Made a few changes and updates, especially in the criteria for evaluation of local (contextual) theologies.
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.” 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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?
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:
- Walking by the Spirt
- Gathering Toys
- Mountain climbing
- Mountain biking
- Playing Chess
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 Stephen Bevans, who in turn draws it from Justo Gonzales. 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 given some tests for this. He draws from Schreiter, de Mesa, and some others, along with his own reflection. A quick summary of some of these tests is found in a presentation he gave a Boston University, seen in THIS VIDEO.
He notes the inadequacy of each individual test (he gives 11 tests) but suggests a principle of “converging probabilities.” In fact, it is the reasoning associated with historical or legal analysis, where the focus is not on PROOF, but on how the preponderance of the evidence becomes COMPELLING, leading to CONSENSUS.
I would like to keep these 11 tests, but reorganize them, grouping them into five (5) general tests.
Test #1. The Test of Revelation. Christianity is founded on Divine Revelation, in the form of the words of the apostles, prophets, and the incarnation of Jesus Christ. As such a theology is challenged to be both coherent and harmonious with that revelation. Coherent, means that it does not contradict the word or essence of that revelation. But a caution here, since, one can always find “contradictions” if one goes in lacking grace or humility. Harmony means that it aligns with revelation in a way that may be novel, yet appears to go well with the revelation as a harmonic line in music works with the melody.
Test #2. Test of God. Any contextual theology is tested by God’s uniqueness and transcendance. Therefore, any theology should be consistent in its prayer and worship. (For example, any theology that makes Jesus less worthy of prayer and worship than God, places itself out of line with orthodox faith). Additionally, any theology that encourages or justifies behavior of believers that is inconsistent with God’s character (love, justice, holiness, for example) is highly suspect.
Test #3. Test of the Universal Church. The church is founded on Christ and the apostles and maintains a spiritual unity regardless of how often the church drifts from diversity (a good thing) to divisiveness (not such a good thing). A contextual theology should be open to critique from groups and theologies outside of its context. It should also have the value and robustness to challenge and inspire those both inside and outside of its context. To fail to do those things suggests that it lacks that unity with the universal body of Christ. <Note: The universal church does not simply exist in place, it also exists in time. So the challenge of church includes the church throughout history. For example, restorationist theologies that presume that historic church was totally apostate for centuries or millenia, must be suspect.>
Test #4. Test of the Local Community. A contextualized theology is for a certain context or faith community. Therefore, it should, ideally, come from the community (rather than an outsider or from one specific person). It should be intelligible to people in the community in simple language, and should, over time, be valued and accepted by the community.
Test #5. Creation. A contextualized theology should honor creation, as the good design and handiwork of God. A theology that lessens or devalues God’s creation is suspect. This also includes mankind. A theology that treats humans, or any subset of humans, as less than God’s creation, Imago Dei, or less worthy of honor than other humans, is less than orthodox.
These tests will not eradicate all disagreements, but they, hopefully, will provide a starting point for a potential future consensus.
Many believe that there is a universal Christian theology… or a theological interpretation of the Bible that is unaffected by culture. Western theology (I am here thinking of Reformed Theology, but other Western Theologies can apply as well) typically seems to be viewed as a supra-cultural theology. Those who embrace Reformed Theology tend to think of “Contextual Theology” as the theological view of some other groups, but don’t see their own theology as contextual (particularly in terms of culture). I read an article before suggesting that Pentecostal Theology (although the theology described seemed to be more in line with Charismatic Theology than classic Pentecostal) could be a universal (read supra-cultural) theology.
The problem is that each theology seeks to meet a need that is contextual. That also means that each theology has the tendency to “itch where it does not scratch” for certain people. Guilt-focused cultures struggle with the issue of judgment and forgiveness. For them, Reformed Theology addresses that issue. For Fear-focused cultures, helplessness and power are of prime concern and Charismatic Theology addresses that.
To be honest, guilt and power have never really resonated with me. For me, I am concerned probably most with the issues of alienation and community. This, I suppose, puts me into the category of many of the post-moderns, as well as more traditional shame-based societies.
