Contextualization and Syncretism: Navigating a Course

by Dr. Stephen M. Davis
Syncretism Quote
Read Part 1.

Once one has decided that contextualization is a missiological necessity, the danger of a drift to “Christian” syncretism must be addressed. John H. Connor has defined syncretism as “the combination of any belief or practice with Christian belief and/or practice which is objectively incompatible with Christian truth in the context of culture.” He recognizes the fine line between syncretism and contextualization and insists that the “guardian of the line is objective truth, not culture (1991:28).

In practice, the believing church has often sought to contextualize the gospel. Not all of its efforts have been successful. The syncretism which resulted has often left the church not only feeble but also a pale shadow of what God meant it to be. A basic problem is that we are confronted with different views of how the church should look in other cultures. How do we decide what to affirm and what must be condemned when confronted by the new and the strange in other cultures or in our own? How is the purity of the church maintained in the manifestation of its universality and diversity? Which elements of another culture can be incorporated into the worshiping church’s expressions without violating scriptural injunctions?

This problem confronted the early church and engendered debate and disagreement among first-century Christians. The book of Acts presents incidents of misunderstanding and criticism when new endeavors were undertaken in missionary expansion, including criticism against Paul for eating (table fellowship) with Gentile believers in Acts 10-11. Later in Acts 21:20 we find that “the gospel had become completely conformed to Jewish culture, and the church had drifted to a particular, rather than a universal vision of evangelism” (Lingenfelter 1992: 16). These examples and those of church history serve as a warning that the church that does not contextualize itself will be held captive to a narrow, provincial perspective. Yet the church that uncritically practices contextualization, embraces culture, and seeks relevancy at the expense of obedience will drift into accommodation. On one hand is the danger of anachronism; on the other is the drift toward syncretism.

For protection against a syncretistic departure, one must understand the different kinds of contextualization that are being practiced. Hesselgrave and Rommen provide a helpful diagram of these. They stress that a differentiation needs to be made between deficient contextualization (radical/uncritical, liberal, neo-orthodox and neoliberal contextualization) with its deficient theology and “apostolic contextualization,” known also as “critical contextualization,” with its commitment to the final and full authority of Scripture (1989: 146-49). Hiebert describes critical contextualization as “an ongoing response that sees the gospel as outside culture … the message of salvation, not from West to East, but from God to peoples in all cultures” (1994:64). Hesselgrave develops a contextualizing approach that involves seven dimensions: worldviews, cognitive processes, linguistic forms, behavioral patterns, communication media, social structures, and motivational sources through which the contextualizer must pass in order to communicate the gospel. When contextualization is understood and practiced in light of two basic assumptions—the supracultural validity of the truth of the gospel and the cross-cultural communicability of the gospel—the contextualizer will have safeguards from syncretism (1989:203).

Hesselgrave makes further helpful distinctions concerning categorical and principial validity. The former deals with the nonnegotiables of the faith, those that relate to salvation by grace through faith and those elements that are unalterable without losing significant meaning (i.e., baptism and the Lord’s Supper). The latter, principial validity deals with implications of new life in Christ, both those explicitly affirmed and those implicit and allow for liberty of expression. Therefore by its very nature, the gospel can be understandable by all people in every culture and has universal ethical implications (1989:172-5).

We sense the need to contextualize in our age of rapid change for several reasons. In earlier times most communities were homogenous with the same language, same worldview, and same ethnic and social background. “In such communities, the usual assumption is that there is value in similarity and danger in diversity” (Gaede 1993:24). A new and sometimes- confusing language has been developed to describe the changes and challenges we face. Words like pluralism, mono- and multiculturalism, ethnocentrism, diversity, inclusivism, exclusivism, and syncretism are defined and redefined, used and abused in both socio-political and missiological contexts. While these terms may help us in understanding our present ministry context and in addressing current issues, we need not accept every definition given to them. Yet neither can we ignore these concepts. For example, if by multiculturalism we mean that every cultural viewpoint has equal validity and must be not only tolerated but also promoted, then obviously we must reject multiculturalism. If by multiculturalism we mean that cultures outside of our own frame of reference have value and should be heard, then we can accept this facet of multiculturalism. In the end all cultures, including our own, are tested and judged by the Scriptures.

