One Gospel for All Nations: A Practical Approach to Biblical Contextualization

Written by Jackson Wu Reviewed By Andrew Ong

Contextual theology has garnered considerable interest amongst evangelicals in an ever shrinking, pluralistic world. Many wanting to uphold biblical authority often tend toward a dogmatic approach, adhering to the myth of neutral “objectivity” while others prioritize cultural sensitivity prefer an existential approach, wading into the dangerous waters of unchecked “subjectivity.” With One Gospel for All Nations, Jackson Wu enters this conversation. He presupposes Scripture as God’s authoritative special revelation, which transcends every specific cultural setting, and yet also believes that the gospel is not an ahistorical abstraction, but was revealed in history, and must be proclaimed to all nations. Central to Wu’s argument is that most evangelicals reduce contextualization to communication and application but miss its foundational starting point: interpretation.

In One Gospel for All Nations, Wu offers a perspective on contextualization and prescribes a matching method, which, he argues, will free evangelicals from having to choose between Scripture and culture. He affirms one gospel, seeking to guard against explicitly false teaching and against mistaking the secondary points of Scripture for the main points. To bolster this conviction, he commends to readers an understanding of the gospel that has a firm thematic framework. Simultaneously, allows for flexibility in the use of explanatory themes in gospel presentations. Armed with the common presupposition that all theology is contextual, Wu contends that evangelicals must embrace their inevitable cultural lenses when interpreting Scripture and developing theology, so that contextualization is not merely done in the communication and application of the gospel, but in the process of interpretation itself.

To begin, Wu argues that even the best of our theology, though communicating genuine truth, will be genuine truth from a certain cultural and historical perspective. Wu is quick to add that this is not relativism, for our limited vantage points do not make knowing truth impossible. He just wants to take seriously the fallacy of an acultural theology.

While Wu comforts his readers with the hope of controlling contextualization to prevent cultural syncretism, he also warns against theological syncretism in which theological programs, such as the “Four Spiritual Laws,” become dominant frameworks for interpreting and communicating Scripture. As a self-professed conservative evangelical, Wu affirms the authority of Scripture over culture, yet believes that new categories are needed. “Exegetical contextualization,” as Wu understands it, refers to one’s interpretation of Scripture from a cultural perspective (e.g., identifying one’s own culture’s distinctive themes while reading Scripture), while “cultural contextualization” refers to the interpretation of culture using a scriptural perspective (e.g., identifying biblical themes while “reading” culture). By distinguishing these, he advances a perspective in which culture plays a role in shaping theology without usurping Scripture. This distinction is the essence of Wu’s “firm, but flexible” model of contextualization.

For Wu, defining the gospel is a first order concern because one’s “understanding of the gospel inevitably influences [one’s] view on contextualization” (p. 29). He warns of reductionist “soterian” gospels, which emphasize the application of an individual’s salvation to the exclusion of the redemptive trajectory of the Old Testament that finds fulfilment in the New Testament, and he thus advocates for a biblical-theological, canonical approach that traces major themes throughout Scripture.

Drawing significantly from Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), Wu argues that at least one or more of the themes: creation, covenant, and kingdom, frame the gospel, keeping it “firm.” These themes mutually reinforce one another and encompass all other theological subthemes. For Wu, the gospel is framed by these truths: God is the Creator, therefore, the King of creation. This Creator-King has acted in history covenantally as Israel’s God, and has promised to establish a just kingdom for the nations through David’s offspring, who is Jesus Christ. This is the worldview narrative that must interact with our own worldview and the worldviews of cultures we engage when we do contextualization.

Wu also identifies four key questions that every gospel presentation in Scripture answers: 1. Who is Christ? 2. What has Christ done? 3. Why is Christ important? 4. How should we respond? While we must structure our gospel presentations around the firm framework of creation, covenant, and kingdom, there are a flexible variety of metaphors, symbols, and stories that the Bible uses to answer these four questions.

