Context [Part 3]: Between Absolutism and Relativism

The subject of contextualization and the example of Paul in Athens (Acts 17) has been lingering here and popping up on other blogs. Daryl Dash just mentioned that John MacArthur at the T4TG conference referred to this conversation [other details deleted]. Phil ends his series on Paul and Charitableness, to which I also see a need both charitableness AND confrontation rather than forcing to take sides. Gentleness and respect go a long way in winning a hearing . . “I see that you are religious in every way”

Here is where I end up. I cant say much more about responsible contextualization without repeating myself in Part 1 and Part 2. But I do want to bring it down to land with this final installment.

I am writing from an internet cafe in the downtown city of Dubai, United Arab Emirates. All the men around me are in turbans and are smoking Sheeshas. I have just drunken a long fruit drink as I contemplated what would happen if I just stood up and starting sharing about Christ without any regard to context. How would I communicate it? What have they heard already? If they decided to submit to Isa and follow him, would they still remove their shoes to pray or wear them like the westerners? Could they call him “Isa” as in the Quran, or should they use the English name “Jesus” and would he then be a blue-eyed blond-haired Jesus?

Much to think about. Carelessness kills.

Some propositions that are absolutely certainly true:

1. We all have a contextual position. “Contextualization allows a missionary to separate a people’s traditions from our doctrinal foundations and apply an appropriate trellis that shapes the new church in its most indigenous form. This allows new believers to grow within a cultural framework that is true to biblical foundations. It helps us avoid building rectangular buildings for people who live in round huts.” IMB

Sidenote: To employ an innerrancy position, according to missiologist David Hesselgrave, is to participate in a contextual theology.

2. Not every contextual theology is a good one. Some contextual theologies tend towards relavitism and others towards absolutism which, according to a Wesleyan article, dogmatizes one’s own particular interpretation or theological position, “making it applicable to everybody and demanding that others submit too.” I would describe the view on contextualization of John MacArthur the the Pryos as absolutist – a view developed during 1800 – 1950, that period of church history defined by Paul Hiebert as the “era of non-contextualization”

We need to move beyond an absolutist position on contextualization and we need to avoid the excesses of a relativistic position.

3. Most Protestant missionaries teach a balanced view of contextualization and this has been a healthy water-spring for the emerging-missional church movement to draw from. Por exemplo:

– The International Mission Board of the Southern Baptists not only promotes responsible contextualization, but also use Acts 17 as an example.

“We affirm that there is a biblical precedent for using “bridges” to reach out to others with the Gospel (Acts 17:22-23). The fact that Paul mentioned an aspect of the Athenians’ idolatrous worship was not a tacit approval of their entire religious system. He was merely utilizing a religious element of their setting (an altar to an unknown god) to connect with his hearers and bridge to the truth. Similarly, our personnel may use elements of their host culture’s worldview to bridge to the Gospel. This need not be construed as an embracing of that worldview.”

Principles of Contextualization, Number 2

– Lausanne has a number of good articles on responsible, comprehensive contextualization on one page.

– The The Iguassu Affirmation of the World Evangelical Alliance which “The Gospel is always presented and received within a cultural context. It is therefore essential to clarify the relationship between Gospel and Culture, both in theory and practice, recognizing that there is both good and evil in all cultures.”

The view I have presented is, I believe, the majority position and is in no way “revisionary”. The absolutist position put forward by MacArthur and Phil Johnson is a minority position, which does not in itself make it wrong, but it does make it suspect and worthy of a healthy comparison with other positions more readily accepted in the global missions scene.


– Steve Camp not only posts on the subject but also battles Darren Patrick on the Mike Corely Program. Listen to MP3

– John Piper weighs in with some thoughts. “Preaching as Concept Creation, Not Just Contextualiation”. All very good and applicable points but not immediately specific enough to develop a mature response to missional contextualization.

This Series on Contextualization:

[Part 1]: Does it Matter?

[Part 2]: Between Mindlessness and Recklessness

[Part 3]: Between Absolutism and Relativism


Andrew Jones launched his first internet space in 1997 and has been teaching on related issues for the past 20 years. He travels all the time but lives between Wellington, San Francisco and a hobbit home in Prague.


  • Darryl says:

    I should clarify: he mentioned the subject of contextualizing, but he never mentioned you or Pyro specifically. In fact we heard today that he has never once been on the Internet. Not once. Amazing!

  • learning says:

    thanks for the insights and the references. Good stuff.

  • learning says:

    I was curuious what your thoughts were on the conversation between darrin partick and stephen camp? I listened to it and thought darrin did an okay job but could have done better. I also found it interesting that Stephen called out tim keller. Just bizarre.

