All theology is contextualized.
Sometimes we hate to admit that because it leaves us with admittedly missing pieces in our biblical understanding puzzle. We want to believe we are coming to the text as a neutral interpreter. Spoiler alert: there’s no such thing as a neutral interpreter. None of us reads with an acultural lens. The Bible itself has cultural markings and symbols that sang with familiarity to an ancient context. Here we sit in the 21st century, so now what?
The battle of titans of biblical interpretation is that of contextualization versus syncretism.
Contextualization: Interpret Scripture and then contextualize it. Say the gospel in a way people can understand.
Syncretism: Biblical message is made to harmonize so closely with a given culture that the biblical message is compromised.
Many people are nervous of this matchup. Assumptions are flung and the Bible is left bloodied and beat up in the corner. John Piper succinctly expresses this fear in his video.
But, if we slow down, we might discover our incomplete reading of gospel narratives. In Randy Richards and Brandon O’Brien’s book Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, they explore how a wider reading of familiar gospel stories might lead us to as Westerners. For example,
People in the West assume wearing jewelry is sexually provocative, but culturally, it was an expression of wealth. These are the kinds of assumptions that will affect our theologizing. We must get serious about where we are layering our own cultural assumptions onto the biblical text.
Werner shares about his family’s experience as German believers during WWII and now as a 21st century churchgoer. Between Aryan Bibles and military rifles on a Sunday morning, syncretism can so easily become a dominant force in our identities.
Two types of syncretism:
Theological Syncretism: Makes the box too small and reduces biblical revelation to one’s own tradition. For example, people filter everything through the filter of justification by faith such that everything in the Bible is made to be about that message.
Cultural Syncretism: Brings too much of our own culture into the Bible
We must avoid the temptation to memorize some words, find a cultural analogy, and then slap the word contextualization on. Contextualization is a process. Jackson goes in depth about this process his book One Gospel for All Nations. In brief, it’s a process where we interpret, apply, and communicate biblical truth for a given context.
Phoropter: the machine used during an optometry exam to help us figure out the strength of lenses we need.
According to Larry Caldwell, “Ethnohermeneutics is simply Bible interpretation done in multi-generational, multi-cultural and cross-cultural contexts that, as far as possible, uses dynamic hermeneutical methods which already resides in the culture.”
A multicultural perspective is more objective than a monocultural perspective (an insight from K. K. Yeo).
Any healthy method of contextualization will be firm and flexible. What are themes and motifs? Three themes consistent when we see the gospel explicitly talked about are creation, covenant, and kingdom.
Want to do deeper?
Check out Leslie Newbigin’s Gospel in Pluralist Society
Newbigin gives a fantastic analogy about several blind men touching various parts of an elephant. Each of us touches a different part of an elephant, and if we would all talk to each other, we’d have a more robust picture of what the Bible actually says.
John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift
Desiring God, John Piper on YouTube The Gospel Needs No Contextualization
Randy Richards and Brandon O’Brien’s Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes
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