Six Robust Foundations for Contextualized Christian Theology?


One of the big trends in recent years in Christian missions has been to think about contextualization for cultures that place a higher value shame than on guilt. As work in contextualization for honor/shame cultures, three things happened. First, there was a growth in the realization that the Bible not only focuses considerably on honor and shame. In fact, it could be argued that there is more in the Bible on honor and shame than there is on guilt and innocence. Second, there was an increase in realization that the Bible was written within an honor/shame culture by honor/shame prophets and apostles to honor/shame people. Third, there was a growing understanding that much of the theology developed, especially Roman Catholic and Protestant was focused on guilt and innocence, but Biblical theology could quite easily be built off of a focus on, for example, spiritual adoption (a major metaphor associated with honor/shame) rather than justification (the most commonly used metaphor associated with guilt/innocence). I might even go so far as to suggest that honor and shame may be at least as good of a foundation for Christian theology as guilt and innocence.

But that brings up a question of what other frameworks could be used to develop a robust Christian Theology. I think there are at least three criteria to consider. First, it should tie to a major cultural pattern. Second, it should be linked to at least one major theme in the Bible. Third, it should express a common human longing/need that is answered in God’s grace. I would like to suggest a few.

A. I would like to start from the Three Cultural Types from www.honorshame.com. I am not sure who actually developed this. Perhaps Jayson Georges or Jackson Wu… or someone else. The three cultural types are:

-Guilt/Innocence

-Shame/Honor

-Fear/Power

Jayson Georges has noted that Fear/Power has been developed theologically, at least somewhat in the Pentecostal and the Charismatic faith traditions. I would argue that Liberation Theology is probably a better expression of Fear/Power since most Pentecostal and Charismatic theology is still built on a foundation of Guilt/Innocence. It does seem like a very robust theology can be guilt off of Fear and Power.

So we are at three robust theological foundations. Let’s add to that.

B. If we look at the Four Frames of the Gospel, described by Tom Steffen in his book, Worldview Bible Storying (in Appendices E and F), the ones listed are:

-Guilt/Innocence

-Shame/Honor

-Fear/Power

-Pollution/Purity

The first three are already dealt with, but the fourth has not been looked at. I must admit that my first reaction is to rebel against this one. I am not excited by the thought of a theology built off of Pollution/Purity. Still there are major themes in the Bible that inadequately covered by the one’s that have been listed so far. One of these in Uncleanness versus Cleanness. That doesn’t fit at all well with Sin/Innocence. It fits a bit better with Shame/Honor, but still not comfortably. The opposite might be said of Unholy and Holy (Sacred or Set apart). This doesn’t fit well with Shame/Honor, and only somewhat better with Guilt/Innocence. Additionally, from a cultural perspective, it fits a bit better with what David Augsberger calls “Cultural Ethics” which can also be described by the dualistic Unfit/Fit.

So now we are up to four. Are there any others. Well, I think so.

C. Robert and Christopher Strauss in Four Overarching Patterns of Culture describes (unsurprisingly) four patterns found in cultures around the world.

-Justice

-Honor

-Reciprocity

-Harmony

Of those four, Justice already has a theological model— Guilt/Innocence. Honor also has a theological model— Shame/Honor. Regarding Reciprocity, one might suggest that Fear/Power is tied to that since Reciprocity deals with flow of power tied to patronage and indebtedness. However, I think that Reciprocity could also be said to link to any of the other models without requiring own separate model. For example, in Guilt/Innocence, one of the challenging aspects of this model is the issue of the issue of “Free Gift of Salvation.” While that is a common understanding among many Christian groups, especially Evangelical Christians, there has often been the question of how it ultimately ties to the working out of our salvation. The attempts (such as in what is sometimes called “Hypercalvinism”) that seeks to divest salvation from works so much that even Faith or Belief is found unnecessary since it might be considered by some as a work, appear t.o prioritize a form of logic over Scripture. However, in Reciprocity, an answer may be suggested. In this pattern, the patron expresses Benevolence to his people, while the people respond with Fealty (or faithful allegiance). Since this also aligns with a number of the (suzerainty) covenants in the Bible, this may inform a middle ground, where God benevolently gives grace without works, but works are the covenantal response to grace given.

