I find these to be useful categories for a framework. Of course, the test of categories in a framework is its usefulness, not its correctness. So if one person has a 2 category system (hot versus cold climate cultures from Sarah Lanier) and another has 10 (like the “clash of civilizations” model from Samuel Huntington) it is not a matter of who is correct, but rather which model is more useful in which setting. Of course, if a model appears to have neither clear basis in reality, nor usefulness (such as the “color races” of the Urantia Book— red, orange, blue, green, indigo…), then it is understood that such a model is discounted. Lanier’s model often does hold true, and is a useful starting point in initial contact, such as in tourism. Huntington’s model, I am not so sure about… but in theory may have value in political science.
For me, these four categories (justice, honor, reciprocity, harmony) look useful. These, however, also look a lot like another model, one by Jayson Georges et al, and promoted in www.honorshame.com. It has three categories. These are cultures that center on:
I claim no expertise in either model, so I am just doing some speculation here. Obviously, “Justice” in the Strauss Model lines up fairly well with “Guilt/Innocence,” much as “Honor” with “Shame/Honor.” But Fear/Power doesn’t fit at all with the Strauss model. Nothing wrong with that, but is there an underlying reason?
Looking through the materials on the Honor/Shame website, it does seem as if the Fear/Power is tacked on a bit. It feels as if it was added more for theological reasons (Christus Victus, or Power Encounter) than for sound cultural reasons. In fact, their own cultural test shows very few places on earth where Fear/Power dominates, despite the how ubiquitous animism is in much of the world. Additionally, I live in the Philippines where the 3 category model doesn’t work that well. The test on their website shows the Philippines as vacillating depending on region and age between shame/honor and guilt/innocence.
From the Strauss Four Patterns model, things work much better for the Philippines. Even though the Philippines does prefer ascribed status over achieved status (a characteristic of an Honor-focused societies. However, one of the most recognized cultural values in the Philippines is “Utang na Loob.” While it translates literally to something akin to “Debt of the heart,” it is closer to the American idea of “Implied Debt” or “Implied Obligation.” It strongly links to the common relationship of Patron-Benefactor. The patronage system and implied obligation are very much characteristics of the Reciprocity Pattern. A similar thing comes to mind for me in parts of Eastern and Southeastern Asia where Harmony is a core pattern supported by Daoist, Confucian, and Shintoist thought.
So am I saying that I think the Four Pattern model is better than the Three? Probably not. My thought at the moment is to look at the Four Pattern model as being more about cultural types, and the Three Model as more about social or cultural motivators.
Think of personality tests for a moment. Tests commonly come in two flavors— type tests and trait tests. Type tests include AB Test, MBTI, Enneagram, and more. In each of these, the test taker ultimately is put into a category along with a lot of other people. These tests are imprecise for this very reason, but are often more practical and intuitive. Trait tests are like PRF (that looks at 20 different psychogenic needs and figures out percentiles for each in the test-taker) or the Big Five (that looks at spectra for five major qualities). These tests are more precise but not as intuitive. For example, if I tell a MBTI fan that I am an ISTJ, or perhaps I share that I am a Type 5 in Enneagram, the hearer would already know a fair bit about me. On the other hand, if I say that I am 58percentile on Abasement, and 37percentile on Harmavoidance, (and then different percentiles on all of the other traits) it is hard to wrap one’s head around it.
So maybe the three items, guilt, shame, and fear, can be thought of as traits of cultures (social motivators) rather than types of cultures. Trait tests are used in cultures as well, including Lingenfelter and Mayer’s Model of Basic Values, or Erin Myer’s Culture Map.
So maybe we should see Justice, Honor, Reciprocity, and Harmony define useful types of culture, but each one have societal motivators of guilt, honor, and fear to varying degrees.
At least this is where I am at the moment. This may change. I certain welcome others; thoughts.
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.
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.
The test of contextualization.
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.”3The 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.
This is a chapter of a book I am writing on Contextual Theology. Still a work in progress. I will finish one day.
