Years ago, I started a book on Missions Theology— 2016, I think. But in 2017, I stopped. Then I worked on a couple of other books on missions, gutting some parts of this book. But then I started to work again on it during this pandemic. I am mostly done. Here is a rough draft of Chapter 11.
Note: I have not added footnotes yet. I don’t want to appear to be violating proper attribution. With that in mind, I would point people to Stephen Bevan’s book “Models of Contextualization,” Paul Hiebert’s article, “Critical Contextualization,” and David Tracy’s book, “Plurality and Ambiguity.” Pretty much everything else is from one of my books or from this website.
Methods of Contextualizing Theology
Paul Hiebert, in his article “Critical Contextualization” <FN> speaks of three forms of contextualization— Non-Contextualization, Uncritical Contextualization, and Critical Contextualization. Critical Contextualization can be viewed as the healthy balance between the other two. Non-Contextualization essentially brings in the missionary’s own theology and beliefs without separating them— implicitly treating them equally as true. This leads to a foreignness to Christianity, and often simply pushes traditional beliefs under the thin veneer of Christian dogma. Uncritical Contextualization assimilates too well with the local beliefs, losing its prophetic characters. This leads to a form of syncretism. I would argue that Non-contextualization also leads to a form of syncretism, but being the uncritical mixing of God’s message with the missionary’s culture rather than the respondents’ culture.
Figure 11. Critical Contextualization
Figure 11 shows these three categories in terms of a pendulum that can swing to one extreme or another. Perhaps a failure in this figure is that it could be interpreted to suggest that the most likely place to end up is in the middle. However, it is probably that the most likely place to end up is at one of the extremes. In both of these extremes, the message may be seen as irrelevant. For Non-contextualization, it is irrelevant because it answers the concerns and ideas of the missionary’s culture, not that of the respondent culture. For Uncritical Contextualization, it may be culturally relevant in the sense that it connects to the beliefs and symbols of the culture, but is irrelevant since it fails to challenge or instruct.
In between is Critical Contextualization which seeks to combine
- Taking the concerns of the respondent culture seriously
- Looking at the respondent culture sympathetically
- Studying the Bible carefully and thoughtfully
This sort of process can be quite helpful in general, but still leaves a lot of uncertainty when it comes to developing a localized theology. One question is, in fact, who does the localization? Is it the missionary? Is it the new believer’s in the respondent culture? In the next chapter, the tests for good contextual theology suggests that the ideal is that new congregations of the respondent culture should develop their own theology, but with critique from the outside. Such an ideal, however, does not always occur. Quite often the most rigorous defenders and transmitter’s of the missionary’s theology are new believers in the respondent culture. And often those who go against the grain and promote their own form of theology in the culture often are not drawing from the culture, but a conflicting external theology. Here in the Philippines, I know many pastor-theologians who have embraced a sort of “Youtube Theology.” By this I mean that they say, in effect, “I saw this thing on the internet, and it changed my life.” Is it good? Maybe. Is it bad? Probably. Is it local? Almost certainly not.
So how do theologies localize? Stephen Bevans has helped greatly in understanding contextualization of theology by describing 6 major categories of philosophies of contexualization.
This book won’t try to describe in detail these categories. Partly, this is because one that I STRONGLY recommend you read Bevan’s book yourself, if you haven’t already.. <FN HERE> One may also find value in reading Moreau’s book that expands on Bevan’s ideas, but from a more Evangelical Christian perspective (Since Bevan’s is Roman Catholic). For me, the greatest value of Moreau’s book is not his model of contextualization, which seems a bit cluttered to me. Rather, the value is his recognition that the six models identified by Bevans should be seen as all having some value within Evangelical Christianity. In other words, instead of asking “Which one is correct” it is better to ask what strengths and weaknesses do each bring to the table for Evangelical Christians.
That’s important, as one of the models, Countercultural Model is sometimes described as “Biblical” or “Prophetic” Contextualization. These labels seek to suggest that it is “more Biblical” or more in line with God than other methods. I like to avoid that. The same thing happens in Pastoral Counseling where a number of different writers describe their own flavor of pastoral or spiritual counseling as “Biblical Counseling.” If a form of counseling or contextualization does not stand up on its own merits, it certainly isn’t improved by calling it Biblical. A better idea is to identify the strengths and weaknesses of different methods and see what can be gained from these methods.
One can picture a triangle with God’s Revelation being at one corner, Human Culture at a second corner, and Self at the third corner, we may see each of these categories as inhabiting a range (locus) on the triangle. This is because none of these categories are static or tightly defined. Each identifies a range of perspectives. However, on Figure 12, instead of trying to identify a range, a number is placed in an area that I feel comes close to where that range would be centered.
Translation Model is seen as the one that seeks to stay closest to God’s revelation. One seeks to translate God’s message as faithfully as possible to a new culture. This seems to make the most sense to Evangelical Christians. It just sounds like what one is supposed to do. It may be seen as the one that is most faithful to God’s revelation. But this may not be true. The book of Acts addressed multiple opportunities for theological contextualization. These include (1) expressing the nature of God and Jesus to philosophers in Athens, (2) the nature of Greeks joining the church, and (3) the question of eating food sacrificed to idols. In none of these cases, does it appear to me that a translation form of contextualization apply. Translation can be done well or poorly, but if done poorly, it is more likely to lead toward slipping to Non-contextualization in Figure 11.
The Anthropological Model approach takes more seriously the culture in which the theology must be utilized. Frankly, this also makes sense. As noted in Chapter 1, Still, looking at the three examples from the book of Acts, it doesn’t seem like this method was used either. Paul did not ignore the controversial topic of resurrection with the philosophers, the Jerusalem council did not overlook the problem of sexual sin so common in Greek culture, and Paul did not overlook the inappropriateness of Christians worshiping idols. Still, theology is a bridge between God’s revelation and Man’s culture, how can one contextualize to a culture unless one focuses on that particular culture? Done poorly, there is a tendency to fall into Uncritical Contextualization as shown in Figure 11.
