What about “Contextual Theologies?”

What about “Contextual Theologies?” September 16, 2014

What about “Contextual Theologies?”


The term “contextual theologies” has come to be used in several ways. Here, by it, I mean theologies, accounts of God and matters related to God, that claim to be Christian but 1) fairly radically diverge from so-called “Western theologies,” and 2) propose alternatives to traditional “Western” orthodoxy based on cultural contextualization that goes beyond style to substance.

Many contemporary Christian theologians are supportive of each people group, usually ones that have experienced oppression at the hands of dominant people (colonialists, insensitive missionaries, patriarchal ecclesiastical hierarchies, etc.), developing their own doctrines without correction or criticism from outsiders.
“Syncretism” is an epithet almost completely dropped from contemporary theology—except by ultra-conservatives. Especially European and North American theologians trained in academic settings have accepted the common anthropological view that one cannot judge another people group’s culture; one can only study it without hoping ever to understand it as insiders understand it.


Appeal is often made to Wittgenstein’s theory of incommensurable “language games” to justify this near total lack of evaluation of non-Western, non-male, contextual theologies developed by people groups who have suffered oppression. Although they should not be equated, the anthropological theories of Clifford Geertz and Peter Winch support this approach to contextual theologies. (Both are often rightly or wrong associated with the Wittgensteinian perspective as it is commonly understood.)

The point is that a person outside a religious “form of life” cannot judge it—especially if that form of life is non-Western and being developed and worked out theologically “from the underside of history.”

I think there is a wrong general assumption that all of Christian orthodoxy has been developed and articulated by privileged, powerful, “Western” people. Let’s take Athanasius as an example. He was called by his enemies “the black dwarf” which indicates a non-European ethnic heritage—possibly Nubian or even Abyssinian. He was anything but part of the “ruling elite” of the Constantinian and post-Constantinian Roman Empire. He was exiled by Roman emperors five times including one exile among the “desert fathers.” And yet he was crucial in the development and preservation of Nicene orthodoxy.

One could come up with numerous examples of great defenders of basic Christian orthodoxy who do not fit the profile of “privileged, Western (viz., European), white people.”

Admittedly most of them have been male. That raises a very important question. To what extent did maleness influence the course of Christian orthodoxy? Many feminist theologians would say, of course, “very much.” But my question is always where and exactly how would basic Christian orthodoxy have developed differently if done by women? Many contemporary Christian women fully agree with basic Christian orthodoxy. What if all the church fathers and reformers had been church mothers and female reformers? Would we have a different Christianity in terms of doctrines and beliefs? When I read some feminist theologians the answer I discern is “yes.” Others seem to say “no,” but…. The “but” leads into pointers toward differences of emphasis, style and polity, not doctrine per se.

One common (not universal) theme in contemporary contextual theologies is the “immanence of transcendence.” There is a strong tendency to emphasize God’s, especially the Holy Spirit’s, presence in nature, culture and history—especially movements for liberation from colonialisms and political-economic-gender oppressions. While I can appreciate and support such movements, at least up to a point, I worry when I discern the immanence of the Holy Spirit is being used to support them. The same worry arises when some Global South theologies appeal to the Holy Spirit as the supporter of semi-animistic, shaman-like beliefs and practices. Some African Independent Churches include an emphasis on living prophets who, under the alleged influence of the Holy Spirit, act like traditional shamans. One African Independent Church (denomination) considers its founding prophet the incarnation of the Holy Spirit (just as Jesus was the incarnation of the Logos). Some African Independent Churches tolerate, if not baptize, what looks very much like ancestor worship.

By no means am I advocating that theologians in Berlin, Rome or New York (or anywhere else) sit in judgment on contextual theologies. I prefer dialogue, but dialogue that is genuinely two-way. Just as theologies developed in non-Western contexts can and often do criticize European- and American-based theologies, so Christians of Europe and North America have the right and duty to ask questions of non-Western contextual theologies. But when Jürgen Moltmann, for example, dared to challenge some aspects of Latin American liberation theologies, especially the propriety of violent revolutions, he was criticized for speaking into their context from the perspective of a “privileged person.”

The two great “guardrails,” as it were, must be pantheism and polytheism. Anything, in any cultural context, that claims to be Christian must avoid those. The great center, as it were, must remain the unique incarnation of God in Jesus Christ and his atoning death and resurrection. And any contextual theology that legitimately claims to be “Christian” must be based on Scripture, not equally a people group’s distinctive experiences. A people group’s distinctive experiences can and should point everyone toward lost, forgotten or neglected dimensions of Scripture, but they should not over ride or add to Scripture or, I would say, the basic orthodoxy of the first centuries of Christianity.

All that is to say, anywhere I go in the world I should be able to ask of a person or group that claims to be “Christian” “Do you believe Jesus Christ is the perfect and unsurpassable revelation and incarnation of God who is one God and Lord over all?” and “Do you believe in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit who are not dimensions of nature but, together one God, creator and redeemer?” and “Do you believe the Holy Bible is the inspired and authoritative Word of God, the unique written source and norm of Christian belief?” And I should expect the answer to be “yes,” “yes,” and “yes.” If it is not, then, even as a privileged, white, North American male, I have a right to doubt the person’s or group’s claim to be authentically Christian.

Addendum One: By deciding that a person or group is not “authentically Christian,” I am not judging his, her or their salvation. Whether a person is saved is solely God’s business to decide. But whether a person or group deserves to be considered “Christian” is a theologian’s business—best made tentatively and then finally (if it must be decided) together with an ecumenical group.


Addendum Two: Obviously I am not a cultural relativist and obviously I do believe, contrary to many even Christian anthropologists, in a trans-cultural gospel and core theology. American Christians must adjust to that, against our own culture, as much (if not more) than Christians in any other part of the world. If there is no trans-cultural gospel and core Christian theology (beliefs as stated above) then “Christianity” is compatible with anything and everything which means nothing. To be sure, all “Christianities” are culturally influenced, but part of the “job” of Christian theologians is to point out where that cultural influence is appropriate and where it is inappropriate—in the sense of conflicting with the gospel and basic Christian orthodoxy and needing correction.

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