Are we under-contextualizing the gospel? Or are we over-contextualizing it?
The second half of Acts 17 is a beautiful picture of Paul presenting the good news in a meeting of the Areopagus in Athens. It is contextualization at its best. But what is contextualization, some might ask?
image courtesy of revmocat
[Perhaps I oversimplify, but…] I’ll define contextualization as the way in which we share the truth of the gospel in any given culture. Basically, we are seeking to remove as many obstacles as possible when presenting the truth of God’s word to non-believers. That is, I should add, we remove as many obstacles as possible WITHOUT covering up, hiding, or removing the fact that the gospel itself is never going to fit into a non-Christian’s current system of belief.
And that’s where we run into problems.
Take Paul in Athens. He doesn’t begin his argument with sin and guilt, moving from there to Jesus’ death, which is the culmination of his sermon. Nor does he remove all offensive material from his discourse.
No, Paul begins with an inscription on one of the many altars in the city of Athens — an inscription which reads “To An Unkown God.” He then expounds upon how great this unknown God is, and how he’s sovereign over all the world, and how he desires for all men to seek him and reach out for him and find him.
Paul does end with an appeal to consider Jesus, though Jesus is simply referred to as the man God appointed to judge the world. The importance of Jesus’ death is never explicitly mentioned, and his resurrection is described only as proof that God desires for all men to repent before the world is judged by this guy Jesus (whose name is never actually mentioned, by the way).
After hearing this talk of judgment and resurrection, a bunch of Athenians roll their eyes and leave — though a few of them did eventually believe.
In short, Paul’s sermon would be considered a complete failure by many Christians today:
- Some would speak of Paul’s sermon as containing nothing more than a poor, gospel-less theology. “He didn’t even mention Christ dying for our sins!”
- Others would point out that Paul turned too many people off with all his talk of a final judgment and people being raised from the dead. “He should have stuck to how God is love, and God wants us to experience that love here on earth.”
Both groups are wrong.
Paul paints a beautiful picture of gospel contextualization at its best. He begins with what the Athenians know, understand, and believe — gods. And he reveals to them the one true God who desires to know and be close to the people he created. As his created people, Paul argues, they can no longer worship images they’ve created out of gold or stone. They must in fact repent of this before God judges the world. And we have proof that God indeed will judge the world, because he raised the man (through which he’ll judge us all) from the dead.
Again, consider this definition of contextualization: to present the gospel while removing as many obstacles as possible, always aware, though — and not making excuses for the fact — that the gospel itself is never going to fit into a non-Christian’s current system of belief.
Paul shares the gospel in a way Athenians can appreciate. This necessarily involves his language and terms, the chronology of his argument, and even which function of the good news he actually presents. [Paul and I both would argue for a very broad understanding of what the gospel is.]
We’ve got to avoid understanding evangelism and contextualization as do either of the groups I mentioned above. For the sake of clarity, I’ll have these groups state their beliefs more clearly:
- We define the gospel in such a narrow way that catering to the belief system of other cultures is both impossible and wrong. Oh, and also, we’d never say it out loud, but we don’t think Jesus had a very good definition of the good news, either.
- We hate offending people, so we use contextualization as our excuse to remove anything from the gospel of Jesus that might hurt someone’s feelings or turn them off to God. Basically we like to talk about love, and we define Jesus as a really good teacher of morality.
We’ve got to find a middle ground.