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.

Theology as a Contextual Activity

The following is the very first draft of the very first chapter of the book on Missions and Theology I am working on. It is not meant to be highly in-depth, but more for Bible schools.

Chapter 1

Theology as a Contextual Activity

Contextualization has become a well-respected term in missions, since the term was coined over 40 yeas ago (footnote this). It’s value in theology has slowly grown. When one speaks of “Contextual Theologies” it often refers to theological systems tied to minority populations. For example, Black, Feminist, Womanist, Liberation, Dalit, and Minjung are labels for just a few of many identified “Contextual Theologies.”

While it is certainly true that these are indeed Contextual Theologies, there is often the presumption that they contrast some sort of theology that is “real” or “supra-cultural.” This writer recalls reading an article in which the author stated that another term for “Calvinist Theology” is “Biblical Theology.” Since Calvinist Theology is a type of Systematic Theology (or more narrowly perhaps, Soteriology) it is clearly not “Biblical Theology” as a category. It must be assumed then that the author was suggesting that Calvinist Theology is Real Theology… the Theology that supraculturally makes up the Bible.

This idea falls apart (for Calvinist or any other theology) fairly quickly, since the Bible is a work of Revelation not Theology. Theology bridges the chasm between God’s revelation and man’s culture. Based on this, all theology is contextual (footnote on Stephen Bevans).

Let’s Consider, for example, Millard Erickson’s guidelines for good theology. Refer to Table 1. Several of the guidelines of good theology are dependent on the context. Of course, Erickson is concerned with Systematic Theology, but as we move forward, we will see that all theology categories are, to some extent, contextual.

Characteristic

Permanent/ Unchanging

Changing (Contextual)

Biblical (based on, consistent with)

X

Systematic (coherent, harmonious, drawn from the whole of Scripture)

X

Relates to issues of general culture and other academic fields

X

Contemporary, Contextualized to the time and place to be used.

X

Practical

X

Table 1. Characteristics of Good Theology

cultural-bridge

Figure 1. The Contextual Bridge

One way to look at this is that theology provides the bridge between God’s revelation and the cultural context of the respondent. See Figure 1. For the most part, God’s unchanging revelation is, well, unchanging– but not completely. God’s special revelation, the Holy Bible, and the life of Christ is unchanging, except to the extent that Biblical studies and archaeology gives new understanding of these. God’s general revelation (creation and history) are more dynamic, but have less impact in theology except in Philosophical and Historical theology.

Man’s culture is much more dynamic and more varied. This dynamism is most relevant for Practical theology since it most clearly connects Theology to ministerial practice. Such practice is irrelevant unless it is understood and valued by the recipients in each culture. The process is often seen as somewhat iterative. A cycle of action and reflection. There is similar here to a Praxis Contextualization as described by Stephen Bevans (footnote this). Refer to Figure 2. There are, however, differences. Praxis Contextualization is, in theory at least, driven initially by action, not reflection. Secondly, the reflection in Praxis Contextualization may not be intentionally grounded on Scripture– often, in fact, guided by Marxist class politics (in Liberation Theologies).

But what about the others? Good systematic theology is clearly contextual as shown by Millard Erickson. One can refer back to Table 1 to see the contextual aspects of Systematic Theology.

cycle-of-reflection

Figure 2. The Cycle of Practical Theology

Less obvious would be that Historical, Philosophical, and Biblical theologies are dependent on the context of the recipient– yet they are. Consider the Method of Correlation. Tillich meant by this, in part, that theology must answer the existential questions of human existence. One can take this further. It should answer the questions of cultural existence as well. It must answer the Big Questions that we as humans keep asking, but also must answer the questions that concern specific cultures. A failure to do this leaves a theology irrelevant to a culture. Consider, for example, historical theology. Theology over 2000 years of church history, even a narrow aspect of that, is far too broad to be handled in any work. Any historical theological work would involve the synthesis and distillation of many sources. For such a process to have relevance to the reader it must correlate to the concerns of the reader. The same applies to Philosophical and Biblical Theologies as well. In all of these categories of theology, it must scratch where it (contextually) itches. Additionally, while some aspects of reason are supracultural, much of it is culturally embedded… so the logical structure of theologies are also bound by the cultures that they are connected to.

It is inaccurate, then to say that theology can be contextual or non-contextual. Rather, it would be more accurate to say that theology is contextualized well or contextualized poorly, to a specific cultural group. Additionally, a theology may be aware or unaware of its cultural connections. Referring to Figure 1, for a theology to be unaware of its contextual supports is like a bridge that is blissfully unaware of what it connects to. On the other hand, if it is not faithful to God’s revelation, it may appear to be relevant, but is not important.

Discussion Questions

  1. Paul Hiebert describes three forms of contextualization in missions. They are non-contextualization (failure to adjust ministry to the new recipient culture), uncritical contextualization (over-adjustment to the recipient culture, losing critical aspects of the Christian missage) and critical contextualizaiton (dynamic interaction of culture and God’s word. (footnote). Are these categories relevant to contextualization of theological categories? If so, how?

  1. David Bosch has argued that in addition to the classic Three-self model of indiginization of the church, one should add a fourth category– self-theologizing. That is, that an indigenous church should go beyond simply self-governing, self-propogating, and self-sustaining. In fact, it could be argued that the difference between an “Indigenous Church” and a “Contextualized Church” is the issue of self-theologizing. Are there dangers to having local groups developing their own theology?

“Theology and Missions” Book

I just started working on my newest book. Not sure what it will be ultimately titled. So far, it is just called “Theology and Missions.” Note… it is not “Theology OF Missions.”

Actually, I am still working on a book with my wife “The Dynamics of Pastoral Care” as a follow-on to “The Art of Pastoral Care.”theology-and-missions But that is going to take awhile. I really wanted to work on a book that looks at several interconnections between Theology and Missions (hence it’s name).

It is expected to cover several major topics:

  1.  Theology of Missions. I won’t focus too much on this. Some others have done a pretty good job in this area. (Of course, in some missions books, the topic has devolved into “cherry-picking” a few verses that seem missional.) But I am looking towards a more “Biblical Theology” (both OT and NT) look in this area, rather than Systematic or Practical.
  2. Reflective Missions Theology. This is Theological Reflection, as it pertains to the practice of missions. So this will look at the incorporation of theological reflection, mission practice, and case conferencing.
  3. Contextualization of Theology. Despite the fact that ALL theology (even Biblical Theology) is contextual, it still seems to be, as a discipline, the expertise of those in Missions. So this will primarily be looking at the work of Bevans and Moreau.
  4. Criteria for Evaluation of Contextual Theology. This is a surprisingly silent area for many. It is hard to see why, since it is so important. I will loosely follow some of Bevans work, with my own ideas. This section and Section 2 will probably be the most innovative of the 5 sections. The others will be more a look at what others have done… and, in fact, have done better.
  5. Inter-religious Dialogue. IRD has been covered a LOT by a LOT of people… but I want to look at it as it pertains to Missions interactions. As such, I will look less to a Relativistic Approach, or an Apologetic Approach, than to a Clarification Approach. Also I will try to look at it theologically as well as pragmatically.

I have MOST of the research done, and a number of sections completed. I guess it will just depend on how long it takes to make a bunch of loose topics all mend together.

Like “Ministry in Diversity” and “The Art of Pastoral Care,” the goal is to have a book that can be useful for Bible School or Seminary students… particularly in Southeast Asia.

Of Abba and Igorot Cowboys

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This last Friday, my wife and I began the 6.5 hour trip from Baguio City (a city built by Americans during their occupation of the Philippines) to Laoag, the “center” of the Ilocano language and culture. On the way, we had a pitstop near Vigan, one of the best preserved Spanish colonial cities.

Along the way, our bus driver was playing song after song of hits by (the Swedish group) Abba, and I was mulling a book that I brought with me on contextualization of theology to the Philippine culture.

One of the writers (it was a compendium of articles) stated that the Philippines is losing its culture. It must reclaim its true culture. But I see two problems with this.

Problem 1.  The amazing diversity of culture. Often common Filipino cultural values are emphasized in school rather than cultural diversity, a bit akin to the “melting pot” model of American culture that was taught when I was in school. Baguio City is very different than… well, pretty much anywhere else in the world, including the Philippines. Much of the characteristics of the Filipino people does not really apply here. And why should it? As a young city (just over 100 years old) it missed the Spanish colonial period. It is a blending of cultures today with a large population of “lowland” Filipinos mixed with the highland tribal peoples. It also has a large minority Muslim population (from the Southern part of Mindanao seeking economic opportunity). It still has a fair number of Americans who have been around since the construction of the city. More recently has been a large influx of Koreans. Along with other smaller populations, these groups have put their own stamp on the culture here. The sub-culture is unique in Baguio, and children often struggle in school as they have courses in Philippine language and culture that don’t really resonate with the culture they know.

Is it wrong to have the normalizing influence of a common education for Philippine culture? Not necessarily, although I would like to see more respect for Filipino diversity. But when it comes to theology, it is possible that a common Philippine theology would fail to connect with Batanes, Bontoc, Baguio, Bulacan, Boracay, and Basilan.

Problem 2.  The second problem to me is more serious. It is the presumption that there is some inherently Philippine culture that is lost, or is being lost. One does not really lose culture. A locality is like a swimming pool full of people, and culture is like the water they are immersed in. Culture does not come and go (in a manner more like how the term “culture” was used in the 1800s). Jollibee, SM, jeepneys, and “Eat Bulaga!” are as much Philippine culture as bayanihan and tinikling.mira1

Culture is always changing, for better AND for worse. But what is of more concern is whether Filipinos are losing their connect with their heritage (“pamana”).

Cultural heritage provides a stabilizing, and even transforming, force within a culture. Culture is pushed and pulled by (A) social needs within its geographic context, (B) cultural heritage, and (C) intercultural mixing and interaction. One could see these as three atractors in a complex dance (made even more complex because each of these attractors are dynamic to some extent.

Consider the Case of many of the Cordillerans (people of the “tribal groups” of the Cordilleran mountain range here in the lands surrounding Baguio City). When I first got here in 2004, the people seemed to dislike the term “Igorot.” It was a term used for people of the Cordilleras by outsiders and it was considered pejorative by many. Some would use the term “Torogi” (“Igorot” spelled backwards) as a way of finding affirmation. However, in more recent years, I have seen more and more people here choose to embrace the term. Many vehicles will have a bumper sticker on the back that simply says “IGOROTAK” (“I am an Igorot”).

The culture here has been challenged to integrate itself:

  • Cultural Heritage. In the last few years there seems like there is a greater affirmation of Cordilleran cultures. It seems like in Baguio there are more native dances, clothing, and arts than there were. Many Christians here are now trying to connect their faith with their ancestral practices. This has not been without controversy, but the very desire shows the potential power of cultural heritage to not only preserve, but to transform.
  • Intercultural Influences. In the last few decades has been the growth of what is sometimes called the Igorot Cowboy culture. In the Highlands here, country music (originally an American phenomenon) has taken hold. Included in this are country music bars, country music videoke, locally produced country music (in a variety of languages), and Western (as in American cowboy) clothes. One man who automatically comes to mind was (maybe still is) the barangay captain of a mountain community. Whenever I saw him he was dressed in cowboy boots, blue jeans, a big big belt buckle, and a blue suede cowboy hat. I have to say he was able to make it work for him. I have come across some other Filipinos who look derisively on this local behavior. However, every culture is affected by other cultures. Sometimes it may seem like a plague, but sometimes it is a welcome addition. This Country-Western culture seems to resonate with the people here in the mountains than the culture in the lowlands. Cultures do embrace what is foreign and make it their own. Pizza is now welcomed as part of American culture well beyond its role in Italian culture.
  • Societal Demands in Geographic Context. Many Cordillerans are drifting to the cities due to economic needs that are seen to go beyond what the mountain villages can provide. This has adversely affected the extended families, and has decimated many such villages. On the other hand, better roads and the cool weather of the mountains has been bringing in more people from the cities, as well as foreigners. This increased income provides more local moneys, and has helped revive some of the local art-forms such as woodcarving. Of course, more outsiders also brings outside problems as well.

Conclusion

So what does this all mean? Not exactly sure. But a local theology needs to do more than simply look wistfully back on the cultural heritage(s) of the Philippines. In the New Testament, Abba is the term that Jesus used to describe God the Father. A radically new idea. However, Abba was also the term that the native Visayans (who met Magellan in the 1520s) used to describe the top god of their pantheon, powerful and unapproachable. And Abba is a music group played on a bus that goes back and forth between Baguio and Laoag.

A local theology should embrace God’s revelation, local cultural heritage, and the culture that is (not simply the culture that was, or the culture one wishes it to be).

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Doing Local Theology

I have been doing a lot of thinking about Contextualized Theology, and reading works by Stephen Bevans,  Paul Hiebert, Jose de Mesa et al. But I think I will use the term Local Theology here, since (REALLY) all theology is contextual. There is no such thing as supracultural theology. God works in and through cultures, and God’s message is translatable into different languages and cultures (while still challenging and being challenged by these same languages and cultures).

This is a snapshot of where I am as far as doing local theology.

Source of Local Theology

Local Theology comes both from God and the Local Church or Community of Faith. It is based on God’s message to the people relevant to the people’s unique needs and longings. As such, local theology does not come from Outside, and should not normally come from one single person. Local Theology forms reflectively within the community of faith, rather than driven by the agenda of one. The community of faith should always be taken more seriously than any single “prophet.”

Local Theology is commonly driven by the failure of outside theologies to address deep personal struggles. Theological Bridge

I have theorized on “Tago ng Tago” Theology… the theology of Illegal Aliens. I have suggested that theologies today commonly don’t address the primary needs and concerns of illegal aliens. Many, in fact, would say that theology should NOT address their concerns since they are breaking the law. They should obey the law, leave, and then they don’t need a separate theology. However, it is risky to say that God has no message for a people group because they have been disenfranchised by a group in power. It is also risky to say that God has no message for people who are imperfect in some manner of thought or behavior. That includes, after all, all of us. Regardless, the Bible, for example, has many metaphors and stories that speak to people who are strangers in a strange land, in need of a God as their refuge and hiding place.

The unique needs of a community of faith, a local church, drives the need for a local theology. Additionally, if God is at work in all places, at all times, in all cultures, and in all communities of the faithful, it must be understood that God is a primary source of a local theology in addition to providing special revelation. Local theology (contextualized theology) is a bridge that connects God’s message with the context of a people.

The “Steps” or Challenges of Local Theology

Not all local theologies are good theologies. The Philippines has many bad ones… both popular and unpopular. When is a local theology a bridge between a community of faith and God’s message, and when is it a bridge to heterodoxy? There are certain tests or steps or challenges that the theology must pass. Challenges for Local Theology

A.  Foundational is the Tests of Divinity. If the theology fails to connect us with the God Who Is, then there is a fundamental flaw with it.

God is revealed to us through both Special Revelation (God’s Word, and Jesus Christ) and through General Revelation (primarily His Creation). Is the local theology coherent and harmonious with God’s Word as canon (or standard)? Does it honor God’s Word as His special self-revelation to the church (and the world)? Does it understand God’s creation as good and to be honored as His special design with us as stewards? Does it honor all humans as created beings in God’s image? Does it see God as personal, relational, communicative, and worthy of honor and worship?

B. The next challenge is the Tests of Community. This is seen as the tests of the local church and the universal church.

Ideally, the local theology comes from the local church. Regardless, is it understandable by the local community of faith? Is it accepted by the local community of faith? Does the theology resonate with their own condition? Or, on the other hand, does it “scratch where it does not itch?”

