Contextualization (2)

29 March 2011 by Wes Bredenhof

Part 2 of the revised text of a lecture for the Grade 11 Bible class at Credo Christian High School, Langley, BC in 2007.  Part 1 can be found here.

Contextualization in Scripture

So that gives you a bit of background on this subject.  Let’s now look at contextualization in the Bible.  In Acts, we see a number of examples of contextualization, even if the apostles and early church didn’t call it that.  Now remember that contextualization deals with two main issues:  communication and identity.

We see an example of a contextualized communication of the gospel in Acts 14:1-20.  The event we’re interested in took place in the city of Lystra.  Paul and Barnabas arrived there after fleeing from Iconium.  Verse 7 tells us they were preaching the gospel there.  As they did this, there were two problems.  First, there was the matter of language.  As you may know, there were two main languages in the Roman Empire at this time:  Latin and Greek.  Greek was the language used most often for trade and debate, and so on, especially in Asia Minor.  But in Lystra things were different.  Lystra was a unique place – it didn’t have any major trade routes running through it, so it was rather isolated.  Hellenism (Greek culture and its influences) had little impact on this backwater.  So, rather than Greek, most people spoke the local language known as Lycaonian.  Greek was not the best language to use in communicating with them.  There was bound to be a communication mix-up.

But the more important issue was with respect to the culture of the people of Lystra.  Paul and Barnabas were the new guys in town and they had no clue about the culture in this place.  They weren’t familiar with the local legends and mythology.  One of those ancient legends was about the gods Zeus and Hermes (even though they didn’t speak Greek and were not Greeks, the people in Lystra still shared the Greek pantheon).  According to this legend, Zeus and Hermes had disguised themselves as men and had come to the hill country looking for hospitality.   One couple welcomed them – and in so doing, they were richly blessed with a home renovation project:  their modest little cottage was transformed into a golden temple.  All the other citizens were punished with the destruction of their homes.

Now when Paul and Barnabas came to town and healed a crippled man, the Lystrans believed that Zeus and Hermes had returned and so they were not about to make the same mistake as before.  The missionaries don’t seem to have been aware of this legend, but when the Lystrans started worshipping them and calling them Zeus and Hermes (names they would have understood), eventually they figured it out.  When they did, the message they preached was adapted to the situation.  They began with the Lystrans’ frame of reference in polytheism.  They urged the Lystrans to turn from useless idols to the living God, from the old to the new.  This kind of preaching was quite a bit different from when Paul and others were preaching to the Jews who were familiar with the Old Testament and for whom idol worship was repulsive.  And so, in this example from Acts 15, the apostles were looking to communicate the command to repent and believe the gospel in a culturally appropriate way.

We can be sure that Paul learned something from this experience.  In Acts 17, Paul went to Athens.  Of course, Athens was the center of Hellenistic culture, a culture Paul would have been quite familiar with.  When he arrived there, he observed the wide-spread idolatry of the city.  Idols of gods and goddesses were everywhere.  This bothered Paul and led him to do some on the spot evangelistic work while he waited for Silas and Timothy.  He went to the Jewish synagogue, but also to the marketplace where he encountered followers of different Greek philosophies.  These Epicureans and Stoics brought Paul to the Areopagus, or Mars’ Hill.  This was the central place in Athens for important discussions on morals, education, and religion.

As Paul began to speak on the Areopagus, he took his starting point from his observation of the many idols in the city.  He said he noticed an altar with the inscription, “To the Unknown God.”  He used that as his starting point to preach the truth about the God of the Bible and Jesus Christ.  I want you to note three things:

First, what we have in Acts 17 is a summary of Paul’s address.  Though it is no doubt an accurate account of what he said, it is not a verbatim record, not word for word.  In all likelihood, he said a lot more than what Luke wrote here.

Second, Paul’s introduction starts with his general observation about the idols and then a particular observation about the one altar with the inscription to the unknown God.  He establishes a common point of reference with his audience.  That common point is that there is a God who is unknown to them.  They have said so themselves and Paul agrees.  In taking this approach, Paul did not compromise any biblical truth.  In fact, the Bible agrees with his observation.

Third, in the content of his address, Paul uses the same approach.  He quotes three Greek poets, Epimenides, Cleanthes, and Aratus.  As an aside, this proves that Paul was indeed intimately familiar with Hellenistic culture.  Yet he does not base what he says on those poets by themselves – only insofar as those poets agreed with what the Bible itself says.  Much of the rest of what is recorded for us in Acts 17 consists of quotes or paraphrases of various Old Testament passages.  Moreover, while Paul starts with their frame of reference, he strongly challenges their way of looking at everything.  He turns everything upside down.

Among many Greek philosophers, the assumption was that everything is basically one.  Against that, Paul preached the biblical doctrine of creation.  While those hearing him looked at the nearby Parthenon (a Greek temple), Paul proclaimed that God does not live in temples made with hands.  Against the Epicureans and Stoics, he proclaimed the biblical truths of God’s providence and God’s revelation to each man.  When the Areopagus was built, it was said that Apollo had stated there is no resurrection.  Paul diametrically preached against that, maintaining that Christ has risen.  Further, against the Greek idea of cyclical history, Paul proclaimed clearly that there is a beginning and an end to the history of the world.  Nobody would have come away from the Areopagus that day thinking Paul was simply bringing a different form of Greek religion.  What he was preaching was radically different and antithetical, even though he used a common starting point in a simple observation.  So, in communicating the gospel, Paul took into account his audience, but not to the point where he watered down the message so that it lost its offense.  What he preached was clearly the Christian gospel.

So there you have a couple examples from Acts where communication was contextualized.  We also want to briefly look at an example of contextualization with respect to identity.  We find that example in Acts 15.  A council was called at Jerusalem to decide the question of whether or not Gentile believers had to be circumcised and whether they had to follow the Jewish ceremonial laws.  In order to guard the unity of the church, the council decided there had to be a minimum of ritual cleanness, but there could be no insistence on circumcision.  Here we see that the early church recognized that there are some things that go beyond or transcend every culture.  There are other things that can exist in one church, but do not have to necessarily in another.

Click here to read part 3…