During my recent introductory course to theology, the lecturer shared some additional lecture notes towards the end of the course, which I have not posted yet, but will do so now.    They are all on the subject of contextual theology, and follow on from the notes already shared which assert that all theology is contextual.  Perhaps I might recommend interested readers to read that assertion once again to themselves and consider what it means if it were true – and I do believe it true.  All theology is contextual. All God-talk is contextual.

The first set of notes come in two parts, the first here, and the second Why theology must be contextual?’.  From then comes a third post (which, again, for the reader’s convenience will come in two parts) titled How do we do Contextual Theology?   A final post will be provide some summary bullet points and some questions to ponder, and perhaps – for those who are interested – it might be nice to have a bit of back and forth on the comments thread when that post is published.  Some of the names mentioned in the notes are authors whose books I have listed a couple of months ago in relation to the course – just in case you were wondering.

Perhaps I can mention that the author of the lecture notes has spent some time in the Solomon Islands, which is greatly infused with Christianity.  I have been told an anecdote that there are good inter-denominational relationships there: even including between a Roman Catholic church and a Seventh-Day Adventist next-door neighbour church, with some people going to church at both…on a Saturday and then on a Sunday. Presumably the Adventist official views on the status of the bishop of Rome do not feature too highly in the teachings of their church as they relate to the Solomon Islands. Nor apparently, when it comes to Rome, is the European approach pushed too strongly: I am told that an oft heard phrase by Roman Catholics in the western Pacific is “we’re a long way from Rome” as they do all sorts of things that would no doubt get QV (and others?) hot under the collar – an approach taken by RCs, I believe, in many many parts of the world, except Europe (or even then?)

Perhaps I can point out that Stephen Bevans, an author from whom much of the content of the notes below is taken, is a prominent Roman Catholic theologian – look him up online.

Here goes then:

What is Context?

Parratt describes context as “the particular historical, geographic, cultural, political, social, economic and religious circumstances in which any Church or community is situated.”1

Contextual theology then is talk about God arising from a particular social context, relating to the problems and concerns of that particular situation.

Sõlle identifies three elements which govern theology:

  1. Scripture and Tradition (the text).
  2. The historical situation of the text and its interpreters (the context).
  3. The community of faith (the people of God).

Theology has to take account of all three elements. A theology which only repeats Scripture and Tradition in an ossified way, does not articulate what the text has to say in the present context. It becomes irrelevant for the people of God who live in a particular context. There must always be dialogue between text and context related to the people of God as the subject of faith.

Moltmann—The importance of both Identity and Relevance

Bevans—Models of Contextual theology.

Essentially there is no such thing as theology; there is only contextual theology; European theology, Melanesian theology, feminist theology, liberation theology, black theology, Asian theology, African theology and so on.2 All theology is done in a context.

All theology is contextually relative.

Theology was once understood to be an objective science of faith—Scripture and Tradition could and would never be changed and were considered to be above culture and historically conditioned expression.

But present human experience is also a determining factor in any theology. Contextual theology realizes that culture, history, contemporary thought forms etc all exist alongside Scripture and Tradition and are valid sources for theological expression.

Theology is subjective, in that human persons and cultures are contextually relative. What is “true” or “real” only has meaning from our cultural and historical context—What we see and interpret is determined by our context.

For example “rice”. North Americans see rice either about to be harvested, drying in the sun or cooked on the table. They see “rice” in different ways, depending on the context in which they see it. Filipinos have many names for various types of rice. Sinaing (plain steamed rice), Sinangag (fried rice), Tutong (fire burnt rice at the bottom of the cooking pot), Bahaw (left-over rice) and am (rice broth given to babies).

Water is another example in that many languages contain numerous words to describe water. Whether drift, flow, current, wave, ripple, height. All of these describe water, yet different facets of it.

Australian policy makers in Canberra may describe the wantok or Big-Man system as “corruption”. A Melanesian may see things quite differently i.e. as a system to fulfill cultural and social obligations. It all depends on the social and cultural context of the interpreter.

Our world, reality, truth, are not just out there but we construct them. We do not simply “see” but we “see as”.

We can, therefore, never speak of one, right, unchanging theology, because it does not exist. All theology is the product of a context. We can only speak about a theology that makes sense at a certain place and in a certain time. We can learn from other theologies but the theology of others can never be our own.3

Once we recognize the importance of context for theology, we realize that context, to some extent, determines both Scripture and Tradition. The writings of Scripture and the content and practices of Tradition did not fall from the sky. They are the products of human beings and their contexts. They have been developed by human beings, written and conceived in human terms and conditioned by human personality and human circumstances.

Theology is not something that is delivered to us by some totally objective universal mind. Nor is it delivered by angels or inter-galactic spaceships. It is something worked out by particular people, with particular agenda, trying to deal with particular issues arising within their own culture and their own time, and addressed to particular people with particular concerns and particular abilities.”4

As we study Scripture and Tradition we have to be aware not only of their contextual nature but also that we have to read and interpret them within our own context as well.5

Context, however, is complex, representing a combination of interconnecting and complicated realities.

First, it includes the experiences of a person’s or group’s personal life. Experiences of success, failure, births, deaths, relationships etc. can allow or prevent people experiencing God in their lives.

Secondly, context also includes the experiences of life both personal and communal in our present world. These include moments of tragedy as the genocide in Rwanda in the 1990’s, the conflict in Solomon Islands (1998-2000) and the murder of the seven Brothers (2003). Or experiences of wonder or awe such as the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989), the spectacle of the Olympic games, uniting nations, or the coming of the new Millennium.

At the most basic level, theology interconnects with life experiences. It is about working out and taking stands on what we value and what we believe in. The commitments a theologian is prepared to make come down to who he/she thinks God is or who he/she denies God to be.6

Thirdly, context includes a person’s or community’s social location. Whether one is male or female, rich or poor, from North America or Latin America, Melanesia or Polynesia, powerful or powerless etc. makes a difference and will determine the type of theology that develops.

Social location can be a limiting factor to theology, in that theologians see and interpret from a particular situation and standpoint, but it can also enable theologians to pick out strengths and weaknesses in theological traditions. It may also be a position which enables people to ask contextually relevant questions never before asked in theological reflection. For example how is theology relevant to the context of suffering and oppression in Latin America?

It is essential therefore that as theologians do theology, their social location needs to be acknowledged and embraced. (Not all theologians do this)! It is possible to move beyond our social locations but not acknowledging who we are can result in poor or confused theology!

Finally, present experience in context implies social change. No context is static, it is continually growing, developing, improving or declining. Cultural and contextual change is inevitable, particularly in the face of increasing culture contact, migration of peoples the forces of globalization and information technology.

1 John Parratt, A Guide to Doing Theology, SPCK International Study Guide No. 35 (London: SPCK, 1996), 108.

2 Stephen B. Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology, Revised and Expanded Edition (Maryknoll, Orbis Books, 2002), 3.

3 Bevans, 5.

4 Neil Darragh, Doing Theology Ourselves: A Guide to Research and Action (Auckland: Accent Publications, 1995), 17.

5 Bevans, 5.

6 Darragh, 7.