by Dean Flemming
Evangelicals have a love-hate relationship with contextualization. We know we need to do it, but we’re concerned that the process will lead to syncretism.
InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL, 60515, 2005, 344 pages, $26.00.
—Reviewed by Steve Strauss, US director of SIM and visiting teacher of contextualization at Columbia International University, South Carolina.
Evangelicals have a love-hate relationship with contextualization. We know we need to do it, but we’re concerned that the process will lead to syncretism. Are there biblical patterns that can guide us toward a theologically safe and practical approach to doing contextual theology? Dean Flemming answers with a resounding “yes” and offers a comprehensive examination of how the New Testament authors themselves engaged in contextualization.
Flemming is a New Testament scholar, experienced field missionary and student of the voluminous literature on contextualization. He recognizes that every part of the New Testament is itself a contextualization of God’s eternal truth for a specific historical and cultural setting. His book unpacks the New Testament as contextual theology in Acts, Paul’s epistles (with detailed case studies from 1 Corinthians and Colossians), the Gospels and Revelation. While others have pointed out the implications of such passages as Acts 15, Paul’s sermons in Acts and the unique emphases of each Gospel for contextual theologizing, Flemming’s study of the methodology of Paul and other New Testament writers takes his insights on contextualization in the New Testament to a far deeper level. His interaction with Paul is particularly strong. Flemming exposes Paul’s deep immersion and interaction with the culture of his day, his use of current hermeneutical and expositional tools and his relevant contextualization of the Old Testament to his readers. Flemming points out that when Paul used the Old Testament, he was concerned both with contextualization and with faithfully communicating the meaning of the text. I especially appreciated Flemming’s insights on contextualization in Revelation, a subject I have not previously seen discussed.
Flemming clearly points out that the gospel is the foundation for the contextualization of New Testament authors. However, I would have liked to have seen him state more clearly that the basis for contextualization should be the whole biblical text, and not a gospel “core” within the biblical text. I also would have appreciated deeper discussion of possible distinctions in the way the New Testament authors used scripture and the way we use scripture.
The last chapter is worth the price of the book. This summary of principles for contextual theologizing gleaned from the New Testament brings together the lessons of the book and provides a balanced overview of how evangelicals should do contextual theology.
If you are teaching or seriously studying contextualization, you will want to absorb this book. It is highly recommended for anyone looking for biblical guidance for applying the biblical text to ever-changing human contexts.
Check these titles:
Bevans, Stephen. 2002. Models of Contextual Theology, rev ed. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis.
Gilliland, Dean S., ed. 1989. The Word Among Us: Contextualizing Theology for Mission Today. Dallas, Tex.: Word Publishing.
Hesselgrave, David J. and Edward Rommen. 1989. Contextualization: Meanings, Methods, and Models. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker.
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