I asked my dear friend, neighbor, and missiology colleague at my former seminary, Samuel Escobar, where biblical studies could be helpful for missiology. He suggested that biblical scholars could help missiologists to define the boundaries between contextualization and syncretism. Because the entire Bible has a cultural context, the entire Bible offers us models for non-syncretistic contextualization.
Those of us who embrace Scripture as divine revelation must recognize that God communicated cross-culturally. All communication has a cultural context; no one communicates or hears in a cultural vacuum. Insofar as we wish to hear the Bible as communication, then, we need to take into account its cultural context. The Bible provides countless examples of God identifying with cultures—sometimes down to the terms used for various kinds of sacrifices; literary forms used for oracles; or Proverbs, Jesus, and Paul using rhetorical forms of contemporary sages. Yet it also provides countless examples of God challenging culture, for instance in warnings against deity statues. Genuine contextualization does not simply adopt all values of the host culture (an adoption that would include syncretism); rather, it communicates God’s prior message in the language and idiom of local culture, making both its affirmations and its demands more intelligible.
Paul’s letters abound with sensitivity to local or cultural situations. For example, he affirms hair coverings, which to at least lower-class persons in the Eastern Mediterranean represented sexual modesty. Although many of us today would recognize that Paul contextualized the principle helpfully for his setting, most of us would also feel comfortable expressing sexual modesty in different ways for very different cultures.
But contextualization requires interpretation, and some nuances and connections with earlier imagery are necessarily lost in this process. Thus a dynamic tension remains. Yet the Spirit helps us in interpretation (cf. 1 Cor 2:11–13; 2 Cor 3:14–18). Indeed, even when we have conceptually merely images of the future world, for example, experientially we can participate in a foretaste of that world through the Spirit (1 Cor 2:9–10).
This content is by Craig Keener, but edited and posted by Defenders Media.
For more on how to read and interpret Scripture in light of Pentecost, read Spirit Hermeneutics (2016).