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A Discussion of Messianic Judaism, the Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm, and Related Leadership Issues from the Preoccupied Mind of Rabbi Stuart Dauermann, PhD.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

More on Contextualization and the Messianic Jewish Outreach Task

What is contextualization? Newbigin helps us here.

The actual word "contextualization" is of recent coinage. Older discussion used such terms as indigenization, adaptation, and accommodation. The reasons for dissatisfaction with these words are twofold. In the first place they have tended to relate the gospel to past traditions and to underestimate the forces in every society which are making for change. In the second place they have sometimes seemed to imply that what the missionary brought with him was the pure, unadapted gospel, and that "adaptation" was thus a kind of concession to those who had not the advantage of having a Christian culture. But of course the truth is that every communication of the gospel is already culturally conditioned. The word "contextualization" seeks to avoid both these dangers and to direct attention to the need so to communicate the gospel that it speaks God’s word to the total context in which people are now living and in which they have to make their decisions [1989:142].

I would offer the following metaphor: the task of contextualization is to so insert the yeast of the Kingdom into the receptor culture that the yeast has no taste of its own, but is only perceived through its effects.

Newbigin discusses the controversies over contextualization that attended the work of Matteo Ricci in China and Roberto de Nobili in South India. In the latter case, de Nobili sought to communicate the gospel without challenging the caste structure of Hindu culture. Eventually his methods were repudiated by Rome, as by later generations. During the past 150 years all sorts of course corrections and re-corrections have been evident in the Christian missions world. The Western missions power structure has repented of and been embarrassed concerning its own cultural imperialism, and its tendency to too much wed Western culture to the gospel. Ironically, the West has overcompensated so that it applauds Two-Thirds world domestication of the gospel—the Asianization or Africanization of the gospel, precisely the sins of which the West is repenting, in other clothing. On the other hand, progressives in the Two-Thirds world have been appreciative of the Western mission enterprise precisely because of the effects of modernization that it brought [143-144]. In words that apply directly to the Iraq situation in which the U.S. is currently embroiled, Newbigin comments: “Within any community there will be cultural conservatives [radical Muslims] and cultural radicals [Westernized Iraquis]. The former will resist the invasion of foreign ideas, while the latter will welcome them just because they are different from the tradition” [1989:144]

This leaves us with these core questions: “How far should the gospel be ‘at home’ in a culture, and how far should it resist domestication? What is true contextualization?” [1989:144].

Newbigin says we must start with the basic fact that

. . . there is no such thing as a pure gospel if by that is meant something which is not embodied in a culture. [Even] the simplest verbal statement of the gospel, "Jesus is Lord," depends for its meaning on the content which that culture gives to the word "Lord." What kind of thing is "lordship" within the culture in question? . . . Every interpretation of the gospel is embodied in some cultural form. The missionary does not come with the pure gospel and then adapt it to the culture where she serves; she comes with a gospel which is already embodied in the culture by which the missionary was formed [1989:144].

Of course, some engaged in outreach to the Jews will cry “Foul!” at this point. For some, the answer to the question, “What is the gospel?” is very simple, being found in 1 Corinthians 15:

. . . Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them--though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.

How are we to answer such persons who simply produce this proof-text, or others, as the all-sufficient, all context, authoritative answer to the question of what is the intrinsic gospel?

