Contextualization is hot. Basically, it is the attempt to situate particular beliefs and practices in their concrete situation. Migrating from the rarified confines of secular sociology (especially socio-linguistics), hermeneutics, and missiological theory to practical theology departments and ministry, the imperative to contextualize the gospel has become something of a mantra among pastors, youth ministers, and evangelists. In an age of niche marketing, contextualizing refers not only to the need of aspiring missionaries to understand the culture to which they will be sent, but to the specialized demographics of our own consumer society.
I won't mention names, but many evangelical seminaries offer a panoply of elective courses on contextualized ministry (i.e., urban, youth, sports, suburban, Emergent, African American, Latino/a, men's and women's ministry). Obviously, something has to give; the seminary curriculum can handle only so many credit hours. Increasingly, at least from conversations with friends, it seems that it is the core courses in biblical languages, systematic and historical theology, church history, and more traditional courses in pastoral theology that are being pared down to make room.
As a result, many American pastors, missionaries, and evangelists today may know more about their target market than they do about the "one Lord, one faith, and one baptism" that they share with the prophets and the apostles, the church fathers and reformers, or their brothers and sisters in China, Malawi, and Russia. As recent events in the Anglican Communion have demonstrated, many bishops and pastors in Africa and Asia are more insistent than their British and American colleagues on being defined by this shared ("catholic") faith rather than their own cultural context. It's not difficult to determine whose witness right now is more "relevant."
In the 1920s, Princeton New Testament professor (and founder of Westminster Seminary) J. Gresham Machen was already issuing the complaint that the obsession with "applied Christianity" was so pervasive that soon there would be little Christianity left to apply. Are we seeing the effects even in evangelical and Reformed circles of a pragmatic interest in the methods of ministry that downplays interest in the actual message? Do our pastors coming out of three or four years of seminary education really know the Bible as pastor-scholars, ready to proclaim, teach, and lead the sheep into the rich pastures of redemption? Are they becoming technicians, entrepreneurs, and bureaucrats who know the niche demographics of this passing age better than they know the Word by which the Spirit is introducing the age to come?
In some ways, the concern with contextualization has been an understandable response to a naive modern assumption that truth is simply universal, timeless, and changeless. Just as postmodern theory has reacted against the modern "textbook" approach to knowledge, and attempted to "situate" thinking in the lived experience of social practices in which we are embedded, contextualization can be a welcome dose of realism. We don't just have ideas; our beliefs are shaped to a great extent by the cultural habits, language, customs, and practices of particular groups. Covenant theology makes a lot more sense in feudal societies than in liberal democracies. Faith in a God who is King of kings and Lord of lords, who saves sinners by his gracious action rather than by putting himself on the ballot for a general election, may be less plausible to successful capitalists and politically empowered feminists than to prisoners or oppressed workers. "Christendom" was largely a secular construction of a particular empire borrowing Christian language, and we cannot understand the rise of revivalism apart from the Industrial Revolution or contemporary evangelicalism apart from the massive technological and social revolutions of recent history. It's easier for American Christians to take contextualization seriously when we're preparing for a mission trip to Africa; we are less sensitive to the ways in which our own faith and practice are shaped for good and for ill by our own location.
The most prevalent analogy in Christian calls to contextualization is the incarnation. Just as the Word became flesh, God-With-Us, individual believers and the church corporately must "incarnate" Christ's life in the present, we are told. But is this a good analogy? In this article I want to offer some cautions about using it, as we launch our year-long theme of "Christ in a Post-Christian Culture."
A Savior, Not a Symbol
Ironically, a naive kind of contextualization can actually serve the interests of cultural hegemony, power, and pride.
"This is just the way we are."
"Young people are like that, you know."
"You have to understand the social forces that have shaped that group."
