Living at the Crossroads of the Biblical and Western Story: Faithfulness and Relevance

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Living at the Crossroads of the Biblical and Western Story: Faithfulness and Relevance

  • Michael W. Goheen
  • Vancouver, B.C.

Living at the Crossroads

Dilemma of the Missionary

  • Solidarity: Wants to be part of culture
    • Has good news for them in their setting
  • Rejection: Whole of culture distorted by sinful idolatry
    • Fundamental incompatibility between Scriptural and cultural story
  • Danger: Relevance may lead to unfaithfulness; attempts to be faithful may lead to irrelevance

Illustration: Model of Cross-Cultural Communication

  • Proclaim good news to Hindu
  • Adopt language/cultural categories (Tamil)
  • Who is Jesus?
    • Swamy (Lord)? 330m.!
    • Avatar (god incarnate)? No finality!
    • Just tell story? Maya!
    • Kadavul (transcendent god)? Satguru (teacher)? Chit (second member of triad of ultimate reality)? Adipurushan (primal man)? Etc.


  • Relevance seems to lead to unfaithfulness
  • “What all these answers have in common is that they necessarily describe Jesus in terms of model [story] which embodies an interpretation of experience significantly different from the interpretation which arises when Jesus is accepted as Lord absolutely.” (Newbigin)
  • No escape from this tension
    • Relevant: Must use understandable categories
    • Faithful: Must communicate gospel

Caging the Gospel

  • “The gospel is like a caged lion; it does not need to be defended, just released.”
  • Two sets of bars that cage gospel:
    • Irrelevance: Holding older or foreign forms of the gospel (in attempt to avoid cultural idols)
    • Unfaithfulness: Capitulation to idols of culture (in attempt to be relevant)

Gospel of John: Model of Contextualization

  • I suppose that the boldest and most brilliant essay in the communication of the gospel to a particular culture in all Christian history is the gospel according to John. Here the language and thought-forms of that Hellenistic world are so employed that Gnostics in all ages have thought that the book was written especially for them. And yet nowhere in Scripture is the absolute contradiction between the word of God and human culture stated with more terrible clarity (Newbigin).

Gospel of John: Model of Contextualization

  • “In one sense the entire Gospel is a case study in how John recontextualizes the story of Jesus for a new audience and a new generation. . . . The Gospel of John, then, is a shining example of an effort to reexpress the story of Jesus in a new theological idiom and language, thereby enabling it to speak afresh to a new audience and their needs.” (Flemming)

In the synoptic gospels the Kingdom of God is:

  • Central image for the Jews
  • Central image for Jesus
  • Central image for Matthew, Mark, Luke

In John’s gospel...

  • He employs images popular in classical culture and philosophy
  • E.g., Heaven/earth, life/death, light/darkness, flesh/spirit

Do we have a different gospel?

Do we have a different gospel?

John 1:1,14

  • In the beginning was the logos...
  • ...and the logos became sarx.
  • “John’s employment of the concept [logos] to introduce the story of Jesus was a master-stroke of communication to the world of his day.” (Beasley-Murray)

New translation or articulation of the gospel is both:

  • Relevant: He uses language of classical dualism familiar to hearers
  • Faithful: Challenges the idolatry of the classical dualism

Subversive Fulfillment or Challenging Relevance

  • Fulfills religious longing for order and origin [relevant]
  • Subverts and challenges idolatrous understanding [faithful]

New Testament Contextualization

  • The conclusion that we derive from the New Testament, the book that contains the expression of the revelation in its concrete conflict and intermingling with the Jewish and Hellenistic world of religion and civilization, is that the religion of revelation stands in revolutionary contrast to this concrete Jewish and Hellenistic world, but at the same time freely uses its ideas and thought-forms to express itself, and so Christian truth experiences its first incarnation (Kraemer).

True Contextualization

  • Bridge-building and contrast-making (Kraemer)
  • Relevance and challenge (Newbigin)

Contextualization . . .

  • Often considered to be only how to be relevant, build-bridges, meet felt needs, etc.
  • Also challenging idols!
  • “Paul . . . calmly uses the terminology of the naturalist and sacramental mysticisms of the mystery-religions and thereby forcefully expresses the opposite character of the prophetic religion of revelation. He does not bother about making contrasts or building bridges, but he is entirely absorbed in expressing the truth and so reveals gulfs and bridges at the same time. . . . Again Paul uses these terms and ideas freely to express forcefully the revelation in Christ, the exact opposite of what these mystery-religions were seeking after (Kraemer).

John and the ‘world’

  • World: Pagan culture shaped by idolatry
  • Overstated by Robert Gundry: “John not only leaves the world outside the scope of Jesus’ praying and loving. He also describes the world as full of sin; as ignorant of God, God’s Son, and God’s children; as opposed to and hateful of God’s Son and God’s children; as rejoicing over Jesus’ death; as dominated by Satan; and as subject to God’s wrath. In the only one of the four gospels to mention the incarnation, then, the world looks wholly negative. . . . The Fourth Gospel is unalterably countercultural . . .

