According to the evangelical missiologists David Hesselgrave and Edward Rommen, the term “contextualization” was born in 1971 out of a disregard for Scripture’s authority and a preference for the contemporary historical scene in doing theology. Yet conservative evangelicals have since adopted and redefined the term to uphold the Bible’s authority along with the need for contextual sensitivity in theologizing. However, there is no consensus on how contextualization must be done. Rather, those emphasizing Biblical authority often tend toward a dogmatic approach, adhering to the myth of neutral “objectivity,” while those emphasizing cultural sensitivity prefer an existential approach, wading into the dangerous waters of unchecked “subjectivity.” In One Gospel for All Nations, Jackson Wu enters this conversation. He presupposes Scripture as God’s authoritative special revelation, which transcends every specific cultural setting, and yet also believes that the gospel is not an ahistorical abstraction, but was revealed in history, and must be proclaimed to all nations. Central to Wu’s argument is that most evangelicals reduce contextualization to communication and application, but miss its foundational starting point: interpretation.
In One Gospel for All Nations, Wu offers a new perspective on contextualization and prescribes a matching method, which, he argues, will free evangelicals from having to choose between Scripture and culture. Seeking to guard, not merely against outright false teaching, but against mistaking the secondary points of Scripture for the main points, he affirms the conservative evangelical conviction that there is one gospel. To bolster this conviction, he commends to readers an understanding of the gospel that has a firm and stable thematic framework. Simultaneously, Wu wants to allow for flexibility in the use of explanatory themes when this one gospel is presented. Furthermore, armed with the increasingly common presupposition that all theology is contextual theology, Wu provocatively contends that evangelicals must embrace their inevitable cultural lenses when interpreting Scripture and developing theology, so that contextualization is not merely done in the communication and application of the gospel, but, more seminally, in the process of interpretation itself.
To begin, Wu argues that contextualization is inevitable, and that even the best of our theology, though communicating genuine truth, will be genuine truth from a certain cultural and historical perspective. Wu is quick to add that this is not relativism, and that our limited vantage points do not make knowing truth impossible. He just wants to take seriously the fundamental fallacy of an acultural theology.
While Wu comforts his readers with the hope of controlling contextualization to prevent cultural syncretism, he also warns against theological syncretism in which theological traditions or programs, such as the “Four Spiritual Laws,” become dominant frameworks for interpreting and communicating Scripture. As a self-professed conservative evangelical, Wu affirms the authority of Scripture over culture, yet believes that some new categories are needed in order to avoid a simplistic one-way exchange from Scripture to culture. “Exegetical contextualization,” as Wu understands it, refers to one’s interpretation of Scripture from a cultural perspective (e.g., identifying one’s own culture’s distinctive themes while reading Scripture), while “cultural contextualization” refers to the interpretation of culture using a scriptural perspective (e.g., identifying biblical themes while “reading” culture). By distinguishing between “exegetical contextualization” and “cultural contextualization,” he advances a perspective in which culture plays a role in shaping theology without usurping Scripture. This distinction is the essence of Wu’s new perspective, and undergirds his “firm and flexible” methodology.
Wu unfolds his model of contextualization by making some key observations about the gospel. According to Galatians 1, Wu maintains that there is only one gospel, and yet critically engages with recent debates concerning “What is the gospel?” Defining the gospel is a first order concern because one’s ‘understanding of the gospel inevitably influences [one’s] view on contextualization’ (p. 29). Taking note of how Greg Gilbert, The Gospel Coalition, Scot McKnight, and others have defined the gospel, Wu tends to side more with McKnight and warns of reductionist “soterian” gospels, which emphasize the application of an individual’s salvation to the exclusion of the redemptive trajectory of the Old Testament that finds fulfilment in the New Testament. Examples of soterian gospels are those that focus mainly on individuals, justification, and law/guilt paradigms. Discontent with gospel presentations that go straight from Genesis 3 to Romans 3, Wu advocates for a biblical-theological, canonical approach that traces major themes throughout the entire Bible, noting that in Romans 1:1-4, the gospel is framed, not by a law/guilt paradigm, but by covenantal and kingdom themes.
