06 August 2015

Acts 17 and "Contextualization"

by Phil Johnson

From 2006 to 2012, PyroManiacs turned out almost-daily updates from the Post-Evangelical wasteland -- usually to the fear and loathing of more-polite and more-irenic bloggers and readers. The results lurk in the archives of this blog in spite of the hope of many that Google will "accidentally" swallow these words and pictures whole.

This feature enters the murky depths of the archives to fish out the classic hits from the golden age of internet drubbings.

The following excerpt was written by Phil back in April 2008. This post was part of a series in which Phil offered his thoughts on "missional living" and "contextualization."

As usual, the comments are closed.
Read (and believe) enough of the trendy books and blogs that talk about missional living, and you'll get the distinct impression that fitting into this world's cultures is vastly more important—and a much more effective evangelistic strategy—than knowing the gospel message and communicating it with boldness, precision, and clarity.

What might Paul have thought of the missional fads of post-evangelicalism? Lots of people will argue that Paul is the very model of a postmodern ministry strategist, and that Acts 17 is the classic narrative passage where we see his genius for cultural assimilation in all its perfect splendor.

Really? Let's see how that chapter actually unfolds. At the start of it (Acts 17:1-9), Paul's ministry in Thessalonica so offends the Jewish populace that their leaders deliberately stir up civil unrest. As a result, the apostle can no longer minister publicly in Thessalonica without the threat of a riot. So he goes to Berea under cover of night (v. 10).

However, Luke says, "when the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the Word of God was preached by Paul at Berea, they came there also and stirred up the crowds. Then immediately the brethren sent Paul away, to go to the sea; but both Silas and Timothy remained there" (v. 13). So Paul's missionary team spirited him away into hiding yet again. He was clearly not winning general admiration and grass-roots popularity in the cultures where he was taking the gospel. People kept trying to kill him.

Paul couldn't go back to Thessalonica or Berea now, because his enemies in those cities were determined to disrupt any ministry he did. So "those who conducted Paul brought him to Athens; and receiving a command for Silas and Timothy to come to him with all speed, they departed" (v. 15).

Now, here's the scenario: Paul is cut off from his missionary team and sent to Athens for his own safety. From Berea and Thessalonica to Athens is about four days' travel by land and two or three days by sea (depending on the wind and the tides). So when Paul sends word back to Timothy and Silas to join him in Athens, he probably has about a two-week wait before they can join him there, and he spends that time alone in Athens, investigating the city and its culture. But he simultaneously launches his public ministry in Athens both at the synagogue there, and in the public square.

Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols. Therefore he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with the Gentile worshipers, and in the marketplace daily with those who happened to be there. Then certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered him. And some said, "What does this babbler want to say?" Others said, "He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods," because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection (vv. 16-18).
What's crucial to notice here, first of all, is Paul's relationship to the culture. 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.

So he immediately began confronting the idolatry by proclaiming Christ. 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.

In other words, he confronted their false beliefs; he did not try to accommodate them. Paul was deliberately and intentionally counter-cultural. He didn't say, Oh, these people think the idea of bodily resurrection is foolish; I'd better soft-sell that part of the message. He did exactly the opposite. He studied the culture with an eye to confronting people with the very truths they were most prone to reject.

It's hard to imagine any way he could have been more counter-cultural.