Third and final part of the chapter that I have written on this topic for my (work-in-progress) book on Missions Theology.
Contextual Theology as “Good Scandal”
“Good Scandal” is not another test or sub-test, but a different way of looking at the third test— the test of culture. A good contextual theology should connect to the culture… but it should also challenge it, having a prophetic role in it.5
David Tracy notes that religion is supposed to be rebellious, in conflict with the culture it is in. The reason is that religion (personifying it for a moment) is supposed to see the culture around it with clear eyes. It is then supposed to say to that culture that there is an Ultimate Reality that is above and beyond what one experiences within the culture. A religion claims access, on some level, to that Ultimate Reality, and points out its clear superiority to the flawed and failed reality around. When a religion stops seeking to challenge that culture and instead simply encourages and maintains that culture (indeed becoming an “opiate of the masses” and a maintainer of the existing power structure) it has failed in a profound way.
Darrell Whiteman has noted that contextualization seeks to offend for the right reasons, and not for the wrong reasons.7
This ties to the concept in the New Testament of “Offense” or the Greek term “Skandalon. Paul uses the term both positively and negatively. One should not create an unnecessary offense. However, the Gospel will always, in every culture, be offensive on some important level.
Recall Paul in Athens. Paul used Athenian legends to express the concept of God (much like John used “Logos”) rather than drawing from Jewish writings and imagery. However, after expressing the nature of God in a way that fits in many ways with the sub-culture of the Areopagus, Paul then begins talking of Jesus in terms of bodily resurrection… a scandalous concept to Greek philosophers steeped in Platonist thought.
Jesus fit into the culture of Judea so well that Judas had to single Him out with a kiss so that the local authorities could arrest Him. He also told stories and provided ethical guidance very much in line with Jewish culture and thought. Yet, in key ways, such as describing God as Father, and Himself as the “Son of Man” were scandalous… to say nothing of a Messiah who was more a Suffering Servant than a Conquering Hero, and describing the Kingdom of God having a universal quality that may well include the enemies of the Jewish people.
Harvie Conn quotes Harvey Smit “Dr. Harvey Smit outlines two features of this approach to the idea of offense that have relevance for our questions. He calls them ‘two lines which are in tension”: (1) All unnecessary offense must be avoided as something that endangers another’s faith; (2) there is an essential offense that must never be avoided, for it is only by overcoming this skandalon that a person comes to faith.”8
Offending for the right reasons is good. Ultimately, the chief offense is Christ. When I was in Taiwan, I was visiting a church in which a visiting minister was speaking. He teaches in Taiwan and in Indonesia. He notes that when his comparative religions class gets to Christian doctrine… especially about the death, resurrection, and atonement of Christ… the most common response from Muslim and Buddhist students comes down to something like “This is the craziest thing I have ever heard.” Now, if one wanted to, these challenging concepts could be contextualized to make them more palatable to Muslim and Buddhist thought. Islam does have a role for sacrifice, and Buddhism may see a sort of redemption passing through a path of suffering. However, the offense on some level should always be there. When Christ ceases to offend on some profound level… we are following the wrong Christ. …For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. -I Corinthians 1:21-23 ….but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone, just as it is written,
“BEHOLD, I LAY IN ZION A STONE OF STUMBLING AND A ROCK OF OFFENSE,
AND HE WHO BELIEVES IN HIM WILL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED.” -Romans 9:31-33
Does this mean that we set up a little check list and if one of these areas doesn’t appear to pass, then we know the theology is false? The Christian life is never that simple. However, the further a theology drifts away from passing these tests, the more concern we should have.
For those reading this who come from the Protestant tradition, it is worth noting that much of the Protestant Reformation came from an attempt to apply Contextual Theology. While some arguments were more about Biblical interpretation, much of it had to do with contextualization or localization of theology. These include:
- What languages can the Bible be translated into?
- What languages can be used in preaching and liturgy?
- Who (and where) must hold ecclesiastical power?
- What role should icons have in worship?
I think most Protestants would think that the contextual theology that developed in the Protestant Reformation was healthy. For Roman Catholics, Vatican II may provide an equivalent circumstance, regional expressions of that denomination were granted the privilege to localize in a number of ways.
Chapter Thirteen Endnotes
1 For example, you can read this in the first line Stephen Bevans’ article, “Contextual Theology.” https://na.eventscloud.com/file_uploads/ff735620 c88c86884c33857af8c51fde_GS2.pdf.
2 Merold Westphal, “Overcoming Onto-Theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith,Perspectives” in Continental Philosophy No. 21 (New York: Fordham University Press, 2002), 189. Listen to his interview on that podcast. https://homebrewchristianity.com/2015/07/30/merold-westphal-on endofreligion/.
3 Stephen B. Bevans, Essays in Contextual Theology (Boston, MA: Brill, 2018), ch 3.
4 Gordon Kaufmann, God the Problem (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972), 82-.
5 Robert H. Munson, Theo-storying: Reflection on God, Narrative and Culture (Baguio City, Philippines, MM-Musings, 2016), Ch. 9.
6 David Tracy, Plurality and Ambiguity.: Hermeneutics, Religion and Hope (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1987).
7 Darrell Whiteman, “Contextualization: The Theory, the Gap, the Challenge” International Bulletin of Mission Research, January 1997, 2-7, 3-4.
8 Harvie M. Conn, Eternal World and Changing Worlds, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 1992), 237.