Contextualization in China

c7329ace3db9d428f85d947528660405_400x400The latest issue of ChinaSource Quarterly was released a couple of weeks ago. The articles are all dedicated to issues of contextualization in China. There are some very helpful pieces here, including an interview with a house church pastor and an article written by a Chinese cross-cultural worker. Other articles include engagement with majority and minority cultures in China.

I contributed an article titled “Union with Christ and Contextualization in China.” In it, I  show the importance of union with Christ in the New Testament, specifically focusing on Ephesians. I then point to some conceptual connections with Chinese culture, suggesting that this significant biblical concept can prove useful in evangelism and discipleship among Chinese.

The entire issue can be accessed here:

https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/chinasource-quarterlies/contextualization-and-the-chinese-church

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Jesus the Storyteller

In recent years, scholars have applied the tools of literary criticism to the study of the New Testament. One important literary tool utilized is narrative criticism, the study of biblical narratives as narratives. That is, narrative criticism studies the various aspects of stories in the text: characters, plot, setting, etc. Within New Testament studies, the primary focus has been on the Gospels, though narrative features in Paul’s discourse are also recognized (more on this in another post).

In the Gospels, a primary feature of Jesus’s ministry was that of a teacher. One of his favorite teaching tools was the parable. Though this is true, many Christians misunderstand the parables or neglect them altogether. While there have been many scholarly and popular studies on the parables, few, have considered the narrative character of the parables. That is, the parables are not just pity statements, but they are stories. How might a narrative analysis of the parables aid our understanding? This is the focus of Stephen Wright’s recent study Jesus the Storyteller.

Wright begins the book with an assessment of the history of parable research. The parables have been used and abused in many ways. Some consider the parables within the Gospels to reflect vastly different beliefs and intentions than those of Jesus himself (Reimarus). Some see the parables as universal moral truths, the product of Jesus the moral teacher (Jülicher). Sometimes the historicity of the parables has been doubted (Wrede) while at other times heavy emphasis is placed on their apocalyptic outlook (Schweitzer). Along the way, the narrative character is often neglected.

Wright believes that to rightly understand the parables, a “two-level hearing” is required. First, they must be understood within the wider narratives of the Gospels. That is, it is essential to grasp the literary function of the parables within the stories of the Gospels. For Wright, this should not arouse doubt as to the historicity of the parables as stories told by Jesus. The authors of the Gospels no doubt shaped the parables to fit within their stories. This does not, however, imply that the Gospel writers changed the meaning of the parables such that they are unreliable records of Jesus’s own words. Rather, “the Evangelists preserve them [the parables] as ‘actions’ which play a crucial role in advancing their narratives” (44).

Chapters 4, 5, and 6 provide an analysis of the parables within Mark, Matthew, and Luke respectively. In my opinion, these short chapters provide an very helpful entryway into understanding the function of the parables within the Synoptics. Wright argues that the parables were strategically placed within each Gospel for particular purposes. In other words, these chapters aid students of the parables to avoid missing the Gospel forest for the parable trees. This is a helpful corrective as some parable studies have isolated individual parables and sought to understand them apart from their literary contexts.

Wright’s major contribution to parable studies, however, is found in the last 100 pages of the book in which he applies the tools of narrative criticism to the study of the parables. This constitutes the second-level hearing. Whatever the parables were, and many definitions have been offered, they are at least stories. Wright believes we should study them as such. Thus, the parables have characters, settings, plots, and points of view. Identifying these features helps us to “hear” the parables as they might originally have been heard.

For example, Wright examines the parable of the Sower (Matt 13:3-9; Mark 4:3-9; Luke 8:5-8) on pages 90-97. Instead of providing a verse-by-verse commentary, Wright walks through a narrative analysis of the parable. The benefits to such analysis lies in the clarity that it brings to the elements of the story Jesus told. Thus, understanding the setting of the original telling as recorded in the Gospels and of the story itself aids us in understanding the meaning of the story. Thus, Wright considers the importance of the land in Israel’s history and the symbolic power of seed imagery and harvest, all within the context of first century Jewish peasant society. Similar analysis of the characters, point of view, and plot are offered. All of this leads the reader to hear the power of the story: “it invites thought and encourages hope” (97).

