Today's post is written by Dr. Robert Hunt, Director of Global Theological Education, Professor of Christian Mission and Interreligious Relations, and Director of the Center for Evangelism at Perkins School of Theology. It is the first of a three-part series on contextualization.
Interpreters of contextualization as a theological concept often rely on a distinction between text and context to make sense of the term. Yet the Christian “text,” whether conceived of as the Bible or the Apostolic tradition normalized in the Creeds is inseparable from its context, because historically context always precedes the text, even if metaphysically the source of the text (God's Word) creates the context.
The first of this three-part series will show how this relationship characterizes the Bible and its early contexts. The second part will draw on Newbigin to suggest a different approach to the relationship between textual worldview and cultural context than those taken by previous theologies. The third part will present an understanding of inculturation that draws on these reflections and will explore what this new understanding means for the Church’s engagement with the Word about the world.
The challenge of separating text from context runs through our efforts to interpret the Bible. Take Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In it we have a clear affirmation of the validity of Jewish law.
Matthew 5:17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
In these few sentences Jesus’ text simply reiterates its context in Jewish thought. The righteousness he preaches is non-different from that of other Jewish leaders. Their problem, we learn as we read onward, isn’t that they have the wrong law. It is that they are hypocrites whose actions don’t match their words.
This sermon by Jesus was sufficiently clear that when Gentiles began to seek entry into the church a major dispute arose about whether or not they would be required to follow the complete Jewish law. The context of that debate, which we read about the Acts and the Epistles isn’t just the teaching of Jesus. The debate about the obligations of converts to know and follow the Mosaic law was also part of the Jewish context in the time of Jesus and his followers. As recounted in the Talmud, the rabbis argued over the extent to which Gentile converts to Judaism were required to keep the law. (Shabbat 31a and elsewhere) So the argument among the apostles is taking place not merely in the context of Jesus’ teaching or Peter’s vision or Paul’s call, but a longer internal Jewish argument about what was essential to Jewish identity and thus inclusion in God’s covenant.
Indeed, this context of rabbinic contestation over the meaning and purpose of Mosaic law is in the background of every single saying of Jesus about the law. Much of Jesus' teaching in this regard isn’t unique, and doesn’t set proto-Christian teaching apart from Jewish teaching. As E.P. Sanders showed decades ago, Jesus’ teaching often takes one side of an ongoing debate, so that at least initially Christians could easily be understood to be members of a Jewish sect.
The way in which this distinction between text and context problematizes concepts of contextualization can be found when we examine a paragraph of Bill Payne’s recent essay on contextualization in this forum:
"Furthermore, contextualization is not an excuse for heterodoxy or for affirming practices that apostolic tradition and the witness of Scripture have rejected. For example, the New Testament Church argued against the Judaizers who tried to force Gentile believers to follow certain Jewish practices. Additionally, it rejected many aspects of the receiving cultures. The New Testament vice lists point to the church’s engagement with Hellenistic culture and its rejection of cultural practices that were not compatible with the Gospel. Just because the culture affirms something does not mean that God will affirm the resulting practice or related belief. The gospel is for culture and against culture at the same time.”
Actually both opposition to the “Judaizers” on one hand and to Hellenistic cultural practices on the other were extensions of existing rabbinical teaching by Paul and the apostles into the realm of the Jewish Christian community. They are not the application of a distinct normative text that is now critiquing a cultural context. They are just a new community continuing to debate issues raised in an older context. There may not be anything distinctly “Christian” at work here.
I’ll push the question of what is distinctively “Christian” about the Bible further in the next post as I turn to questions about the biblical “worldview.”