Skandalon and Good Contextual Theology

skandalonPreviously, I had done a presentation on Contextual Theology (it is on Slideshare) where I had followed Stephen Bevan’s 11 benchmarks of good contextual theology. My own consolidation of Bevan’s benchmarks is HERE. He noted that the list was tentative and most certainly incomplete.

I like the list, but would like to add one more.

Good Contextual Theology should serve a parabolic or prophetic role in the community.

This draws upon the idea that while a theology should connect to the culture… it should also challenge it.  From my book Theo-Storying: Reflections on God, Narrative, and Culture,” chapter 9:

David Tracy (“Plurality and Ambiguity.: Hermeneutics, Religion and Hope“) 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.

Darrell Whiteman (Contextualization: The Theory, the Gap, the Challenge) has noted that contextualization seeks to offend for the right reasons, and not for the wrong reasons.

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 (Conn’s book “Eternal Word and Changing Worlds” p. 237, Smit’s article “An Approach to Practical Apologetics, with Specific Reference to the Japanese Scene,” in”The Christian Faith in the Modern World“, p 6.)

“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 be overcoming this skandalon that a person comes to faith.”

I have been reflecting on race and culture, class and caste in recent weeks. I have come to the tentative conclusion that the Bible’s message of spiritual union and communion is an “essential offense.” That does not mean, that being divisive based on these things damns a person. Rather, it means that Christian unity and communion needs to be offensive regardless of the context it is in. Thus, I believe that the Bible’s declaration that we are fellow brothers and sisters via creation, as well as through redemption, should take priority over cultural norms. Therefore, churches should never discriminate based on race or caste. I understand this not a universal conclusion and some would argue otherwise. However, it seems reasonable to say that if a church believes it has a cultural imperative to discriminate based on caste or race, it should recognize, at best, this particular state as not ideal and transitional.

Offending for the right reasons is good. Ultimately, the chief offense in 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 sees 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

 

 

 

The “Foul Lines” of Contextual Theology

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 isorthodoxy 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 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.