Wednesday, March 19, 2008

How much can "Context" hold?

by Robert Fraire

This year I had the privilege of going to the Shepherd's Conference at Grace Community Church in Southern California. This is an annual trip for me, as I get to visit with my extended family while I am out there.

One of the main sessions this year was presented by Phil Johnson. I have always enjoyed listening to Phil over the years and I consistently listen to him and Don Green at Gracelife via their podcast. In this session Phil took on the topic of contextualization as he examined the popular passage Acts 17:16-34.

Phil had many great points; as he pointed out how the in vogue way some professed Christians insist we must be and act to reach the current culture, actually contradicts what Paul did in this passage even though they often use it as Biblical support.

For more in depth understanding of Phil's message you can download the audio of it for $2 from the Shepherd's fellowship site. (here) In this post I want to focus on a singular aspect of this larger picture.

After Phil had finished his sermon I went with my pastor Steve Kreloff to the front in order to see Phil. A couple of people were ahead of us to greet Phil, and I heard both of them ask him questions concerning Paul's sermon. Both their questions could be boiled down to this: "Isn't it true that Paul was utilizing contextualization by quoting their poets and referencing their idols?"

Phil's answer in brief was "No"!

As I thought about it, I could see what the men who seemed to me to be honest and sincere in their questions were saying. I could see how under a reasonable definition of context, it was absolutely true that Paul chose elements of their culture in his proclamation of the gospel. BUT I completely agree with Phil's answer to the questions. Paul was not using "contextualization" in his Gospel message.

The rub in my estimation goes to how much meaning can you put into a word or phrase. When in college I had to take a class on US Military Law (since I was at West Point, it only makes sense we would study military law). And one concept the professor made clear was that the law used a concept known as the "reasonable man" or "reasonable person" standard. This standard is defined as: what a reasonable person would be expected to do in a given situation. If a person strikes another person and claims self defense, the question is asked, would a reasonable person have felt in danger given the circumstances.

I bring this up because an important concept is that one can only fit so much action into the word reasonable and it still meet the standard. A person who is threatened by a stranger might reasonably run or strike the stranger in order to defend himself, but if he then takes the strangers wallet and burns his car: those actions add too much weight for the phrase "reasonable person" to carry.

In a similar way, Phil made it clear that Paul did accommodate his audience by speaking in a language they understood and he did use some points of culture of which they would have been aware. And if this is all the proponents of "contextualization" meant then I can say confidently we would all be in agreement. But sadly this is not all they mean. In addition to this they want to load the word of context with: use of low brow vocabulary, denial of absolute truth, hiding of the gospel message, etc.

It is for this reason I believe that Phil steadfastly refused to call what Paul did at Mars Hill "contextualization". We believe that what Paul did is, with some reasonable accommodations to his hearers, boldly proclaim the gospel message in a way that violated their sensibilities, honored Christ, and made clear their need for a saviour. On the other hand what is being advocated these days takes these reasonable accommodations and goes FAR beyond. We will not accept that approach nor will be allow those who do so to use Acts 17 to cover their actions. What they advocate does not pass the "reasonable Christian" standard which is the only standard by which we may operate.

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