Interpreting "Contextualization"?

Interpreting "Contextualization"? May 23, 2013

What is “contextualization”?

It is one of the most popular buzz words in evangelicalism today.

When a word is heard enough times, it’s easy to assume that one understands its meaning. However, what happens when we assume this? For some, prejudices are reinforced without good reason. For others, the concept is oversimplified and effort is not given to solving the hard problems of contextualization.

In Saving God’s Face, I suggest that evangelicals have largely assumed a particular view of “contextualization” that has made it very difficult for us make progress on the subject. In general, contextualization is seen primarily as an act of communication or application. While mention is made to “contextualized theology,” this generally refers to communicating theological truth in a contextually meaningful way.

It is assumed that contextualization is something one does TO theology. It is something that happens after one has interpreted the Bible. I think this is a fundamental assumption that is hindering evangelical attempts to develop comprehensive approaches to contextualization.

Alternatively, I suggest that contextualization most basically is an act of interpretation.

One begins to contextualize whenever one reads the Bible from a particular cultural context. People may get nervous to hear that sort of idea. “Certainly,” they might say, “the meaning of the Bible is unchanging. How can our interpretations change? Isn’t that eisegesis––simply forcing our interpretation into the Bible?”

The Bible’s original meaning does not change, but we do.

That means we notice new things as our circumstances change. It also means that we naturally overlook or under-emphasize certain aspects of the text that lie outside our common experience.

In humility, we need a model of contextualization that takes seriously this interaction between text, read, and context.

I won’t offer a “definition” now. But I will offer some of the suggestions of others.

In the next post, I’ll give a sample of definitions from mostly evangelical scholars.


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