There is a lot of talk about contextualizing biblical truth these days. Of course, there is always a need for translation from language to language and context to context. What people mean when they say “contextualization” (as opposed to “translation”), however, is usually something deeper.
Regardless of the term used, we need to recognize the limits Scripture itself puts on contextualization.
This is important, because while there is certainly flexibility from time to time and civilization to civilization concerning what forms are used to communicate God’s truth, understanding the nature of cultural form leads to the conclusion that some forms are more suited to the communication of God’s truth than others, and some forms may even do injustice to the truth when compared to the forms God chose to use in Scripture.
For example, God chose to use the metaphor of shepherd to communicate certain truths about himself (e.g., Ps 23), Christ (e.g., John 10:11), and elders within the church (e.g., 1 Pet 5:2). Someone, with noble motives of contextualizing these truths in civilizations where shepherding is not common, may choose the metaphor of a cattle-driver instead. Yet the images created by the idea of a cattle-driver are far different than that of a shepherd and thereby do not capture the imaginative import of the biblically inspired image.
Additionally, significant change of form in worship from the kind of forms in Scripture may actually constitute the introduction of an entirely different element in worship than what has been prescribed. For example, when the approved element of preaching shifts in form from proclamation to conversation or dramatic recitation, the act has actually transformed into an entirely different element that God has not prescribed in Scripture.
The same is true for musical forms used in corporate worship. Although there are no musical scores in Scripture, and there is no mandate that worshipers today use the exact same musical idioms used, for example, in the Jewish temple, the aesthetic forms in Scripture, when properly studied and understood, do form boundaries and guidelines sufficient for the regulation of musical forms in corporate worship. This requires, of course, careful study of literary form in Scripture. Additionally, the kinds of affections, moods, and sentiments expressed and promoted by Scripture in connection with worship, along with examples of corporate worship and the kinds of music used therein, should also regulate the kinds of musical expressions used in corporate worship.
Do you think “The Lord is my cattle-driver” is an appropriate contextualization of Psalm 23?