One Gospel for All Nations: A Practical Approach to Biblical Contextualization, Jackson Wu, William Carey Library, 2015. ISBN-13: 978-0878086290. Available in paperback and Kindle edition.
Jackson Wu teaches and writes extensively on the topic of biblical contextualization. He serves as Associate Professor of Theology and Missiology at ICTS, blogs at Patheos, and in 2013 wrote the book, Saving God’s Face: A Chinese Contextualization of Salvation through Honor and Shame.
In One Gospel for All Nations: A Practical Approach to Biblical Contextualization, Wu does not write “about contextualization” so much as answer, “Practically, how do we contextualize the gospel?” (italics in the original; Kindle 242-247).
The book comprises four sections. Section I provides an overview of contextualization. Wu wades through a number of definitions of contextualization that focus on communication and application of the gospel, as well as some that may quickly jump to doing systematic theology. He speaks to the importance of beginning with biblical interpretation: “I suggest that contextualization refers to the process wherein people interpret, communicate, and apply the Bible within a particular cultural context. . . . It prioritizes biblical theology and interpretation” (Kindle 546-549).
We are reminded in chapter one that biblical interpretation (hermeneutics) is different from theology, the latter being a product of the former. Contextualization begins with the former, whereby we aim to identify the original meaning of the biblical authors. Wu addresses some of the dangers of syncretism if contextualization is not properly, and intentionally, undertaken, and as such he proposes two kinds of contextualization, exegetical and cultural contextualization (discussed below). Wu’s premise in chapter two is that, while presenting the gospel, many well-meaning Christians overemphasize aspects of Scripture that, while true, may not be the focus of the gospel. His axiom is the chapter’s title, that we can compromise the gospel by settling for truth, an idea expanded upon in chapter six.
In Section II, Wu develops a proper understanding of the gospel. In chapter three, he uses a plethora of Scripture to describe how the Bible itself provides us with a framework for the gospel. Patterns in Scripture should compose our framework of the gospel and lead to proper contextualization of the gospel. It is important in this process to include passages of Scripture that do not explicitly use the word gospel to develop this framework, as key gospel themes are developed in the Bible using a range of vocabulary. Wu identifies three themes that provide the framework for the gospel: creation, covenant, and kingdom. He observes that at least one of these themes is always present in explicit descriptions of the gospel by biblical authors.
While chapter three develops the need for the gospel to be biblically firm, chapter four develops the idea that the same, firm gospel should be communicated with flexibility. Wu offers four key questions that any gospel presentation should address:
- Who is Christ/God?
- What has Christ done?
- Why is Christ important?
- How should we respond?
His explanations throughout the chapter are again rife with Scripture. He does, however, correct what he sees as those gospels, or gospel presentations, that focus too much on the individual and his/her salvation. In the West, where this approach is prevalent, this may be an area in which many evangelical scholars and missionaries disagree with Wu. In a context like China, however, Wu looks beyond the individual, emphasizing broader social spheres.
Chapter five “explains how culture influences the way we understand, communicate, and apply the gospel” (Kindle 1750). The chapter deals with assumptions and cultural biases, the way we choose to tell the gospel, what Wu calls our “implicit gospel.” Five “organizing principles” form a cultural worldview, which deal with society, the world, personal identity, authority, and morality (Kindle 1763-1767). Wu acknowledges that, due to space and time, he is probably stereotyping some cultural values.
In chapter six, Wu lays out his contextualization model, expanding earlier ideas of a firm gospel flexibly presented in fluctuating cultures. Four stages comprise the model, presented in a memorable format:
Stage One: Identify Biblical Themes
Stage Two: Interconnect Cultural Themes
Stage Three: Interpret Biblical Meaning
Stage Four: Infer Cultural Significance
Creation, covenant, and kingdom are again brought to light in Stage 1 and are used to frame the gospel, showing us what is firm before we look at a particular cultural context. At Stage 2, the gospel framework is applied to cultural themes found in a particular context. Wu finds in Chinese culture motifs that relate to the three gospel themes, namely the world (creation), relationship (covenant), and authority (kingdom). At this point, he revisits the issue of “settling for truth” and challenges some widely used models for gospel presentations, which he believes fall short of using a full-orbed biblical framework.
Stage 3 moves to theological aspects of contextualization, at which point Wu returns to the need for exegetical contextualization, a study of the Bible that positions us to see aspects of culture embedded in Scripture.
In Stage 4, Wu employs cultural contextualization, where “the Bible is the lens through which one interprets and assesses a culture…it distinguishes right from wrong and defines what is primary and secondary” (italics added; Kindle 2238-2241).
Section III draws us into a biblical example of the contextualization model at work and then into a contemporary, Chinese context. In chapter seven, Wu looks at Acts 17 to explain how the Apostle Paul’s message was thoroughly Jewish even with a fully Gentile audience. He applies the model to this passage and offers seven helpful do/don’t reminders when carrying out contextualization. Wu’s purpose here is to address well-meaning Christians who tend to avoid much of the Old Testament and Jewish New Testament elements of the gospel in an attempt to reach their audience. Wu rightly claims that God should not be “abstracted from history” because “God has revealed himself in history to Israel” (Kindle 2469-2471).