Evaluation of Contextualized Theologies
Stephen Bevans states that all theology is contextual.1 However, as one of my dialogue partners noted, it could be taken to mean that there is nothing that is distinctly Christian in Christian theology. In other words, in an effort to be “contextual” can theology lose something distinctly Christian.
The short answer is YES— that indeed can happen, becoming syncretistic. However, a failure to contextualize theology also can fall into syncretism… an unhealthy (and unexamined) mixing of Christian teachings with the culture in which it already exists.
But how do we evaluate theology… especially theology as examined through the lens of culture. Cultural anthropology questions our ability to judge another culture, and many anthropologists would take it even further and fully relativize all cultural beliefs. Post-modernist thought also doubts our ability to judge, and to know absolute truth. This is not to say that post-modernism necessarily rejects absolute truth. While some may believe that, many more accept the existence of ultimate truth, but doubt its know-ability. As Merold Westphal describes post-modernism, particularly deconstruction, as stemming from the belief that one cannot “peek over God’s shoulder.”2If one accepts this, where truth is not identifiable with any certainty and religions cannot be be judged, does this mean that we can say nothing about attempts to contextualize the Christian faith. Are all attempts equally valid (or equally invalid)?
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 that the other side is creating its own theology to fit honor-shame cultures, rather than grounding it on Scripture. Is that correct? It is certainly a risk. However, as one looks at Scripture, we find that the risk is real on both sides of the issue.
The Bible uses many metaphors to explain the relationship of God to mankind, and His activity to restore us to Him. Some metaphors resonate with guilt-innocence folks, while others 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, while another is the church as “the Bride of Christ.” One could even argue that redemption is closer to patronage in honor-shame cultures. Ultimately, these metaphors are equally valid and Biblical. All of them are supra-cultural 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 those from the penal substituionary atonement crowd (guilt-innocence) express concern about the honor shame folk changing theology to meet a cultural need, they are correct. However, their concern cuts both ways. They have themselves chosen certain metaphors and verses to suppport their theology while ignoring many others. There is nothing inherently wrong with this— unless, of course, one acts like it is the single universal theological understanding directly from God to us. (I remember listening to more than one sermon where the speaker struggles to turn the Parable of the Prodigal Son into Guilt-Innocence story of salvation. Instead of trying to explain how the atonment is in that parable, it is better to simply accept that salvation is modeled a different way in the story.)
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, called “strange attractors.” 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 must 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, it is a parallel localization— the latter better pointing 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-Dimensional 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 practice of 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. It also might link us better to the Old Testament saints who used bread and wine to thank God for His sustaining protection.
This image above is considering where other religions come from. (from Sir Norman Anderson). Some people believe they come from God. If that is true then other religions are a Preparation for the Gospel. Other people believe they come from Satan. If that is true, then other religions are a trap, snare, and distraction. Others believe that other religions are Man’s attempt to understand the great mysteries of life, and are seeking meaning and hope in a confusing world.
Each have implications on other things. If other religions are from God, then that suggests continuity of God’s work (God is working everywhere, not simply through the church). If other religions are from Satan, then it may be more correct to think that God’s work is discontinuous… God ONLY ministers to the world through the church. If other religions are from Man, it is not so certain as to which (as I marked) but it is probable that God’s ministry is discontinuous. I am using continuity and discontinuity the way Andrew Walls does.
If other religions are from God, then our goal is for the gospel to fulfill/complete other religions. If other religions are from Satan, then other religions need to be destroyed and replaced. If other religions are man-made… it is not so clear what should be done, but the key point is that things have to change… transformation is needed.
If other religions are from God, then the contextualization form that is best (from Paul Hiebert’s model) is probably uncritical contextualization— quick to embrace what is good, focusing on common ground and ignoring problematic details. If other religions are from Satan, then non-contextualization makes more sense. Cultural imperialism, throwing out the bad and replacing it with what the missionary believes is good from outside, hopefully will work. If other religions are from Man, then Critical Contextualization makes the most sense. We have to understand others and their beliefs openly and sympathetically, but recognizing the need for God’s message to challenge and change in some areas.
