Fracture. When has the word “fracture” been used in a way that we might call a “positive usage”? Indeed, it seems impossible to think of a circumstance in which we refer to something that has been “fractured” as a good thing. Even the word “shattered” can be conceived of in a positive context—as in a pot is shattered by the potter, so that it might be reformed. This is the work of God that we pray for in our own lives and the lives of others. But to be fractured is to be broken to an extent that is not complete enough to start over nor whole enough to continue functioning properly. Even “division” can be conceived of as being that which is evenly and intentionally distributed for greater effectiveness, but “fractures” are unnatural and rarely happen along convenient fault lines.

One of the great dangers facing the church today—both in local congregations and the church at large—is fracture. I am not referring to the divisions into denominations or the exposing of systemic oppressions and abuses that occur even in our own churches. I am referring to the way Christians divide unnaturally over matters on which there should be unity. Unfortunately, one of those issues is over the question, “How should faith be shared?” There are those who say that faith should be contextualized based on the hearer. There are those that charge that contextualization is compromise of the gospel and that Scripture only should be used to share faith. I will argue below that the Scriptures themselves actually demonstrate the importance of contextualization of the gospel. The three proofs that I will use to support this claim are: 1. The language and parables of the Bible 2. The incarnation of God in Christ 3. Paul preaching on Mars Hill.

First, the language and parables of the Bible demonstrate that the gospel must be contextualized. God is Spirit (John 4.24). God does not require human language to communicate with himself. By their very nature, the words of human languages are limiting. These words by necessity take place in the confines of time. For a word to be spoken, time must pass. For the word “speak”, the “k” sound necessarily follows the “sp” sound in time. So why would God limit his communication in this manner? He does so because his hearers require words to understand. This is the very beginning of contextualization. If God did not contextualize his Truth, men would never be able to begin understanding the gospel.

Similarly, the Bible itself in its original languages is written in three different languages. Why would the language of Scripture change? Did the angels change their angelic tongues around the time of Alexander the Great? This idea seems absurd, of course. The language of the Bible changed because the language of the audience changed. This accommodation was necessary to communicate the gospel to a new people.

Likewise, throughout the entirety of Scripture parables are told that describe God and his gospel that are based on the conventions of the people. The prophet Isaiah says, “Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, ‘He did not make me’; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, ‘He has no understanding’?” (Isaiah 29.16) Is God describing the pre-creation activities of the Trinity? Is God describing a trade taken up by himself? No. God is using a cultural practice that the people are familiar with to communicate a truth about himself and themselves. In the same way, Jesus uses parables of seeds, fields, and sheep to communicate to a people familiar with a rural way of life so that he might communicate through contextualization.

Second, the incarnation of God in Christ is the chief demonstration of the importance of contextualization. The incarnation of Christ is really a manifestation of the point made above, as Jesus is the Word. He is the logos—He who is both fundamental to the entirety of existence and who manifests Himself in the mode of language. The incarnation is the demonstration that the gospel can only be demonstrated to man through God’s condescension. If contextualization is condescending, condescension is the example that Christ has left to us.

Third, when Paul preaches to the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers at Mars Hill, he demonstrates the contextualization of the gospel based on cultural appropriation. He first recognizes their current context in pointing out their altar “To the unknown god” (Acts 17.23). Next, he draws a correlation between their current context and the one true God (Acts 17.24-27). Then he even quotes their own poets, demonstrating a deeper familiarity with their culture than simply “observing” their objects of worship (17.28).

Now, some people would argue the contrary to this biblical perspective. Three main points demonstrate this point of view. The first point is that it is easy to fall into the use of only human conventions and arguments. Dr. Warren Gage points in his lecture on Thomas Aquinas that Thomas uses the Scripture very sparingly to form his arguments.[1] This leads Thomas to develop arguments that ultimately will contradict the Scripture itself. I believe that many people shun the use of contextualization out of fear of becoming like Thomas and others who have downplayed the importance of Scripture.

Second, Paul argues strongly for the sufficiency of Scripture in 2 Timothy 3.16-17. It is clear that the Scripture is what forms the man of God to be “complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3.17). Paul goes on in the next chapter to warn against the dangers of clinging to teachings that tickle ears and suit the fancies of the hearers (2 Tim. 4.1-5), reinforcing the point about Thomas Aquinas above.

Third, Paul is emphatic in his opening to his first letter to the Corinthians that his “speech and [his] message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2.4). The Corinthians became obsessed with “super-apostles” (2 Cor. 11.5; 12.11) and various factions around personalities (1 Cor. 1.10-17). Paul wants them to know that the power of the gospel is not according to man but according to God alone, as he quotes “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart” (1 Cor. 1.19).

In conclusion, we see that there are good reasons to be leery about the dangers of contextualization. Contextualization can lead to compromise, as is seen in Thomas Aquinas. Many young “philosophers” have used their newly found weapons of philosophic warfare to beat down the average Joe in the pew. Many young seminary graduates have taken to pulpits “enlightened” to demonstrate their own prowess at the podium.

These sins have caused fracture. In the name of the gospel they have demonstrated how easily people choose to exalt themselves over God, reinforcing the maxim “knowledge puffs up” (1 Cor. 8.1). But unity and healing from the fractures are not found in reacting to sins and overcompensations. The unity and healing come through true allegiance to the God of Scripture and preaching the whole counsel of God (Acts 20.27). Faithfulness to the Scripture and to the whole counsel of God requires us, like the incarnational Christ, to contextualize the gospel to our audience. This is the testimony of God in choosing the mode of human language and parables to communicate, the testimony of Paul in preaching at Mars Hill, and the testimony of our Lord Jesus in becoming man “for us and for our salvation”[2].

[1] Warren Gage, “CC602 Module 4 Lecture 10.” Lecture. August 17, 2017. Accessed February 3, 2018. lecture 10.

[2] The Chalcedonian Creed. Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry. Webpage. Accessed February 3, 2018.

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