The “Foul Lines” of Contextual Theology


All Theology is Contextual. So when I speak of the “foul lines” of contextual theology, I mean the “foul lines” of ALL theology. The use of the term “foul lines” as it pertains to contextual theology, comes from Stephen Bevans, who in turn draws it from Justo Gonzales.  I will be returning to Bevans later. It implies that there is a wide range of theologies that may be acceptable, or fair, or orthodox. But there are also some that are not. All theology isorthodoxy either well-contextualized or poorly contextualized. However, that also means that both orthodox theology and heterodox theology can be well-contextualized or poorly contextualized.

Ultimately, this means that there are two challenges.

  1.  The test of contextualization.
  2. The test of orthodoxy

The two tests are muddy and inter-related. They are muddy in that it is hard to determine definitively the lines (the “foul lines”) between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. and between well-or-poorly contextualized. Additionally, contextualization has an effect on orthodoxy. In fact, being too well contextualized leads to heterodoxy. This is because good theology ALWAYS challenges, in some way, the culture it is in.

Ignoring the question of contextualization in this post, how does one test orthodoxy? In the past, the answer was often answered in terms of alignment of the theology to creeds. Even for non-creedal groups, (such as I am part of) statements or articles of faith tend to be seen as orthodox (good doctrine) and divergence from such statements evidence heterodoxy (or bad doctrine).

But as soon as one acknowledges that all theology, along with all creeds and articles of faith are culturally embedded, things get more complicated. Divergence from a creed may not really mean that it is heterodox, but it could be orthodox in a different context. It is hard to be sure. So how does one test a contextualized theology for orthodoxy?

Stephen Bevans has given some tests for this. He draws from Schreiter, de Mesa, and some others, along with his own reflection.  A quick summary of some of these tests is found in a presentation he gave a Boston University, seen in THIS VIDEO.

He notes the inadequacy of each individual test (he gives 11 tests) but suggests a principle of “converging probabilities.” In fact, it is the reasoning associated with historical or legal analysis, where the focus is not on  PROOF, but on how the preponderance of the evidence becomes COMPELLING, leading to CONSENSUS.

I would like to keep these 11 tests, but reorganize them, grouping them into five (5) general tests.

Test #1.  The Test of Revelation.  Christianity is founded on Divine Revelation, in the form of the words of the apostles, prophets, and the incarnation of Jesus Christ. As such a theology is challenged to be both coherent and harmonious with that revelation. Coherent, means that it does not contradict the word or essence of that revelation. But a caution here, since, one can always find “contradictions” if one goes in lacking grace or humility. Harmony means that it aligns with revelation in a way that may be novel, yet appears to go well with the revelation as a harmonic line in music works with the melody.

Test #2.  Test of God. Any contextual theology is tested by God’s uniqueness and transcendance. Therefore, any theology should be consistent in its prayer and worship. (For example, any theology that makes Jesus less worthy of prayer and worship than God, places itself out of line with orthodox faith). Additionally, any theology that encourages or justifies behavior of believers that is inconsistent with God’s character (love, justice, holiness, for example) is highly suspect.

Test #3.  Test of the Universal Church. The church is founded on Christ and the apostles and maintains a spiritual unity regardless of how often the church drifts from  diversity (a good thing) to divisiveness (not such a good thing).  A contextual theology should be open to critique from groups and theologies outside of its context. It should also have the value and robustness to challenge and inspire those both inside and outside of its context. To fail to do those things suggests that it lacks that unity with the universal body of Christ.  <Note:  The universal church does not simply exist in place, it also exists in time. So the challenge of church includes the church throughout history. For example, restorationist theologies that presume that historic church was totally apostate for centuries or millenia, must be suspect.>

Test #4. Test of the Local Community.  A contextualized theology is for a certain context or faith community. Therefore, it should, ideally, come from the community (rather than an outsider or from one specific person). It should be intelligible to people in the community in simple language, and should, over time, be valued and accepted by the community.

Test #5.  Creation.  A contextualized theology should honor creation, as the good design and handiwork of God. A theology that lessens or devalues God’s creation is suspect. This also includes mankind. A theology that treats humans, or any subset of humans, as less than God’s creation, Imago Dei, or less worthy of honor than other humans, is less than orthodox.

These tests will not eradicate all disagreements, but they, hopefully, will provide a starting point for a potential future consensus.

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