The Fad of the Contextualists

Faddishness, if that is a word, would seem to be something inherent to human nature.  Perhaps we should define the term, or a term: fadslip, the over-eagerness or susceptibility to succumb to the dominance of fads and their proponents.  Even conservative Christians, of course, can be prone to fadslip.  I knew this already, but it’s occurred to me afresh today as I surfed over and across the Christian blogs I used to frequent quite regularly.  And again, everyone is talking about the same thing(s).  I do exaggerate, but it is amazing that on a particular blog, 10 new posts might be uploaded or linked to every day, and only 2 or 3 of them go over well-trodden ground, rather than exhaustedly-trodden ground.  Given, this is a matter of opinion, and possibly a matter of patience and cynicism.  I’m willing to take the lumps.  I don’t doubt that most of what people are talking about is worth talking about: I’m just tired of hearing or reading about it.

One fad that particularly sticks in my craw, while it also is not new (I first ran across it in 2010 when listening to an agonizing message by Rob Bell) is what I will call the Fad of the Contextualists.  This is the fad whose proponents are all about couching every biblical teaching or narrative in its context.  This in itself is not wrong.  Actually, it’s very good!  But these folk are obsessed with not only offering a context, but, as it seems to me, trying to demonstrate how much grasp they have of the context (religious, social, political, spiritual, historical, literary, historio-socio-spiritual, and so forth).  As an academic, I do know it can be hard to swallow my pride and admit when I don’t know something, especially if someone I’m talking to expects me to know it.  But I have to tell the truth, and if I make a habit of not doing so, and try to persuade folk that I really do know what I’m talking about, sooner or later I’ll be rumbled, and my word and my well-founded assertions will go for naught.  So I do sympathise.

But there are people in certain positions of whom such expertise on the New Testament world, the Greco-Roman context, even Ancient Israel, is not expected, and yet they profess such expertise anyway, and base ludicrous assertions on the flimsy foundations of their ignuanced non-expertise.  Very often, the Bible, its people, or their socio-historical context falls prey to gross exaggerations and over-simplifications.  And it’s annoying.  Case in point (a disclaimer–this is for an example, and I don’t mention names–it is necessarily an abbreviation of the man’s argument): a fellow is arguing against various aspects of charismaticism, and against speaking in tongues in particular.  To make his argument, he asserts that the ‘babbling of pagans’ discussed in Matt 6:7 is descriptive of Greek mystery cults (reading Greek mystery cults as representative of all of Greek religion [feel free to knit your brow here]).  Going on from there, and offering alternate translations of certain words in 1 Corinthians, etc., he asserts that any speaking in tongues which is not a(n extant?) human language is pagan in nature, and is the result of or akin to a pagan ‘ecstatic’ experience, which he asserts any pagan could have upon participating in the everyday rites of the temples (he gives as his examples those of Ephesian Artemis and Corinthian Aphrodite).  Of course, all the major cities and probably all towns and villages had their own temples and shrines.  But the overwhelming majority of these were not associated with mystery cults.  It’s true that mystery cults (those of Demeter and Orpheus) gained in popularity under the Roman empire (perhaps especially in Rome, after the syncretisation of such ‘eastern’ deities like Isis and Mithra).  But this does not mean that every semi-devout Joe (Iw?) around the Ancient Med, especially in the Hellenistic world, had ecstatic, mystery-cult-like experiences (which we as Christians understand were basically possessions by the god, if not drug [pharmaka]-induced hallucinations, which may have paved the way for the former).  These experiences, cultic reveries, were reserved for priests, priestesses, seers, and the initiated members of cults.  The ‘babbling of the pagans’ is not necessarily a reference to mysterious ecstatic experience; indeed, Jesus uses the terms battaloghshte (to prattle or repeat yourself over and over) and polulogia (verbosity), which would seem to describe lengthiness for the sake of it (as in the latter part of the verse!), and content which does not come from the heart, but rather from a formula.  This is not the same as the mentioned writer’s citation of Plato discussing the unintelligibility of the Pythia at the Delphic oracle; the Pythia, when asked for a prophetic word, would speak in ‘divine’ words from the god(s), and then offered a translation, usually in verse.  This is not ‘normal’ in Greek religious practice.  The average Greek Joe would have prayed in Greek, probably to a formula, and maybe in verse from local pagan hymns.  This link between Jesus’ description of pagan babbling and mystery-cult experiences is a red herring, and to use it as an argument in order to cast tongue-speaking charismatics as folks in a Dionysiac or Orphic frenzy is patently unfair.

It is not that any mention of mystery cults is completely irrelevant to understanding the New Testament and Early Church context.  But to make such haphazard links and generalizations is irresponsible and misleading, and can lead one down the path of the liberals, whose hyper-contextualization leads them to assert that Jesus is a Jewish incarnation of Adonis, Attis and Dionysius (maybe even Mithra), all rolled into one.  Which is a heinous crime against all true disciplines.  While wanting to understand as much of the truth as possible is laudable, sometimes contexts are complicated, and trying too hard to ‘clear up a problem through context’ can lead to deceptive oversimplification, in which case, problems ‘simply’ proliferate.  People should stick to what they know.

I will follow my own advice, and not say anymore about speaking in tongues at present…except to say, that as a Reformed person I am not entirely persuaded by the variety of arguments from across the cessationist spectrum, and find the dismissive attitude among some of my brethren toward some charismatics and continuationists very troubling, especially if the continuationists are asking about, and the cessationists don’t seem to have a direct answer to or interpretation of, enigmatic passages like 1 Cor. 14:2 and 14:14.  And, in spite of my earlier complaints about finding interesting things to read, I found these three posts quite interesting indeed.


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