I had a number of concerns in mind when I wrote One Gospel for All Nations. One of them is a tendency among missionaries (among others): People tend to do contextualization by decontextualizing the Bible.
What do I mean?
In order to make the gospel understandable, they typically reduce the message to a few key principles or ideas that essentially strip the Christian story from its historical and narrative context. Where is this trend most evident? The almost total omission of Israel from most gospel tracts/presentations.
Scot McKnight is absolutely right when he remarks that people usually skip from Genesis 3 (the Fall) to Romans 3 (the cross). This is despite the fact that the overwhelming bulk of the Bible is the story of Israel as told in the Old Testament.
Similarly but to a lesser extent, the Gospels are sometimes treated merely as fodder to illustrate doctrines found in the Pauline epistles. Many people I have spoken with struggle to explain why the Gospels are called the “gospel” (cf. Mark 1:1). When this is how people regard the Gospels, Jesus’ life can almost be seen as little more than an extended, if not trivial introduction to his death and resurrection.
Of course, people are well intentioned when they do not talk about various Old Testament passages. After all, they don’t want to confuse listeners who may lack the background to grasp ancient Jewish culture.
Nevertheless, contextualization by decontextualizing the Bible creates multiple problems. I’ll mention four.
When our message reduces to a simplified summary of doctrines, the gospel quickly turns into a philosophy, abstracted from daily life. Propositions, apart from an understood narrative, do not convey the implicit connections that readers are intended to hear. I refer to potential applications to one’s life and echoes to other passages in Scripture.
No doubt, one reason why so much of the Bible is story is because its inherent power to connect with people’s lived experience. Narrative carries more than meaning; it conveys the significance of the message.
Systematic theology is a helpful tool; but it is the natural fruit of theologizing, not the root of biblical contextualization.
2. IncomprehensibleThe Bible becomes almost incomprehensible when contextualization is decontextualized from the Bible. Why?
People naturally want to understand how various truths fit together. In effect, this is part of the work of systematizing. It is certainly no a small task to find coherence between statements that share little historical/narrative context. I suggest the task is made even more difficult when our gospel is only thinly connected to the grand narrative of Scripture.
Ultimately, the interpretation becomes so extremely complex. The average layperson naturally assumes that interpreting the Bible is the exclusive task of specialists. After all, how can the typical believer hope to follow the pastor’s example of tying together 10 verses from 10 different contexts, as pastors routinely do in a weekly sermon?
Apart from the natural context of a passage, readers are prone to assume the perspective of their own contemporary culture or subculture (e.g. denomination, organization).
What’s the consequence? Speculation wins out as interpreters wrestle to make sense of words, concepts, and implications. One attempts to reconcile unbiblical assumptions with the biblical text.
Not surprisingly, many turn to the theologies of their church tradition. Their theological conclusions and verbiage may be correct from a certain perspective; however, traditional answers may in fact address problems that arose in another day and age. As a result, modern readers absorb the same blind spots of those before them.
A dogmatic mindset can result and create an inflexible mindset that kills biblical contextualization.
There is a more serious consequence to doing contextualization–– idolatry. This eventually happens whenever persists in their confusion of the biblical context and their own cultural setting. (Again, I include “subcultures” here.) Systems become sacred. One then uses the Bible to uphold cultural mores like “God helps those who help themselves” and “God just wants me to be happy.”
(I am in the middle of a series introducing my new book One Gospel for All Nations: A Practical Approach to Biblical Contextualization. For other posts in the series, click here.)