What Is Contextualization?
Dr. Kevin Oberlin, Global Connections Coordinator
During the month of March, the CGO is publishing articles on the topic of contextualization. This first article overviews key issues and definitions of contextualization in missions. Contextualization takes a great deal of discernment and thoughtfulness. The purpose of this article is simply to provide background information and “context” for subsequent blog articles.
Is contextualization simply a fancy buzzword thrown around by missiologists? What does the word mean? If contextualization can lead to syncretism or confusing the gospel with culture, wouldn’t it be better to avoid contextualizing altogether?
There is a tremendous difference between how groups like the World Council of Churches and evangelicals use the term contextualization. D. A. Carson observes: The [liberal] assigns control to the context; the operative term is praxis, which serves as a controlling grid to determine the meaning of Scripture. The [evangelical] assigns the control to Scripture, but cherishes the “contextualization” rubric because it reminds us the Bible must be thought about, translated into and preached in categories relevant to the particular cultural context.
There are obviously major differences between how evangelicals and the WCC use the term contextualization; interestingly, there are differences in definition within the narrower spectrum of evangelicalism as well. For example, Grant Osborne sees contextualization as simply the application of biblical truth: “The theory has now been provided by missiologists, and it is important to note that what they call ‘contextualization’ is identical with what homileticians call ‘application.’”
David Hesselgrave emphasizes the idea of communication when he writes, “Contextualization can be thought of as the attempt to communicate the message of the person, works, word, and will of God in a way that is faithful to God’s revelation, especially as it is put forth in the teachings of Holy Scripture, and that is meaningful to respondents in their respective cultural and existential contexts.” Moreau builds on Hesselgrave, defining contextualization as “the process whereby Christians adapt the forms, content, and praxis of the Christian faith so as to communicate it to the minds and hearts of people with other cultural backgrounds. The goal is to make the Christian faith as a whole--not only the message but also the means of living out of our faith in the local setting--understandable.”
Finally, Dean Flemming views contextualization as an incarnational manifestation of the Gospel within a culture. He writes, “I take contextualization to refer to the dynamic and comprehensive process by which the gospel is incarnated within a concrete historical or cultural situation.”
Paul Hiebert has devised a pattern for “critical contextualization.” The missionary goes through a four-step process in critical contextualization.
While even evangelicals do not all agree on a definition or methodology for contextualization, it is important to note that ultimately, proper biblical contextualization will still offend people, but for the right reasons, while unbiblical contextualization leads to syncretism. Good contextualization seeks to remove all unnecessary hindrances so that only the gospel itself becomes the offense.
As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3:18-24: “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God. For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.
 Donald A. Carson, “Church and Mission: Reflections on Contextualization and the Third Horizon” in The Church in the Bible and the World: An International Study, ed. D. A. Carson, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987), 220.
 The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1991), 318.
 Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 143.
 A. Scott Moreau, Contextualization in World Missions: Maping and Assessing Evangelical Models (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2012), 36.
 Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Mission (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2005), 19.
 Paul Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 88-91
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The CGO Blog
Written by the CGO staff, with guest posts from students and other faculty/staff at BJU to provide thought leadership for missions in a new millennium.