We have much ground to cover as we awaken to the growing global conversation of the two thirds of the church not in the West. “Contextualization” brings to mind trite conversations on superficially packaging western theology with colorful, cultural trimming – e.g. Africans will want to dance during church, the Japanese will maintain a more authoritarian ecclesiology. But at its core, contextualization calls into question the nature of truth as well as what Andrew Walls has dubbed the ‘infinite translatability’ of our faith.
In his excellent essay, “One Rule to Rule Them All?”, Kevin Vanhoozer helpfully outlines three poor attempts at contextualizing Christianity. First, the belief (soundly refuted in The Drama of Doctrine) that truth is supracultural, able to be decoded from concrete expression and encoded into a new one – “Instead of profitable pastoral instruction, theologians begat system after system, exchanging their ecclesial birthright for a mess of propositionalist pottage”. The second attempt is an uncritical, syncretistic drawing from a supposed united backdrop of philosophy and religion for shaping faith. The third pitfall is “going local”, making one’s primary allegiance to context rather than text as if they were at odds.
Western theology has borrowed heavily from philosophy. In fact the two become eerily indistinguishable in many discussions on systematics. Now third world theologians are replacing philosophy with the social sciences serving the hermeneutical function of acknowledging the interpreter and the practical function of addressing present-day injustice. I am seeing this firsthand in Ghanaian theologian Kwame Bediako’s Jesus and the Gospel in Africa. Quoting J. V. Taylor he asks, “But if Christ were to appear as the answer to the questions that Africans are asking, what would he look like?” He finds confidence in the answer because “we are not introduced to a new God unrelated to the traditions of our past, but to One who brings to fulfillment all the highest religious and cultural aspirations of our heritage”. Why, Vanhoozer asks, “can theology borrow from Plato but not from primal religions”?
There is indeed a supra-cultural, supra-chronicle, supra-linguistic true God, but he will never be known as such. Instead he has determined to make himself known in time, space, and language, an act riddled with its own presuppositional complexity (e.g. N. T. Wright’s “three worlds” of Paul). And here is where Christianity parts ways with Islam, which is only at its truest form in Arabic: this complex text has since been disseminated and Spirit-accompanied into tens of thousands of language, people, socio-economic groups and in turn blossomed into multi-faceted expressions. The dirty details of
How do we faithfully expose, sharpen, and embrace presuppositions in this light? How do we maintain malleable yet still breakable doctrines? How might new voices grow our Christology rather than shrink it to the least common denominator? And how do we hold fast to the rule of faith by which all gospel expressions are accountable?