CONTEXTUALIZATION IN THE NEW TESTAMENT: PATTERNS FOR THEOLOGY AND MISSIONWritten by Dean Flemming Reviewed By Douglas Campbell
The term ‘contextualization’ can provoke a number of reactions. These include grudging acknowledgement that we should be relevant in our Christian witness and also sceptical unease. Perhaps some labour under the misapprehension that this particular subject is valuable only for missionaries, while others are concerned lest unguided contextualizing leads to syncretism or pluralism. Does the New Testament itself actually provide guidelines to help us contextualize today so that our witness is both relevant and faithful?
Flemming, a New Testament scholar with many years of experience in cross-cultural mission, carefully argues that the New Testament authors were themselves embarked on a careful process of contextualization, as they sought to present the gospel of Jesus Christ to the various cultures of their day. He argues that contextualization is therefore quite biblical and that the New Testament corpus contains biblical principles and guidelines that should be utilized by all who seek to share the gospel today.
This volume examines in great detail the New Testament as contextual theology in Acts (the bridging of the different cultures as the gospel moves from Jerusalem into the world and the preaching of Paul), in the Pauline Epistles (with meticulous case studies from 1 Corinthians and Colossians), the Gospels and also Revelation (a chapter both unique and very helpful). Throughout his discussion, Flemming constantly interacts with the New Testament texts and the writings of modern New Testament research. Building carefully on the work of others, he ensures that even the most familiar topics are fresh and cogently presented.
There are points of frustration. Flemming argues for, but does not define clearly what he believes is, the ‘core’ of the gospel. By not defining the ‘core’ at the outset, all who seek to contextualize may inadvertently throw the baby out with the bath water as they seek to take the gospel to ‘postmoderns’ or people from other non-Western cultures. What are the non-negotiables? Furthermore, Flemming spends little time observing the hermeneutical principles of the authors of the New Testament. How do they handle the Old Testament as scripture?
While this reviewer would have liked Flemming to engage with all the general epistles, the excellent final chapter in which he summarizes the general principles for undertaking contextualization will provoke others to consider the questions of James and the Petrine Epistles.
Who is going to use this book? It will almost certainly be used as a textbook on contextualization in departments of Missiology. However, if it remains only there both students and scholars in the New Testament faculty and, more importantly, the wider church will miss out on a fresh and invigorating challenge. Flemming has provided an excellent resource which will prove useful to both those preparing to work in other cultures and those engaged in gospel work in today’s ‘postmodern’ and increasingly globalized societies. All who seek to present the gospel faithfully need to heed, or at least grapple with, the patterns clearly presented by Flemming. To borrow his refrain, we need to sing the gospel in new ways in order for the people of the world to encounter Jesus in life changing ways.
Free Church of Scotland
Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland, UK