And, without further ado, here’s part two of the ‘How do we do it?’ notes:
4. The Synthetic Model
Bevans describes this as the middle of the road model as it attempts to balance the three approaches we have described above. Essentially at the heart of this model is the need for constant dialogue as it attempts to hold Gospel, culture, tradition and culture change together in a creative tension. It recognizes the importance of each and then tries to utilise them for the development of a contextual theology. As Bevans notes:
It tries to preserve the importance of the gospel message and the heritage of traditional doctrinal formulations while at the same time acknowledging the vital role that context has played and can play in theology, even to the setting of the theological agenda.2
Key to this approach is the presupposition that every context has elements of uniqueness and elements that are held in common with others. Such an approach will make use of insights from other contexts, cultures, experiences and ways of thinking simply because all of these have something to say not only to the specific culture in which they are developed but also beyond to others. Here there is the potential and possibility for a mutual enrichment when contexts can dialogue with each other. The participants of one context can have something positive to give to the participants of another and each context can benefit from the insights of the others. As Bevans writes, “Attention to one’s own context can perhaps discover values in other contexts that had never been noticed before, and attention to others (including the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures), can transform and enrich one’s own worldview”.3
- Has a basic openness and dialogue. Truth will not be reached by one point of view trying to convince all the others that it alone is correct.
2. It makes an effort to make theologising an exercise in true conversation and dialogue with the other so that one’s own and one’s own cultural identity can emerge in the process.
3. It witnesses to the true universality of Christian faith. The fact that every person in every context can learn from every other person and the fact that the present can continue to learn from the past point to the reality of something that is constant in Christian identity.
1. It is always in danger of “selling out” to the other culture, tradition or social location, particularly strong or dominant dialogue partners, those who wish to dominate the proceedings.
2. Can be too weak or “wishy-washy” too much of a compromise that satisfies no one.
5. The Transcendental Model
The transcendental model proposes that the task of constructing a contextual theology is not about producing a particular body of any kind of texts. What is important is not so much that a particular theology is produced but that the theologian who is producing it operates as an authentic, converted subject. One begins to theologise contextually not by focusing on the essence of the gospel message or the context of tradition as such, or even by trying to thematize or analyse a particular context or expressions of language in that context. Rather, the starting point is transcendental, concerned with one’s own religious experience and one’s own experience of oneself. However what might seem to be a very personal and even individualistic starting point is really one that is both contextual and communal in that the individual as subject is determined by context and the existence of individuals in community. Theology in this model is the process of articulating who I am or who we are—as a person or persons of faith who are in every possible respect a product of a historical, geographical, social and cultural environment.
The experience of individuals is something that can articulate the experience of others who share one’s basic context, it speaks to other individuals, historically and culturally determined subjects—who share one’s own worldview. Experience is also where God is revealed if human beings are open to the possibility of that revelation. This model also presupposes that while every person is historically and culturally conditioned, the human mind still operates in identical ways across all cultures and periods of history. When for example an Asian or African inquires or understands, the concepts and images by which he or she understands will be very different from a North American or a European, but the basic operation of thinking remains the same. The act of knowing or understanding transcends historical and cultural differences.
1. A new way of doing theology. With its emphasis on theology as activity and process rather than theology as a particular content it insists that theology is not about finding out right answers that exist in some kind of transcultural realm but rather a passionate search for authenticity of expression of one’s own religious and cultural identity.
2. It clearly recognizes the contextual determination of the person who theologizes. The turn to the subject is also a turn to the historical and the cultural as genuine theological sources.
3. The universal structure of human knowing and consciousness provides common ground for mutual conversation and interaction. In this way one’s own theologising can be both sharpened over against the “other” and challenged and purified by the other’s questions.
1. It appears too abstract, too hard to grasp. It is difficult to make the shift from thinking of theology as some kind of content to be studied, written about, or lectured on to thinking of it as the actual activity of seeking understanding as an authentic believer and cultural subject.
2. The universality it promotes may not actually be universality at all, but the product of western male-dominated cultural thought forms. Do people really come to understand in the same way, or are there really different ways of knowing?
6. The Countercultural Model
This model that treats context (experience, culture, social location, and social change) with the utmost seriousness. It recognises that human beings and all theological expressions only exist in historically and culturally conditioned situations. On the other hand, however, it warns that context always needs to be treated with a good deal of suspicion. If the gospel is to truly take root within a people’s context, it needs to challenge and purify that context.
