John Barclay and Contextualization

I just finished re-reading John Barclay’s Obeying the Truth: Paul’s Ethics in Galatians, one of my favorite books on Galatians. I enjoy reading Barclay because he writes in a clear, concise manner and pays close attention to both the literary and historical contexts of Paul’s letter.

When re-reading a book, I am consistently amazed by how my current context informs my reading. Contextualization of the gospel is not a normal focus of mine but lately I have been thinking through different aspects of contextualizing as my wife and I have discussed several mission opportunities. Two primary sources have guided my research:

E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien – Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes

Jackson Wu‘s blog on Doing Theology. Thinking Mission.

Therefore, I was excited to find this gem in Barclay’s book:

In many respects Paul’s pioneering work in founding and nurturing Hellenistic Christian churches made him an innovator in conceptualizing and presenting a Christian ethic. But such a role inevitably involved the adaptation and application of previous Jewish and Hellenistic moral traditions, for it was unnecessary to create an ethical system de novo. Paul drew on the Jewish and Christian patterns of thought familiar to him while also being inclined to use terms and forms which could communicate effectively with his Gentile converts…Many of his ideas, motifs, and forms are not original to him. What are unique to Paul are his emphasis within this material and his arrangement of it, both of which are strongly influenced by his understanding of the gospel and the needs of the Galatian situation.

Contextualization can be a touchy subject because

-we think it means to water down the message

-we can’t see past our own cultural perspectives

-we don’t want to see past our own cultural biases

-we believe the biblical example does not involve contextualizing the message.

Barclay, however, provides a helpful way for me to think through the gospel in different contexts: innovation using my understanding of the gospel (my context) and an understanding of the needs of a culture (missional context). For those versed in contextualization this may seem obvious, but for me it is transformative to understand that contextualization moves beyond adaptation to innovation.

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