One might quibble with some of Wright’s interpretations of individual parables. Indeed, I’m not fully convinced of a few his conclusions. Moreover, there are times in which I felt the historical analysis pushed a little too hard on the parable to the detriment of hearing the additional allegorical meanings. However, these minor points do not detract from the usefulness of this volume. Wright aids us in properly hearing the Master Storyteller.

Don’t Plant Marcionite Churches

New_Exodus_lowfIn his article “Can the Gospels Teach Us How to Read the Old Testament?”, Richard Hays charges that “many ‘main­stream’ Protestant churches are in fact naively Marcionite in their theology and practice: in their worship services they have no OT reading, or if the OT is read, it is rarely preached upon.” Of course, Hays is talking about churches in the West, especially in America. However, there is a related danger for missionaries: unwittingly planting Marcionite churches.

What does “Marcionite” mean?

Marcion was a second-century bishop who sought to erase all Jewishness from Christianity. Believing that God of the OT was a false God with no relation to Jesus, he rejected the entire OT and edited the New Testament writings to exclude those parts he deemed too Jewish. For example, he rejected the canonicity of Matthew and heavily edited Luke. For Marcion, the Apostles had misunderstood Jesus as the Jewish Messiah and this misunderstanding needed to be corrected.

The Church Fathers excommunicated Marcion and rejected his teachings as heresy. However, his influence was never totally eradicated, even to the present day.

How Do Missionaries Plant Marcionite Churches?

While no one plans to plant a church modeled after the teachings of a second-century heretic, it unfortunately still happens. I have observed some of these tendencies among my own students: there is a general lack of understanding of the OT and a conscious avoidance of preaching from it. Though churches believe the OT to be God’s inspired Word, it plays virtually no role in the life of the average church.

This happens for at least three reasons:

1. The biblical grand narrative is neglected.

The grand narrative of the Bible should play an important role in all stages of ministry, including evangelism, discipleship, and leadership training. Unfortunately, some gospel presentations move directly from Adam’s sin to the cross, skipping the vast majority of the biblical story (Israel’s story). When this happens, new believers can be conditioned from the beginning to think the OT is of little value.

2. Church planters and new believers lack training in biblical interpretation.

I am convinced that the most important skill to be taught to both a church planter and a new believer is biblical interpretation. Believers need to be able to read and interpret the Bible for themselves within their new community of faith. Unfortunately, training in interpretation is often missing from discipleship programs. I have seen many curricula that emphasize teaching new believers to share the gospel and rapidly plant new churches. Others teach the basics of “how to be a Christian” — how to pray, how to have a quiet time, etc. These are all good skills to have, but if biblical interpretation is missing, we stunt growth in new believers and churches. This often leads to focusing on one’s favorite passage to the neglect of others. And, the neglected parts are usually the OT.

3. New believers are not trained in biblical theology.

Related to the above point, discipleship programs and curricula often lack basic training in biblical theology. Instead, they include isolated lessons on individual topics. While these lessons may include solid biblical teaching, they lack the necessary biblical-theological foundation that leads to worldview transformation. New believers need a new worldview, a new narrative within which to live. When this happens, the OT is inevitably neglected in favor of discipleship lessons from the NT.

How Can We Avoid This?

As a New Testament scholar, I find this disturbing. Much of my work has focused on the use of the OT in the New and I try to bring this to the classroom. One of my primary goals is to help students understand the relationship between the Testaments, especially the way in which the NT must be understood in light of the Old. I find that many students ignore OT quotations and fail to recognize OT allusions in the NT. This is largely due to their lack of knowledge of the OT. The result: a functionally Marcionite church (and a very shallow understanding of the NT).

How do we avoid starting a MPM (Marcionite Planting Movement)?

1. Make biblical theology the foundation and heart of mission strategy.

The biblical story should drive all ministry, beginning with evangelism. The goal is not simply to “get people saved,” but to make disciples of King Jesus. Making disciples means helping people lay aside the false narratives that have shaped their lives for the one true narrative of the world. And, a significant part of this narrative is the OT story. The grand narrative needs a more prominent place in missions.

