Volume 31 - Issue 2

Contesting the Nature of Context

By Carl Trueman

Over recent decades there has been much discussion of issues surrounding the contextualization of the gospel, and this is no longer something which is merely an issue for those going overseas. With the falling indigenous birthrates in Europe and the parallel use in immigration, along with the general decline in biblical literacy even among native-born Europeans, the issues of context and communication can no longer be left to the long-term missionaries in the Sudan or Indonesia. They exist next door, they face you when you go down to the pub; they cross your path when you just walk along the street.

Critical reflection on how the gospel is understood and communicated is essential if the church is ever to find her way out of the terminal decline which she seems to be undergoing in Western Europe. It is often said about the British abroad that, when we meet a foreigner who doesn’t speak English, we believe that we simply have to shout louder, because, sooner or later, the sheer volume of our voices will break through to that layer of linguistic competence in English which all foreigners have, even if they don’t realise it yet. Such is nonsense; and yet this often parallels how we try to communicate the gospel. We use concepts and language with which others are unfamiliar, with no attempt to explain these, and simply hope that, if we shout them loud enough—or, perhaps, package them appealingly enough—sooner or later the message will go home. Such an approach is doomed from the outset. This is where the outstanding work of so many missiologists and church leaders of recent decades has made so single a contribution, from the theoretical contributions of a man like Lesslie Newbigin to the practical work of my own friend and colleague, Many Ortiz (who, some of you may recall, was interviewed about his work among the poor of Philadelphia in Themelios 29.1 pp. 52–57).

The need for contextualizing arises, of course, out of the self-conscious realization on that all of our lives are lived in context. No man—or woman—is an island, as John Donne said. Men—and women—make history, but they do not make the history that they choose, as Karl Marx put it.

To accept that all action is contextual, however, is somewhat easier than the defining of such a context: social class, economics, education, media, gender, geography, race, sexual orientation, religious conviction, political affiliation, life history, job, family, health etc. There are an infinite number of ‘contexts’ which make up our larger context; and all of them shape the way we understand ourselves and the world in which we live.

This is also the first problem with contextualization: the context of which one is taking account is as much the product of the contextualizer as it is of the contextualized. Context is a construct of the knower, not a given of the known. For example, to be a consistent cultural critic, one might argue that the self-conscious acknowledgment of issues of gender and sexuality, and their subsequent use as means of critiquing society’s traditional shibboleths, whether political, social or theological, are themselves as much a construct of Western ideology as the unconsciously assumed normative nature of white heterosexual masculinity which has allegedly so twisted social theory and social practice in the past. Enough of this relativizing of the relativizers; the point I want to make is that Christianity, if it is to retain any transcendent coherence, demands that we see human culture as a product of something deeper, something more ultimate than itself, and that acknowledging this should lead us to place contextualization itself in some kind of context.

To cut to the chase and to put the question bluntly: why do I, as a Church historian, think that what a bunch of dead white Protestant males did in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries has any relevance for people at the start of the twenty-first century, be they white or black, straight or gay, rich or poor, living in America or Pakistan?

The answer: I believe that Christianity requires belief in two constants which bind all human beings today together with all human beings throughout history. There is one God who speaks to them; and there is a human nature which all share in common and which is more ultimate than any individual culture, even than the gender distinction between male and female. I do not intend to dwell on the former in this editorial (maybe next time); but I do want to emphasize the latter.

One of the things which many pop-evangelical treatments of postmodernism seems to miss is that, for radical critics of Enlightenment ways of thinking, even human nature itself becomes a construct of its context. This was revealed in a startling way in a debate between the leading American left-wing political activist, Noam Chomsky, and the leading light of French intellectual in the 60s and 70s, Michel Foucault. During the course of this encounter Foucault pointed out that the fundamental difference between himself and Chomsky was, that the latter built his discourse about human rights on the assumption that there was such a thing as human nature. This could then be analysed and talked about in universal categories. To Foucault, this was nonsense and indicated that Chomsky had not subjected his thought to sufficient criticism; Chomsky’s plea for human rights was working uncritically within the categorical assumptions of the Enlightenment.