In some ways, Translation and Anthropological categories can be seen as opposite, but ideally the differences are slight. Suppose one is seeking to contextualize the Gospel to Omani culture, then Translation seeks to make the message of God understandable to produce Christians who are Omanis. The Anthropological Model seeks essentially the same thing, but with greater emphasis on the culture, it could perhaps be thought of as creating Omanis who are Christian. In theory the two goals (Omani Christians and Christian Omanis) are the same but the switching of nouns and adjectives can be seen to suggest a difference in primary identification. For Translation, the people are, perhaps, Christian first and Omani second. For Anthropological, the people are, again perhaps, Omani first and Christian second. Done will, however, the differences should not be major.
So, if the Translation Model comes closest to focus on God’s Revelation, and the Anthropological Model comes closest on the recipient culture, then the Transcendental Model comes closest to the “Individual Reflection” corner.
Figure 12. Contextualization Models for Theology
Transcendental Model is more of a form of personal theological reflection. Chapter 3 speaks of theology as a reflective activity. However, individual or group theological reflection can be given greater or lesser focus from one tradition to another. Some seminaries, for example, encourage theological reflection, while others focus more on theological indoctrination. For Transcendental contextualization, one looks at Scripture or theology or religious practice in terms of how one reacts, emotionally, to it. One reflects on the reaction, whether positive or negative. This sort of reflection is similar to many other forms of individual theological reflection. It is iterative and process driven. The process is supposed to give opportunity to address theological issues through the lens of context. This for theological contextualization is essentially that broader application of David Tracy’s Transcendental Theological Reflection. <FN>
The Individual Reflection corner, seems to be more individualistic. That can be a bad thing. It can also be seen as potentially disconnected from God’s revelation AND respondent culture. Again, however, it depends on how it is put into practice. An advantage of this reflective process is that one does take time to address one’s own prejudices. Ignoring prejudices does not make them go away. It just makes them not dealt with. Further, it seems like it is quite beneficial both for a missionary in a new culture, and a young believer in a new reached culture.
The Praxis Model is also more towards the individual reflection corner. Like the transcendental model, it is iterative and reflective. The cycle is action and reflection. This is especially popularized in Liberation Theologies. In these theologies, the emphasis is on action prior to reflection (ignoring whether this is even possible). Many Liberation Theologies utilize a Marxist framework in terms of the reflection. That, however, is not universal. For an Evangelical, one can use God’s Word as the primary canon, rather than a historical materialism.
The Countercultural Model seems to have more than one flavor. Some see it as the most “conservative” being the closest to being prone to Non-contextualization (referring again to Figure 11). To me when one is going so far in that direction, one is actually moving more towards the Translation Model. Counterculture IS NOT the same as Anti-cultural,
To me, this model focuses more on the idea of “good scandal,” which will be covered in greater detail in the next chapter. Jesus was A contextual theology should feel natural and normal to the culture it serves, and yet should prophetically challenge that same culture in key ways. This seems the best understanding of countercultural. In most cases, what are considered countercultures are sub-cultures of a broader culture that fits into that culture in MOST ways, but diverges in a small number of key ways.
The Synthetic Model can be thought as referring to Intertraditionality. It honors different perspectives and allows them to interact dialogically to come up with a synthesis of perspectives. Truthfully, it is quite possible that it doesn’t really fit into the triangle chart at all. But if it did, it seems like putting it in the center would be accurate, at least to the extent that one takes different sources without focusing on any one over the other. A clear strength of this is that it does promote dialogue between different perspectives and different peoples.
You may have noticed that this book is about Missions Theology, but in this chapter we are talking about the methodology of theology development, outside of Missions Theology. So where does Missions Theology fit in?
Missions Theology is a Practical Theology which means that it is always going to be iterative, relating experience actions and experience to God’s word and one’s own faith tradition. As such it aligns somewhat with the Praxis Model. However, the reflection is likely to be different than that of Liberation Theologies, for example. Very commonly, it seems to me, the reflection stage in the process for many in missions is almost strictly pragmatic. They use what I sometimes jokingly describe as “Engineering Ethics.” (I used to be a Mechanical Engineer, so it makes sense to me.) There is a real topic known as Engineering Ethics, but when I am using the term here, what I mean is, “That which works is good and that which doesn’t work is bad.”
But pure pragmatics doesn’t make good Missions Theology. If Missions is, first of all, the activity of God to which we are invited to join, then our theology and actions must be aligned to both the will and activity of God. There is a fairly popular form of churchplanting that actively discourages ministering to the physicaly, psychoemotional, economic, and social needs of people. (I might even argue that it discourages ministering to the spiritual needs as well.) The reason is that it slows down evangelism and church multiplication. In my mind, this is an excellent example of justifying a theology because “it works” even if it is in conflict to God’s work and will. Part of the reflection must be based on God’s revelation.
But Missions Theology must also explicitly deal with culture. I don’t believe one can honestly have a sound Missions Theology that does not address culture seriously. With that in mind, one must also reflect on the activity through the framework of culture. Perhaps a way to look at it is in terms of the Action-Reflection cycle in chapter 3, but with three points rather than two.
Figure 13. Missions Theology Process
Early on in this book, it was stated that all theology is contextual and contexts are dynamic. As such, theology can and should change. While change is necessary, not all change is good. Wise people do disagree as to the process by which theology should change. That being said, in general, one can say that good theology must be true to God’s Word, take seriously the context, and involve a process of intentional iterative reflection.