2. Teach biblical interpretation.

Christians need to be able to read and understand the Bible. We need to teach and model biblical interpretation as we disciple others. This means teaching them interpretation skills and then putting them into practice as we continue mentoring. Thus, instead of telling someone what they should believe, we walk with them through Scripture, allowing them to see the process and come to biblical conclusions. This process is undoubtedly more time-consuming, but it leads to long-lasting fruit.

Related to this, there is a need in theological education to emphasize the teaching of the biblical languages. Learning Hebrew and Greek leads to greater depth in exegetical study of the Scriptures, which should lead to growth among leaders and their churches.

3. Teach the Old Testament as Christian Scripture

Finally, the OT is Christian Scripture and must be taught as such. It is not merely the background for the NT. Nor is it primarily as collection of moral teachings. Rather, it is the story of God’s faithfulness to his covenant promises. This story provides a biblical worldview for those who follow Jesus as King. It must be learned, taught, obeyed, and indwelled in community.

Kingdom and Covenant, Part 6

I have been unpacking the biblical story that I summarized in one sentence here. Today I continue with Part 6: The Covenant with David and the Exile…

The Covenant with David: The King Promises to Send the True King

A. David

king-davidDavid was a good and wise king, a ‘man after my own heart.’ God made a covenant with David that was intended to continue the previous covenant promises. God promised that someone from David’s family would reign as king forever. This covenant has many similarities to the covenant God made with Abraham and shows that the promised seed of Abraham would also come from the family of David. This seed of David would be the one to restore God’s blessing, God’s family, and give face to God’s people.While David was a great king, his reign also has the stain of sin. His sin would lead to problems in Israel that eventually led to the division of the kingdom after the reign of David’s son Solomon.

Therefore, after Solomon died, the one kingdom of Israel became the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah, each with their own kings. These kings were judged by God according to their faithfulness. Most of the kings were unfaithful. Yet, God remained faithful and continued to give his word to his people through his prophets.

B. Exile

Destruction_of_JerusalemBecause Israel and Judah were unfaithful to the covenant God made with them and
because they failed to fulfill their mission, God judged them through exile. Foreigners again invaded Israel, this time destroying the temple and taking the people away from their land. The land represented more than simply a place to live. It was the promised land, the land of safety and rest. In the exile, it was a land of destruction and punishment.

Despite all of this, God still remained faithful. He continued to send prophets to the people to proclaim his word. The prophet word normally contained two aspects: judgment and hope. The prophets made it very clear that the exile was a result of sin. God had not only allowed it to happen, but had order it as judgment against his people. Just like Adam and Eve, Israel was driven from their special place in shame because of their sin.

Kingdom and Covenant, Part 5

In the last few posts, I have been unpacking the biblical story that I summarized in one sentence here. In this post, I continue with part 5 of the story – the exodus, Sinai, and the conquering of the land…

The Covenant with Israel: The King Creates a People

A. Exodus

While the growth of the nation of Israel was a result of God’s blessings, it also caused problems with the Egyptians. The King of Egypt enslaved them and began killing their babies. They were completely helpless to change their situation.

moses-and-the-burning-bush-deana-harveyGod called Moses to lead the rescue of his people. Through Moses, God demanded the King of Egypt to ‘Let my son go that he may worship me.’ The son is the nation of Israel.

Pharaoh refused to listen to God, challenging God’s power to rescue his people. Therefore, the rescue of Israel would come through the judgment of Egypt. God sent 10 plagues upon the Egyptians to demonstrate his power, the last of which was plague of death. God decreed that the firstborn in every Egyptian home would die. However, distinguished his people by commanding them to kill a lamb and spread its blood on the doorposts of their homes. When God went through the land of Egypt to destroy the firstborn sons, he passed over the homes that had blood on the doors.

Following this plague, Pharaoh let the people of Israel God. God rescued his people in great power.

B. Covenant

After leaving Egypt and crossing the sea, God led the Israelites to Mt. Sinai where he made a covenant with them. At first, the covenant was to be much like the covenant God made with Abraham. They were to love and obey God, just like the patriarchs were called to do. In fact, God said that the people of Israel were to be his treasured possession, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.

They were to worship and obey, like God demanded of Adam. They were to be priests to the world so that others would be blessed through them. They were to be holy – different, set apart for God’s special purposes.sinai painting

The problem, like before, was sin. Israel, the corporate son of God, refused to listen and obey. Therefore, God added law to the covenant. The law was given as a standard of God’s holiness in all areas of life. In addition, the law established Israel as a nation, setting them apart as the people of God.

