by James 0. Buswell, III
In 1957 an Indian Christian church leader made the startling statement that, with the exception of scattered local instances, in 150 years it has not been possible to build a fully indigenous Christian church in India.
In 1957 an Indian Christian church leader made the startling statement that, with the exception of scattered local instances, in 150 years it has not been possible to build a fully indigenous Christian church in India. Missionary literature over the past twenty-five years reflects a tremendous effort to accomplish consolidation under Indian auspices. Nevertheless, there persist widespread conditions that characterize organized Indian Christianity as anything but indigenous. In 1969, John V. Taylor, General Secretary of the Church Missionary Society, wrote:
The Indian Church desperately needs to put off her institutionalism, for it is that which is western through and through … 2
In 1970 Sabapathy Kulandran, Bishop of the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India wrote:
… modern Indian Christian theologians. have one handicap, and that is their education and outlook are Western -oriented. This is the result of no one having paid heed to the advice . . . fairly early in the century that theological education in India should be oriented to the country.3
One of the important consequences of the foreign quality of Christianity in India and in many parts of the non-western world is the limitation thus placed upon the ability of the local Christians to propagate the gospel among their own people. This lies at the heart of the need for contextualization of the gospel everywhere it is preached, and is particularly hard for us western Christians to comprehend.
Herbert C. Jackson, Director of the Missionary Research Library in New York, in one of the best of the early studies advocating the contextualization of theology, offered striking examples of prominent Indian Christians who, having learned of their new faith only in terms of its Judaic-Hellenic expression, now experience great difficulty in communicating Christianity effectively to those in their own land.4
The failure to relinquish the church to indigenous cultural forms, and its leadership to native individuals may be explained in terms of the unfamiliar cultural context within which missionaries were working, and the attitude toward this context which too long prevailed among them. As late as the 1950’s this was demonstrated in a forceful way in the astounding results of a survey conducted and reported by the Rev. Henry H. Presler of the Leonard Theological College in Jabalpur, India. In order to study missionary opinion on the question: "What need a Christian worker in India know of Hinduism and Islam?", he recorded approximately five thousand personal conversations. According to Presler, "Almost half the number of Christian workers now active in India say that "nothing need be known of the non-Christian faiths."5
We have learned increasingly since then that we must sit at the feet of the culture, so to speak, and patiently learn as much as possible about it before trying to undertake any formal evangelism. It is true that to some considerable extent the term "convert" in India became synonymous with "outcastes." It is not without significance that Christianity’s major advances in the era of world-wide missionary activity, with few exceptions, has been among primitive tribal peoples, and, in civilized societies, among the lowest social classes. For as foreign missionaries we have always been better prepared to teach the non-literate and heal their bodies while addressing our evangelism to them through the correction and alleviation of what seemed to us their more obvious evils than we have been to live with and learn from them, in the face of culture-shock, reserving our evangelism until it could be addressed to the best minds in terms of their own ethos as an acceptable and culturally relevant alternative.
As in so many of the principles being urged upon the present generation of missionaries, this one is not new. It was eloquently expressed in almost the same terms in the account of the world missionary conference in Edinburgh of 1910:
Men who have to preach the gospel to minds to which its initial presuppositions are completely strange, what a knowledge should they have of those minds, with their interests, their traditions, their beliefs, and their whole ethos!6
This is the method based upon an attitude of trust, not only in the integrity and coherence of the target culture to sustain the contextualization of Christianity but in the native Christian leaders’ capacity to be directed by the Holy Spirit. Roland Allen wrote early in this century:
We have educated our converts to put us in the place of Christ. We believe that it is the Holy Spirit of Christ which inspires and guides us; we cannot believe that the same spirit will guide and inspire them. The consequence is that we view any independent action on the part of our new converts with anxiety and fear.7
Today we are being told that "contextualization" is the answer. What exactly is it? And is it really something new?
Contextualization may be broken down into different kinds. many of them have already had a respectable history, both in missiology and in field applications. Furthermore, the proliferation of terms and labels for the aspects, conditions, processes, and methods in question might have been avoided if the many authors responsible for them had been better acquainted with established terminology covering the dynamics of culture contact and change. Some degree of standardization may, I hope, yield increased familiarity with the ideas, and promote a wider acceptance of their application and of the methods involved. I propose to break down the term into the following three categories: Contextualization of the Witness, Contextualization of the Church and its Leadership, and Contextualization of the Word.
CONTEXTUALIZATION OF THE WITNESS: INCULTURATION
For the cross-cultural witness a major problem is to make the gospel message intelligible in the idiom of the language and culture of the receivers. Thus the witness is handling a message that is essentially supracultural (i.e., non-cultural) in at least two different cultural media, his own and that of the receiver. For the process of "contextualizing" the presentation of the supracultural elements of the gospel within the linguistic and other cultural forms and social institutions of a culture with at least some degree of transformation of those forms and institutions, I like the term "inculturation. " For the missionary there is always a two-fold dependency in this process: dependency upon the counsel and wisdom of adult converts, and dependency upon the leading and insights given by the Holy Spirit.
