Contextualizing Theology

There are two main challenges in contextualizing theology within and for another cultural setting. First, you must state your message in a way that is applicable to a certain culture. This is known as cultural contextualization and is the relative aspect of the application of truth. Second, while contextualizing certain truths, you must also be able to express truths that transcend the culture you are in at any time. For example, a Christian in China should understand the atonement the same way that a Christian in Africa understands it. This is known as trans-cultural normativity and is the absolute aspect of the meaning of truth. Therefore, the challenge is to avoid making relative what is absolute (i.e. post-modernism) and making absolute what is relative (i.e. the American way is the right way!).

A very important question that arises from this task of contextualization is: “What is the extent to which a given culture’s worldview affects and should affect how theology is formulated within and for that culture?” In other words, yes there is a legitimate place for cultural input, but to what extent? Before we can answer this question, there are two pitfalls we must look at.

First is “cultural Christianity”. Cultural Christianity is a formation of a theological understanding that is nothing more than an echo or reflection of values and beliefs that are already resonant in that culture. One example of this pitfall is Liberation Theology, which has been used in Third World countries by corrupt leaders to gain influence among the masses. This theology begins with a preferential option to the poor and builds a theology of the wickedness and oppression of the rich, and the innocence and righteousness of the poor. Of course, such theology is found nowhere in the Bible, but comes from their culture. An almost directly opposite example is Health and Wealth Theology, which is used among the affluent and materialistic. Here, right standing with God means being healthy and wealthy and Jesus is taught to be a rich man!

Second is “non-cultural Christianity”. This pitfall is when people claim to hold the pure and simple Christian faith with no mixture of culture in this faith. The reason this is a pitfall is because this is nothing but deception and naïveté. All of us are more inculturated than we are aware of. An example of this would be a missionary who goes out to Africa claiming to have a pure Christianity and teaches people that Christ died for their sins, to believe in Him to be saved, to wear clean clothes to church, to put a cross on the church, and to clap in 4/4 beat. We must realize that we have preferences that have nothing to do with the Bible or the Gospel.

The third alternative to these two pitfalls is contextualized normativity. Notice that “contextualized” is an adjective to the main noun, “normativity”. In other words, we must hold on to the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. There is an apostolic teaching that is normative and must be taught in any culture that is to become Christian. And yet, we realize that this normative truth has to be communicated in a contextualized form. We must contextualize it in a way where it is understandable but not compromised by that culture.

2 thoughts on “Contextualizing Theology

  1. bauer December 1, 2005 / 11:10 pm

    what are your views on authors like rick warren? i don’t think it’s necessarily post modern or anything, but i know for sure that <>The Purpose Driven Life<> has been translated into several different languages. My faith does not follow every thought put into that book exactly, it’s hard for me to fully take someone else’s thought and use it as truth. It might make me feel good as I am reading, but I always know in the back of my mind that God didn’t write it. For some of the feel good writings or instructions that he gives, I am certain the cultural implications are not congruent for each group. I know this does not pertain so great to your topic, but I’ve been wondering a lot recently about the theological differences within American culture, but also cross culturally. I’m not so well read, and I always like to decide for myself after I gather gobs of information-but I guess seeing that you come from a fundamentalist perspective on a lot of your writings is helpful. I hope you don’t mind if I try to pick your brain.


  2. Geoff December 4, 2005 / 7:25 pm

    I’ve read PDL and it has some truths in it, but it also has many things that I don’t like in it and that I think are harmful. For example, I don’t like how he uses the Bible out of context or uses 20 different translations to find one obscure translation to support what he is trying to say.However, I think there’s a much bigger flaw. The fundamental premise of the book is this: We as humans have these purposes. Most people in this world live in ignorance of these purposes. Now that you have read this book and learned your purposes, it’s up to you to go and fulfill them and live a purpose driven life. These purposes are yours to fulfill and if you can do these things, you will live an abundant and purposeful life.But is that the premise of the Bible? Is that what the Gospel is all about? You see, the fatal assumption that PDL makes is that we have the power to fulfill these purposes on our own. The purposes that Rick Warren gives are in some sense right and good. Yet, the Bible does not assume that we have the power to keep them. Rather it tells us that apart from God, we can do nothing. The only way we can do anything is by the power of God working in our lives, made available by the grace of God purchased on the cross of Jesus Christ. I think the basic premise of the Bible is not that we should purpose driven, but that we should be drawn by God’s promises. Our lives are to be ever dependent on God’s promises for strength and grace and courage and comfort, made available in and through Christ, in whatever situation, trial, or challenge we are facing. The promises of God are what drives (or should I say draws) the Christian forward in life. If not for the promises of God, which are fulfilled in Christ, we would be helpless to fulfill any of God’s purposes for us.I’m glad that you don’t automatically buy into his writings, and I don’t think you should do so for any person’s writings, including mine. Keep asking questions and always go back to the Word of God, which is our only inspired and infallible rule of faith for life and godliness.Btw, I would not categorize myself as a “fundamentalist” but more as an evangelical, in the historical sense of the word (today, evangelicalism has become so watered down that it has basically lost its meaning).


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