Sadly, the theological structures for alienation and community are not established to the same level that Reformed and Charismatic theologies have been. Hopefully that will change since neither of these existing theological structures appear to be well-placed to meet the needs of a growing segment of the world population.
Of course, a charge could be made that the Bible has one interpretation and lends itself to only one theology (orthodoxy). Any other theology is, by definition, heterodoxy. Conversely, there is a counter view that relativizes all theologies into a sort of theological pragmatism… if it works (in the culture) it is good theology.
For me, I see a balance, culturally, in I Corinthians 1:22-24:
“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.”
The passage suggests two opposite things simultaneously. The message of God will challenge cultures. The message is a stumblingblock to Jews who are seeking powerful signs, and foolishnesss to Greeks seeking divine wisdom. On the other hand in Christ, Jews experience the power of God and Greeks experience the wisdom of God. God’s working is contextual and meets contextual needs.
If God’s message is supra-cultural but applied contextually, any theology that addresses a specific (cultural) context may meet that contextual need, but also challenge that specific context.
- For those who feel guilt and seek forgiveness, God’s mercy provides hope of ultimate forgiveness. That forgiveness is not based on what we do. Yet God’s message also challenges because it rejects an intellectualized faith but calls for a working faith, and following Christ calls us to a radical responsibility to serve.
- For those who feel fear and seek power, God’s power provides hope and ultimate freedom. Such power is not based on our own strength but God’s. Yet God’s message also challenges because His power is perfected in weakness, and following Christ calls for us to a radical readiness to suffer.
What about for shame-focused cultures and for post-moderns? Not sure, but something like this.
- For those who feel alienated and seek communiion in God, God’s love provides hope of ultimate reconciliation and community. That reconciliation with God and others overcomes our own tendency to self-alienate, Yet God’s message also challenges because this reconciliation is often perfected in loneliness, often pitting brother against brother and sister against sister.
In other words, contextual theology is not about “telling people what they want to hear.” Rather it is addressing God’s message to the needs and concerns of a specific context. God’s message, if it is accurately contextualized, should both comfort and challenge the hearer.
Part #1 looked at perspective regarding culture. Instead of rehashing… please READ IT.
Now let’s apply this to Theology. Theology is a system of symbols and concepts shared (typically) by a group. So while theology may not constitute a culture, it certainly constitutes a major aspect of a culture (or sub-culture).
Like culture, theology is commonly distorted from an external (cat or etic) perspective.
Like culture, theology loses perspective when it only has an internal (fish or emic) perspective.
Theology is best understood by bringing together etic and emic perspectives (the “duck”).
Of course, the fish and cat views go together. One sees one’s own theology as very sound while the other as clearly messed up. That is not abnormal… but when this view is based on limited cross-theological exposure (or a monotheological perspective) the viewpoint is not particularly trustworthy.
What might some evidences be of a Monotheological viewpoint… that is, hampered by a fish/cat perspective rather than a duck perspective.
1. Those who describe their theological viewpoint as the “Biblical Viewpoint.” I recall reading the writing of a Calvinistic writer who said that another term for Calvinistic is “Biblical.” It really doesn’t take a lot of reading of the Bible to discover that God’s revelation on the process of salvation is “muddy”… like a river. Anyone who says their view is “Biblical” suggesting that the other views are “Unbiblical” simply has not really dealt with the whole Bible fairly. I would argue that an Arminian who described their view as the “Biblical” one has also fallen into the same trap. The issue of God’s sovereignty versus freedom of creation is also muddy.
I recall listening to a Prosperity Gospel guy here in the Philippines say, “I know some of you won’t like this,” (the teachings of the Prosperity Gospel), “but it is simply what the Bible teaches.” I might argue that he was correct if my Bible only had the books of Deuteronomy and Proverbs. But once you start bringing in other books, this confidence rapidly becomes questionable. Admittedly, Liberation Theology can also be guilty of the same myopia. One really needs to bring these views together to grow from the perspectives.