If other religions come from God, then dialogue makes the most sense. We need to talk together and learn from each other. If other religions come from Satan, then didactic speech (teaching/preaching) makes the most sense. If other religions come from Man, perhaps dialectic makes the most sense— recognizing the competing values and beliefs to challenge and be challenged by the other. (Using terms as David Hesselgrave does here… I think.)
But, what if ALL THREE IS TRUE? God is at work everywhere drawing all to Himself, even before the church has arrived (like with Cornelius and Peter in Acts). Satan is the accuser and deceiver roaming over the whole earth, and is perfectly happy to work both inside and outside of religion to do this. And Man is always seeking to know what is true and what is good and what is right, and will develop religion as a vehicle to answer to answer these questions. If all three are true, then our response cannot be as simple as the diagram would have for any individual.
I put purple squares around those responses that I think make sense if other religions come from all three sources. Do you agree?
Darrel Whiteman says that one of three reasons for good contextualization is to “Offend for the Right Reason.” After all, Paul noted that the Gospel message is foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews. Yet at the same time, Paul did try to make the Gospel message palatable or adorned for these groups. Paul expressed the Gospel in terms of Deus or the Unknown God to Greek philosophers. Paul expressed the Gospel in terms of Jesus as the Messiah predicted in Scripture to Jews. So this suggests that there is Offending for good reasons and Offending for the bad reasons. And by inference, one can NOT Offend for good and bad reasons.
Offending for bad reasons can break down communication. It can make the message rejected. It can also cause the Christian faith to be viewed as foreign to the culture rather than a fulfillment of the culture.
Not offending for bad reasons can lead to confusion where the Gospel may be seen as nothing more than “the best of that culture.” Ultimately, it may result in some form of syncretism. That syncretism may be seen in “Situational Reformation” (syncretism due to confusion) or “Syncretistic Incorporation” (syncretism based on the intentional creative act of the receiver).
Not offending for good reasons helps the gospel to localize… feel at home in the new culture. Much of a local culture is good (or at least not bad) so the gospel should not undermine what is worthy of embracing.
Offending for good reasons gives motivation to transformation. If the gospel is totally in line with the culture in every way, causing of no offense, one essentially has a “state religion”– justifying the status quo. But offending for the right reason points to necessary transformation.
I live in Benguet Province of the Philippines. It is the most mountainous province in the Philippines. Although the Philippines as a whole is pretty dependent on rice as its primary food staple, in many of the rural parts of Benguet, yams (kamote, prounced kah-MOH-teh) or potatos serve as the dominant staple. Also Benguet is one of the major coffee growing areas in the Philippines. The sub-tropical mountainous area is great for coffee plants (or kape, pronounced kah-PEH). I live on a seminary that is full of coffee trees.
I have often thought of the Lord’s Supper. The bread, a staple of the Middle East, and the wine, a drink staple of the same region make a lot of sense in many parts of the world… but not so much in Benguet. In Benguet, there is certainly bread. There is also wine (strawberry, bugnay, and rice wines are produced in sizable quantitites). However, neither bread nor wine have the same relationship to diet in Benguet as it does in the Middle East.
So is the use of coffee and kamote a good contexstualization of the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper? Maybe Yes, Maybe No.
Andrew F. Walls, in his book “The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996), speaks of two principles— Indigenizing and Pilgrim Principles. Christianity should be indigenized so that it feels “at home” in the culture it is in. On the other hand, Christianity should also exist, in a sense, as “a stranger in a strange land.” It could be said that there is a contradiction here… but I would prefer to say that there is a tension between the two principles.