Of course, there is always some truth in these imperatives. Ethnic churches, urban churches, and suburban churches, for example, can be impervious to the differences of those outside their circles and the ways in which their own cultural assumptions have made them seem alien even to fellow Christians. But is the answer simply to follow enculturation more deeply, to contextualize more broadly, to "incarnate" Jesus more fully by our activity? Or is it to allow the incarnate Savior and Lord himself to redefine our churches, to re-contextualize our churches around him and his kingdom as he reigns at his Father's right hand by his Word and Spirit?
Jesus is a Savior, not a symbol. His incarnation is unique and unrepeatable. It cannot be extended, augmented, furthered, or realized by us. It happened; Jesus is God from Bethlehem to eternity. He did not come to show us how to incarnate ourselves, but to be our incarnate Redeemer. Of course, there are a few places that indicate we are to follow the example of Jesus Christ, but not many. In fact, the most obvious one is Philippians 2, where we are told to follow the example of Christ's humility demonstrated in his incarnation. On the other hand, there are many New Testament passages on our union with Christ and the works that result. Christ does not stand at a distance, leading us by his example; the Spirit has united us to Christ, so that we actually become one with him. But nowhere, even in Philippians 2, are we told to imitate, repeat, or extend Christ's incarnation. The redeeming work of Christ is finished; our work is a response of gratitude to that completed work. The qualitative difference between the person and work of Jesus Christ and the person and work of believers makes it impossible to see the incarnation as a paradigm for our ministry. Rather, Christ's incarnation is the reason that a ministry exists at all in the first place.
If we are going to understand our times-and how the gospel addresses us in them-contextualization itself will have to be "contextualized." In other words, we have to realize that this concept too belongs to a particular pattern of thinking and web of assumptions we have inherited as denizens of a certain time and place. The gospel has been around a lot longer than has the doctrine of contextualizing. It has survived martyrdom, Christendom, heresy, and schism-even the myriad symptoms of the "American Religion"-and is no worse for the wear. Kingdoms and empires come and go, but this one endures from generation to generation.
Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein observed that we use language to participate in a "form of life" that already exists before we arrived on the scene. From our earliest communication in childhood, we use words to get things done, and in so doing eventually become part of the game already in progress. This idea that knowledge is social rather than simply the result of an individual's apprehension of "clear and distinct ideas" has led sociologists like Peter Berger to speak of "plausibility structures." It's not that one cannot escape the paradigm that has shaped his or her language and therefore beliefs and practices. However, conversion from one paradigm to another is not simply an act of the will. If one shares the presuppositions of atheistic naturalism, the claim that Jesus rose from the dead will be implausible, just as a sixth-century European peasant would have found it implausible that a person struggling with epileptic seizures could be treated by medicine rather than by exorcism.
Historians of science have followed this train of thinking in recent decades by showing how scientific paradigms govern the progress of the sciences, resisting anomalies (i.e., observations that seem to count against the theory) until they gang up on the theory and overthrow the whole paradigm. Until then, the community of scientists (not unlike a church or denomination) retains their confidence that the paradigm they now hold makes the most sense of the data. But the paradigm itself plays a large role in their interpretation of the data and the plausibility of that data in challenging their broader system. Reformed apologist Cornelius Van Til underscored the importance and inescapability of presuppositions in the way analogous to this notion of plausibility structures.
Recognizing, however, that a particular culture's worldview, paradigm, plausibility structure, and presuppositions are formative is different from the assumption that they are determinative. As in the natural sciences, an entire system can be overthrown even by a single anomaly-if that phenomenon is significant enough to cause a paradigm-revolution. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is just such an anomaly. It is significant that when Paul addressed the philosophers in Athens (Acts 17), he knew his audience well enough to connect with their reigning paradigms; but instead of showing how the gospel substantiated their worldview, he used the truth in their own confused system to unravel the system itself. His speech culminated in the greatest anomaly of all: the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which demonstrates the inevitability of the last judgment. The only responsible conclusion, he says, is to repent and believe the gospel. To be sure, most of Paul's auditors thought he was crazy; their stubborn commitment to their reigning paradigms screened out the possibility of bodily resurrection and a final judgment. But some believed. That's the way it goes. And it has gone that way ever since, because the Spirit is at work opening blind eyes and deaf ears. That's where our confidence must be placed.