Drawing significantly from Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel, Wu convincingly argues that at least one or more of the themes, creation, covenant, and kingdom, frame the gospel in the various places in the LXX and New Testament where “gospel” or its verbal form are used. These three themes mutually reinforce one another and encompass subthemes such as justification. God is the Creator, therefore, the King of creation. This Creator-King has acted in history covenantally as Israel’s God, and has promised to establish a just kingdom for the nations through David’s offspring, who is Jesus Christ. Creation, covenant, and kingdom, Wu calls “framing themes.” They keep the gospel “firm” in his model.
Wu also identifies four key questions that every gospel presentation in Scripture answers. 1. Who is Christ? 2. What has Christ done? 3. Why is Christ important? 4. How should we respond? This is where the flexibility of Wu’s model comes in. While we must structure our gospel presentations around the firm framework of creation, covenant, and kingdom, there are a variety of metaphors, symbols, and stories that the Bible uses to answer these four questions. For example, the first question could be answered with the identities: Shepherd, Father, Savior, and Husband. Hence, while creation, covenant, and kingdom firmly frame the gospel, these themes and many others flexibly explain the gospel. Wu’s primary example is the use of honor/shame themes to explain what Christ has done and why it is important. Honor and shame were the primary themes of Wu’s 2013 dissertation, Saving God’s Face: A Chinese Contextualization of Salvation through Honor and Shame.
After establishing the firm and flexible aspects of the gospel, Wu explains how culture influences the way we understand, communicate, and apply the gospel. He argues that we all operate with culturally-shaped “organizing principles,” categories of thought that orient our worldviews. He says that the gospel presents a story, and thus a worldview, too. Thus in contextualization we must pay close attention to our own worldview, the worldview of those whom we present the gospel to, and the worldview that Scripture presents. When we present the gospel, Wu writes, ‘Our story should in some way or another portray how the Creator God through Jesus Christ fulfilled his historical covenants to unite the world and ascend to the throne’ (p. 83).
In light of this, Wu offers a model that challenges us to be intentional about which lenses we use, for our gospel presentations should be framed by biblical theology, yet flexibly shaped by our contextual perspective. His first step is to identify the firm framework and flexible explanatory themes of the gospel. Wu’s second step is to organize framework and explanatory themes from a specific culture’s worldview that parallel with the gospel’s. For example, “relationship” might be a key cultural theme that parallels “covenant,” “world” might be a cultural theme that parallels “creation,” and “authority” might be a cultural theme that parallels “kingdom.”
Thirdly, exegetical contextualization comes into play, in which culture is used to interpret Scripture with flexible themes to explain the gospel. As an example, Wu discusses the culturally thematic lens of ethnocentrism, which could be addressed by the framework themes of creation and/or covenant. In the example Wu chooses “covenant” because of its explanatory themes of circumcision, righteousness, God’s faithfulness, and ultimately justification, which, Paul argues in Romans, is not based on ethnic identity. Framing his presentation with the theme of covenant, Wu explains how justification, in particular, as opposed to the atonement, flexibly and contextually meets with the culturally thematic lens of ethnocentrism. Such a method gives Christians a roadmap to address various cultural issues with Scripture and its authority.
Finally, the last step is cultural contextualization, in which we identify how a particular biblical theme, such as covenant, might helpfully correspond to parallel themes in culture. At this step, the contextualizing practitioner is to put on the lens of Scripture to assess culture. For example, one might interpret relational aspects of culture through the theme of covenant, and be able to invest the language of relationships with covenantal meaning by asking the particular culture who its “lord” of relationships is, or what this “lord” has done. Step four uses Scripture to deconstruct the culture’s unbiblical worldview. This four-step process displays the relationship between Scripture and culture, such that they mutually inform each other in a cycle. Cultural lenses are supposedly worn in identifying biblical themes (step 1), yet biblical themes are used to organize cultural themes (step 2), while a cultural lens is worn to contextually interpret Scripture (step 3), and then a biblical lens is used to interpret and assess culture (step 4).
Wu also uses Acts 17 and the Chinese culture to demonstrate his method of contextualization. He concludes his book with one last argument for the legitimacy of cultural lenses in biblical interpretation, and challenges his readers to consider “both-and” approaches to theological debates, reminding us that a multicultural perspective is more objective than a mono-cultural one.
