When John MacArthur reportedly said a few weeks ago at the Shepherds Conference that “contextualization is a curse” and “the apostles went out with a complete disdain for context”
. . . I said nothing.
When his sidekick Phil Johnson followed it up with “Regarding contextualization, Paul did not adapt his message to the values and beliefs of the culture the Athenians lived in”
. . . I went on pilgrimage to my inner monastery and renewed my vow of silence.
When Phil added a few days ago that Paul used NONE of the strategies of postmodern missional ministry [culture, contextualization, conversation, and charitableness]
. . . I stuck my teenage son’s smelly sock down my throat so that i could not speak and then smeared raspberry jam on my keyboard so that i could not blog.
But when a commenter on Phil’s blog responded with “I never thought that ANYONE would see Paul’s evangelism to the Athenians as “contextualisation”!
. . well . . . I could contain myself no longer. The sock popped from my mouth and nearly knocked my ‘Perspectives’ off the bookshelf, and the raspberry jam magically dissolved, presenting me with a bright and shiny set of keys to tap out some response.
A quick recap:
Phil over at Pyromaniacs has a big post called “Paul on Mars Hill: Part 1”. which is worth reading just to see how people can read the same story and come up with opposite conclusions. His second part “Paul in Athens” got posted today and is consistent with his argument.
But I find his argument hard to swallow. Read on.
“People who are enthralled with style-driven missional strategies almost always single out this famous account. “Paul blended into the culture,” they say. “He adopted the worldview and communications style of his hearers. He observed their religion and listened to their beliefs and learned from them before he tried to teach them. And he didn’t step on their toes by refuting what they believed. Instead, he took their idea of the unknown god, embraced that, and used it as the starting point for his message about Christ. And there you have some of the major elements of postmodern missional ministry: culture, contextualization, conversation, and charitableness.” Phil 1:1 (Phil’s first main point, in the first installment of his series)
Well, its true that I do see the need for some cultural sensitivity to both our own culture and the culture to which we are sent.
When some missionaries went to Africa with complete disdain for contextualization, they brought pipe-organs with them so the natives could worship God properly, without their nuances of culture.
When some missionaries went to North America with complete disdain for contextualization, they took away their native dances and forced the converts to learn English so that they could worship God properly, in the correct language, and without their nuances of culture.
Where is Gary Larson when we need him?
WE WERE BLIND TO OUR COLONIAL ABUSE BECAUSE WE WERE BLIND TO THE IMPACT OF OUR OWN CULTURE ON THE GOSPEL WE CARRIED.
I like to think we have moved on from those embarrassing days, that we have gone back to the Scriptures where we find the model of Christ who laid aside his glory and ‘tablernacled’ among us, who grew up in a particular culture, who sent his disciples out on mission telling them to leave their bags behind. We see a Christ who was sensitive to the culture of the people to whom he communicated. He spoke of new birth to a theologian and the water of life to a thirsty outcast. To a blind and deaf man, Jesus used touch and sign gestures to get the message across before he healed him.
But being sensitive to culture is not the same as accommodation to culture. In 2005 I took a poll from emerging church practitioners based on Neibuhr’s 5 ways of understanding Christ and culture.
It turned out that “Christ the Transformer of Culture” was by far the most popular choice for emerging church people, at 70%, and “Christ of Culture” (accomodation/syncretism) was actually the lowest at 3%.
So what about Acts 17 with Paul peaching in Athens?
I believe that Paul does for the Athenians what he has just done recently for the Lystrians and the Jews. Paul recalls their ancient stories [myths?] and finds in them some “eye openers” or redemptive analogies to the gospel. In Acts 13, being contextually relevant to the Jews and God fearers, he retrieves prophecy from the Hebrew Scriptures that point to Christ. In Acts 14, being contextually relevant to the pagan animistic Lystrians, explains their humanness and points to the evidence for Christ in his creation. Did he know about the previous Zeus/Hermes encounter that formed a backdrop to their appearance? We are not sure. But he WAS sensitive to how they would receive the message.
We are pretty certain that he was familiar with Epimenides because he quotes the Epimenides paradox (All Cretans are liars) to Titus (Titus 1:12) and, now in Athens to follow the path already tred by Epimenides, he uses the concept of Epimenides’s “altar to the unknown god” as an eye-opener to the gospel to the Athenians in Acts 17.
