Sifting Contextual Theology image

Sifting Contextual Theology

I've seen some interesting discussions recently on "Contextual Theology" (sometimes used almost interchangeably with "Global Theology"). Some friends of mine have celebrated it and explained how important it is. Some friends of mine have critiqued it and explained how problematic it is. Both groups have invoked the famous Philip Jenkins quotation, either as a good or bad example of how to think about this ("Libraries have books on Asian theology or African theology, but books by Europeans or North Americans are just called 'Theology.'") And I have merrily commended and linked to both sorts of comment, because I think they're both right. Contextual Theology, it seems to me, is the sort of thing that can be either a very good thing or a Trojan horse for a very bad thing, depending on—ironically—context.

So here’s a shot at identifying the different sorts of things people mean when they commend and/or criticise Contextual (or Global) Theology.

1. Some people mean that the Western church (where Christianity is generally shrinking) has a lot to learn from the church in the Majority World (where Christianity is generally growing), specifically on areas that affect ordinary church life, discipleship and evangelism. Unashamed supernaturalism, for instance. Simplicity of communication. Passionate prayer. Storytelling. Seeing church as family. A strong emphasis on what the gospel means for the poorest among us. A preference for wisdom over knowledge. Write all the books and blog posts you want; if your theology doesn’t work in an Asian megacity or an African village, it doesn’t work. These are the sorts of things many of my friends in Newfrontiers are talking about, I think.

2. Others, especially missionaries operating in a Majority World context, mean slightly more than this. They agree with #1, but go further: there are all sorts of ways in which Westerners misread the Bible and formulate theology poorly because of our Western context, and need correction and balance from our Majority World brothers and sisters. Ethnocentric assumptions (the classic example being the “impudence” of the man in Luke 11:5-8). Honour/shame dynamics in biblical narratives and soteriological formulations. Reading the Gospels, and especially the parables, as if the events actually took place in Middle Eastern villages. Seeing the gospel significance of what might seem like subplots or marginal characters (Hagar, Abimelech, Dinah, Tamar ...) This kind of thing is what friends of mine working in Turkey and Armenia are focusing on.

3. Then there are those for whom Contextual Theology is an academic attempt to broaden the Christian tradition through the integration of liberation theologies, postcolonial theologies, Asian theologies, African theologies, Latin American theologies and so on; the postmodern impulse in contemporary scholarship, combined with the need for research to be original, has given this considerable momentum in the academy. Books and essays on this subject are often written not by missionaries or even pastors, but by academics from Majority World cultures working in (often Western) universities, and even good examples of the genre accidentally show how context can be less to do with ethnicity than with location, socio-economic status and church practice. (In other words, Chinese house church members probably have more in common with black or white house church Pentecostals in Brixton than they do with Chinese academics in American universities.) If people have this in mind when they talk about Contextual Theology, they will obviously react to it rather differently than if they are thinking of #1 or #2.

4. The most revisionist use of the language comes when progressive Western theologians berate conservative Western theologians for adhering too closely to the rule of faith, the Creeds, the theological reading of Scripture or whatever else in their biblical interpretation, on the grounds that doing so is “Eurocentric” or even “white” rather than “global” or “contextual.” This is what Alastair Roberts and Matt Anderson are objecting to, and it also risks falling foul of this pithy comment: “So, non-white people who train at elite western institutions and employ the historical-critical methods developed by 19th century Germans and critical theories put forward by 20th century French and German philosophers bring needed diversity, but theological interpretation that uses 1600 year old creeds written by Middle Easterners and North Africans and accepted by nearly all Christians throughout the world as a guide is tainted by whiteness. Check.”

So here’s why I think both critics and celebrators can all be right. I think the friends of mine who are championing Contextual Theology are almost entirely talking about #1 or #2, and those who are warning against it are almost entirely talking about #3 or #4. Context is everything: my Armenian and Turkish pastor friends are simply not that concerned with #4, since it is not a huge issue in Yerevan or Istanbul, whereas those engaged in biblical studies intramurals in North America would be negligent if they weren’t concerned with #4, seeing it (rightly, in my view) as a Trojan horse inside which all sorts of agendas can be smuggled. As such, my guess is that if those same Majority World pastors were shown Daniel Kirk’s recent article, or if those same evangelical academics were talking to church pastors in Kenya or Kolkata, they would completely agree with each other. The same term, used in different settings and with different meanings, can be either poisonous or glorious.

So is Contextual Theology a good or a bad thing? It depends on your context. That’s how I like my irony.

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