Theology in Terms of Locality and Catholicity


I have had several conversations in recent weeks with different people on this issue. Should theology by honored in terms of being cultural or supracultural. Stephen Bevans likes to say that all theology is contextual. However, as one of my dialogue partners noted, it could be taken to mean that their is norm… or nothing that is distinctly Christian in Christian theology.

On the other hand, those that embrace a more supracultural view of theology, are commonly doing no such thing. Rather they are granting divine favor on theology that has been custom-fitted to their own culture.

We see this controversy recently in terms of honor-shame theology versus guilt-innocence theology. Some from the guilt-innocence side of things (read penal substitutionary atonement if one prefers) feel like the other side is creating its own theology to fit honor-shame cultures. Is that correct? Yes and No. But Yes and No also applies to the guilt-innocence cultures as well.

The Bible uses many metaphors to explain the relationship of God to Mankind, and His activity to restore us to Him. The Bible has so many metaphors— some of them resonate with guilt-innocence folks, while some resonate with with honor-shame cultures. Penal substitutionary atonement as a theological construct draws from the metaphor of justification and the courtroom. To a lesser extent it draws from metaphor behind propitiation— the image of God as having wrath that must be appeased through sacrifice. However, there are metaphors that resonate more with honor-shame cultures. One of these is adoption. One could even argue that redemption is closer to patronage in honor-shame cultures (although redemption could be forced into the the justification model I suppose). Ultimately, these metaphors are equally valid and Biblical. all of them are supracultural in the sense that they are canonical. However, they are also cultural in the sense that they may connect in especially important ways to certain cultures (and less so with other cultures).

So when a group claims that their preferred Biblical metaphors or concepts are supracultural (and thus “good theology”) unlike the Biblical metaphors or concepts that those from another culture prefers, they are simply embracing a different form of localization of theology.

Theology, at its essence, bridges the gap between God’s revelation and Man’s condition. God’s revelation is unchanging, while Man’s condition is both varied and changing. As such, theology should be constantly changing, connected to the changing state of mankind, and connected to the unchanging revelation of God.

I tend to like “strange attractors” from Chaos Theory. In some non-linear systems the condition at any point of time is changing and non-repetitive, but still appears to be controlled by some points that provide limits to the motion. Theology seems to fit this as well since theology is constantly changing and non-repetitive, but I would suggest that it has (at least) two strange attractors.

  • The revealing of God. Theology must3D Lorenz Attractor reveal God, since it is based on God who seeks to reveal Himself to mankind.
  • The relevance to Man. Theology is meant to benefit mankind.

Theology that fails to reveal God, and/or fails to be relevant to mankind, is flawed.

So what does this have to do with the church. The church is where theology is lived out. It is lived out most obviously in terms of practical theology, but ultimately it is bound to all aspects of its theology. As much as some church bodies express the belief that “theology is not important” it truly is. Ignoring it doesn’t make it cease to exist or cease to be relevant… it just is moved into the church’s “blind spot”— affecting the church without the church aware of it.

So let’s move this forward. Suppose a local church has a local theology. To what extent is it bound to be responsible to churches of other cultures? I would say— Quite a Bit. First of all, our theologies are linked by common revelation from God. To replace that is to drift from being Christian. However, additionally, the local church may be tied to its local culture, but it is also tied to the universal church— that mystical bond of all churches often called “the body of Christ.” This catholicity should never replace its locality, nor should its locality replace its catholicity.

Consider a bit of practical theology in terms of sacrament/ordinance. What should the elements of the Eucharist be? Tradition has it to be unleavened bread, and wine. Some groups have change things by using leavened bread or using grape juice (“new wine” if you prefer). Here in the Cordillera Mountains of the Philippines, I have often thought that many of the groups here would do well to use kamote (yams) and coffee instead. The logic of this is that bread and wine were the staples of the Jews in Palestine, while kamote and coffee are the equivalent in the Cordilleras. As such, the latter better point to Christ as one who sustains us. The bread and wine point not only to Christ as sacrifice, but to the passover and God’s sustaining of His people. Kamote and Coffee may express this better for people around where I live.

But there is another take. The Eucharist is among the oldest traditions of the church. It has been practiced for nearly 2000 years and in all parts of the world. This 4-D aspect of the church is not irrelevant. When a local church holds Eucharist (Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion), we are also connecting ourselves to the the practice of the local churches across time and space. Perhaps bread and wine is more appropriate because it reminds us of our mystical union with the Body of Christ.

In one of my conversations, I think we sort of agreed that while one can say that “all theology is contextual,” it may be more useful to say, “All good theology must address context.” To ignore culture simply means that one syncretizes with culture unknowingly.

Addressing context doesn’t always mean localizing. Addressing context can also mean embracing the fact that the local is part of the universal.

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