Chapters eight and nine focus on contextualizing the gospel in a Chinese context. In chapter eight, Stage 3 of the model is put to practice and Wu conducts a broad survey of the Bible to find Chinese cultural themes embedded within Scripture. Wu concisely states how exegetical contextualization benefits us in our study and communication of the gospel,
Methodologically, we discover that contextualization via exegesis means listening for the echoes of culture within Scripture. Theologically, we gain a biblical theology as told from the perspective of an honor and shame culture. Missiologically, it is hoped that Christians around the world will be better equipped to contextualize the gospel. (emphasis added; Kindle 2488-2491)
He identifies six parts of the “grand narrative of Scripture” that encompass key Chinese cultural themes (Kindle 2579-2585):
- One Family under Heaven (天 下 一 家)
- Losing Face and Fighting for Honor (丢 脸 争 面)
- King of All Nations (万 民 之 王)
- Setting the World Right (拨 乱 反 正)
- Honor through Shame (以 辱 为 荣)
- Avenging Shame and Restoring God’s Kingdom (雪 耻 复 国)
It is easy to see how motifs such as family, honor/shame, and kingdom (nation) are woven throughout Scripture, as they are throughout Chinese culture. Still, the parallels he makes between the gospel framework and Chinese cultural themes are not meant to be fixed; they are flexible but helpful before moving to an assessment of Chinese culture.
Chapter nine shows Stage 4 (cultural contextualization) of the model in action. The title of the chapter—“The Gospel with Chinese Characteristics”—may remind readers of China’s national aims, namely to add Chinese characteristics to widely used (i.e. Western) economic, political, and social policies. Wu provides some of this background when he notes that,
Face and relationship are critical for those seeking fortune. When China opened to the world in 1978, economic reforms created a Chinese socialism “with capitalistic characteristics.” Since that time, its citizens have labored to share in the wealth enjoyed by the West. This is sometimes called the “Chinese Dream.” (Kindle 3005-3008).
Wu’s purpose in this chapter is to answer the four key questions from chapter four that any contextualized gospel presentation should answer. Although throughout the book Wu describes aspects of Chinese culture (particularly in chapter eight), he delves into them in chapter nine. As laid out in chapter six, he finds Chinese parallels between the three gospel themes of creation, covenant, and kingdom in the motifs of world, relationship, and authority. These are elaborated upon by describing how the Chinese government and family, especially parents, shape the Chinese worldview. Furthermore, he focuses on “three spheres of Chinese social life [that] include…face, family, and fortune” (Kindle 2961-2963).
There is a wealth of insight into Chinese culture in the pages that answer the four key questions. For example, Wu explains the concept of face as it occurs in China. He distinguishes 面子 from 脸, where the former is a general term that entails everyday face that can be lost or gained quite easily; the latter word describes innate, moral qualities with which people are born but may lose should they not maintain proper 关系 (relationship) with parents, friends, coworkers, and others. Wu spends significant time developing the various layers of these concepts. The extent to which face and relationship shape and obligate the Chinese must be understood, and Wu expertly guides us through this complicated web. The concepts furthermore influence national policy, which must be adhered to, and Wu provides ideas to help Christians communicate, and respond to, the gospel in such a context.
The final chapters in Section IV turn to broader applications of the contextualization model and recommendations for the church at large. In chapter ten, Wu notes several obstacles to proper contextualization of which Christians must be aware. He calls for contextualization to occur in community, and a diverse one at that. Training of cross-cultural workers must prioritize biblical interpretation and biblical theology. Additionally, missionaries must understand the interdisciplinary nature of their work and receive suitable training in order to effectively contextualize the gospel.
Chapter 11 is a thought-provoking treatment of the need for Christians to see the world beyond their own theological and cultural backgrounds. Wu looks back to ancient cultures and suggests that contextualization is a “cross-historical” process in addition to a cross-cultural one (Kindle 3814). Calling for a more “global theology,” he helps us examine seven contrasting understandings between the East and the West. He looks at seemingly opposing views of history, humanity, law/guilt versus honor/shame, knowledge, moral truth, propositional versus both/and thinking, and the usefulness of different biblical genres. More than simply appreciate these contrasting understandings, Christians everywhere likely need to adopt some of the perspectives found outside their own context.
Jackson Wu has given Christians of all walks of life, in particular cross-cultural workers, a much-needed guide for contextualizing the gospel in different cultures, especially in China. So much of Chinese culture jumps from the pages of the book, but not without a thoroughly biblical lens. The book is spiritually enriching even while its purpose is to practically model a challenging topic. My personal hope is that, in addition to utilizing the practical model presented, Christians will take to heart Wu’s message in the final chapter.
The 2018 spring edition of ChinaSource Quarterly, titled "Contextualization and the Chinese Church" and guest edited by Jackson Wu, will explore this topic further. Watch for it in March.