Book Summary and Reflection – The Word Among Us Contextualizing Theology for Mission Today

A careful reading of the articles of the thirteen contributors reveals their conviction that contextualization [defined by Gilliland as “to simplify, clarify and give ownership of the Bible and the whole Gospel to the community of faith in a given place” (317)], is basically Bible-based and Holy Spirit-led. Consequently, it is a requirement for mission today. These contributors from the School of World Mission of Fuller Theological Seminary are committed “to understand mission with biblical clarity, cultural sensitivity and spiritual wholeness” (4). The book is divided into two parts which respectively contain six and eight articles.

Part 1 is the more theoretical section of the book which begins with a discussion of the meaning of contextualization and why it is a critical issue in mission today. The contextual principle begins with the first moment when the first message is preached and continues through the planting, nurturing and witnessing of the church. Chapters 2-4 demonstrate that contextualization is a biblical principle. Glasser opines that in the Old Testament, God always revealed whom He was in concrete ways from within the culture, utilizing human situations to make Himself known. Gilliland argues that the expansion of the gospel into the gentile world demanded new symbols of communication and careful attention to local situations while maintaining a consistent, essential gospel. Van Engen realistically observes that the covenant motif encompasses all of Scripture and that contextual relevance requires that the covenant have a contemporary contextual quality as it moves through history. Hiebert aptly notes that it is essential to understand that contextualization is a complex process involving the careful use of cultural forms to convey Christian meanings. The ultimate article in this chapter from Kraft discusses how God works at the deep levels of human receptivity making His Word known through dynamic channels of communication.

Shaw opens Part Two by reviewing factors of both biblical and modern contexts which impact the translation of biblical texts. In the discussion on dimensions of approaches to contextual communication, Sogaard analyses how the whole area of communication and all the technical facilities available will produce results only if the whole context contributes to strategic methods. Clinton agrees that the discovery of leaders who are culturally authentic as well as spiritually gifted is a critical process in which the base and applicational contexts interface in determining appropriate leadership. Approaches to development, Elliston argues, must understand the specific human situation and find solutions that are truly Christian as well as functional. Wagner presents a logical argument that the uniqueness of people and the specialty of social groupings must be accepted and utilized for theologizing to take place. The neglected area of Christian nominalism is discussed by Gibbs who calls for an intense study of historical and contemporary issues that contribute to the problem. The last two chapters by Tan and Woodberry deal with specific cultural settings. The former, demonstrated in the Chinese setting, observes that one methodology for contextualization is to highlight cultural themes or problems and deal with them in a biblical way. The latter is a challenge of the Muslim world. When Muslims become Christians and continue to use Muslim forms, Woodberry observes that they are readopting old Jewish and Christian forms of worship.

Reflection

The text has given the researcher a better understanding of the meaning and necessity of contextualizing the Bible in a very relevant way for a particular culture. In the Old Testament, God Himself used the widely known, ancient phenomenon of covenant. The ministry of Paul for instance provides a very clear case study for contextualization in the New Testament. The central message of Jesus was carefully retained, while as the Spirit directed, this message was given incarnational expression. Paul worked with a variety of local situations with no text other than the Old Testament. In theologizing today, as we move from culture to culture, we have the Scriptures. Revelational truth should therefore be the foundation on which particular theologies are constructed. We must know the Word and the culture. The hermeneutic of the culture will guide us in appropriating the Word, while at the same time the irrevocable truth of the Word will judge and transform the culture.

The very high quality of the articles is attributed to the fact that they are coming from thirteen specialists with doctorate degrees in various shades of missions. The detailed index (author and subject), extensive bibliography with over four hundred and forty five references, and twenty-five figures or illustrations enhance the quality of the text.

A query with the editor is in the way the appendix is treated as an optional extra when it should have formed part of the main text since the models discussed (anthropological, translation, praxis, adaptation, synthetic, semiotic and critical) are critically analysed and relevant to any interpretation of one’s culture.

The above notwithstanding, this invaluable text is a must for every Christian who wants to be faithful to presenting the good news of Jesus Christ truly and in a way that the Lord’s claims are understood.

(c) Oliver Harding 2008