Reflections On Contrastive Contextualization
Dean of the Roy Fish School of Evangelism and Missions, Professor of Missions, and Director of the World Missions Center at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas (2005 to present).
For nearly 10 years, Keith Eitel taught missions on the mission field in the late 70s and early 80s as missionary professor and academic dean at Cameroon Baptist Theological Seminary in Cameroon, West Africa. This missiological practitioner served as dean of undergraduate studies, dean of students, and chairman of the missions and evangelism department at Criswell College (Dallas) before moving to Southeastern Seminary (Wake Forest), where he was professor of Christian Missions and director of the Center for Great Commission Studies.
Seminary students preparing for international missions owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Eitel as he designed and implemented the first 2+2 Program (M.Div. International Church Planting) in partnership with the International Mission Board.
SBCToday is pleased to present the writings of this prolific author, knowledgeable professor and compassionate missiologist.
Comparative techniques for cross-cultural bridging, and Gospel communication, are commonly presumed since the middle of the 20th century. Naturalistic world-view shifts in the West, along with rising universalistic thought, have influenced our assumptions about cultures, religions, and communication of ideas that are different from our own. Naturalistic world-view patterns presume that all cultures, inclusive of religious assumptions, are the by-product of human imagination and need. Cultural relativism thrives in a “closed universe” that has no room for the idea of one true God. Arrogance puts forth a religion’s exclusive claims (especially Christianity’s) in our postmodern world.
In order to soften the apparent idea of Christ’s exclusivity, some missiologists have borrowed cultural anthropology’s techniques and employ a comparative model to communicate the biblical message cross-culturally. The intent is to build bridges from points of apparent similarity to perceived points of contrast to communicate the Gospel. Yet, the similarities tend to mitigate effective communication with integrity, especially since one impression is rendered initially then a different one is the actually desired outcome. This reverse phenomenon is likely because the similarities are selected out of their cultural and used out of the biblical context or even the host culture’s context. The net effect is miscommunication; the technique is popularly called “bridging.”
Paul, in Acts 17, captures a completely undefined Greek category, that of the unknown god, and defines it using Christian thought categories. Even the act of defining it is a counter-cultural act on Paul’s part. In defining process, he completely dismantles the Greek pagan world-view. The god they worshipped in ignorance was one that cannot be contained in temples made with human hands. Paul’s indictment undermined the core of their pagan belief system. He used a contrastive bridge to proclaim the unknown, but now defined God’s opposite Good News gained by a man raised from the dead (a particularly offensive thought to Neo-Platonists). Then he’s dismissed by the Greeks, yet the text indicates that some believed. Was this effective communication that missionaries or anyone wishing to relate to modern cultural contexts other than their own should emulate? Specifically, can we use contrastive bridging to relate to postmodern categories of the Western world? Perhaps a succinct historical example will assist us.
Apparently influenced by Paul’s model, Adoniram Judson wrote and translated a tract that was a prophetic pronouncement of the Gospel for Burmese who adhered to Theravada Buddhism. It never mentions in any offensive way the name of Buddha or of Buddhism (except in passing when Buddhism is associated with all religions that will pass away someday—during the millennial reign of Christ). He simply begins with a clearly and diametrically opposite world-view premise. Thereby he uses a contrastive statement of alternative fact. The first sentence demonstrates keen understanding of nuances of Buddhist belief, yet proclaims the opposite.
There is one Being who exists eternally; who is exempt from sickness, old age, and death; who was, and is, and will be without beginning, and without end. Besides this, the true God, there is no other God.
During July 2011, a short-term team from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary arranged to have a Thai translation of this same tract for Theravada Buddhist audiences in Chiang Mai, Thailand. With only a few edits, it is translated using common Thai language. The feedback from Thai believers is encouraging. They are intrigued by, “how well it is written and especially its clear description of God in relation to the Trinity.” They wanted copies to use when explaining to their friends and family members what the nature of Christian thought is all about, especially the idea of God as a personal Being.
Time will tell whether this nearly forgotten tract (now almost 200 years old), will have renewed use and life. Since God did use it, alongside all else that Judson did to live and communicate the Gospel to Burmese Buddhists with great effect, it could live again. Nevertheless, it does demonstrate a nearly forgotten cross-cultural communication technique, contrastive proclamation of the only ultimately Good News that exists.
If in our postmodern West we can utilize a similar technique, we may find more of a hearing than we are with relational evangelistic models that in practice seem to relate far more than proclaim. If not careful, we unintentionally use comparative bridges and building relationships that may never introduce Christ’s convicting and exclusive claims to the conversations we are having in the ongoing relationship. Eventually, we invest our own emotions and genuine desire to be a friend so much that we grow more concerned about relating than we do communicating the Gospel. Even if in subtle ways, believers should place Christ into the discussion at or near the beginning of the relationship so it’s then no surprise when we grow bolder later.
See Dean S. Gilliland and Fuller Theological Seminary. School of World Mission., The Word among Us : Contextualizing Theology for Mission Today (Dallas: Word Pub., 1989); Charles H. Kraft, Christianity in Culture : A Study in Dynamic Biblical Theologizing in Cross-Cultural Perspective (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1979).
Edward Judson, The Life of Adoniram Judson (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1883): 568.