by Nicole Abraham
An analysis of local attempts at theologizing within a cultural context is a tool for establishing foci for ministry.
In the 1970s, contextualization was suggested as an approach for theological education, especially in the Third World. Later, it was applied to a variety of theological methodologies. For others, contextualization has become a missiological approach. And recently, JdO (2010, 306ff) has reflected on local responses to contextualization efforts that have been refused.
My aim is to demonstrate that an analysis of local attempts at theologizing within a cultural context is a tool for establishing foci for ministry. It assumes that any attempt to apply theological understanding to practice within a cultural context is a facet of contextualization. The framework for this analysis has four dimensions: (1) the handling of the Bible (reading and application), (2) biblical traditions (including interpretations of the Church universal), (3) culture, and (4) social change.
Using this framework, I outline three distinct models I encountered as a missionary in an Asian Islamic context (note: a weakness of this study is that it does not include any model of how an illiterate person might contextualize). While these models are abstractions formed from concrete situations, they provide a descriptive analysis of the complexities of these particular efforts.
Since these models are based on case studies, they reflect the strengths and weakness of that methodology. A benefit of the case study method is that it presents the researcher with a realistic view of the actual situation while also placing it within the context of the particular values and cultural milieu. On the other hand, the specifics of the study mean that it can be difficult to generalize and draw conclusions regarding a larger context. Nevertheless, case studies provide illustrative material from which principles can be extrapolated and tested.
Contextualization of theology is the attempt to understand the Christian faith in terms of a particular context. Where local individuals are both attempting to understand the Christian faith from within their culture and endeavouring to express these beliefs in word and action, they are unconsciously contextualizing. This practical demonstration of their spiritual journeying is naturally expressed in their particular cultural framework.
Common Background for All the Models
Cultural background. Since the mid-1900s there has been a growing emphasis on being Islamic, even though Islam has been a significant influence in the country for hundreds of years. Underneath this Islamic influence is an underlying ancient heritage of animism and Hinduism. In some areas, there is an additional underlay of Buddhism. Some of the cultural practices reflect Hindu andor Islamic influences, while many appear to have animistic origins.
During the last three to four centuries, significant Western influence has impacted urban areas, in particular. While the living standard of the West is considered a goal to emulate, more recently conservative Muslim clerics have been deriding Western moral decadence.
So any local model of contextualization is likely to reflect Islamic influences—that is, local practices and beliefs continue unquestioned until challenged, even when only fitting uncomfortably. Since Islam does not practice dynamic equivalence, it creates problems for contextualizing the Christian message. Consequently, Christian attempts at ministering to Muslims are misinterpreted and misunderstood. Similarly, when Muslims find Christians using their cultural forms, say, in worship, Christians are accused of being deceitful.
Attitude to revelation (The Bible). The prevailing worldview means that the Bible is regarded as a holy book and is therefore accepted as God’s revelation, although how individuals interpret that differs. Although not using the term “supracultural”, both the book and its contents are considered “divine other reality.” It is read with a sense of awe and regarded as having authority.
The Bible: A formal correspondence translation. The current Bible is a formal correspondence translation usually resulting in readers using a “plain meaning” hermeneutic—that is, they assume the meaning is as written. Consequently, their understanding reflects the inherent weaknesses of that method, including not recognizing different levels of abstraction. Where cultural equivalents are lacking, deducing implications is usually ignored. Conversely, many local cultural practices appear similar to their biblical equivalents.
In this country, the primary literary language has a significant Arabic component, giving it an affinity with Hebraic ideas and concepts. However, a Muslim reader can be confused when Arabic-derived words have a “biblical” meaning. Since for most, this language of education is a second language, any understandings may not penetrate significantly deeply into their worldviews to induce change. However, for Muslims, some of the impact comes because they understand what they are reading—rather than reading Arabic, which they don’t understand.
The basis of religious experience. Evangelicals claim that God’s primary desire is for relationship. They also claim the Holy Spirit guides and leads people into truth. When God is experienced in relationship through the reading of the Bible, it becomes, in transcendental terms, a “genuine religious experience” (cf. Sheikh 1980, chap. 4-5). For many Muslims, a power (truth) encounter with the “Christian” God convinces them of the reality of the gospel. The genuineness of the experience is reflected in their transformed lives. The Bible then becomes the judge and assumes a greater significance than culture.
Introducing the Models
G, a young woman from the minority Christian community, represents the first model, a disciple model. Her Hindu forebears adopted Christianity during the mid-nineteenth century. She is an active church member and a believer. She also meets together with a small group of (female) friends who discuss the Bible’s teaching and its implications for their living. In this, they are unique. Her efforts at contextualization arise because she wants to obey God’s word.
