Phil Johnson of TeamPyro started a series on contextualization of the Gospel and Act 17 (Part 1, Part 2). He is combating what he believes to be a compromise of the Gospel shrouded in the name “contextualization .”

In his words, some in the “postmodern missional ministry” (i.e. emerging/Emergent church) believe that Paul, in Acts 17, “adopted the worldview and communications style of his hearers. He observed their religion and listened to their beliefs and learned from them before he tried to teach them. And he didn’t step on their toes by refuting what they believed. Instead, he took their idea of the unknown god, embraced that, and used it as the starting point for his message about Christ.

This is the caricature, right or wrong, that is set up.

He says that in contrast to the compromised message of the postmodern Christian, Paul was not scared of offending people because he does not set his standard by how many people respond positively to the message. In fact, as Phil points out, Paul did not win many by his ”contextualized approach.” Phil says, ”That is the biblical approach to ministry. You don’t measure its success or failure by how pleased the crowd is at the end of the meeting.”

Let me interact with this a bit.

I agree. And I also agree that many in the emerging and seeker-sensitive church are far too concerned about offending people in the culture. I also agree that this passage can be misused to defend ineffective and unbiblical approaches to culture that can compromise the truth of the Gospel. Yet I don’t agree that his blanket statement, without qualification, is correct.

First, compromise can come from not contextualizing the truth.

I would say that while there are many who are compromising the Gospel, I certainly would not limit this to a postmodernized church.

It is the danger of every generation, no matter what you call them, to compromise the Gospel. But sometimes this compromise comes because people do not contextualize the Gospel.

Let me ask this: Is there such thing as a Gospel that is not contextualized? If so, what does it look like?

An uncontexualized Gospel is hard to imagine, but it exists. But it is only in those who have chosen their contextual hallmark, built their walls, and dug their trenches. Some do this with the early church. Others cannot move beyond the polemics of the 16th century. Some still speak in dead languages or the language of 1611. Others simply follow by the statement, ”If its not in the Bible, its not in our church.” These all fail to translate the message of God’s truth into issues and communication that is understandable. In this, the uncontextualized Gospel is compromised.

I wish Phil would have provided more balance to this issue by allowing people to understand that the difference between good contextualization and bad contextualization. Even Phil represents contextualization. Here are some of the ways:

  • For him, the truth of God’s word can be clothed in modern technological means of communication called a blog.
  • Writing his message in English is also contextualization .
  • Writing about this issue today is a contextualized message. Why? Because Phil believes it is relevant to current problems in the church. 
  • The edgy artwork is another way to contextualize his message in a way that visual people can appreciate, Christian or not. (<<<jealous—but as long as he does not make charts I will be cool. That is my shtick.)

In fact, it would seem that Phil puts more emphasis on trendy pictures than any postmodern blog that I have ever seen!

There is nothing wrong with this, but it needs to be pointed out.

Second, contextualization does not necessarily equal compromise.

God has always contextualized his message. If contextualization is compromise (which I don’t think is necessarily what Phil was saying—but it does for the atmosphere of what he says), then . . .

 . . . Has God compromised by giving us his word in the language of a particular cultural context (after all, I am sure that Greek and Hebrew are not the languages of heaven)? 

. . . Did God compromise in giving the Law in Suzerain-Vassal form?

. . . Did God compromise by using Proverbs to communicate statements of Wisdom (a Proverb is not an exclusively Biblical genre—other cultures used them as well)?

. . . Did God compromise by becoming incarnate?

Forget about Paul’s Acts 17 diatribe for a moment and look across the entirety of God’s revelation. It is all contextualization —uncompromized contextualization .

Third, it cuts both ways.

Phil says, “An overtly hostile reaction is a much better indication that the message was delivered clearly and accurately than a round of applause and an outpouring of good feeling from a crowd of appreciative worldlings.” I agree with this to a degree, but again, I think it is imbalanced.

I have been involved with a KJV Only group who said that one could not be saved without reading the KJV and they got a hostile reaction. They would use this righteous martyrdom philosophy to justify their distorted message. Same with the cults.

I have seen street preachers and dooms-dayers who get ridiculed by passers-by. This encourages them believing that they are smack in the middle of God’s will. Maybe they were and maybe they were not.

It cuts both ways.

There are places where street preaching is effective. I used to give out hot chocolate and preach the Gospel at the bus station in downtown Dallas. People listened. The context was favorable. I did street preaching in Romania where hundreds of kids surrounded ”the American” preacher. It was effective. But I would never do this in certain places where it would make the Gospel more offensive. Yes, the Gospel is a stumbling block, but we don’t have to add our own blocks. 

I have also preached the exclusivity of Christ to postmodern audiences. It was not received well. Should I have taken a different approach? Possibly. But I don’t think so.

While God’s word is the power of salvation, there is such a thing as tact.

