Contextualization

The whole idea of contextualization of Scripture and the Gospel message has been around for a while now. It goes by that name as well as others but the basic principle is that in order to communicate a message we must put it into a context that the listener will understand. That can mean a linguistic context or the context of a particular medium or context as in location and method.

Now, I understand that in order for effective communication to occur, there must be a common understanding on both sides of the conversation. The terms that are used to carry ideas from speaker to listener must mean the same thing to both individuals if the message is to be transmitted reliably and accurately. However, we must recognize and acknowledge that we don’t understand words instinctively; the first time we encounter a word, it must be explained and defined for us in terms we can grasp. As a teacher, I understand that principle well; if explanation were not necessary, I wouldn’t have the job I do.

But there’s a world of difference between explaining the message and changing the message; it sure seems that contextualizing changes the message. A couple scenarios for example: Bread to Jesus’ contemporaries was an essential staple food; fish is an essential staple to the Inuit. Since the Inuit can’t grow grain and have little concept of bread as a staple, we must change Jesus’ words to be “I am the fish of life” so that it will have the same meaning to the Inuit as it did to first-century Jews. Since inhabitants of Polynesia never see snow and have no concept or experience of what it is like, we must change God’s word through Isaiah to read “they shall be white as lily of the valley”, although we can leave that word alone for the Inuit.

I see two significant problems with this method either of Scripture translation or Gospel presentation. The first problem is obvious: when we change “bread” to “fish” or “snow” to “lily of the valley”, the linguistic link between original and translation is broken. The translator has selected one facet of meaning of the original word and transferred that narrow meaning to the receptor word. Although communication with one particular language group might be enhanced by that act, at the same time a wall has just been erected with other language groups because that one-to-one correspondence has been lost. I know, idioms and various figures of speech cannot be completely translated; but I think the above described method goes far beyond dealing with inherent limitations in language.

To do this in translating Scripture, at least to some degree, not only changes the Word of God, it alters the words of God. It also conveys the idea that God’s Word as He spoke it is unable to communicate conceptually to every language group without alteration by translators; that, my friend, is a dangerous position to hold. But, you say, if they don’t understand the concepts then what value is the Bible to them? Which brings me to the second problem.

To maintain that the only way an individual can understand God’s Word is if it is translated into a context they understand is very condescending; it implies that the individual is either unteachable or drastically limited in his or her ability to learn. To maintain that we must present the Gospel message in context in order to preserve the receptor culture is to overlook or minimize the purpose of the Gospel message.

The design intent behind the Gospel is that it will change the culture; if it doesn’t, then it is a false gospel. The Gospel changes people and since it changes people they will change the culture in which they live. The idea that we must preserve all cultures at all costs is certainly not found in Scripture; in fact, what we see there is quite to the contrary. A study of history clearly demonstrates that the faithful preaching of the Gospel from the Word of God civilizes barbarians and changes cultures.

Perhaps the clearest example of what needs to be done in these circumstances – unreached peoples or postmodern culture – is provided for us in Nehemiah 8 by Ezra, the scribe. Ezra stood before the people with the Word of God in a language they no longer used or understood well. The Bible was in Hebrew but the people had become assimilated into the Persian culture and adopted its language. The scenario painted for us in Nehemiah 8 is that of Ezra reading from God’s Word in Hebrew and then, along with Levite helpers, giving the sense and helping the people to understand the reading. Ezra didn’t change the message; he faithfully read it from God’s Word; then he and his helpers taught the people what it said and what it meant.

To the Scripture and the message is to wantonly disregard an ideal teaching opportunity; sure, the explanation must be in the context, but the message must remain as faithful to the very Word of God.

By His grace,
Sundoulos

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