Thinking in progress. Notes under construction. Expect typos and clarifying positions.


Contextualization on the Mission Field

This note is on my list of Important Questions to AnswerImportant Questions to Answer
The following questions are a good representation of the major areas of my study. All fall within theolgy and applied theology categories, and all of the are very important for the sake of the gospel and the glory of God.

Discuss the [[Biblical Theology of Mission]]. Include in your response relevant biblical texts and key resources that address this topic well.
How can a deep understanding of immigration and missions to immigrants in the past help us do better ministry today?

History of Contextualization

In 1972, the term "contextualization" was coined by the co-directors of the Theological Education Fund for the World Council of Churches.Nicholls1979-jt, 21. The person usually attributed with the term was Shoki Coe.Keller2012-ln, 91.

The Ecumenical Version

In its initial uses, the ecumenical version of contextualization often equated the context with Scripture in determining theology, even to the point of promoting it over the Scriptures in some versions.Payne2013-hp, 136. The dialectic between the two resulted in fronting culture to the extent that theologies for each location became acceptable, and even preferred. As Hiebert notes in "Critical Contextualization," the underlying philosophy of cultures held that they were incommensurable and mutual understanding was not possible.Hiebert, "Critical Contextualization", 108. Therefore, any attempt at a meta cultural framework or robust understanding of orthodoxy was seen as impossible. In this sense, culture instead of Scripture took the driver's seat in forming theology.

Given this ecumenical understanding of contextualization, the inerrant authority of Scripture is sacrificed to cultural influence, and the result is not a contextual theology of the Scriptures, but what amounts to a new religion entirely. This approach must be rejected outright.

The Evangelical Version

However, following the initial ecumenical usage of the term, evangelicals began to redefine contextualization to gain crucial insights about culture while maintaining a confessional standard concerning the authority of the Holy Scriptures.Payne2013-hp, 137. Hesselgrave and Rommen speak of a "supracultural message of the gospel" that must be communicated with cultural relevance. This is the ultimate goal of the missionary in communication.Hesselgrave1989-ze, 1. Defined in this manner, there is no choice but to accept the validity of contextualization considering the insights gained into culture and worldview. The question in cross-cultural missions is less about whether or not contextualization does or should occur, but how well it is happening. This work was pushed forward considerably by Hiebert on ContextualizationHiebert on Contextualization
Paul Hiebert was one of the most significant missiological thinkers of the 20th century among evangelicals. Hiebert's work as both an anthropologist and missiologist set categories that are still employed in evangelical contextualization practices today.

In his work, Hiebert called for "critical contextualization." In a series of classic articles from the 1980s, Hiebert argued for this approach in opposition to twin errors which rest on either side. The first was the error of noncontextualiz...

Definitions of Contextualization

The following are various evangelical definitions of contextualization.


…the process of making God's revelation of his person and plan as revealed in the Old and New Testaments understandable to the people of a given culture with a view to making it possible for them to respond to it in a meaningful way.Hesselgrave, "Christian Contextualization and Biblical Theology," 156.

Darrell Whiteman of Asbury Seminary

Contextualization attempts to communicate the Gospel in word and deed and to establish the church in ways that make sense to people within their local context, presenting Christianity in such a way that it meets people's deepest needs and penetrates their worldview, thus allowing them to follow Christ and remain within their own culture(1997, 2).Pulled this definition from Payne and Terry's work Developing a Strategy for Missions, 137.

Hiebert's Definition in Gospel in Human Contexts

Contextualization seeks to formulate and communicate universal truth (cognitive dimension), love (affective dimension), and holiness (moral dimension) revealed in Scripture in particular human contexts that are diverse and everchanging.Hiebert2010-dc, 96.

Critical Contextualization

In 1987, Paul Hiebert wrote an article titled "Critical Contextualization" in which he outlined a brief history of Protestant contextualization practices during the modern missions movement and provided his own parameters for healthy contextualization.

The following is a condensed summary of Hiebert's critical contextualization practice:This summary appeared in Terry and Payne's Developing a Strategy for Missions, 137.