But there is another tension as well. Jonathan Ingleby in “The Hermeneutical Principle in Relationship to Contextual Mission Training” (Part of the book “Contextualisation and Mission Training” edited by Ingleby, Tan Kang San, and Tan Loun Ling) speaks of the power dynamics that exists in the church in terms of missional contextualization. He speaks of Traditionalistist and Contextualizers. For my own comfort, I will use the terms “Traditionalists” and “Localizers.” Traditionalists seek to maintain consistency of doctrine. Even while they may seek to translate God’s Word into a new language, they want to maintain tight control over the translation process to establish the limits of what locals will find as the permissible range of localization. Localizers try to break from from these limitations.
I believe that the first tension gives insight into the second tension. Christianity is to be BOTH local and foreign. (The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, Chapter 5 is one of the best expressions of that tension in my mind. Look it up if you haven’t read this 2nd Century Christian work.) Jesus, in terms of language, dress, diet, appearance and more, was so local that local leaders needed help to identify Him in a crowd of 1st century Palestinian Jews. Yet in other ways He was so radically different from others in Judea and Galilee that thousands came to hear him talk and do what no one else could do. The trick is not whether to embrace an Indigenizing Principle or a Pilgrim Principle, but to know which one is correct in the situation. Many Christians fall into the trap of indistinguishability— embracing a culture or subculture that is not in line with the example of Christ. But other Christians (and sometimes the same Christians) can fall in the other trap— being different for the sake of being different. They build cultural walls that separate where separation was not needed. (I must refer back to The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, Chapter 5 again on this one.)
Returning to the Traditionalists and Localizers in the church, this same creative tension applies. The issue is not whether to be a traditionalist or a localizer, but when is it appropriate.
Let me use the Lord’s Supper as an example. A good localizing solution would be to have coffee and yams for the Lord’s Supper. I, personally, don’t believe that it is wrong to do this. It actually holds onto the symbolism of the Lord’s Supper better by sticking withe staples of the local people. A good traditionalist solution is to keep to the (grape) wine or grape juice and bread. Since I hate the taste of wine (“grape juice gone bad”) I would prefer grape juice, but that is another traditionalist/localizer discussion. Keeping the wine and bread connects with Christians around the world and through the centuries.
So which one is best here? I don’t know… but I think perhaps this is a place where siding with the traditionalists is better. The Eucharist is SUPPOSED to be a symbol of unity in the church. Yes, yes, I know it has become popular for it to be a symbol of disunity, with Closed Communion being very common to keep other Christians separated away. But the universality of the sacrament (except with some groups like the Salvation Army, that got rid of the sacrament because of the divisiveness that has arisen over the centuries) is important. This sacrament (or ordinance) should unite Christians. Holding more to a uniting form of the ritual is PROBABLY more important than localizing the staples.
Perhaps a middle ground would be good. Bugnay wine rather than grape wine could be used. Perhaps a more local staple (rice wafers for example) may be better than wheat. For outsiders visiting, it would feel pretty familiar despite to local adaptations.
But then, we can take things in a different direction. Coffee comes from East Africa originally. Potatoes come from South America originally. Yams come (I believe) from West Africa. These food and drink plants came in different ways to Benguet. They established literal roots in the soil, and figurative roots in the culture. I see this process as being rather organic… they filled both an economic and a biological need in the people. Christianity, ideally, comes in a does the same thing. It doesn’t come in to destroy what is good… but to meet the needs that are missing in the culture.
We want a Christianity that fits into the culture in a way that doesn’t feel foreign. No one in Benguet feels that coffee trees, nor kamote or potato plants are foreign. They meet a need and the culture embraced it. The plants changed the culture, but voluntarily by the people as they found value in these plants. In like manner, perhaps the localizer should be the one in power in the dynamic of mission work. It is in the power of a people to control the direction and decisions of what happens in the church and culture that makes true and good localization and indigenization possible
Years ago, I started a book on Missions Theology— 2016, I think. But in 2017, I stopped. Then I worked on a couple of other books on missions, gutting some parts of this book. But then I started to work again on it during this pandemic. I am mostly done. Here is a rough draft of Chapter 11.