The second model, a typical Christian model, is represented by J. His forebears adopted Christianity early in the twentieth century. He is also a church member and a believer. He reads the Bible reasonably frequently and can readily quote verses. However, he is unlikely to consider that it has any practical implication for his life. In fact, he almost seems to resist any attempt to apply scripture to his particular situation. This reflects the Islamic attitude of not actively interacting with the Qur’an.
The third is a seeker model, represented by A, a slightly older male whose family has a long Islamic tradition. His search for truth has led him to read the “Books”. His daily recitation of the Fatiha expressed this longing. Obedience became an issue later. At first, A’s attitude was one of ambivalence: on one hand, he had been taught “the Bible” had been changed; on the other hand, he knew it had his prophet’s recommendation. Others begin to read the Bible out of curiosity or dissatisfaction with Islam (Masood 1986). Some do so to prove a point: that the Bible has been changed (Subkhan 2001), or that Islam’s doctrines are superior (Muhammad 1996).
Model 1: Disciple Model
As G studies scripture she allows it to challenge her. At times, it becomes a personal “revelation” (e.g., the command “to honor one’s parents”). She contrasts “modern” cultural attitudes of “minimal respect” (especially to less well educated parents) to the “honor” of scripture. In so doing, she uses a type of hermeneutical circle.
Similarly, she approaches scripture with culturally-shaped questions like, “Who should be responsible for arranging my marriage?”Again, she studies the Bible and reads some Christian books on the topic. During this process, the Bible, tradition (represented by the interpretations in the Christian books), and culture are being weighed (although G’s desire is to put God first).
In this process, she develops her own theological understandings and propositions. Because she lacks formal training, she is unable to compare her understandings with the rest of Christendom, except what is reflected in Christian books she reads. On occasions when attempting to apply her learning, she feels that the weight of culture makes it impossible for her to respond to God in what she feels are culturally appropriate ways.
There are times when, in obeying, she “bucks the system.” At other times, she compromises. While going as far as she can biblically, she still remains cultural, even though she feels she isn’t being as radical as God’s requirements demand. She prays to be personally changed, but recognizes that by herself she cannot change the culture.
Unfortunately, her church reflects a conservative, Western tradition. As yet, it is not tackling the questions G is asking. Yet, G is recognized within the church for her spirituality and her leadership gifts. She is often asked to speak. In that way, she has potential for influencing both the church and the youth.
From this model, one of the challenges for ministry is to foster G’s attempts at contextualization. A far greater challenge is getting the church asking culturally-shaped questions with implications for Christian living. A potential problem for G is that of interpretation. Without adequate training, she could move in the direction of heresy or syncretism. On the other hand, she has potential as an agent of change.
Model 2: Typical Local Christian
Unlike the disciple model, in which the Bible, tradition, and culture are weighed and evaluated, this second model emphasizes culture. J‘s typical response to a biblical challenge is, “But we don’t do it that way” or “That’s not our culture.” In part, this response reflects the fact that the Bible is a formal correspondence translation. It also reflects the Islamic attitude that mere reading is meritorious. Paul describes it as a “veil over their faces,” preventing understanding and obedience (2 Cor. 3:12-18). The Western model, with its emphasis on cognitive understanding of the faith, has reinforced this model.
J also represents the many Christians in this country, who although literate, do not react with or respond actively to what they have read.
The challenges for ministry from this model are several. The first relates to the Bible translation. This is a difficult and controversial issue. For many, this proves the point that the Bible has been changed. The next issue is this apparent reticence to apply the word of God to everyday life and to be accountable to God’s designs for living. This relates to the issue of exegesis and its application to life and living, which creates problems not only in terms of application leading to personal and social change, but also obedience. Added to this situation is that most Christians have come from the servant classes and are not used to taking initiative. While education is impacting that mentality, their minority position within the country can seem to make implementation of change difficult.
Model 3: Seeker Model
A’s quest began when he had become disillusioned with Islamic practices and theology (cf. Masood 1986). After acquiring a Bible his first discovery was that it was very different from the Qur’an. He found its sheer frankness and simplicity impressive. Like John Abdul Subkhan (2001, 29), he found it spoke directly to him because he could understand its language. Slowly, he was convinced that it was truly God’s word. Later, he acknowledged the role of the Holy Spirit in bringing understanding, which also brought challenges to obey.
As A reads, he uses the interpretive techniques of a Sufi, so his focus is on the transcendental and personal. A Shi’ite might use a more esoteric approach than the more direct Sunni approach (cf. Gätje 1971). In this context, culture as represented by Islam, is initially the authority. Gradually, however, the Bible begins to assume first position (Sheikh 1980, Masood 1986). Simultaneously, many of A’s negative attitudes and pre-conceptions are slowly eroded and shown to be wrong. The result is tremendous emotional and mental conflict. At this point, he pleads with God to show him the truth (Muhammad 1996, 197- 201; Selby 2000, 26, 91, 116).