Fourth, Paul’s message was contextualized, not compromised. 

At one point, speaking about Paul’s encounter with the Athenians, Phil says, “He doesn’t try to assimilate. He doesn’t embrace the culture and look for ways to shape the gospel to suit it. He is repulsed by it.” I would reword this a bit (and this is very important). I would say “He doesn’t try to assimilate to the compromise of the Gospel. He doesn’t embrace the evil aspects of the culture and look for ways to shape the gospel to suit it. He is repulsed by it.”

Phil is right to say this: 

Notice: when Luke says in verse 17 that “he reasoned” with people in these public places, he’s not suggesting that Paul had cream tea and quiet conversation with them. It means he stood somewhere where people couldn’t possibly miss him and began to preach and proclaim like a herald, and then he interacted with hecklers and critics and honest inquirers alike. Luke uses the Greek word dialegomai, from which our word dialogue is derived, but the Greek expression is a strong one, conveying the idea of a debate or a verbal disputation. It can also speak of a sermon or a philosophical and polemical argument. Paul did all of that, because he took on all comers.

On thing that Phil does not connect the dots on is that this style of argumentation was what Areopogus was all about. Luke tells us, “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17:21). They confronted each other all the time. Keener tells us that this court of novelists, to whom Paul spoke, may have been “an accrediting board that tested lecturers” (IVP Bible Background Commentary, Acts 17:19). Ramsay sees the council acting in its role as regulator of public lecturers (St. Paul the Traveller, 245-48. Polhill, agrees (The New American Commentary, 26). This context allowed Paul the opportunity for which he was well suited.

Paul’s speech was contextualized in form and function, but did not compromise the Gospel in any way. As Polhills says,

The main theme is God as Creator and the proper worship of this Creator God. The language often has the ring of Greek philosophy, for Paul was attempting to build what bridges he could to reach the Athenian intellectuals. The underlying thought remains thoroughly biblical. (New American Commentary, 370; emphasis mine).

The contextualization of the Gospel, at one point, is stated by Phil, just in different words. Speaking of Paul’s teaching to the council in Athens, he says, “This was by no means an affirmation of their culture. Just the opposite. It was Paul’s way of homing in on what was spiritually most odious about the culture.” i.e Paul was contextualizing is message according to the most pressing needs of the audience. Right? What am I missing?

I know what I am missing. I used the word “contextualization.” But I am used to contextualization. It is not a postmodern word. It is not an emerging word. It is a Christian word. The Gospel must always be contextualized, it does not have to be compromised. Call it contextualization, incarnating, making relevant, illustrating, tangiblizaton, embodiment, personification, “building bridges,” translating, transliteration, interpretation, or “homing in” (hominization!), or whatever else. It is the principle that matters. Contextualize without compromise.

I think that these qualifications can bring balance and perspective to Phil’s statements as well as provide an opportunity for Phil to keep his contextualized blog :).

All and all, I think that Phil’s article is very good. Phil is right to preach against compromise and his type polemic could hit a home-run with someone who has been straddling the fence of compromise (there are plenty of them). But we should not ever consider throwing out contextualization all-together (it is impossible anyway).

In conclusion 

Back to those to whom Phil’s polemic is directed. Here, once again is his description:

“[Those who believe that Paul] adopted the worldview and communications style of his hearers. He observed their religion and listened to their beliefs and learned from them before he tried to teach them. And he didn’t step on their toes by refuting what they believed. Instead, he took their idea of the unknown god, embraced that, and used it as the starting point for his message about Christ.”

Adopting wordviews that are anti-biblical is wrong. Phil is right. Many in the Emergent church, including McLaren and Tony Jones, seem to be doing this a great deal. We can also find this in many of the entertainment-driven churches. But to say that we need to contextualize the Gospel is not a blind advocation of adopting false wordviews.

And he didn’t step on their toes by refuting what they believed. I don’t know many who would say this. I believe that this is a bit of a straw-man. I don’t even think McLaren or Jones would make such a case.

Instead, he took their idea of the unknown god, embraced that, and used it as the starting point for his message about Christ. I have no problem with this so long as the “message about Christ” is the true Gospel. Moving from the known, believed, and accepted to that which is not known, believed, and accepted is what we do every time we preach the Gospel. Although I would take out the words “embraced that.” I could be wrong, but I am not sure any would say this.

I have used Phil’s blogs as an opportunity to bring this subject before the P&P audience. Please go read his blog. Phil is a smart man who loves Christ. Even if I disagree with his emphasis, perspective, and, what I believe to be, imbalance, we are certainly on the same page about the dangers of compromise. 

For those of you who are wondering what a non-contextualized Gospel looks like in chart form (!), here is a comparison of the exegetical, theological, homiletical process chart I made for the previous blog on Exegesis this week. Please note: I am not saying that Phil is promoting the second chart!


Not Contextualized: 


C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

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