For those who are wondering why this post seems so different, and much longer than other posts, it is because I committed to blog three times about three different essays in a missiological book called MissionShift edited by Ed Stetzer in exchange for the free book. So here is my response to to Paul G. Hiebert’s essay entitle “The gospel in Human Contexts: Changing perceptions of contextualization.”
In this essay, Hiebert discussed different contextualization models from: minimal contextualization to uncritical contextualization to critical contextualization to his preferred model: Divine Revelation in Human contexts.
Hiebert does an excellent job of reminding us that all of us have a cultural orientation. None of us stands outside culture, yet very few take the time to consider “what aspects of our contexts come from sociocultural and historical situations, and what comes from scripture.” As a result, missionaries, have at times, been guilty of making this statement true: “one more Christian, one less Chinese.” Now in all honesty, it makes no sense, and is I think sinful, to blast missionaries for doing the best they could at the time given what they knew. But as we evaluate mission strategies, it is necessary to evaluate what the church has done well and not so well.
I think that many of us today, whether missionaries, pastors, or simply Christians living in a fairly multi-cultural America, can often forget that we live in a culture which needs to be evaluated, not thrown out or un-critically embraced. Hiebiert reminds us that
“Human contexts are both good and evil. Humans are created in the image of God, and are the object of His great love. But they are also fallen, and the societies and cultures they build are affected by the fall. There is personal and corporate sin and personal and corporate dimensions to God’s redemption.” -pg 99.
This is a simple working model, which captures both the depravity of man but also the fact that we are STILL made in the image of God. Let us not forget that both Romans 1-3, and Psalm 8 describe men/women AFTER the Fall. This is model is not new, but forms the “missiology” part of Hiebert’s triad. It is helpful for missions as well as how we live in America, celebrate its holidays, history, opportunities, cultural distinctions, etc…
I also commend most of Hiebert’s “phenomenology.” We have to study to study humans in their own contexts and own cultures. As a pastor I have to be a student of my part of West Virginia. Its different than other parts. Someone once commended a book to me on appalachia, but that book really dealt with people who live in other parts of W.V. For me to read the book, and then try to commend what is commendable and apply the gospel to that which is not-commendable and needs redemption, would not be very loving or appropriate to my congregation. I need to answer and address questions that my particular people are asking. We do this in children’s ministry, and youth ministry without even so much as a question.
The gospel is so rich and multi-faceted, and answers so many of the heart level questions people are really raising, as well as concerns that need addressing. It is the responsibility of the missionary, pastor, and anyone who seeks to minister in his/her context to know what questions are really being raised. The gospel challenges our love of security, which CAN be seen in saving for retirement at the neglect of tithing and giving to missions. But when I write the lessons for the Jr. High, I don’t mention this at all. In fact, I’ll often highlight the gospel’s offer of a new status, that the youth don’t need to be popular because the gospel is true. Security, usually, isn’t the heart question they are asking.
The gospel challenges and gives hope for them in a different way. I sat in on the youth group lesson last night so that I could study the youth in their context, hear their concerns, learn their way of thinking; and it is different than the way a 33 year-old father of two thinks. Therefore my gospel emphasis and applications (how they are affected by sin) will look different. We have to do the same type of homework for missions, aware of their struggles as well as questions.
I also think Hiebert is on to something as he seeks to involve input from the indigenous population in forming “local theology.” However, I’d probably not use that word, because I can tell from the responses that seems to conjure up fears of liberalism and the slippery descent there into. And in all honesty, these concerns are well founded due to theologies that are inconsistent with the gospel. Liberation theology, as well as health-and-wealth theology may be local, but definitely misses the gospel.
Yet Christian indigenous folk do need to work alongside the mission teams to lay forth a mission strategy in the proclamation and application of the gospel that best fits that context. This limits our own subjectivity and cultural superiority.
The danger for Heibert is that he comes very close to (if not lands on) a Barthian, Neo-orthodox understanding of scripture where the bible contains the Word of God, and becomes the Word of God to us, but is not specifically God’s complete and understandable revelation to us. For Hiebert, scripture is completely necessary, and it is our starting place. Not only that, but what matters is not so much what we think about God, but “what does God think about us?” Good stuff.
Yet Norm Geisler rightly questions exactly what Heiber means when he upholds revelation, and how we can understand it. It does us no good if there is not a universal ability to understand it. And what error would you expect Geisler, who edited a book called Inerrancy, to attack!
I definitely uphold Geilser’s concern. Heibert points out that “we dare not equate the gospel with any human theologies. Our theologies are partial human attempts to understand scripture in our particular contexts, but the gospel transcends them all.”
There clearly are cultural elements present at God’s giving of divine revelation in the Word. It’s OK for women to have short hair and men to have long hair, though some churches have actually equated the gospel and gospel sanctification to look like women trading in shorts and pants for dresses, and dudes getting rid of earrings and cutting their hair. This is the case in my area.
And there are differing theologies. Baptistic theology, Reformed Theology, Charismatic theology often interact with one another and often disagree with one another. We are all trying to be as faithfully responsible to the scriptures, even though we can’t all be correct all the time.
But the gospel story is an absolute universal story that has meaning for all people in all times. All TRUE theologies embrace the gospel and understand it, or they are not TRUE theologies. The gospel content and meaning is one which all believers can understand. It has to be or else it can’t be communicated from generation to generation. The over-arching story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation stays the same. The content of the gospel, that Jesus Christ came to deal with sin, died, rose again, forgives, reigns above, will return, are just parts of the pieces that all believers MUST believe if they are believers. What is contained in the Apostles Creed has been understood by Christians of all ages, in all cultures; THIS provides the non-negotiable content of the gospel.
You might need to emphasize the gospel’s free offer of heaven (EE in the 80’s), the personal freedom from man-made rules to justify you (like in Galatians) inclusion into a new family (communities of high numbers of broken families and singles), reconcilliation of enemies (like in Rwanda), or how it changes your behavior and sexual ethic (like Corinithians). However, the content of what we believe is clear.
In the end, I appreciated Hiebert’s direction and concern. I sincerely appreciated his freedom to recognize our own biases and the desire to limit them. I do hope he has a voice in helping us move forward in contextualization in missions, but that Geisler does as well.