What this model realizes more than any other model is how some contexts are simply antithetical to the gospel and need to be challenged by the gospel’s liberating and healing power. To use an analogy to a garden, this model would say that the native soil of a particular context needs to be weeded and fertilized in order that the seeds can be planted. The soil otherwise could not support the healthy growth of the plant and thereafter needs continued care and vigilance.
1. It is rooted in scripture and tradition. It wants to be engaging of and relevant too the context while at the same time remaining faithful to the gospel.
2. It recognizes the deep ambiguity and even antigospel elements in context and notes that Christianity often has to speak a word of radical dissent and offer an alternative way of living.
1. The danger is that the model can become anticultural. This certainly was a danger for missionaries in times past, and while many accusations of missionaries destroying cultures in their efforts to preach Christ are sometimes exaggerated, such destruction did take place. If such disregard for the Spirit’s presence in the human context was present in the past, it is certainly a danger today. No culture is entirely corrupt or evil.
2. There is a danger of withdrawing from the world, the Christian community is in danger of focusing only on its own integrity, the quality of its community, the authenticity of its worship and not moving into the world. Christians need to “dirty their hands” in real work in the world, not isolate themselves from it.
3. This model is often a critique of Western culture and its practitioners are white and often middle-class. This model may be appropriate for affluent white European contexts people from other cultural and racial contexts tend to point to the need for their own cultures to be recognised and valued by the dominant white culture. It is perhaps inappropriate to employ such a model in contexts in which cultural and personal identity has often been threatened.
Is One Model Better Than Another?
Is one model of contextual theology better than the others? Is there one way of taking account of the experience of the past and the experience of the present that is more adequate than another? The answer to these questions might be both yes and no.
Each of these models are valid approaches to doing contextual theology and each has a number of distinct advantages as well as limitations. There was a time when contextual theologians argued over whether one way of doing theology was the only way, but this kind of discussion has been recognized as futile. Every person involved in doing theology needs to be aware of the range of methodological options available. There needs to be a healthy pluralism.
It is also important to recognise that such models are inclusive in nature. There is no need to commit oneself to any one model to the exclusion of one or more of the others. “It is not contradictory to hold a high value of both Gospel and culture, nor is it wrong to take one’s theological agenda from various sources: society at large; the current world scene as expressed in both the economic and political realms; the Biblical data; or the guidance of the Spirit.”4
On the other hand, certain models can function more adequately within certain circumstances or contexts. For example in a situation that calls for radical social change the praxis model may be more appropriate than the translation model. In a situation of primary evangelisation however, translating one’s own understanding of the gospel into the language and customs of another culture, may be the only option until indigenous Christians are able to reflectively construct their own local theology.
Robert Schreiter reflecting on his collection of contemporary African Christologies, notes that “for too long, embracing Christ and his message meant rejection of African cultural values. Africans were taught that their ancient ways were deficient or even evil and had to be set aside if they hoped to become Christian.”5 In such a situation, the anthropological model would be appropriate. On the other hand in a culture such as the Philippines, where despite cultural depreciation there has been constant cross-fertilization for centuries, a more inclusive or synthetic approach may be the best way to capture the complexities of Filipino Christian identity.
The move to understand all theology as contextual is also a move to recognize the complex reality of theological pluralism. In the past we could speak of the unity of theology, and theological students from Manila, Chicago, Solomon Islands, Melbourne, London, Durban and Goroka all studied the same theology out of pretty much the same books. The question of the best model of contextual theology is an appropriate one but within today’s world of radical plurality and ambiguity the best answer to the question can only be: “It depends on the context.”6
An Important Note
While contextual theological method and reflection can make use of Bevans’ models outlined above, such theoretical models do not necessarily take account of the complex interactions and nuances between theological and cultural contexts in practice. While they are helpful in providing some framework for theological reflection, such models as fixed categories struggle to take account of contextual theology in which such categories are fluid and often interconnect, interact and blur into each other.
1 See Stephen B. Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology, Revised and Expanded Edition (Maryknoll, Orbis Books, 2002). The following section is taken and adapted from this book.
2 Bevans, 89.
3 Bevans, 91.
4 Bevans, 139.
5 Bevans, 140.
6 Bevans, 140.
St Bosco said:
Dont bother me…im theologizing.
I think I am the only person here trying to bring the gospel into a culture other that my own. So I can see a value in these notes but also have some concerns that they may used in ways that lead away from unchanging truths of the gospel. I’m concerned that the aim of some is to make a faith/church acceptable and successful in its attempt to spreading Christianity rather than to be authentic Christianity. But these models need not be used that way.
I’ll make a few observations about the models. I have never encountered this sort of presentation but I think I practice the concepts.
