by Charles H. Kraft
For many, the term “theology” has about it an aura of’ irrelevance. It conjures up in the mind the seemingly endless history of bickering between those in favor of one set of interpretations of the Bible and Christian experience with those who hold another set of interpretations.
For many, the term "theology" has about it an aura of’ irrelevance. It conjures up in the mind the seemingly endless history of bickering between those in favor of one set of interpretations of the Bible and Christian experience with those who hold another set of interpretations. Many have become so impatient with theological arguing that they attempt to ignore the whole subject. Others are so convinced that their theology is identical with biblical teaching that they dismiss any thoughts on the subject that are not generated by their favorite theologians.
In mission lands, however, where the church is young, the development of theological understandings that are appropriate to the linguistic and cultural contexts in which the young churches exist is of high relevance. Young Christians in these parts of the world are often engaged in a life or death struggle with antiChristian belief systems that are more like those encountered by biblical peoples than like those abroad in the western world today. The development of theological understandings of biblical Christianity that will enable these people to stand against pagan thought systems is, therefore, of great importance. "Contextualization of theology" is a technical label for this vital process.
WHAT IS CONTEXTUALIZATION?
Theologizing always involves interpretation. As evangelicals we believe that the basis for Christian theologizing should always be the Bible. Any interpretation of the Bible is a form of theologizing. This means that theologizing is done in sermons, in hymns, in poems, in discussions, in art and in many other ways.
All human interpretation is done from the point of view of the interpreter. Human interpreters are never free of bias. A given Christian theology is, therefore, an interpretation of Christianity from a particular point of view. No theology is absolute. If the theologian is Spirit-led, however, the theological perspective that he develops will fall within a range of variation allowed by the Scriptures. The differences between the theological understandings of Spirit-led interpreters correspond to the differences between their understandings of reality.
At least certain liberals use the term "contextualization of theology" in a different sense than is intended here. To them the biblical materials are but one example of religious thinking. From their point of view, therefore, understandings of God can be just as validly developed on the basis of the materials presented in some other holy book or some body of oral traditions. That is not the position advocated here. When we speak of the contextualization of theology, we speak of the interpretation of the Christian Bible alone. We recognize, however, that the wider the cultural differences between interpreters of the Bible, the greater will be the differences in the resulting interpretations, especially with respect to peripheral issues. From our point of view, all theologizing must be within the range of biblical allowability, or it cannot be considered Christian.
Evangelicals believe that the Bible must be interpreted in its original context. Evangelical scholars devote their time and energy to understanding the original linguistic and cultural contexts in which God revealed himself to the original authors and in which they recorded his revelation. But the task of interpretation is not complete when the original materials are understood by the scholar. The message that God communicated in those ancient times and places must be interpreted in such a way that it is properly understood and responded to by contemporary people in contemporary times and places. This is the aspect of biblical interpretation that is referred to as contextualization.
CONTEXTUALIZATION IS BIBLICAL
The contextualization of Christianity is part and parcel of the New Testament record. This is the process that Paul, Peter and John and the other apostles were involved in as they sought to take the Christian message that had come to them in Aramaic language and culture and to communicate it to those who spoke Greek. In order to contextualize Christianity for Greek speakers, the apostles gave themselves to the expression of Christian truth in the thought patterns of those to whom they spoke. Indigenous words and concepts were used (and transformed in their usage) to deal with such topics as God, church, sin, conversion, repentance, initiation, "word" (logos) and most other areas of Christian life and practice.
The early Greek churches were in danger of being dominated by Hebrew theology, just as many non-western churches today are in danger of being dominated by western theologies. God, however, led the Apostle Paul and others to struggle against the Hebrew Christians to develop a contextualized Christian theology for those who spoke Greek. In order to do this, Paul had to fight a running battle with many of the Hebrew church leaders who felt that it was the job of Christian preachers to simply impose Hebrew theological concepts on new converts (see Acts 15). These conservative Hebrews were, as Daniel von Allmen points out, the heretics against whom Paul fights for the right for Greek-speaking Christians to have the gospel contextualized in their language and culture.1
CONTEXTUALIZATION IS A PROCESS
Some might feel that the intensive investigations of generations of western theologians must surely have produced by now a oncefor-all set of theological understandings that can simply be passed on from culture to culture. Those of us who have been involved in contextualizing Christian theology in non-western cultures have not, however, found this position to be entirely accurate. The pressing questions addressed by western theologians (particularly academic theologians) are very often quite different from the questions being asked by village Africans, Asians and Latin Americans. Our experience underlines the validity of the statement made by von Allmen when he suggests that:
Any authentic theology must start ever anew from the focal point of the faith, which is the confession of the Lord Jesus Christ who died and was raised for us; and it must be built or re-built (whether in Africa or in Europe) in a way which is both faithful to the inner thrust of the Christian revelation and also in harmony with the mentality of the person who formulates it. There is no short cut to be found by simply adapting an existing theology to contemporary or local taste.2
The contextualization of Christian theology is, therefore, not simply the passing on of a "Product" that has been developed once for all in Europe or America. It is, rather, the imitating of the process that the early apostles went through. Since the materials from which the theologizing – is done are the same biblical materials, the essential message will be the same. The formulation of that message and the relative prominence of many of the issues addressed will, however, differ from culture to culture. New Testament teaching concerning the superiority of the power of Christ to that of evil spirits is, for example, a much more prominent part of contextualized African theology than of American theology.
