The Perils of Contextualization
Dr. Michael Horton writes in “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” in the latest issue of Modern Reformation magazine:
When we make a particular context normative, we essentially concede that there is a captivity from which Jesus Christ cannot liberate. This is the doctrine of historicism, which assumes that a particular belief can be explained adequately simply by defining the context in which it came to be believed. Workers accept their lot in life because they assume the capitalistic paradigm as a given, Marx argued. People hold certain convictions because of their context. Historicism became the dominant way of thinking in the culture that produced Protestant liberalism. So, for example, Rudolf Bultmann accepted as a fate the supposed impossibility of people using electric lights and radios believing in a world filled with angels and demons.
I’ve often heard sentiments like these disguised in code words like “contextualization,” “relevance,” “felt needs” and “authenticity” among “conservative,” “evangelical” foreign missionaries in the Philippines. And many Filipino pastors parrot them, saying that Christian doctrine ultimately is shaped by specific historical and sociocultural situations.
Thus, for example, Paul’s doctrine of the resurrection did not grow out of trying to make the gospel relevant to the Greeks in the Areopagus, but as Scripture truth demonstrated by historical fact. But as Horton writes, although it must have sounded “anomalous” to both Jews and Gentiles in their own contexts, Paul insisted on theological truth, even if it contradicted all previous sociological, historical thought:
As a “theory of everything,” historicism is manifestly false when applied to Christianity. Christ’s resurrection was not an idea whose time had come in the evolution of Second Temple Judaism. Although it grew out of Israel’s story, it was a radical anomaly even in the thinking of the disciples themselves. The resurrection â€“ and the gospel to which it is attached â€“ possessed sufficient power to overthrow the reigning paradigm of many, as the Spirit drew them to Christ through its proclamation. Since Jesus Christ has been raised, whatever paradigms have shaped us must be called into question. That is Paul’s point in Athens. Our context is not a fate to be accepted. The sociological “is” does not prescribe the theological “ought.” When Christian writers such as George Barna and many others assume that we must change our message, methods, or mission because of generation-whatever, we recall the words of the Great Commission…”
This is so because the gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16), and “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17), not in dance, music, puppet shows and other entertainment gimmicks, but in preaching.
Modern Reformation is available here.
Listen also to the White Horse Inn as Dr. Horton and his co-hosts attempt to answer these questions:Â “What is the proper relationship between Christianity and culture? How does one faithfully witness to Christ in our increasingly secularized society?” The new theme for 2009: “Christ in a Post-Christian Culture.”
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