‘World’ in John

  • World: Pagan culture shaped by idolatry
  • How can the language categories of the ‘world’ be used?
  • World: Place of missional involvement

In but not of the world

  • “. . . there is a tension in John’s Gospel between separation from the world and missional involvement in the world, a tension faced by the church in every generation. True, the world is a dangerous place and Satan is its ruler (John 12:31), but it is also the object of God’s redemptive love (John 3:16). The disciples do not belong to the world but they are sent into the world on Jesus’ own saving mission (John 17:15, 18; 20:21). [Flemming]

In the world but not of it

  • I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.
  • - John 17:14-18
  • Jesus’ Prayer for His Disciples

Cross as Model

  • “The Cross is in one sense an act of total identification with the world. But in another sense it is an act of radical separation. It is both of these at the same time.” (Newbigin)

Cross as Model

  • We must always, it seems to me, in every situation, be wrestling with both sides of this reality: that the Church is for the world against the world. The Church is against the world for the world. The Church is for the human community in that place, that village, that city, that nation, in the sense that Christ is for the world. And that must be the determining criterion at every point (Newbigin)

Importance of Unbearable Tension

  • The deeper the consciousness of the tension and the urge to take this yoke upon itself are felt, the healthier the Church is. The more oblivious of this tension the Church is, the more well established and at home in this world it feels, the more it is in deadly danger of being the salt that has lost its savour (Kraemer).

Reasons we do not feel this tension

  • Fragmentation of Scriptural story
  • Comfortable co-habitation in seemingly harmless [Christian? Neutral?] culture
  • Christendom mindset accepting private role

Missionary’s Inner Dialogue

  • Way of being in the culture; state of mind
  • Desire to live in both worlds fully
  • Faithfulness to Biblical story
  • Views all of culture through lens of Scripture
  • Seeks to discern idolatrous twisting of words, institutions, cultural practices, etc.
  • Seeks to discern good creational structure

Romans 12.1-2

  • Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is true worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is--his good, pleasing, and perfect will.

Model for whole Christian life

  • This model of contextualization in cross-cultural communication is . . .

Western Culture

Two levels of contextualization

  • Social and cultural institutions/ practices/ customs
  • Foundational story or cultural beliefs

Foundational Beliefs of Modernity Insight and Idolatry

  • Progress
  • Humanism
  • Rationalism
  • Scientism
  • Technicism
  • Individualism

Foundational Beliefs Today Insight and Idolatry

  • Disillusionment and suspicion
  • Pluralism
  • Consumerism
  • Non-rational anthropology
  • Spiritualism
  • Ecological concern
  • Egalitarian

Contrast Community

  • A community of justice in a world of economic and ecological injustice
  • A community of generosity and simplicity (of ‘enough’) in a consumer world
  • A community of selfless giving in a world of selfishness
  • A community of truth (humility and boldness) in a world of relativism
  • A community of hope in a world of disillusionment and consumer satiation
  • A community of joy and thanksgiving in a world of entitlement
  • A community who experiences God’s presence in a secular world


  • What idols (modern or pm) do we need to oppose? [antithetical stance]
  • What creational insight is being idolized and needs to be embraced? [affirmative stance]

Contextualization in . . .

Communal Church Life: Some questions

  • How does Western culture (with its idols and insights) . . .
  • Shape our understanding of the gospel?
  • Shape our understanding of truth?
  • Shape our understanding and practice of being church?
  • Shape our understanding and practice of preaching?
  • Shape our understanding and practice of worship?
  • Shape our understanding and practice of leadership?
  • Shape our understanding and practice of prayer?
  • Shape our understanding and practice of ecumenical relations in church?
  • Shape our understanding and practice of church discipline?
  • Shape our understanding of gender roles, participation, etc. in church?

Understanding of the gospel

  • Public truth
    • vs. private religious message or therapeutic formula
    • vs. relativism or rationalism
  • Story of universal history
    • vs. doctrine, unchanging ideas
  • Message of comprehensive restoration
  • Power
    • vs. doctrinalism

Ecclesial self-understanding

  • “The images which the church uses for its self-understanding will largely determine what the church will actually become.” (Driver)
  • Images will be drawn from culture
  • 96 images of church in NT (Minear)
  • Images unconsciously assumed by many today?
    • Economic or business: Supermarket or cafeteria of programs
    • Social institutions: “friendliest church around”; community centre as hub for special interest group activities
    • Entertainment industry: Impact with music, technology, rhetoric
    • Educational institutions: Dominance of Bible study and teaching
    • Therapeutic industry: Place of spiritual/psychological healing
    • Charity institutions: Care for needy and poor
    • Political institutions: Pressure group; democratic ideal
  • Insight to be embrace and idolatry to be challenged

“Advanced state of syncretism”?