The fact is that most Christian Theology could be described as Biblical… at least in some sense. Buddhist theology can’t really be described as Biblical, since the Bible is not used as revelatory material for its theology. Islamic and Mormon theology should really not be described as Biblical theology either. Although they “respect” the Bible as Holy, they don’t really utilize it as primary source material for their respective theologies. When a person says their theology is “Biblical,” they are usually saying that “people who interpret the Bible in a similar manner to myself tend to agree with me.” Of course, that tends to be a tautology.
2. When one describes “contextual theologies” or “third world theologies” as being qualitatively different from “real theology.” This is, in fact, the essence of monoculturalism. When one is unable to see the cultural biases inherent in one’s theological perspective, that is monocultural, monotheoloical. Some give special praise to “systematic” theology. But systematizing one’s theology into formal topics and propositional statements may not be superior to metaphors and narratives valued in a different culture.
Some are bothered that “contextual theology” is heterodox. Of course, they can be, but ALL THEOLOGY IS CONTEXTUAL. All theology bridges divine revelation (for example, special revelations of the Holy Bible and Jesus Christ and the general revelations of creation and history) with a cultural group. Good theology is contextualized to that culture… it is contextual. But presumably not all theology is heterodox.
3. When one is excessively involved with apologetics. This sounds counterintuitive. To do apologetics or debate, one needs to understand the other side… to be prepared to argue with them. The problem is that in debate, there is a tendency for “BIAS CONFIRMATION.” (See THIS ARTICLE.) The two people on opposite sides tend to move further apart in their beliefs than closer together. In fact, there is a tendency to stereotype or create caricatures of other beliefs… much the same as a monocultural or monotheological view. This is not universal. Some apologists make a genuine attempt to understand and interact with other viewpoints. But those who are simply focused on WINNING will tend to miss out on the most.
For myself… I hold to an essentially evangelical theology. I am not suggesting some odd syncretization of beliefs, or suggesting that all interpretations are equally valid. But I am suggesting that one must be open to learning through different perspectives. For example, the insights from SHAME/HONOR or COLLECTIVIST societies really add in understanding God’s Word. I am not suggesting that they negate GUILT/FORGIVENESS or INDIVIDUALIST perspectives. Rather the two support each other. The Triumphalistic theologies that have come out of Europe and especially the United States (including some Evangelical theologies) REALLY need the added perspective of the disempowered and persecuted Christians in some other parts of the world.
Missions (and the church in general) needs theological ducks.
I sometimes like calling myself a “contextual theologian.” Whether I have the knowledge and competence to call myself a “theologian” is debatable. But if I can so designate myself, then certainly my sub-specialty would be in contextualization of theology.
The problem is that “contextual theology” gets a bit of a bad rap. Often people connect it with heretical beliefs… or at least beliefs and teachings of a highly weird nature. Often those who embrace contextual theology are “Anti-Western” in their theological viewpoint and embrace that which is far away from the Western traditions in theology.
So how can one embrace contextual theology while avoiding the clear excesses found within the movement. I would suggest the following images to give some ideas in this area:
I. ALL Good Theology is Contextual
In the above sketch, God and Man are separated by a chasm. This is not a salvific chasm used in the “Bridge Illustration” of evangelism. Consider this a chasm of communication. God seeks to communicate with Man. One can describe theology form of the message. Theology can be thought of as a bridge… but one having two supports. One of the supports is God’s Revelation. The revelation includes Special Revelation (Scripture and Jesus), and General Revelation (Creation and History). God communicates to us through such revelation. The second support is culture. Culture is the symbolic network of meanings through which Man interprets the world. As such, any message from God must come through culture.
My wife, Celia, noted that since God’s revelation is fairly static, while culture is quite dynamic, it might be more appropriate to think of a bridge like in the movie Avatar where vine “bridges” connect between the planet surface (God’s unchanging truth) and the floating mountains (Man’s variability). I think there is considerable merit in this, but I will try to play with that another time.
2. Bad Contextualization of Theology
Bad contextualization is when one ignores the culture one is connecting with. That can occur when one doesn’t focus on culture in general… or when one utilizes theology for one culture to a different culture. The result is that the theology… God’s communication… is incomprehensible or poorly communicated.
3. Bad Grounding of Theology
Good contextual theology takes seriously God’s message and local cultures… all local cultures (Western, Eastern, Caste, Class, or Other)