When we make a particular context normative, we essentially concede that there is a captivity from which Jesus Christ cannot liberate. This is the doctrine of historicism, which assumes that a particular belief can be explained adequately simply by defining the context in which it came to be believed. Workers accept their lot in life because they assume the capitalistic paradigm as a given, Marx argued. People hold certain convictions because of their context. Historicism became the dominant way of thinking in the culture that produced Protestant liberalism. So, for example, Rudolf Bultmann accepted as a fate the supposed impossibility of people using electric lights and radios believing in a world filled with angels and demons. Retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong has repeated this refrain in recent years, insisting that it is ridiculous to expect contemporary people in highly developed societies to believe in the supernatural religion that is revealed Christianity.
While this trajectory of historicism has made us more aware of our contextualized existence, it has, ironically, become its own kind of dogmatic, universal, and totalizing claim. If people could only believe things that were determined by their context, there could be no revolutions in science, art, politics, and other fields of cultural endeavor. As a "theory of everything," historicism is manifestly false when applied to Christianity. Christ's resurrection was not an idea whose time had come in the evolution of Second Temple Judaism. Although it grew out of Israel's story, it was a radical anomaly even in the thinking of the disciples themselves. The resurrection-and the gospel to which it is attached-possessed sufficient power to overthrow the reigning paradigm of many, as the Spirit drew them to Christ through its proclamation. Since Jesus Christ has been raised, whatever paradigms have shaped us must be called into question. That is Paul's point in Athens. Our context is not a fate to be accepted. The sociological "is" does not prescribe the theological "ought." When Christian writers such as George Barna and many others assume that we must change our message, methods, or mission because of generation-whatever, we recall the words of the Great Commission: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go into the whole world and preach the gospel, teaching everything I have commanded and baptizing the nations in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (Matt. 28:18-20).
Christ Confronts Culture
Last year's Modern Reformation theme focused on the problem of "Christless Christianity," and one of our running arguments was that we have taken Christ and his gospel for granted, assuming it, but not focusing on it and living out our mission and our lives from that center. This year's theme attempts to address more constructively how it is that we can proclaim Christ, witness to Christ, and serve Christ in a culture that may tolerate "Christianity" in some vague sense, but is increasingly hostile to the particular claims concerning Christ's person and work. So in a certain sense we are also trying to contextualize our witness. However, our assumption is not that our "post-Christian culture" defines how we present Christ, but that Christ's objective person and work define how we engage this culture or any other.
Whether we identify them as late modern or postmodern, our cultural assumptions should be studied and recognized not chiefly so that we can make the gospel more relevant and inviting to our neighbors, but so that we can recognize the particular ways in which they-and we-have become resistant to the gospel. In other words, by starting with God's Word to us-assuming that it can create new worlds, rather than with us and our assumptions-we expect the gospel's engagement with culture to produce more clashes than accommodations, more dissonance than resonance, more disorientation, confusion, and objections than stability, affirmation, and recognition. Whatever we discover over this year about our culture, at least one conclusion can be easily anticipated at the beginning: the gospel that has always been strange in every culture, for largely the same reasons, is still strange to us and to our neighbors. Its relevance lies not in its repetition of familiar platitudes of natural religion, sentiment and morality, but in its disturbing and liberating power to convert.
A contextualizing approach that assumes a basically affirmative relationship to a given cultural context will accommodate the message, methods, and mission. Throughout this year-long series, however, we will be looking for ways of understanding our time and place in order to find Archimedean points for prying open the cultural assumptions, habits, and practices that render the gospel especially unintelligible to us and to our neighbors. Paul recognized in the opening chapters of 1 Corinthians that the Greeks of his day had particular trouble even understanding the gospel, because it was a solution to a problem they did not even consider. They were looking for philosophical and ethical wisdom, not for a Savior who could raise their bodies to immortal life. Similarly, his Jewish contemporaries were seeking life in their own righteousness rather than looking outside of themselves to the incarnate Redeemer. In that sense, Paul "contextualized" the gospel. Nevertheless, he was convinced that the gospel itself had the power to do its own work (Rom. 1:16). Our goal in this series is to expose those points at which the gospel challenges rather than accommodates the dominant paradigms of our post-Christian context.
