contextualization and paul in athens

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:

  1. 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!”
  2. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.  

[More on contextualization on Monday.]

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3 Comments

Filed under evangelism, missions

3 responses to “contextualization and paul in athens

  1. [quote] 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.[/quote]

    Perhaps even trade out that word “belief” and replace it with “worldview”?

    Contextualization is always an interesting topic and it is even more interesting when you are faced with the responsibility of doing it.
    Last summer I had the opportunity to “present the Gospel” to an indigenous tribe in Guatemala while I was on a STM. These people had no frame of reference of the Bible, no “Christian history” and no idea about the God that we worship. The STM members and the missionaries became a little impatient when I decided to do as Paul and talked about how our God was greater than the rain and sun gods that the tribe worshipped and that our God created rain and the sun… etc etc.

    It’s ironic that good-hearted Christians want to share the gospel with people who have no exposure to Jesus Christ but do not understand that the Gospel message transmitted in the Western Christian context is either misunderstood or dismissed because it makes no sense to the receiving culture due to their worldview.

    I always teach that in Asian cultures, the concept of “sin” (that Western Christians understand) is non-existent and instead, missionaries should start with the concept of shame and go from there.

    – – – –

    I have heard the Gospel contextualized to the Vietnamese in an interesting way as the pastor hit on two very key and important belief systems in Viet culture:
    1. The Vietnamese have worshipped “the Sky” since the beginning of time but have always been fearful of him.
    2. The Vietnamese are have for thousands of years tried to live in “the Dao” (the Way) or have lived lives in search of it.

    This pastor meticulously presented the God of scripture as the true God of the sky who created heaven and earth and is not a being to be woefully afraid of. And that although Buddha and Confucius were individuals who searched for the Way, it is only Jesus Christ who claims that He is the Way. And He is the Way because He is Truth, He is God.

    That was definitely my first exposure to how contextualization was done right without diluting the divinity of Jesus Christ and tapping into the worldview of a people group to present the Gospel.

  2. The example of Paul’s proclamation in Athens is the most succinct example of contextualization in the New Testament, but I would argue the four gospels are the best example. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all present the message of Jesus to different audiences (contexts), thus we see their diverse emphases.

    Modern attempts to chop the Gospels up and arrange them chronologically, as though the Holy Spirit did not know what he was doing are tragic in my studied opinion. Our failure to appreciate the value of healthy contextualization reflects our blindness to the fact that what we demand others proclaim is actually a contextualized presentation that we expect because it is the one that connected with our worldview.

  3. davidbawks

    wow, so I just found your blog through onesimus online, he was one of my profs, and I also just posted something on contextualization in Acts 17:
    http://davidbawks.wordpress.com/2011/09/27/acts-17-and-contextualization/
    I completely agree with you that this is a good example of how to contextualize yourself, and its true that if you look at some contextualization models being advocated today, then Jesus’ ministry would not stand up very well…

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