"Contextualization be Damned!" Really, Leithart? Really?

Today I want to respond briefly to something that was posted on Toby Sumpter’s blog that purportedly comes from a book by Peter Leithart entitled Against Christianity.  Sumpter’s post seems to be nothing more than a series of block quotes from Leithart’s book which he has grouped together under the provocative title “Contextualization be Damned!”
First, really? Damned?

So it would seem that Leithart (and following him, Sumpter) are wishing and calling for the damnation of contextualiztion?  Since, of course, contextualization in the Christian context cannot exist without followers of Christ who are both incarnationally entering a foreign context and those who come to Christ and remain in their original context – these being the ones who make contextualization a reality – one marvels at how such invective can spew forth from those who are themselves ministers of the gospel. 

I have a real problem with this kind of irresponsible writing.  It is one thing to honestly question, disagree, and debate.  To “damn” is not only crossing the line of decent and respectful dialogue, it is leave it in the dust – taking upon themselves that which is certainly the prerogative of God alone.  A line like “contextualization be damned” is a cheap trick to lure in readers to a blog or a book, but if Leithard and Sumpter actually mean them, well then Scripture warns – “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls.  And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Rom. 14:4).

Now, on to actual content.  Does Leithart (as quoted by Sumpter) actually have anything meaningful to say about contextualization?  I put his words in italics.  Here’s what we read in Sumpter’s post:

The Church is a distinct “language group.” In some obvious senses, that is not true…

Okay. Right in some obvious senses, that is not true.  In fact, I’m not sure that there are any meaningfully senses in which this is true.  Certainly it isn’t actually or literally true.  Also it isn’t Biblically true – that is, the Scripture never uses this kind of terminology in any way.  On the contrary, we find that Scripture holds that the Church consists of the elect from every distinct language group and that these distinctions are in some sense upheld and preserved at least until the establishment of  the new heavens and new earth (cf. Rev. 7:9, 21:24ff).

 [But] Pentecost reversed Babel, overcoming the babble which followed God’s judgment upon the rebellious nations…

While this is certainly a popular Biblical cliché, it isn’t something that Scripture itself teaches.  The Bible never makes a connection between the “Tower of Babel” story and the Pentecost.  It isn’t therefore enough simply to assume a connection between these two narratives.  You must establish it.  Perhaps Leithart attempts this in the book.  The quote we are given however, suggests that he doesn’t actually fully grasp the Babel account.  The following excerpt is from my forthcoming article on diaspora missiology:

     When God created the first man and woman, He gave them a clear commission to multiply and “fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). His vision was that the entire planet would teem with the crown of His creation – His image-bearers. Even after the Fall and the flood, when sin had seemed to have irreversibly wrecked this vision, God re-commissioned Noah and his family to go and “fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1). The divine plan had not been thwarted.
     From the beginning, God’s purpose has been missional. Through the movement of humanity into all the earth, there should be no place in which His image is not manifest. Post-Fall, and especially under the New Covenant, this movement is particularly important as it facilitates the intermingling of God’s ambassadors—Christians, through whom is spread everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ (2 Corinthians 2:14)—with lost people. Far from haphazard, this scattering is superintended by a sovereign God who determines the precise times and places in which people will live in order to accomplish His missional purposes (Acts 17:26-27). Since the creation of the world, therefore, till today, diasporas have been an indispensible means by which God has accomplished his redemptive purposes through Jesus Christ.
     It is against this backdrop of diaspora as a missional means decreed and blessed by God that we must attempt to understand the sin of Babel. We have often been told that the narrative of Genesis 11:1-9 is an example of God’s disdain for human hubris, the quest to make a name for oneself rather than to glorify God. While this is certainly part of the story, it is only a part. On the whole, we see exhibited in the builders of Babel a conglomeration of sinful attitudes which oppose God’s diasporic missional purposes and lead humanity to rebel against His “fill the earth” command.
     The centripetal tendency to resist diasporic movement is in accordance with the prevailing attitude of those would-be builders of the “Tower of Babel” who considered their own agenda of “name-making” as primary over and against God’s purpose of filling the earth with His image-bearers. God’s response to the disobedience of Babel was to forcibly scatter the people—an act of judgment but also of mercy as it prevented further depravity and set humanity back on the track of obeying God’s “fill the earth” command. (LCWE, 2010) (Pocock, Van Rheenen, & McConnell, 2005) (Casino, 2011) (Jung, 2010) (George, 2011) (Howell, 2011) (Wan, Korean diaspora: From hermit kingdom to Kingdom ministry, 2010)

