A Summary of David Clark Views on the Validity of Contextualization

David Clark on the Validity of Contextualization (A Summary of Clark’s Idea in Chapter 3 of his book)

David Clark states that “Christianity’s adaptability to culture is its greatest asset and a major reason, humanly speaking for its resilience.” But thought this is the case, this strength can also entail some form of “alteration of the message.” He has great reservation towards principlizing methods and explains that being aware and sensitive of cultural diversity calls for a more discerned method in conveying the message of Christianity. He calls this to “properly connect God’s Word to contemporary culture.”[1]

Following the development of the concept of contextualization in Christianity there are two routes which Clark presents as the converging dimensions that spawned this idea. The first deals with the global and social awareness and the second deals with the hermeneutical challenge.

Clark explains contextualization, which I term, the global and social awareness as “a feature of theology and mission done in light of globalization.”[2] The progress of how the awareness of globalization can be explained in this manner following Clark’s presentation. The awareness of the uniqueness in each culture (how a certain group of people view and understand life in the context they live) has been coupled with the study of cultural relativism, which cultural anthropologist use to curb the notion of ethnocentrism (a view that undermines another cultures view as low and theirs as high). On this Clark states that as a “methodological commitment, cultural relativism mitigates the tendency to condemn other cultures and coronate one’s own.”[3] This realization thus spills to globalization which holds cultural sensitivities as being a core value. Clark explains that globalization “is primarily a planetary consciousness, a deepened awareness of, and sensitivity to, the reality of increasing interdependence among the peoples of the world.”[4] This makes us aware of the various theological viewpoints that can come to the table of conversation to make their understanding be heard.

The second dimension in the idea conceptualized as contextualization comes from issues gleaned from hermeneutical challenges. Reaction concerning the un-connectedness of Western theological matters seen by poverty stricken contexts, has come up with their own critique concerning theological issues. Their main critique is that Western influenced theology is working at issues from the standpoint of their economical context and so it undermines other contexts. Thus, they mainly start theological construction by way of elevating praxis as the norming norm for theological reflection rather than the bible.[5]

Further connections can be seen when the turn towards praxis as the basis for contextualization can be seen between the hermeneutical principles. Historical developments of this can be traced back to Friedrich Schleiermacher who proposed that the interpreter of the text infuse their own preunderstanding to the text and find connection that fit that line of reading. Preunderstanding enables the interpreter to grasp the text’s outward linguistic grammar and meaning as well as to penetrate the inward psychological dimensions of the text. By preunderstanding, the reader enters the inner structure of the writer’s own consciousness.[6] Moving on from Schleiermacher, others such as Martin Heidgger and Rudolf Bultman have also developed ideas that run along the lines suggested by him. All in unison hold to the fact that the interpreted guides the direction of understanding and interpreting the text.[7]

Because of issues above, contextualization was not really accepted among evangelical circles. But for all the thorny issues of early proponents of contextualization, Clark acknowledges that evangelicals have to agree with the notion that “readers bring preunderstandings to the Bible, and evangelical theologians simply must acknowledge this fact and reflect on its implications. It’s simplistic to think that we are tebulae rasae as we interpret the Bible and develop theological conviction.”[8] But rather than let contextual notions as being directed in their theologizing by praxis, evangelicals must find a striking balance to this.

What then follows is Clark’s version of how Evangelical Contextualization can look like. He presents two models. The first is the decoding or encoding model. This model works where the bible is decoded to arrive at its “transcultural understanding of principles, moves to a new culture, and then encodes the principles in the communication form of the new culture.” Clark moves on to say that, “this model presumes that contextualization happens only or primarily in the encoding stage.”[9] Although this model preserves the priority of scripture, there are weaknesses that can be seen. According to Clark, this model assumes that principles that have been decoded and encoded do not change as they get translated from culture to culture. What must be seen in this process is that three cultures are in conversation; the biblical culture, the communicators culture and the culture of the listeners. Any understanding that simply sees principles fall into linier categories is somewhat misguided.[10] The second weakness is that this model focuses much attention towards the missionary that decodes and encodes the bible and not those who are in that culture doing contextual theology by themselves.[11]

The second model is what Clark calls the dialogical model. This model offers the most promising and fruitful model that evangelicals can gravitate towards when doing contextual theology. In explaining the pattern of thought and conversation that the dialogical model approaches, the bible takes prominence, as theologians ask questions to a given culture and slowly develop their theology as a form of dialogue while looking to scripture for direction. Here, dialogue modulates the platform for biblical understanding in a given culture.[12] The positive observations of using this model are conveyed by Clark. Principlizing is not seen as linier in all cultures thus this approach takes the bible as it is. This model is applicable to whatever given culture because of its dialogical method. And finally this model assumes that obedience plays a large part in the process of contextual theology.[13]

Next, Clark presents a case study in doing contextualized theology. On this particular issue, multiculturalism is addressed. Multiculturalism is perceived as integrating unity amidst plurality under the umbrella of tolerance. It has an aura of pluralism in mind where truth is relative and any perspective that is otherwise is not in step with multiculturalism. How does one respond to such question, asks Clark? First Clark deciphers the romanticism behind the ideology perceived as multiculturalism. Clark calls it “ideological multiculturalism” because it denies any form of critical thought that tries to question the idea.[14] Next, Clark seeks to hear what the bible has to say about people. The biblical witness seems to say more concerning God’s love and care for humanity as well as the reason to hold peace among people.[15] Thus, the third step in Clark’s response is to correct certain errors that multiculturalism ascribes to while retaining the good points.[16]

Reading through Clark’s views concerning contextualization, there is a sense of rigorous dialogue to be done. Christian responsive theology is not just bordering on the witness of Scripture but must seek to hear from the diversity of perspectives where one does theology. Holding on a biblical, Christian stance cannot be done under the microscope of the Bible alone. But that being said, Scripture is the point of reference in which we start our journey in contextualization. And as the dialogue of Bible and Scripture develop, a more faithful perspective that is biblically sound as well as culturally sensitive is ascribed to when theologizing.


[1] Clark, David K. To Know and Love God: Method for Theology.(Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway. 2003). p.99

[2] Ibid.,102

[3] Ibid 101

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.,p102-104

[6] Ibid.,p.105

[7] Ibid.,p.104-110

[8] Ibid.,p.108

[9] Ibid.,p.112

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.,p.113

[12] Ibid.,p.114

[13] Ibid.,p.120-121

[14] Ibid.,p.124

[15] Ibid.,p.126-127

[16] Ibid.,p.128-130

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