What Time Is It?
Basic to our working assumptions is the New Testament's distinction between "this passing age" and "the age to come." There is a legitimate place for dividing Western history according to obvious turning points: ancient, medieval, modern, and postmodern. However, the primary division for Christians is "this age" and "the age to come": the era dominated by sin and death, leading to judgment; and the era dominated by the Spirit, righteousness, and life, leading to salvation in Christ. It is not Alexander the Great and Immanuel Kant or Jacques Derrida but Jesus Christ who defines history as "before" and "after." His work represents the most significant turning point in history, as the law of sin and death is confronted with the gospel. That is why the New Testament identifies the whole era since Pentecost as "these last days." Wherever we are in our places and times, this is the most decisive context. We are either "in Adam," sharing in the fading regime of death, or "in Christ," with an unfading inheritance.
Protestant liberalism forgot what time it is, accommodating its message, methods, and mission to this passing age. Evangelicalism is in the process of doing the same thing in its call to "contextualization." The most dangerous context of mission may not be Paul's: an era of perpetual threat of martyrdom. It is probably not the church in China today that is under the greatest threat, but the churches belonging to a "Christendom" that has turned sour on its upbringing, like a wayward adolescent who reacts viscerally against everything that reminds him or her of home. In this case, however, Christendom never was home; it was always an illusion created by a confusion of Christ and culture.
God's Word tells us what time it is. Paul to Timothy: "In the last days, people will be lovers of themselves," with all of the characteristics of narcissism, materialism, pride, and reckless disregard for authority. People "will not put up with sound doctrine, but will gather to themselves teachers who will say whatever their itching ears want to hear." Paul's prescription is not to accommodate the gospel to this context, but to confront the context with the gospel: "Timothy, preach the Word, in season [i.e., when it is popular] and out of season [i.e., when it's not], teaching, rebuking, and exhorting" (2 Tim. 4:2).
American evangelicals are increasingly aware that we are living in a post-Christian culture. Our brothers and sisters in Europe have known for some time now that this is their lot, as churches are turned into mosques or civic centers-but now it is our turn. In vain will we spend our energies on last-ditch efforts to "take America back," struggling to hang onto some last vestiges of a Judeo-Christian morality even while biblical doctrine, worship, and practice increasingly vanish from our churches. It is time to accept the fact that our neighbors are not "unchurched," but pagans, even though many were raised in at least nominal Christian backgrounds. In some ways, our post-Christian context makes mission a little clearer. Instead of the bland moralism of a pseudo-Christian culture, which distorted the gospel in myriad ways, a faithful proclamation of the gospel and lives shaped will lead to a more explicit, if smaller, Christian witness. We need to reflect more deeply, wisely, and biblically on how our churches can become theaters of grace, nurseries of faith, and engines of mission again. Taking the gospel more seriously than we take our context, we recognize that it is the age to come-breaking into this fading age through the gospel-that is normative. The covenant of grace is the definitive context-"in Christ" the normative location-of every believer, whether in ancient Thessalonica or contemporary Shanghai, Nairobi, or Omaha.
This is what we mean when we confess our belief in "one holy, catholic, and apostolic church." It is catholic because it is in Christ. Those who are united to Jesus Christ through faith in the gospel are knit together more intimately than any generation, consumer niche, ethnic group, gender, or other demographic generated by this present age. The age that endures, after the American empire has come and gone like the rest, sets our coordinates as pilgrims in this fading age. We must recover our confidence in the truth that the gospel creates its own paradigm, its own "sociology of knowledge," its own form of life, language game, and plausibility structure from the Word and the sacraments. We must learn to speak our own language again and take our cues from the practices God has instituted for his own work among us as he creates the kind of community that is as strange as its gospel.