If you havent read the story of the Athen’s plague and Epimendes suggestion to create altars to the unknown god to avert judgement then read it here. Even better, pick up a copy of Don Richardson’s Peace Child or Eternity in the Hearts for a deeper understanding of redemptive analogies and how Christ is often pre-figured in ancient cultures around the world. This is missiology 101. Basic stuff. But its so essential for best practise in mission. We need to listen, to dialogue, to understand the story (mythology) behind a culture as well as the art and philosophy that expresses it so that we can help create understanding of the good news that Christ suffered, died, rose again and ascended.
And for the missiology geeks out there, check out the stirrings of Fulfillment Theory at Edinburgh 1910 and follow it as it finds legs in India and then comes back to our home countries through Donovan (Catholic) and Richardson (Protestant) in the 1970’s.
Could it be that Paul knew nothing about Epimenides and the plague of Athens and just FLUKED it by either sheer luck or a prophetic burst of Spirit guided wisdom? I guess so but I find that hard to believe.
Does the context affect the message? Of course it does. The story stays the same – same Jesus who fleshed out his life with humans in their context, and who died, rose again, ascended and then appeared to many witnesses in their context, in a way they could acknowledge. Same story but it will be different every time you tell it because people and their environment are different. DUH! This is not compromise. This is telling the story.
And if we ignore the context of the hearers of the gospel, we will end up with a colonial Christianity shaped by the culture of ourselves, the message-bearers. Contextualization matters and the lack of it is a curse to those on the receiving end of our ministry.
I also think it is a mistake to turn the contextualization argument into an either-or argument. All of us contextualize but balance is needed. In my world of missions and emerging church, the argument for contextualization is normally done on a six stage scale and must be done carefully.
So I respectfully disagree with John MacArthur and Phil Johnson and encourage them to pour over the Scriptures again but with different eyes. As I am sure they will suggest to me.
Some bloggers have throwing in a few bones on Jonny Mac’s ideas so I dont feel I need to. I did jot down some links to follow up on.
– Contend Earnestly has problems with MacArthur’s understanding of contextualization.
– Internet Monk writes a respectful comeback to MacArthur and suggests that his suit is not supra-cultural by any means. Good point.
– Boars Head Tavern says its like a “fish preaching against water.”
– Fide-O normally comes out against the emerging church but this time Jason offers some disagreement with MacArthur and says that ‘adaptation to culture is inevitable’.
– Adrian Warnock notices that the power struggles have resumed along with boxing gloves [my interpretation], in particular between Phil Johnson and Michael Spencer (Internet Monk). And in my opinion, sometimes this is stupid male but sometimes this is how we stupid males communicate with each other. We dont sit down for a coffee and a chat when we can have a heated debate on the blogs and do it the manly way. Brodie Hackney has a good outline of the conference talks.
ContendEarnestly has some good thoughts.
And the conversation has begun on Pyromaniacs. Should be a worthwhile one, even if you tend to stay away from these controversies. I think this one could shed some light on how we can read the same Bible and end up on different playing fields.
BTW – I have a lot [lot lot lot lot . . . LOT] of respect for both John MacArthur and Phil Johnson. Phil and I almost had a cup of coffee together a month ago in London but we had to put it off for another day. Both are godly men who love God and the Scriptures and I look forward to meeting them in person one day.
Bottom line. I believe that the Apostle Paul listened and conversed and looked for the redemptive analogies that would help him convincingly and prophetically shed light on the good news of Christ. The next generation are finding their own mythologies that will influence how they understand concepts of redemption, salvation, blood sacrifice and other theological concepts. They will need eye openers. They already have stored away a few redemptive analogies from the poets and writers of their own day and will draw on them to understand the mysteries of the Kingdom. Some of those stories are helpful and some will need to be corrected. But we do need to be aware of them.
And thats why you might find me in the cinema watching Harry Potter.
But thats me. How about you. Does context matter?
UPDATE: Phil responds to this post here on Pyromaniacs. Worth reading. Phil has given more thought to contextualization that I realized. I should post again soon and address his thoughts.
This Series on Contextualization:
[Part 1]: Does it Matter?