Because of such differences in cultural focus, it is imperative that Christians within every culture be encouraged to contextualize Christian theology within their cultures. Such contextualization should be done in such a way that their people perceive the gospel to be excitingly relevant to the problems that they struggle with. There are, of course, similar basic problems (e.g., the problem of sin) for peoples of all cultures. But the way those problems manifest themselves differs from culture to culture. Christian theologies should address themselves to even those common problems in culturally appropriate ways today, just as the earliest theologians did in New Testament times. We ought, therefore, to assist people living at the frontiers of Christianity to uncover the forces that govern the making of [their] theology, in order that [they] may … be guided by the same dynamism as [they] set about creating a contemporary theology whether it be in Africa or in Europe.3
NO THEOLOGY IS ABSOLUTE
As indicated above, theologizing is a human, fallible process. It follows then that no theology is perfect or absolute. We do not see the mind of God clearly but, rather, "as dim reflections in a mirror." (I Cor. 13:12). They are at best the Spirit-led perceptions of people and groups in contemporary contexts who, under the leading of God, have given themselves to interpreting God’s word. Though not absolute, theologies become an important part of the repackaging of the Christian message as it moves from culture to culture and from subculture to subculture. If theologies are properly in tune with the surrounding cultures, they will manifest differences of focus, differences of understanding, and differences of expression proportionate to the differences between the cultures and subcultures in which they are involved. This is true even though there are two strong pulls toward uniformity the fact that theologies in order to be Christian are based upon the biblical revelation, and the fact that beyond cultural differences human beings share an extensive common humanity. But such differences of focus, understanding and expression are necessary if the theologies are to be meaningful to those to whom they are directed.
Theologizing is meant to be relevant. It is tragic, therefore, when an inappropriate theological system is adopted by or imposed upon those of another culture or subculture. This error often results when (1) a given approach to theology is regarded as highly prestigious; and/or (2) proponents of that theological system assume that the system is absolutely correct for all times and places and, therefore, relevant to all peoples; and/or (3) the proponents have the power to impose their system on others. As missionaries and Christians who seek to present the Christian message in Christian ways, we need to be very careful that we do not engage in theological imperialism. The imposition of theologies that might be quite relevant in one cultural context on the people of another cultural context has often resulted in negative reactions to those theologies, to theologizing in general, or even to Christianity as a whole.
CONTEXTUALIZING CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY IS VERY RISKY
Any enthusiasm for the desireability of theological contextualization needs to be tempered by the recognition that there are great risks involved. The risk of syncretism is always present. But there are at least two paths that lead to syncretism. One is by making mistakes when adapting the Christian message to indigenous forms. Often people experiment with using words and customs to express Christian meaning, and it doesn’t work well. Sometimes people are even irresponsible about their attempts to contextualize. The risk of making mistakes is always there.
The other way of bringing about syncretism is, however, a much greater threat. In New Testament times the Pharisees produced syncretism by refusing to adapt God’s meanings to new cultural forms. Likewise, the Judaizers produced syncretism by being conservative and refusing to change the foreign (Hebrew) forms of Christianity. Later the Roman Catholic Church produced syncretism, and Luther had to reject it in order to recover a measure of Christianity. The same thing has happened to denomination after denomination since that time, because they have refused to contextualize the message of God for their times and places. And God has had to continually raise up new denominations to correct the syncretisms produced by the domination of rigid orthodoxies.
The greatest risk of syncretism today, as in Jesus’ day, comes not from those who are attempting to discover ways of expressing Christianity in non-western cultures (though there is great risk there). It comes, rather, from those who try, like the Pharisees and Judaizers, to preserve the foreign expressions of God’s message. When foreign forms of Christianity are kept, the meanings change, and often become unchristian. We must be careful that we don’t take what the Master has given us (i. e., Christian theology in western clothing) and try to simply preserve it like the unprofitable servant in the Parable of the Talents. Because he sought to preserve his talent, refusing to risk and invest it, he lost it.
What is the contextualization of theology? That is what happens whenever the given gospel, the message of Christ, is reinterpreted in new cultural contexts in ways equivalent to the ways in which Paul and the other apostles interpreted it from Aramaic into Greek thought patterns. Contextualization of theology must be biblically based if it is to be Christian. It may take place in a number of different ways – such as sermons, hymns, poems, discussions, art, and many other ways. Contextualizing Christian theology is risky, but is not as likely to lead to syncretism as is the preservation of antique forms of theologizing and the importation of these forms into contexts in which they are not appropriate. No theology is an absolute representation of the mind of God. Appropriate contextualizations, produced by Spirit-led interpreters of God’s word, enable them to present the Christian message within a biblically allowed range of variation in such a way that today’s peoples will respond to Christ as those in the first century did.
1. Daniel von Allmen, "The Birth of Theology" in International Review of Mission, 44:37-55.
2. Ibid., P. 50.
3. Ibid., P. 5 1.
Kraft, Charles H. 1972a. "Theology and Theologies I, " Theology, News and Notes June, pp. 4-6, 9.
Kraft, Charles H. 1973b "Theology and Theologies II, " Theology, News and Notes October, pp. 17-20.
Kraft, Charles H. 1977 Theologizing in Culture (prepublication manuscript). School of World Mission, Fuller Seminary, Pasadena, Calif.
Sundkler, Bengt. 1960. The Christian Ministry in Africa. London: SCM.
Von Allmen, Daniel. 1975. "The Birth of Theology," International Review of Mission 44:37-55.
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