I will try to give an example of implementing the first model – it will be down to earth and basic – I’m feeling – “will you all think it foolish.” Perhaps you will be kind enough to give me feedback on whether you find any value or not in such examples.
THE TRANSLATION MODEL: I maintain that the view that the Gospel message is unchanging is unavoidable and if the Gospel does not have a supracultural or supracontextual applicable to all cultures to my mind it has nothing but what it does have is the divine essence love.
We should ‘be a challenge to’, ‘not simply challenge’ the thought forms of a degenerate culture that are incompatible with the gospel. i.e. we must incarnate the gospel as little Christ (Christ-ians) carrying the same Spirit.
We should identify the values and thought forms in a culture that are good in themselves and that as such are compatible with the unchanging and universal Gospel truth and employ them as vehicles for conveying that truth.
Questions about the diversity of cultures are important and may lead us to emphasis or apply particular aspects of the Gospel to a particular culture.
IN BARBADOS: a major issue is the reluctance of men to marry and take responsibility for their children. They have been beaten to death with religion and long 3-4 hour services as children and most do not respond. It’s obviously sin but we do not need to use the word before we have explained the gospel and its relevance to the personal and social issues.
I held a meeting for all the builders building my house (on the part completed site). First I questioned to find how many were brought up at home with a dad. I went on to ask if they always had enough to eat, if they always had clothes and shoes without holes to wear to school. I knew the responses prior to asking, I had made myself aware of the culture and its ‘visiting rights’ i.e. a man gets rights to visit a woman and stay overnight she has his children, and the grandparents who may primarily own the home and the mother allow these rights. The man will probably have ‘visiting rights’ to another home/s and may have kids there.
Responses were no dads around and lack of material resources growing up. They all agreed they would have liked a dad around and been better off if there had been one. Only one of them a Christian was passing on something better than he had inherited. The application of the Gospel is obvious. Life would be better if we lived it the Jesus way are you going to pass on what you got or something better – are you already cheating your woman and kids of what they have a right to. Make a change, man up, ask forgiveness from them and God and follow Jesus example and control the uncontrollable part of their anatomy – I was more graphic on this with my audience.
THE HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE (as it has been recounted to me): Barbados is the first island you come to from across the Atlantic and it’s flat. This island was used throughout the slave period to breed slaves like cattle. The peoples of the most docile tribes were set of here for breeding from where they were sold to other island with no consideration for family units. Being flat there was no terrain to hide in and there was little rebellion as there was in Jamaica. Interestingly the slave uprising in Jamaica was led by a Baptist preacher who is now a national Jamaican hero as a result see Baptist War – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia and Samuel Sharpe – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
Resentful thoughts of slavery are not far below the surface in ex slave nations. Many see the social disruption here in terms of lack of marriage or management style as a fruit of slavery.
APPLICATION: I tell my building team they are still slaves – slaves to the patterns of life that were forced upon them and forged by slavery – or as Jesus implied they were slaves to sin, the sin done against them and which they were now perpetuating. The idea was to make them mad enough to make a change.
TRAINING: If I were training others in evangelism I would describe the approach graphically as follows:-
Identify the cultures itch and scratch it with the gospel. Many problems are addressed by the Gospel and they frequently relate to sin.
We do not have to use the sin word to address the problem/sin. Where the Gospel has been preached in a manner that does not relate it to a cultural needs or weaknesses the sin word will be seen only as religious, irrelevant and restrictive. So ‘the sin word’ will be best avoided until you have your target audience in agreement about the problems in their culture and where applicable realizing their personal responsibility for them. I this way we will not be or seen to be presenting something religious as though it were something apart from ‘real life’. Christ came to impart abundant life not what the general populace consider religion to be.
I like and find most interesting what you have written Rob. Thanks for the comment.
Perhaps I can though disagree that you’re the only one here doing something outside of your own context. I think that I know what you mean, but I suspect that you are thinking of context as primarily geographical, which is this technologically interconnected world is becoming more and more less the primary context for people (if it ever was).
We not only have people on this blog not living in their ‘home cultures’ – to speak once again of geographical context – but we also have people who are hurt by alcoholic backgrounds, people who have experienced divorce. Some people here might be older, yet working amongst mostly younger and impressionable people yet to think for themselves. Even within the UK, is there one geographic culture? I don’t think so – Geoffrey is an Ulsterman living in England, for instance.
Indeed, many of us are living in a context where Christianity is misunderstood deeply, so we feel. Some of us may be poorer than others – which is an oft unspoken context. Some of us may have deep personal wounds that affect our behaviours towards particular others. And on and on it goes.
