by Larry Owens
Promoting healthy contexualizationand avoiding syncretism involves a deep understanding of scripture, culture and one’s own attitude.
According to the Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, syncretism is “the replacement or the dilution of the essential truths of the gospel through the incorporation of non-Christian elements” (Moreau 2000, 924). The word “contextualization,” on the other hand, describes the healthy restatement of genuine biblical faith that is also meaningful in fresh cultural contexts (Van Rheenen 2004, 2).
THE BIBLICAL PICTURE
There are abundant examples of both syncretism and contextualization in the Bible. For example, Simon the magician and his followers were amazed by the powerful acts of the apostles and were baptized, but Simon’s worldview never changed (Acts 8:4-25; cf. Larkin 2004, 4-6). The Israelites borrowed heavily, in practice, from the idolatry (Judg. 1:19), the shrine prostitution (1 Kings 14:24) and the child sacrifice and witchcraft (2 Kings 17:16-17) of the Canaanites
God, on the other hand, contextualizes the prophetic message in the Book of Daniel. To the pagan king Nebuchadnezzar, he presents the vision of four kingdoms in the context of an idol (Dan. 2:29-36). To the Hebrew prophet, on the other hand, the same message is framed in terms of the creation story, with its winds, waves, animals and a man who receives dominion (Dan. 7:2-14; Gen. 1:2, 26-28; 2:15-18; cf. Paulien 2004, 52-53). Likewise, the message of the New Testament was given in the common everyday Greek of the first Christian century. God’s example in the Bible makes it clear that contextualization must happen if the gospel is to be rightly understood in a new situation.
Perhaps a small analogy will help. I am a lot closer in intelligence to a two-year-old than I am to God. God has a much bigger challenge getting through to me than I do when I try to talk to a 2-year-old. Can I communicate with a 2-year-old? Yes, but the communication will be limited. We cannot talk about quantum physics, the seven trumpets of Revelation or even contextualization. I must meet that child at his or her level. So too, even when God speaks to us the message must be heavily contextualized or none of us would understand it.
The seven letters of Revelation 2-3 are pertinent here. If one assumes that these letters address the local situation of the churches (Rev. 1:11, 22:16), the believers seem to have been seriously divided about how the Church should relate to the surrounding culture. Some in the churches (called Nicolaitans, Balaam and Jezebel in Rev. 2:14-15, 20) thought it was acceptable to eat food offered to idols and engage in some level of sexual immorality (Paulien 2004, 24-28). They may even have invoked the teaching of Paul (1 Cor. 8:4, 7-9) in support of these actions.
But the message of Jesus in the seven letters is uncompromising. While eating food offered to idols may have been acceptable at an earlier time and in a different place (1 Cor. 8-10), it has become syncretism in the highly-charged atmosphere of turn-of-the-century Asia Minor. This illustrates two points: (1) there is such a thing as syncretism; there are actions that may seem harmless, yet compromise the fundamental character of the faith and (2) one cannot take a rigid approach to syncretism; actions that might be syncretism in one time and place may not be in another.
I finally understood this on a visit to En Gedi at the eastern edge of the Judean desert. At the top of the mountain overlooking the Dead Sea rests the ruins of a temple with two chambers and the remains of an altar of burnt offering. I asked the conservative Christian archaeologist with me how old the temple was. He said the best dating is around three thousand BC. The implications hit me: God was not unmindful of Canaanite practice when he designed the Hebrew tabernacle for Moses to build. The Israelite sanctuary and the later temple illustrated God’s plan of salvation in categories that would have been recognizable within the local culture. The Hebrew tabernacle taught “Hebrew 2-year-olds” in language they could understand. While this observation does not allow us to ignore the dangers of syncretism, it does illustrate the weakness of simplistic and universal guidelines.
