Evaluating Contextual Theologies. Part 3

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.

6

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.

Conclusions

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.

Chapter Thirteen Endnotes

1 For example, you can read this in the first line Stephen Bevans’ article, “Contextual Theology.” https://na.eventscloud.com/file_uploads/ff735620 c88c86884c33857af8c51fde_GS2.pdf.

2 Merold Westphal, “Overcoming Onto-Theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith,Perspectives” in Continental Philosophy No. 21 (New York: Fordham University Press, 2002), 189. Listen to his interview on that podcast. https://homebrewchristianity.com/2015/07/30/merold-westphal-on endofreligion/.

3 Stephen B. Bevans, Essays in Contextual Theology (Boston, MA: Brill, 2018), ch 3.

4 Gordon Kaufmann, God the Problem (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972), 82-.

5 Robert H. Munson, Theo-storying: Reflection on God, Narrative and Culture (Baguio City, Philippines, MM-Musings, 2016), Ch. 9.

6 David Tracy, Plurality and Ambiguity.: Hermeneutics, Religion and Hope (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

7 Darrell Whiteman, “Contextualization: The Theory, the Gap, the Challenge” International Bulletin of Mission Research, January 1997, 2-7, 3-4.

8 Harvie M. Conn, Eternal World and Changing Worlds, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 1992), 237.

Evaluating Contextual Theologies. Part 2

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.

  1.  The test of contextualization.
  2. 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.”3 The 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.

Evaluating Contextual Theologies. Part 1

This is a chapter of a book I am writing on Contextual Theology. Still a work in progress. I will finish one day.

Chapter 13

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.”2 If 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.