Some evangelicals upon hearing the word “contextualization” immediately think “compromise” or “syncretism.” Andrew J. Prince, lecturer in missiology and practical theology at Brisbane School of Theology, addresses such concerns in this published version of his doctoral dissertation. He defends the thesis “that a missiological methodology that is governed by Scripture, while also drawing from the church fathers, the social sciences and practical theology, is not only consistent with the nature of evangelicalism but also consistent with the nature of missiology itself” (p. vii).
Prince believes that evangelical treatments of contextualization thus far have suffered from two weaknesses: first, an emphasis upon anthropology to the neglect of serious theological reflection, and second, too little attention given to lessons we can learn from the church fathers. Although he perhaps overstates the first weakness, he commendably seeks to fill these two gaps in the contextualization discussion based upon a clear conviction of biblical authority.
The first two chapters concisely define terms and outline some of the key debates regarding contextualization. These serve as a helpful primer for readers unfamiliar with the issues. Chapter three takes up his desire to provide a more theologically robust reflection on the task of contextualization. He does this by carefully examining the sermons in the book of Acts, concluding with helpful principles for contextualization. Unlike other similar works that focus on Paul’s sermons, Prince also discusses Peter’s Pentecost sermon and Stephen’s martyrdom sermon. Space does not allow him to take up other examples of contextualization in the Old and New Testaments.
Chapters four and five examine contextualization by the early church fathers, in particular John Chrysostom. Prince’s premise is that, “The large quantity of surviving homiletical material and commentary by early Christian preachers provides the observant reader with significant insights into how preachers pastored their congregations and sought to contextualize the unchangeable word of God to their respective audiences. This is never more the case than for John Chrysostom” (p. 143).
Prince discusses Chrysostom’s sermons preached to various audiences as a case studies of such contextualization, once again identifying principles for today. Chrysostom’s example becomes almost authoritative for Prince. It serves as the basis for his passing critique of the approaches of Phil Parshall and Rick Brown who minister in Muslim contexts (p. 197; this is one of the few points where Prince’s work lacks necessary nuancing). His chapters on Chrysostom provide more detail than most readers will want or need. But despite these caveats, they admirably fulfill the second purpose of his work by highlighting the value of studying the church fathers for an evangelical understanding of contextualization. His final chapter concisely recaps his key findings.
As a published dissertation with 230 pages of text, one cannot expect this volume to deliver a comprehensive discussion of contextualization. But is does provide, in exemplary manner, an in-depth and insightful treatment of the sermons in Acts and of Chrysostom, including how they should inform a broader evangelical understanding of contextualization. His fifteen principles for contextualization are well argued. Not only missionaries, but also pastors would do well to consider them. More, of course, could and should be said about contextualization, but that would go beyond the purview of this volume.
The lessons from Acts are not particularly novel to readers already familiar with the literature. But his study of Chrysostom does provide fresh insight informing the evangelical discussion of contextualization. Those chapters will be of particular interest to preachers wishing to be relevant to their audience while remaining faithful to the biblical text. Readers skeptical about the very concept of contextualization will appreciate Prince’s appeal to scriptural authority and perhaps become persuaded that the answer to bad contextualization is not no contextualization (which is impossible), but rather more biblically guided contextualization. We can be grateful that Prince has provided us with just such a volume.