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Friday, October 07, 2011 | Comments (6)

Many thanks to Tommy Clayton for overseeing the contextualization series. He did a great job in spooling up the posts, and monitoring and responding to some good comments in the com-box.

But before we leave this series behind, I wanted to highlight a couple of helpful posts from the last comment thread. Two missionaries had some useful things to say about contextualization. One of them (he deleted his posts, so I won’t name him) is a missionary in Europe; the other was a missionary in Papua New Guinea.

Here’s the essence of the question they raised and dealt with: Is there any legitimate form of contextualization, especially as it relates to the mission field?

Answer: Maybe. Depends on what you mean by contextualization. Both our missionary friends were very helpful in that regard, providing specific examples of what they meant.

And that’s the important thing to keep in mind in any discussion of contextualization, redeeming the culture, or whatever. You’ve got to get specific, compare or contrast it with Scripture, and then see what’s what. Getting specific provides the kind of clarity and definition that makes the matter obvious.

Some people point out how necessary it is to engage in contextualization on the mission field. They point to things like translating the Bible into the common language, wearing clothing common to people in the area, or participating in non-sinful cultural practices (like taking up soccer in Latin America) as contextualization. If that were all that was meant by contextualization, then there is no controversy. Who would disagree?

But those clearly legitimate practices provide cover for others that aren’t as easy to accept. And that’s where one of our missionary friends was so helpful. He said contextualization could mean substituting less familiar words or concepts of biblical culture with words or concepts familiar to people in the target culture. The goal is to make the translation or teaching clear. For example, would you tell someone who was born, has lived, and grown old in the deep heart of a jungle that his sins could be washed whiter than snow when he’s never seen snow? Would you tell an Eskimo about shepherds and sheep when he’s never seen the like? Why not substitute the word “sheep” with the word “seal”?

He described a second form of contextualization in terms of redeeming the culture—using pagan holidays, music, or other aspects of unredeemed culture to convey biblical truth. Because this form of contextualization isn’t specific to the mission field—it’s the very thing we’re dealing with on our own turf—I’ll cover this one in a later post.

Our missionary commenter, Tim Spanton, who served in Papua New Guinea, provided this spot-on response to the question raised by our European missionary. Here’s what he said (with very little touch-up on my part):

My wife and I were missionaries in Papua New Guinea where we spent two years learning the Myu language and culture before teaching the scriptures and presenting the gospel. Our culture studies were so we could properly understand how they would hear what we taught.

Rather than changing the scriptures we took time to teach about sheep and shepherding and other Old and New Testament practices. One of the ways we did this was during our literacy program. The Myu language had never been learned by an outsider or written down prior to our arrival. Along with teaching and translating the scriptures was a priority to teach the adults and children how to read and write their own language.

In one of our primers we focused on the main biblical cultural topics that would come up in our gospel teaching. We showed them pictures of sheep and pictures of ourselves in the snow back home in Upper Michigan. They did not have words in their language for sheep or snow so we used the common trade language (Melanesian English) words for them. The isolated Myu people are very intelligent and had no trouble understanding foreign biblical culture when it was properly explained.

It would be dangerous to try to find a Myu cultural equivalent to replace the biblical account because none of them are exact representations of scripture. And the Myu Bible teachers are now able to articulate biblical culture in teaching the culture rather than coming up with some local example that falls short. Once you localize the scriptures you would be stuck trying to find "equivalents" that would constantly fall short. This is very dangerous.

There is absolutely no need to change the inspired word of God. It is no different than how we are to teach here at home. Explain the biblical culture so we can truly understand God's intended meaning. For “All scripture (graphe, written biblical text) is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness...” (2Tim.3:16).

Thanks for that, Tim. Here’s the money-quote: “The isolated Myu people are very intelligent and had no trouble understanding foreign biblical culture when it was properly explained.” And here’s why I think that’s such an important point, and I’m so glad it came out in what Tim said.

Changing biblical words and concepts to make them easier for people in other cultures to understand is inherently insulting. I think it fails to acknowledge the imago dei. God has stamped His image on each and every individual in each and every people group of the world. The people of whatever target area we’re trying to reach aren’t “dumb natives”—they are intelligent sinners who need to hear and understand the grace of God in truth. If you could hear and understand, so can they.

As I said, we’ll come back to the issue of contextualization as redeeming the culture. That concept is everywhere, and we’ll see what we can do to bring some clarity.

