“The ‘fundamentalist fallacy’ [is] the conviction that God reveals himself outside of a cultural setting to communicate timeless truths to people who themselves are not influenced by their own cultural setting.” (Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology, p. 8 )


The gospel is always clothed in the culture it inhabits, for better or for worse.  Contextualization–adapting the gospel to the current social practices around us– is not a choice one may accept or deny.  Rather, gospel adaptation will inevitably be practiced by all believers. The only question is whether this will be done  faithfully and creatively, or  unbiblically and naively.  As Lesslie Newbigin, a long-time missionary to South India, writes:

In speaking of ‘the gospel,’ I am, of course, referring to the announcement that in the series of events that have their center in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ something has happened that alters the total human situation and must therefore call into question every human culture.  Now clearly this announcement is itself culturally conditioned.  It does not come down from heaven or by the mouth of an angel…Neither at the beginning, nor at any subsequent time, is there or can there be a gospel that is not embodied in a culturally conditioned form of words.  The idea that one can or could at any time separate out by some process of distillation a pure gospel unadulterated by any cultural accretions is an illusion.  It is, in fact, an abandonment of the gospel, for the gospel is about the word made flesh.  Every statement of the gospel in words is conditioned by the culture of which those words are a part, and every style of life that claims to embody the truth of the gospel is a culturally conditioned style of life.  There can never be a culture-free gospel.  Yet the gospel, which is from the beginning to the end embodied in culturally conditioned forms, calls into question all cultures, including the one in which it was originally embodied.” (Foolishness to the Greeks, pp. 3-4)

Therefore, one implication is that Christians must learn to be bilingual—that is, they must be able to fluently speak the language and understand the internal logic of both the gospel and the cultural context they live within.  Furthermore, both of these “texts” must be understood on their own terms–no cheap straw men or caricatures are allowed.  Christians must be saturated in both worlds, yet able to distinguish them, and all the while giving their ultimate loyalty and allegiance to the biblical worldview.  As Karl Barth is reputed to have quipped, Christians must proclaim the gospel with the Bible in one hand, and the local newspaper in the other.  In another place–and at much greater length!–Barth expounds further on this basic idea:

God’s congregation possessed and at all times possesses its own language.  Nothing can change this.  For it has in history its own special history, its own special road.  It speaks, when it confesses, in relation to this special history.  It stands in the quite special concrete historical context, which has at all times formed its language and will continue to form it.  Therefore the language of faith, the language of public responsibility in which as Christians we are bound to speak, will inevitably be the language of the Bible…There is a specifically Church language.  That is in order.  Let us call it by the familiar name by saying that there is a ‘language of Canaan’.  And when the Christian confesses his faith, when we have to let the light that is kindled in us shine, no one can avoid speaking in this language.  For this is how it is: if the things of Christian faith, if our trust in God and His Word is to be expressed precisely, so to speak in its essence—and time and again it is bitterly necessary for this to be done, so that things may be made clear—then it is inevitable that all undaunted the language of Canaan should sound forth…One thing is certain, that where the Christian Church does not venture to confess in its own language, it usually does not confess at all…But this cannot be the end of the matter…The Church’s language cannot aim at being an end in itself.  It must be made clear that the Church exists for the sake of the world, that the light is shining in the darkness…Where confession is serious and clear, it must be fundamentally translatable into the speech of Mr. Everyman, the man and the woman in the street, into the language of those who are not accustomed to reading Scripture and singing hymns, but who possess a quite different vocabulary and quite different spheres of interest…By the very nature of the Christian Church there is only one task, to make the Confession heard in the sphere of the world as well.  Not now repeated in the language of Canaan, but in the quite sober, quite unedifying language which is spoken ‘out there.’  There must be translation, for example, into the language of the newspaper.  What we have to do is to say in the common language of the world the same thing as we say in the forms of Church language…If a man cannot, let him consider whether he really knows how to speak edifyingly even in the Church.  We know this language of the pulpit and the altar, which outside the area of the Church is as effectual as Chinese.” (Dogmatics in Outline, pp. 30-33)

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