Contextualization: Becoming All Things To All

Following Newbigin And Cultural Embodied Gospel and Paul: The Missionary And Contextualizer, Becoming All Thing To All is a third article in this series that explores the question of Contextualization viz., “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).

In 1 Corinthians 8-10 we can see Paul’s description of a cross-cultural mission that could be summarized by 9:22-23[1] viz., all for the sake of the gospel, Paul became all things to all people, that by all means he might save some.

In the cultural context of those outside the law, Gentiles, Paul became as one of them as he became a Gentile, outside the law. Whereas in the cultural context of those who are under the law[2], Jews, Paul became under the law, a Jew. Streett explained that “being a Jew to the Jews (1 Co 9:20), Paul had Timothy (who was half-Jewish) circumcised for the sake of contextualized witness to Jews.” (Streett 2007: 1650).

Pratt correctly captured Paul’s cross-culture missionary attitude when he explained that “[t]his diversity required great flexibility from Paul because he wanted to win those under the law and to win those not having the law.(Pratt 2000: 150)

From Paul, we observe culturally embodied Gospel that’s stumbling block is on the Gospel message of the crucified God and not in his manner or method to which he communicated it in a cultural context he found himself in.

We can thus deduce from 1 Corinthians 8-10 that contextualization aims at removing the stumbling block on the manner or method(2 Cor. 6:3) to which redemptive drama, God sending His Son to live and die in our place, too which is communicated yet retains its offends  to the Jewish(1 Cor. 1:23) and its foolishness of a crucified Christ “to those who are perishing”(1 Cor. 1:18)

Next: Contextualization: Seasoning With Salt

Question: What are the limits,if any, of becoming all things to all people?

[1]  The passage’s context is the discussion whether or not Christians should eat meat sacrificed to idols.

[2] Torah: Laws of Moses


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

Streett, R. Alan, “What is the Christian Identity Movement?”  Cabal, T., Brand, C. O., Clendenen, E. R., Copan, P., Moreland, J., & Powell, D. (2007). The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith . Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.

Pratt, R. L., Jr. (2000). Vol. 7: I & II Corinthians. Holman New Testament Commentary; Holman Reference (150). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

God The Father, The Son and Early Christians

An anonymous Letter to Diognetus, named The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, which is probably written ca. 80-130 A.D by  unknown author who called himself “a disciple of the Apostles”, captures the early Church understanding of God the Father and Son relationship. In  Chapter 7: The manifestation of Christ in  Philip Schaff’s (1819-1893) Ante-Nicene Fathers, which can be found in public domain at Christian Classics Ethereal Library, of this epistle to Diognetus, we encounter this wonderful descriptions:

For, as I said, this was no mere earthly invention which was delivered to them, nor is it a mere human system of opinion, which they judge it right to preserve so carefully, nor has a dispensation of mere human mysteries been committed to them, but truly God Himself, who is almighty, the Creator of all things, and invisible, has sent from heaven, and placed among men, [Him who is] the truth, and the holy and incomprehensible Word, and has firmly established Him in their hearts.

He did not, as one might have imagined, send to men any servant, or angel, or ruler, or any one of those who bear sway over earthly things, or one of those to whom the government of things in the heavens has been entrusted, but the very Creator and Fashioner of all things—by whom He made the heavens—by whom he enclosed the sea within its proper bounds—whose ordinances all the stars faithfully observe—from whom the sun has received the measure of his daily course to be observed—whom the moon obeys, being commanded to shine in the night, and whom the stars also obey, following the moon in her course; by whom all things have been arranged, and placed within their proper limits, and to whom all are subject—the heavens and the things that are therein, the earth and the things that are therein, the sea and the things that are therein—fire, air, and the abyss—the things which are in the heights, the things which are in the depths, and the things which lie between.

“[A] disciple of the Apostles” explained that Almighty Creator of visible and invisible, the true God sent not an angel or a ruler but the very Creator and Fashioner of all thing. This is the doctrine that  was delivered to them, probably from the 12 Apostles themselves. The disciple of the Apostle continued to explain:

This [messenger] He sent to them. Was it then, as one might conceive, for the purpose of exercising tyranny, or of inspiring fear and terror? By no means, but under the influence of clemency and meekness. As a king sends his son, who is also a king, so sent He Him; as God He sent Him; as to men He sent Him; as a Saviour He sent Him, and as seeking to persuade, not to compel us; for violence has no place in the character of God. As calling us He sent Him, not as vengefully pursuing us; as loving us He sent Him, not as judging us. For He will yet send Him to judge us, and who shall endure His appearing?

This messenger, the very Creator and Fashioner of all thing, is a Son of God and very God. He explained that as a king sends his son, who is also a king, God send his Son who is also God. “[A] disciple of the Apostles” gives us an early understanding of the relationship the Father who is God sending his Son who is also God.

How could early monotheist Christians claim that the Son is God and the Father is God yet there is one True God? It is from this doctrine,(and the deity of Holy Spirit), that led the early Christians to progressively formulate the doctrine of a Tri-une God viz., One and Only true God  in three distinct Persons.

Question: Do you agree with “a disciple of the Apostles” that Jesus is God? Give reasons.

Source: Christian Classics Ethereal Library public domain documents

The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I: The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. 1885 (A. Roberts, J. Donaldson & A. C. Coxe, Ed.) (27–28). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.


Early Church’s Understanding of the Holy Spirit: Irenaeus( c. 120- 28th of June 202 A.D) and Clement of Alexandria(c.150 – c. 215)

Who Is Christ Jesus? Answers From Clement(ca. 150- 215 A.D.)

