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The Text For Context

This is a transcribed excerpt from a breakout session that Tim Keller gave in 2004 regarding contextualization of the gospel, which you can access the full audio version here, with regards to DJ Chuang. I highly recommend a full listen as this was only about a 4-minute excerpt (Keller talks fast!)

I can see why a blog like this, only focusing on Asian Americans and faith, might seem a little strange to people, perhaps even unnecessary. And it seems there’s a been a lot of fuss about contextualization lately(Piper vs. Driscoll anyone?). But I believe Keller articulates the need for contextualization well and describes precisely why there is tension about this issue. I’m not advocating that we create cultural enclaves through this blog, I’m only promoting the fact that we need to address culturally specific, contextualized questions and issues for Asian Americans. And with no further ado, I give you Tim Keller.

People get concerned about the idea about contextual theology: Isn’t there biblical theology? Why would there be Korean theology? Why would there be African American theology? Why would there be Latin American theology? Well there can be, here’s the reason why.

You get out of the bible the answers to the questions you ask it. Your theology is actually not just distilling the summary of what the bible says. Every theology is really just a series of answers to the questions that occur to you. Now there’s no doubt that some questions any culture, any group of people, are going to ask.

Harvey Conn, who was a missionary in Korea for many, many years and who taught at Westminster seminary and was a colleague of mine when I was on the faculty there. And I learned so much from him, actually I learned most of this from him.

Harvey said, what’s intriguing to him is that in the Korean culture, the Presbyterian missionaries came and said, “Well, now if you want to be reformed, you need to adopt the Westminster confession of faith.” And he said if you go to the Westminster Confession of Faith, there’s almost nothing in there about your relationship to your ancestors, you relationship to your parents and your ancestors. Even if you go to the larger catechism and the smaller catechism and you go to the questions about the commandment about honoring your parents, you’ll see that the British and European people almost immediately jump from saying this means you should obey all in authority and obey your government and that sort of thing. They clearly, in that culture, the relationship to your ancestors is not the big deal.

Harvey says, if you know anything about Asian cultures, you realize that if people want to become Christians, they want to know what does the bible have to say about my relationship to my parents and to my ancestors. There’s not a word in the confession!

If Koreans would to sit down, he said, if they were sat down to write a confession, it wouldn’t be the same. I mean, there would be tons of overlap and it wouldn’t contradict. It shouldn’t contradict any of the other ecumenical creeds of the Christian church at all. But it’s going to be different because you’re going to ask somewhat different questions.

Contextualization, an evangelical bible, — non-relativistic contextualization is not giving people the answers they want to hear, but actually giving them God’s answers which they may not want to hear to the questions that they are really asking. That’s contextualization.

There’s a rigidity that doesn’t want to admit that the questions that are being asked now actually are valid.

So for example, one of the problems in our denomination, the PCA, I don’t know if you’re all in the PCA or not. It doesn’t matter. If you’re Lutheran — here’s the Augsburg Confession, you know, here’s the Heidelberg. If you look in these confessions, we’re in denominations that are actually split, why? Two people can virtually affirm every word of these confessions, then one guy goes out and do a contemporary, multimedia service and the other guy says that is blasphemy and we’re at each other’s throats. And we both subscribe to the same confession. And yet the confession isn’t giving us unity. The confession is supposed to give us unity. Why?

There’s nothing in the confession about how to relate Christ to culture. Why isn’t there anything in the confessions about how to relate Christ to culture? Because as Lesslie Newbigin says, for many, many years, in Christendom, when everybody was a Christian, the way a individual church defined itself was over, against other Christians. In other words, I’m Lutheran, and here’s what that means. I’m not a Calvinist. I’m not an Arminian, I’m not this, I’m not that. The confessions defined themselves over against the other Christians. but as Newbigin says, now we should begin defining ourselves over against the culture, over against the world, not over against other Christians.

That immediately brings up the question of how do you relate Christ to culture and you know what? Our historic confessions don’t even begin to get at that and that’s why we’re at each others’ throats. Why? because frankly, we need 21st century reformed theology, not just 17th century reformed theology, so see contextual theology is a set of answers — this isn’t relativism, it’s just that you’re never going to ask all the questions to the bible that a person can ask. Whatever your range of important questions are is going to effect the theology. Therefore you can have different theologies and not it be relativistic at all, it may not even actually be contradictory…

This is going to bother some people, I know. But however it bothers you, I have one request — do not disengage. In a postmodern world, which like it or not, you’re in one, if you take the high road of saying the truth is the truth is the truth, and those damned relativists are leading the charmed and simple-minded away from Christ with all this contextual and relevant mumbo-jumbo, that attitude right there proves the postmoderns right. We must continue to be “in the world” while not of it, and that requires us, all of us, to engage with fellow believers and non-believers alike in dialogue, speaking the truth with love. We cannot ever step back and say, “You’re wrong and I refuse to speak anymore to you.” It is untenable for us to say that any longer, lest you intend to polarize the gospel from reaching this postmodern world more.

I’m Korean and trust me, Koreans are awesome at refusing to speak to each other, it is simply not healthy, nor is it good news, and I mean that in the evangelion sense.


About David Park

Christian 2nd-generation Korean American; Atlanta Georgia; more details to come.

3 responses to “The Text For Context

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  2. paul

    yes, contextualization! the truth in love…
    strip away platonic and western philosophy from “systematic theology” and see what’s left.

    i’m actually comfortable in the PCA, but given the choice between preaching to where the people are at (in thailand), and orienting them to understand the western form of biblical theology (only AFTER a prerequisite study in western civilization), i think contextualization wins out.

    it’s like, i’d never want to plant a “Second Los Angeles Korean Presbyterian Church in America” in Chonburi, Thailand!

  3. elderj

    preach it brother! I would add that your idea of “Gospel contextualization of the culture” has inherent in it the notion that to be a Christian is to be MORE Asian (or in my case African) than less because the fullness of our humanity including our heritage, ethnicity and culture can only be realized in Christ.

    I wonder if anyone ever did any thinking about the relationship or responsibility between elder and younger in Korean culture as a metaphor for Christ’s relationship with us? Jesus as the “hyung” par-excellence who so completely brings honor to his father, sets an example for his dongsaengs, and provides the meal of grace at his own expense.

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