The Contextualised Witness of the Apostles

A dramatic contextualisation obviously takes place within the New Testament period. The apostles did not only repeat the teaching of Jesus. They developed partly a new language and new institutions, and emphasized new aspects in their preaching and teaching.

And even if we, for many good reasons, harmonize Jesus and Paul, we still have to face some striking differences concerning language, and institutions.

What do we mean by ‘Contextualisation`?

The word ‘contextualisation’ was, of course, alien to the apostles. The puzzling word ‘contextualisation’ is a problem in itself: It is a well known fact that the word today has several connotations and a multiplicity of meanings. The diverse suggestions of synonyma indicate the multiplicity of meanings, i.e. adaptation, accommodation, actualisation, indigenisation, inculturation, incarnation, intercultural communication.

It is indeed problematic to communicate if you do not know exactly which meaning, content and synonyma the actual theologian or author has in mind. We can also see that the choice of synonyma/meanings is rarely arbitrary. The principles and theological argumentation turn out to be very different if using i.e. adaption instead of i.e. inculturation as the closest synonyma.

The variety of connotations is also due to the fact that every serious effort of contextualisation has to deal with the following five tasks:

a. Actualisation of a Scripture written to a different culture 2000 years ago
b. Cross-cultural communication
c. Working for indigenous communities/theology
d. Emphasizing the incarnational aspects of Christian belief
e. Elaboration of the transcultural aspects of the gospel

Does it, however, really make sense to put all these pieces into one single bag, named contextualisation? If the term is meant to communicate, to give a precise definition of the problem and be a common basis for discussion, one has indeed to be critical of the word contextualisation. Hence, if we openly state that we are dealing with a variety of problems at the same time, the very vague term contextualisation can serve the purpose. If we still retain the term, as I do, it can only be done as a result of lacking better alternatives.

My first conclusion is: The vague term contextualisation has to be used as long as we lack better alternatives. But we do have to properly define the task(s) we have in mind, and we have to make evident the differences between contextualisation and adaptation / accommodation.

Contextualisation and 1 Corinthians 9

How can we understand the term in light of the New Testament? As far as I can see, some of the connotations and meanings given to the word contextualisation today, would have been rather detestable for the audience of the apostles. Theologians who today try to give contextualisation the meaning of adaptation or accommodation, are apparently not aware of the fact that a despised figure in a hellenistic area was the figure of a flatterer. In Corinth, Paul was accused by adversaries of being a flatterer, and Paul is therefore forced to argue against them.

Modern exegesis is deeply divided in their answers to the crucial question: Is Paul presenting a principle and a strategy? Is the test, at least to a certain extent using irony when quoting his adersaries?

If Paul is presenting a principle or strategy, one has to decide the exact content of the principle, and it is hard for the exegetes not to end up with the conclusion that this is a principle of accommodation. Paul is advocating a very flexible, almost a chameleon-like and inconsistent behaviour. If Paul, to a certain extent, really is quoting his adversaries, only a few aspects have to be seen as a principle of contextualisation.

Paul was apparently accused of flattering behaviour. His ‘oscillating strategy’ in 1 Corinthians 6-10 gave them even more ammunition: Remarriage or not, remain slave or not, eat idol meats or not, receive salary or not. Paul’s answers are not always clear. They probably strengthened the accusations that Paul was a ‘Jew for Jews and a Greek for Greeks’ in the sense of a changeable flatterer, a chameleon.

  • Paul answers the accusations with a solid argument, saying: he was not a flatterer, but he was making himself a slave to all men.
  • The comparison “as a”= Greek ‘hos’ does not denote identity, which Paul himself makes clear in his two parentheses (though not being myself under the law, though not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ). He was not a ‘friend’ of those under the law or those without the law, but as a slave, he was the Servant of Christ.
  • His obligation is the gospel, and he makes himself a slave of people in order to be part of the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:23 RSV: “that I may share in its blessings”). The Greek word means to have everything in common, which in the hellenistic context means to be ‘friend’.