Following the making of the covenant, God led Israel into the wilderness where he protected them and provided for their needs. He commanded them to build the tabernacle, a tent that symbolized God’s presence with them. Despite all this, the people rebelled in the wilderness. They, like Adam, rebelled against their loving father and brought shame on themselves. They broke their covenant relationship with God and lost his blessings. Therefore, God punished them by not allowing any of the first generation of Israelites to enter the promised land.

Nevertheless, God was gracious. He continued giving them his word and promised that the second generation would enter the land that God promised to give Abraham and his descendants.

Despite the failure of Israel, God’s promises remained. Throughout the story of the wilderness wonderings, God reminded the people of the coming one – the seed of the woman who would be a prophet and king. He represented hope. God also promised that a new Moses would come – a prophet like Moses who would perfectly speak God’s word.

C. In the Land

rh-fallofjericho3After the death of the first generation, including Moses, God was ready to fulfill another part of his promise to Abraham. God chose Joshua to lead the people of Israel into the land that God promised to give them. Joshua courageously led the people into Canaan where God gave them the land. The conquest of the land included many miraculous victories that demonstrated God’s presence and power with his people.

However, Israel quickly forgot God’s mighty acts for them and demanded a king so that they could be like the other nations. God gave them a king, Saul. At first, Saul seemed to be a strong leader, but soon his heart turned from trusting God to trusting himself. God removed his Spirit from Saul and chose another, David.

Kingdom and Covenant, Parts 3 and 4

As noted in the last two posts, I am unpacking the biblical story that I previously summarized in one sentence here. Parts 1 and 2 can be found here (part 1) and here (part 2). Today we continue with parts 3 and 4…

3. The Covenant with Noah: The King Renews His Purposes

After the shameful rebellion of Adam and Eve, sin and evil filled the world. God decided that a new beginning was in order. He destroyed the earth and everything in it with a flood. Yet, in his grace, he spared one family – the family of Noah.

Benjamin_West_-_Noah_Sacrificing_after_the_Deluge-450-webAfter the flood, God made a covenant – an agreement between a king and his people involving promises of blessings, as well as conditions – with Noah, his family, and the entire world. In this covenant, God blessed Noah and his family with the same blessings given to Adam and Eve at creation. People were again to be God’s special people. They were to fill the earth with more people made in God’s image. Though people rebelled, God remained faithful to his purposes for his created world.

4. The Covenant with Abraham: The King Makes a Promise

Though the covenant with Noah was a like a new beginning, it was not completely new. People continued in sinful rebellion against God. If the world was going to be restored, God would have to do something big.

God promised to do so when he called Abraham to leave his home, his family, and everything that was familiar to him to go to a new place that God show him. God also made big promises to Abraham.

These promises have clear connections to the blessings of creation. God promised to give Abraham a great family (nation), to give him face (great name), to bless him, and through him to bless all the people of the world. This is even more incredible when we consider the fact that when God called him, Abraham had no family of his own and was already an old man.

abrahamstarsThese promises were made sure through God’s covenant with Abraham. God promised to
restore his original purposes of creation through the family of Abraham. God promised that Abraham’s family would outnumber the stars of the sky. God would also give the land of Canaan to Abraham’s family. The promised seed coming to restore God’s people and God’s world would also come through the family of Abraham. Best of all, God promised to be the God of Abraham and his family.

The covenant promises were passed from Abraham to his son Isaac and to his grandson Jacob. Near the end of his life, Jacob moved his entire family to Egypt. In Egypt, Jacob’s family was given good land and began to increase in number.

 

Kingdom and Covenant, Part 2

As I mentioned last week, I am unpacking the biblical story that I summarized in one sentence here. Here’s Part 2 of the story:

Fall: The King’s People Rebel (Genesis 3)shame2

The glorious beginning is obviously not our experience today. Rather than enjoying life as
God’s children in the beautiful garden, Adam and Eve chose to rebel against their Father the King. An enemy of God crept into the garden and tempted them to disobey God’s word. Adam and Eve chose to listen to the voice of the creature rather than honoring their Father.