Then, Wu offers a model for contextualization. Step 1: Wear cultural lenses to identify biblical themes (both framework and explanatory). Step 2: Use these biblical themes to organize a culture’s themes. Step 3: Wear this culture’s lens to interpret Scripture. Step 4: Use a biblical lens to interpret and assess culture.

He concludes by arguing for the legitimacy of cultural lenses in biblical interpretation, and challenges his readers to consider “both-and” approaches to theological debates, reminding us that a multicultural perspective is better than a mono-cultural perspective.

In One Gospel for All Nations, Wu demonstrates a thoughtful understanding of how the Bible presents the gospel’s singularity. His critique of a “soterian” gospel that overemphasizes justification and a law/guilt paradigm is a timely word to conservative evangelicals. Though Wu’s appreciation of certain aspects of N. T. Wright’s understanding of Paul may concern certain American evangelicals, his arguments and conclusions still deserve evangelical attention, for one’s understanding of Paul’s one gospel must affect one’s contextualization.

Wu’s arguments should lead many conservative evangelicals to reconsider how they have communicated and even understood the gospel. He refreshingly draws the church’s attention to the absolute necessity of biblical theology in the process of theologizing and its relationship to worldview narratives. Such an emphasis highlights both the continuities and discontinuities between specific cultures’ worldviews and Scripture’s worldview, and helps us to not merely settle for true propositions in our gospel presentations, but to pursue proper and primary emphases. One does wonder, however, if systematic theology, being a part of every evangelical’s local culture, should take as much of a backseat to biblical theology as Wu suggests. Do not biblical theology and systematic theology mutually inform one another in a harmonious and interdependent fashion? Is it possible to do biblical theology apart from systematic theology? Wu does not seem to appreciate the reciprocity amongst these disciplines.

Similarly, Wu’s model depends on a biblical-theological framework and an interpretation influenced by contextual, cultural perspective. However, if there is no acultural theology, is there a possibility of an acultural biblical theology? Is Wu’s “firm” gospel frame just another attempt to extract an “acultural gospel” from Scripture? While one may personally agree in her reading of Scripture that creation, covenant, and kingdom represent the firm framework of the gospel, one must still consider how her arrival at this framework was shaped by her specific cultural context. This reviewer is not convinced that Wu has successfully navigated a way out of the hermeneutical spiral for evangelicals.

A few additional minor critiques may be added. Perhaps a more significant discussion of the relationship between the gospel and the presentation of the gospel would clarify Wu’s argument. Some of Wu’s terminology, diagrams, and organization are difficult to understand. Also, there may be an error in Figure 14, and the recapitulation of ideas from chapters 1–5 in chapter 6’s “Process” chapter was not the easiest to follow. Finally, this reviewer is becoming increasingly convinced that every book on contextualization should include a section grappling with the complexities of language and meaning and a theology of religion; such sections are absent in One Gospel for All Nations.

Nonetheless Wu has definitely contributed to the evangelical conversation regarding contextualization. I commend this book to any evangelical who is interested in thinking through methods of contextualization. Though Wu does not lead us out of the hermeneutical spiral, his insistence upon returning to biblical theology and using multiple perspectives in biblical interpretation is refreshing, and his firm and flexible model for gospel presentations is both innovative and useful.

Andrew Ong

Andrew Ong
University of Edinburgh
Edinburgh, Scotland, UK

Other Articles in this Issue

The Eighth Commandment, “You shall not steal,” has massive implications for human life on earth...

Kyle Faircloth argues that Daniel Strange’s earlier work on the question of the unevangelised is undermined by his more recent theology of religions, and in particular his theory of a ‘remnantal’ revelation...

Although evangelicals agree the church must be fervent in seeking to reach those who have little or no access to the gospel, this missiological consensus has not led to a theological consensus regarding the salvific state of those whom the church never reaches...

John Barclay has written a stimulating and ground-breaking book on Paul’s theology of gift...

The literary notion of “implied reader” invokes a series of hermeneutically significant questions: What is it? Who produces it? and How can it be identified? These questions naturally lead to a further query: What is the relationship between this implied reader of a text and an actual reader of a text? This type of study is often associated primarily with reader-response theory and purely literary approaches...