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.

Tago Ng Tago Theology

Theology is the bridge linking God’s unchanging revelation with man’s changing situation. As such, theology changes with time and location. Therefore, I really don’t get too impressed with people who describe themselves as Calvinist, Arminian, Pentecostal, or other theologies that fit a moment in the past… but are not necessarily connected to the present.

Bamboo Pipe Organ. Las Pinas, Philippines

The title of this post is “Tago Ng Tago” Theology. “Tago ng tago” loosely translates from Tagalog as “be in hiding” or “always hiding.”  The term describes Filipinos who went overseas (OFW) to work , but did not leave when they were supposed to. Therefore, they live as illegals hiding in that country. This is a major part of the Filipino self-identity (in my mind) with over 10% of Filipino nationals living overseas in one form or another. The Filipino dream is to raise up a child to get a job overseas and send money home. There is perhaps no other country on earth so international… so globally minded as the Philippines.

It seems strange that despite the strong place Christianity has in the Philippines, there is little real Filipino theology (within orthodox Christianity at least). In the past, there has been some original theology done by Catholic theologians in the Philippines, especially linked to martial law, but not much since. Most theology in the Philippines (again, not counting heterodox works) simply borrows from outsider works. Innovation seems to be more in line with switching who one borrows from. I am not Filipino, so it is not my place to say what good Filipino theology should be. But here are some things to think about. First think about a couple of other theologies…

1.  Mestizo Theology. This is a Latin American Theology and looks at Jesus as one who bridges the gap, in like manner to the way the Mestizo bridges the gap between the people in charge and the people oppressed. Some focus on Jesus not merely as a Jew, but a Galilean Jew. As such, He is an outsider… disenfranchised. One can see how this might resonate with many Latin Americans today.

2.  Dalit Theology. The Dalit are the people of India held down by caste. Jesus is the Liberator, the One who speaks good news to the poor and downtrodden. God leading His people from the oppressors in Egypt to take them to the promised land is important to their understanding of Him.

So, if one looked at the TNT (or more generally, the OFW, overseas foreign worker) phenomenon, is there something in God’s revelation that would be resonant to the Filipino Diaspora?  Here are a few passages that would seem to me to be relevant.

a.  Abraham. Abraham was called to leave his home to a place of God’s leading. This place may be looked at as Promised Land, but it was also a place of struggle, fearing death from local governments, owning no land except to bury his wife. Yet He was called upon to trust God and trust that following Him would lead to ultimate blessing and being a blessing to others.

b.  Joseph. Forced to leave his people, he was compelled to work for strangers. But God ultimately remembered him, blessed him and gave him the opportunity to be a blessing to his family.

c.  Moses… a stranger in a strange land. He also was forced to leave his people and live in the desert for many years. Yet because of His decision to follow God wherever He led, Moses was ultimately successful in freeing his family and people from slavery.

d. Exodus. The people of Israel sought the promised land, yet were forced to struggle in the wilderness, living by faith and hope for the next generation.

e. Babylonian captivity. Judah singing songs by the rivers of Babylon, praying to once again see Zion.

f. Jesus. Jesus, citizen of heaven, lived in obscurity in a hostile land. Sought by the government, He had to hide in Egypt and was later rejected in Nazareth. He had to spend much of His ministry in Galilee, because of trouble with political and religious leaders in Jerusalem. Not understood and not appreciated– ultimately, He was captured by the government and killed as a seditionist.

It seems to me that seeing Christ as one who left behind all to do what He needed to do in an unforgiving foreign land (for His family) relates well with the TNT experience. The Filipino experience in this setting is one of SUFFERING, ALIENATION, MARGINALIZATION and HOPE. So little of the imported theology connects with that situation here.

The term “tago ng tago” seems to fit the role of many global Filipinos, even those that are not illegal status. The term suggests, in a general sense:

-Being foreign or in foreign territory

-Being either unwanted, or ignored.

The ignored is also important. In places like the USA, where over 2 million Filipinos reside legally, they are often ignored as a people group, because their appearance is not highly distinctive, and their family names are often confused with Latin Americans. The sense of being foreign and ignored (hidden, not in hiding) can be a great challenge for many Filipinos. In other places, like Hong Kong, many Filipinos work legally but are considered inferior because they do the jobs that legal residents there consider “beneath them.” Many others live and work in the Arabian Peninsula, one of the most racially and religiously bigoted places on earth. The strange sense of being foreign, needed, and yet not valued, is a difficult challenge.

Within this sort of model, Jesus is more than one who has experienced the same things that many Filipinos go through. Jesus is also the Good Shepherd risking His life to save the lost/hidden sheep. Jesus is the man who purchases the field to find the hidden treasure. Jesus is the forgiving father who welcomes home the son who went away. Jesus is the one who creates a new family, a new home, a new hiding built on a sure foundation.

<Note… I am not discussing the morality of living illegally in a foreign country… I am discussing its reality>

Anyway… some things to think about. Maybe someone else can think more about it. I don’t think my background or talent will allow me to go beyond vague thoughts.  For some general thoughts on Asian Theology, see This Article.