What Is Contextualization? How Does It Work in the CRCNA?

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Behind the scenes of the more visible work of the church is the question, “How do we relate to the realities around us?” A related question is, "What difference does the timeless Gospel make in the time and place where we find ourselves?"

These questions have do do with contextualization, a word from missiological literature that seems abstract, but the ways and means that it is done, is very much a 'this is where the rubber hits the road' consideration for any church.

Depending on its location and time in history, these realities might range from letting turn-coat Christians back into the early church, the opioid crisis in North America, applying or not applying the teachings of liberation theology to the life of the church in Central America, how an African church is dealing with racism in its membership towards another African tribe, whether to launch a political campaign against genetically modified organisms (GMOs), how to speak out about indulgences in the 15th and 16 centuries, whether or not to register a house church in China, and whether or not to engage in the civilly-disobedient act of continuing to meet in secret in Saudi Arabia. The deliberations that the church has had to make and will continue to make are almost endless and for some denominations, seemingly all with equal urgency. A common them that links all of them is the issue of contextualization.

In this short piece on contextualization, we will discuss its meanings, explore some of its history, pitfalls, and pose a few reflection questions. A chronologically arranged list of definitions is attached for reference.

What is contextualization?

As you can see on the pages that are attached, the definitions are quite varied. Some common themes that emerge, include: timeless gospel, implications for surrounding culture, the wrestling of the Church, the honour of Jesus Christ, the receptor, relevant, and so forth.

Here is my own definition:

The Triune God who communicates continually to all human beings created in His image and before whose face they live (Coram Deo) (the macro-context) sends his Church to authoritatively communicate, in the power of the Holy Spirit, His timeless Word of truth (the text) in a winsome manner into all situations (contexts), but not all with equal urgency. Having set Christ as Lord (I Peter 3:15), the Church historical and global sets out to accurately see with eyes informed by the mind of Christ the spiritual state of human beings as individuals and as groups and to challenge their assumptions, goals and objects of worship in the time and place in which they live (micro-context)...The process whereby the global and historical Church under the cross of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit speaking through the text (kerygma) brings slaves to the Adamic nature (their inherited context) across the gulf of separation to the glorious liberty of the children of God (their grace-given context). This cross crucifies all human self-effort and it places individuals and communities before a cross-road: Which (God)-man and which book will they follow?

A brief history:

Although most textbooks on mission highlight the origins of the term ‘contextualization’ with Shoki Coe, in 1972 [see his definition in the attached paper], along with the World Council of Churches’ education initiative, the application of the term goes back much further.

The Jesuit Matteo Ricci (d. 1610) went to China to bring the gospel there. This is what Pope John Paul II reported on his activities under the rubric of an older word, ‘inculturation’:

From his first contacts with the Chinese, Father Ricci based his entire scientific and apostolic methodology upon two pillars […], first, Chinese neophytes, in embracing Christianity, did not in any way have to renounce loyalty to their country; second, the Christian revelation of the mystery of God in no way destroyed but in fact enriched and complemented everything beautiful and good, just and holy, in what had been produced and handed down by the ancient Chinese tradition. And just as the Fathers of the Church had done centuries before in the encounter between the Gospel of Jesus Christ and Greco-Roman culture, Father Ricci made this insight the basis of his patient and far-sighted work of inculturation of the faith in China, in the constant search for a common ground of understanding with the intellectuals of that great country.

(Cited by  Edwin Anaegboka Udoye, Resolving the Prevailing Conflicts between Christianity and African (Igbo) Traditional Religion Through Inculturation (Wien: Lit, 2011), 272.

Essentially, what the Pope was saying was that Ricci in his approach to contextualization found it imminently important that the Chinese converts could and would retain loyalty to their country. Knowing that true Christians would have had to reconcile loyalty to the emperor, not unlike the early Christians had to do with their emperors, raises a question, “at what cost?” One way that Ricci attempted to reconcile this dynamic was to suggest that within Chinese culture there were, what the Pope elsewhere called ‘seeds of the word’ (semina verbi) and that these were “just and holy.” Thus in his approach to contextualization, he saw the entirety of Chinese culture, not as prone to idolatry as the Hebrew prophets saw their surrounding cultures, and as the Apostle Paul saw at Athens (Acts 17), and as Calvin saw the ‘idol factories’ of the human heart, but as complementary to Christianity.

If one fast forwards to today, one can see the same Christianization process at work as Christians attempt to present the unchanging gospel in their context. Some Christians attempt to read Christian meaning into sacred texts like the Koran, while others attempt to read Christian meaning into rituals and cultural expressions of people like the indigenous Sawi people of Papua New Guinea, as did Don Richardson in his book Peace Child.  The need for what the missiologist, Paul Hiebert called “critical contextualization” has never been bigger, and I would submit that this would apply to the Christian Reformed Church as well.

Some dangers of uncritical contextualization:

Besides the danger of Christianizing the un-Christian, one must ask if the ever-changing context around the Church can cause it to begin to react in four unhealthy ways:

  1. The context of the receptor becomes king. Rather than presenting the gospel with its necessary offense to the autonomous person, the gospel is morphed and modified to mollify itching ears. One article in the attached list is entitled, “Fishing with Food that Fish like” as if to say that if the church pitches the call of the gospel in a likable way, then the “fish” will bite. It goes without saying that compromise will likely follow such an approach.
  2. The surrounding context becomes king. The changing context puts the Church on marbles. The tyranny of an ever-changing, and with seeming increasingly speed, context, can put a church into the mode of frenzied action. How does it determine which of the shopping list of issues around it, and which of its noble activities must take priority? Without such priorities, the author Peter Schineller in his Hand Book on Inculturation (New York, Paulist Press, 1990, p.19-20.) speaks about this frenetic activity which results in “a chameleon-like theology that lacks constancy and solidity.”
  3. Sentiment becomes king. If the ‘hot-button’ issues of the context surrounding the church begin to determine its course and priorities, then the ones that are pitched with the most passion and eloquence will take priority. The church can then become the victim of special interest groups who are passionate about their cause. 
  4. A very limited context becomes king. Imagine that a theological pronouncement was made at a general assembly or Synod in a certain denomination. For argument’s sake let’s position the place of meeting at Wichita Falls in Kansas. The attendees who come to make the deliberations are more or less mono-cultural and all attendees have their citizenship in North American countries. What are the chances that this group will see its deliberations in light of the macro-context of 2000 years of church history, and of their place in the macro-context of global Christianity? One hopes that these macro-contexts will weigh into the decision making, but that may or may not be the case.

Is there a need for “critical contextualization” in the CRCNA?

In 1993, a professor from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School penned an article which among other things summarized findings of mission’s literature from 1973 to 1986. Edward Rommen’s article, “The De-Theologizing of Missiology” showed that a shift had occurred from thinking theologically, to thinking pragmatically and predominantly through the lenses of the social sciences.

One wonders if Edward Rommen analyzed the contents of the CRCNA’s Banner, literature, passions and priorities from denominational agencies, and articles [i.e. blogs, discussions, Q&A, or resources] what would he say? Would he say that the CRCNA is characterized by robust Reformed theological thinking and critical contextualization? What would he say would be the tools by which it analyzes its own apparatus of contextualization.

What do you think?

Shalom

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