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Putting ‘contextualisation’ in context

Issues surrounding contextualisation have rumbled on amongst conservative evangelicals for the last 18 months. How should it affect preaching and presenting the gospel? My theological college co-survivor William Taylor recently took to the airwaves on the St Helen’s Preaching Matters website on just this subject. This has generated yet more rumbling so perhaps we should tease out more closely what is at stake.

William’s point is that the gospel of salvation through Christ from the wrath of God is relevant to every culture; Christ’s gospel does not need to be ‘made relevant’ so we need clear communication rather than contextualisation of the gospel. Faced with the reality of death, people can understand ‘at the drop of a hat’ that we suffer from living in a fallen world under God’s wrath. As such, William suggested we should be beavers with the text but magpies with the world, picking up glittering prizes here and there. As support, the video cites David Helm’s book Expositional Preaching (published 2014 by Crossway in the 9Marks series) as well as Broughton Knox in his The Everlasting God (my edition is Matthias Media 2009).

Several things have haunted us in this debate which hinder us from thinking clearly and biblically. To begin with, there is terminology. We use the word ‘contextualise’, but frequently without really defining what we mean. Yet when we are told that we should communicate clearly rather than contextualise, in other words to do one thing rather than another, we need to have a clear idea about what it is we’re supposed not to be doing. It is therefore very unfortunate that the video does not define what contextualisation is so that one could tell when one is ‘communicating’ (which is ok) rather than ‘contextualising’ (which apparently is not). It is also unfortunate because there is indeed something important lying behind William’s posting and this piece aims to clarify where concern about ‘contextualisation’ is well-taken.

Thus, we need to distinguish between different senses of contextualisation. On the one hand there is contextualisation of a passage in the Bible understood as reading that passage in its context: broadly, that means the context of its chapter, of its book and of the whole Bible. Since the Bible is inspired by the one Spirit, we are bound to do such contextualising work. This should not be controversial. On the other hand contextualisation is also used differently, as when applying a passage from the Bible to a particular context – for example raising the question whether a legal tax avoidance scheme actually manifests the sin of greed.

Now the video says it wants to ‘echo’ David Helm in Expositional Preaching. It quotes him and suggests I read him. I want to do that and see if he has been fairly understood. Naturally we start by putting that video’s quotation of him in its original context. It comes from page 16 of chapter 1, which is entitled ‘Contextualisation’. Helm’s opening sentence for chapter 1 is: ‘Contextualization is essential [emphasis added] to good exposition’ (p. 15). He cites Augustine as a preacher who does this well, adding:

I love what Augustine’s attitude toward contextualization teaches us about its relationship to preaching. His surprising ability to connect to his listeners was the result of his general interest in life; it was not a calculated outcome brought about by harvesting cultural references in hopes of coming off as relevant. This chapter will address the problems that emerge when contextualization of the latter sort takes over the preacher when he is preparing his message. (Expositional Preaching, p. 15)

So, Helm thinks that contextualisation can be good or bad, and that we should – indeed, must – contextualise well. Helm develops this in the paragraph immediately before the one the video quotes:

What do I mean by contextualization in preaching? In simple terms, contextualization in preaching is communicating the gospel message in ways that are understandable or appropriate to the listener’s cultural context. In other words, contextualization is concerned with us and now. It is committed to relevance and application for today, which is why I will offer a constructive approach to the topic in chapter 4. (Expositional Preaching, p. 16)

Several helpful things emerge. First, Helm does define contextualisation and for Helm it is not a question of communicating ‘rather than’ contextualising. Good communication involves contextualisation. It is not an either/or.

Secondly, good contextualisation does not detract from or tame Scripture, rather it applies and aims to make Scripture sovereign in particular settings and contexts. Helm does use the vocabulary of relevance.

Thirdly, Helm thinks good contextualisation is important enough to spend a quarter of his book on how to do it properly, and another quarter of his book on how to avoid doing it improperly. This suggests that contextualisation is both a necessary task and one requiring training and thought, because we can get this necessary task wrong. Perhaps I should run a module on it.

Fourthly, we realise that, when put into context, Helm is not speaking in the paragraph quoted on the video about contextualisation generally, but bad contextualisation.

These basic considerations are then worked through throughout the book, with a consistent stress on the need for good contextualisation (e.g. pp. 87, 98, 104). Notably, in chapter 4 Helm takes us to Paul at Athens in Acts 17 and cites this as an example of good contextualisation (p. 98). This is very telling since obviously one issue amongst us over the last year has been whether Paul’s Areopagus speech is contextualisation: Helm thinks it is. However, as he does this, he alerts us to something. Paul preaches the truth, but not everyone believes.