Note: I have not added footnotes yet. I don’t want to appear to be violating proper attribution. With that in mind, I would point people to Stephen Bevan’s book “Models of Contextualization,” Paul Hiebert’s article, “Critical Contextualization,” and David Tracy’s book, “Plurality and Ambiguity.” Pretty much everything else is from one of my books or from this website.
Methods of Contextualizing Theology
Paul Hiebert, in his article “Critical Contextualization” <FN> speaks of three forms of contextualization— Non-Contextualization, Uncritical Contextualization, and Critical Contextualization. Critical Contextualization can be viewed as the healthy balance between the other two. Non-Contextualization essentially brings in the missionary’s own theology and beliefs without separating them— implicitly treating them equally as true. This leads to a foreignness to Christianity, and often simply pushes traditional beliefs under the thin veneer of Christian dogma. Uncritical Contextualization assimilates too well with the local beliefs, losing its prophetic characters. This leads to a form of syncretism. I would argue that Non-contextualization also leads to a form of syncretism, but being the uncritical mixing of God’s message with the missionary’s culture rather than the respondents’ culture.
Figure 11. Critical Contextualization
Figure 11 shows these three categories in terms of a pendulum that can swing to one extreme or another. Perhaps a failure in this figure is that it could be interpreted to suggest that the most likely place to end up is in the middle. However, it is probably that the most likely place to end up is at one of the extremes. In both of these extremes, the message may be seen as irrelevant. For Non-contextualization, it is irrelevant because it answers the concerns and ideas of the missionary’s culture, not that of the respondent culture. For Uncritical Contextualization, it may be culturally relevant in the sense that it connects to the beliefs and symbols of the culture, but is irrelevant since it fails to challenge or instruct.
In between is Critical Contextualization which seeks to combine
Taking the concerns of the respondent culture seriously
Looking at the respondent culture sympathetically
Studying the Bible carefully and thoughtfully
This sort of process can be quite helpful in general, but still leaves a lot of uncertainty when it comes to developing a localized theology. One question is, in fact, who does the localization? Is it the missionary? Is it the new believer’s in the respondent culture? In the next chapter, the tests for good contextual theology suggests that the ideal is that new congregations of the respondent culture should develop their own theology, but with critique from the outside. Such an ideal, however, does not always occur. Quite often the most rigorous defenders and transmitter’s of the missionary’s theology are new believers in the respondent culture. And often those who go against the grain and promote their own form of theology in the culture often are not drawing from the culture, but a conflicting external theology. Here in the Philippines, I know many pastor-theologians who have embraced a sort of “Youtube Theology.” By this I mean that they say, in effect, “I saw this thing on the internet, and it changed my life.” Is it good? Maybe. Is it bad? Probably. Is it local? Almost certainly not.
So how do theologies localize? Stephen Bevans has helped greatly in understanding contextualization of theology by describing 6 major categories of philosophies of contexualization.
This book won’t try to describe in detail these categories. Partly, this is because one that I STRONGLY recommend you read Bevan’s book yourself, if you haven’t already.. <FN HERE> One may also find value in reading Moreau’s book that expands on Bevan’s ideas, but from a more Evangelical Christian perspective (Since Bevan’s is Roman Catholic). For me, the greatest value of Moreau’s book is not his model of contextualization, which seems a bit cluttered to me. Rather, the value is his recognition that the six models identified by Bevans should be seen as all having some value within Evangelical Christianity. In other words, instead of asking “Which one is correct” it is better to ask what strengths and weaknesses do each bring to the table for Evangelical Christians.
That’s important, as one of the models, Countercultural Model is sometimes described as “Biblical” or “Prophetic” Contextualization. These labels seek to suggest that it is “more Biblical” or more in line with God than other methods. I like to avoid that. The same thing happens in Pastoral Counseling where a number of different writers describe their own flavor of pastoral or spiritual counseling as “Biblical Counseling.” If a form of counseling or contextualization does not stand up on its own merits, it certainly isn’t improved by calling it Biblical. A better idea is to identify the strengths and weaknesses of different methods and see what can be gained from these methods.
