Interpreting Contextualization

Interpreting Contextualization May 23, 2013

What is “contextualization”?

It is one of the most popular buzzwords in evangelicalism today.

When a person hears a word 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. Thus, people give little effort towards solving the challenging problems surrounding 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 to make progress on the subject. In general, contextualization is seen primarily as an act of communication or application. While people mention “contextualized theology,” they generally refer to communicating theological truth in a contextually meaningful way.

Many assume that contextualization is something one does TO theology. It is something that happens after one has interpreted the Bible. This way of thinking fundamentally hinders 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 everyday experience.

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

I won’t offer a “definition” now. But I will present some of the suggestions of others in the next post. Then, I’ll give a sample of definitions from mostly evangelical scholars.

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