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Contextualisation via John Piper and Acts 29

We recently had a look at contextualisation with David Williams (spotted here).  In this post, I want to raise further questions about how we go about crossing cultures…

The gospel is… Universally and absolutely relevant with barely any contextualisation?

John Piper here cautions against getting bogged down in contextualisation. Like he says, there is not just one way to tell the gospel — and the gospel is always mind-blowing. But how ‘universally relevant’ is the gospel as told here?

Notice the key words used in this telling of the gospel:

  • Sin
  • Death
  • God
  • Righteousness
  • Faith
  • Obedience

You and I each have a particular range of understanding for these words. But how might others understand them?

It’s more complicated than just finding linguistic equivalence! Words are the carriers of worldviews. You can translate ‘sin’ all you want, but different cultures view sin in different ways: Westerners connect it with legal guilt, others connect it with shame, and so on. The question of translation goes all the way down because words evoke whole worlds. Amidst Piper’s key words, the gospel as told above is riding on a particular sense of chronological time and a particular emphasis on people as individuals. And that’s okay — for North America, at least.

This isn’t to criticise Piper, but to reveal how language is bound up with worldviews.

What are ‘basic theological concepts?’

The Acts 29 church planting network recently published a list of almost 200 theological basics. In it, Scott Thomas aims to give a rundown of the theological issues an aspiring Acts 29 church planter must understand. He highlights the need to recognise both theological integrity/clarity and theological unity.

The list strikes me as a strange one for a global church planting network — particularly section 3 and section 7 (the bulk of the list). I’m sure the list is an excellent one for North America, but what about elsewhere? How does it hold up in majority world contexts?

1. What might be missing from the list?

  • Witchcraft?
  • Syncretism?
  • Islam?
  • … ?

2. What things on the list might be irrelevant?

  • Evolution?
  • Feminism?
  • TULIP?
  • … ?

3. How robust is this proposed theological unity? What are “closed handed” issues outside the West?

  • Inerrancy?
  • Penal substitutionary atonement?
  • … ?

This is not to say that any of the items on the list are unimportant. But where are they important? Christians are not fighting identical struggles in every location. Atheism, for example, probably doesn’t register highly for a Christian of the Dinka diaspora. Inerrancy probably isn’t a big deal for Christians who don’t yet have the Scriptures in their own language. (That’s more than 2000 language groups, by the way.)

Some Christians talk about going glocal — but that’s going to be a real challenge if we want to retain control of our categories…

Categories: Culture Mission Written by Arthur

Tagged as:

Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

5 replies

  1. Hi Arthur,

    I guess that’s why we need the meta-narrative of scripture to fill out the meaning of key words like sin, death, God, righteousness, faith and obedience.

    Not only do we need the whole of scripture for this, we also need the convicting power of the Holy Spirit (Jn. 16:8). In the end, he is the only one who can go ‘all the way down’ to illumine these words for us, whether we’re North American or Aussie or African. They’re spiritual words after all (1 Cor. 2:13).

    Jordan

  2. Cheers Jordan. 8) If this post seems a bit pessimistic, I’m not saying that communication is impossible, just that contextualisation is a live issue…

  3. …And in a big way, I suspect that truly handing communication over to the Spirit, like you say, means we have to let others do the work of contextualisation.

    Eg, a Western missionary in an African culture cannot remain the authority for how the gospel translates into that culture. Rather, that’s something that must emerge out of Christian partnership in the Spirit, and is finally something for the African church itself to arrive at.

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