A better understanding of this passage shows us that to a certain extent we can see a principle of contextualisation in 1 Corinthians 9:19ff, but this is not a principle of adaptation or accommodation. He describes the Christian freedom as dialectic to the task of serving other people, in order to preach the gospel so that they can be saved. He never flattered those under the law or people without the law. His only obligation was the gospel, and Paul was steadfast in his ‘friendship’ with the gospel.

My second conclusion is: The New Testament has not given us a principle of contextualisation, but an obligation to serve as many as possible without compromising the obligation to the gospel.

Global Context

Paul contextualised the church institutions, his teaching and preaching on three levels.

Paul considered himself the apostle to the Gentiles. His final goal was to reach the Jews, and both as historians and theologians we would like to know how he preached to the Jews. The letters, even to the Galatians and Romans, reflect his teachings to a predominant Gentile audience. The word Gentile is basically a theological term, used to describe every non-Jew. The word denotes the Hebrew ‘goiim’=men and women not belonging to the people of God (Hebrew ‘am’). But using Gentile as a general term, may also hint at the fact that the hellenistic culture was a ‘global culture’.

The hellenistic area implied a common language, equal technology, a similar architecture, a similar structure of institutions, similar features of popular ideas and beliefs. Even in Jerusalem, as the temple city, the most specific Jewish city, some 80% of the inscriptions found here in the first Christian era are written in Greek. The Hellenistic tendencies in Jewish writings from Ben Sira and The Septuagint to Philo and Josephus are so global that it has become part of the Jewish mind as well.

Paul, the Jew, is no exception, particularly obvious in his writings to the Gentile communities. Certain influential branches of American scholarship have ‘Paul as Hellenist’ as the main perspective in their research, and the results confirm that Paul was a part of the global hellenistic culture and that he thus was able to communicate with those who ideologically had their identity in this culture.

National context

It would not be adequate for a historian to look for the category ‘nations’, in the modern meaning of the word. In Asia Minor and Greece, the independent city is the important entity, and other alliances built on the basis of language, religion, and economic interests were very fragile. Under the Roman domain tendencies towards ‘nations’ were stopped by the powerful Roman force.

One nation, however, kept their identity in spite of the Roman presence and hellenistic cultural influence, namely the Jewish communities. The fast-growing Jesus-movement was by outsiders conceived of as a Jewish sect, and in its early stages, Jewish Christianity was indeed an ethnic, national group. Problems soon arose as Cornelius and other Romans, Greeks and Barbarians had to be integrated into this ethnic religion.

The common belief in Jesus Christ as Messiah also had consequences for norms, law and customs. Moreover, there was still a large field of laws and customs, which was related to ethnicity. These areas were difficult to handle for the early multiethnic Christianity, and the crucial questions were:

  • circumcision (Acts 15; Galatians 2:1ff): Were the Gentiles to be circumcised and become proselytes and eventually ethnic Jews?
  • food and holy codes (Galatians 2:11ff; 1Corinthians 8-10; Romans 14): Can Gentiles eat at the same table as the Jews or must there be a segregation? The Apostles’ decree in Acts 15:20f was meant to regulate this, but as the Gentile Christians became a majority, one question became crucial: Is it possible for Jews to remain Jews and not be Gentiles, having at the same time everything in common with Gentiles

Paul argued vehemently for a two-way solution to this practical matter, for the sake of both the Jews and the Gentiles. Jews had of course the strongest objections to Paul, and consequently Paul had to argue that ethnicity and faith should not be confused with each other: Gentiles have no need for circumcision and must not keep all the laws for clean and unclean.

Paul himself was circumcised and kept all the Jewish Laws, not only as long as he was in Jerusalem and among fellow Jews, but probably also when he was among Gentile Christians. But Paul openly accepted the Gentiles’ different lifestyle, risking that not everything was ‘kosher’ when they met in the agape-meals. Accepting their lifestyle, Paul was accused by his adversaries “of becoming as one under the law among those under the law, and of becoming as one outside the law among those outside the law”, (1 Corinthians 9:20f). However, as we stated above, Paul was not acting from the principle of accommodation. He did not accommodate his own practice, and argued in favour of the right of the Gentiles: they were not obligated to live like Jews. Ethnicity and faith has to be separated. Paul’s criticism of the law was to some extent a criticism of Jewish ethnocentrism.

