Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Friendly Fire or Faithful Wounds?

Phil Johnson (from now on, I'll call him Phil), Pyromaniac, has completed a blog series on “contextualization.” To read what I'm talking about so this makes some kind of sense, go here and start reading from the bottom for the first post; to read the comment threads click on the dates; to comment on Pyromaniacs you have to have a Blogger/Google login (but you can read the blog and the comments without registering and you can comment here without registering, though it would be kind if you did so).

I want to comment on the series and its motivations and its implications. I waited until the series was complete before starting — it wasn't intentional, but it turned out to be better, since I've now followed Phil's entire train of thought.

There is an interesting difference between the text of the series proper and the comment threads — including Phil's own comments — that ensued. Please understand that I do not believe for a second Phil has any personal animosity in this; his concern is and ever was for the Gospel.

  1. The motivation: I surmise from the timing that Phil started this series as a result of a sermon (about an hour long) and a speech (about an hour and a half long) given by Mark Driscoll (I'll call him Mark from now on), both freely available for download or in the Mars Hill podcast, founding pastor and usual preacher at Mars Hill Church in Seattle (not to be confused with that other Mars Hill). If you only have time for one, pick the speech. In both, Mark makes much of the word “contextualization,” by which he means translating the Gospel into terms that are understandable in the culture in which it is being proclaimed.
  2. The problem: As Phil sees it, some have bent “contextualization” in a church planting context or missionary context into a shape that means “syncretism,” the adopting of pagan practices and beliefs as Christian. There are some for whom this is undeniably true, e.g., Doug Pagett or Rob Bell.
  3. The implication (or the inference Phil seems to want us to draw): Mark should be avoided because he uses a word others use to mean something different. Further, since Mark's church participates in “worldly practices” as a church (this is the subject of previous blog posts and/or comments), even his detailed declarations of orthodoxy (right Biblical belief) are suspect.
  4. The method: Phil begins the discussion by deconstructing (!) the word “contextualize”.
  5. More method: Phil disputes the claim by the postmoderns that Paul the apostle in Acts 17 “affirmed” the culture in Athens in any way. Rather, Paul's strategy was to declare the Gospel as a contradiction of their culture and beliefs by “[unpacking] the meaning of Christ's death and resurrection and proclaim it with clarity”.


  1. There are several things Phil is right about.
    1. Phil rightly protests the fact that the definition of “contextualize” is in general difficult to pin down.
    2. Deconstruction can be a useful tool in “tearing down strongholds” of unbelief.
    3. Using a word that is so wide open to interpretation that it has to be explained every time you say it to know which of the variegated meanings you intend is burdensome on both the speaker and the listener. In deconstructing “contextualize,” Phil is pointing out that many of the folks who are saying it are putting themselves in the position of Humpty Dumpty in Through The Looking Glass: (‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that's all.’).
    4. Some of the people saying “contextualization” have bad theology and mean bad things when they use this particular word. The same thing could be said of those who abuse a word like “love.” As the old song says, “We say we love Coca-Cola, and we love mother's hot apple pie.” (Is anyone old enough to recognize that reference?)
    5. Much of what goes on in the culture around us is questionable at best. Television, movies, music are all unreliable sources of belief. Or reliable sources of unbelief.
    6. No one objects to translating the Gospel into understandable terms so people within a culture are able to understand it. (Phil said this in one of the comment threads.)
  2. There are, however, several assumptions that lie under what Phil has said, and it is useful to bring them to the surface for examination .
    1. Anyone who uses a word for which the definition across the spectrum of those who use it is fluid or even nebulous is automatically suspect, a kind of “guilt by vocabulary.”

      Evaluation:Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it's hard to get it back in. For all of Phil's protest over “contextualize” as a word (along with its conjugates), he continues to use words like “charity” in an in-house manner that won't be understood by those who only think of “charity” in terms the IRS will understand.

    2. In protesting that the culture is opposed to the Gospel (which is true of every secular culture) Phil has implicitly embraced the notion that there is such a thing as a “Christian culture.”

      Evaluation: There's no problem with that statement as such. There are, however, two questions we must frequently ask ourselves:

      1. What part of what has grown up in our churches, what part of our culture, is extra-Biblical?
      2. What part of the Christian culture is therefore disposable?

      To ask these questions at once and in an operational and slightly more provocative, way: How has the offense ceased to be the Gospel and started being merely the Christian culture?

      And, to drive on to the next logical question, what does this say about our attitude about the sufficiency of Scripture?

  3. Phil's series and the comments of many might be construed by some as friendly fire, i.e., the shooting of one's compatriots and allies. However, I believe Phil is engaged in polemics, the way you argue with your friends over some principle or doctrine you disagree about. I think Phil would get more yardage of substance (to mix metaphors) out of his disagreement with Mark over continuationalism. But in the present discussion, Phil is really talking more about others in the debate, and Mark gets drawn in via guilt by vocabulary (he said, repeating himself).

Thoughts, anyone?

No comments: