Contextualized Evangelical Theology?

How does one contextualize theology while still being Evangelical. I struggle with this a bit.

On one side, I believe that good context theology must have two invariants:  (1) It must be true to God’s revelation. (2) It must be relevant to the culture it is meant to be contextualized to.  The failure to meet the 2nd invariant means it is not contextual. The failure to meet the 1st invariant means that it isn’t good. To the extent that Evangelical Theology upholds these two invariants, I believe that Contextualized Evangelical Theology is a worthy goal. bamboo-wedding-chapel

On the other side, I also know that Evangelical Theology itself tends to be strongly contextualized to a British and American cultural sensibility. And frankly, to be true to good contextual theology is likely to strain the definition of Evangelical as it is commonly understood. Is it worthwhile even to add the term Evangelical into the term “Contextualized Evangelical Theology?”  I sometimes have the same issue with some other terms as well. I sometimes teach in a Pentecostal school, even though I am not Pentecostal. I often feel that their desire to hold onto the term “Pentecostal” as they seek to contextualize their faith– even more so as much of their theology here in Southeast Asia has less and less to do with the theology described as the foundation of traditional Pentecostalism. Often the term seems to provide little more than a nostalgic link rather a doctrinal one.

Returning to the term Evangelical, I see value in the term, but acknowledge reticence  in using the term when speaking of contextualized theology since it can suggest a rejection of contextualization. On the other hand, I have met people who appear to believe that the attempt to contextualize automatically involves a rejection of the normalizing beliefs of Evangelicalism. I just don’t see that. Regardless, Dr. Rodrigo Tano, presently the president of Alliance Graduate Graduate School listed several parameters in “Toward an Evangelical Asian Theology.”

  1. Must uphold the supremacy of the biblical revelation as normative for faith and conduct. This would reject seeing the holy books of other faiths as being additional canonical revelations of God. It would also, presumably, reject seeing other possible forms of divine revelation (prophecy, activities of the church, reason, creation, and history) as anything but having a clearly subordinate role to the Bible.
  2. Maintains the balance in understanding of God, in terms of His personality, transcendence, and immanence. So attempts to link God as described in the Bible with other faith’s understanding of God must not violate His character as shown in the Bible and in Bible history. So linking God of the Bible with God of the Quran is highly problematic. Additionally, the missionary goal of linking an animistic group’s view of the “god of the heavens” with the God of the Bible may be a useful starting point for dialogue, but again can be open to problems down the line unless there is clarification.
  3. Must maintain Jesus Christ as the unique and final source of restoration for mankind. Salvation history climaxes with Jesus death and resurrection, and is complete with His return.
  4. Must affirm mankind’s lostness and need of God’s grace through faith.
  5. Includes as an essential element  the call to belong to the Christian church.
  6. Our message must fill the local and national religious concepts with biblical substance. Traditional cultural concepts should not be employed in theological formulation without critical evaluation and reinterpretation.

Some good things:

  • Item #6 clearly identifies the need to repackage the message in terms of local concepts… while still clearly maintaining “biblical substance.” Without this in its two aspects, the theology would not be contextual, or biblical. In fact, #6 is the only item that has anything to do with contextualizing or localizing theology.
  • I feel that #1, #2, and #3 really are necessary to be Evangelical… and I would say these would be necessary for good theology… regardless of whether one chooses to throw in the word ‘Evangelical’ or not.

Some perhaps a bit questionable things:

  • I think #4 is true but only when one really embraces the term “affirm.” Affirm means to accept as true, but the term does not imply centrality. Evangelical soteriology has tended to focus on Jesus as Savior over Jesus as Lord. However, one can suggest a culture where sin is not a central concern where the key is Jesus as Lord. Focusing of Jesus as Lord and guide does imply affirming lostness, but it may not be central as a concept.
  • I am not sure that #5 is a necessary characteristic of good contextualized theology. The mystical unity of all believers through Christ (the Universal Church) and its implications on self-identity are certainly critical. To that extent I agree… however, the term “church” is often defined in Evangelical circles in ways that, while not necessarily wrong, don’t seem to be supracultural. It seems to me that #5 here should be removed or much more carefully worded.

Actually, these concerns are rather mild… a modest critique.

However, I do wonder about the overall tone of the list. I recall a Filipino theologian here stating that Tano is not so much a Contextual or Local Theologian as a translator of Evangelical Theology to other cultures. Certainly this list points to that idea. Items 1-5 emphasize maintaining Evangelical distinctives. Item 6 is to contextualize. But in Item 6 there seems to be more caution associated with contextualiztion than affirmation of its importance.

Is “Orthodox Missions’ ” an Oxymoron?

A nice article from an Orthodoxthe-what-where-when-and-why-of-orthodox-missions-3 missionary in the link below. The Orthodox church along with other groups associated with the “Eastern Faiths” were by far the most missional in the first millenium (combining in this sense the Greek Orthodox, “Nestorian,” and Coptic churches). In the 2nd millenium, the missions of the Russian orthodox involved an impressive expansion of the faith across Northern and Central Asia and into North America while Protestant churches were still experimenting with the idea of cross-cultural missions.

They were the first groups to respectfully and positively interact with the Islamic faith… and the first (particularly with the Russian orthodox again) to effectively evangelize Muslim groups. They also took seriously issues of translation of Scripture and liturgy, and indiginization of the local church long before these were in vogue in the West.

Curiously, books on Missions commonly ignore Orthodox missions. For Protestants, denominationalism is not really an adequate explanation since many of those same books take seriously Roman Catholic missions.

Anyway, this article helps to explain the omission, at least in terms of fairly recent history.

Is “Orthodox Missions” an Oxymoron? – http://wp.me/p8e2Jb-2kM

Cultural Perspective and the Prodigal Son

Osobo O. Otaigbe, in his book “Building51jtl2ynvgl-_sx331_bo1204203200_ Cultural Intelligence in Church and Ministry,” tells a story from Mark Powell regarding different cultural responses to the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Numerous Christians from three nations (United States, Russia, and Tanzania) were told the story, and asked about the story. The question was why did the prodigal son end up in the pig sty?

  • The majority view of Americans was that the prodigal son ended up in the pig sty because he squandered his money.
  • The majority view of Russians interviewed was that it was because of a famine.
  • The majority view of Tanzanians was that it was because no one helped him out.

Who is correct? Well, let’s look at the passage (Luke 15:13-15):

“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs.

So who is correct? They all are. He squandered his money, there was a famine, and no one helped.

One culture focused on the Individual, one on the Community, and one on Fate.

Culture filters what we see and hear, and guides our interpretation and behavior. But in this particular case all three views have a point, but none ultimately matter. The story is ultimately about the Father (God) who welcomes and restores– regardless of whether the problem is due to individual fault, community failure, or kismet.

However, if I could only choose one viewpoint, I might focus on the one of the Tanzanians.

  • Individualism can lead one to see solutions in oneself… and that is the wrong place.
  • Fatalism can lead one to see solutions in luck or perhaps “calling.”… and that ultimately does not bring solutions.
  • Collectivism can lead one to see solutions in relationship to others… and that is a better place to look.

A Christian understanding probably comes closest to seeing things in the third sense– our relationship with God and with others.

Regardless, multiple viewpoints can be beneficial… not forcing new ideas into the text– but helping us find our own blindspots.

Maybe a “Cross-cultural Minister”?

In our Mission Research class it came up a second time. Should there be missionaries serving here in the Philippines? After all, if over 90% of Filipinos self-identify as Christians, are they needed?  If one identifies missionaries in terms of the Biblical role of apostle– evangelist and churchplanter– they are unnecessary in much of the Philippines. An outsider is less effective in evangelizing and churchplanting… so an outsider has little purpose in such work unless it is to throw money at the problem. Sadly, throwing money at problems from outside sources can create dependency— and I certainly have seen that.

So should there be missionaries serving in the Philippines? As one who could be described as a missionary, a foreigner ministering in the Philippines, it is awkward for me. My tentative solution is to separate the term “Missionary” as it is popularly understood, from another role. Perhaps we could call it “Cross-cultural Minister.”

So maybe the criteria for Missionary could be:

  • Serving outside of the local church primarily. (This is in-line with the NT Apostle)
  • Serving in another culture or same culture. (This is also in-line with the NT Apostle. There seems no evidence that apostles only worked cross-culturally)
  • The focus is more directly on Kingdom Expansion (more on evangelizing and churchplanting, though that should not negate social ministry, or translation, for example)
  • Works in support of local churches or where the church does not exist— rather than in competition with local churches, or doing what local churches should be doing themselves.

Even though I like very broad definitions for many things, including the term “missionary,” the above list seems reasonable.

One might then come up with criteria, or at least examples, of what would entail a Cross-cultural Minister, who doesn’t also fit into the criteria for Missionary:

  • Serves in a cross-cultural setting.
  • Humbly works in support of local churches or other ministries in that setting
  • May support missions (such as in logistics, training, member care, and such)
  • May help churches in that new setting work more effective in local cross-cultural ministry.

Why might it be useful to designate a difference between missionary and cross-cultural minister?

  1.  To understand the term missionary from a Biblical sense, it may be more useful to tie the term better to the New Testament term “apostolos.” However, the term missionary today is too broad, so developing a Biblical-Theological understanding of missionary is difficult. Perhaps narrowing it and setting it more in line with apostolos would help.
  2. Nations and peoples transition from being mission-receiving to mission-sending groups. However, there may be reasons for having cross-cultural ministers long after the need for missionaries has gone. This is easier to understand if different terms are used.

Cross-cultural ministers should always exist, I believe. Christians are stronger in their unity, as we recognize our international, intercultural diversity. One way such diversity is celebrated is through individuals working in other cultures. We learn from each other. Also, with refugees, economic diaspora, and more, cross-cultural ministers can be a great asset for a local culture to reach out to another culture in their midst. Diversity of viewpoints from different cultures also can make us wiser and stronger.

(On that last point. I am from the United States, and reading the poorly thought out ethnocentric bigoted statements made by sheltered, but sincere, Christians there, I say we truly need cross-culture ministers from other nations serving in the United States as well.)

I have served in the Philippinescropped-istock_000024760796small for 13 years. The first 6 years I served primarily as an organizer of evangelistic medical missions to under-reached communities. That may well meet the narrower definition of missionary, but I primarily worked with local churches, local medical personnel, and local church planters. My role was more as a catalyst than anything else. In recent years, I primarily teach missions, and teach and do pastoral care, especially for local pastors and missionaries. This would not meet the narrower criteria for missionary, but in a sense I am more necessary now. The island of Luzon, generally does not need missionaries… but they do need a reminder that the Church is international, universal…  not just local– and that we are stronger in our unity, when we embrace our diversity. We all need that.

Of course there is a risk here as well. Many Christians like to say that they support missionaries. I would hate to see many (including myself) cut off financially because they support missionaries, but not cross-cultural ministers. Classification of terms can be useful in certain settings, and destructive in others. 

 

 

 

“Silence” is Indeed Golden

I rarely see a movie that really challenges my thoughts and perceptions. “Silence” directed by Martin Scorsese is just such a beautiful, horrific, and challenging movie. For me, part of its beauty is in its horror. I have not read the book, the 1966 novel by Shusaku Endo.  I rather judge a book than a movie, but done properly, a movie can still evoke much of what a book does. I believe this movie does this.silence_428x321

I am not going to talk about the plot here… you can find that out easily enough. It is about the “Apostate Priests” in 17th century  Japan. But as one who teaches missions and sometimes theology, I see the movie as valuable for students for a number of reasons.

  1.  Missions History. Although fictional, it discusses a historical period where Japan transitioned to a xenophobic view– particularly, although not exclusively, of Christianity. And this period mirrors similar ones that happened in China in at least two waves centuries before, and seems to be happening again in a few places in the world today. The pressure in some societies to conform culturally is hard for some from individualistic societies to grasp.
  2. Ethics.  There is a lot of moral ambiguity in the movie. Is it okay to deny one’s faith publicly while maintaining faith privately? The Donatist controversy had similar concerns. Is it accurate that the Great Commandment, loving God and loving Man can lead to contradictions? The period was especially troubling since while Japan was doing this religious purging with the Grand Inquisitor, Some Christian countries in Europe were doing very much the same thing.
  3. Dialogue. What stance should one take in dialogue with another religion– argument? relativization of beliefs? something else? Could the Jesuit unwillingness to subtly negotiate in Japan create the problem, or not?25200
  4. Contextual Theology.  Much as with the Chinese Rites controversy, what is the balance between holding onto traditional expressions of faith and embracing new expressions? What does one do as far as those who respond in faith and yet due to cultural gap, have misconceptions of faith that make the beliefs of those in the new culture very questionable. If faith in God transitions to faith in the symbols of God, or even faith in the symbolic objects themselves… what does that mean as far as the validity of their response? Does it mean the people are not believers? Or does it represent an understandable transition period from one faith to another?
  5. Perseverance. The story took place in the 1600s, but when Japan was opened up to the Western world in the 1800s, it was found that Catholic Christians had survived. This reminds me of the Thomasite Christians of India, and other groups that had survived despite great pressures to reject their faith. Of course, Christianity survived and even thrived in Egypt while fading away in much of the rest of North Africa. What makes one END while another ENDURE?

Like a good movie, it does not give a lot of answers… but does give a lot of good questions. We need good stories and good questions.

 

Christmas Musings 2016

It is Christmas Season here in the Philippines. Arguably, it has been since September 1st.

Every year I come across some Christians who are worried about whether it is okay to celebrate Christmas because of its “pagan roots.” This year is no exception. Additionally, some JWs came by our house today and they reject Christmas for this very reason (of course, it is their choice, and I certainly don’t ask those of other faiths to celebrate our own religious celebrations). But Christians rejecting Christmas because of its pagan roots makes no sense unless one believes that things that non-Christians do are forever unredeemable by God. Rejecting the obscene consumerism— well, I am a bit more sympathetic to that view. But I think subversion of consumerism in a system is best done from within than without.maligayang_pasko_god_jul_i_tagaloggf_rund_kudde-r3b6741f100284f578da60ed788644954_z6i0e_324

Some reject Christmas because it is… festive, and festive is problematic. It reminds me of a group of, truthfully very nice, people who felt that birthdays were wrong to celebrate because it is wrong to suggest that even one day a year is your own day rather than God’s. That is fine, but that does seem to presume that God rejects celebration, or that a day of personal celebration demeans or offends God. I don’t really see that.

Anyway here are some Christmas musings from the past:

Christmas– It’s Okay, Really! (2012)

Christmas Musings (2010)

St. Joseph at Christmas (2012)

Joining the Festivities (2015)

Additionally, here is my Family’s Christmas Letter/Card:      CLICK HERE