Contextualized Evangelical Theology?


How does one contextualize theology while still being Evangelical. I struggle with this a bit.

On one side, I believe that good context theology must have two invariants:  (1) It must be true to God’s revelation. (2) It must be relevant to the culture it is meant to be contextualized to.  The failure to meet the 2nd invariant means it is not contextual. The failure to meet the 1st invariant means that it isn’t good. To the extent that Evangelical Theology upholds these two invariants, I believe that Contextualized Evangelical Theology is a worthy goal. bamboo-wedding-chapel

On the other side, I also know that Evangelical Theology itself tends to be strongly contextualized to a British and American cultural sensibility. And frankly, to be true to good contextual theology is likely to strain the definition of Evangelical as it is commonly understood. Is it worthwhile even to add the term Evangelical into the term “Contextualized Evangelical Theology?”  I sometimes have the same issue with some other terms as well. I sometimes teach in a Pentecostal school, even though I am not Pentecostal. I often feel that their desire to hold onto the term “Pentecostal” as they seek to contextualize their faith– even more so as much of their theology here in Southeast Asia has less and less to do with the theology described as the foundation of traditional Pentecostalism. Often the term seems to provide little more than a nostalgic link rather a doctrinal one.

Returning to the term Evangelical, I see value in the term, but acknowledge reticence  in using the term when speaking of contextualized theology since it can suggest a rejection of contextualization. On the other hand, I have met people who appear to believe that the attempt to contextualize automatically involves a rejection of the normalizing beliefs of Evangelicalism. I just don’t see that. Regardless, Dr. Rodrigo Tano, presently the president of Alliance Graduate Graduate School listed several parameters in “Toward an Evangelical Asian Theology.”

  1. Must uphold the supremacy of the biblical revelation as normative for faith and conduct. This would reject seeing the holy books of other faiths as being additional canonical revelations of God. It would also, presumably, reject seeing other possible forms of divine revelation (prophecy, activities of the church, reason, creation, and history) as anything but having a clearly subordinate role to the Bible.
  2. Maintains the balance in understanding of God, in terms of His personality, transcendence, and immanence. So attempts to link God as described in the Bible with other faith’s understanding of God must not violate His character as shown in the Bible and in Bible history. So linking God of the Bible with God of the Quran is highly problematic. Additionally, the missionary goal of linking an animistic group’s view of the “god of the heavens” with the God of the Bible may be a useful starting point for dialogue, but again can be open to problems down the line unless there is clarification.
  3. Must maintain Jesus Christ as the unique and final source of restoration for mankind. Salvation history climaxes with Jesus death and resurrection, and is complete with His return.
  4. Must affirm mankind’s lostness and need of God’s grace through faith.
  5. Includes as an essential element  the call to belong to the Christian church.
  6. Our message must fill the local and national religious concepts with biblical substance. Traditional cultural concepts should not be employed in theological formulation without critical evaluation and reinterpretation.

Some good things:

  • Item #6 clearly identifies the need to repackage the message in terms of local concepts… while still clearly maintaining “biblical substance.” Without this in its two aspects, the theology would not be contextual, or biblical. In fact, #6 is the only item that has anything to do with contextualizing or localizing theology.
  • I feel that #1, #2, and #3 really are necessary to be Evangelical… and I would say these would be necessary for good theology… regardless of whether one chooses to throw in the word ‘Evangelical’ or not.

Some perhaps a bit questionable things:

  • I think #4 is true but only when one really embraces the term “affirm.” Affirm means to accept as true, but the term does not imply centrality. Evangelical soteriology has tended to focus on Jesus as Savior over Jesus as Lord. However, one can suggest a culture where sin is not a central concern where the key is Jesus as Lord. Focusing of Jesus as Lord and guide does imply affirming lostness, but it may not be central as a concept.
  • I am not sure that #5 is a necessary characteristic of good contextualized theology. The mystical unity of all believers through Christ (the Universal Church) and its implications on self-identity are certainly critical. To that extent I agree… however, the term “church” is often defined in Evangelical circles in ways that, while not necessarily wrong, don’t seem to be supracultural. It seems to me that #5 here should be removed or much more carefully worded.

Actually, these concerns are rather mild… a modest critique.

However, I do wonder about the overall tone of the list. I recall a Filipino theologian here stating that Tano is not so much a Contextual or Local Theologian as a translator of Evangelical Theology to other cultures. Certainly this list points to that idea. Items 1-5 emphasize maintaining Evangelical distinctives. Item 6 is to contextualize. But in Item 6 there seems to be more caution associated with contextualiztion than affirmation of its importance.

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