of salvation IS fire insurance (as you put it), without a change in a person's life he probably has "false insurance".

ScottB said...

First of all, who's Chris? Just curious.

To the point, though, we could have a fascinating conversation of what eternal life - literally, "life of the ages" in the Greek - really means. But that's besides the point. The real question is what did the NT authors mean when they spoke of heaven? Were they thinking of some spiritual realm far away where we will go when we die? That, interestingly enough, is not at all what would have been in their first-century Jewish minds. They would be thinking of the coming resurrection of the righteous and the reign of God in this world - heaven come to earth, in a sense. It's depicted most powerfully in Revelation where we see new creation and God coming to live with humanity. But it's not some spiritual elsewhere-existence - the Jewish hope was for a renewal and redemption of this world, where the eternal and the temporal intersect. So, again, I'm going to have to suggest that you're engaging in a false dichotomy.

And I'm again going to have to ask for your sources. I don't know anyone - anyone - who is at all connected to things emerging who denies the eternal aspect of our existence as followers of Christ. So, because I could be wrong, I'm asking for your sources. If you don't have any, then I might also suggest that as someone who claims to love truth as you do that you might want to rethink your rhetoric here. It does nobody any good for you to be spreading falsehoods. But, again, I admit that I could be wrong - so if you have your sources then I'll happily review and discuss.

You also said - "Driscoll himself, who is no Spencer Burke, exhorted Piper's crowd to de-emphasize the divine side of the incarnation in favor of the human side." Actually, you got that backwards - Driscoll wants more emphasis on divinity and less on humanity. That, I must also suggest, borders on heresy and is quite troubling. Docetism wasn't good in the first few centuries of the church and I don't think it would be helpful now. Trinitarians believe in the full deity and the full humanity of Christ, and to pit them against each other as though one should have more emphasis is wrong, wrong, wrong.

You also said, "My point was that although the essence of salvation IS fire insurance (as you put it),..." Actually, you said that. I didn't. And I don't agree that the essence of salvation is "fire insurance". I think that's a troubling statement and an abandonment of Jesus' focus on the Kingdom of God being at hand, to put it bluntly. It's frankly borderline gnostic - pitting the spiritual against the physical is classic gnosticism and should be rejected outright, I think. The essence of the gospel is that the Kingdom is now here - those are Jesus' words, and I don't want to mess with them one bit.

Mike Ratliff said...

I find that contextualization must be understood and handled very carefully. Yes, it's okay to explain the gospel in a context that people can understand, but the message must not be altered at all. I have watched children respond to a gospel message preached to adults in a way that we would think little kids would not understand. That means that when we think like that we are forgetting the work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of all who believe. It is his work that gives us the faith to believe. We have the gospel in the Bible, let's simply preach it and watch to God to work through it.

In Christ

Mike Ratliff

luvvom said...

Contextualization is a word first used by linguists involved in communicating the translation of the Bible into relevant cultural settings. It was adopted formally by a gathering of scholars in the Theological Education Fund (TEF) [[1]] in its mandate to communicate the Gospel and Christian teachings in cultures which had not previously experienced them. Prior to the usage of the word contextualization many cross-cultural linguists, anthropologists and missionaries had been involved in such communication approaches such as in accommodating the message or meanings to another cultural setting.

The word continues to be used theologically, mainly in the sense of contextalising the biblical message as perceived in the mandate originated by Jesus in the gospel accounts. However, since the early 1970s, the word's meaning has widened. It is now used by secular, religious and political groups to render their message into different settings by adjusting or accommodating words, phrases or meanings into understandable contexts in respondent cultures.

This definition doesn't sound like someone who is translating the Bible from Greek into English but rather doing what the writer of The Message did in that he made it "relevant" to our generation of "poor readers" (my opinion is that they aren't poor readers but instead are people who want some flowery story that will make them feel good). I read The Message when I was an unbeliever and loved it but didn't like reading the Bible because I couldn't really understand it...BECAUSE I didn't have the Holy Spirit to give me wisdom. When I became a believer I threw The Message away because God opened my eyes to the subtle changes in Biblical truths. It's one thing not to understand a book that's in a different language a whole other thing not to understand one's own language; and therefore, needing that language broken down so completely that it loses its original meaning.

Neil said...

Often, people confuse "contextualization" with "syncretism"... the former is good the latter bad.