The Doctrine of Scripture and Biblical Contextualization

The Doctrine of Scripture and Biblical Contextualization August 14, 2019

I’m excited to announce the publication of my latest article “The Doctrine of Scripture and Biblical Contextualization: Inspiration, Authority, Inerrancy and the Canon.” Check it out in this month’s issue of Themelios.

The article’s title says it all. To my surprise, little has been written specifically addressing the relationship between contextualization and the biblical doctrine of scripture. The following is an excerpt introducing the article.

Applying the Doctrine of Scripture to Contextualization

Debates about contextualization tend to polarize people. At issue is the relationship between the Bible and culture. Many theologians and missionaries are concerned that contextualization too easily leads to compromise. They fear syncretism, not wanting Christians to adopt cultural ideas that corrupt the church’s teaching and practice. Christians must prioritize Scripture over culture.

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In contrast, others are reluctant to divide theology and culture. They consider this separation idealistic and impractical. For others, sharply dichotomizing the Bible and culture is contrary to the nature of Scripture itself. Biblical truth must be expressed or embodied in cultural forms.

Unfortunately, these discussions routinely overlook or assume an important question. What is the relationship between contextualization and the doctrine of Scripture? When explaining a doctrine of the Bible, evangelicals typically emphasize a few key topics, such as the Bible’s authority, inspiration, and its truthfulness. These ideas become the foundation for a biblically faithful view of contextualization.

Evangelicals have similar perspectives regarding the relationship between the Bible and contextualization. Since the Bible has ultimate authority in our lives, contextualization must not allow culture to twist or obscure biblical teaching. Therefore, Christians typically begin by interpreting the Bible and then consider potential implications for culture. In this line of thinking, contextualization primarily concerns the communication and application of Scripture.

This perspective is not altogether mistaken; yet, such views of contextualization remain problematic. Common approaches to contextualization overlook the influence of culture upon interpreters. Consequently, some Christians preach a truncated––and ironically even syncretistic––gospel. They do not notice the subtle influence of their own (sub)culture. In the end, missionaries can unwittingly pass along a Westernized version of Christianity among non-Western people.

So what is a more holistic view of contextualization?

Contextualization cannot be defined merely in terms of communication or application. I suggest that contextualization refers to the process wherein people interpret, communicate, and apply the Bible within a particular cultural context.… Good contextualization seeks to be faithful to Scripture and meaningful to a given culture.

This essay explores the relationship between contextualization and an evangelical doctrine of the Bible. Readers will see how our doctrine of Scripture leads to a biblical view of contextualization. In the process, we not only affirm the importance of contextualization. We also identify biblical boundaries for contextualization that stem from an evangelical view of the Bible.

This article introduces several topics that remain controversial in some circles. I will not attempt to use contextualization to resolve these disputes. Instead, I propose an initial framework for relating contextualization to four key issues connected to an evangelical doctrine of the Scripture: biblical inspiration, biblical authority, biblical inerrancy, and the biblical canon.

First, we explore missiological implications of biblical inspiration.

Second, readers will discuss biblical authority in light of the relationship between the ancient text and contemporary cultural context.

The third section addresses the subject of biblical inerrancy. I will raise a few interrelated questions. How can one understand debates about inerrancy in light of the Bible’s ancient oral transmission? Drawing from this discussion, I will suggest possible applications for contextualized ministry, particularly in oral cultures.

Finally, what insights can we gain from research concerning the biblical canon and recent work on canonically-shaped interpretation? I offer a few initial for suggestions for how this research might influence contextualization.

This essay brings together biblical studies and mission practice. Our study will hopefully spur readers to consider specific ways to apply one’s doctrine of the Bible. Accordingly, this doctrine is more than a mere litmus test to determine whether someone is “evangelical.”

How might a robust doctrine of Scripture practically improve our approach to contextualization, both in principle and practice?


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