  • David says:

    On a slightly twisted angle… when I run into someone’s worldview that is not mine, is it not THEN (predominantly) when I actually see my own worldview? I can only ascertain a certain percentage of my own context from in the middle of it. I have to either get outside myself(?) or interact with a worldview (context) that is different than mine – in those differences I can then see ‘myself.’
    I cannot say that mine is THE worldview until I run it up against others’ worldviews… but that implies there are other worldviews… and mine is, at the least, one of many. Which means my context/worldview is limited for it is not what everyone has.
    I do appreciate your willingness to publicize your recent debates (this one and your interaction with Brian) in a dialog-allowing manner [including some graciousness and links or text of the “other” side but not just the worst of the other side!].
    David M.
    Seattle, WA, U.S.A.

  • Steve Camp says:

    Thanks for your comments.
    First off, I have always wanted to spell my name Stephen rather than Steven. I thought it was more interesting. So thank you for the misspell – made my day.
    Secondly, I didn’t call out Keller as you say. The radio host Mike Corley asked both Darrin and I to respond to a quote by Keller where he defines contextualization. I responded. In the course of that discussion on Keller’s definition, I included my thoughts about his latest book and the lectures he did promoting it. One in particular was at UC Berkeley. Keller, who I have enjoyed in the past, totally tanked in the Q and A session. Many commentators thought so as well; in fact most were fans and still left disappointed.
    My disappoint with Keller, was he did not once respond using the Word of God in answering any of the questions; and he never brought people in the Q and A to the call of the gospel, the cross of the gospel, or the Christ of the gospel. It was surprising to many of us.
    So I wouldn’t call that “calling him out…” as you say. I thought we were just having a conversation. Isn’t that what emerging Christians pride themselves in having… a conversation?
    Thanks again for your comments; and Andrew, I do hope we can be on the radio next time together. I always enjoy reading your blog.
    Grace and peace,
    2 Cor. 4:5-7

  • learning says:

    I am sorry for wrongly judging you. I thought you were being critical but I was wrong. Thanks.

  • andrew says:

    Stephen is much classier and intellectual sounding. If Steve wants to change his name to Stephen [not a bad idea] then he will need to start wearing glasses.
    what i liked about this discussion is that Phil J. started with the Scriptures and an interpretation of Acts 17. This is much better than starting off with a concept or a poorly named doctrine. At least with the Bible we can have a place to find ourselves in agreement with its authority, even if not always in its interpretation and application.
    Honor to have you on my blog, Steve. Your music has been a backdrop for my past 25 years. You and Petra were my favorites in the 80’s and I still play your stuff.
    If anyone is wondering . . . check out his album ‘Fire and Ice’.

  • andrew says:

    Daryl, I corrected the first sentences and deleted the offending sentence.

  • Rick Frueh says:

    I will always remained baffled by the Calvinist/reformed strong objection to contextualization. Are they suggesting that post modern contextualiztion keeps deceived sinners out of the kingdom and can in fact deceive true believers?
    In the end, when discussed within an unconditional election context, the point becomes moot in eternity. 🙂

  • andrew says:

    i think it is more that black-or-white, yes-or-no thinking that makes it look like anything in the middle is compromise and compromise is always wrong if it means dropping one’s standard.
    and the biblical can often be confused with the cultural.

  • Bryan Riley says:

    Wow, Steve Camp commented here. I used to bellow out “I’m a Stranger to Your Holiness” in the solitude of my bedroom as a teenager. I crooned over and over “He’s All You Need” and “Whatever You Ask.” And it was “Do You Feel Their Pain?” that first began to awaken me to a need to have active compassion for the needy.
    Andrew, I’ve enjoyed your thoughts on this subject. I think much of the discussion gets caught up in language and prejudgments and that we, as the Body of Christ, need to lay down these sorts of arguments and work together for the gospel of Christ.

  • Steve Cramb says:

    I recently heard the word “Godview” used to contrast with “worldview.” Specifically, “If you don’t have a Godview you’ll have a worldview.” Within the definition I’m used to, the very idea of a “Godview” forms part of a worldview, but I guess it’s one way of separating one’s own position from culture.
    It’s funny how it’s always one’s own position that is above culture, and everyone else’s that’s mired in it.
    Thanks for the discussion, Andrew.
    And yes, we Stephens (esp those that wear glasses) ARE superior beings :p

  • andrew says:

    i still play “He’s all you need” a fair bit. One of his best!
    sorry Steve if we are too starstruck to have a serious conversation here. wow – Steve Camp is here! Forget the topic. wow.
    what WERE we talking about anyway???

  • alistair mackinnon says:

    back in the academy
    contextualization in a sentence:
    Dont assume.
    in a word:
    in another word,
    in another sentence,
    be still and know that I am God
    in a command,
    love God and love your neighbour as you love yourself.
    whats all the fuss about 🙂

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