One can picture a triangle with God’s Revelation being at one corner, Human Culture at a second corner, and Self at the third corner, we may see each of these categories as inhabiting a range (locus) on the triangle. This is because none of these categories are static or tightly defined. Each identifies a range of perspectives. However, on Figure 12, instead of trying to identify a range, a number is placed in an area that I feel comes close to where that range would be centered.
Translation Model is seen as the one that seeks to stay closest to God’s revelation. One seeks to translate God’s message as faithfully as possible to a new culture. This seems to make the most sense to Evangelical Christians. It just sounds like what one is supposed to do. It may be seen as the one that is most faithful to God’s revelation. But this may not be true. The book of Acts addressed multiple opportunities for theological contextualization. These include (1) expressing the nature of God and Jesus to philosophers in Athens, (2) the nature of Greeks joining the church, and (3) the question of eating food sacrificed to idols. In none of these cases, does it appear to me that a translation form of contextualization apply. Translation can be done well or poorly, but if done poorly, it is more likely to lead toward slipping to Non-contextualization in Figure 11.
The Anthropological Model approach takes more seriously the culture in which the theology must be utilized. Frankly, this also makes sense. As noted in Chapter 1, Still, looking at the three examples from the book of Acts, it doesn’t seem like this method was used either. Paul did not ignore the controversial topic of resurrection with the philosophers, the Jerusalem council did not overlook the problem of sexual sin so common in Greek culture, and Paul did not overlook the inappropriateness of Christians worshiping idols. Still, theology is a bridge between God’s revelation and Man’s culture, how can one contextualize to a culture unless one focuses on that particular culture? Done poorly, there is a tendency to fall into Uncritical Contextualization as shown in Figure 11.
In some ways, Translation and Anthropological categories can be seen as opposite, but ideally the differences are slight. Suppose one is seeking to contextualize the Gospel to Omani culture, then Translation seeks to make the message of God understandable to produce Christians who are Omanis. The Anthropological Model seeks essentially the same thing, but with greater emphasis on the culture, it could perhaps be thought of as creating Omanis who are Christian. In theory the two goals (Omani Christians and Christian Omanis) are the same but the switching of nouns and adjectives can be seen to suggest a difference in primary identification. For Translation, the people are, perhaps, Christian first and Omani second. For Anthropological, the people are, again perhaps, Omani first and Christian second. Done will, however, the differences should not be major.
So, if the Translation Model comes closest to focus on God’s Revelation, and the Anthropological Model comes closest on the recipient culture, then the Transcendental Model comes closest to the “Individual Reflection” corner.
Figure 12. Contextualization Models for Theology
Transcendental Model is more of a form of personal theological reflection. Chapter 3 speaks of theology as a reflective activity. However, individual or group theological reflection can be given greater or lesser focus from one tradition to another. Some seminaries, for example, encourage theological reflection, while others focus more on theological indoctrination. For Transcendental contextualization, one looks at Scripture or theology or religious practice in terms of how one reacts, emotionally, to it. One reflects on the reaction, whether positive or negative. This sort of reflection is similar to many other forms of individual theological reflection. It is iterative and process driven. The process is supposed to give opportunity to address theological issues through the lens of context. This for theological contextualization is essentially that broader application of David Tracy’s Transcendental Theological Reflection. <FN>
The Individual Reflection corner, seems to be more individualistic. That can be a bad thing. It can also be seen as potentially disconnected from God’s revelation AND respondent culture. Again, however, it depends on how it is put into practice. An advantage of this reflective process is that one does take time to address one’s own prejudices. Ignoring prejudices does not make them go away. It just makes them not dealt with. Further, it seems like it is quite beneficial both for a missionary in a new culture, and a young believer in a new reached culture.
The Praxis Model is also more towards the individual reflection corner. Like the transcendental model, it is iterative and reflective. The cycle is action and reflection. This is especially popularized in Liberation Theologies. In these theologies, the emphasis is on action prior to reflection (ignoring whether this is even possible). Many Liberation Theologies utilize a Marxist framework in terms of the reflection. That, however, is not universal. For an Evangelical, one can use God’s Word as the primary canon, rather than a historical materialism.
