Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Contextual theology

My answer to a question about contextual theology.


Seems to me that this is something of a fad.

1. On the one hand it's obviously important to distinguish between Biblical teaching and historical theology or tradition. I find it bit painful to read Brainerd's description of how he tried to catechize the American Indians. He doesn't make any allowance for cultural differences.

2. One danger of contextual theology is that it tends to be patronizing. Unless a missionary or church-planter really is bicultural, then he is an outsider to the culture in which or to which he ministers. So he's not really in a position to inculturate the message. He doesn't know enough about the foreign culture. The effort can be rather condescending, as if he's explaining to the natives what their culture means.

3. It can also shift focus away from teaching the Bible to trying to master the new culture, and relate to the new culture on its own terms. It's no longer Bible-centered. It becomes less about teaching the Gospel than learning about the new culture. Less about teaching and more about listening. It can also lead to a very self-conscious preaching style, where you constantly second-guess whether you've successfully cross-contextualized the message.

One might appeal to Paul's statement about becoming all things to all men, but that misses the point. Because of Paul's cosmopolitan background, Paul already moved freely between more than one culture. That was second nature to him. He was a diaspora Jew as well as a Roman citizen, who studied in Jerusalem. So that's not something he had to think about.

4. Ultimately it's up to the natives, not the missionary, to inculturate the gospel.

5. In addition, many third-world cultures have already been influenced by American culture. It's not a totally alien experience to them.

6. There's also the danger of stereotyping, such as the simplistic cliché about how American culture is individualistic whereas Asian culture is collective. But that's clearly overdrawn, and it's prejudicial. You'd be prejudging the natives before you really get to know them.

7. To take an illustration, suppose a PCA missionary plants a church in Asia. After a few years, when he has an established congregation, it might be useful for him to give them a historical overview of Presbyterian theology. It begins with the early Latin Church, then cycles through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Then you have the Protestant Reformation, which is basically a N. European phenomenon. In part a reaction to the church of Rome. Then you have the Westminster Standards, which are the product of Puritanism and Anglicanism. Then you have the Great Awakening. Then you have Old Princeton. Then you have the founding of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philly.

That distinguishes Biblical teaching in itself from its inculturation in a particular theological tradition. It's important for us to mentally distinguish the two so that we can compare and contrast them.

8. There's a difference between the Bible and historical theology. It's striking how NT writers expect Gentile converts to jump right into the OT. To play catch-up. Clearly they think it's possible for converts from a very different cultural background (gentile pagans) to come up to speed pretty fast.

9. And our ancestors had to do the same thing. My forebears (on my father's side) were Vikings. The missionaries who evangelized my savage pagan forebears so many centuries ago, weren't really into contextual theology. But my Viking ancestors were able to catch on.

10. To a great extent the Protestant Reformation was an exercise in decontextualizing Latin theology from Western European church history and attempting to recontextualize theology in the original source (the Bible).

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