Instead of enjoying the honor given to them by God, Adam and Eve sought their own honor apart from God. The result was just the opposite – rather than obtaining their own honor, they brought shame upon themselves. Immediately they hid themselves in fear andshame. They began having problems with one another. Most significantly, their relationship with God was broken.

gen 3.15God responded to all of this in judgment and grace. God threw them out of the beautiful garden and they were forced to work hard for food. They would eventually die. Nevertheless, God was gracious to them. First, he promised that someone would come from the human family that would make all things right again. He would defeat God’s enemy forever and restore God’s people. This is the hope of all people. Second, God made clothes for them. Adam and Eve attempted to make their own clothing out of leaves, but these were worthless. God made new clothes out of animal skin. These clothes symbolize the covering of their sin and the restoration of honor. Just as a king places a special robe on his child, so God clothes his children with special robes, symbolizing that their position of honor has been partially restored. The full restoration awaits the coming one.

Kingdom and Covenant, Part 1

Some time ago, I posted my summary of the biblical story in one sentence. Over the next several posts, I will unpack the story with a little more depth. I am trying to keep the story at a manageable length so that it can be useful while unpacking some of the primary biblical themes. Here’s part 1:

Creation: The King Creates His Kingdom (Genesis 1-2)

CreationThe biblical story begins with the Creator-King creating his kingdom. The climax of the
story is the God’s creation of his people – Adam and Eve – who were made in the image of God. God especially blessed his people and provided everything for them – a beautiful garden filled with food; safety; and best of all, close personal relationship with him. God’s people lived in harmonious relationship with him. He was their father and they were his children. People were also in harmonious relationship with each other and with the world.

So, the King’s children lived in the King’s garden and everything was very good. People were also given a command and a mission. The mission was to fill the earth with more people made in the image of God and thereby flood the earth with little reflections of God’s glory. They were to rule God’s world under the authority of God. The command was to obey the word of God, which was given to them for their protection and joy.

eden paintingThus, people were given the highest honor by being created as the family of God. The first man and woman had no shame before God or each other. In fact, they were naked in the garden, yet felt no shame.

Article in the Journal of Asian Evangelical Theology

I’m very pleased to see my article “Unity and/in/or Diversity?: A Survey of Recent New Testament Theologies” appear in the latest issue of the Journal of Asian Evangelical Theology (JAET). JAET is a great journal covering all matters theological in an Asian context.

Here’s my introduction:

Recent years have witnessed an unprecedented explosion in the publication of New Testament theologies (NTT). This is likely due to a number of factors, including the growth of interest in biblical theology that moves beyond the mere historical- grammatical investigation of the text and especially the surge of concern for the theological interpretation of Scripture. Whatever the exact cause, though, students of NTT can be grateful for the multitude of options now available to them. Yet the proliferation of those options can make it difficult for those outside the discipline, and even scholarly insiders, to stay current with research.

While recent contributions have been diverse in style as well as approach, one common feature is their attention to the issue of the unity and diversity of the NT. The purpose of this article is to briefly survey some of the more important recent contributions to NTT, highlighting the ways in which they address this topic. I will argue that although the theme of unity and diversity has been treated in nearly every NTT publication, it has yet to be articulated in a way that does justice to the unifying narrative structure of the NT message while simultaneously taking account of the unique contribution of each NT document.

In order to make that argument, I will first examine a few recent NTTs, not attempting full-scale reviews but instead focusing on the treatment of unity and diversity found in each. I will conclude with observations on recent trends in NTT and suggestions for future study.

You can read the rest here.

Great Quote from N.T. Wright

From Paul and the Faithfulness of God, page 911:

Here, then, is Paul’s vision of how the Messiah, particularly in his death and resurrection, had redefined around himself the very grammar of election, looking all the way back to Abraham. The patriarch believed, and was declared for ever ‘in the right.’ His seed would be enslaved within a land not theirs; God’s faithfulness would guarantee both Passover and promise: inheritance, and blessing for the world. They waited. Psalms and prophets sang of peace, a covenant of justice. And, instead: exile; hope lost; the rise of bestial empires. Then, which the times and tears had overflowed, God sent his only son, the strangest king, to be for Israel what they could not be: obedient; faithful; Passover in person. He was the seed, the servant, and the son; the chosen; the beloved; the victory won.