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What’s It All About, Alfie? Contextual Theology, Part One

Ever wonder why the greeters at the doors of your church don’t welcome you with a smack on the lips? (In 2 Corinthians 13, Paul exhorts the believers to greet one another with a holy kiss.) Or why we don’t share everything in common as the brothers and sisters in Acts 2 did?

All of us practice contextual theology. Contextual theology recognizes that:

Ever wonder why the greeters at the doors of your church don’t welcome you with a smack on the lips? (In 2 Corinthians 13, Paul exhorts the believers to greet one another with a holy kiss.) Or why we don’t share everything in common as the brothers and sisters in Acts 2 did?

All of us practice contextual theology. Contextual theology recognizes that:

  1.  we are limited and enabled by our cultures (and subcultures) in our interpretation of the Bible (i.e. our culture affects how we read the Bible, the questions we ask, how we approach theology and Truth),
  2. the writers of the Bible lived and wrote within a specific culture (i.e. the culture of the writers affected how they wrote the Bible, the questions they addressed, how they taught and described theology and Truth), and
  3. we live out the meaning of Scripture in our cultures (and subcultures).

Contextual theology answers the question, can we or should we strive to make our local church look like the 1st century church?

At seminary, while I learned much from my systematic theology classes,
I probably learned more theology through my cultural anthropology and
missions classes. I realized in those classes that theology is not
static. Previously, I thought you learned theology then applied it to
your life. As I studied the history of the Church, missions, and the
global Church, I realized that theology is a conversation between God
and humanity, and because humanity changes and is limited by culture,
the shape of the conversation changes.

This is not to say that Truth changes or that God changes, but if
theology is the study of God (for the most simplistic definition), and
how we study changes, then theology changes.

Of course, as we dialogue, we do so not only with our culture, not
only with present global cultures, but with the historic church, which
gives us a stronghold, or, if you will, allows us to stand on those
giants’ shoulders.

You see, culture shapes the questions we ask. Look at the creeds.
They answered specific questions raised during specific times. But that
doesn’t limit their truth to that specific time.

We continue to ask questions. We continue to learn how we’re limited. So we continue to do theology.

As one professor said, "Theology is not a systematic subject but the discipline of getting to know God."

John Franke puts it this way: "We must always be attentive not only to the knowledge of God but also to the knowledge of ourselves as human beings if we hope to practice an approach to theology that leads to wisdom. We must also be attentive to the fact that the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves are not available to us in the form of timeless and undisputed teaching. Instead, we learn from the history of Christian thought that doctrines and conceptions of God and the nature of the human condition, as well as many other significant matters, have been developed and formulatedin the context of numerous social, historical, and cultural settings and have in turn been shaped by these settings" (The Character of Theology, p. 14; in this passage Franke reflects on John Calvin’s words, "Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God" [Institudes of the Christian Religion, vol. 1, 1.1.1]).

As we seek to know God’s mission for the Church in our world through Scripture, we come humbly, knowing we are limited, but we come empowered by the Holy Spirit and the perspectives of the universal Church (which includes all believers every where throughout all times).

Over the next several weeks, I’d like to look at these aspects of contextual theology. By recognizing how we practice contextual theology, we can move to being intentional about it so that God can better use Scripture to transform our lives and our cultures.

If you just can’t wait for this discussion, may I suggest a few books that have been helpful to me?

The Character of Theology: An Introduction to Its Nature, Task, and Purpose by John Franke

Global Missiology for the 21st Century: The Iguassu Dialogue, edited by William D. Taylor, which contains perspectives from theologians around the world concerning theology and mission

A Matrix of Meanings by Craig Detweiler and Barry Taylor, an excellent guide for understanding today’s U.S. culture especially as it regards to theology

The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature by C. S. Lewis; while we generally think of C.S. Lewis as a theologian and writer, he taught Medieval and Renaissance literature at Oxford. In understanding how the people during those times understood and approached Truth, I was able to recognize better how my approach is unique and shaped by my culture. Another book that helped me understand my specific Christian subculture is A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada by Mark Noll.

Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, edited by Kevin J. Vanhoozer (general editor) and Craig G. Bartholomew, Daniel J. Treier, and N.T. Wright (associate editors); while this is a thick reference book (given to me by my husband who knows I love the editors on the team and love talking theological interpretation), I especially recommend the section "Culture and Hermeneutics" by Elizabeth Yao-Hwa Sung.

Also, a great lay introduction to contextual theology can be found in Coffeehouse Theology: Reflecting on God in Everyday Life by Ed Cyzewski.

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Heather Goodman received her Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary and currently homeschools her three children. Her writing can be found in If:Equip, Art House, and other publications.

2 Comments

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    Cindy LaJoy

    Thanks for the explanation!
    I am taking a theology class for licensed lay ministry and struggling with abstractly written difficult texts on contextual theology. Your one page explanation here cleared it all up and gave me definitions I can hang on to. Thank you for taking the time to write this!

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    Inspirational Bible

    Contextual Theology
    That’s very interesting. I’ll have to think on this one some more. There’s always been a difficult balance between being in the world but not of it, and still being relevant and able to connect with people. I like your perspective.

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