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 second of a three-part series on contextualization. The first can be found here.
In the first part of this series, I argued for the close connection between the biblical text and its cultural and religious contexts. We find this same problem even more deeply embedded in matters of what is commonly called “worldview.”
From beginning to end, the Bible assumes that the world is divided into the waters below the earth, the earth, and the heavens above. That worldview continues to be reflected in the apostolic tradition and specifically in the creeds. (“He ascended into Heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”) Nor is this spacial understanding of the world distinctly “Biblical.” While disputed in parts of the Greek philosophic tradition, it is found in the Aristotelian assumption about the centrality of the earth and the Ptolemaic calculations of the movement of the planets.
For centuries this was the bedrock of a Christian worldview but as context, not text. As my colleague Roy Heller notes, “the Bible does not argue for what it assumes.” And this worldview is the context of all Biblical story telling and all Biblical pictures of the interrelationships of God’s created order.
The spacial structure within which the Bible places the creation of the world and its subsequent history through to the creation of a new heavens and a new earth is closely matched to a metaphysical structure that is likewise assumed by the Bible. In that metaphysical structure there is a distinction between that which is visible, changeable, and temporal, and that which is invisible, unchanging, and eternal; it is the difference between body and spirit.
This metaphysical distinction between body and spirit is not distinctively Christian. It is also found in Greek philosophy that both significantly pre-dated Christianity and provided a congenial home in which emergent Christianity's basic metaphysical assumptions were widely accepted. In other words, both the physics and metaphysics of the Bible aren’t text, they are an assumed context - indeed a widely shared context across many cultures.
That philosophical and scientific context has now passed out of Western culture. We find ourselves in a cultural context that has adopted a different worldview. It is a culture that regards the spacial worldview of the Bible as naive. For this reason, Christians in our cultural context, when pressed, reject the Bible as a normative text telling us the physical structure of the universe. They recognize that the corollary to Roy Heller’s statement is “That which the Bible assumes isn’t necessarily that which it asserts.” Instead, if our culture regards the Bible at all, it regards the assumed special structure of the universe found in the Bible as just one possible context in which some deeper meaning is communicated. So we find that an assumption that runs through the Bible from beginning to end, and influences every aspect of its presentation of reality, is now seen as cultural context.
Do we now assert that it is text in contestation with an alternative text provided by science? That has been tried in the 19th century and it has largely failed to be convincing. The explanatory power of the Bible with regard to the natural world simply cannot match that of science. And as a result, Christians have large abandoned treating the Bible as a text in natural philosophy and see it as a context in which the truth of the gospel is expressed.
What about the metaphysical worldview of the Bible? Of the distinction between body and spirit? Is that a normative claim, a part of the text? Or is it a cultural context within or beneath which we seek a text?
This was the question addressed by Rudolph Bultmann in his famous effort to “demythologize” the Biblical story and thus distinguish the text (God’s Word) from the context (the metaphysical distinction between body and spirit.) Those Christians typically identified as Evangelicals have pushed back. They say that Bultmann, and indeed liberal theologians from Schleiermacher forward, have simply reduced the text to context and lost sight of God’s Word entirely. They assert that Christ without myth becomes simply an empty hole into which we Christians can pour our own context; whatever humanism is the order of the day.
Lesslie Newbigin, and others, offered an alternative. Newbigin pointed out (and I reduce a sophisticated body of argument to terms Newbigin himself doesn’t use) that the distinction between text and context is artificial; whether the text is scripture and the context is ancient culture, or the text is nature and the context is post-Enlightenment epistemology. What we know is always known in the context of a knowing community. There is no context-free observer reporting on a pure text, whether in science or in theology. There is no context free truth whether scientific or dogmatic.
This displaces the problem of abstracting the text from its given context so that it can be contextualized it in a new context. Newbigin shows that the real challenge is knowing which community is most appropriate to the type of knowing in question. The community of science is a marvelous community for a large but ultimately limited body of knowledge about those aspects of reality that its instruments interrogate. It can know a great deal about that world, but as a community it isn’t capable of even perceiving what the Bible calls “spirit” much less examining its meaning. By deciding that nature is its only text, it can’t possibly understand other texts.
Newbigin, following long Church tradition, argues that there definitely is another body of knowledge, knowledge of God and all that pertains to God. And the appropriate community for knowing God isn’t made up of hypothetical disembodied observers, whether scientists or theologians rationally interpreting scripture according to the rules of critical hermeneutics. The appropriate community is the Church and its ongoing life with God. The church at worship and in mission.
With this realization, we can approach the issue of contextualization without the naiveté found in efforts to distinguish a dogmatic text from a cultural context. Instead we can see that there really is no text, only the living relationship between what is known and the knowing community. The “living Word” insists on its own autonomy and refuses to be merely an object of study. Even the Bible isn’t a text as commonly understood. While it is the normative (for Christians) record of God's self-disclosure in the apostolic community, it is not so much revelation itself as it is the world into which Christians enter to meet God. The life of the Church with the Bible, pre-eminently in worship but also in study and service, continually forms and reforms the knowing community.
(Note that I’m not asserting that the Bible is merely a record of the responses of humans to the Christ, a typical post-Schleiermacher liberal tradition. That would make it mere history and not the embodiment of the living Word as has been affirmed by the church through the ages. We might think by way of analogy of the CD recordings that I have of Mozart’s French horn concertos. They are arranged so that I can play along with an orchestra and soloist long past. These recordings both require that I play along, but also offer me the chance to improvise my own credenzas. If I merely study them, score in hand and full of all the analytical knowledge gained from study, both the history of Mozart and music theory, I will never actually understand them. For it isn’t their purpose to be studied, it is their purpose to teach me to play French horn. So the purpose of the Bible isn’t to be studied, but to form the Church in the image of Christ.)
So we see that the Church does not bring a fixed text into new contexts. The Church as a community knowing God is led by God’s Spirit to invite others to join it in its knowing. It invites them to become part of the ongoing process of shaping a community suited to the encounter of humans with God.
This ongoing process begs the question of whether other communities, those invited to join the Church, actually have anything to bring into the Church’s ongoing dialogue with God, or whether they simply adapt to what the church has already learned. I’ll take this up in Part 3.