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The Problem with Contextualization:
A Critique of Keller's idea of Contextualization

The idea of contextualization is very much in vogue nowadays. It is found in liberal and third-world theologies where contextualizations often imply some form of syncretism. On the other hand, it is also promoted in supposed evangelical circles as a proper method to reach out to other. However much they differ, there is much similarity in them in undertaking some form of improper accomodation to other cultures.

Tim Keller has produced a paper which from the looks of it was done for Covenant Seminary. The paper is entitled Contextualization: Wisdom or Compromise?. Last I checked, the paper is unfortunately not available to the public.

As the paper is probably not available anytime soon, I would summarize Keller's paper and then interact with the main issue at hand.

Keller's case

In this paper, Keller is putting forward a case for contextualization. According to him, contextualization is

... adapting gospel ministry from one culture into another culture by 1) changing those aspects of ministry that are culturally conditioned, and 2) maintaining those aspects of ministry that are unchanging and Biblically required. "Contextualization" 'incarnates' the Christian faith in a particular culture. (p. 1)

Keller argues that cultures may be good and bad, and that there is "no universal, de-contextualized form or expression of Christianity" (p. 1). Using the analogy of a stone and multiple colored globes, Keller opines that the Christian faith is analogous to the stone and the colored globes represent the various cultures of the world. The stone will always be in a globe, just like the Christian faith will always be inculturated. His point therefore is this: Christians (probably with Western Christians in mind) have their faith (stone) as understood within their culture (eg. a blue colored globe). When attempting to communicate the Gospel and the Christian message to those from another culture, one should take out the stone from one's culture and placed it into the new differently colored globe. So for example if a Western white PCA Christian were to attempt to communicate the Christian message to urban cosmopolitan New Yorkers, one has to take out the stone from one's blue globe and put it in let's say a yellow globe. The stone would thus look different when it is in the yellow than when it is in the blue globe.

Keller makes pain to state that he is against over-contextualization (and under contextualization too). He insists that the Gospel message cannot be compromised. What is essential must be kept, but what is not essential if it offends people must be removed.

The rest of the paper revolves around practice and the idea of showing how the Gospel fulfills the narratives of opposing worldviews, which we will not cover here.

Analysis and critique

Keller is right in saying that there is "no universal, de-contextualized form or expression of Christianity." Certainly, we should not make our culture the determining form of how Christianity is to be practiced. But does this mean that Keller's idea of contextualization is therefore proved?

The problem with Keller's view of contextualization is that it is based upon a Platonic, Idealist view of Christianity. Christianity in Keller's view is this abstract faith out there, which is incarnated into the cultures of their time. Thus the abstract Christian message is like the stone which in the beginning is already placed in a colored globe. Since the world has changed, cultures have changed, and therefore we should not continue to keep the Christian message (stone) within the old culture (e.g blue globe). Rather, we are to "contextualize" the Christian message (stone) by transferring it into the appropriate culture of the receptors (the yellow globe) so that the Christian message will continue to be heard as it ought to be.

One can see the similarity between Keller's version of contextualization and the liberals' version of localized theologies. Like Keller, they acknowledge the "cultural captivity" of the Gospel. In order to interact with other cultures, the Gospel (stone) has to be taken out of its western context and situated in its new context, be it Korean, Japanese or African. The only difference between Keller and the liberals is what each would categorize as essential and non-essential. Keller would, I hope, keep the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone to be essential, whereas the liberals have "moved" beyond that.

Another problem with Keller's view is that the Gospel and the Christian message is not a Platonic ideal. The Gospel and the Christian message is revealed through history and in history. There is certainly an ideal archetypal message, but that is not what is revealed to us. What is revealed to us is the Gospel message as ectypically revealed through the prism of the cultures of that time. The Gospel message is therefore revealed through these cultural lenses, and cannot be separated from them.

Thus, Keller's (and the liberals') idea of the Gospel is not available to anyone. It is part of archetypal theology. There is no such "stone" therefore available to anyone but God. Only God knows the Christian message unmediated, not us. Therefore, it is impossible to abstract the Gospel message absent of its historical circumstances, and then re-contextualize it into a new globe.

When anyone therefore faces the Gospel message, it is an altogether alien thing, unless of course one lives during the time of the writing of the Scriptures. The Christian message uses the cultural forms of an age long ago. Thus, biblical exegesis and meditation on the worldview portrayed by Scripture is necessary to grow in understanding the Christian faith. Ad fontes! All cultures are brought back to understanding biblical truths as revealed in the cultural contexts of their time, and then reapplying them to ours. Such application is necessary regardless of whether one is white or black, German or Japanese.

We do not attempt to somehow decipher the core Platonic essentials of the faith and re-contextualize them. Rather, we bring the whole of Scripture together with its various cultural forms to bear on every culture. Every culture has to come to terms with the foreignness of the Christian faith before seeing the pertinence it has for all peoples in every culture.

Keller's view of contextualization is therefore unbiblical. By trying to bifurcate between essentials and non-essentials in his manner, it has more similarity with Adolf Von Harneck's kerygmatic theory than biblical Christianity.