Early on in my theological reading, I gained the impression that contextualizing our presentation gospel was a new concept that Lesslie Newbigin came up with in the 1970s and 80s. It’s not. Understanding the unique challenges that each culture, or sub-culture, or philosophic and religious tradition poses to the gospel is a task that has been with the church since its inception.
Case in point: Gregory of Nyssa. Reading in preparation for my courses this week, I ran across this fantastic little passage on contextualizing our presentation of the faith in the prologue to his The Great Catechism.
The presiding ministers of the “mystery of godliness” have need of a system in their instructions, in order that the Church may be replenished by the accession of such as should be saved, through the teaching of the word of Faith being brought home to the hearing of unbelievers. Not that the same method of instruction will be suitable in the case of all who approach the word. The catechism must be adapted to the diversities of their religious worship; with an eye, indeed, to the one aim and end of the system, but not using the same method of preparation in each individual case…The method of recovery must be adapted to the form of the disease. You will not by the same means cure the polytheism of the Greek, and the unbelief of the Jew as to the Only-begotten God: nor as regards those who have wandered into heresy will you, by the same arguments in each case, upset their misleading romances as to the tenets of the Faith. No one could set Sabellius right by the same instruction as would benefit the Anomoean. The controversy with the Manichee is profitless against the Jew. It is necessary, therefore, as I have said, to regard the opinions which the persons have taken up, and to frame your argument in accordance with the error into which each has fallen, by advancing in each discussion certain principles and reasonable propositions, that thus, through what is agreed upon on both sides, the truth may conclusively be brought to light.
Gregory is preparing this catechism to be used widely, so he reminds potential pastors and apologists they need to be flexible in their presentation. In their catechetical classes where inquirers and initiates come to learn about the faith they will be dealing with a wide variety of hearers. Some are traditionalist Jewish monotheists offended at the incarnation. Others are Greek, folk polytheists tempted to chop up God’s unity into a diversity of gods. While still others are semi-Christian heretics of various varieties, many influenced by leading philosophies of the day. Which means you can’t count on the same formula, the same order of presentation to work every time, even if you’re teaching the same truth at the end of it.
It is the same today. For some, you’ll have to tackle philosophical questions about ethics, while others are interested in the Bible and science, and still others care about where the gospel speaks to their deep, existential questions about meaning or the trauma they’ve suffered. Without ultimately surrendering the content, or key principles, we need to learn a certain flexibility as ministers of the gospel in our instruction and proclamation.
I’m reminded of the recent kerfuffles over how to present the gospel raised by the Tim Keller interview with Nick Kristof. There were plenty of complaints coming from all angles. For me, a lot of the complaints seemed variations of a frustration that Keller didn’t present things the way they would have to the particular audience they were concerned with. He’s speaking to progressive New Yorkers and they’re thinking about their friends in the conservative youth group they grew up in.
Pete Enns, for instance, thought Keller’s responses could be seen as dismissive towards questioners or skeptics wrestling with doubt. He thought he didn’t sufficiently empathize with questioners struggling with issues of recurring concern, or acknowledge the tension sufficiently. The kind of blunt, straightforward answers Keller gave seemed clipped, formulaic, and would likely turn off the hearers Enns had in mind.
Now, that may be so for a particular kind of skeptic. But when I read it, I thought of my aggressively skeptical classmates in my philosophy undergrad who probably would have rolled their eyes at a show of empathy. If you didn’t immediately follow it up with a straight answer to a straight question, or a respond to the challenge, they would probably see it as a squishy dodge and walk away convinced Christians really didn’t have anything to say. In which case, it’s precisely the sorts of answers Keller gave which would have at least made them stick around long enough to argue about them and hear more.
My point is not that Keller’s way in the interview is the only possible or right way to respond to skeptical questions. It’s not even a defense of his interview. (Though, I thought Scot McKnight’s response to most of the critics was well-put, and that most didn’t consider the nature of the interview carefully anyways.) My point is simply to highlight the fact that we need to take care to not reduce all those who we’re trying to reach for the gospel to one pure type. Nor should we imagine the apologetic tack you would use for one group is obviously suited for all.
Of course, the key figure giving us warrant for “contextualizing” the gospel in the New Testament is the Apostle Paul. To Jews, he quotes Scripture to prove the Messiah; to Greeks, he engages in a bit of “worldview” evangelism before he comes to the figure of Christ (both in Acts 17). In the freedom of the gospel and under the Lordship of Christ, he makes himself all things to all people for the sake of reaching some (1 Cor. 9). But I would imagine that to those trying to reach Greeks, his approach with the Jews would seem narrowly Biblicistic and dogmatic. While to those concerned with Jewish outreach, his broad philosophical appeal might seem too initially accommodating.
Not every skeptic is a youth-group refugee. Nor are they hard-core atheist apologists. Some are squishy, New-Agers. Others are pragmatic, business-types. Still others are people who already think themselves properly “religious” and chafe at the notion they need an upgrade. And in our post-Christian society, some are just curious inquirers without all the hang-ups about which we might be worried. We need, then, to heed Gregory’s wisdom: “The method of recovery must be adapted to the form of the disease.”
In which case, some of us should be slower to condemn those who are skilled in administering the medicine of the gospel to patients different than those we typically treat.
Soli Deo Gloria