Foucault’s point underlies so much of the hedonistic moral anarchy that characterizes modern Western society (and which his own work did so much to explain, promote, and justify), where the individual creates his or her own culture and values. The only acknowledged restraints here often seem to be those imposed merely by the fear of the shame of being caught. For example, all the evidence would seem to suggest that the use of pornography has escalated dramatically since the internet has allowed for private indulgence with less risk of public shame; also, if newspaper reports are to be believed, there are few limits to what is available via this avenue. If also underlies much of the radical social and cultural criticism that sees all claims to transcendent truth or value as imperialist bids for power that need to be exposed for what they are. If there is nothing more ultimate than particular cultures, then any attempt by one group to make its culture normative is, of course, an attempt to universalize that which is particular, and thus no more than an attempt by one group to lord it over another.

Scripture, however, roots all human culture in the fact that all human beings are made in the image of God. All human activity, from eating and sex to writing novels and painting landscapes, is bound together by the fact that it is human beings, made in the image of God, who do these things. Thus, when I read Augustine’s Confessions, I read a book about a man who lived some 1600 years ago; and yet he describes thoughts and behaviour with which I can identify; and I do so. This is not because I project my own expectation onto the text, but because he and I share in common our human nature and its fallenness. As a child in North Africa in the fourth century, he stole pears and threw them to pigs just to get a kick out of breaking the rules; as a boy in Gloucestershire in the twentieth, I stole crab apples and threw them at the neighbour’s cat just to get a kick out of breaking the rules. Two agents and two events separated by 1600 years; but they are bound together by a common human nature and a common sinful need to transgress the God-given boundaries. I read Augustine and, miracle of miracles, I find that I understand my own behaviour as a child that much better.

The same applies, I believe, to all human acts; and, one might add, to human formulations of the Christian faith. That’s one reason (there are others) why the creeds and confessions, and the classic writings of the historic church are of interest and use to me. Yes, they are contextual in that they were written at particular times in particular places. Thus, they were written using particular languages, particular concepts, and particular words. In any assessment of their value, I must take these elements of particularity into account. But I must not accord ultimate contextual authority to these particulars, because theological statements are produced by human beings, on the basis of what the one God has spoken. They are therefore not simply claims which have validity at one point in time and space and not at another. They frequently make universal claims, which are either correct or adequate explanations of the Creator-human relationship, or they are not. Suffice it here and now to argue that one of the most lethal elements of the current evangelical infatuation with all things postmodern is its general failure to recognize this transcendent importance of God, and the universal nature of humanity, as the great contexts within which all other, humanly constructed concepts of context must be set.

There are those, of course, who will argue that even these universals are themselves cultural constructs. Well, they are free to hold such an opinion; but then theology, and indeed, the very speech of God himself, becomes nothing other than a cultural construct, specifically true only in the particular time and place at which it is formulated and accepted as valid, and thus trapped within a world epistemologically sealed off from God. Doctrine becomes, in other words, merely a reflection of the religious culture of the given time, and such a position as this pointedly fails to take into account the ultimate transcendents of the Christian faith and, one might add, the power of the Holy Spirit to guide the faithful into the truth.

I close with a quotation from David Wells, which puts the point better than I could hope to myself:

There is a long trail of contextualized theologies, written over the fast half century, in which the external dimension virtually replaces the internal, cultural interests eclipse biblical norms, and the result has been the kind of compromise, trendiness, and manipulation which ends up promoting worldly agendas, be they political, social, ideological, or personal, in place of biblical truth. This has been a sorry tale … If it is the case that contextualized theologies have all, too often become a doomed enterprise, the reason, the most self-consciously biblical believe, is that the project itself is unnecessary. And there is something to be said for this argument, too. For it is certainly the case that the Word of God, read or preached, has the power to enter the innermost crevices of a person’s being, to shine light in unwanted places, to explode the myths and deceits by which fallen life sustains itself, and to bring that person face to face with the eternal God … The biblical Word is self-authenticating under the power of the Holy Spirit. This Word of God is the means by which God accomplished his saving work in his people, and this is a work that no evangelist and no preacher can do.1

David Wells, Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World (2005), 6, 8–9.

1 I am grateful to Peter Lillback and Jeffrey Jue, my colleagues in the Church History Department at Westminster, for commenting on an earlier draft of this editorial.

Carl Trueman

Carl Trueman is academic dean, vice president of academic affairs, and professor of historical theology and church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.