When Christianity exploded unto the stage of history, it was regarded by most of the Roman Empire as “foolishness.” Now, many call it “outdated.” Such assessments raise the question of how we should present the message of Christ in our particular time and place, the enterprise which we call “contextualization.”
Over the next few weeks I am scheduled to minister in Northern Italy, and will be asking myself this question. How can we make the good news of Jesus clear to these lovely people who enjoy life sipping espresso, licking gelato, and knowing very little about the grace of the gospel? As I do so, I take heart in the fact that the message we proclaim has inherent power and wisdom which transcends this world. Following is a quote from the English non-conformist preacher John Angell James (1785-1859) in which he reminds pastors of this precious truth.
“It should never be forgotten that the time when the apostles discharged their ministry was only just after the Augustan era of the ancient world. Poetry had recently bestowed on the lettered world the works of Virgil and Horace. The light of philosophy, though waning, still shed its luster over Greece. The arts still exhibited their most splendid creations, though they had ceased to advance. It was at such a time, and amidst such scenes, the gospel began its course. The voices of the apostles were listened to by sages who had basked in the sunshine of Athenian wisdom, and were reverberated in startling echo from temples and statues that had been shaken by the thunders of Cicero and Demosthenes; yet they conceded nothing to the demands of philosophy, but held forth the cross as the only object they felt they had a right to exhibit. They never once entertained the degrading notion that they must accommodate themselves to the philosophy or the taste of the age in which they lived, and the places where they ministered.
Whether the apostle addressed himself to the philosophers on Mars Hill, or to the barbarians on the island of Melita; whether he reasoned with the Jews in their synagogues, or with the Greeks in the school of Tyrannus, he had but one theme, and that was Christ, and him crucified. And what right, or what reason have we for deviating from this high and imperative example? Be it so, that we live in a literary, philosophic, and scientific age, what then? Is it an age that has outlived the need of the gospel for its salvation; or for the salvation of which any thing else can suffice but the gospel? The supposition that something else than pure Christianity, as the theme of our pulpit ministrations, is requisite for such a period as this, or that it must be presented in philosophic guise, appears to me a most perilous sentiment, as being a disparagement to the gospel itself, a daring assumption of wisdom superior to God’s, and containing the germ of infidelity.1”
I welcome your prayers and look forward to giving you a report on Italy when I return in July. God bless you!
1 The Founders Journal 43, Winter 2001, 24, Quoting from John Angell James, An Earnest Ministry: The Want of the Times (1847; reprinted in Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1993), 69-73.