Who’s afraid of Big Bad Contextualization?

…or the Calvinists who cried “Wolf!”

My Christian blog reading is pretty varied. I check out Emergents who want to tell a story that lost focus on the Main Character. I sit at the feet of Calvinist who believe “faith, hope and love remain and the greatest of these is JOHN PIPER!” I get it from all sides and disagree with just about all of them at some point or another.

Recently, one of the blogs I read started a series on contextualization and why it is unbiblical or something to that effect. (If you care to view them all: Intro, Paul on Mars Hill, Paul and Culture, Recap, Paul and Conversation, Paul and Contextualization, there’s more to come) To get the full context (oops!) of my comments to follow, you really should read the points made there.

It seems Phil Johnson from Pyromaniacs basic point is this, “I agree that we have to contextualize in that we must translate and illustrate Biblical truths, but I think contextualization means all the bad stuff I can think of and don’t like.” So on that point, it is fairly difficult to respond to his thoughts. I, for one, while I am a whole-hearted supporter of contextualization, cringe at and am repulsed by those who would water down the message of Christ, the cross, sin and grace to make it “soft and nice” for the audience.

The main thrust of his argument is to use the passage most cited by contextualization supporters (Acts 17) and demonstrate how Paul is not dong what we think he is doing. The reason why it takes Johnson six (seventh to come) long posts to explain why Paul didn’t contextualize the Gospel message for those at Mars Hill is because it takes that long to argue around the basic, plain context (oops!) of the text. In Acts 13, Paul preaches to a synagogue full of Jews and others who worshipped God. He quotes Old Testament scripture left and right, building off of the spiritual foundation of the listener. They knew the Old Testament so he used the OT to point to Christ.

When he goes to Athens in Acts 17 and speaks on Mars Hill, how many verses of the OT does Paul quote? None, that I see. But he quotes at least two of their poets and mentions a statue they have in their city to the “unknown god.” Did Paul water down the Gospel, of course not. But he did use their culture as a starting off point for his presentation of the Gospel.

So how does Johnson explain away Paul using the religious teachings of those in culture when presenting the true Gospel? Paul was using sarcasm. “Paul was using sanctified sarcasm when he started out by observing how religious they were.” Do you realize how hard sarcasm is to pick up in blogs written yesterday? We are supposed to believe that the secret, real meaning of Paul’s message is hidden behind first century sarcasm?

In his main diatribes against contextualization, Johnson uses bait-and-switch and expects everyone not to know. First, we should know and understand first century Jewish sarcasm, but we shouldn’t see past the rhetoric ploy of equating everything and then lambasting the worst examples.

He starts off his post on Paul and Culture with this:

Read (and believe) enough of the trendy books and blogs that talk about missional living, and you’ll get the distinct impression that fitting into this world’s cultures is vastly more important —and a much more effective evangelistic strategy —than knowing the gospel message and communicating it with boldness, precision, and clarity.

There’s no middle ground here. You are either more concerned with knowing the world (all you contextualizers) or you are more concerned knowing the Gospel. You can’t know both and use both. Nope, not possible. Thanks for the false dilemma all the same, but I’ll work at knowing what the Bible teaches first and foremost, but I won’t be ignorant of the culture swirling around me.

Much of the debate originated from bloggers reacting to John MacArthur railing against contextulaization and explaining why all preachers should wear ties. Apparently, the irony is lost on MacArthur and those like him that his tie or their three-point sermons are all part of a culture and are in some ways contextualization. The only problem is that they are more than likely contextualized for a culture that left our planet 50 years ago and even then was only relevant to a certain segment of the population.

It’s not that I vehemently disagree with Phil on this issue. It just seems like he and others are dead set on disagreeing with me and anyone else. I agree that we must be careful not to allow cultural context to be the deciding factor on everything. We must also be wary of parts of culture that are not redeemable and should not be tied in any way to the Gospel message. But none of that is required when engaging in contextulaization. Neither will the problems disappear if we simply strike the word from our Christian lexicon.

What troubles me the most with these discussion is it makes us blind to the real risks. When everybody who is not exactly like you is emergent or heretical, then nobody is emergent or heretical. When you make Tim Keller, Rick Warren and Mark Driscoll the same as Brian McLaren and others who have embraced doctrine outside of orthodox Christianity, you have ceased being reasonable and have become irrational. You become the boy who cries “wolf!” just to hear himself and cause a stir. But eventually when actual heresy creeps toward the church, no one wants to listen because you used up your voice yelling at a contextualized straw man wearing a t-shirt.

Other responses to the series: Parchment and Pen and Tall Skinny Kiwi

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Aaron Earls

Christian. Husband. Daddy. Writer. Online editor for Facts & Trends Magazine. Fan of quick wits, magical wardrobes, brave hobbits, time traveling police boxes & Blue Devils.