What is Contextual Theology? More questions than answers

Few days ago I was reading an academic paper written intentionally from a Kenyan contextual perspective. The paper critiqued the state of the Kenyan church and called for a transformation of the content and method of education in the Kenya. What struck me was that the author talked about the Kenyan church in almost the exact manner we talk about the Indian church. The Kenyan church, also the recipient of Colonial Christianity, had almost the exact concerns as those facing India.

I asked the author (it was a presentation), what was distinctively “contextual” in his approach since there was such similarity. What was uniquely Kenyan in his theological formulation, his methodology, or even his solution? The author’s defense was that the history of the Kenyan Church, as well as the issues facing the Kenyan church, were unique. While the author was probably right to clarify it like this, in the paper I did not see enough evidence of a theology that arose from the awareness of the history of Kenya or even the unique issues affecting Kenya. In effect, the generic “theological solution” was simply that generic.

This reminded me about how difficult “contextual theology” really is. What we usually see in attempts of “contextual theology” is theology that has implications to a particular region… hence a “practical theology”. This kind of theology seeks to address a particular issue facing a particular context. The generic nature of the “solution” is therefore not a problem because similar issues will have similar solutions.

However, we rarely see good “contextual theology” that actually uniquely emerges out of the context.This kind of theology, that is truly contextual, is mostly unique to the context within which it emerges from. In fact, it may not make sense to those outside that context, but it certainly rings a visceral bell in those within that context. This kind of theology is not simply about the issues facing the context (culture), like poverty, pluralism, lack of education etc. Rather, theology itself is made the issue. Do we understand the Bible correctly? Have we been brain-washed into thinking in a particular way? How should we (from our context) understand God, his word, that helps us to rightly understand and rightly communicate God here, today.

There have been contextual theologians in the past who have done this intentionally or unintentionally. However, good examples of “contextual theology” today are rare. It requires the theologian to be completely honest, even to the point of being willing to question age-old beliefs and traditions.

Keeping in mind the controversial nature of “contextual theology” I’m not sure whether it is a challenge worth fighting for.  But my gut-feeling is that contextual theology, the honest and compelling kind, is still needed today.

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Philippians 2:11-13 (NIV) (12)Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, (13)for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.

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