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Contextualization as Incarnation


I have long been fascinated with missiological and theological debates over "contextualization" or "indigenization" because they seemed especially likely to illuminate the long-obscure "black box" of Christian origins. When theologians hold out for the right of Third World Christians to articulate their faith in their own experiential and conceptual terms,1 they are at least implicitly acknowledging that the earliest Christianity had undergone much the same process. This is the secret subtext of the debate, and the reason for the surprising vehemence2 of the discussions. The various syncretistic movements born on the mission fields of Africa,3 Latin America and Asia, e.g., the Aladura churches of Africa, are unwitting pawns in a proxy war over volatile issues of demythologizing, remythologizing, and propositional revelation. The amount of liberty to be accorded to the indigenous churches is in direct proportion to that one believes the earliest churches to have exercised. This becomes clear in the unease provoked by Daniel von Allmen's article, "The Birth of Theology: Contextualization as the dynamic element in the formation of New Testament theology."4 This ground-breaking essay is precisely parallel to Ernst Kasemann's famous 1951 lecture, "Begrundet der neutestamentlische Kanon die Einheit der Kirche?" ("Is the New Testament Canon the Basis for the Unity of the Church?").5
Dr. Robert Price teaches New Testament at Drew University and has served as a visiting professor of New Testament at the Unification Theological Seminary. His publications include Being Born Again: Towards Evangelical Maturity (Hypatia Press, 1993) in addition to more than seventy articles on Theology, Missiology and New Testament.

Kasemann, requested by the World Council of Churches to conjure from the Aladdin's Lamp of "Biblical Theology" a theological platform for ecumenical unity, found instead that it was the New Testament canon itself that was the root of the problem. It was the problem not the solution, the apple of discord rather than the olive branch, the sword not the ploughshare. For within its canonical boundaries could be found a genuine precedent to which any sectarian faction could and did appeal against its rivals. Kasemann painted a scenario in which the New Testament canon was not unlike the Jerusalem Temple in the last days before the capitulation to Titus: a holy precinct occupied by warring messianic militias. No wonder the churches could not settle their differences by appealing to the New Testament! It was trying to put out the fire with gasoline!

In the same way, Von Allmen looked through the "wrong" end of the telescope, using the tumultuous mutation of Christianity in the modern day as a lens through which to sharpen our focus on earliest Christianity.
6 Rudolph Bultmann had already, in agreement with Religionsgeschichtlicheschule (History of Religions School) scholars Wilhelm Bousset and Richard Reitzenstein, taken for granted the variegated cosmopolitan syncretism of the Hellenistic world as the hot house in which the gospel seed had sprouted into a luxuriant jungle of exotic hybrids combing the myths of Gnosticism, Jewish Apocalyptic and the Mystery Cults. What Von Allmen did was to show how the same process was repeating itself today as the gospel seed takes root in all manner of far-flung cultures with their inherited religious backgrounds. If the earliest missionaries in New Testament times had contextualized the gospel, remythologized it in the fantastic trappings of their own cultures' myths, why complain if modern mission churches do the same thing, reinventing Christianity as the Hellenistic apostles did? In one bold stroke, Von Allmen was both claiming the Christianity of the New Testament, with its evolving, creative character, as a precedent legitimizing parallel indigenization today;7 and implicitly invoking the principle of historical analogy to show that present-day tendencies to syncretism in the mission churches corroborate the Religionsgeschichtlicheschule picture of (syncretistic) Christian origins.

Conservative churchmen, shocked by syncretistic trends in the churches their missionaries spilled sanctified sweat and blood to establish, find themselves in the position of any parent faced with the unpleasant reality that junior suddenly has his own opinions and that they do not match his parents'. Instead, those opinions seem (to the parents) unduly influenced by the young person's peers and by current fads and fashions. What is the parent to do? To preempt the child's choices is to stymie his maturity. To force the child to do what the parent thinks is right-is wrong! Even if you win the particular battle, you lose the war. Either the child, frustrated, will rebel against the parent's authority altogether, or, worse yet, he will meekly acquiesce and never develop mature autonomy. So with the churches. They fear to see the younger, syncretistic movements compromising the faith once and for all delivered to the saints, but should they impose a stifling theological legalism? Which is more to be feared: heretical mutation or orthodox suffocation?

