Reflection: Avoiding Syncretism through Critical Contextualization
by Lawrence Alabi, pastor and WCIU student
August 24, 2015
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In recent times, a lot has been said and written with regards to the need for bringing the truth of the Gospel to the hearer in a way that will make him understand it from the perspective of his culture and world view.
In line with the Kingdom-building mandate of our Lord Jesus as contained in the Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations…”, and to be Christ’s witness “in Jerusalem, in Judea and to the uttermost part of the earth” (Mathew 28:18-20 and Act 1:8), the need then arose to take the gospel across both geographical and cultural barriers. Since then, the Biblical faith has gone beyond Judaism where it took off, to the Roman Empire and Europe, from where it has gone round the world. This is what our mission is all about.
However, the European colonialists like Britain, Portugal and Spain (that colonized Africa, for example, in the seventeen century) went along with those seeking to share the gospel to other nations and dressed the biblical faith in cultural clothing of the West. And these Kingdom workers were accused of being collaborators in the imperialist conquest of Africa which impeded mission effort in what has been described as “Mistake of the West” (Ralph Winter: Twelve Frontiers of Perspective).
Thus the call for contextualization of the gospel, which coveys its meaning to the receiver taking into consideration his culture and world view, has since become audible and vociferous. In Africa, for example, proliferation of indigenous denominations (usually breakaway factions of the mainline denominations established by Western cross-cultural ministry) has been a common experience.
On the other hand, the truth of the faith that was to be shared with the indigenes has in many cases been distorted, all in the name of contextualization. The fall out in some of these indigenous denominations has been syncretism which allows for amalgamation of both Christianity and African traditional religions.
We cannot afford to close our eyes from the distortions occasioned by the liberty of the founders to misinterpret the message to his congregations. At the same time, we cannot continue to watch the Biblical faith dressed in western culture to be forced into the life of the indigenes without taking into consideration the recipients’ relevant cultural setting.
In order to go around this problem and strike a balance, Paul G. Hiebert advocates the concept of Critical Contextualization. It involves the study of the particular culture and analyzing its traditional beliefs and associated customs uncritically but with particular questions in mind.
Applying this to the African setting, we can look at the marriage culture of the indigenes for example. Which aspects of it are Biblical and which are not? Then while probing their thoughts together and allowing them to make input, the indigenes can appreciate the unbiblical ones with a view to discard them. The same can apply to burial customs and the indigenes’ concept of God.
In all these, accurate exegesis of the Bible against the prevailing culture and tradition will help in avoiding distortion of the truth of the gospel and at the same time help in avoiding dressing the biblical faith in foreign culture. In making disciples of all nations, we must ensure the message is preached in a way that will make the believer to be heaven-focused from the perspective of his surroundings.