Theology is mostly contextually implicit, and often takes time to formulate and articulate in an explicit manner.
I must say that I sense that the general response I am getting to these posts on contextual theology is rather mute….a sort of: it’s vaguely interesting, but it seems like a slippery slope to me – because I know what the gospel and how it ought to be applied etc… etc…
I had been hoping to open peoples minds a little more – perhaps that is a little arrogant of me to state that anyway.
Perhaps I can suggest some objections to this series of posts and comment on them:
Q: Does this say anything more than that we can and should learn from one another without being a push over?
A: Yes, because it is suggesting how we might do the learning from the other by deeper listening to what the other is saying, perhaps using different models (albeit implicitly, not explicitly).
Q: Perhaps some do not see these things as obvious, some have an agenda to make the gospel whatever they want to and some want to write a lot of words to sell books.
A: This is academic work, so it hasn’t been written to sell books. And as I said, most of this comes from a RC – so it can’t be dismissed as ‘Anglican wishy-washy-ness’ in the dismissive manner that many seem to think is somehow a clincher in debate.
Q: Just what or why is the aim of all this?
A: To help expand the mind of people by understanding better how others might be approaching theology – particular when the other is someone who we disagree with. Do we just label them wrong, or do we take what the other has to offer seriously, even if at the end of the day we conclude that they may still be somehow wrong.
Q: We ought to be being concerned for how much of the traditional message is being considered unchangeable and how much is cultural baggage and is the door being left open for a re definition of the message. Are you?
A: “Traditional message”? What’s that? Again, these notes are to try to help people break out of ways of comfort zone thinking. Is it traditional to think of Jesus as a Pharisee of Hillel ? Maybe yes, and maybe no. There’s lots of evidence in Scripture, but it’s not much talked of, for instance.
Q: A better approach will be to warn others where I think these notes may be an aim or with a presentation that too ambiguous – don’t people want certainty?
A: Ambiguous? Does such a questioner understand God enough to understand where the firmer ground is? Some say that without much learning. Even if the questioner has much learning, an individual choice as to the boundaries of ambiguity is not to be taken lightly. There are two major historic modes of policing the boundaries of the church: conciliar synodical government and the Roman magistirium.
Q: Look, there’s a general approach established that we know our faith, and do not need all this stuff. We all know that in practice this context stuff amounts to not hitting people here over the head with the ‘sin word’ – at least not initially – no?
A: Again, this is academic work, and almost certainly not to be used overtly in the practical situations of evangelisation. Yet, for the Christian who seeks an ever deepening faith, perhaps we ought to keep listening to others, in ever deeper ways. Something I suggested in my last essay.
Really appreciate your comment Rob – and I have given an overly long reply, not necessarily aimed at you, but I hope also for the benefit of others here too.
After the last post later today, I hope some might respond on the comments thread to reflect as to whether they found these notes of any benefit.
THE ANTHROPOLOGICAL MODEL
A lot of evangelism is carried out in person to person encounters rather than in a meetings context and starting where the person is in their understanding, interests, needs questions etc is vital if you are going to communicate. This is well demonstrated by Jesus in His encounters with diverse individuals in the Gospel. Taking lessons from the Christ in the Gospel provides what I think we need to know about this model. I tend to think most of this is obvious and will be the natural practice if the love of Christ is the motivation. Maybe it is not obvious to, I have been actively engaged in evangelism of all types of people for 52 years perhaps I have just picked up some of this instinctively in the process.
Another point is that although each person is an individual he is also part of a wider culture and possibly a sub cultural group. In personal encounters the evangelist learns about the culture and forms the message in a relevant way. In the process the insight of these different models are employed naturally but perhaps without acquaintance with the models themselves.
I did an evangelistic outreach meeting for a group of Rastafarians (sub cultural group) in a big shed. I built what I had to say around Solomon his wisdom and our need of wisdom. The point made was the one greater that Solomon was there (i.e. about Jesus there in the meeting) to meet their needs. Solomon is a key figure for Rastafarians. My greatest ‘Contextual Theology’ problem in this was keeping a clear head in the clouds of blue cannabis smoke, a cultural hazard!
A charismatic approach in evangelism is often much wider than an evangelical one. Trusting in the active presence of the Holy Spirit the charismatic communicator may address any number of every day human problems whether spiritual, emotional, physical or social and expect resources from the Holy Spirit to meet them by manifesting the appropriate spiritual gift 1 Cor. Ch. 12. Again we see all this in Jesus practice but we may not break down what he did into our modern categories, the tax collectors had social problems of exclusion, the woman with the issue of blood similarly, she would be excluded from the temple, the woman at the well. For each of these their anthropological problem was social exclusion for various reasons.