In One Gospel for All Nations, Wu demonstrates a thoughtful and informed understanding of what the gospel is, as he interacts with and finds support from a diverse array of thinkers. His critique of a “soterian” gospel that overemphasizes justification and a law/guilt paradigm is well received and a timely word to conservative evangelicals. Though Wu’s appreciation of certain aspects of N.T. Wright’s understanding of Paul may concern certain American evangelicals, his arguments and conclusions still deserve evangelical attention, for one’s understanding of the gospel must affect one’s contextualization.
Wu’s arguments should lead many conservative evangelicals to reconsider how they have communicated and even understood the gospel. He refreshingly draws the church’s attention to the absolute necessity of biblical theology in the process of systematic theological development. Many evangelicals will find an emphasis on biblical theology and the notion of worldview as story to be helpful as they seek to contexualize Scripture in their local contexts. Such an emphasis highlights both the continuities and discontinuities between specific cultures’ worldviews and Scripture’s worldview. Utilizing biblical theology also helps us to not merely settle for true propositions in our gospel presentations, but to pursue proper and primary emphases. One does wonder, however, if systematic theology, being a part of every evangelical’s local culture, should take as much of a backseat to biblical theology as Wu suggests. Do not biblical theology and systematic theology mutually and reciprocally inform one another in a harmonious and interdependent fashion? Is it possible to do biblical theology apart from systematic theology? Wu does not seem to appreciate how theological the task of biblical theology is.
Similarly, Wu’s new perspective and model depend on a biblical-theological framework and an interpretation influenced by contextual, cultural perspective. However, if there is no acultural theology, can there still be an acultural biblical theology? Though few biblical scholars might disagree with Wu’s admittedly broad threefold framework of creation, covenant, and kingdom, if his biblical theology is inevitably influenced by his local culture, why should readers accept his gospel framework as “firm” for them, and not just for him? Is his perspective not merely one perspective on biblical theology that has been shaped by his own unique cultural perspective? Is Wu’s advancement of this “firm” gospel frame just another attempt to extract an “acultural gospel” from Scripture? While one may personally agree in his or her reading of Scripture that creation, covenant, and kingdom represent the firm framework of the gospel, one must still consider how his or her arrival at this framework was shaped by his or her specific cultural context. Though Wu challenges evangelicals to interpret Scripture with a cultural lens in order to not force a choice between Scripture and culture, and though he demonstrates this in step 3 (interpreting Scripture) of his contextualization process, it is not clear that he does this in step 1 (identifying biblical framing and explanatory themes). This leads one to wonder if one must suspend one’s cultural lens to identify biblical-theological framework themes. Sure, Scripture has not come to us in an acultural way, yet if we are to take Wu’s presupposition seriously, that interpretation is always influenced by a cultural lens, even the mere organization of themes within the culturally incarnated Scripture cannot escape our cultural lenses. This reviewer is not convinced that Wu has successfully navigated a way out of the hermeneutical spiral for evangelicals.
A few additional minor critiques may be added. Perhaps a more significant discussion of the relationship between the gospel and the presentation of the gospel would aid and clarify Wu’s points. Also, in Wu’s biblical theology, one may wonder why he focused on Abraham and David without giving much attention to Adam, Noah, Moses, or other Old Testament figures. This reviewer also wonders if the Neo-Calvinist understanding of “common grace” might bolster Wu’s reflection on contextualization. I confess that I found some of Wu’s terminology, diagrams, and organization difficult to understand and track with. Terms, such as exegetical and cultural contextualization were confusing, there may be an error in Figure 14, and the recapitulation of ideas from chapters 1-5 in chapter 6’s “Process” chapter was difficult to follow. Finally, this reviewer is becoming increasingly convinced that every book on contextualization should include a section grappling with the complexities of language and meaning and a theology of religion; such sections are absent in One Gospel for All Nations.
Wu’s work will definitely contribute to the contextualization conversation of evangelicals, however, one wonders whether his insistence upon a firm gospel framework is either another attempt to identify an acultural gospel, or a less than firm framework that was influenced by Wu’s own specific cultural context. All in all, I would commend this book to any evangelical who is interested in thinking through methods of contextualization and missiology, and especially to conservative evangelicals as a mirror for the critical self-assessment of how they understand the gospel and its interpretation, communication, and application. Though Wu does not lead us out of the hermeneutical spiral, his insistence upon returning to biblical theology and using multiple perspectives in biblical interpretation is refreshing, and his firm and flexible model for gospel presentations is both innovative and useful.