Local context

Even in recent research, New Testament scholarship tends to overlook the fact that Paul, in most of his letters contextualised his teaching on a local level. In nearly every letter, we can find local references and Philippians and 1 Corinthians will serve as examples.

Philippi was, after Augustus’ refounding of the city, basically a Roman city. Many war veterans settled here after the huge battles in the area (in Philippi 42 B.C. and Actium 31 B.C.). Here they were given many privileges, they kept their Roman citizenship, and continued to use Latin as their language.

In the letter to the Philippians, Paul demonstrates clearly what ‘local contextualisation’ is about. Here are two examples:

  • The term he uses for the population (‘filippesioi’) is a latinism (Philippenses). The locals used this term instead of the correct Greek term ‘filippeis’/’filipenoi’.
  • Also words like ‘Praetorium’ (Philippians 1:13 NIV: palace guard), fellow-soldier ( 2:25) ‘those who belong to Caesar’s household’ (4:22) tells us that Paul is speaking a language which communicates.
Distinguishing transcultural patterns and contextualised actualisations

To distinguish between ‘transcultural content’ and contextualised actualisations or between everlasting doctrinal beliefs and applications on the basis of actual needs, has always been one of the main tasks for church leaders and preachers.

The key words ‘transcultural’ and ‘actualisation’ are, however, slippery words, and the very idea of a transcultural content and uncontextualised beliefs has been criticised from various philosophical standpoints.

As a New Testament scholar I find it difficult to extract what supposedly is the transcultural content of the New Testament.

One possibility is to define the teaching of Jesus as the transcultural content and i.e. Paul’s theology as contextualised actualisations. This again makes us wonder why Paul rarely used what should be the transcultural content.

  • As long as Jesus’ teaching is seen as the transcultural content, the rest of the New Testament tends to be evaluated as ‘decline’, as misinterpretations, or as writings reflecting the ‘early Catholic church’.
  • On the other hand, one can see Paul’s theology as the centre of the New Testament and the teaching of Jesus more as a basically Jewish theology.

All the efforts to search for a transcultural content will, I believe, sooner or later end up ‘running against the wall’. So it is perhaps wise to see where the door is. Actually I think there are two doors.

a. The first solution is to see the New Testament as different but very coherent interpretations of the Old Testament. As Christians we have to think Jewish and not Western in order to reach an understanding.

b. We must prefer the language ‘transcultural pattern’ instead of ‘transcultural content’. A pattern is a way of thinking rather than statements. It is more a ‘world view’ than fixed dogmatics. A pattern is basic convictions expressed in symbols, rituals, liturgy, prayers, behaviour and practices.

Paul uses six different languages of salvation. The languages he uses were well known in the hellenistic world, and he has to use them in order to communicate with his communities:

a. As a Jew, he has to use categories derived from the temple cult. Salvation is atonement, sacrifice, sanctification, holiness, cleansed by the blood, etc.

b. Being a Jew it was natural to use judicial terms, such as righteousness, grace, and forgiveness. Both Jews and Greeks knew the concept of a divine order, and that disorder means unrighteousness and sin.

c. For the same reason both Jews and Greeks could use a language derived from daily life (human relations) to express what salvation is all about: Peace, to be saved, freedom, joy, no pain.

d. Both Jews and Greeks used a more cognitive language to express ‘salvation’. Salvation as knowledge, to know God and see the consequences of this knowledge (Hebrew ‘jada adonai’, daat elohim) is a key-concept, not only in Genesis 3, but particularly in Hosea 6:4-6; Jeremiah 2:5ff; 4:22; 8:8f; 9:22ff, Isaiah and Ezekiel (54 times the formula: you will know that I am the Lord). Among the Greek philosophers wisdom (Greek:’sophia’) became the very goal of a meaningful life.

e. The Greeks developed a particular mystical language to express salvation. Salvation means partaking in the divine harmony, in divine mysteries, it is a transformation into a new being.

f. Unique to Jewish Religion on the other hand is the theocentric bias. Salvation is to be elected by the only God, and to be part of his kingdom now and the kingdom to come.

