Wednesday, May 02, 2012

The problem of contextualization: A Critique of Keller's idea of contextualization

In my reading into the writing of a non-Western theologian, Kazoh Kitamori, the issue of inculturation and localized theologies do come up. The whole idea of an "Asian theology" or "Japanese theology" of course is just plain nonsense and is heresy against the catholic, apostolic faith as it is not catholic (universal) and not apostolic. Regardless, there is a softer version of this in the idea of contextualization. In fact, both of them flow out of the same font.

Tim Keller has produced a paper which from the looks of it was done for Covenant Seminary. The paper is entitled Contextualization: Wisdom or Compromise?. Last I checked, the paper is not available to the public, and I only have my copy because of a course I took in my winter term.

As the paper is probably not available anytime soon, I would summarize Keller's paper and then interact with the main issue at hand.

Keller's case

In this paper, Keller is putting forward a case for contextualization. According to him, contextualization is

... adapting gospel ministry from one culture into another culture by 1) changing those aspects of ministry that are culturally conditioned, and 2) maintaining those aspects of ministry that are unchanging and Biblically required. "Contextualization" 'incarnates' the Christian faith in a particular culture. (p. 1)

Keller argues that cultures may be good and bad, and that there is "no universal, de-contextualized form or expression of Christianity" (p. 1) Using the analogy of a stone and multiple colored globes, Keller opines that the Christian faith is analogous to the stone and the colored globes represent the various cultures of the world. The stone will always be in a globe, just like the Christian faith will always be inculturated. His point therefore is this: Christians (probably with Western Christians in mind) have their faith (stone) as understood within their culture (eg. a blue colored globe). When attempting to communicate the Gospel and the Christian message to those from another culture, one should take out the stone from one's culture and placed it into the new differently colored globe. So for example if a Western white PCA Christian were to attempt to communicate the Christian message to urban cosmopolitan New Yorkers, one has to take out the stone from one's blue globe and put it in let's say a yellow globe. The stone would thus look different when it is in the yellow than when it is in the blue globe.

Keller makes pain to state that he is against over-contextualization (and under contextualization too). He insists that the Gospel message cannot be compromised. What is essential must be kept, but what is not essential if it offends people must be removed.

The rest of the paper revolves around practice and the idea of showing how the Gospel fulfills the narratives of opposing worldviews, which we will not cover here.

Analysis and critique

Keller is right in saying that there is "no universal, de-contextualized form or expression of Christianity." Certainly, we should not make our culture the determining form of how Christianity is to be practiced. But does this mean that Keller's idea of contextualization is therefore proved?

The problem with Keller's view of contextualization is that it is based upon a Platonic, Idealist view of Christianity. Christianity in Keller's view is this abstract faith out there, which is incarnated into the cultures of their time. Thus the abstract Christian message is like the stone which in the beginning is already placed in a colored globe. Since the world has changed, cultures have changed, and therefore we should not continue to keep the Christian message (stone) within the old culture (e.g blue globe). Rather, we are to "contextualize" the Christian message (stone) by transferring it into the appropriate culture of the receptors (the yellow globe) so that the Christian message will continue to be heard as it ought to be.

One can see the similarity between Keller's version of contextualization and the liberals' version of localized theologies. Like Keller, they acknowledge the "cultural captivity" of the Gospel. In order to interact with other cultures, the Gospel (stone) has to be taken out of its western context and situated in its new context, be it Korean, Japanese or African. The only difference between Keller and the liberals is what each would categorize as essential and non-essential. Keller would, I hope, keep the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone to be essential, whereas the liberals have "moved" beyond that.

The problem with Keller's view is that the Gospel and the Christian message is not a Platonic ideal. The Gospel and the Christian message is revealed through history and in history. There is certainly an ideal archetypal message, but that is not what is revealed to us. What is revealed to us is the Gospel message as ectypically revealed through the prism of the cultures of that time. The Gospel message is therefore revealed through these cultural lenses, and cannot be separated from them.

Thus, Keller's (and the liberals') idea of the Gospel is not available to anyone. It is part of archetypal theology. There is no such "stone" therefore available to anyone but God. Only God knows the Christian message unmediated, not us. Therefore, it is impossible to abstract the Gospel message absent of its historical circumstances, and then re-contextualize it into a new globe.

When anyone therefore faces the Gospel message, it is an altogether alien thing, unless of course one lives during the time of the writing of the Scriptures. The Christian message uses the cultural forms of an age long ago. Thus, biblical exegesis and meditation on the worldview portrayed by Scripture is necessary to grow in understanding the Christian faith. Ad fontes! All cultures are brought back to understanding biblical truths as revealed in the cultural contexts of their time, and then reapplying them to ours. Such application is necessary regardless of whether one is white or black, German or Japanese.

We do not attempt to somehow decipher the core Platonic essentials of the faith and re-contextualize them. Rather, we bring the whole of Scripture together with its various cultural forms to bear on every culture. Every culture has to come to terms with the foreignness of the Christian faith before seeing the pertinence it has for all peoples in every culture.

Keller's view of contextualization is therefore unbiblical. By trying to bifurcate between essentials and non-essentials in his manner, it has more similarity with Adolf Von Harneck's kerygmatic theory than biblical Christianity.


Trinity said...

Hi there again, Daniel! Love reading your blog. As I read this post, I found myself nodding in agreement throughout and think that everything here is significant and true... And yet... I also think of the early church and the missionary efforts. Specifically, how God called Peter as the apostle to the Jews and Paul as the apostle to the Gentiles. It seems that there is a bit of contextualization inherent. I know you touched on this saying that the specific context is for those who lived in the specific time that the apostles lived. However, after further reflection, I would nuance this a bit. Every Bible study application contextualizes how we might take what Paul or James or John wrote and apply it to our lives today while maintaining the original intent. For me, that is the absolute beauty of the Word of God it is the same yesterday, today and forever -and- it is always relevant for our own contexts.

While it is true that gifted preachers like Tim Keller are able to provide wise, true and faithful application, there are also quite a few who are not so wise or discerning who come across silly or misguided. Let's just be careful not to through the baby out with the bathwater, as we are so prone to do. Thanks!

PuritanReformed said...


you will note that I did not say that one simply transfer everything in toto from one culture to another. I do recognize that some form of adaptation is necessary, and one should not impose one's culture upon another along with the Faith

The issue is not whether one "contextualizes." The question is what our understanding of cultural adaptation is. Keller's view makes all cultures relative, without seeing that the cultural setting of the ANE, ancient Israel, Greo-Roman civilization and Second Temple Judaism, has some priority over all other cultures only because biblical truths are communicated through their cultural forms.

If you want to see what such "contextualization" (where all cultures are relativized in pursuit of some Platonic ideal of the Christian faith) looks like, check out any Third-world theology.