Evaluating Contextual Theologies. Part 2


This is part of a chapter of a book I am writing on Contextual Theology. Still a work in progress. I will finish one day.

Fair of Foul

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 a baseball analogy from Stephen Bevans, who in turn draws it from Justo Gonzales. Of course other sports analogies could be used. In bounds versus out of bounds in basketball of soccer could be used, for example. 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 is 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 done considerable work in this area. A lot of that work is summarized in his essay, “Fair or Foul?: Contextual Theology and Criteria for Orthodoxy.”3 The model shown in Figure 18 takes from Bevans and a couple of others.

TEST 1. A contextual theology must pass the “Test of God” In other words, it must be sound with regards to who God is, what He has revealed, and what He does. That leads to three sub-tests. They are:

  • The Word of God
  • The Character of God
  • The Works of God

The Word of God. Here, the “Word of God” is referring to The Holy Bible, not to Jesus Christ. For many, this seems the most obvious test. Is the contextual theology coherent to, or harmonious with what God has revealed in Holy Scripture. For many, this just seems obvious. Theology should come from Biblical Theology, and Biblical Theology should come from the Bible.

Figure 18. Tests of Contextual Theologies

The problem is that most all Christian-based theologies do come from Scripture to some extent. Sure, there are some theologies that definitely seem to be more eisegetic than exegetic, but even many theologies that are seen to have stood the tests (such as Calvinist and Arminian theologies) appear to spend as much time trying explain away problems they have with Scripture as they do trying to explain how they were deeloped from Scripture. However, many dubious theologies come from very selectively drawing from Scripture. Because of this the test is whether a theology is coherent with or harmonious with Scripture, rather than whether one can “proof-text” it.

The basis for this test is the understanding that the Bible has unity and canonicity. Unity means that the whole Bible is reliable and relevant for the church. Canonicity means that it has authority to guide and judge.

The next sub-test is the Character of God. While most of what we know about God comes from special revelation, it still can serve as a separate test. God is revealed in the Bible, seen in Jesus, and glorified in His creation. Through these means we find God to be transcendent, immanent, personal, holy, mighty, judging, loving, and worthy of worship. Some of these characteristics appear to exist in tension, and sometimes it is tempting for a theology to describe a god who doesn’t have some of these tensions. The removal of these tensions should lead to questions about the veracity of that theology. It may be easier to imagine a transcendent and impersonal god, or a judging and unloving god, or perhaps a personal and immanent god who is worthy of something less than worship. Theology that makes it easier to know God by creating a caricature of God, must be suspect.

This is a valid test since theology, ultimately, has God as the main object of study. While Christian theology covers such a wide swath of knowledge that it is easy to forget, it has God at its core. Jesus said that we are to worship God in spirit and in truth. While good people may disagree exactly what is meant by this, I believe there is agreement that worship of God is important for a Christian, and that worship must be tied on some level at least to worshiping God as God is. It may be true (as Gordon Kauffman correctly noted) that we worship the God we “create” in our minds, rather than the God who is.4 We may not be able to avoid this. We are limited beings and cannot fully know God. But when our theology steers us in the wrong direction, we must question that theology.

Another sub-test is in the Works of God. God is Creator. As such everything we see came from God and everything we cannot see, but still is, also came from God. The creation around us points to the Power and Creativity of God. I also think it points to God’s love of variety and magnanimity. Additionally God designed the Universe and declared it to be good. We live in a transitional state of disharmony between the initial and final ideal states of perfect harmony between God, Man, and Creation.

As such, Creation is a good thing. The material world is NOT evil or insignificant. The Creation did not have an evil demigod who created a world. God loves mankind but is far from disinterested in the works of His hands. A theology that undermines the Created world or its Creator is suspect. A theology that encourages humans to disrespect, dishonor, or abuse creation has embraced something that must be doubted.

Further, God created Man, male and female, in God’s image. While people have different theories (both credible and incredible) as to what this specifically means, it certainly points to humans as a unique creation with a unique role. It also makes clear that this special status is something that both men and women share. The Bible as shows all humans of all tribes and tongues share these qualities. As such, a theology that places humans too low or too high, or set up a hierarchy of value or based on sex or race are likely heterodox.

TEST 2. A good contextual theology should pass the “Test of the Church.” Theology is a human construct. It, hopefully, reveals God. How can the unity (or universality) of the church speak to localized groups as to their theologies? But if there is a spiritual union of all believers, that union does have relevance in terms of theology. A local theology should be open to both criticism FROM constructive dialogue with the broader church, and embrace the role of dialogue and challenge TO the broader church.

A dubious theology may have its adherents say, “We won’t accept criticism from you outsiders because you cannot understand our situation.” While there may be some level of truth to this, the unity of the church (one faith, one baptism, one spirit, one Lord) means that there is enough commonality for real challenge, in both directions, and dialogue.

This is where Church Tradition has its part as well. Some denominations are seen as giving too much authority to church tradition. They essentially make the decisions of the church in history canon. This can be quite problematic. But the other extreme can be problematic as well. Many groups overreact and ignore church history and church tradition. A middle ground seems wise. A new theology perhaps can diverge greatly from the past and still be good, but it should be open to criticism. The historical church is part of the universal church as much as any church on earth today— we are part of that same church. If a contextual theology diverges too far from the historical church, one must address the question of why that is.

A second sub-test is the Local Church. A contextual theology is, on some level, meant to be local so to fail the local church would be a deep problem. A good contextual theology should be understandable by the locals it is for. If it is too abstract or unrelated to the people, then how could it be thought of as being contextualized to the people? Ideally, it should develop from the people rather than from one single person, regardless of whether and insider or an outsider. And of course, a good contextual theology should be accepted, or at least be found acceptable, by a large number of locals within that context. Putting it bluntly, if a theology is unintelligible to, unacceptable by, or not drawn from the community, in what way can that theology be deemed to be contextual or local? In one way or another all of this stems from the Biblical concept of the Priesthood of the Believer. God’s revelation is to all, through all, and for all who are part of His church.

A third sub-test is the Fruit or Works of the Church. A church should exhibit the fruits of Good Deeds. It should express the fruit of the spirit. If a local theology does not lead to such positive fruit, or worse, justifies works or attitudes that are contrary to such spiritual fruit, there must be serious questions posed.

TEST #3: A good contextual theology should pass “The Test of Culture.” Theology is a bridge that connects the revelation of an unchanging God with mankind that is changing continually in terms of culture. Theology cannot ignore culture. Two sub-tests that are relevant here are:

  • Resonance with Culture
  • Tension with Culture

The Sub-test of Resonance with Culture suggests that a good contextual theology puts into words, symbols, and images what truly speak to the often unspoken concerns, hopes, and fears of people in the culture. This quality of Resonance (and the related idea of Relevance) is covered in Chapter 2. Good contextual theology “scratches where it itches.” A theology that is absolutely true (if such a thing is possible) but expresses God’s revelation in a manner that keeps the people in the dark, must be seen as a bad theology.

The final Sub-test is Tension with Culture. I would like to spend a bit more time with this one. It is not because this sub-test is more important, but because it can be misunderstood. Contextualization of Theology is sometimes seen making theology too comfortable with a context, or too uncomfortable.

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