If context is King then contextualisation is ….?

Today I had the privilege of learning with and from other church leaders and planters about sharing God’s good news in different cultural contexts. Here are some notes and reflections.

Much of the discussion was based on the section on “contextualisation” in Tim Keller’s excellent  – book “Center Church.”[1] Keller says that “contextualisation is not – as is often argued – ‘giving people what they want to hear.’ Rather, it is giving people the Bible’s answers, which they may not want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are asking, in language and forms they can comprehend and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them.”[2]

I guess, put simpler you could say “when we proclaim the Gospel, we always do so in a context.” People live in historical, social and economic contexts.  One person likened this to goldfish swimming in a bowl of water.  The bowl of water is the context and whilst we may see it from the outside, the goldfish itself may not even be aware or perceive the context (water).

Keller talks about the importance of preaching in a relevant way. He refers to John Stott’s “Between Worlds” which talks about “building a bridge from the Scriptures to the contemporary world.”  Well, Stott’s point is helpful; we’ve all sat through dry, boring, theoretical lectures and thought “so what?”  However, with great caution, I want to challenge Stott’s analogy here (or at least how it could be heard).  The risk here is that we begin as preachers, teachers and evangelists to admire our great skill at bridge building.  We see Gospel proclamation as this great art of taking Scripture and making it relevant  We talk about bringing God’s Word to life.  We think of application as being us taking the theory of what Scripture says and means and determining what people should do about it.  But Scripture is already relevant.  Now of course it is written in specific contexts and the language, technology, fashions and some of the detailed issues may differ across the centuries but Scripture also has the great ability to speak across cultures.

Let me give two examples.  First of all, two weeks ago, I was preaching at our Spanish speakin congregation, Nueva Vida (with the help of a translator). We turned to Titus 1 and right at the start, I said that the pastoral letters were written by Paul to young leaders of young churches.  Immediately we could see the relevance to a new congregation with emerging leaders.  Secondly, our Home Group has been working through 1 Corinthians.  We’ve learnt about rivalry, self-importance, sexual sin etc.  At times we have felt as though Paul could so easily have been writing about 21st Century Birmingham and Sandwell.

It’s not that we have to build a bridge from Scripture to the world to make Scripture relevant to our culture. Rather, we invite people to come with us to Scripture and discover that it already is relevant.  Now that actually makes those irrelevant sermons even worse.  It’s not that the preacher has failed to make something relevant that was not yet relevant.  Rather, it’s that he has taken something that was relevant, clear and powerful and made it irrelevant and confusing.

One of the things Keller talks about is being able to “affirm the beleifs of a culture wherever it can be done with integrity.”[3] He identifies two types of belief.

“The first are what I call ‘A beliefs, which are beliefs people already hold that because of God’s common grace roughly correspond to some part of Biblical teaching. Because of their ‘A beliefs’ people are predisposed to find plausible some of the Bible’s teaching (which we may call ‘A Doctrines’). However, we will also find ‘B’ beliefs – what may be called ‘defeater’ beliefs –beliefs of the culture that lead listeners to find some Christian doctrines implausible or overtly offensive.  ‘B’ doctrines contradict Christian truth directly at points we may call ‘B’ doctrines.”[4]

To help illustrate this, Keller gives this example:

“In Manhattan, what the Bible says about turning the other cheek is welcome (an ‘A belif), but what it says about sexuality is resisted (a ‘Be’ belief).  In the Middler East, we see the opposite – turning the other cheek seems unjust and impractical but biblical prohibitions on sexuality make sense.”[5]

Keller then uses the illustration of stones (the ‘B’ beliefs) which sink in water and using a raft (made up of ‘A’ beliefs) to float the stones.[6] In our seminar, the leader created a physical illustration of this with a bowl of water and a pencil raft.  Unfortunately he also overloaded his raft with too many stones so it capsized!

Now I don’t want to disagree with Tim Keller especially having already taken on John Stott.  However, I do have some questions about this.  Mind you, my issue is probably more with the presentation in Center Church because I’m sure I’ve heard a more detailed and nuanced explanation of it elsewhere.

Essentially, Keller is presenting a version of what Hendrik Cramer would call Subversive Fulfilment and what missiologists like JH Bavinck would refer to as points of contact.  Kramer would say that we show how those “A beliefs” are fulfilled in the Gospel.  However, you also need the subversive element too.  What this means is that whilst Common Grace and General Revelation give all cultures access to some truth, that truth isn’t fully formed.  Rather, sin and idolatry means that even the truth we have is fragmented and distorted.  So someone may say that “God is holy.” But do they fully and correctly understand what “holiness means?  They may like the idea that “God is love” but,  if their understanding of love is shaped by western images of romance and fickle hearts rather than by faithfulness then how much use is that?

Because of that, I would suggest (and I have a feeling that Keller may do elsewhere) that what we need to do is not so much choose a set of “A” beliefs on which to float a random set of “B” beliefs.  Rather, we carefully choose a specific “B” belief to show that they haven’t fully grasped the “A” belief. This is what we do with the Doctrine of the Trinity.  To a Muslim this is a “B” belief.  We take the A Belief that God is Almighty and we talk about the implications of this, that he is sovereign, eternal, unchanging but we note that there’s a problem.  Creation must mean that somehow God changed because he began to relate to creation.  It suggests that far from being sovereign, God needed his creation.  We need the “B” belief that God is Trinity, so that there has been an eternal relationship to properly understand his unchanging nature.  It is only then that we can say something that the Muslim might like to believe in his heart but cannot consistently believe I his head (we might define this as a ”C” belief) that God is love.

[1]  Timothy Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids, Michigan. Zondervan, 2012).

[2] Keller, Center Church, 89.

[3] Keller, Center Church, 123.

[4] Keller, Center Church, 123.

[5]  Keller, Center Church, 123.

[6] Keller, Center Church, 124.