This takes us to the vexed issue of whether people do indeed understand gospel truths ‘at the drop of a hat’. Manifestly, in Athens in Acts 17 not all do. This takes us to a further distinction, concerning what we mean when we say a communication is clear.

We need to distinguish between clear in the sense of ‘objective clarity’ (where any competent fair-minded hearer will understand what is said) and ‘subjective clarity’ (where my bias or ignorance may prevent me understanding what a competent fair-minded hearer would). Thus it is objectively clear to speak of Christ’s incarnation as a hypostatic union of two natures in their full inseparable but distinguishable integrities: but that formula is, sadly, not at all subjectively clear to many people. I do well to remember that issue of subjective clarity when I talk at a church weekend rather than lecture to theology post-grads.

Now, I suspect some readers will have cold feet at the word ‘distinguish’, feeling perhaps this is typical slippery systematic theologian stuff. So why make this distinction? Because Paul makes us. In Romans 1:18-20 he teaches that the truths of God’s power and deity are manifest (objectively clear), but that humans do not see them, not because the truths are open to rational dispute, but because we as a race suppress the truth (subjectively not clear). The Bible teaches me that as a race we will not see theological truths ‘at the drop of a hat’ because sin darkens minds as well as hearts. That is why we need the Spirit to illuminate our minds to see the truth for what it is, as 2 Corinthians 4:4-6 teaches.

Hence we have to be cautious about saying people will understand ‘at the drop of a hat’. Take the example the video gives of death. Human death tells people, the video says, ‘at the drop of a hat’ about humanity under the wrath of God. The difficulties are obvious. It is perfectly true that Romans 5:12 teaches that human death tells us about a humanity under God’s condemnation for sin. But if the video were right, the wrath of God would be one of the most universally accepted truths of all, since death is so prominent in human experience.

In fact, while death is the subject of much anguish and thought, the wrath of God towards humanity to which it bears witness is widely denied, ignored or just unknown. In fact, the bible teaches us to expect just this suppression, because – Romans 1:18-20 – we are truth-suppressors. If the great truths such as God’s power and deity and his wrath manifested by death really were self-evident facts to us, then clearly the human mind would not have been captivated by sin, the Spirit’s work of illumination would be redundant and the rationalists would be right after all: all that is needed for gospel proclamation is a good logical argument that can be accepted at the drop of a hat. The bible shows us this is wishful thinking which understates the captivity of sin.

Helm recognises this, citing Acts 17 again. One may contextualise as Paul did and the stony hearts and minds of one’s listeners may still not respond. Helm rightly does not treat contextualisation as a magic bullet. This, I think, chimes in with the better-placed misgivings of the video: the fear of the feeling that says a good, catchy, contextual reference will bring home the bacon and that hard expositional work takes second place. Counter-intuitively, this magic bullet approach is all too like the ‘drop of a hat’ approach in that both tend to be rationalist and do not take the captivity of sin seriously enough. We are inclined to suppress the truth, even when phrased in apt contextual terms.

This takes us more generally to bad contextualisation. Helm rightly warns us against a contextualisation that either substitutes my best thoughts about culture for the biblical text or a contextualisation that assimilates the text to the culture. Here the references in the video to Broughton Knox are pertinent (p. 39 of my edition). Knox is not speaking against contextualisation in itself. The context makes it clear that what he fears is silencing what the bible says about judgment, a process of assimilation (see p. 40). At its best, the video mirrors these fears, when, one way or another, the bible has been silenced through assimilation or substitution. That is a valid fear about bad contextualisation, and we do well to heed it.

However, the good contextualisation Helm has in view does not attempt to silence the bible through substituting my own thoughts or by assimilating the bible to an audience’s culture. Rather the reverse: good contextualisation aims in Helm’s view to make the bible genuinely sovereign by applying the bible as fully as possible. Contextualisation done well shows where a bible teaching I might ignore on the grounds that my situation is different in fact does apply to my situation. Let me quote Helm again:

Contextualization helps us to see what controls the hearts of those around us. Simply put, if the application of our message serves to capture the hearts of our people for God, we need to possess a heart awareness of our people. We must perceive, by careful watching, their internally held values and commitments, especially those things that keep them from living lives that are rightly ordered in worship and obedience to Christ. (Expositional Preaching, p. 104)

To this extent, by all means let us be beavers with the text. But rather than magpies, perhaps we should return to the bible’s image of word-ministers as shepherds. And good shepherds know the condition of their sheep and know about their hearts, not in order to collude with those hearts, but precisely in order to care and cure them with the Word of God. And that is good contextualisation.

Photo: Elvert Barnes

Mike Ovey

Mike Ovey
29 January 2016

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