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN SYNCRETISM AND CONTEXTUALIZATION
Missiologists often think of the relationship between contextualization and syncretism in terms of a continuum. A simple example is the chart (below) by Phil Parshall (1998, 405). At one end of his continuum is “low contextualization,” where the culture of the Church is foreign to the surrounding community. At the other end of the continuum is “high syncretism,” where the culture has a greater impact on the believing community than the Bible does. In the middle of the continuum is “the great divide,” the line between high contextualization, where the church blends in to the local culture yet is faithful to the principles of scripture, and “low syncretism,” where the church has adopted some questionable practices.
One problem with this approach is that it views missionary effort as a stationary point. A given mission is either syncretistic or it is not. But this approach does not consider the direction in which a movement is heading (Travis 2000, 53; Hiebert 1994, 107-136). If the movement is heading in the right direction syncretism will be increasingly minimized. On the other hand, a seemingly healthy movement can be sliding into syncretism, yet still be on the “right side” of Parshall’s “great divide.”
Another problem with this approach is knowing where to draw the line. Some would put the “great divide” between C2 and C3.1 Others, such as John Travis, consider all six “C options” valid approaches to contextualization. Parshall, on the other hand, draws the line between C4 and C5. One missionary’s contextualization is another’s syncretism (Van Rheenen 2004, 6).
I would like, therefore, to suggest a modification of the contextualization/syncretism continuum. I believe the ideal level of contextualization (“high contextualization”) should be at the very center of the continuum. I would argue along with David Hesselgrave, therefore, that syncretism occurs in two equal and opposite forms: under-contextualization and over-contextualization (Hesselgrave 2004, 5-7).
By under-contextualization I mean an unhealthy reluctance to give up Western ways of expressing the gospel and its accompanying doctrines (see Hiebert 1999, 24-33). The culture receiving the gospel is forced to accept what is, practically speaking, a Western, syncretized form of Christianity. On the other hand, in over-contextualization the demands of the culture receiving the gospel are given such attention that the claims of scripture are overpowered in the face of a “lazy tolerance.” Paul Hiebert, Daniel Shaw and Tite Tiénou refer to this condition as “split-level Christianity, where old beliefs and practices continue underground long after the formal and outward adoption of Christianity” (1999, 15-16). In both cases the worldview of scripture is ignored in favor of the familiar culture. This continuum, moving from too little effort at contextualization to too much can be illustrated as seen above.
This model does not have a sharp boundary between good and bad contextualization; instead, there is an ideal center point to strive for, and the recognition that a variety of choices can still be counted within the realm of healthy contextualization. Instead of suspicion toward those who have opted for a different level of contextualization, this model encourages people at different points in the continuum to learn from each other.
The goal of this model, therefore, is not an either/or solution, but an attitude of learning what we can from the strengths and weaknesses at both ends of the continuum. High-end syncretism (over-contextualization) occurs when there is not enough inductive knowledge of the Bible. The culture overwhelms the gospel. Low-end syncretism (under-contextualization) occurs when there is not enough engagement with the recipient culture (Hiebert 1999, 111-112). Either lack will result in syncretism.
As we have seen, there are biblical examples of over-contextualization and there are biblical examples of under-contextualization. The classic case is the Pharisees of the New Testament. Many of them were so concerned about avoiding syncretism that they hedged up the faith with human-made rules that proved syncretistic in a different way. In their avoidance of Gentile culture they ended up equally far from the biblical ideal.
We need to become more aware of the extent to which the Western Church has imbibed Western philosophical values (Hesselgrave 2004, 1-10; Hiebert 1999, 24-29; Hiebert, Shaw and Tiénou, 1999, 16-20; Massey 2004, 296-304). While this kind of syncretism may be self-evident to people from other backgrounds,2 it is much harder for westerners to see (Parshall 1998, 410). In many ways, Christian orthodoxy has more in common with the Greco-Roman system of thought than with the Jewish world of Jesus and his disciples (Massey 2004, 297).