Additionally, is it open for critique from the greater church? The greater church exists in both time and space. Is the local theology open to dialogue with the broader church throughout history? Or does it particularize itself from other churches, ignoring the challenge and unity of others today? Or does it embrace a restorationist viewpoint that ignores the wisdom of the church in history? For the church to have unity (rather than uniformity) in its diversity, then there should be dialogue and openness to critique beyond itself.

C.  The Final Challenge is the Tests of Tension. A local theology is not simply to be a set of beliefs that justify the status quo or the local culture. If it is rooted both in God and in Culture, it must exist in creative tension with the local culture. It must provide a prophetic voice for maintaining what is good, and redeeming or transforming what is bad.

Tension should also exist with the Universal Church. While recognizing unity with the church in both time and space, it should also provide a voice of challenge to it. Additonally, it should also be a challenge to God’s message… not challenging the canon itself… but its interpretation.

A local theology that does not challenge the local church, the universal church, and the interpretation of God’s revelation, has nothing to say from God to His church.

Any failure in these challenges should, at least, draw into question the veracity or orthodoxy of the local theology.

Final Thoughts on Local Theology

Some people get bothered by the idea of local theology. Some seek to universalize their own theological position. I have heard Reformed Theologians and Pentecostal Theologians seek to describe a universal (or universalizing or global) theology. This is flawed to the core. Theology is always applied locally (since wherever a community of faith is, that is its local context)… thus the question is really whether the theology of the community is well-suited to be applied locally… or not.

For example, I live in Baguio City, Philippines. It is a city of dreams and of broken relationships. It is a city of dreams since people from the mountains and from the lowlands flock here because there is money and jobs here (it is the center of tourism, medicine, and education in the Northern Philippines). People leave their homes to come here to achieve their dreams, or as a transitional point to be trained to ultimately achieve their dreams in some other place (usually another country).

Baguio City is a city of broken relationships. People leave their families and communities to come here to be educated or to work. Even families that are here in Baguio City are broken up as multiple family members serve as Overseas Foreign Workers (OFWs) to earn money to send home. Additionally, the number of broken families here is very high due to “divorce” (divorce is “illegal” here, except for what is called annulment, but the number of common-law divorces is huge). The number of fully intact nuclear families is low, and intact extended families in Baguio are extremely rare (especially for the Philippines).

So, what is God’s message for a community of broken families in a country that is known for being family-centered? Who is God for someone in Baguio? What does the church need to be in a place such as Baguio?

 

Metaphors for Missions

I finished teaching an 8-week course in Theology of Missions at Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary. I wasn’t sure how best to do this, since this is the first time I have taught the course, and it is the first time it has been taught at our school.

So I decided to hit as much as I could in areas relating to Missions Theology that is not necessarily dealt with much elsewhere.  So I broke it up into three major topics, and several minor topics.

Section 1.  Missions Theology as Systematic Theology

  • Missio Dei
  • Missio Ecclesiae
  • Missions in terms of Eschatological History
  • Analysis of the Great Commission(s), Great Commandment, and Abrahamic Covenant
  • “Spiritual” versus Social versus Holistic ministry
  • Interfaith Dialogue and dealing with other faiths
  • Views on who is saved

Section 2.  Missions Theology as Contextual Theology

  • What is Contextualization and Contextual Theology
  • What are the models of contextualization of theology
  • What benchmarks are there for orthodoxy of contextual theologies
  • Roles of narrative and metaphors in contextual theology

Section 3.  Missions Theology as Reflective (“Pastoral”) Theology

  • Action/Reflection in developing personal missions theology
  • Case Studies and peer review
  • Personal metaphor for missions

We had an interesting term. With 10 in my class, we had a lot of good conversations. We had 10 metaphors given for missions. Some seemed a little strange at first, but made a lot of sense when explained. A couple of them may not meet the strict definition of metaphor… but I am not that strict. If it is useful, it works.  The ten metaphors were:

  1. Anchor
  2. Builder
  3. Water
  4. Walking by the Spirt
  5. Gathering Toys
  6. Mountain climbing
  7. Liberation
  8. Mountain biking
  9. Playing Chess
  10. Gardening

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