Because of the length of this topic, I have tried to make it more digestible by dividing it into a series of posts; this is the third one, and there will be two more. I am more than happy to respond to questions and comments at any point. I hope others find this as interesting as I do. Christianity is an incarnational faith indeed – a faith of embodiment…do we live it though?
Here we go with the next set of notes:
How do we do Contextual Theology?
Bevans suggests six ways or models for doing contextual theology, that theologians employ.1 All of them represent different ways of theologizing that takes a particular context seriously and each represents a distinct theological starting point and distinct theological presuppositions.
These models arise out of the way theologians combine the issues and difficulties of doing contextual theology and represent poles of thought across a wide spectrum. For example the most conservative of the six models, the countercultural model, recognizes the importance of context but distrusts its sanctity and revelational power. The translation model takes account of context but puts more emphasis on the content of Scripture and Tradition. The anthropological model is more radical, in that it emphasizes cultural identity and its relevance for doing theology more than Scripture or Tradition, which although important considers it a product of contextually relative theologies originating from very specific contexts. The praxis model, on the other hand, focuses on the importance or need for social change as faith and theology is articulated. The synthetic model attempts to balance and make use of all of these models together. Finally, the transcendental model focuses not on a content to be articulated but rather on the subject who is articulating. If one is personally authentic in one’s faith and in one’s being-in-the-world, one will be able to express one’s faith in an authentic and contextual manner.
A Map of the Models of Contextual Theology
- The Translation Model
Of the six models, the translation model is probably the most commonly employed and usually the one that most people think of when they think of doing theology in context. This model focuses on articulating the unchanging truths of the Bible in a culturally intelligible manner for a given cultural context. While, as Bevans argues, every model of contextual theology is a model of translation in the sense of there always being a content to be adapted to a particular culture, the translation model insists on the Gospel message being unchanging. In addition, the values and thought forms of culture are understood not so much as being good in themselves but rather as convenient vehicles for the unchanging and universal Gospel truth. The translation model presupposes that there is a supracultural or supracontextual essence to the Gospel that is applicable to all cultures and contexts, although there may be disagreement over what that essence may actually be. This is also the most common model used by expatriates in their attempts to adapt church tradition to a local culture.
1. Takes seriously the message of Christianity as recorded in the scriptures and handed down in tradition.
2. It recognizes the ambivalence of contextual reality. So much of the Bible and of the formulations of tradition, the translator realizes, is simply the product of a culture and needs to be stripped down at every turn to the basic gospel message. Similarly not everything in culture is automatically good.
3. The practitioner of this model is one who can accept the good in all cultures and contexts while still being committed to the transforming and challenging power of the gospel.
4. This model can be used by any person committed to a particular culture or situation, nonparticipant or participant.
1. Questions over the presupposition that every culture is roughly similar to every other culture and that what is important in one will be important in another.
2. Is there such a thing as naked gospel? How do we identify the difference between gospel and its context. We cannot have access to the gospel apart from some kind of human formulation. The gospel is bound up with a context.
2. The Anthropological Model
This model starts at the opposite end of the spectrum and is concerned primarily with “the establishment or preservation of cultural identity by a person of Christian faith”. The model starts with cultural identity and is “anthropological” because on the one hand it focuses on the anthropos of the human person and the good and worth of a persons’ identity and on the other it makes use of the insights of anthropology as a social science. Advocates of this model will work from a creation-centred rather than a redemption-centred theology. In other words, a theology which values human experience and context as essentially good and one that sees the world as sacramental, where God continually reveals himself in daily life and to ordinary people. By implication, then, human experience and culture are centres of God’s activity and therefore sources of theology. This is a model used by theologians doing theology in Melanesia, a prominent example being Ennio Mantovani.
1. It regards human reality with utmost seriousness and attests to the goodness of all creation.
2. It recognizes that scripture and tradition are a series of local theologies.
3. It has the advantage of allowing men and women to see Christianity in a fresh light. Christianity is not automatically the importation of foreign ideas. Rather it is a perspective on how to live one’s own life even more faithfully in terms of one who is a cultural and historical subject. To be Christian, is to be human: it is to find more challenging and always more abundant life. This is a whole new way of doing theology.
4. It starts where people are, with people’s real interests and questions rather than imposing questions asked out of other contexts. Anthropologist John Kirby has pointed out that evangelism in Africa has been less than successful since Christianity has not been presented as a system that solves problems that Africans really have. How may we speak of contextualizing the gospel, without first opening our eyes and ears to people’s problems as they are experienced and understood by them.
1. It easily falls prey to cultural romanticism. The danger is that everything in culture can be seen as automatically good and holy.
2. It can lead to romantic ideas of culture being some kind of unchanging idyllic picture that has never really existed. Cultures continually change and interact with each other, meaning that it is almost impossible to identify a pure culture untouched by others.
3. The ideal of the anthropological model is discover the gospel emerging from a particular situation, but this is never really the case. Practitioners of the model still use theological categories such as sin, grace, justice, trinity and so forth, inherited from other traditions and contexts.
4. As much as the anthropological model tries to fend off influence from other cultures, its method hinges on the western science of anthropology and other social sciences.
3. The Praxis Model
This model is concerned primarily with the identity of Christians in a context of social change. Its focus is not on knowledge about faith but rather on commitment to positive action to bring about change in society. In this model, theology is not done simply by providing relevant expressions of Christian faith but also by commitment to Christian action. It involves the process of “right acting” as well as simply “right thinking”. Such a model emphasizes concepts of liberation and transformation in society and maintains that these can be brought about through theological praxis, that is action with reflection. Liberation theology remains a prominent example of this kind of theological reflection.
- As a theological method, the praxis model is wedded to a particular context, it has its “feet on the ground” in a particular social context.
2. By constantly reflecting on one’s daily activity in terms of scripture and tradition (and vice versa), Christianity is understood to bring much to bear on the realities of daily life, and daily life can help sharpen expressions of Christian faith.
1. Critiqued for its close connections with Marxism.