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Contextualization and Syncretism: Navigating Cultural Currents

by Gailyn Van Rheenen, ed.

Discussions of contextualization among evangelicals inevitably provoke a niggling question: How far can we go in making the gospel relevant within human cultures and contexts without giving away too much of the gospel in the process?

William Carey Library, 1605 E. Elizabeth Street, Pasadena, CA 91104, 2006, 343 pages, $14.99.

—Reviewed by Dean Flemming, lecturer in New Testament and Intercultural Communication, European Nazarene College, Büsingen, Germany.

Discussions of contextualization among evangelicals inevitably provoke a niggling question: How far can we go in making the gospel relevant within human cultures and contexts without giving away too much of the gospel in the process? In practice, one person’s contextualization is often another person’s syncretism.

The contributors to number thirteen in the Evangelical Missiological Society series have done us a valuable service in tackling such issues head-on. Although the title of the study is Contextualization and Syncretism, most of the chapters spotlight the latter. If the book’s editor is right that the study of syncretism has been a major gap within missiological literature—and I believe he is—then this emphasis is surely appropriate.

Fifteen essays by evangelical missiologists offer the reader a rich variety of perspectives on syncretism and its relationship to contextualization. The book has three parts: two foundational sections—Defining the Issues and Theological Reflections on Syncretism—followed by nine case studies that explore the subject from different angles.

Syncretism is a hard term to pin down, and it is not surprising that no single understanding of it operates throughout the book. Some of the essays focus on accommodation with non-Christian religious worldviews and practices. Others stress the blending of Christian faith with the beliefs and behaviors of the dominant culture. Van Rheenen, for example, calls for Western churches to overcome the syncretisms of modernity, often embraced by evangelicals, if they hope to authentically contextualize the gospel for a postmodern world. One of the more stimulating case studies argues that syncretism arises not only from outside influences, but also from within the Christian faith itself. Specifically, it describes how legalism within the Romanian evangelical Church has morphed into syncretism by substituting the gospel of grace with measuring up to church rules and traditions.

The authors are not afraid to wrestle with prickly issues, such as whether followers of Jesus who remain within the Muslim community and continue Islamic practices are contextualizing or syncretizing the faith. Likewise, Scott Moreau raises important questions about the extent to which certain forms of spiritual warfare might be syncretistic.

As is usually the case in a collection of essays, there is some unevenness in the quality of the contributions. In addition, the biblical and theological basis for our understanding of syncretism could have used more attention. Nevertheless, this book makes a significant and needed contribution to the Church’s reflection on contextualization and syncretism. It will prove a useful resource, not only to cross-cultural workers, but to anyone concerned with recognizing tendencies toward syncretism, wherever they may be found.

Check these titles:
Arnold, Clinton E. 1996. The Colossian Syncretism: The Interface between Christianity and Folk Belief at Colossae. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker.

Flemming, Dean. 2005. Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Mission. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press.

Gilliland, Dean S. ed. 1989. The Word Among Us: Contextualizing Theology for Mission Today. Dallas, Tex.: Word.

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