Perhaps parents are so defensive, so over-protective, because they are defending themselves, their own past, more than their children's future. That is, if they agree the younger generation of churches may be entitled to find their own way to a new expression of the gospel, even to a new gospel, will the implication not be that the older generation had made an idol of what had only temporary and local, not universal, significance? If we allow that Obeah metaphysics and ancestor worship may be a legitimate context for remythologizing the gospel, doesn't that mean that traditional Nicene Christianity was no more than a historically relative, hence dispensable, clothing for the gospel, rather than the essence of the gospel itself? Richard J. Coleman puts it:

The heart of the matter can be expressed, 'Does God reveal himself in concepts and propositions which are direct and objective?' Or from a different perspective the central issue might be worded, 'Can man formulate statements about God and his nature that are valid for everyone in all places and times?' The evangelical answers an emphatic 'yes' to both questions, the liberal an emphatic 'no.' Both questions are irretrievably bound to the issue of historical relativity.8

The issue is that of "propositional revelation." The traditional conservative and the liberal modernist are both saying that revelation comes in time-bound forms, but the liberal is willing to put major theological concepts into this category, while the conservative limits the time bound character only to the specific wording of the biblical text. Do the concepts (e.g., Jesus' Sonship) lie on this or that side of the great divide between the temporal and the eternal? Are concepts the revelation, or only the time-bound forms of revelation? If the latter, we are saying revelation is non-propositional. Clark H. Pinnock, whom I would judge the only Evangelical theologian now worth reading, puts the matter clearly: "Are theological propositions merely mundane objectifying representations, ideas from within the rim of human genius, set forth in response to an ecstatic revelation experience?"
10 His answer is equally clear: "Revelation… is essentially propositional in nature,"11 i.e., a revelation of normative, divinely provided "didactic thought models."12

Another way of putting the central issue in this debate over contextualization and what it implies about the relativism of Christianity per se is the difference between Paul Tillich and Karl Barth, on the left and right extremes of the Neo-Orthodox spectrum, respectively.
13 Tillich employed the "method of correlation" between gospel and culture, admitting that the blanks which the gospel must fill are redrawn by the needs and questions of every age. Barth, on the other hand, insisted that the questions of an unregenerate humanity are worthless and can only provide a Procrustean Bed to truncate the gospel, as Liberalism had always done. No, Barth said, we cannot even see what the right questions are until the gospel force-feeds us the answers! Applied to the missionary issue of syncretism, this conservative position fears the gospel will be gambled away in any hybrid fusion with "indigenous" alien mythemes. But from the Tillichian standpoint, where there cannot be said to be any revelation at all if no one receives it, like a tree falling in a forest with no one there to hear it, the gospel will become a dead fetish, a museum relic, unless it is indigenized, contextualized ever anew.

The two alternatives might be compared to two images drawn from other religions.
14 If we insist that the major doctrines and mythemes (e.g., of a transaction between God and Satan to redeem humanity, or a courtroom scene at the end of the world) must be maintained, at most only conveyed by new analogies (as in the missionary book Peace Child), then we are saying something very much like the Islamic claim that the Qur'an exists only in Arabic. If translated into any other language, even in the best translation possible, it no longer counts as the word of God. There is more than a mere analogy between linguistic translation and cross-cultural re--description.15 We may take two examples from the theological reconceptualization entailed in translating the Hebrew Tanakh into the Greek Septuagint. As Hans-Joachim Schoeps16 shows, the Hebrew word Torah tempers the implication of "law" with that of "instruction." Viewing it as a sort of "instruction manual," Jews regard the Torah as a gift of grace, hardly as a burden, as anyone will readily understand who has faced the prospect of installing a new computer without benefit of a manual! One bemoans such "freedom from the law"! But then you find there is after all a set of instructions, but it becomes clear that they have been poorly rendered into your language by someone not adept in it! Even so, when the "instruction manual" of the Torah was translated into another language, the very word "Torah" suffered damage in the shipping! It emerged as the Greek nomos, which denoted something more like "law" in the sense of an inflexible and punitive traffic code. For Moses to present "the Law" to the people of Israel would be like reading them the riot act! And that's pretty much what Luther thought Moses was doing!

