Theology as a Contextual Activity


The following is the very first draft of the very first chapter of the book on Missions and Theology I am working on. It is not meant to be highly in-depth, but more for Bible schools.

Chapter 1

Theology as a Contextual Activity

Contextualization has become a well-respected term in missions, since the term was coined over 40 yeas ago (footnote this). It’s value in theology has slowly grown. When one speaks of “Contextual Theologies” it often refers to theological systems tied to minority populations. For example, Black, Feminist, Womanist, Liberation, Dalit, and Minjung are labels for just a few of many identified “Contextual Theologies.”

While it is certainly true that these are indeed Contextual Theologies, there is often the presumption that they contrast some sort of theology that is “real” or “supra-cultural.” This writer recalls reading an article in which the author stated that another term for “Calvinist Theology” is “Biblical Theology.” Since Calvinist Theology is a type of Systematic Theology (or more narrowly perhaps, Soteriology) it is clearly not “Biblical Theology” as a category. It must be assumed then that the author was suggesting that Calvinist Theology is Real Theology… the Theology that supraculturally makes up the Bible.

This idea falls apart (for Calvinist or any other theology) fairly quickly, since the Bible is a work of Revelation not Theology. Theology bridges the chasm between God’s revelation and man’s culture. Based on this, all theology is contextual (footnote on Stephen Bevans).

Let’s Consider, for example, Millard Erickson’s guidelines for good theology. Refer to Table 1. Several of the guidelines of good theology are dependent on the context. Of course, Erickson is concerned with Systematic Theology, but as we move forward, we will see that all theology categories are, to some extent, contextual.

Characteristic

Permanent/ Unchanging

Changing (Contextual)

Biblical (based on, consistent with)

X

Systematic (coherent, harmonious, drawn from the whole of Scripture)

X

Relates to issues of general culture and other academic fields

X

Contemporary, Contextualized to the time and place to be used.

X

Practical

X

Table 1. Characteristics of Good Theology

cultural-bridge

Figure 1. The Contextual Bridge

One way to look at this is that theology provides the bridge between God’s revelation and the cultural context of the respondent. See Figure 1. For the most part, God’s unchanging revelation is, well, unchanging– but not completely. God’s special revelation, the Holy Bible, and the life of Christ is unchanging, except to the extent that Biblical studies and archaeology gives new understanding of these. God’s general revelation (creation and history) are more dynamic, but have less impact in theology except in Philosophical and Historical theology.

Man’s culture is much more dynamic and more varied. This dynamism is most relevant for Practical theology since it most clearly connects Theology to ministerial practice. Such practice is irrelevant unless it is understood and valued by the recipients in each culture. The process is often seen as somewhat iterative. A cycle of action and reflection. There is similar here to a Praxis Contextualization as described by Stephen Bevans (footnote this). Refer to Figure 2. There are, however, differences. Praxis Contextualization is, in theory at least, driven initially by action, not reflection. Secondly, the reflection in Praxis Contextualization may not be intentionally grounded on Scripture– often, in fact, guided by Marxist class politics (in Liberation Theologies).

But what about the others? Good systematic theology is clearly contextual as shown by Millard Erickson. One can refer back to Table 1 to see the contextual aspects of Systematic Theology.

cycle-of-reflection

Figure 2. The Cycle of Practical Theology

Less obvious would be that Historical, Philosophical, and Biblical theologies are dependent on the context of the recipient– yet they are. Consider the Method of Correlation. Tillich meant by this, in part, that theology must answer the existential questions of human existence. One can take this further. It should answer the questions of cultural existence as well. It must answer the Big Questions that we as humans keep asking, but also must answer the questions that concern specific cultures. A failure to do this leaves a theology irrelevant to a culture. Consider, for example, historical theology. Theology over 2000 years of church history, even a narrow aspect of that, is far too broad to be handled in any work. Any historical theological work would involve the synthesis and distillation of many sources. For such a process to have relevance to the reader it must correlate to the concerns of the reader. The same applies to Philosophical and Biblical Theologies as well. In all of these categories of theology, it must scratch where it (contextually) itches. Additionally, while some aspects of reason are supracultural, much of it is culturally embedded… so the logical structure of theologies are also bound by the cultures that they are connected to.

It is inaccurate, then to say that theology can be contextual or non-contextual. Rather, it would be more accurate to say that theology is contextualized well or contextualized poorly, to a specific cultural group. Additionally, a theology may be aware or unaware of its cultural connections. Referring to Figure 1, for a theology to be unaware of its contextual supports is like a bridge that is blissfully unaware of what it connects to. On the other hand, if it is not faithful to God’s revelation, it may appear to be relevant, but is not important.

Discussion Questions

  1. Paul Hiebert describes three forms of contextualization in missions. They are non-contextualization (failure to adjust ministry to the new recipient culture), uncritical contextualization (over-adjustment to the recipient culture, losing critical aspects of the Christian missage) and critical contextualizaiton (dynamic interaction of culture and God’s word. (footnote). Are these categories relevant to contextualization of theological categories? If so, how?

  1. David Bosch has argued that in addition to the classic Three-self model of indiginization of the church, one should add a fourth category– self-theologizing. That is, that an indigenous church should go beyond simply self-governing, self-propogating, and self-sustaining. In fact, it could be argued that the difference between an “Indigenous Church” and a “Contextualized Church” is the issue of self-theologizing. Are there dangers to having local groups developing their own theology?

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