As A begins theologizing, he slowly realizes the life-changing implications that are before him (e.g., Jesus as God’s son and the death of Jesus). Initially, he raises issues within Islam itself, but he soon realizes his quest is not appreciated. He has to choose: run for his life or face death (cf. Masood 1986). A believes that if his Christian experience is true, then his life should reflect it. When the family learns that the change is due to A’s becoming a Christian, they are not impressed. However, they cannot refute the reality of his changed life.
When the local Muslim cleric issues a fatwa for his death, the family rise s up against the cleric. When asked why, their response is that although they are Muslims, they have never witnessed a changed life. Others testify to changes A’s personal attitudes, actions, and way of life.
While A’s search began in the Islamic traditions, he struggles to find Christian equivalents. Lacking tools and teaching, he finds himself within the web of cults and heresies (cf. Alam 1994, 37). Later, he also finds the many different Christian perspectives confusing.
In his aloneness, A wonders if he has understood correctly. He assumes he has (cf. Miller 1969, 58), and tries to find Christian support. Like others, at first he is wary of other “believers”. Later, however, he meets with a number of others. But how do such lone believers come to an orthodox belief and maintain that belief? A does despite his initial contact in a heretical group. The case of the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8: 26-39) is instructive. The scriptures provide no record of any mechanism for preventing the development of syncretism or heresy other than exposure to the word of God (scripture).
The isolation becomes greater. A is thrown out of his family and barred from his mosque. He discovers that he is barely tolerated by the Christian community, and when in their company, feels uncomfortable with their practices. Yet, the changes in his life impact others.
A presents a unique challenge to ministry in a number of ways. First, there is sufficient witness within the Qur’an to encourage people to search for Jesus Christ. What a challenge for prayer! Second, the Holy Spirit can take those searchings and call people to himself, with virtually no other human input. Third, through access to the Bible, the Holy Spirit can reveal the divine truths in such a way that there is a personal response of devoted allegiance.
The question needs to be asked, How can this be maximized? Should the Bible be printed in the original languages together with both the formal correspondence “interpretation”, and a more dynamic equivalent one?1 The lack of fellowship and the problem of relating to the Church universal are significant issues that must be addressed.
The purpose of the study is to show that an analysis of local attempts at contextualization provides a tool for focusing ministry. The analysis of each model has pointed to significant areas in which approaches to ministry, and ministry itself, needs to be honed.
However, this study is just a beginning. Each model requires a more detailed analysis in each of the areas of Bible, tradition, culture, and social change if the tool is to be used to its maximum effectiveness. L.D. Waterman (2008, 166ff) suggests eight questions relevant to attempts at local theological contextualization. While not all the questions are relevant in this context, many apply in further consideration of these models.
1. Any “translation” of the Qur’an is only considered an interpretation. To fully understand the Qur’an, it is necessary to learn Arabic.
Alam, Christopher. 1994. Through Blood and Fire, A Muslim Fanatic Becomes a Fiery Evangelist for Jesus Christ. West Sussex: New Wine Press.
Gätje, Helmut. 1971. The Qur’an and its Exegesis, Selected Texts with Classical and Modern Muslim Interpretations, translated and edited by Alford T. Welch. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
JdO. 2010. “The Non-contextualization of the Gospel.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 46(2): 306-309.
Masood, Steven. 1986. Into the Light. Carlisle: OM Publishing.
Miller, William M. 1969. Ten Muslims Meet Christ. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Muhammad, Paul, Sultan. 1996. “A Muslim’s Journey to Salvation.” International Journal of Frontier Missions 13(4): 197–204. Accessed February 14, 2014, from www.wciu.edu/ijfm/13_4_PDFs/06_Sultan%20M%20%20Paul.pdf.
Selby, Pauline. 2000. Persian Springs. Surrey: Highland Books.
Sheikh, Bilquis, with Richard Schneider. 1980. I Dared to Call Him Father. Waco, Tex.: Word Book Publishers.
Subkhan, John Abdul. 2001. Bishop Subkhan, A Sufi’s story. Lahore: MIK (Urdu).
Waterman, L.D. 2008. “Contextualization: A Few Basic Questions.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 44(2): 166-173.
Nicole Abraham (pseudonym) spent many years in an Asian Islamic country. Her primary concern is facilitating the spiritual growth of Muslim seekers of Jesus Christ. Currently, she is also assisting with the University of Birmingham’s Christian Muslim Relations Historical Bibliography project.
EMQ, Vol. 50, No. 4, pp. 324-330. Copyright © 2014 Billy Graham Center. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.