"Contextualization of the Gospel?"

Contextualization of the Gospel

  1. Introduction

    Until recently the field of study known as Contextualization has been the almost exclusive domain of Protestant and Roman Catholic missiology. Beginning in the mid 1960s both of these groups began intensive efforts to make their missionary presentation of the Gospel and the Church as culturally relevant as possible.[1] Their activity ranged from reworking of biblical translations for repressed minorities[2] to culturally driven modifications of the Roman Mass[3] for use in sub-Saharan Africa; from Lutheran political theology in Germany[4] to Catholic Liberation Theology in Latin America.[5]

1.1.  Several Examples

1.1.1.     A reworking of the Lord’s Prayer by the African theologian Caanan Banana.

Our Father who art in the ghetto,
Degraded is your name.
Thy servitude abounds,
Thy will is mocked,
As pie in the sky.

Teach us to demand,
Our share of the gold,
Forgive us our docility,
As we demand our share of justice.
Lead us not into complicity,
Deliver us from our fears.

For ours is thy sovereignty,
The power and the liberation,
Forever and ever. Amen

1.1.2.     The Cotton Patch Gospel put forth by Clarence Jordon, in the hope of making the text more understandable to its readers. Here are a few lines from the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew

When Jesus was born in Gainesville, Georgia during the time that Herod was governor, some scholars from the Orient came to Atlanta and inquired, "Where is the one who was born to be governor of Georgia? We saw his star in the Orient, and we came to honor him." This news put Governor Herod and all his cronies in a tizzy. So he called a meeting of the big time preachers and politicians, and asked if they had any idea where the Leader was to be born. In Gainesville, Georgia," the replied, "because there's a bible prophecy which says

And you Gainesville, in the state of Georgia,
Are by no means the least in the Georgia delegation;
From you will come a governor,
Who will wisely guide my chosen people.' "

1.1.3.     Few Orthodox Contributions

While, I do not want to emulate these obviously unacceptable attempts at contextualization, it is still true that there have been very few Orthodox efforts in this general area.  And surely, we do not have the same freedom or license that some of our Protestant and Catholic counterparts take with the Holy Scripture, the Liturgy, etc. Nevertheless, contextualization has been and is very much a part of our history. Consider the work done on language and catechesis by Ss. Cyril and Methodius,[6] the work of the monastics who evangelized central Russia,[7] and of course the adaptation of the Orthodox faith to the Alaskan native populations by the North American Saints.[8]  Perhaps it is time for us to rediscover, rearticulate, and reapply our own rich heritage.

  1. Evolution of a Definition

    Before we proceed to an examination of the way in which contextualization might be developed within a North American Orthodox mission context, let me offer an initial working definition. But, to do that I will have to show you how my own understanding of the concept has evolved during the last 30 years.

2.1.  Starting Point

In 1989 David Hesselgrave and I coauthored Contextualization. Meanings, Methods, and Models.[9]  In the process of doing that work, we came to the conclusion that contextualization is best viewed as the attempt to

“communicate the message of the person, works, Word, and will of God in a way that is faithful to God’s revelation, especially as it is put forth in the teachings of Holy Scripture, and that is meaningful to respondents in their respective cultural and existential contexts. Contextualization is both verbal and nonverbal and has to do with theologizing; Bible translation, interpretation, and application; Incarnational lifestyle; evangelism; Christian instruction; church planting and growth; church organization; worship style—indeed with all those activities involved in carrying out the Great Commission.”[10]

This definition gave us a workable starting point for evaluating a wide array of proposals. For us the message was paramount. What we were evaluating was information and its transmission. Regardless of a specific contextualization’s source, we wanted to be sure that the information it contained about Christ was true to the Scriptures and understandable in the recipient’s culture.

2.2.  Need for Correction

As I look back on that project I, see that, while we did respond reasonably well to the basic contours of the immediate discussion, we were bound by a number of theological and ecclesial constraints that caused us to underemphasize several aspects of the process that I now believe are essential to a proper understanding of the contextualization of the Gospel

2.2.1.     Theology: Information or Person?

Note that the definition given in 1989 includes the communication of a message about a person but not the introduction of the person proper. These, it now seems to me, are two very different things. Certainly, we need to mediate information about, among other things, the person of God. But, in the case of the Gospel, which is so clearly focused on an unmediated relationship between the risen, living, ever-present Lord Jesus Christ (Gal. 2:20, II Pt. 1:4) and the invitee, an indirect presentation via information will prove less than satisfying. Without an unmediated personal encounter, there can be no reconciliation, no justification, no new life in Christ. So, whatever it is, contextualization involves the mediation, not only of information about God, but the facilitation of a personal encounter with the saving, forgiving, all-present, Lord of life, Jesus Christ.

