Father, Give Me a Word: Contextualization in the Letters of St. Nilus of Ancyra (Part 1)

Introduction

During a consultation meeting of the World Council of Churches in 1972, a then-mostly-unknown Taiwanese man addressed the large crowd from the podium and uttered one word that would be added to the missiological lexicon for generations to come. That word was “contextualization” and that man was Shoki Coe. Coe’s word-bomb would change the course of missiology and cause deep factions over the following decade in the field of missiology. Contextualization as Coe envisioned it was a way of making missiological sense of the incarnation, the ultimate (and divine) form of contextualization: God came to humanity in the form of a human for the sake of humanity. As Ray Wheeler elegantly describes Coe’s thesis,

Coe saw catholicity as a gift modeled in the incarnation of Jesus who became flesh in a particular time and place. The Word becoming flesh models our responsibility to take our own concrete, local contexts seriously. This does not leave us free to indiscriminately manipulate the contexts; rather it forces us to the cross where we must recognize that certain aspects of our cultural assumptions must be deconstructed for the sake of reconstructing a perspective more in line with the missio Dei.[1]

Coe’s assertion was undoubtedly a response, or better yet, a reaction to the way missiology was handled with indigenous populations throughout the nineteenth century, especially the missionary expansion of the Church of England. This earlier period of missionary expansion compelled each individual missionary frontier to embrace the linguistic, liturgical and cultural archetypes of a Western, Victorian-era Church. Initially, while having little trouble embracing the gospel on the one hand, on the other hand, these indigenous populations saw the need to retain their cultural distinctives as a way of preserving their local histories. And as a result of what we can now in hindsight call “missionary insensitivity,” these earlier missionary movements (late-nineteenth to early-twentieth centuries) found it challenging to deeply root the gospel in each host culture. In other words, the Church was unable to retain its evangelistic expansion based on its need to not only convert people, but also convert the people’s culture. Therefore, high levels of attrition were inevitable as the people in the host cultures returned to their indigenous religions.

While challenging the status quo and causing discomfort in certain ecclesial communities,[2] within a decade, Coe’s thesis began to take root in both mainline and progressive-evangelical Protestant circles, especially in urban settings.[3] Throughout the 1980s, 1990s and into the next millennium, the need to contextualize the gospel message was latched onto by urban church planting gurus such as Timothy J. Keller, Raymond Bakke and Ed Stetzer. The concept of contextualization gave them access to, and allowed them to create new language that supported successful gospel proclamation in the cities around the world that were in the midst of being renewed by gentrification.

Recently, a definition of contextualization that has gained widespread currency has been presented by Keller—an urban Presbyterian mega-church pastor in New York City. In his book Center Church Keller writes,

Contextualization is not—as is often argued—“giving people what they want to hear.” Rather, it is giving people the Bible’s answers, which they may not at all want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are asking, in languages and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them.[4]

Thus, for Keller, meeting both the individual and their surrounding culture exactly where they are, while clearly articulating the gospel, is the essential aspect of contextualization. While “language” for Keller obviously includes a society’s indigenous tongue (such as Japenese in Tokyo and English in London) he is rather touching on a much deeper concept. Keller explains,

The first step in active contextualization is to understand and, as much as possible, identify with your listeners, the people you are seeking to reach. This begins with a diligent (and never-ending) effort to become as fluent in their social, linguistic, and cultural reality as possible. It involves learning to express people’s hopes, objections, fears, and beliefs so well that they feel as though they could not express them better themselves.

But is tapping into the cultural narrative as novel a concept as it is made out to be? Is it really a twentieth-century phenomenon?

Like many other revivalistic movements in its wake, Keller and others believe to be reclaiming biblical methods: they are quick to point out that the apostle Paul had applied this methodology while in Athens. They rightly recognize that while standing on the Aeropagus and retelling the great redemptive-historical narrative, Paul taps his audience’s cultural narrative and makes his appeal to his listeners, asking them to embrace Christ and the gospel, by presenting one of their own cultural identity-markers as evidence that the good news of the risen Christ is available to them as well, and that they too are part of God’s new family.[5] In doing so, Paul is contextualizing the gospel for a first-century, Hellenistic people group. But has this methodology jumped from the first century to the late-twentieth/early-twenty-first centuries with no stop in between? Is there no example of Paul’s methodology between his application of it and the time of Coe?

St. Nilus of Ancyra (the Ascetic, the Elder, or of Sinai) is a less-than-well-known patristic writer (especially in the English-speaking world) who may be best known for his chapter Ascetic Discourse in the Philokalia,[6] as well as a collection of sayings peppered throughout a compiled mother-volume.[7] In a collection of letters to an assortment of people,[8] he artfully contextualizes his gospel message in light of the cultural uniqueness of each of his recipients. While St. Nilus is not the first patristic writer to contextualize his content given his audience, he truly provides us with an excellent example of a fifth-century writer who had developed a creative spiritual imagination; who also had a handle on the pulse of the culture and its people.

This paper will now turn its attention to a handful of correspondences of St. Nilus. It will then interact with each of the examples, highlighting his use of, and commenting on his contextual language and masterful application of metaphor. But before beginning our journey through a handful of his texts, a short biographical survey is in order.

 

Join Matthew Paul Buccheri for Part 2 of “Father Give Me a Word” on Friday, September 16th.

 

 

[1]Ray Wheeler, “The Legacy of Shoki Coe,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 26:2 (2002), 78.

[2] Charles H. Kraft points out that evangelicals were initially apprehensive about Coe’s concept given its relationship to the World Council of Churches, an organization that evangelicals have been slow to embrace, even to this day. See Charles H. Kraft, “Contextualisation in Euro-American Missiology,” World Evangelization, Sept./Oct., 1997.

[3] Wheller, Legacy, 80.

[4] Timothy J. Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City, (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2012), 89. Keller’s italics.

[5] Acts 17:28. Paul quotes the great Hellenistic poet Aratus, from his poem Phaenomena, “For we are indeed his [God’s] offspring.”

[6] The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Volume One, Trans and ed. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware, (London: Farber & Farber, 1979), 199–250.

[7] Writings from the Philokalia: On the Prayer of the Heart, Trans. E. Kadloubovsky and G.E.H. Palmer, (London: Farber and Farber, 1951). Especially beginning 195 passim.

[8] Patrologia Graeca, Vol. 79, ed. Jacques Paul Migne. Hereafter, simply PG.

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