Professor G. Linwood Barney of the Alliance School of Theology and Mission originated the term. "The crucial question, " he writes, "would seem to be: ‘Can the supracultural find adequate and meaningful forms of expression in any culture?’"8 The answer being in the affirmative, Barney introduces the term by saying:
The essential nature of these supracultural components should neither be lost nor distorted but rather secured and interpreted clearly through the guidance of the Holy Spirit in "inculturating" them into this new culture … 9 Thus a relevant expression of the God-man relationship can preserve the integrity of a culture but in no way needs to compromise the essence and nature of the supracultural.10
Dr. Barney’s term is favored here not only because it denotes what the varied usages of other terms seem to intend, and requires no move in the direction of the ever-present danger of syncretism, but also because it is aptly comparable to other established anthropological terminology, such as enculturation, the socialization of a person within his own culture, and acculturation, the process of culture change resulting from the contact of two (or more) cultures, and the state of a changed person or society which has sustained the impact of such a process.
CONTEXTUALIZATION OF THE CHURCH AND ITS LEADERSHIP: INDIGENIZATION
Many times "contextualization" has been introduced in contrast to "indigenization." I cannot accept the suggestion that contextualization expresses "a deeper concept than indigenization ever does,"11 nor can I quite believe that "This new terminology . . . may also be the promise of the long-awaited end of a paternalistic relation between ‘old’ and ‘young’ churches."12 Changes in this terminology cannot be counted on to change attitudes any more than in the case of the "native -national" switch.
We should think twice before rejecting "indigenous," "indigeneity," and "indigenization" on grounds that, as "a nature metaphor, that is, of the soil, or taking root in the soil" and "because of the static nature of the metaphor … it is in danger of being merely past-oriented …"13 Shoki Coe writes that, … in using the word contextualization, we try to convey all that is implied in the familiar term indigenization, yet seek to press beyond for a more dynamic concept which is open to change and which is also future-oriented.14
In the first place, there is nothing necessarily static about the concept. Its etymology involves Latin morphemes meaning "to bear or produce within." Its English meaning, then, becomes "native: born, growing, or produced naturally in a country or region." Now the beauty of "indigenous" for the label of a truly "contextualized" church is that the surest sign of such Christianity is when it is found to be, in fact, incorporated within then culturative experience in the home! When the Christian home rears its children as Christians and the teachings and belief system of Christ is "born or produced within" the home, Christianity is indigenous within that culture. The Christianity thus established need not be thought of as tied to any particular traditions of the past. It becomes a part of the society and its culture where it is, and may continue to be a part of it as it changes. Thus it may be as future-oriented as the people who bear it.
This perspective has been missed by those missionaries who, in cases where the Christiian church has grown up as a largely foreign, intrusive institution, have enthusiastically advocated a return to the traditional cultural elements of worship, calendar, music and other aesthetic forms, only to have their suggestions rejected by the Christians within the very culture for whom this "indigenization" was planned. First, because the missionary himself was too involved in making the decisions regarding the selection of froms from traditional culture; and second, because the people themselves were no longer there! They had become acculturated to a point where many of the traditional forms no longer constituted indigeneity for them.
CONTEXTUALIZATION OF THE WORD: TRANSLATION AND ETHNOTHEOLOGY
The Wycliffe Bible Translators, and many other comparatively solitary and unsung translators of the Bible, have been doing authentic contextualization for a long, long time. In Most cases the activities inevitably involve all kinds of contextualization: inculturation, indigenization, and not a little ethnotheology. The Bible translator in many places has been the first witness, the first missionary, the church planter, the evangelist, and stimulator of theological formulations, not in overt roles undertaken, but as an agent and channel of the power of the Word.
For the contextualization of theology, "ethnotheology" is an eminently appropriate term on the basis of other anthropological parallels. As Charles Kraft points out,15 there are ethnohistory, ethnomusicology, ethnolinguistics, ethnobotany, ethnoscience. It seems to me that the interest that has flourished for several generations in the distinction between ethnocentric missionary activities and the indigenous principle, and now between Western theology and non-Western contextualized theologies may be most aptly expressed in terms of Pike’s etic-emic distinctions. Coined "from the words phonetic and phonemic, following the conventional linguistic usage of these," Pike explains, The etic viewpoint studies behavior as from outside of a particular system, and as an essential initial approach to an alien system. The emic viewpoint results from studying behavior as from inside the system.16
Unquestionably, contextualization must be an emic approach, Christian ethnotheology is theology done from inside the system, rendering the Supracultural Christian absolutes not only in the linguistic idiom but also within the particular forms that "system" takes within the system: concepts of priority, sequence, time, space; elements of order, customs of validation and assertion; styles of emphasis and expression, all of which differ from culture to culture. Methodology itself must also be emic.