Take, for example, the account of how the Apostle Nathaniel entered into Jesus’ band of disciples (John 1:43-51). As we enter the story, Jesus already had four followers—Andrew and Peter, John and James. Now he is introduced to Phillip, perhaps by Andrew and Peter who lived in the same town. Notice what Phillip does next. He goes and finds Nathaniel and gives Nathaniel some information about Jesus, that he is the one “…of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” But, Nathaniel who hasn’t met Jesus yet responds skeptically, as if to say, “you can’t expect me to believe that.” Obviously, information about Jesus was just not enough. What I find most fascinating is that Phillip doesn’t argue the point. He simply says come and see for yourself, in other words, come and meet him yourself.

We don’t generally think of contextualizing the person we are introducing, even cross-culturally, we simply bring them with us, make the introduction, and allow the negotiation of intimacy between the two take its natural course. The person being introduced has to be real, observable and present. Today, of course, we face the challenge of a physically absent Christ. In what sense is he or can he be made real, observable, and present in the contemporary context? This is part of what I want to explore in this lecture.

2.2.2.     Ecclesiology: Importance of the Church and its Sacraments 

At first, Hesselgrave and I were limited to a free church frame of reference. As a result, we made little use of the idea of the Church’s Tradition and we did not ask about the ways in which it might limit or facilitate the process of contextualization. I suppose we hinted at Tradition’s usefulness by devoting a chapter to the work of the earliest Christian apologists. But, looking at our 1989 definition, you will note that it includes a whole array of ecclesial components such as church administration and worship styles. Yet, it offered little help in discerning the usefulness of one structure, one understanding of worship over against its alternatives. The question I would now like to ask is, if certain structures and practices been handed down by Christ and the apostles, passed on through the centuries, across cultural boundaries, and preserved by the Church, to what extent are they binding today? What must we continue to preserve? What can we change? Do we have unlimited freedom to choose or change those structures?

That initial ecclesial orientation also limited us to a more-or-less non-sacramental, non-liturgical mode of churchly being. While we did explore the limits of changing the form and content of the Lord’s Supper (mentioned only once in the original book), we made little mention of the sacrament’s relationship to the overall mission of the Church. If we had ranged beyond our own free church heritage, we would have had to explore the close connection between the Liturgy, in particular the Eucharist, and the mission of the Church.

2.3.  A Revised Working Definition

As I now see it, the task of evangelism is introducing the person of Christ to individual human beings who enter into communion with God, enabling them to fulfill the potential of their personhood. Doing this does not involve adapting information to a particular context, but rather establishing the context prescribed by God for the presence of Christ wherever we happen to be among the peoples of the world. Contextualization does not merely react, it creates, it establishes a new invitational core context 1) Which is host to the presence of the divine person, 2) Which is defined with the help of personhood-engaging gifts of ecclesial Tradition, 3) Which enables conditions that facilitate communion, and 4) Which is therefore able to engage extra-ecclesial fields of personal presence.

2.3.1.     Core context which is host to the presence of the divine person,

Obviously, if we are going to introduce someone to Christ, Christ has to be present. Here we are faced with the challenge of the physical absence of Christ. How is Christ to be introduced if he is not present? As mentioned above, a person can be present even in absence, if something of themselves is put into the void of physical absence. In the case of the ascended Christ, he has asked the Father to send the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, to take his place in the world, clearly a personal presence. The context for this manifestation of divine presence is the Church. In it God has instituted the sacraments, in particular Baptism and the Eucharist. Each of these comes with the promise of Christ’s Spirit mediated presence, which, in turn, generates the most essential field of divine-human presence available to humanity. He has also established the Church as a multi-hypostatic unity, his own body, in which the faithful and their guests participate in a human-human field of presence under the guidance of the Spirit. The Church, as the context of invitation, will have to be established, preserved, and defended against such changes or situations that would limit or even eliminate its role as the host of divine presence. This is the task of contextualization