The late Paul Hiebert served for many years as a professor of missionary anthropology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He advocated an approach to contextualization that he called "Critical Contextualization." This approach involves four steps that lead to an appropriately contextualized expression of Christians (1994, 88—91).

First Step—Hiebert maintained that missionaries and the leaders of the local churches should study the customs and traditions of the culture. This should be an uncritical gathering of cultural data.

Second Step—The local pastor or missionary then leads the believers to study the Scriptures that pertain to the cultural practices. That is, the missionary assists the believers by exposing them to the biblical texts that address their cultural practices.

Third Step—Local Christians meet to evaluate their traditional customs in light of scriptural teaching. It is necessary for the local believers to do this for themselves. They understand their customs, and especially the religious overtones, better than the missionary ever can. It is also important for them to go through the process, owning it, so to speak. This will provide them with a pattern of biblically informed decision-making that they can apply in other situations. Their decisions will be guided by their cultural understanding, the Bible's teachings, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, as they pray for wisdom.

Fourth Step—The last step involves implementing the decisions made by the body of believers. Many customs will be retained, while others will be modified or rejected.

Hiebert believed that his approach would enable the missionary and national churches to avoid syncretism. His belief was based on four reasons: (1) Critical contextualization acknowledges the Bible as the "rule for faith and life." (2) This approach recognizes the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding the new churches. (3) In this approach the church functions as a "hermeneutical community," interpreting the Scriptures as the body of Christ. And (4) the conclusions drawn by these new churches can inform believers and theologians in other cultural contexts.

Risks of Contextualization

  • Syncretism
  • Cultural Relativism vs. Ethical Relativism

Realities of Contextualization

Despite the real risks involved with contextualization in cross-cultural missions, one must come to grips with the realities of contextualization.

All theology is, in fact, contextual theology.

Hiebert rightly demonstrates that a critical realist epistemology provides the best grounding for a healthy evangelical approach to Scripture and the world. A critical realist distinguishes between the divine revelation of Scripture as the inspired, inerrant Word of God given to man, and the theology that Christians derive from that revelation. Theology is the human understanding of Scripture. In that regard, it is unavoidably cultural and contextual in nature.Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues, 30. This does not mean, however, that theology cannot be accurate, but that it is always contextual and approximate.

Both Tim Keller and David Clark concur with Hiebert concerning the inevitability of contextualization. Clark writes,

It is simplistic to think that we are tabulae rasae as we interpret the Bible and develop theological convictions. Unquestionably, culture affects theology. The critical question is this: What should theologians do with that cultural influence?Clark, To Know and Love God, 76-77.

Concerning contextualization, Keller asserts two truths that must be held in tension: there is only one gospel and there is no one way to express the Christian faith. For someone to preach or teach, they must choose some form in which to do so. This choice necessarily contextualizes the gospel in a particular direction. In fact, not thinking intentionally about contextualization merely leads to deeply contextualizing toward one's own culture.Keller, Center Church, 93-96. Hiebert agrees, referring to the act of contextualizing toward one's own culture as noncontextualization.Hiebert, Critical Contextualization, 107.

Translatability as a Christian Strength

Andrew Walls notes that the essentially contextual nature of Christianity is one of its greatest strengths. Unlike other religions that attempt to rigidly transmit cultural forms or deny translation, Christianity is eminently translatable. This truth, along with the providence of God, is one reason for the widespread of Christianity and its ability to be relevant in any culture and confront any worldview.Walls, Missionary Movement in the History of Christianity, ??

From here down needs to be reworked and synthesized.

The Bible and Contextualization

The Bible explicitly gives a warrant for the translation of the gospel (and theology) across cultures.

Relevant Texts:

  • Acts 15 - The Jerusalem Council
  • Acts 17 - Paul at Mars Hill

The Bible as Example of Contextualization

  • Written in several different languages across a large region of the world by many authors spread out over hundreds of years.
  • Each of the gospels and Paul's letters demonstrate contextuality.