The Countercultural Model seems to have more than one flavor. Some see it as the most “conservative” being the closest to being prone to Non-contextualization (referring again to Figure 11). To me when one is going so far in that direction, one is actually moving more towards the Translation Model. Counterculture IS NOT the same as Anti-cultural,
To me, this model focuses more on the idea of “good scandal,” which will be covered in greater detail in the next chapter. Jesus was A contextual theology should feel natural and normal to the culture it serves, and yet should prophetically challenge that same culture in key ways. This seems the best understanding of countercultural. In most cases, what are considered countercultures are sub-cultures of a broader culture that fits into that culture in MOST ways, but diverges in a small number of key ways.
The Synthetic Model can be thought as referring to Intertraditionality. It honors different perspectives and allows them to interact dialogically to come up with a synthesis of perspectives. Truthfully, it is quite possible that it doesn’t really fit into the triangle chart at all. But if it did, it seems like putting it in the center would be accurate, at least to the extent that one takes different sources without focusing on any one over the other. A clear strength of this is that it does promote dialogue between different perspectives and different peoples.
You may have noticed that this book is about Missions Theology, but in this chapter we are talking about the methodology of theology development, outside of Missions Theology. So where does Missions Theology fit in?
Missions Theology is a Practical Theology which means that it is always going to be iterative, relating experience actions and experience to God’s word and one’s own faith tradition. As such it aligns somewhat with the Praxis Model. However, the reflection is likely to be different than that of Liberation Theologies, for example. Very commonly, it seems to me, the reflection stage in the process for many in missions is almost strictly pragmatic. They use what I sometimes jokingly describe as “Engineering Ethics.” (I used to be a Mechanical Engineer, so it makes sense to me.) There is a real topic known as Engineering Ethics, but when I am using the term here, what I mean is, “That which works is good and that which doesn’t work is bad.”
But pure pragmatics doesn’t make good Missions Theology. If Missions is, first of all, the activity of God to which we are invited to join, then our theology and actions must be aligned to both the will and activity of God. There is a fairly popular form of churchplanting that actively discourages ministering to the physicaly, psychoemotional, economic, and social needs of people. (I might even argue that it discourages ministering to the spiritual needs as well.) The reason is that it slows down evangelism and church multiplication. In my mind, this is an excellent example of justifying a theology because “it works” even if it is in conflict to God’s work and will. Part of the reflection must be based on God’s revelation.
But Missions Theology must also explicitly deal with culture. I don’t believe one can honestly have a sound Missions Theology that does not address culture seriously. With that in mind, one must also reflect on the activity through the framework of culture. Perhaps a way to look at it is in terms of the Action-Reflection cycle in chapter 3, but with three points rather than two.
Figure 13. Missions Theology Process
Early on in this book, it was stated that all theology is contextual and contexts are dynamic. As such, theology can and should change. While change is necessary, not all change is good. Wise people do disagree as to the process by which theology should change. That being said, in general, one can say that good theology must be true to God’s Word, take seriously the context, and involve a process of intentional iterative reflection.
Praeparatio Evangelica, or preparation for the Gospel, is a term used referring to the belief that God has sown seeds of the gospel message in other cultures that will only fully bear fruit with the arrival of the message of Bible. Don Richardson believes that redemptive analogies, stories or images within a culture that express in some way the Christian gospel message, is a form of this preparation of the Gospel. With this thought, redemptive analogies are discovered rather than created.
This point can be questioned. The Bible uses Roman adoption as a redemptive analogy. Does this mean that God created the adoption process within that culture so as to provide a way of expressing an honor-shame redemptive analogy to contrast the guilt-innocence redemptive analogy associated with the Roman justice system (which then was also created by God)? Still there are missionary stories of redemptive analogies within a culture that seem too good to be accidents. More broadly, can truths in other religions be said to have been created by God to prepare for the full gospel, or should they be seen as man-made expressions of human longings that can be used as bridges for the gospel.