For example, the Bible is not an organized system of thought, like a systematic theology. It is a collection of stories, historical incidents, lists and legal case studies that often have little obvious “theological” content. Westerners tend to read these accounts searching for isolated tidbits of devotional or theological insight, rather than for the broader impact of the “story.” What to westerners may seem the “plain meaning of the text” may not be at all obvious to a person raised in the East. So it is probably not helpful to decide matters of “syncretism” on the basis of the Greek philosophical worldview westerners have inherited from the past (Massey 2004, 297-298).
How do you promote healthy contextualization and avoid syncretism? The answer is what I call double exegesis. On the one hand, we need to be faithful in studying and understanding the word of God; on the other, we need to give careful study and attention to the culture in which the gospel is finding its roots. Syncretism occurs when either the scriptures or the local culture are ignored. Following are three practical suggestions to safeguard contextualization against the dangers of syncretism.
EXEGESIS OF SCRIPTURE
Out of a personal struggle against self-deception I have developed what I sometimes call a “life hermeneutic” to safeguard my study of scripture. This “life hermeneutic” involves five fundamental strategies:
1. Combine authentic prayer and self-distrust. If human hearts are exceedingly wicked and deceptive (Jer. 17:9), then the greatest barrier to scriptural understanding is the lack of a teachable spirit. It is only as we are willing to hear and obey (John 7:17) every bit of scriptural light that the Spirit of God will take us deeper into the truth of his word.
2. Use a variety of translations. Comparing several translations against each other, careful interpreters can sense what parts of the scripture narrative are clear for their purpose and what parts are not. In environments where only one or two translations are available, syncretism will not be avoided without guidance from at least two scholars in the original languages.
3. Favor the clear texts. It is helpful to spend the majority of one’s study time in the sections of scripture that are reasonably clear. The clear texts of scripture establish the reader in the great verities of the Bible’s message, safeguarding the interpreter against a syncretistic use of unclear texts.
4. Favor general reading. Compare the results of proof-text study with much general reading of scripture. Without the control of broad reading, it is easy for interpreters to mix and match texts to produce the conclusion they want.
5. Include group processing. The broader the variety of people involved in the exegesis, the less likely that syncretistic readings will be accepted. What will seem clear to one will not be clear to others. The challenges of others can disrupt our comfortable syncretisms.
When studied in this way, the biblical narratives gradually transform the hearer’s worldviews and belief systems (Wilson 2004, 1). New believers will recognize potential syncretisms in their culture that outsiders would not. The scriptures themselves do the cleansing work, without the introduction of Western biases and worldviews.
Popular religion and culture are also best evaluated within a group setting. The ideal group would include representatives of the people group, one or more individuals with strong exegetical skills and one or more individuals with knowledge of mission theory and practice (particularly with the process of critical contextualization). After careful examination in the light of scripture, the following three kinds of beliefs and practices of an “insider” group should be retained:
1. those that are clearly consistent with biblical principles,
2. those that contain a powerful redemptive analogy that does not contradict scripture or do any practical harm and
3. those that are not demonic and have no unbiblical or negative connotations, particularly if they are an important part of the local culture.
After cultural viewpoints have been carefully examined in the light of scripture, the following three beliefs and practices of an “insider” group should be discarded or replaced with a functional substitute based on biblical principles:
1. those that have demonic overtones or destructive consequences,
2. those that are not bad in themselves, but have negative connotations within the culture and
3. those that are good in themselves, but have become burdensome to the local people.
AN ATTITUDE OF COMPASSION
The process of contextualization is not an easy one. A greater amount of trust among those involved in critical contextualization would be helpful. However, accusations and differences of opinion will remain among the people of God. So perhaps the best thing any of us can do is adjust our own attitude in the face of criticism by agreeing with the following four statements:
1. I choose to trust my colleagues in mission, whether they prefer C1 or C5. While syncretism is a real danger, only those closest to the situation are qualified to determine where the golden mean lies.