Similarly, Hebrews 10:5-10 cites Psalm 40:6-8 to expound the idea that the heavenly Christ assumed a body of flesh to offer it as a sacrifice. While such a notion of an incarnation of a god was quite familiar in the Hellenistic world, it represented a radical departure in terms of biblical theological categories. And the Psalm quote abets the incarnational understanding only once it, too, has been reincarnated into a Greek form. For the original text was a simple declaration by a worshipper that he stands ready to heed the command of God that he report to the temple to bear witness to answered prayer. It is this which is prescribed for him in the sacred Torah scroll. But the Septuagint has changed the line "Ears thou hast dug for me," i.e., you have given me an attentive ear, into "a body thou hast prepared for me," an interesting suggestion of Apollinarian incarnationism (the Logos took on little more than a human body, not a complete human persona). The Hellenistic religious conceptuality is introduced and facilitated by means of the translation of the Hebrew text into the Greek language.

And this is what Islamic theologians are afraid of. The Word of God may possibly be more a matter of concepts than of individual words, but the concepts are built from certain Arabic words, and they will not survive unscathed in the words of any other language. Buddhists have the same problem trying to identify what it is that is transmitted in the process of reincarnation. There is no atman, no unchangeable soul, and yet there is some continuity despite the changing of physical form. Is it the other four skhandas (aggregates) of the ego-self that pass on, the same deck of cards but reshuffled? How much change can occur before we are no longer talking about a constant object beneath the changes? And this brings us to our opposite alternative for understanding theological contextualization. Rather than the Word of God staying put in its original language lest it mutate into something else, we might envision contextualization akin to the Buddhist analogy of soulless reincarnation as each candle lighting the next in the series. Such a "passing of the torch" would be replication of a kind, to be sure, but what kind?

The issue here is the same debated by Arians and Athanasians: would the newly recontextualized gospel be homoousias (of the same nature) with the original or only homoiousias (of like nature) with it? If the latter, Paul would be rather upset: "not that there is another gospel, but there are some who… want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you another gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be damned!" (Gal 1:7-8).

James D.G. Dunn, in his Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, deals with much the same issues that are central to Daniel von Allmen's essay, namely the degree to which the contextualizing of the gospel already in the New Testament represents several layers of substantial reformulation. Dunn asks if it is possible to distill a core of essential gospel behind the variety of forms it has taken in the New Testament documents. The results are meager: all the New Testament writers presuppose that salvation has something to do with Jesus the man who died but was exalted. The implication is strangely like, yet also unlike, that arrived at by Harnack. Is there a basic gospel kernel which can be isolated from the husk? It depends whether this analogy is meant to be closer to the analogy of a pearl inside an oyster or to the DNA in a cell. (Here again, please note, the concept itself changes with the terms used to express it!). The pearl may be removed from the oyster and placed in another casing without any loss. But one cannot strip the DNA from a cell. The DNA is a component of a cell. It is nothing by itself, any more than your picture tube would be worth anything without the rest of the TV set. Harnack saw the gospel of the higher righteousness and the infinite value of the individual soul as a pearl which had been and always would be transferred from casing to casing. Dunn saw the gospel essence as more like DNA, dependent for existence equally on whatever cell matter surrounded it. Dunn would see the gospel as a soul that can be passed on only by reincarnation in a new body-"For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. Here indeed we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that putting it on we may not be found naked." (2 Cor 5:1-3) By contrast, Harnack would see the gospel as a body that can be transferred from place to place by any type of vehicle, an ox-cart, airplane, space ship, gondola, or automobile. Harnack's gospel-kernel is both necessary and sufficient unto itself, while Dunn's is necessary but not sufficient: it must always be incarnated.

To borrow yet another set of early theological terms, we might say that the Dunn/Von Allmen version of the gospel is strictly enhypostatic. It attains hypostatic instantiation for the first time only in combination with some incarnate form. Historically, the incarnate humanity of Jesus was said to be enhypostatic, receiving its personhood , as distinct from its real human quality, from its divine side (Leontius of Byzantium). If not for the project of the incarnation, there would have been no human Jesus. Piet Schoonberg
17 suggested a reversal of the ancient schema, so that the Logos would be understood as anhypostatic18 (without personhood of its own) until it became enhypostatic in its union with the human person Jesus of Nazareth. It is Schoonenberg's version that would be parallel to the "reincarnation" of the gospel in new cultural-philosophical contexts.

