Ajith Fernando on Disciplined Contextualization

In his book The Christian’s Attitude Toward World Religions, Ajith Fernando addresses some pitfalls Christians have erred in contextualization and provides four examples that can occur while approaching other religions. These pitfalls occur when:

  1. Trying to accommodate themselves to their audience, they downplayed some of the ‘offensive’ features of Christianity.
  2. They accepted some features of non-Christian religions that were incompatible with Christianity. They set out to contextualize the gospel, but ended up diluting it. They became syncretists, something that happens often today, too.
  3. Others begin to study non-Christian religions without understanding the supremacy of Christ. During their studies they come to appreciate the good points in these religions so much that, after prolonged interaction with them, they come to feel that the non-Christian religions are on a par with Christianity. They end up surrendering the uniqueness of Christ.
  4. Still others, who have not fully appreciated the supremacy of Christ, become timid in their witness. They try to be faithful to the revealed Word of God, but they are hesitant to proclaim Christ as the only way to salvation. They may perhaps agree that the way of Christ is the best way. But they don’t have the confidence to boldly call non-Christians to make the costly step of forsaking their faiths in order to follow Christ.

Fernando explains that “because of these deviations from the truth by Christians who have delved into other religions, the noble biblical practice of contextualization has fallen into disrepute.” He adds,

These critics of contextualization cite examples of people from a completely non-Christian background who were instantly transformed through a “simple” gospel presentation. I can attest to many such conversions and praise God for them. But we would do wrong to take these isolated instances and make a rule out of them. It is clear that the witnesses of the Bible, including the Supreme Witness, practiced the art of contextualization. If they did, so must we!

So if contextualization is a practice we must be competent in without compromise, how are we to avoid such pitfalls Fernando mentions earlier? He answers with three disciplines, namely the Scriptures, the Christian community, and the Great Commission, Fernando writes, “Those who dare to get out of the protection of the ‘Christian ghetto’ so as to identify with non-Christians need to be especially alert to the kinds of disciplines all Christians observe.” Let me provide a summary of what Fernando wrote concerning these disciplines.

The Scriptures

The first discipline we need to maintain is a constant, dynamic contact with the Word of God, the Bible. At any one time, the most important influence in any Christian life should be God’s Word. The Word becomes particularly important when we interact with the heights of non-Christian reasoning. Prolonged contact with such reasoning could cause us to imbibe features from them that contradict God’s Word. There is a great gulf between the height of man’s thoughts and God’s thoughts (Isaiah 55:8, 9). . . . Man’s thoughts sometimes seem to fit in more naturally with the human mind than God’s thoughts, so our human thinking needs to be constantly challenged by God’s way of thinking, his principles, and values. We can only achieve this through regular and prolonged exposure to the Bible. . . . If our thoughts were God’s thoughts, we would see the uniqueness of Christ, because God’s Word clearly proclaims it. We would also be faithful to the revelation of God in the process of our contextualizing. Our message may be presented in words and methods familiar to the non-Christian, but the message itself would spring entirely from the Scriptures.

Christian Community

The second discipline necessary for effective contextualizing is the discipline of Christian community. The contextualizer needs to be accountable to a body of believers. The community acts as a check to the excesses of a creative contextualizer. He may be so eager to identify with non-Christians that he adopts ideas that go beyond the boundaries set by the Scriptures. He may be so excited about an approach to an issue that he has become blinded by its dangers. Others in the community, who are not so emotionally attached to this idea as to be blinded by its dangers, could be the necessary check on the excesses of a creative innovator.

The Great Commission

The third discipline necessary for contextualization is a continuing commitment to the Great Commission. Anyone delving into other faiths must always bear into mind that his supreme task must always bear in mind that his supreme task is to seek to bring all men to Christ. Witnessing is an essential ingredient of a Christian life. For this reason, Christ, after his resurrection, kept emphasizing the call to go into all the world. . . . If a person is not actively involved in fulfilling the Great Commission, he is being disobedient to Christ.

I appreciate the good words Fernando has provided us in these disciplines. While we may not be contextualizers everyday regarding other religions of the world, we are rubbing shoulders (or at least should be) with people who live with a worldview and way of life that needs to be confronted with the gospel of Jesus Christ. In that sense, I think the principles Fernando has provided are applicable not only to reaching out to those of other religions but also to those who embrace worldviews and ways of living that Christians must address. He is right that contextualization has recently been in disrepute, especially among conservatives; however, if we are going to reach a culture that is growing post and anti-Christian, we must consider just how we can impact our world, to get out of our spiritual ghettos, to go outside the camp, and to be the hands and feet of Jesus to our neighbor next door. Just how we do that is a crucial issue that we must address–an issue which I hope further discussion will continue.

All quotes and exerpts were taken from chapter seven (“Getting to Know Other Religions”) in The Christian’s Attitude toward World Religions (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1987), 91-102.

Explore posts in the same categories: Gospel, Missions, Religious Pluralism

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