Who is Christ Jesus? Answers From Irenaeus(c. 120-202 A.D)

Is Christ Jesus God? Answers From Ignatius(ca.30-107 A.D)

Early Church’s Understand of Genesis 1:26

Early Church’s Understanding Of Isaiah 9:6

Early Church’s Understanding Of John 1:1

Paul: The Missionary And Contextualizer

In Newbigin And Cultural Embodied Gospel article, I began a series of short articles that exploring the truthfulness of Newbigin’s claim, namely contextualizing the Gospel. In this second article series I attempt to explore a master contextualizer Paul of Tarsus, a leading cross-cultural missionary we encounter in Luke’s Acts of Apostles, way of doing cross-cultural mission.

Paul: A Missionary To All and For All

Apostle Paul was a church planter who was aware of what God was already doing in the cultures he was trying to reach. In each cultural context, Paul labored to communicate the Gospel truth into a language, beliefs, values, symbols, traditions and practices that were already familiar in that given culture.

In Thessalonica, as Paul and Silas were passing through Amphipolis and Apollonia in a Jewish synagogue, Luke reported that Paul reasoned with them from the Scriptures (Acts 17:1-3), while in Athens, Paul reasoned with Athenian’s using their own inscription, “To an Unknown God”, and their love of spending time in nothing except telling or hearing something new (Acts 17:21).

Longenecker, a prominent New Testament scholar, correctly captures Paul’s art of contextualization as he explained that:

Paul does not begin his address by referring to Jewish history or by quoting the Jewish Scriptures, as he did in the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch (cf. 13:16–41). He knew it would be futile to refer to a history no one knew or argue from fulfillment of prophecy no one was interested in or quote from a book no one read or accepted as authoritative. Nor does he develop his argument from the God who gives rain and crops in their season and provides food for the stomach and joy for the heart, as he did at Lystra (cf. 14:15–17). Instead, he took for his point of contact with the council an altar he had seen in the city with the inscription Agnōstō Theō (“To an Unknown God”).(Longenecker 1981: 475)

Paul utilized what God had already place in each cultural context. With God-fearing Greeks and Jews, Paul made use of their Jewish beliefs and their expectation of Christ, to persuaded them that the Jesus he proclaimed is the waited Christ and with the Athenians, Paul enter into their own world by identifying with their own, symbols, traditions and practices. Paul simply became “all things to all people” that he might save some (1 Cor. 9:19-23) by taking to consideration the context of worldviews he found himself in.

Newbigin understood and practiced Paul method of doing mission. After spending most of his working life as a missionary in India, he learned that he had to express the Gospel in a way, which his Hindu listeners would recognize in their own language. Newbigin argued:

“You obviously had to take seriously the whole Hindu worldview, with its great elements of rationality and strength, which I found enormously impressive. In that kind of situation you have to ask yourself, not ‘How can we fit the gospel into this?’, but, ‘At what points does the gospel illuminate this, at what points does it question it, at what points does it contradict it?’

As Paul, Newbigin chose to accept the way of his cultural context’s understanding, namely the Hindu worldview, to which he committed himself to a certain point with the aim of challenging it with the Gospel of Christ Jesus.

Next: Becoming All Things To All


How would you contextualize the Gospel to your atheist/skeptic friend in your local area?

[1] The passage’s context is the discussion whether or not Christians should eat meat sacrificed to idols.

[2] Torah: Laws of Moses

Newbigin: A Missionary and A Theologian Biography


Gaebelein, F. E., Tenney, M. C., & Longenecker, R. N. (1981). The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 9: John and Acts. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

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

Sin: None But Man Must Pay, None But God Is Able To Pay

 [T]his debt[man owed God for his sin] was so great that, while none but man must solve the debt, none but God was able to do it; so that he who does it must be both God and man. – Boso

Anselm, S., Archbishop of Canterbury, & Deane, S. N. (2009). Proslogium; Monologium; An appendix, In behalf of the fool, by Gaunilon; and Cur Deus homo (278–279). Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

14 Steps: Preparation Of Expository Sermon

Bryan Chapell, in Christ-centered preaching: Redeeming the expository sermon, offered 14 steps a preacher could use to prepare an expository sermon. Here is Chapell figure of preparation pyramid that “captures the essence of these formulas while emphasizing ideas central to expository preaching as defined in this book.

Chapell noted that “[t]he steps preachers take in preparing messages vary according to the personality of the preacher, the time available, the nature of the occasion, the type of sermon, the prior knowledge the preacher has of the text, and many other factors. Still, general guidance is helpful as preachers begin developing their own personal approach to preparing sermons”(Chapell 2005:344).

It is my hope, for all of us who love expository sermons, to make use of Chapell’s steps in preparation of our sermons.

“Read the text, research the material, then focus everything on a single idea.”

– Bryan Chapell

Chapell, B. (2005). Christ-centered preaching: Redeeming the expository sermon (Second Edition) Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

The Case For The Resurrection

Last week Credo House offered Michael Patton and Mike Licona’s 10 +1 less than 4 minutes video clips that easily and wonderfully answers the objections for The Case for the Resurrection.  Michael R. Licona, a New Testament Scholar, answered 10 Myths offered against the case for the resurrection of Christ Jesus.

Introduction: This is just one of the many myths about Christianity that millions of people have bought into. But one thing remains certain — Jesus died on the cross and rose again 3 days later. That’s not just faith — it’s FACT — and there’s a strong historical foundation to support this.

Myth #1: Contradictions in the Gospels

Myth #2: Pagan Parallels in the Mystery Religions

Myth #3: The Fraud Theory Continue reading