2.3.2.     Core context which is defined with the help of personhood-engaging gifts of ecclesial Tradition,

When I first began to think about contextualization, I was puzzled by the fact that most of its practitioners spent little time reflecting on the nature of the context itself. It seemed as though they simply assumed that everyone knew what a context was, that it did not need to be defined. As a result, attention was focused on a host of things that separated people and tended to make the transfer of information difficult. In one case it was primarily linguistic differences and contextualization became an exercise in dynamic equivalence. In another case religious dissimilarities were paramount and the process took on the character of the comparative religious studies sustained by dialog. Still others dealt with social or cultural variance and looked for points of entry, redemptive analogies, cultural places in which the biblical message could reside. But as I saw it, all of these models were concerned with disparate aspects of the human situation, one of the many nested layers that define every culture—each with different implications for the task of contextualization. What was missing, I thought, was a single, universal framework which applied to all people. So, I suggested we consider the idea of a universal set of semantic fields which defined a kind of internal template possessed by each individual. It was at this level of template matching that effective contextualization could be achieved.[11] I was not suggesting that the other elements were unimportant, obviously language barriers have to be overcome if communication is to take place. However, driven by the conviction that one Savior was to be introduced to all peoples, I knew there had to be some point of universal, divine-human correspondence if the Gospel was going to be understood.

I now believe that that point of correspondence is the universal fact of human personhood. If God exists as person and if he has replicated his own personal image in humanity, then personhood must be the divine-human link and its conditions part of what defines the core context in which an introduction to the divine person of Christ can be given and received. The other aspect of this context is its definition as Church, the privileged place of divine self-manifestation in the world today. Contextualization will come into play as we seek to develop an invitational context that engages the conditions of personhood in keeping with its definition as Church. It will have to direct the invitation at both the finitude and the infinitude of human beings by being, accepting, mediating both divine and human presence. It will have to invite by acknowledging and respecting the human capacity for belief, adjudicating between differing beliefs, and articulating Christian belief as means to reestablishing a conceptual framework supportive of Christian truth. Contextualization will also have to redefine, redirect, and activate forms of self-actualization that favor relationship; and establish, evaluate, and make active second-order beliefs that provide the moral setting for communion. To these ends, the Church has been given a series of tools that secure, preserve, and defend the base missionary context. These gifts of Tradition, such as Holy Scripture, engage the conditions of personhood and define the context in which we issue the invitation.

2.3.3.     Core context which enables conditions that facilitate communion,

Another task of contextualization is to develop the core context in such a way as to facilitate communion, both divine-human and human-human. This will involve three distinct fields of presence. First, the field of divine-human communion in which the witness is brought to spiritual maturity. This can only be accomplished within a life of repentance, spiritual discipline, participation in the sacraments, and direct knowledge of God. This is the first step on the way to fully realized personhood and the ability to be completely present. It leads to self-transcendence that allows a commitment to both God and the other which is characterized by love and freedom. So, a vital aspect of the process of contextualization is facilitating the spiritual maturity of the one mediating the invitation.

In a second field of presence, human-human communion is established between the self-transcendent witness and those who do not yet know Christ. This will be a form of service, an unmistakable expression of love, in an environment of complete freedom. But it is no small challenge. How, for example, do I challenge another person’s beliefs and at the same time show myself to be a servant? Can I “require” the abandonment of self-love and still be loving, seek to redefine self-actualization and promote freedom? But these are exactly the kinds of things contextualization will have to achieve.

Assuming the first two states of communion, a third is likely to develop, namely a field of divine-human presence into which the invitee enters. Part of the task of contextualization will be to facilitate that move, help recognize when this is happening, that is, to help the newly reborn to negotiate his or her own life of intimacy with God.

