Newbigin And Cultural Embodied Gospel

In Contextualization Without Compromise article, Tullian Tchividjian properly captured the tension facing missionaries and churches in contemporary culture when it comes to contextualization.  Tchividjian writes: “If you don’t contextualize enough, no one’s life will be transformed because they won’t understand you. But if you contextualize too much, no one’s life will be transformed because you won’t be challenging their deepest assumptions and calling them to change.”

“We must,” claimed Lesslie Newbigin, “acknowledge the fact that there is not and cannot be a gospel which is not culturally embodied. This is simply another way of affirming…the historical nature of the gospel”. Newbigin continued to contend that:

The gospel is about events which happened at a particular time and place in history.  The events were in Palestine and not in Japan or Africa.  The language in which they were told was in Hebrew and Greek, and not Sanskrit or Chinese. Wherever the gospel is preached it is preached in a human language, which means the language of one particular culture; wherever a community tries to live out the gospel, it is also part of one particular human culture. (Newbigin 2011: 525-6)

Newbigin contended that missionaries ought to communicate the gospel in ways that make sense to their listeners. I believe Newbigin is correct because the moment we share the good news of the redemptive drama of God the Father sending his Son, while we were yet sinners to live and die for us, we already are culturally embodying the Gospel to the particular culture we are trying to reach. We indeed have to acknowledge the fact that we do, in one way or another, contextualize the gospel.

Defining Contextualization: Setting Boundaries

Hesselgrave and Rommen defined contextualization as “the attempt to communicate the message of the person, works, Word, and will of God in a way that is faithful to God’s revelation, especially as put forth in the teaching of Holy Scripture, and that is meaningful to respondents in their respective cultural and existential contexts.”(Hesselgrave & Rommen 2003: 200)

It is an ability of turning the ear of once listener in a given cultural context, into an eye to see the spiritual truth of the Gospel that could not easily be seen or understood because of cultural diversity. Contextualization is an art of a missionary to consider the cultural context in which she pursues to communicate the good news, as she intentionally communicate the Gospel truth in a language and manner understood by that given environment and atmosphere.

Missions’ strategist for Central Asia[1] provocatively explained that we have to accept that our churches are not like “New Testament churches”. He argued that “[o]ur cultural context is dramatically different from the world of the New Testament, and as a result, any modern church would look bizarre and alien to a first-century Christian.”( 2009: 16-7) A Gospel that is not culturally embodied would simply be odd and foreign to the cultural context in which it is communicated[2].

Going together with a new With All I Am blog’ theme, I would welcome you to a series of short articles that explores the truthfulness of Newbigin’s claim, namely contextualizing the Gospel.

Next: Paul: The Missionary And Contextualizer


Should we contextualize the Gospel?

[1] Name not revealed.

[2] Cultural embodied gospel can also be seen in the English Bible translations. E.g. from Holy Ghost to Holy Spirit,  from “to know one’s wife” to “ to have sex” e.t.c.

Newbigin: A Missionary and A Theologian Biography


Newbigin, Lesslie excerpt from The Gospel in Pluralistic Society (1989 Eerdmans) in William Edgar, K. Scott Oliphint Ed. (2011) Christian Apologetics Past and Present: A Primary Source Reader. Crossway

David J. Hesselgrave and Edward Rommen, (2003) Contextualization: Meanings, Methods, and Models. Pasadena: William Carey Library

Missions’ strategist for Central Asia (2009) Putting Contextualization in Its Place, 9 Marks, eJournal, July/August 2009