Travis Allen
Managing Director


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#1  Posted by Ben Hogan  |  Friday, October 07, 2011at 6:31 AM

Really insightful post, Travis. Like you said, I think the "money-quote" said it all. And it tells us something about the importance of exegetical and expositional preaching anyway because it brings to light the historical context of the passages so we can understand its meaning. Again, like you mentioned, people are not dumb and can understand what the Bible means if we take the time to explain it in its original view.

I like what MacArthur has said before in response to the critiques he gets at "not being relevant to modern culture" and that is if you explain the Bible clearly for what it says and means, then the Holy Spirit will move in a person's life to help make the truth relevant in getting fleshed out, for it is God who works in us to will and work for His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13).

Even for many of us who live in urbanized areas in the US, we don't herd sheep, or grow grapes, or sift wheat, so there is still a general acceptance that WE can understand what the Bible means by these pictures, so why not OTHERS when we teach in local churches, or in the international mission field?

I'm currently going through a sweeping look at God's sovereignty in salvation in the NT and how that will keep our focus off of contextualization and on to clearly teaching the Word if anyone would like to join in!

Again, thanks for the post! As always, GTY constantly spurs me to keep studying and strive to correctly handle the Word of truth. Keep up the good work!

Ben Hogan

#2  Posted by Holly Schrader  |  Friday, October 07, 2011at 12:51 PM

I can always count on finding the truth on this web site and from its contributors. It is spiritually refreshing to stop in and read the latest blog on GTY by John MacArthur and others. In this case, another insightful commentary from Travis Allen (I also appreciated his contribution to the Young Reformed and Restless series).

Thankyou all for your dedication and committment to the truth of the Bible. It can be no other way! What a joy to have read today's message, including Ben Hogan's reply. Praise God!

#3  Posted by Yew Cheong Mak  |  Sunday, October 09, 2011at 11:51 PM

Thanks for the clear explanations on contextualisation. I have friends in bible translation works and are sold on giving local substitute words familiar to natives. I am glad there are alternatives that are true to scripture and respectful of natives, that they are not dumb but intelligent like any other people in the world.

blessings,

YC Mak

#4  Posted by Michael Stevenson  |  Thursday, October 13, 2011at 6:57 AM

I think that this is worthy to note though. The goal is to make the translation or teaching clear. For example, would you tell someone who was born, has lived, and grown old in the deep heart of a jungle that his sins could be washed whiter than snow when he’s never seen snow? Would you tell an Eskimo about shepherds and sheep when he’s never seen the like? Why not substitute the word “sheep” with the word “seal”?

In ones attempts to make the Word of God clear the one would need to make sure that they are clear in there understanding of the Word of God. The Proverb said: In all of your getting get an understanding. James said: If man lack of wisdom let him ask of the father.

Quot:

Once you localize the scriptures you would be stuck trying to find "equivalents" that would constantly fall short. This is very dangerous. There is absolutely no need to change the inspired word of God. It is no different than how we are to teach here at home. Explain the biblical culture so we can truly understand God's intended meaning. For “All scripture (graphe, written biblical text) is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness...” (2Tim.3:16).

God is the God of language.

Bro Stevenson

The Word(Jesus) is Truth

#5  Posted by Fred Butler  |  Thursday, October 13, 2011at 7:16 AM

Michael writes,

The goal is to make the translation or teaching clear. For example, would you tell someone who was born, has lived, and grown old in the deep heart of a jungle that his sins could be washed whiter than snow when he’s never seen snow? Would you tell an Eskimo about shepherds and sheep when he’s never seen the like? Why not substitute the word “sheep” with the word “seal”?

The reason is quite simple: Because the biblical terminology is "sheep" not "seal." The issue comes back to what you said above, "The goal is to make the ... teaching clear."

I went most of my life without ever physically seeing a sheep. But I knew what a sheep was because I was taught about sheep. Likewise, people in San Diego go pretty much all year round never seeing snow. But I can imagine they know what it is though many of them have never seen it or felt it.

In a manner of speaking, this idea that we need to substitute words is inherently bigoted, because it assumes some stupidity or lack of intelligence with primitive people groups. Instead of substituting the word "seal" for "sheep," why not teach the Eskimo what a "sheep" is and explain the theological significance in a genuine, biblical context. Otherwise, I think the overall methodology is dishonest and a smite against the power of the Gospel to save.

#6  Posted by Rebecca Schwem  |  Thursday, October 13, 2011at 9:18 AM

#5 Fred, I agree. I might be ignorant but not stupid!