The gospel and culture are closely interrelated in our understanding of God’s revelation, our communications of it and the kind of response our hearers make; so also in the nature of our lifestyle and the character of our theology and worship.
There is nothing like a culture-free gospel, a gospel that can be disembodied and lifted up as the pure gospel. The problem in the the concept of text and context is that we do not have a pure, simple text, but only a text within a context. It is not at all easy to distinguish between what is culturally conditioned and what is universally normative in the Bible, when we deal with a number of issues.
Context of God’s Self-revelation
God’s self-revelation was uniquely linked to actual history, the history of a chosen nation that belonged to a particular culture, time and geographical region. It was in history and through history that God showed himself. It was the history of God’s patient dealings with them for over a period of some thousand years. God had to work with their capacity to understand their language and their cultural background. This is contextualisation in the true sense.Contextualisation of the gospel is all about both the convergence of, and the encounters between, the story of God’s present deeds among all peoples, the biblical history of God’s redemptive work in Christ, the story of the evangelist, and the story of those being evangelised.
God and Worship
Even about three millennia before the beginning of Israel’s history, all of the Ancient Near East had highly developed religions with literally hundreds of gods and goddesses hierarchically ranked in pantheons, massive temples, complex rituals, elaborate mythologies and the practise of sexual immorality and divination. It is in this general religious environment that Israel lived their faith. Undoubtedly, they were influenced by the religious beliefs and practises of their neighbours.But, the Old Testament literature stood in sharp contrast to people’s religious practises, describing what should be their faith and religious life. Against the background of widespread and consistent polytheism, Israelite faith centered around belief in one God. This one God is understood as being a person.
The general pattern of worship in Israel might have looked very similar in many ways to the worship of people of other nations. But the purpose and meanings were radically different. In each culture, God should be worshiped in forms most natural to it.
In every culture there are elements consistent with the gospel and elements contrary to the gospel. If we apply only the positive and neutral values and are silent about the harmful and deceptive elements we do not take the whole context seriously. The Old Testament contextualisation clearly speaks about the negative aspects of the culture. Contextualisation through compatibility and contextualisation through contrasts should belong to each other.
Critical Use of Common Cultural Heritage
Israel belonged to the Ancient Near Eastern culture in general. There were many common traditions especially literary traditions, which Israel carefully and critically made use of. For example, there are some similarities between the Genesis 1-2 account and the Babylonian “Enuma Elish,” but the differences are very striking. So also, in the case of Genesis 6-8, and the “Story of Gilgamesh,” there are many similarities and great differences.Parts of the Old Testament such as Job, some of the Psalms, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes belonged to the wisdom tradition. Wisdom literature is not concerned with the redemptive purpose of God and his unique self-revelation to Israel. There is much in them that deals with common human values.
God is the source of the many common human virtues reflected in all peoples and their writings. We need not hesitate to make use of them.
The Key Concepts of Kingship and Covenant
The two most dominant theological themes that run through the Old Testament, and into the New Testament, are the Kingdom and the Covenant. But both of these concepts did not originally belong to Israel. They were borrowed from their neighbours, cleansed, enriched and made fundamental to their own faith.All through the ancient world kingship was sacral, combining in the office both the political and the religious functions. We find some influences of this sacral concept in the idea of Israelite kingship. But on the other hand Israelite kings were radically unlike the kings of other nations.
The Old Testament covenant format seems to be very similar to the 14th/13th century B.C. Hittite covenants. The main parts of those covenants can be traced to the Exodus – Deuteronomy format of the Sinai covenant. The covenant concept was dominant throughout the Old Testament. This, too, as in the case of the kingship expectations, came to be fulfilled in Christ.
Could we say that there could be dominant concepts of people today like kingship and covenant that we can identify and transform in our task of gospel contextualisation?
Contextualised Challenge to Culture: the Prophets
The prophets were excellent in contextualised communication. They received the word of God and communicated it to people orally, in symbolic actions, and in writing. They worked in a wide variety of contexts. They spoke in powerful similes, metaphors and pictorial images. They often used dramas, proverbs, dirges and poems. The figures of speech they used were taken from the life of real people.We often refer to contextualisation as the gospel becoming incarnate in a culture. The prophets incarnated God’s message in their lives. One sublime illustration of this was Hosea marrying a harlot to show the deep pain and love of Yahweh for Israel.
Because their messages were delivered in their own cultural form and through their own experience, they had powerful impact in challenging their culture. From within their culture, they challenged the evils of the political, social, religious and economic aspects of life. It was as if through contextualisation they were trying to create a counter culture.
We should not talk of gospel contextualisation as a way to make the gospel more easily acceptable to people. The gospel initially is always an offense, and if it is contextualised it could be more of an offense. The gospel can never be domesticated in a culture. Only contextualised gospel can rebuke, reshape and shepherd any society or culture to be what Christ’s gospel meant it to be. In this sense contextualisation should always have a prophetic role in any society.
Changing Contexts and Progressive Revelation
God’s revelation is not static. It continues to speak in new ways with changing contexts. As Israel’s history progressed, God’s self-revelation took new forms with new meanings until the fullness of revelation in Christ. For example, the role of the classical prophets in Israel’s increased understanding of God, and the development of the apocalyptic hope during the Babylonian exile.When we allow our cultural context to shape our understanding of the gospel without ourselves becoming subjected to the power and challenge of the gospel, we end up with a distorted gospel. In contextualisation we should guard against any cultural captivity or cultural distortion of the gospel while we seek to culturally understand, express and live the gospel.
The gospel is always bigger than any gospel expression. New light on the gospel and its power will emerge in all parts of the world where the church serves God in faithfulness. And if we are teachable and humble, we will learn from each other in a new way so that the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, will grow and upbuild itself in love as each part does its work. (Eph. 4:16).