I have been doing a lot of thinking about Contextualized Theology, and reading works by Stephen Bevans, Paul Hiebert, Jose de Mesa et al. But I think I will use the term Local Theology here, since (REALLY) all theology is contextual. There is no such thing as supracultural theology. God works in and through cultures, and God’s message is translatable into different languages and cultures (while still challenging and being challenged by these same languages and cultures).
This is a snapshot of where I am as far as doing local theology.
Source of Local Theology
Local Theology comes both from God and the Local Church or Community of Faith. It is based on God’s message to the people relevant to the people’s unique needs and longings. As such, local theology does not come from Outside, and should not normally come from one single person. Local Theology forms reflectively within the community of faith, rather than driven by the agenda of one. The community of faith should always be taken more seriously than any single “prophet.”
Local Theology is commonly driven by the failure of outside theologies to address deep personal struggles.
I have theorized on “Tago ng Tago” Theology… the theology of Illegal Aliens. I have suggested that theologies today commonly don’t address the primary needs and concerns of illegal aliens. Many, in fact, would say that theology should NOT address their concerns since they are breaking the law. They should obey the law, leave, and then they don’t need a separate theology. However, it is risky to say that God has no message for a people group because they have been disenfranchised by a group in power. It is also risky to say that God has no message for people who are imperfect in some manner of thought or behavior. That includes, after all, all of us. Regardless, the Bible, for example, has many metaphors and stories that speak to people who are strangers in a strange land, in need of a God as their refuge and hiding place.
The unique needs of a community of faith, a local church, drives the need for a local theology. Additionally, if God is at work in all places, at all times, in all cultures, and in all communities of the faithful, it must be understood that God is a primary source of a local theology in addition to providing special revelation. Local theology (contextualized theology) is a bridge that connects God’s message with the context of a people.
The “Steps” or Challenges of Local Theology
Not all local theologies are good theologies. The Philippines has many bad ones… both popular and unpopular. When is a local theology a bridge between a community of faith and God’s message, and when is it a bridge to heterodoxy? There are certain tests or steps or challenges that the theology must pass.
A. Foundational is the Tests of Divinity. If the theology fails to connect us with the God Who Is, then there is a fundamental flaw with it.
God is revealed to us through both Special Revelation (God’s Word, and Jesus Christ) and through General Revelation (primarily His Creation). Is the local theology coherent and harmonious with God’s Word as canon (or standard)? Does it honor God’s Word as His special self-revelation to the church (and the world)? Does it understand God’s creation as good and to be honored as His special design with us as stewards? Does it honor all humans as created beings in God’s image? Does it see God as personal, relational, communicative, and worthy of honor and worship?
B. The next challenge is the Tests of Community. This is seen as the tests of the local church and the universal church.
Ideally, the local theology comes from the local church. Regardless, is it understandable by the local community of faith? Is it accepted by the local community of faith? Does the theology resonate with their own condition? Or, on the other hand, does it “scratch where it does not itch?”
Additionally, is it open for critique from the greater church? The greater church exists in both time and space. Is the local theology open to dialogue with the broader church throughout history? Or does it particularize itself from other churches, ignoring the challenge and unity of others today? Or does it embrace a restorationist viewpoint that ignores the wisdom of the church in history? For the church to have unity (rather than uniformity) in its diversity, then there should be dialogue and openness to critique beyond itself.
C. The Final Challenge is the Tests of Tension. A local theology is not simply to be a set of beliefs that justify the status quo or the local culture. If it is rooted both in God and in Culture, it must exist in creative tension with the local culture. It must provide a prophetic voice for maintaining what is good, and redeeming or transforming what is bad.
Tension should also exist with the Universal Church. While recognizing unity with the church in both time and space, it should also provide a voice of challenge to it. Additonally, it should also be a challenge to God’s message… not challenging the canon itself… but its interpretation.
A local theology that does not challenge the local church, the universal church, and the interpretation of God’s revelation, has nothing to say from God to His church.
Any failure in these challenges should, at least, draw into question the veracity or orthodoxy of the local theology.
Final Thoughts on Local Theology
Some people get bothered by the idea of local theology. Some seek to universalize their own theological position. I have heard Reformed Theologians and Pentecostal Theologians seek to describe a universal (or universalizing or global) theology. This is flawed to the core. Theology is always applied locally (since wherever a community of faith is, that is its local context)… thus the question is really whether the theology of the community is well-suited to be applied locally… or not.
For example, I live in Baguio City, Philippines. It is a city of dreams and of broken relationships. It is a city of dreams since people from the mountains and from the lowlands flock here because there is money and jobs here (it is the center of tourism, medicine, and education in the Northern Philippines). People leave their homes to come here to achieve their dreams, or as a transitional point to be trained to ultimately achieve their dreams in some other place (usually another country).
Baguio City is a city of broken relationships. People leave their families and communities to come here to be educated or to work. Even families that are here in Baguio City are broken up as multiple family members serve as Overseas Foreign Workers (OFWs) to earn money to send home. Additionally, the number of broken families here is very high due to “divorce” (divorce is “illegal” here, except for what is called annulment, but the number of common-law divorces is huge). The number of fully intact nuclear families is low, and intact extended families in Baguio are extremely rare (especially for the Philippines).
So, what is God’s message for a community of broken families in a country that is known for being family-centered? Who is God for someone in Baguio? What does the church need to be in a place such as Baguio?