2. I choose to exercise a learning spirit toward those who disagree with me. Those who seem resistant to change and unnecessarily conservative call my attention to scriptural passages I may have overlooked. I choose to consider those who “oppose” me as assets rather than liabilities.
3. I choose to exercise a learning spirit toward both the scriptures and the local cultures in which I hope to plant the gospel. When I am not certain whether an idea or practice is syncretism or healthy contextualization, I prefer to err on the side of mercy.
4. I invite the Holy Spirit into my life to open my eyes to scripture, to help me see others through the eyes of God’s compassion, to help me see the defects in my own character and theological ideas and to desire God’s best for everyone who is giving his or her life to the cause of reaching the lost.
1. The C1 to C6 spectrum compares and contrasts six types of “Christ-centered communities” in the Muslim world. These six types are differentiated by language, culture, worship forms and religious identity. A short summary of the six types is found in Travis 1998, 407-408.
2. To the Muslim, Christian syncretism includes accepting animistic practices, using “Christian” styles of architecture, adopting Christian names, legally changing one’s religion and disrespecting Mohammed and the Qur’an. None of these are necessary elements of Christian faith (see Dutch 2000, 20).
Bright, John. 1974. A History of Israel. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Westminster Press.
Dutch, Bernard. 2000. “Should Muslims Become ‘Christians?’” In International Journal of Frontier Missions 17(1): 15.
Hesselgrave, David J. 2004. “Syncretism—Mission and Missionary Induced?” A paper presented at the IFMA/EFMA/EMS Triennial Conference. St. Louis, Missouri, September 23-25, 2004.
Hiebert, Paul. 1994. Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.
_____. 1999. Missiological Implications of Epistemological Shifts: Affirming Truth in a Modern/Postmodern World. Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International.
Hiebert, Paul, Daniel Shaw and Tite Tiénou. 1999. Understanding Folk Religions: A Christian Response to Popular Beliefs and Practices. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.
Larkin, William J. 2004. “Syncretism: An Unintended but Unavoidable Consequence of Early Christian Witness—Case Study from Acts 8:4-25.” A paper presented at the IFMA/EFMA/EMS Triennial Conference. St. Louis, Missouri, September 23-25, 2004.
Massey, Joshua. 2004. “Misunderstanding C5: His Ways Are Not Our Orthodoxy.” In Evangelical Missions Quarterly 40(3): 296-304.
Moreau, A. Scott. 2000. “Syncretism,” In Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions. 924-925. ed. A. Scott Moreau. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.
Parshall, Phil. 1998. “Danger! New Directions in Contextualization.” In Evangelical Missions Quarterly 34(4): 404-410.
Paulien, Jon. 2004. The Deep Things of God: An Insider’s Guide to the Book of Revelation. Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald.
Poston, Larry. 2004. “‘You Must not Worship in Their Way…’ When Contextualization Becomes Syncretism.” A paper presented at the IFMA/EFMA/EMS Triennial Conference. St. Louis, Missouri, September 23-25, 2004.
Travis, John. 1998. “The C1 to C6 Spectrum: A Practical Tool for Defining Six Types of ‘Christ-centered Communities’ Found in the Muslim Context.” In Evangelical Missions Quarterly 3 (4): 407-408.
_____. 2000. “Messianic Muslim Followers of Isa: A Closer Look at C5 Believers and Congregations.” In International Journal of Frontier Missions 17(1): 53-59.
Van Rheenen, Gailyn. 2004. “Syncretism and Contextualization: The Church on a Journey Defining Itself.” A paper presented at the IFMA/EFMA/EMS Triennial Conference. St. Louis, Missouri, September 23-25, 2004.
Wilson, Douglas K. Jr. 2004. “Laying a Firm Foundation: Using Chronological Bible Storying to Combat Syncretism.” A paper presented at the IFMA/EFMA/EMS Triennial Conference. St. Louis, Missouri, September 23-25, 2004.
Larry Owens (pseudonym) is a professor at a faith-based university in the United States. He has published widely in the fields of New Testament and Mission.
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