S Wrote: “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”.
Is this meant to say the ideal is weak, which it is? Or is it meant to say that the use of theological categories such as sin, grace, justice, trinity and so forth, inherited from other traditions and contexts should not be used? If the latter is meant is this practically a claim that there is little truth in Christianity.
If evangelism in Africa was so unsuccessful what accounts for the phenomenal growth in Christianity there? There is a problem in the evangelism process of evangelism in Africa and in the subsequent discipleship process. The problem is in the manner in which church leaders address the problem of poverty by preaching what is known as ‘the prosperity gospel’. Too frequently the motivation is for the pastor to escape poverty by collecting tithes.
Thanks for the interesting comments Rob, as usual. Much appreciated.
Your questions, towards the end: some answers.
a. I don’t think it’s saying grace etc.. ought not to be used at all
b. The vast majority of African Christianity is of a charismatic style all of its own – I think they author is talking of a lack of success of importing and trying to slot in European liturgies – that approach hasn’t worked well for Africa (sub-Sahara). I think that’s it.
The summary of the models on the last post might well be helpful too. The post has now been published.
I have spent two six week periods of evangelism in S. African townships, my first trip is recounted in the magazine I emailed – did you get it.
Got the magazine, yes thanks. Not read it yet, but it is printed off. I have 1001 things to do at the moment. Once this series of posts on contextual theology is complete after answering comments today and maybe tomorrow, then I have to take a rest from this blog. Not least to prepare for an upcoming trip that I will tell all about tomorrow as my final post before I retreat back into the shadows for a month or so. S.
Have a good trip and a break from blogging, I think the Mag. will give you a good sense of what we do and where we and out approach.
Sorry … and our approach.
The Praxis Model
This is a good model the weakness in its presentation here is in associating the concept only with a particular outworking of it i.e. ‘Liberation Theology’ rather than developing it generally e.g. in light of the life of Jesus or the practice of the early church. If there is no ‘right acting’ and a call to it then the Gospel is not being presented, it’s just words without authenticity or power. The Christianity of Acts 2:44-45 may appear similar to Marxism but its ethics and practice is entirely different.
The evangelical concept of ‘redemption lift’ is that a society deeply affected by the gospel will change from the ground up due to its reforming power in the lives of the masses.
The church that I associate with emphasizes ‘good works’ as good in themselves and a means of incarnating the gospel. They have a ministry called ‘Jesus Action’. People in the locality of any of their congregations in S.E. London may request help and the church will respond within their capability. Not everyone is a preacher – teacher or what is traditionally considered a ‘minister’ (pretentious term if ever there was on for just a servant) but all can be ‘helps’. This is particularly good for new converts to Christ who may begin their discipleship by learning to serve others.
Yes, I like all of what you’ve written here, Rob. Many thanks once again. S.
The Synthetic Model
S: gave some good reasons why this is saying more that “We can and should learn from one another.”
Our approach as you would expect emphasizes the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures and looks to them for a recovery/revitalization of elements of the Gospel we think degraded to some extent as it moved into various cultures; this results in challenges to the traditional ways the church has come to do things.
e.g. The Hebrew culture considered salvation in the context of the group but the concept was somewhat lost when the gospel moved into the western world and modern times. A fuller appreciation of the gospel in its original culture, being the one God chose to be the revelational vehicle and Messiah’s race “Salvation is of the Jews Jn. 4” – may have produced a different history. The Jewish people are an interesting study they have maintained their sense of community.
I think some consider evangelicalism a straight jacket to “the dictates of the text ’. I believe God selected the nation and culture He did to reveal truth. By a continual return to the roots of our faith in the scriptures we will find a wealth of wisdom but not in a legalistic or prescriptive way. The Spirit will, throughout history, bring out from the scripture that which He seeks to apply redemptively to a particular culture and its time. Scripture is a living prophetic word guiding the church which is why it carries for us the prime importance in the synthesis.
Yes Rob. I like all of that. We do have much in common after all – how wonderful! When I get back from India, I want to – time permitting, and by the grace of Jess’ good nature – to see if we can get a little conversation going about two subjects: (i) the four marks of the church – including to reopen the Pandora’s Box of ‘catholicity’, and (ii) a little talk about Jesus and Paul and Pharisees (or, indeed, as Pharisees!). Love your comments – keep them coming please. Thanks, S.