Parameters for Healthy Contextualization

Contextualize toward Culture; Transform Worldview

Scott Hildreth delivered this concept in a Ph.D. seminar lecture. Scott Hildreth develops an important distinction between culture and worldview that is necessary for proper contextualization. This gospel is essentially a worldview claim. In this sense, contextualization does not make the gospel relevant to a given people, the gospel is already relevant. It confronts and challenges all competing worldview claims.

The goal of contextualization then is to make the gospel understandable and potent within a particular cultural framework. The missionary should contextualize toward culture, not worldview. Proper contextualization maintains the worldview of the gospel while communicating it in different cultural forms, be they language, ritual, or some other cultural artifact. On the other hand, syncretization occurs when one attempts to contextualize toward the worldview. This requires adapting the actual claims of the gospel to comply with the receptor worldview. Doing so conforms the gospel to the sensibilities of that worldview and it ceases to be the gospel.

Hiebert's Four Categories for Contextualization

Hiebert, The Gospel in Human Contexts, ??

  • Minimal Contextualization
  • Uncritical Contextualization
  • Critical Contextualization
  • Divine Revelation Given in Human Contexts

Clark's Parameters for Contextualization

Clark, To Know and Love God, 77.

  1. Recognize that there is a cultural influence on all theological interpretations.
  2. Intentionally adopt a self-critical stance toward our own culture and other cultures.
  3. But be clear that theology needs to achieve cultural relevance.
  4. Yield to the priority of Scripture over any and all assumptions and pre-understandings.

Clark rightly speaks of one's posture in approaching another culture in order to contextualize theology or communication. He writes,

It means willingly viewing all cultures both sympathetically (especially other cultures) and critically (especially one's own). As a methodological commitment, cultural relativism mitigates the tendency to condemn other cultures and coronate one's own.Clark2003-ni, 68.

From Missionary Contextualization to Self-theologizing

This is a crucial shift that must occur. Note that both Clark's parameters and Hiebert's model of critical contextualization afford for this.

The C Scale

Unpack the C Scale here with some explanation of what John Travis was doing with it.

The International Mission Board policy is that C3 is healthy contextualization with some potential for C4 in certain contexts. The IMB rejects C5 contextualization.Foundations, ??. Overall, these are healthy parameters.

Notes from Critical Contextualization chapter of Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues

See More: Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues (Hiebert, 1994)Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues (Hiebert, 1994)

Wordlivew consists of the "fundamental assumptions about the nature of reality."[[Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues, 10.::rsn]]
"It shapes and integrates our various fields of knowledge: from theology, anthropology, and missions to physics and the culinary arts. Wordlview governs everyday behavior."[[Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues, 10-11.::rsn]]


Scientists often use a deterministic explaination for their...

  • Noncontextualization ironically leads to syncretism. When the pieces of worldview are not addressed by the gospel, they merely go underground. Christianity becomes a veneer over an old worldview. Western Protestant culture is passed on, but the underlying worldview remains unchanged. The result is a folk religion. Hiebert, Critical Contextualization, 106.
  • On Critical Realism
  • We see through a glass darkly, but we do see. (109)
  • It's a process that spirals inward toward precision.

Notes from The Gospel in Human Contexts


  • Clark, David K. To Know and Love God: Method for Theology Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2003.
  • Flemming, Dean. Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Mission. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009.
  • Hesselgrave, David J., and Edward Rommen. Contextualization: Meanings, Methods, and Models. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989.
  • Hiebert, Paul. “The Gospel in Human Contexts: Changing Perceptions of Contextualization.” Pages 82–102 in MissionShift: Global Mission Issues in the Third Millennium. Edited by David Hesselgrave and Ed Stetzer. Nashville, Tenn: B&H Academic, 2010.
  • Hiebert, Paul G. “Critical Contextualization.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 11.3 (1987): 104–12.
  • Keller, Timothy. Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. Zondervan, 2012.
  • Payne, J. D., and John Mark Terry. Developing a Strategy for Missions: A Biblical, Historical, and Cultural Introduction Encountering Mission. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013.