Contextual Theology

What is Theology?

Before describing contextual theology, I will first explain what theology is. It is a combination of the Greek words theos, meaning God, and logos, which has several different meanings including word (as in account, tell, to speak – not individual words, for which the Greek is lexis), reason, discourse, an opinion and also the divine.

Where John 1 begins with “In the beginning was the Word,” the original Greek text has the Word as Logos. It could be stretched beyond “the word” (as in lexis) to mean reason, divine order, a force of creation or even something similar to telos, which is Greek for a philosophical concept of design, purpose and intent.

The combination of these words in theology therefore means a study or reasoned understanding of God, religion and spirituality. It is typically but not necessarily applied to the study of Christianity. Anselm of Canterbury was a philosopher and theologian who described the study as “faith seeking understanding.”

In many ways, thinking theologically is to think about everything. Spirituality and religion permeates human experience. It affects culture in subtle ways not always visible or obvious.  It is found within other other disciplines such as history, law, ethics, psychology, philosophy, literature, anthropology and even technology.

Theology is normally studied by those following a particular faith, yet an atheist saying “there is no god” or an agnostic saying “I can’t prove whether or not there is a god” are theological statements. Debating or asserting the existence or non-existence of God, god or gods is still “doing theology.”

There is a deference between explicit and implicit  theology.

Implicit theology is inherited or implied spiritual values and opinions. They are often handed down through families or churches without being openly contested, defended or even defined. For example, a person may have a certain view regarding marriage which they have absorbed from their family values or religious beliefs without having publicly discussed or asserted why they hold that particular view.

Explicit theology is public theology. It is when implicit views and opinions are openly debated, defended and explained through reason or appeals to Scripture and tradition. Academic theology is therefore an exercise in explicit theology. It is where an individual makes their spiritual or religious thoughts public and is prepared to defend them against critique. In a Bible study group people will bring their implicit theology and explicate it through discussion, along with analysis and interpretation of Scripture.

What is Contextual Theology?

Contextual theology is not a new thing. People have always done contextual theology. For example, to understand the Hebrew prophets one needs to be aware of the time and place they were prophesying in as this context gives meaning to prophecy. Another example is the book of Exodus, set in the story of bondage, freedom and migration. Or the Christian Gospels from the backdrop of Hebrew prophesy, Judaism centered around the temple in Jerusalem, and Roman occupation of Palestine.

What is relatively new, arising through the later half of the twentieth century, is the acknowledgement of the importance of context and culture. It is increasingly becoming an explicit process to contextualize theology, to recognize there is no theology, there is only contextual theology. Theology is not done in a vacuum. It always comes with a history, is done within a culture, and by people who carry an implicit theology.

Culture is an inseparable element of contextual theology.  There has been a shift in theological and missiological  method from the mid twentieth century in response to a large demographic shift in Christianity itself. Traditionally theology has been centered in Europe, particularly Rome, and was exported alongside colonization and Western imperialism. The process was often oppressive and fraught with cultural superiority, where the cultures being colonized were seen as inferior savages  needing to be civilized through assimilation with Western values. Traditional Western religion was typically used as a conquering force to subsume and subordinate local cultures.

Through the colonial period and into the first half of the twentieth century, there was a dramatic spread in Christianity from Europe and North America (North Atlantic churches) to other continents. While the religion has been declining in the West, it has experienced strong growth in Africa, Asia, South America and Oceania. It is now truly a world religion, most strongly supported (followers per capita) in Africa and South America.

This shift, combined with a growing dissastisfaction of imperial power and western control, meant Christianity was struggling to remain relevant outside of Europe. It did not sufficiently represent and value the new cultures it had spread to. Eventually the West woke-up to the fact that classical Christianity was becoming increasing irrelevant to many people. A watershed moment in this shift was the Second Vatican Council, where the Catholic Church acknowledged the problem of relevance and sought to modernize the church.

New methods of theology were developed, such as Stephen Bevans’ models of contextual theology, to do mission work in a different way. Part of this involves encouraging new churches in the Eastern and Southern hemispheres to develop their own localized theologies, which are relevant and encompassing of their own culture. In other words, to do truly contextual theology that recognizes the importance of history, societies, and cultures in their own time and place. Contextual theology is a seed planted and grown in local soil. Whereas classical theology had typically been a static, pre-packaged and exported doctrine. A doctrine assumed to be absolute, correct, unchanging and beyond question.

In the following posts I will outline three of Bevans’ contextual models:

  • The anthropological model
  • The praxis model
  • The feminist model

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