I have already remarked on the similarity of Von Allmen's understanding of the remythologizing of the New Testament gospel and Rudolf Bultmann's. The similarity still holds. Here I think of the remark of Bultmann to the effect that, while we know very little about the historical Jesus, all we need to affirm is the fact that there was one. We need to affirm the das not the was of the Incarnation. The that, not the what. The fact, not the content. Bultmann's disciples threw off his yoke to embark on a "New Quest of the Historical Jesus" (Fuchs, Ebeling, Bornkamm, Kasemann, Robinson, etc.). They feared becoming Docetists, emptying the ostensible "incarnation" of any genuine human historicity. Bultmann feared such an endeavor, whether it met with any plausible success or not, would lead to a new liberal Protestant hero-worship of Jesus rather than acceptance of the (more abstract) Christ of faith.

Another disciple of Bultmann, Walter Schmithals, did the opposite. As I read him,
19 Schmithals overtakes Bultmann and passes him on the way (John 20:3-10). Schmithals argued that the concept of an authoritative itinerant apostle of Christ was not inherited by Christianity from its Jewish ancestry but rather borrowed from Syrian Gnostics whose apostles did not bear the tidings of a recently incarnated Savior, now returned to heaven. Instead, they preached the inner indwelling of a Christ spirit who had become incarnate in all Gnostics, paramountly in the Gnostic apostle himself who was fully cognizant of the indwelling of the Christ-Aion in him and sought to awaken his hearers to the mystery of "Christ in you, the hope of glory." (Col 1:27) Thus "when it pleased God to reveal his Son in me," the Galatians received Paul "as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus." (Gal 4:14) We see the fuller implications of this in the Apocryphal Acts of Paul. John, Andrew, Peter, and Thomas. These Acts are docetic and all of them sooner or later feature a scene in which Christ himself appears in the likeness of the apostle. In accord with Schmithals's theory, these Acts attest the earlier ministry of Gnostic apostles who first preached an exclusively interior Spirit-Christ with which one was anointed unto salvation and enlightenment. This Christ was not and had never been a single physical individual. Rather, each and every Gnostic might and did incarnate him. I believe that if we broaden out Von Allmen's picture of early Christian theological diversity, evolution, and adaptation by adding Schmithals's sketch of the Gnostic apostles to the mix, we will be able to make sense of even more of the phenomena of syncretism and indigenization.

Schmithals's notion of Gnostic apostles of a Christ within is exactly analogous to the shocking Zen Buddhist saying, "If you chance to meet the Buddha on the road-kill him!" Because the real Buddha is inside you. Mahayana Buddhism (of which Zen is a subtype) is docetic. The incarnation of the Buddha was a mere appearance. And it follows that both Buddhism and Bultmannism, alike docetic, have embraced the same model of missionary expansion via remythologization (reincarnation). Buddhism and Bultmannism seem to me exactly parallel in that each recognizes a particular self-understanding or understanding of human existence as its gospel. All else is negotiable and inessential. Any cosmological or even theological assumptions will do. Since in neither case does salvation/liberation/authenticity depend upon a particular God-belief or God-concept (that would be to reduce the existential encounter with grace to the mastery of a theological theory, hence a scheme of self-salvation by cognitive works), any can be tolerated. The belief in miracles was equally tangential in both Buddhism and Bultmannism. If one prefers theologians less radical than Bultmann, suffice it to note that moderate Reformed and Evangelical theologians like Jack Rogers and G. C. Berkouwer share with Bultmann the basic notion that the abiding and only infallible aspect of the New Testament is its core-proclamation of salvation.

In a recent piece of contextualizing theology, Hee-Sung Keel's "Jesus the Bodhisattva: Christology from a Buddhist Perspective,"
20 the writer adopts "the theological method of Claude Geffre, who regards the history of theology as a series of incarnations of the Word."21 Indeed, we have found it difficult to avoid incarnational analogies. Geffre's insight is crucial and, when combined with Bengt Sundkler's striking notion of the messianic and prophetic founders of Third World indigenous churches as being living "icons" of Christ,22 it can be extended even further, enabling us, I think, to solve a very important problem.