2.3.4.     Core context which engages extra-ecclesial fields of personal presence

In spite of sin-truncated personhood, human beings do make themselves present to one another, even outside the Church and do make certain moves toward communion. Normally this happens in circumstances of social interaction which I have been calling fields of presence. These fields are generated in various venues or localities and are used temporarily for specific forms of inter-personal engagement. It could be a restaurant, a classroom, a factory; a family, a church; and it might involve the use of printed media, photographs, video, telephone or even computer mediated communication (CMC). It is into these places that the core context extends the presence of Christ via its witnesses. Because of its recent popularity CMC has become one of the newest and least explored of these fields. Can we, for example, truly experience a Liturgy on line? Cyberspace is a rather puzzling “place” since it seems to allow some kind of presence-in-absence, but at the same time seems to fall short of the truly personal context of presence required for communion. Nevertheless, it begs our special attention.

2.4.  Praxis: What does the process of Contextualizing look like? How can it be done?

As I have indicated the task of contextualization is not the modification and packaging of some information designed to fit an existing context. It is, rather, the challenge of creating an entirely new context in which Christ is present and can be introduced. As I see it, there are two places where this can take place: During the Divine Liturgy and in the lives of the faithful.

2.4.1.     Christ’s Presence in the Liturgy (Eucharist)

If all of creation exists in God then all of created space is in some sense sacred, occupied by God’s presence. There is no part of it that does not reflect the divine will and prototype and, as such, it can all serve as a place of worship, prayers, and Christian fellowship. However, in addition to this general presence of God there are specific manifestations of the divine person, which create especially sacred spaces and which occur under temporally and spatially limited circumstances. For example: the Burning Bush (Ex. 3:2-6), The tabernacle and the temple (Ex. 30:36, 30:29, Ps. 68:24, 73:17, 77:13, 150:1), and especially in the Incarnation. But, where does God manifest himself in this special way today. While his descent at Pentecost has made the Holy Spirit generally available to all, providing each individual with the potential of unmediated contact with Christ, it also gave birth to the Church in which the particular presence of Christ is made available. Here we have a known, regular and predictable place of divine manifestation.

In the Eucharist the Gospel comes to us as the personal presence of Christ and He is perceptible as such, that is, as a person, because we, having been created as persons in the image of God, have been given the ability to sense the presence of another person, penetrate their being. So, when the Holy Spirit transfigures and sanctifies the visible and insignificant elements of bread and wine offered by the Church, we experience the unconfused interpenetration of created and uncreated life, the real presence of the living Christ. Even though that manifestation is invisible, it is “seen” by the faithful as he takes shape in them by the personal interpenetration, the illumination of the Holy Spirit, the communion of grace. In that Transfiguration Christ is personally present and represents a reality to which the faithful can give witness. I believe that this divine presence is something that our non-believing guests are also aware of. When we have visitors, I often go to them after the Liturgy and ask them what they thought, if they have any questions. The first thing they say is “wow, that was different.” To which I usually reply “Yes, that is the point.” I then ask them what it was that they found so different, so impressive, and nine out of ten will say, quite spontaneously, I felt the presence of God, or Christ was here. That gives me an opening to say, “that’s right, he was/is here so let me introduce you to him.” Then we sit down and I tell them who Christ is, who it is that they encountered that morning.

Of course, the Liturgy does not actually end with the Dismissal. It is simply continued, that is, the faithful are dismissed or commissioned to go out into the world and bear witness to what they have seen during the Liturgy, i.e., the resurrection, the true light, the one faith, in other words, to the person of Christ himself. This going out is what we sometimes call the “Liturgy after the Liturgy.” The main goal of this witness is to invite people who do not yet know Christ to come to the Liturgy so they can see, that is, meet Christ for themselves.?

The ultimate goal of evangelism is to see the invitee come to faith in Christ and grow into communion with Him and with the members of his Body the Church. Based on what we ourselves have actually seen in the Liturgy an invitation to “come and see” Christ can be issued with confidence. The confidence is not only that the person invited will come to the Church, but that they will, while there, become aware of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist and in the faithful. So, the full impact of this encounter is realized within the Church and needs to be followed up with repeated invitations.?

