What David Wells Misunderstands About Contextualization

What David Wells Misunderstands About Contextualization September 10, 2015

372083867_9cdc073b7cJustin Taylor has posted a quote from David Wells regarding contextualization.  I recently wrote about the danger of “de-contextualizing” the gospel (which feels a bit like finding the above stormtroopers gaurding your local mall). So, I found Wells comments particularly eye catching. Within the extended quotation, Wells writes:

Biblical revelation was given in a particular cultural context but it is also intended to be heard in our own context. . . . It is the task of theology, then, to discover what God has said in and through Scripture and to clothe that in a conceptuality which is native to our own age. Scripture, at its terminus a quo, needs to be de-contextualized in order to grasp its transcultural content, and it needs to be re-contextualized in order that its content may be meshed with the cognitive assumptions and social patterns of our own time.

At one level, I think I agree with his basic idea. I have the utmost respect for Wells (who teaches at my alma mater, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary). However, I think his articulation of the contextualization process inserts too much confusion into the process. I think this way of conceiving contextualization is one reason why evangelicals have so long wrestled to do contextualization at a practical level and not just talk about principles.
 

Points of Agreement

1.  Biblical revelation was given in a particular cultural context but it is also intended to be heard in our own context. YES!

2. We need to “discover what God has said in and through Scripture.” YES!

3. Perhaps, “….clothe that in a conceptuality which is native to our own age.” (This is unclear. It sounds good until you read the following sentence.)

Points of Disagreement

1. “Scripture…needs to be de-contextualized in order to grasp its transcultural content”

2. “and it needs to be re-contextualized in order that …”

My main concern is the expressions “de-contextualized” and “re-contextualized”.

As I explain in One Gospel for All Nations, I am a staunch advocate of beginning the contextualization process with exegesis, interpreting Scripture in view of the authors’ meaning, the text’s original culture and canonical context. Biblical revelation as is all theology is contextualized from the start.

This fact however does not warrant the idea that we can somehow “de-contextualize” the content in order to grasp the meaning of the passage. In view of the fact that he speaks of “re-contextualizing” the message, it would seem that he thinks that biblical truth can meaningfully exist in abstract form. Abstract theological statements have some use. They are mere sign posts to various scenes in the larger biblical narrative. However, they have limited cargo space when it comes to life changing truth.

I don’t at all think “systematic theology” and doctrine are bad. Systematized doctrines simply can’t bear the weight of contextualization as Wells (and others) imply.
 

Systems are Not Stories

Contra8660533478_0b6f83f4ed_zst a system and a story. The difference is like reading a help menu on your computer versus watching a program like “Once Upon a Time”, “Sherlock Holmes” or “Downton Abbey.”  When people read a story or watch a movie, no one “de-contextualizes” it to extract the kernel of truth to be re-popped and packaged the next day at work.

We control systems. We don’t control a story.

NES-Console-SetWe systematize concepts but we are not the author of the biblical Story. They are far more rich and complex to neatly fit into a system without much compromise. We enter into a story. As we do so, we experience, even if just in part, the truth being conveyed. We naturally intuit the meaning and significance being conveyed within the story.

Think of the last time you heard someone share their testimony or recount a story from the life. They did not need to systematically deconstruct it in order for your to grasp the meaning, even though they were speaking from a different perspective and likely a slightly different context than the one you heard it.

The truth of biblical revelation span countless cultural contexts. Cultures and worldviews are not “systems.” They are far more akin to stories. This fact should reshape our view of contextualizing the one gospel for all nations.


 
Photo Credit (Downton Abbey): flickr/lafiguradelpadre Congreso
Photo Credit (NES system): CC 2.0 via wikipedia

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