Friday, January 16, 2009

Models of Contextual Theology 1: CT as a Theological Imperative.

In the first chapter of the Models of Contextual Theology, Steven Bevans lays out why it is imperative to do Theology contextually (i.e. it must be done). Because all theology is contextual (e.g. patristic, reformation, feminist, black, etc) Christian faith cannot be understood apart from which ever particular context it is found in.

For Bevans:

Contextual theology (hereafter CT) is NEW because theology was traditionally thought of as an 'objective science of faith' (p3) whereas CT approaches faith as something 'unabashedly subjective' not meaning 'relative or private' but reality that is 'mediated by meaning.' This meaning is given 'in the context of our culture and our historical period, interpreted from our own particular horizon and in our own particular thouht forms' (p4)

But CT is also traditional/OLD in that 'every authentic theology has been very much rooted in a particular context in some implicit or real way.' (p5)

CT needs to be done for the following external factors:

  1. 'A general dissatisfaction in both the First and Third worlds, with classical approaches to theology.' (p9) Especially the use of classical philosophy as the base for theology. So theologians are now turning to other philosophies (process, existentialist, personalist, linguistic, evolutionary, emergence) or other approaches all together (e.g. narrative, biography, and the social sciences). As well as responding to unique philosophical and cultural conditions in particular contexts.
  2. The 'oppresive nature of older approaches' to theology is resulting in those groups who have been oppressed (e.g. Black, Latin American, African, Women, etc) developing theologies that are sensitive to their issues (p10).
  3. The development of CTs are also a sign of the success of the missionary activity of the last century as local churches in nations far from Europe develope their own identities and sense of self worth (p10-11).
  4. Finally the social sciences have defined culture 'as a set of meanings and values that informs a way of life.' Moving culture from something 'out there' (and where only the elite could become 'cultured') to 'something that everyone particpates in already' (p11).

Bevans also sees internal (to Christianity) factors driving the need for CT:

  1. Firstly the Incarnation (God manifesting himself in the particular, as a human being in 1st century Judea) demonstrates that God doesn't 'shout his message from the heavens' but becomes present as a human within a particular time, space and culture. We can then only know the gospel (the good news about Jesus) as something that is within culture (p12).
  2. The 'sacramental nature of reality' (a lovely Roman Catholic doctrine) points us to the fact that 'God is revealed not primarily in ideas but rather in concrete reality' (p12). 'The whole movement of the Bible is one of interpreting the ordinary, the secular, in terms of religious symbolism.' (p13) And 'encounters with God continue to take place in our world through concrete things' e.g. through other humans, creation, and the symbols of baptism and communion (p12).
  3. The last century has also seen a shift from thinking about divine revelation as 'propositional truth' and faith then being 'intellectual assent to those truths.' More recently a '"newer" understanding- always present in theology but seldom explicitly and systematically appropriated' sees divine revelation as an interpersonal action of God giving of God's self where faith is then a personal response to God's self giving (p13).
  4. 'The all-embracing, all-inclusive, all-accepting nature of the Christian community' (that is its 'catholicity') means the church 'champions and preserves the local, the particular' even as it seeks to 'live and flourish in every part of the world' (p14). and so the church cannot truly be the church unless every cultural group within it 'is included in its particularity' (p15).
  5. Finally the 'renewal and revitalisation' of trinitarian thought over the last century means that the idea of God 'as a dynamic, relational, community of persons, whose very nature it is to be present and active in the world' has [rightly] returned to the heart of theological thought. God is no longer conceived as some abstract entity in heaven but is understood to be present and active in every human context (p15).

And that, argues Bevans, is why CT needs to be done. et me know what you think :)

2 comments:

  1. G'day Johnathon,

    I can't promise to be a regular commenter, but let you give you my context and then my thoughts.

    I attended MWCC until the end of 2003. I'm now living in Australia. I am broadly Reformed in soteriology and drink mainly from the "new Reformed" bunch of peoples.

    My take on Bevan's thoughts:

    Yes, I agree that theology needs to be contextual. In fact, I see the very fact of theology that has been formulated throughout the centuries contextually as one of the strengths of Christianity - the ability to percieve different perspectives on the one gospel from within different cultures and at different times. I eagerly anticipate more and more Asian theological contributions.

    However, I think Bevan, as I read him in your summary, is in danger of over-generalising and demonising our most recent context and reading that into earlier history. Western Modernism brought a great arrogance to theology, (which is why Bevan and others need to accentuate talk about contextual theology as a corrective in the first place) but it was also merely another context that has contributed to our understanding of different facets of the gospel, even as post-modernism (or whatever it's called now) brings it's own contribution via its recognition of contextual theology. Does Bevan recognise this?

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  2. Hi Ali, welcome and thanks for your thoughts. Probably the over generalisation is my fault as i try and condense three pages of text into a couple of sentences. Bevans' greater bias is his being a Roman Catholic which comes across strongly but not uncritically. Thus far I think he is bringing many of the positive pasrts of the RC tradition to the forefront (e.g. stong on incarnation and the sacramental nature of reality). And thinking about theology contextually certainly does add 'something' bevans is carefull not to judge but describe the pnenomenon, and each 'model' which he descibes is not evaluated but merely presented. His book thus seeks to be objective rather than agenda driven, educational rather than polemical. The chapter above is merely describing the forces that have contributed to the rise of CT.

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