Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (10): The Task of Theology is Shot Through with Culture and Context.

No doubt those of us in conservative circles understand the deleterious influence “culture” has had on Christian theologians throughout church history. We rightly (and repeatedly) note how liberal-revisionist theology tends to become captive to its own cultural context. Schleiermacher and some of his heirs viewed theology as disciplined reflection on human experience (which is always “had” within a cultural context), and therefore their Enlightenment- and Romantic-context theologies tended to be a-supernatural, moralistic, experiential, etc. This is why Schleiermacher’s work was heterodox, and why he leaned to the left more than a NASCAR driver on Percocet®. But what we have not noted is how conservative theologians can be equally susceptible. (I’m a card-carrying conservative, farther to the right than Sam Donaldson’s part.) We conservatives view theology as disciplined reflection on Christian Scripture, but because our reflection on Scripture takes place within a pragmatic, nationalistic, militaristic, consumerist, and individualist cultural context, our theologies can inappropriately reflect those idolatries. So there is a need to get this “theology and culture” thing right, both in theory and in practice. And this need extends to theologians of every stripe.

A faithfully integrative theology is always conceived and articulated in cultural context, whether that context is Boston, Beirut, or Beijing. For biblical illustration of this inescapable fact, one notes how Paul shaped his sermons and speeches for specific contexts. An examination of his sermons in Acts 13 (to Jewish Diaspora), Acts 14 (to rural animists), Acts 17 (to the cultural elite of the Areopagus), and his testimonies in Acts 22 (Jewish patriots) and Acts 26 (to the cultural elite of Syria-Palestine) reveal Paul’s conscious and consistent determination to communicate the gospel in a contextually appropriate manner.[1] Further, cultural context is not an evil the theologian seeks to escape. God himself established culture when he created his imagers with culture-making capacities and told them to be fruitful, till the soil, and practice dominion. These inherently social and cultural commands, combined with the social and cultural nature of the eternal state (Rev 21, 22), assure us that the deeply cultural nature of human existence is something to be embraced rather than avoided.[2]

The biblical testimony leads us to believe that theologians must affirm that God has woven “culture” into the fabric of human life, that theology is done in the midst of human culture and by means of cultural realities such as human language, and that the theologian must critically recognize the human rebellion and idolatry that has marred his cultural context precisely because his theology is crafted in the midst of, and for the sake of, that context. If one’s theology is to be appropriately contextual, it must be crafted faithfully, meaningfully, and dialogically. First, theology must be done faithfully, by recognizing Scripture as our primary source and supreme norm. Second, theology must be done meaningfully, by being conceived and articulated in ways that are appropriate for the particular social and cultural context. We want the hearer to apprehend our words and actions in the way that we intend, and to respond in a way that is meaningful for that context. Third, theology must be done dialogically, being crafted in such a way that God’s word speaks prophetically to that context, unmasking its idolatrous underpinnings and its insufficiency on its own to understand the truth about God and the world. God’s word calls every human culture into question, calling it to conform to the image of Christ. The gospel does not condemn all of a culture, but it is always and at the same time both affirming and rejecting. If the gospel we preach does not have a prophetic edge, then it is not truly or fully the gospel.

David Clark and other theologians have elaborated on the dialogical process for contextual theology.[3] Clark provides a particularly helpful explanation of the dialogical process, and does so by means of seven steps that a contextual theology might include.[4] First, Christians raise questions from within the particular cultural context. Those questions are shaped by that context’s cultural matrix, including its distinctive set of beliefs, feelings, values, practices, products, and so forth. Second, Christians offer initial responses based upon their understanding of the biblical testimony. Because the questions are raised from within a particular culture, which is not the culture in which the Bible was written, the questions asked may not find an easily packaged answer from the pages of the Bible. Third, Christians seek to embrace and obey the conclusions they have provisionally drawn; they prayerfully allow God to keep their hearts open to further light from the Scriptures. Fourth, they allow Scripture to judge the cultural context from within which the questions were asked. No human culture asks all of the right questions or has all of the right conceptual categories for conceiving and articulating the gospel. In fact all human cultures are underlain by idolatry, which distorts both their questions and their categories.[5] Fifth, through prayer and hard work, they form a contextual theology, a theological framework. Sixth, if possible, they discuss their findings with theologians from other cultures, whether those theologians are the church fathers from eras past or contemporary thinkers from other global or cultural locations. Seventh, Christians return to the Bible once again, evaluating the emerging theology, and continuing the cycle. Clark explains, “Using a dialogical method implies we notice the danger in simply asking Scripture to answer the culture’s concerns. A dialogical approach requires that the Bible not only answer our concerns but also transform those concerns.”[6] In this way, the theologian does contextual theology that allows Scripture its place as the primary source and supreme norm of the task.

[1] For a detailed exposition of the contextual nature of Paul’s preaching and teaching, see Eckhard J. Schnabel, Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies, and Methods (Downers Grove: IVP, 2008), 155-208, 334-353.

[2] For a more extended theology of culture, see Bruce Riley Ashford, “Gospel & Culture,” in Theology and Practice of Mission, 109-127.

[3] See Robert J. Schreiter, Constructing Local Theologies (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1985); William A. Dyrness, Learning About Theology from the Third World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994); David K. Clark, To Know and Love God, 99-131.

[4] Clark, To Know and Love God, 114.

[5] Kevin Vanhoozer writes, “Prophetic theology treats contemporary culture with the utmost seriousness, though not as having final authority. Faith seeks contextualization, but we have argued that this does not mean bowing the knee to prevailing plausibility (and popularity) structures. Though theology employs the linguistic and conceptual resources that are at hand, it does not leave them unchanged.” Vanhoozer, Drama of Doctrine, 356.

[6] Clark, To Know and Love God, 115.

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