The key is at least four-fold. First of all, each community is subjective in the selection of proof-texts. Why this text rather than others? And it will do no good to say, “Because Paul introduces this passage by saying that this is the gospel he preaches,” because one might say, “Well, that was the message he preached to the Corinthians, but is it the whole gospel, is it the gospel for every context and time, and how do you know?” Second, although the kerygma, the core and shape of the apostolic preaching, is discernible and identifiable, it is also true that the expectations of the apostolic gospel preacher in terms of listener response differed from audience to audience and context to context. For example, Paul did NOT expect his Gentile converts to become observant Jews, and in fact, loudly decried this, most notably in his Letter to the Galatians. On the other hand, he did expect Jewish believers in Yeshua to continue living observant Jewish lives, and in fact, adhered to Jewish observance throughout his own life. He even undertook to participate in a traditional Temple rite in Jerusalem in order to demonstrate to all concerned that he himself continued to keep Torah and live a halachic life [Acts 21:24]. Third, the way the gospel is presented will vary from culture to culture because our task is not simply to transmit words and concepts we identify as the gospel, but rather to present the gospel in such a manner that it will both be perceived to be good news by the recipients, and actually be good news for them--culture preserving Kingdom leaven. Some concepts, such as, for example, forensic justification, might be irreducibly foreign to some cultures. To insist on presenting the good news in this fashion, might well doom the entire gospel enterprise in that culture. Fourth, it is the responsibility of the gospel-proclaimer to the Jewish people to have a strong understanding of God’s intention for this people, in order that his gospel proclamation might neither disrupt or neglect that purpose.

In this regard, the Standard Jewish Missions Paradigm has been deficient whenever and wherever it has been negative or non-committal concerning the imperative of Jewish Torah-based covenant faithfulness. When the gospel is presented in this manner, it is not good news for the Jewish people, not simply because of what is said, but also because of what is not said and because of the subliminal messages/metamessages that are conveyed.

A “metamessage” is the unstated and often unintended information that is transmitted along with the stated and intended information. If a Jew who is sharing the good news with other Jews is manifestly non-observant, part of their metamessage is that Jewish observance is either purely optional, unimportant, or no longer required of Jews who believe in Yeshua. For example, Messianic Jews should not present this gospel to other Jews over a non-kosher meal!

Therefore, it is incumbent upon outreach practitioners of the Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm to themselves be intentionally, even if imperfectly, observant Jews, living in community with others likewise committed, lest they undermine through their conduct the credibility of their message, which includes the responsibility of Jews to be covenantally faithful. This should be a non-negotiable issue for those seeking to mobilize a core and corps of Messianic Jewish outreach practitioners in accord with the Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm.

At 3/12/2006 10:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know if you will notice this post, since it is quite after the fact.
I noticed that your default mode in defining the gospel was to turn to 1 Corinthians.
I find it interesting that the same Greek word for gospel was used by Jesus in the opening chapter of Mark. Jesus preached "the gospel."
Instead of defaulting to Paul's gospel for a Jewish context, you might get more mileage out of Jesus' gospel, which is necessarily quite different than that found in 1 Corinthians.

At 3/13/2006 5:03 AM, Blogger Stuart Dauermann said...

Thank you for a very helpful and scholarly comment.

1 Corinthians 15 is not my default mode for defining the gospel, but WAS the default mode, and, I believe remains the default mode, of a prominent Jewish mission. And I imagine they are not alone in that.

Your comment about the "eugangellion/gospel" as mentioned in Mark 1 is right on target, and indeed does take us into Jewish space. At the very least, it irrefutably demonstrates that the term "gospel" is more flexible and varied, even in biblical use, than some imagine. So much more ought there to be some flexibility in dealing with the diverse and rich panoply of national, ethnic, and social contexts confronting gospel communicators.

An intersting book in this regard is Scot McKnight's "A New Vision for Israel: The Teachings of Jesus in National Context."

Thanks again for your cogent contribution.

At 3/13/2006 7:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for seeing my comment. I really do appreciate your blog and your insights. I see ourselves on somewhat similar trajectories, in that I perceive we both have stopped the "impulse" (to borrow a term) to view our people as, by definition, lost and out of relationship with their Creator. Rather we see "salvation" in relational rather than destinational terms, and recognize that in any relationship between Creator/creature, we do best to work out our own relationship/salvation rather than be presumptuous in others'. Freeing ourselves from the propositional impulse to close the deal, we are then liberated to move freely among our people as peers. You choose to do this in a "third-rail" context, and I prefer to be a full participant in a generally accepted communal context. But I have no doubt that we are in synch on much more than we might differ.


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