2.4.2.     The Lives of the Faithful

The other place where the non-believer can see the Savior is in the life of the Christian. We are repeatedly told that Christ lives in us, that we are the temples of the Holy Spirit, the dwelling place of God. In 1 Cor 3:16 St Paul asks, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you.” In a way analogous to the Old Testament passages about the Tabernacle, we find that the individual Christian is both the temple and the altar of divine presence. So when we ask, where is Christ today? We have to answer that he is in us the faithful. If that is the case, then those around us should be able to see that presence. Maybe that is why Jesus says “let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” (Mt 5:16)

You may recall the encounter between St. Seraphim of Sarov and the layman Motovilov. After failing to get him to understand the ways of acquiring the Holy Spirit, St. Seraphim took him very firmly by the shoulders and said: "We are both in the Spirit of God now, my son. Why don't you look at me?" I replied: "I cannot look, Father, because your eyes are flashing like lightning. Your face has become brighter than the sun, and my eyes ache with pain." Father Seraphim said: "Don't be alarmed,… Now you yourself have become as bright as I am. You are now in the fullness of the Spirit of God yourself; otherwise you would not be able to see me as I am." ??

St. Seraphim’s life shows that because he was in tune with God, the non-believer can actually see Christ in the him. That puts the spiritually mature believer in a position to personally introduce Christ to someone else. However, we will have to truly and actually engage other individuals, develop communion with them, so they can see Christ in us. This attending may the hardest part for us today. It seems that the contemporary world does present us with a special set of challenges. Truly attending to someone else will require certain abilities, or, better, personal characteristics.

The basic problem is self-centeredness or extreme individualism. This often causes us to replace genuine engagement with superficial relationships of convenience or self-interest, that is, transitory commitments in which what is important is utility. This amounts to using others for our own benefit. If this is the way we relate to most other people, we are not creating an environment in which they can see Christ. If he is not seen, he cannot be introduced. So, it is only by being fully present to others, denying the self, serving and loving others that a believer can create a context in which Christ can be seen.

2.5.  Conclusions & Summary

Contextualization, then, involves doing everything we can in order to create a context for Christ’s presence both in the Liturgy, to which we invite others, and in our own lives, in which we offer others a vision of the Savior.

Much of what I have been saying presupposes that you are going to be so excited by what you experience in the Church that you are going to go out and spontaneously talk to some of your neighbors, colleagues, and friends about what you have seen and heard. You won’t be able to help yourselves. Some have called this “The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church.”??

Believe it or not, this is exactly how the early Church spread the Gospel throughout the Mediterranean region. It did not happen because of any organized missionary outreach, not because of programs, concerts, lectures, and the like. But, quite simply because every-day Christians talked about their faith in the market, at school, at work.??

Along those lines Michael Greene claims that early evangelism was not “formal preaching, but the informal chattering to friends and chance acquaintances, in homes and wine shops, on walks, and around market stalls. They went everywhere gossiping the gospel; they did it naturally, enthusiastically, and with the conviction of those who are not paid to say that sort of thing. Consequently, they were taken seriously, and the movement spread, notably among the lower classes.”??“All of this makes it abundantly clear that in contrast to the present day, when Christianity is highly intellectualized and dispensed by a professional clergy to a constituency increasingly confined to the middle class, in the early days the faith was spontaneously spread by informal evangelists, and had its greatest appeal among the working classes.”??As Paul Little put it “Witnessing is that deep-seated conviction that the greatest favor I can do for others is to introduce them to Jesus Christ. (Witnessing: How to Give Away Your Faith).??

So, in order for you to convince others to Come and See, you will have to spontaneously shine the light of Christ through your life and in order to do that you will have to be in the world, that is, have deliberate and active contact with individuals to whom you are fully present.

[1] The degree to which this discipline has developed and spread can also be seen in the fact that every major Protestant and Catholic theological seminary now offers at least one course in contextualization.

[2] Caanan Banana “The Lord’s Pray in the Ghetto” In:

[3] Theologie der Dritten Welt Band 18 “Der neue Meßritus im Zaire”

[4] J. Moltmann. J-B Metz, et al

[5] Gutierez, Bonnino, et al

[6] Cf. Franz Grivec. Konstantin und Method Lehrer Der Sklaven. (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1960).


[8] Michael Oleska. Alaskan Spirituality and Orthodox Alaska

[9] David J. Hesselgrave and Edward Rommen, Contextualization : Meanings, Methods, and Models  (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1989).

[10] Hesselgrave and Rommen, Contextualization : Meanings, Methods, and Models: 200.

[11] Hesselgrave and Rommen, Contextualization : Meanings, Methods, and Models: 165-68.