Euro-American Protestant and Catholic theologians get mild indigestion hearing of certain social, sexual, and family-structure adaptations taking place in the younger churches. A serious upset stomach begins to churn at attempts to mix traditional Christianity with, e.g., reincarnation or ancestor-veneration. But the migraines start in earnest when leadership emerges in the form of charismatic individuals shouldering the capacious mantel of prophet, apostle, or even messiah. Such indigenous church leaders in past eras have included the Apostle Mani, the Prophet Joseph Smith, and Hong Xiuquan, the Brother of Jesus and Taiping Messiah.
23 Contemporaries include Simon Kimbangu, Andre "Jesus" Matswa, Simon Peter Mpade, the Prophet Harris, and the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. In the cases of individuals like these, conservatives are quick to hurl accusations of "antichrist" and "false prophet," just as Martin Luther vilified the Pope as a usurper of the centrality of Christ. But even liberal, "mainline" churches are minded to rend their garments in outrage and shock when they hear such claims and suddenly discover that the word heresy, long since relegated to the ecclesiastical mothballs, may have some continued utility after all! Even secular taxonomists of religion may feel compelled to place such a movement in a new classification simply because another figure is threatening to eclipse Jesus. In this case no value judgment lies at the basis of the judgment, only taxonomic fastidiousness. If Christianity is defined over against its fellow Semitic monotheisms by virtue of its Christocentricity, any shift of the center of gravity should destabilize the Christian identity of a movement. In the 1950s the Universalist Church in America adopted as its corporate logo a design featuring a circle with a cross off center, a bit to the left, indicating that Universalism acknowledges its Christian roots but was in the process of transcending them, moving beyond them. But it hadn't yet reached any new center. Their off-center cross might stand for all these indigenous younger churches which seem to be evolving beyond their Christian roots but have not yet arrived anywhere else. It would not be fair to brand them non-Christian (or "post-Christian" as does Oosthuizen24 ) since that is to jump the gun and to anticipate a stage not yet reached-and which may never be reached. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has not yet moved far enough away from Christocentricity as to be merit being called The Church of Joseph Smith of Latter Day Saints. It is still quite clearly a Christian movement, though it may be farther removed from the ideal type of Christocentric Christianity. And so with the Unification Church.

If the old Universalist symbol of an off-center cross would be an apt visual icon for such Christian movements with a new prophet , apostle or messiah, is there any way of making sense of this "off center" character in terms of Christian theological categories? That is, can we explain it in terms which will leave its Christian identity intact, that will make sense of the rising importance of the new guru intelligible as a Christian development and not just as a development, implicitly, away from Christianity to something else? Yes, there is. This is where we may find it useful to synthesize the approaches of Geffre and Sundkler useful. Suppose that, a la Geffre, each new advance of the Christian gospel into a new cultural system is best understood as a new incarnation of the gospel word. What new light would this throw on Sundkler's suggestion that charismatic apostles and messiahs in these movements be understood not as rivals of Christ, hence as Antichrists, but rather vicars or icons of Christ, symbols that point beyond themselves, as Jesus himself did, pointing on to his Father, claiming for himself the status of the way, not of the destination.

I think the result would be to recognize each such charismatic icon of Christ as, to paraphrase Ritschl, "having the value of Christ for them." Each one might be understood as an appropriate extension of the incarnation into the new cultural framework. Each instance would be a new "scandal of particularity" in order that the members of each culture might recognize in Christ, "This at last is flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone!" In fact it almost begins to look as if anything short of such radical incarnational contextualism should count as a kind of docetism, since it would impose a barrier between the "incarnate Christ" who is said to have become "at all points as we are yet without sin," but who really remains a stranger to the cultural distinctives that define us. A la Schmithals's Gnostic Christ, the incarnation would not really have been fulfilled until the proclaimed Christ took on the human flesh of the apostolic proclaimer.

This means that even from the standpoint of a Christian in a more traditional Christian community, someone like the Reverend Moon, self-proclaimed Lord of the Second Advent, could be acknowledged as a true extension of the incarnation of the Word in Christ. And, at least in the case of this movement, such a construal is remarkably close to the movement's own theological self-understanding according to which the Reverend Moon has assumed the continued function of Christ, bearing the mantel of Jesus as Elisha did that of Elijah.

 Robert M. Price


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