I don’t think Reciprocity is a good foundation for a robust theology (despite being useful in theological work), but I think there is much greater potential in Harmony. One might describe this in terms of Chaos/Harmony, or Disharmony/Harmony. I think I will use Dissonance/Harmony. Many cultures idealize harmony, balance, order as opposed to their opposites. Daoism, particularly, embraces this view but Greeks also valued balance, harmony, the Golden mean, and such.

Additionally, the Bible’s Grand Narrative can be described very much in line with this. The Bible starts with God transforming chaos into order, and order into paradise. In paradise (Eden), God, Man, and Creation exist in perfect harmony. But Satan disrupts this, leading to Adam and Even disobeying God, and breaking up the natural order. Now there is lack of harmony. Order goes to disorder, and peace has been replaced by conflict. However, Jesus came to restore order. The Kingdom of God points to the new harmony that will be— Paradise Restored— God, Man, and Creation in Perfect (restored) Harmony. At first, one may wonder whether Dissonance/Harmony could be used since it seems rather high-end and abstract. Christianity is high-end and societal, but it is also personal. I believe that the Dissonance/Harmony theological model would demonstrate itself on a more personal level in terms of conflict. We are in enmity or conflict with God, but Jesus is the one gave Himself over to the enemy so as to make peace and restore harmony. (Note: this view is much in line with Don Richardson’s expression of salvation in Peace Child.)

D. So now we have five possibilities for foundations for robust Theology. Are there any others? Well, one can go in a different direction and look at W. Paul Jones’ book Theological Worlds. In it, he speaks of five different “alternative rhythms of Christian belief.” The five are:

-Separation and Reunion

-Conflict and Vindication

-Emptiness and Fulfillment

-Condemnation and Forgiveness

-Suffering and Endurance

Several of these, however, do fit comfortably within the foundations already mentioned. Condemnation and Forgiveness clearly is tied to Guilt/Innocence. Conflict and Vindication probably fits under Dissonance/Harmony (although Fear/Power might also work). Separation and Reunion lines up, I think, with Shame/Honor. Suffering and Endurance probably fits best with Fear/Power, especially the Liberation Theology side of it. But that leaves one more— Emptiness/Fulfillment.

I feel that this one fits very well with the Bible. It can be seen in more than one way. It can be seen in terms of the Eastern Orthodox understanding of “Theosis.” It can be seen in terms of “Becoming Who We Are”— children of the King. It can also be understood in terms of meaning and purpose. As such, it brings back the metaphor of Jesus as the gate and the way.

There may be others, but let’s look at these six.

-Guilt/Innocence

-Shame/Honor

-Fear/Power

-Pollution/Purity

-Dissonance/Harmony

-Emptiness/Fulfillment

Each expresses a major problem in mankind, and how the Gospel of God, made effective through Christ answers it.

I have to think about this more, but as I try to draw it up, it seems right to me to think of these six fitting into two categories.

It seems like three of these relate to issues that are more static or unmoving. These are Guilt/Innocence where one exists in a state of disobedience, Pollution/Purity, where the state is impurity, and Shame/Honor where one is in a state of being shameful.

On the other hand, three feel to me more dynamic, or at least more chaotic. These are Fear/Power where one is in the emotionally chaotic state of fear, Dissonance/Harmony where one is in the relationally chaotic state of conflict, and Emptiness/Fulfillment where one is in the volitionally chaotic state of purposelessness.

Anyway, these are very preliminary thoughts. In the next few weeks hopefully I can thicken these thought threads. Once I do, I will probably add a new chapter to my book on Missions Theology.

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