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Yeah…But Which Context?

As a seminary student I hear a lot about contextualization. It has become something of a buzz word in contemporary evangelicalism. Generally, when someone talks about contextualization as it relates to Christianity they are referring to the idea that the Christian message must somehow be made culturally relevant to people today. We are thousands of years and half a world away from the world of the Bible. So, how do we make the Bible relevant to today’s world? This is the question that contextualization addresses. It is not a question without merit. I have no intention of denying the importance of helping people to think about the scriptures in a fresh way. But I want to use the issue to turn the question the other way. Instead of asking how we can relate the Bible to our culture, I propose that we should just as often ask how we ourselves can relate to the culture of the Bible. The first question is one that moves from ancient to modern times. The second is one that moves from modern to ancient times.

My concern is that we get so caught up with trying to make the Bible relevant or meaningful in our modern context that we all too often forget to try to understand what the Bible meant in its original context. Or we do not expend the necessary energy to understand the Bible in its original context. Every serious student of the scriptures should make a life long habit of studying the world in which the scriptures were written. We are bound to misunderstand the text if we do not also understand its original context.

I realize that the person with a family and a job will not be able to devote time to extensive and detailed reading in the social context of the ancient near east and Hellenistic world. However, this does not mean that attention must never be devoted to these periods. We find time to read novels or watch sitcoms. Should we not also find time to read history? Especially considering that it is the history of the world in which the Bible was written.

That the average career and family man cannot devote full time study to the text and its social context also indicates the importance of a pastor who devotes significant time to such study. It is the pastor’s responsibility to faithfully preach and teach the scriptures. But how can he do this if he does not understand the world in which the sacred texts were composed? The faithful pastor must also be something of an historian as well. The pastor who spends sufficient time preparing to preach or teach by reading good commentaries will accomplish this. A good commentary will always bring the historical and social context to bear on the interpretation of a text. I fear though that all too often the pastor tries so diligently to relate the text to his congregation that he neglects the task of relating the congregation to the text. It is amazing how clear some difficult passages become when the social context is considered.

This means that the faithful preacher will have to read some history. For example, the pastor preaching in Romans should grapple with its social context which occupies the final four chapters, a full 25%, of the letter. Who are the two groups called upon to welcome each other in Romans 14? What is the relationship between Paul’s ethical exhortation to these particular people and the theology in chapters 1-11? Why does the letter come to its final climax in calling the Jew and Gentile to glorify God together? How do these questions relate to Paul’s pending mission to Spain? These questions can only be addressed through reading in the social context of Christianity in first century Rome. Unfortunately, the social context of Romans Christianity has been widely neglected in the interpretation and the preaching of Romans.

The importance of understanding the historical context of the text also means that the preacher should read the books Paul was reading. This may mean wrestling with Aristotle who may have coined the term “natural/carnal man” (Gk. psychikos anthropos) used by Paul in 1 Cor 2:14. It appears that the term did not originally refer to man at his worst but to man at his best, supremely educated and contributing positively to the state and to society. Paul appears to be saying that the best the Graeco-Roman world had to offer is not able to understand the things of the Spirit of God.

The issue of contextualization, then, may not always be an issue of moving from ancient to modern. Rather, it is often an issue of the reverse, moving from modern to ancient. The preacher is particularly responsible for making sure that his preaching is consistent with what was actually happening when the preached texts were written. The thorough preacher will be able to relate the congregation to the text as well as the text to the congregation. The movement goes both ways.

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