Issues in ContextualizationWritten by Charles Kraft Reviewed By Jackson Wu
Anyone who reviews the second edition of Charles Kraft’s Issues in Contextualization faces two challenges. First, one must evaluate whether the author provides significant additions to warrant a second edition. Second, a reviewer should reappraise the book’s contribution in light of debates about contextualization following the publication of the first edition. After summarizing Kraft’s main thesis and key ideas, this review will address each of the above challenges in turn.
Issues in Contextualization begins by distinguishing “faith” and “religion.” For Kraft, the latter consists of cultural forms that are not essential to the gospel. “Faith” concerns allegiance to Jesus, which can be expressed in countless cultural forms. He says, “contextualization is the expression of Christian meanings and commitment in the cultural forms of the cultural insiders” (p. 73). The goal of contextualization is “to bring Jesus’ presence into the lives of a people” (p. 8). Accordingly, Kraft thinks contextualization is an act of communication whereby the messenger adapts him or herself, not only the message.
The book warns against the tendency of foreigners to impose religious forms rather than incarnate genuine faith. An “incarnational” approach is one that is appropriate both to the culture and Scripture. Kraft explains, “Appropriateness to the Scriptures means appropriate scriptural meanings in the receptors’ minds, with appropriate responses to those meanings” (p. 113). To illustrate what “appropriate contextualization” looks like, the latter portion of the book discusses ways to integrate spiritual “power” into contextualization practice.
Most readers will likely affirm Kraft’s basic principles of contextualization, although many will object to his argumentation and use of Scripture. He is strongest when talking about culture. One should not expect a rigorous examination of the Bible. This reviewer suspects many readers will be wary of his anthropological conclusions due simply to his questionable exegesis of Scripture.
Kraft presents this book as an “update” of Appropriate Christianity (William Carey Library, 2002). This second edition adds five new chapters to the 11 chapters included in the first edition. However, he cites only one book concerning contextualization that was published after 2002. He appeals to only six books about contextualization from the 1990s. Of the few (more) recent publications he interacts with, they predominately concern spiritual warfare. In the opinion of this reviewer, a second edition of Kraft’s book is hardly justified given the dearth of interaction with recent scholarship.
Because of the above observations, one finds reappraising this book difficult. Kraft writes,
I have therefore not interacted with much of the recent writing, choosing instead to deal with factors that enable us to understand what contextualization is and why it is needed.… this is a book of “issues,” with an emphasis on what I see as important as we think about the subject of contextualization. (p. 240)
One must ask, “How can he do this without addressing recent conversations about the nature of contextualization?” His “light edits” only reaffirm his previous arguments. I have difficulty seeing how they develop further implications of his original thesis.
Contemporary mission texts largely echo his most basic principles, e.g., the need for indigenous contextualization that does not impose foreign patterns and practices. Since 2002, scholars have increasingly turned their attention elsewhere. For example, if all theology is contextualized theology, what is the relationship between exegesis, theology, and culture? After all, contextualized practice is rooted in appropriate interpretation. Kraft does not address such questions. As a result, he reinforces the impression that contextualization primarily involves anthropology, not Scripture.
Kraft’s ambition to highlight the importance of spiritual warfare is admirable. He rightly corrects Westerners’ propensity to ignore such matters, which effectively de-spiritualizes Christianity. He states, “Western Christian witness, having largely ignored spiritual power issues, has tended to unwittingly recommend secularization as the antidote to traditional approaches to obtaining spiritual power” (pp. 176–77).
However, this narrow focus does not accord with the book’s overall goal of helping people understand “what contextualization is and why it is needed.” Unfortunately, his recommendations on spiritual power stem more from experience and speculation than thoughtful interaction with the Bible. He claims,
Material objects that have been dedicated to pagan gods can usually be “cleansed” simply by asserting the authority of Christ to break the power in them. If, however, the object has no other purpose than a religious or occult one, I recommend that it be destroyed as well. Land and buildings can also usually be disempowered relatively easily. (p. 128)
Assertions like these are typical and without biblical support.
This reviewer is concerned about an impression some readers might have when reading Issues in Contextualization. Given Kraft’s stature, some people could mistakenly dismiss contextualization literature as though all missiologists advocated similar methods (which are based on culture more than the Bible). In fact, scholars and practitioners have broadened the conversation to integrate the best of biblical and exegetical studies.
In short, Kraft’s second edition will help readers understand the inner thinking of previous debates about contextualization. However, it has limited value for people already familiar with those discussions. For those less versed on the subject, other texts provide a stronger, well-rounded introduction to the topic.
Jackson Wu is the theologian-in-residence for Mission One. He regularly blogs at jacksonwu.org.
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