This is all to point out that Leithart assumes a particular interpretation of Babel that I don’t believe he can establish Scripturally.  That is, he assumes that the creation of multiple languages was an act of judgment.  Certainly, God was displeased by what the builders were trying to accomplish, but to see His response as only a matter of judgment is wrong.  This is key because Leithart’s argument seems to be founded on the idea that multiple languages is bad and one language is good – the “babble” of Babel was bad and the “tongues” of Pentecost was good.  In this, he neglects to see that in both cases God was at work to accomplish his missional purposes.  In both cases a shared language was miraculously turned into multiple languages.  In both cases the result was a scattering of people who had been gathered.  I think it is a misreading of both accounts to see Pentecost as a kind of “reverse-Babel”.

In that Pentecostal sense, the Church speaks and must speak one language. We have one confession, and with the confession comes a distinct way of naming the world and unique categories for interpreting creation and history.

While the Church universal does have one confession, the metaphor of Pentecost has completely fallen apart.  The Pentecost event did not show the Church speaking one language.  As a matter of fact, the miracle was that they suddenly were able to speak many languages:

And they were amazed and astonished, saying, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians--we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God." (Act 2:7-11 ESV)

Leithart (followed by Sumptor) have interpreted the passage in exactly the opposite way in which it was intended – critical oversight.  Now all that Leithart goes on to say about “naming the world” seems built on a rather flimsy foundation.  Now I’m left wondering what he is even talking about.

As a language group, the Church is called to maintain and develop her own, Scriptural naming of the world.

Again, the Church isn’t a language group.  I know Leithart is using this term metaphorically, but his metaphor is dead.  We are left with his actual words.  The Biblical vision is not the Church as a single language group, but the opposite – the Church encompasses all language groups (Rev. 7:9).  To interpret the mission of the Church as the “Scriptural naming of the world” sounds more like the Islamic understanding of mission – i.e. to make the world “Dar al-Islam” or the realm of Islam.  Of course, this is Leithart’s actual aim.  He isn’t really pushing against contextualization itself but rather is promoting a vision of renewed Christendom. 

When the Church enters a new mission field, she always comes into an existing culture in which the world is pre-classified. The Church enters that situation with a new classification and new names. That is the mission: Christian language penetrates an existing language, and the Church begins to attach new labels to everything she finds.

In my view, this is a very frightening vision of mission.  Leithart sees missions as Christians going all over the world with label-makers.  My, my … I’m a little bit speechless.  Yes, it is “Christ & Civilization 2.0” – mission is re-labeling the world, re-varnishing cultures and communities with “Christian language”.  Nothing here of penetration, transformation, incarnation. 

And, of course, that leads us to …

Contextualization be damned. The Church’s mission is not to accommodate her language to the existing language, to disguise herself so as to slip unnoticed and blend in with the existing culture. Her mission is to confront the language of the existing culture with a language of her own.

Forget for the moment that Leithart’s language metaphor has become downright annoying at this point.  Who has Leithart been talking to about contextualization?  Clearly not anyone who actually understands it.  Contextualization is no more about disguising the Church than the incarnation was about disguising God.  The incarnation (and thus contextualization) is about revealing the invisible God in human flesh.  “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (Jn. 1:18).  “He is the visible image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15a). 

Contextualization is about entering and remaining in a given cultural context as ambassadors of an invisible King and an invisible Kingdom.  Which, by the way, are not bound or limited by any human language or set of cultural forms.  It is about enfleshening Jesus so that every people and nation, tribe and tongue can experience Him as the Word made flesh for them.  It is about announcing and demonstrating the already/not yet Kingdom in terms and forms they may understand so that they may respond in repentance and faith.  Mission is not about swooping in and relabeling everything.  I’m sorry, it’s just not.


  1. Hey Cody,

    I've responded here:



  2. Thanks, Toby. I read through and enjoyed your response. Will need to give it another and more careful look, but this is exactly the kind of dialogue that I was hoping for and that will prove fruitful for the Church.