Paul’s pattern brings in something new:
  • Paul as the Apostle to the Gentiles is in his contextualised preaching implanting the theocentric gospel into the Greek anthropocentric framework. There is a shift in perspective from God’s action for mankind, to what this action really means for mankind.
  • Paul’s pattern is more fully developed than either the Jewish or the Greek patterns.
  • Paul’s pattern is developed on the basis of Christology. Only through Christ are we able to achieve atonement/sanctification (cultic language), righteousness/grace (judicial language, election/empowerment/kingdom of God (theocentric language), peace/joy (daily-life language), knowledge (cognitive language) and ‘in Christ’ we are new beings.
  • Paul develops the ‘transcultural’ pattern differently from one letter to another. To the Philippians, a community lacking Jewish presence , he consequently leaves out the sacrificial language. In the dialogue with the communities in Rome he stresses the judicial language, and to the Corinthians the cognitive language. In this way Paul contextualises the pattern as well as actualises certain elements of the pattern.
The ‘timing-problem’ and contextualisation

Contextualisation has to do with strategy, it has “to make the most of every opportunity” (Colossians 4:5). Paul was a master of this strategy, but Corinth seems to be an exception, 2 Corinthians 10:10 (in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing).

The Areopagus speech has been contrastingly evaluated from the perspective of contextualisation.

  • In this speech some theologians find a masterpiece of contextualised theology. Paul is using stoic ideas in order to convey their way of thinking into a new Jewish-Christian pattern.
  • On the other hand Paul’s failure (only a few people believed and Paul did not go back to Athens) has evoked criticism of what they see as an accommodation strategy. The gospel is not really preached, the Holy Spirit is not mentioned, the basic Christian beliefs are out of sight.

Both evaluations can easily be defended, but one important aspect in their analysis is lacking. From a rhetorical point of view, Paul uses the technique of ‘insinuatio’. This means that Paul does not present the fundamentals in his teaching and preaching. He will first of all make them curious. He preached partly in a way the audience was familiar with. On the other hand, he challenged and provoked them. Some people gave the adequate answer to such a speech as they said: “We want to hear you again on this subject” (Acts 17:32).

Paul shows us that timing and contextualisation must be seen together. It is wise not to contextualise in the same way on every occasion. Contextualisation is more a goal and an effort than a tool, principle or even programme.

Contextualisation is more an awareness than a method. It is an awareness of our own presuppositions and cultural limitations and the differences in culture and the strengths and the weaknesses of every culture.

The Bible and the limitations of contextualisation

I will briefly suggest some guidelines:

a. To underline the differences between accommodation and contextualisation

      • the narrative structure of the creed (‘The Great Code’ – from creation to recreation) cannot be accommodated, but must be the transcultural pattern for every church.
      • the translation model is not sufficient, but can never be replaced.
      • the Jewishness of the gospel, due to the fact that Old Testament is our Holy Scripture and Jesus himself was a Jew, must be taken into account.
      • there is a richness in the concept of salvation and in the biblical images of Jesus, which opens up for perpetual actualisations/ contextualisations. These actualisations must never end up in onesidedness and reductionism.

b. To underline some limitations of every kind of contextualisation Contextualisation is always risky, but one has to be alert when:

    • certain concepts are totally reinterpreted
    • the contextualised actualisations turn out to be contrary to what the Bible says
    • it is not taken into account that God revealed himself in the Old Testament / New Testament (which makes it impossible to replace the core patterns and to break the links between Old Testament and New Testament).
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