  • I see people who are desperately trying to reach the post-everythings who in their desperation are trying to throw out essential elements such as the substitutionary atonement, forensic justification, imputed righteousness, the Sovereignty of God, or the inerrancy of Scripture. Many of them are probably over-adapting to the post-everything situation. But while they do not have our theological resources, often we do not have their level of engagement with the people of the emerging society. To correct this, let us confess that we really have failure across all our parties to reach the coming society, and let us resolve to use the premier resources of Reformed theology. If we can make these changes, then we may really start to see renewal and outreach, and we might actually be a resource for the broader body of Christ in this culture (Keller).

Relevance or Capitulation to PM?

  • I was part of what is now known as the Emerging Church Movement in its early days…. I had to distance myself, however, from one of many streams in the emerging church because of theological differences. Since the late 1990s, this stream has become known as Emergent. The emergent church is part of the Emerging Church Movement but does not embrace the dominant ideology of the movement. Rather, the emergent church is the latest version of liberalism. The only difference is that the old liberalism accommodated modernity and the new liberalism accommodates postmodernity (Driscoll).

What are the implications of contextualization for . . .

  • Our communal church life?
  • Our mission in the world?
    • Evangelism
    • Diaconal mercy
    • Seeking justice
    • Missions
    • Our callings in culture

Our Mission in the World

  • How does Western culture (with its insights and idols) . . .
  • Shape our understanding and practice of evangelism?
  • Shape our understanding and practice of diaconal mercy?
  • Shape our understanding and practice of missions?
  • Shape our callings in public life of culture?

Comprehensive Vision for Cultural Engagement

  • Two biblical starting points:
    • Lordship of Christ
    • Comprehensive scope of salvation
  • Developments in evangelicalism
    • Early 20th c: Individualistic, otherworldly, dualistic
    • Mid-late 20th c: Increasingly comprehensive

Some Starting Examples

  • Businesswoman in business driven by profit motive
  • Ph.D. student in postmodern university
  • Worker in humanistic psych hospital
  • History teacher in public school
  • Athlete in professional world of greed
  • Politician in liberal government
  • Pastor in consumer-driven church

Unfaithful Ways to Resolve Unbearable Tension

  • Withdrawal
  • Accommodation
  • Dualism

The Gospel speaks:

  • Word of grace… culture is good creation
  • Word of judgement… culture is idolatrously twisted and sinfully distorted
  • Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil (I Thess. 5:21f).
  • Creational design-Spiritual power

Cultural Discernment

  • What is the creational insight or structure?
  • What is the idolatrous distortion or direction?
  • What kind of healing action is possible?

Biblical Example: Household

  • OIKOS: Extended family in Roman empire structured hierarchically and oppressively
  • Fundamental social building block of Roman empire
  • Undifferentiated institution made up of marital, family, economic, political relationships
  • Oppressive and hierarchical distortion

Response of the early church

  • Reject?
  • Affirm?
  • Transformation!

Subversive Fulfillment Ephesians 5:21ff.

  • Discerned creational relationships
  • Transformed relationships creating new institution recognizable as good news to culture

Faithful Witness in Culture

  • “. . . Christian living will need to be done within culture. . . . but God’s presence in this world aims at reformation and transformation of its structures, never uncritical acceptance of them.” (Philip Towner)

Four final comments

  • A faithful witness will produce suffering

A Suffering Witness

  • Missionary encounter with idols of culture will produce suffering
  • “. . . if we take seriously our duty as servants of God within the institutions of human society, we shall find plenty of opportunity to learn what it means to suffer for righteousness sake, and we shall learn that to suffer for righteousness sake is really a blessed thing.” (Newbigin)

Four final comments

  • A faithful witness will produce suffering
  • A faithful witness will need community
    • Equipping, nourishing, supporting
  • A faithful witness will need to be rooted in a healthy spirituality

Need for Prayer

  • If the church is indeed to be Jesus’ agent in bringing his whole agenda to his whole world, it needs his own Spirit. Indeed, if the church attempts to do what has to be done without constantly seeking to be filled and equipped by Jesus’ own Spirit, it is committing blasphemy each time it opens its mouth. This is not a plea that all Christians should enlist in the charismatic movement. Rather, it is a plea that all Christians, particularly those involved at the leading edge of the church’s mission to bring healing and renewal to the world, should be people of prayer, invoking the Spirit of Jesus daily and hourly as they go about their tasks, lest they be betrayed into the arrogance of their own agendas or into the cowardice of relativism.

Four final comments

  • A faithful witness will produce suffering
  • A faithful witness will need community
  • A faithful witness will need to be rooted in a healthy spirituality
  • A faithful witness will be ‘together with all the saints’ (Eph 3.18)
    • Blind spots—need for new eyes to see conformity with world
    • Dialogue across history, culture, traditions

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