Some object to contextualization because of the well-founded fear of syncretism. Some respond that we can carry out the Great Commission just as the apostle Paul did. Yet Paul essentially ministered among peoples who were part of the Roman Empire and spoke the Greek language. Rome imposed tolerance among the plurality of religious and ethnic groups. Barriers existed with cultural and regional peculiarities, yet Hellenization provided much common ground. Much of Paul’s ministry was in trade centers where people from diverse backgrounds practiced tolerance out of commercial concerns. Paul’s travel from one continent (Asia) to another (Europe), both integral parts of the Roman Empire, was not the radical transition that Western missionaries face today by going to Asia, Africa, or Eastern Europe.

An understanding of the diversity of people groups whom we are called to reach and the cultural distance between them and the missionary (E-1, E-2, E-3, E-O evangelism) will help us in contextualizing the gospel without sacrificing truth and without embracing syncretism (Van Rheenen 1996:82-5). This approach does not obviate the reality of absolute truth, but recognizes the cultural lens through which we perceive it. Neither cultural relativism nor theological pluralism are options for those committed to the infallible Scriptures. Our message will not be diluted or minimized if we understand that the goal in searching how to effectively proclaim the gospel to different people groups, that is, contextualization, is not accommodation but communication.

A final consideration asserts that we are not called to make the gospel relevant to contemporary culture, if by “relevant” we mean building bridges of communication that are imposed by culture, minimizing the message (reductionism) so that it might be more easily believed, or by removing the offense of the gospel as a stumbling block to the wise and wisdom of this age. Our preaching will never be comprehended by modern men at enmity with God without the work of the Spirit. The gospel is a culture that is foreign to all cultures. It is supracultural and transcends all cultures.

The question is not, should the gospel be contextualized even with the risks of syncretism? Nor is the question at this point whether syncretism can be totally avoided. We may or may not agree with Luzbetak’s affirmation that “a syncretistic-free Church is an eschatological hope, not a reality” (1989: 369). That is an issue for another time. There are other more critical questions for our day. Can we remain faithful to the missionary task in our own culture without practicing apostolic contextualization in Christian witness to a fallen world? And what future is there for Christian movements and churches that treasure an anachronistic and idealized past and refuse to understand the times? The danger of syncretism is real. The reality of accommodation to the spirit of our age is apparent. However, bemoaning the times and remaining anchored in stagnant Christendom should not be an option either. A faithful and robust encounter with our culture demands that we navigate a course between the extremes of unbiblical contextualization and the shoals of syncretism. The fear of critics and the fear of failure should not deter us from being biblically faithful to our missionary engagement with a needy and hostile society.

Gaede, S. D. When Tolerance Is No Virtue: Political Correctness, Multiculturalism & the Future of Truth & Justice. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993.

Hiebert, Paul G. Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1994.

Hesselgrave, David J. & Edward Rommen. Contextualization: Meanings, Methods, and Model. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989.

Lingenfelter, Sherwood. Transforming Culture: A Challenge for Christian Mission.Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1992.

Luzbetak, Louis. The Church and Culture: New Perspectives in Missiological Anthropology. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1989.

Van Rheenen, Gailyn. Missions: Biblical Foundations & Contemporary Strategies. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996.

Steve DavisDr. Stephen M. Davis is associate pastor and director of missions at Calvary Baptist Church (Lansdale, PA). He holds a B.A from Bob Jones University, an M.A. in Theological Studies from Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando, FL), an M.Div. from Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA), and a D.Min. in Missiology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL). Steve has been a church planter in Philadelphia, France, and Romania.
1280 reads

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.