by Josphat K. Yego
Missiologists, theologians, Christian education directors and church administrators continually face new issues. The latest issue is contextualization.
Missiologists, theologians, Christian education directors and church administrators continually face new issues. In the early days, the issues concerned mainly pioneering in the unreached world. Those problems were followed by questions about when and how the local churches could be given independence by the founding missions. The latest issue is contextualization.
According to the Webster dictionary, the word means, "Weave together, knit or woven together close, firm." According to the Random House dictionary, it is defined as, "Logic, philosophical definition of word or symbol by explaining the meaning of the phrase or statement in which it occurs." Neither one of these definitions is helpful for our purpose. I understand the word to mean making something applicable to the life situation in which one finds himself. It means to clarify to the people, or make it applicable to their particular situation.
This article is not an answer to the contextualization problem for missionaries, but I think it will help us ask questions about what contextualization can do and the dangers that may result from it. First, is there a need for contextualization? Does it have a purpose? Will it help the people? Yes, it will help the people. Using the above definition, it simply means the never-changing word of God in ever-changing modes of relevance. It is making the gospel concepts or ideals relevant in a given situation. With this in mind, then, I see contextualization not only as right, but as necessary. We should not try to turn all men into one nation, but there should be African Christians, Christian Indians, American Christians, whose unity lies in their Christian faith. Unity in Christ produces Christians whose faith transcends all their local and racial differences.
If the purpose of contextualization is relevance to the particular situation, then it is needed in several areas. For example, in the matter of dress, we need no longer put on collars, but instead "kitenge," or the Nigerian gown. There should also be the contextualization of hymns. Ignore the German and English tunes and use African tunes; use indigenous and easily acquired instruments: drums, cymbals, and corn stalk instruments. The same thing applies to the sermons and the languages. The language should not only be the one that can be understood by the congregation, but the theological terminology should be what the common people can understand. This does not mean that the theological meanings must be sacrificed at the altar of comprehension.
This leads us to the next point. Truly, there is a need for making the word of God relevant, but the relevance should not be employed to the point where the Scriptures lose their original meaning. The Scriptures should remain what they were meant to mean. One could contextualize to the point where there is no difference between the Scripture and the newspaper.
There should be contextualization, but it needs wise judgment. There is a need for educated, spiritually mature theologians, missiologists, Christian educators, pastors, and others. They must understand when and where contextualization is applicable and what the consequences will be.
Is contextualization biblical? It is difficult these days to say what is biblical and what is not biblical, due to various interpretations. However, if we take the definition, "making the word of God relevant," it is biblical. There is contextualization in Christ’s teachings. In his teaching and preaching, Jesus used parables and illustrations so the people could identify with what he was saying. When he was near a farm, he talked about some things right there at the farm. While in the province of Judea, where there was a vineyard, he talked about the true vine.
Contextualization is part and parcel of the New Testament. The apostles contextualized. They applied their messages to the local languages and cultures of the societies they were involved in. Contextualization was the process the early apostles went through so that the people perceived the gospel to be excitingly relevant to their daily struggles and encounters. The same applies to today’s preaching. One cannot preach the same way in Africa as he would in an Indian village in Asia, or while in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The New Testament has given us the pattern of cultural adaptation. The incarnation itself is a form of contextualization. Christ came to live with us, to make it possible for us to be redeemed. The unapproachable Yahweh, whom no man has seen and lived, has become the object of seeing and touching through the incarnation. Christ humiliated himself to adopt into this life. Because of this, I can say that contextualization is biblical and also there is a need for it. At the same time, I must emphasize that the theological meanings must not be sacrificed at the altar of relevance.
There are dangers to contextualization. Everything has its dangers and it is worth noting a few. We are living in an age of identity crisis. In the Western world, there is a cry for the old good days. In the developing countries, there is a growth o£ nationalism. There is the persistent urge for cultural revolution in Africa. There is an urge to go back to "our" customs which in my view is good. People should not adopt other cultures blindly. There are political pressures in some countries on this issue. The most popular cry is for syncretism, whereby, in order to fully adopt the new concept, there must be an intermingling with existing patterns. The question is, Can the feeling for nationalism distort the understanding of the Scriptures due to contextualization?
It is common knowledge that both language and culture change. Will scriptural meaning change according to the times, like culture and language, due to contextualization, because each generation will have its own culture and will contextualize to suit its goals and needs? This may sound like an oversimplification, but could this happen? Due to contextualization words will change: Will these words ever mean the same thing? Could one contextualize without the gospel itself? What standards should we use when we contextualize?
What does contextualization do to the biblical languages? If we can contextualize, is there a need for studying biblical languages? After all, the New Testament Greek is koinae Greek and not the classical, and by our definition and understanding of contextualization it as not applicable. Can a pastor still encourage his people to study original languages? Do we need them anymore? What will contextualization do to certain words and their meanings?
Finally, through contextualization, literally, different people understand Scriptures differently due to cultural interpretation. Where will we be meeting? Where is our meeting place if we contextualize everything? For example, in a matriarchal society, where they follow the mother’s line and where they respect mothers more than fathers, will we change God to be mother? If we really have to contextualize in the ,full sense of the word, then we have to change.
I have raised a number of valid questions about contextualization. I have not done very much in answering them, for these are tough questions. Some of my examples are perhaps oversimplified, but from the way things are going it is possible for things like this to happen. I have had to wrestle with these issues as I have studied various articles on contextualization. So far, to my knowledge, no one has addressed himself specifically to these matters. However, I think becoming increasingly aware of problems does have real value by itself, because it will help us to find the answers.
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