Contextual or Practical? More thoughts on contextual theology

Of late I’ve been thinking a lot about contextual theology; particularly in the context of the popular equation of contextual theology with practical theology (arising often from some western mission-oriented scholars). The belief (proposal) is that theology, when dealing with the practical contextual issues of our time, is contextual. Rooted in this belief is a methodological presupposition that there is a consistent gospel, known/understandable/communicable across time and cultures. What remains, from this clear/unchanging gospel, is the practical time-bound/culture-bound application of the issues. Many would admit that the gospel is and must continue to be interpreted from cultural frameworks. However, the priority of scriptures is so strongly emphasized that the actual “power” that the context has over our understanding of scripture is largely ignored. We are left with a monolithic (standard) view of God and revelation, without the cultural nuances that could theoretically significantly alter / differentiate our understanding of them.

Contextual theologians for their part (and I wish I could side more fully with this side) are those who appeal to the contextual nature of understanding and make an intentional attempt to discover the gospel within their contextual framework. These “contextual” frameworks include ethnicity and gender, but also social ethics like justice and peace. The concern here is not simply to “apply” the gospel, but to understand (even re-understand) the gospel contextually. Hence, theology, and our pet (standard) doctrines like Creation, redemption, eschatology, need to be revisited from the contextual point of view. God must be seen as being involved with the world, and thus our involvement with God’s world, and God’s activity in this world, is seen to naturally be coloured by our perceptions of this world.

This quest to understand God “from below” (as it has been called) is truly a much-needed activity, especially for younger churches who need to discover who God is and what the Bible says, for themselves, for their communities. Like the “western church” they (we) too need to be allowed to make mistakes and learn from them, grow in our theology through theological debate.

I need to say that I (personally) am averse to the anti-western flavour that a lot of contextual theology takes. Furthermore, I am also averse to the aggressive anti-biblical, anti-church rhetoric that is proposed. However, especially in view of the last paragraph, I feel the younger churches must be allowed to make such mistakes even as other “contextual” theologians from the younger churches should be allowed to disagree with our (contextual) counterparts.

I don’t mean that theological debate must take place at the exclusion of the “west”, but rather that this debate must be a real one… and must not simply be between “west and east” but also within/between “east and east” (south and south… or whatever metaphor / classification we choose to employ).

So positively, drawn from the first paragraph, I want to affirm that contextual theology must have (and the must is a norm that I propose, and in view of the needed debate between contextual theologians) a missional flavour. It is true that theology for theology sake is beautiful and good, but the challenge to be practical may indeed give greater focus and direction, even urgency, to our contextual ramblings. It is the crisis of the present that can govern/shape our theology, and that crisis… like the challenges of society, of church, of ethics etc… must also be the focus of our theological engagement.

Similarly, I am now less averse to the equation of practical theology with contextual theology, though I do still disagree with its equation that contextual theology equals practical theology. However, I am certainly inclined to think that the practical focus of contextual theology, may in fact be its strength.

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Passage for this Season

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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