Rowan Williams speaks of the Magi in terms of the how other faiths can serve as a preparation for the gospel. He notes how the Magi, perhaps Zoroastian and most likely drawing from the long-standing tradition of astrology from Babylon and Persia, were led by a star. Williams notes that the star led them to close to the new King, but ultimately to the wrong house. The limited understanding that their belief system contained brought them to the court of Herod the Great, not to a house in Bethlehem. It actually took Holy Scripture to bring them the rest of the way. This could point both to the possibility and limitation of this preparation. Ultimately, the Magi found the Christ, while those who had the Hebrew Scriptures in the palace in Jerusalem did not bother to travel approximately 10 kilometers to see for themselves. <Refer to N.T. Wright’s podcast, “#49 Other Faiths, Judaism and Gnosticism,” Ask N.T. Wright Anything. December 18, 2020.>
I have written on Christmas here previously. One of my favorite posts is “Christmas. It’s Okay… Really.” I wrote it back in 2012. I wrote it because every year (E….V….E…R…Y…. Year) people complain about Christmas for one thing or another. And so I made the following points:
It is Okay to Christianize a Pagan Holiday <An Issue of Contextualization>
It is Okay to Celebrate a Civil Holiday <An Issue of Separation>
It is Okay to Celebrate Christmas in December <An Issue of Historicity>
It is Okay to Celebrate <An Issue of Asceticism>
It is Okay NOT to Listen to Me <An Issue of Conformity>
I think the post is still pretty valid. The weakest point is actually probably the first one. It is weak NOT because it is wrong to recontextualize pagan symbols and festivities. It is weak because it is probable that Christmas was NOT actually a literal one-for-one replacement of a pagan holiday. Christmas is not on the day Winter Solstice and even less the days of Saturnalia.
A stronger point is #2. Christmas is TWO celebrations. It is Christian Christmas (CC) AND Secular Christmas (SC). If all aspects that relate to CC are enclosed in a ⭕ and all aspects that relate to SC are enclosed in another ⭕, those circles would not be fully aligned, but neither would they be separate. They would certainly overlap.
It is the overlap that is important. Some Christians embrace a more antagonistic and separatistic stance with the surrounding culture. For them, Christians should remove all aspects of Christmas that may be found in Secular Christmas. However, from a missional perspective, the overlap is good… even important.
If CC and SC were totally aligned, Christian Christmas may be fully relevant to the secular world, but non-impactful. If CC and SC were totally separate, Christian Christmas will not resonate with the secular world, so the potential impact is likely to not be given a foothold. The overlap provides the bridge. Both SC and CC value love, joy, peace, and giving. This is a useful bridge and can challenge the materialism, consumerism, and (frankly) superficial aspects that are also unsettling aspects of Secular Christmas.
To me, the failure to overlap can be seen in Hanukkah. Jewish Hanukkah (JH) is fairly well-defined. Secular Hanukkah (SH) exists in places like the US to a limited extent, but Christian Hanukkah (CH) doesn’t really exist. And this is strange. Christians often acting like celebrating Hanukkah is un-Christian. It celebrates the rededication of the 2nd temple after it was desecrated by the Seleucids a couple of centuries before Christian. It is part of our Christian story as well. Jesus in fact is recorded celebrating Hanukkah (Festival of Dedication) in John 10:22ff.
It seems to me that the lack of existence of CH has limited the impact of Christians in Hanukkah. One may question this in that in the US there has been a drift of Christmas traditions into Hanukkah in Reformed Judaism. This includes gift-giving and Hanukkah bushes. Arguably, however, the interaction is more from the secular side of Christmas than the Christian side.
Of course I am not saying that Hanukkah should become more like Christmas. Rather, I am trying to give an example of where unnecessary separation leads to lack of impact. So, while I think there are risks if Christians getting caught up in the excesses of Secular Christmas, the positive side of the overlap of the two Christmases is potentially a valuable bridge for positive impact.