There is not much question about the objectives of Christian ethnotheology. They are nicely expressed by the Reverend Flond Efefe as he points out that, … to Africanize Christianity cannot be an occasion for prefabricating a new theology. Christian values are universal values. The purpose of the Pan-African movement on African theology is to promote an African expression of the interpretation of the Gospel … It is in hearing the Gospei that the Christian faith is born and the supreme purpose of African theology is to facilitate for Africans the conditions for hearing it.17
One of the chief reasons for the continuing concern with the cultural context of evangelism is that we have too often failed in a two-fold responsibility: first, making the distinction between the Supracultural content of Christianity, and its forms and expressions in our own culture; and second, having made this crucial distinction, attempting to disengage (decontextualize?) the Supracultural or non-cultural doctrines of Christianity from our Western culture forms and expressions.
The literature generated by the introduction of the term contextualization" is of great value in that it has precipitated a lot of rethinking and reaction, dialogue and debate, and among people in all phases and on all sides of the mission enterprise. But consider the fact that one of the most stimulating and productive of recent missiological conferences, the Carter, Symposium held at Milligan College in 1974,18 focused upon the multiple aspects of the question in the most sophisticated theological and anthropological terms without once employing the word "contextualization. " This says something for the comparative recency of the term, and for the continuing vitality of the competing concepts which were employed, which included most of those briefly reviewed above, but with no organized consensus among them.
Instead of being merely another competing term, or a symbol of allegiance to a movement or of ecumenical, or even missiological sophistication, we may hope that "contextualization" will provide us with a needed generic concept under which to better organize our missiological theory and method. We may realize this provision if we can achieve thereby a broader base of common understanding of our evangelistic (both cultural and spiritual) objectives.
1. E. C. Bhatty, "Is the Church in India Thinking?" International Review of Missions XLVI (July 1957): 257.
2. John V. Taylor, CMS News-letter No. 327 (May 1969): .
3. Sabapathy Kulandran, Review of M. M. Thomas, The Acknowledged Christ of the Indian Renaissance (London: SCM Press, 1970). International Review of Mission LIV (1970): 476.
4. Herbert C. Jackson, "The Forthcoming Role of the Non-Christian Religious Systems as Contributory of Christian Theology," Occasional Bulletin from the Missionary Research Library, New York, XII (March 15, 1961).
5. Henry H. Presler, "The Christian’s Knowledge of Non-Christian Religions," International Review of missions, L (April 1961): 184.
6. W. H. T. Gairdner, Echoes From Edinburgh, 1910 (New York: Revell, 1910): 220-221.
7. Allen, Op. cit., pp. 143-144. See also Melvin Hodges, The Indigenous Church. (Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 1953), p. 55; Roland Allen, "The ‘Nevius Method’ in Korea, " World Dominion, IX (July 1931): 257; and Roland Allen, " The Place of ‘Faith’ in Missionary Evangelism, " World Dominion VIII (July, 1930).
8. G. Linwood Barney, "The Supracultural and the Cultural: Implications for Frontier Missions," in R. Pierce Beaver, (ed.), The Gospel and Frontier Peoples. (South Pasadena: William Carey Library, 197 3), p 5 1.
9. Ibid. Dr. Barney adds this footnote (p. 57): … Inculturate’ is coined here to refer to that process or state in which a new principle has been culturally ‘clothed’ in meaningful forms in a culture. "
10. Ibid., p. 5 1.
11. Byang H. Kato, "The Gospel, Cultural Context and Religious Syncretism," in J. D. Douglas (ed), Let the Earth Hear His Voice. (Minneapolis: World Wide Publications, 1975), P. 1217.
12. Daniel von Allmen, "The Birth of Theology," International Review of Mission, LXIV (January, 1975): 37.
13. Shoki Coe, "Contextualizing Theology," Mission Trends No. 3: Third World Theologies, edited by G. H. Anderson and T. F. Stransky, (Paulist Press and Eerdmans, 1976) p. 20.
14. Ibid., p. 2 1.
15. Charles Kraft, "Toward a Christian Ethnotheology," in A. R. Tippett, (ed.), God, Man and Church Growth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), p. 110.
16. Kenneth L. Pike, "Etic and Emic Standpoints for the Description of Behavior," in Alfred G. Smith, Communication and Culture (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966), P. 152.
17. Flond Efefe, "Revolution in Theology. "All Africa Conference of Churches, Bulletin 5 (Sept. – Oct. 1972): 7.
18. T. Yamamori and C. R. Taber, (eds.) Christopaganism or Indigenous Christianity? (William Carey Library, 1975).
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