Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Contextualization and Presuppositions

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 Babel notwithstanding, this is God’s plan that charts its course through the promise to Abraham, the commission of the church, and the worship of the new earth.

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?

9 comments:

Paul-David Young said...

I think one way to allow for malleability to do ministry and exegesis with those that are culturally different than us. Those who have worked in urban churches testify that this is one of the main selling points.

Jim said...

lovely thoughts. vanhoozer is persistently insightful on this stuff. dave, i love how your few paragraphs end in only questions. to me, that says a ton. it says that the theoretical dynamic of contextualization is good to beat into our skulls, but actually doing contextualization has got to be Spirit-led. as gordon fee pleads that that our exegesis and scholarship must be spirit-wrought, so must our contextualization be. when paul was burning to go to spain, he knew that they spoke latin and that culture there was probably a bit different, but it is not likely he had john mark run up there and sketch a dozen ethnographic and/or demographic surveys. he was compelled by the Spirit. i dont think they're mutually exclusive though. knowing the how, why, when, and where of contextualizing - these are gifts of GOd as well.

i hope this doesn't sound smart ass. it's kind of where He has been teaching me.

Paul-David Young said...

We need to be careful in talking about the Spirt working through us that we are not gnostics. Calvinists believe that God works through means, so we are not left in some kind of kantian bikini. Thinking hard about contextualisation is the work of the Spirt leading us...

jim thompson said...

i concur readily that contextualization is, or rather - can be and should be - the work of the Spirit. for paul, gnosticism and being led by the spirit weren't things to confuse. the gnostics damned the real Jesus, not the real spirit. still, i think many of those "means" are the gifts or ministries of the Spirit in the lives of the believers. AFter paul yaps thoroughly about about theory and theology in his epistles, he then turns to what it looks like for Spirit-endowed believers to live that theology [the "gifts" or "ministries" in romans 12, 1 cor 12-14, gal 5, eph 4-5, etc]. believers should have a direct relationship with the Spirit and should also be sensitive to the "means" he uses. i think that it is both/and, not either/or. is this too pentecostal? i'd rather not categorize it. i just think that is where the NT balance is.

i need a good presbyterian response to this, pd. feedback please. i need iron-sharpening on this.

alos, your image of the kantian bikini is really seductive. i'm going to buy one for sara.

John Paulling said...

i think you bring up a good point, jim. the Spirit's leading is a far cry from gnosticism. this means stuff can be taken too far, and it doesn't really solve it all. i understand that people mistrust too much Spirit talk. thinking it can be a kind of cop-out, but i mistrust too much non-Spirit talk. we may not be gnostics, but we aren't followers of Bultmann either. His is the greater error.

jim thompson said...

john, we are going thru ACts with some pastors and other brothers on tuesdays up here. the guy who kinda leads it always is quick to remind us that Acts cant be a template and it cant be normative, but it cant be a book of exceptions either. meaning... more than the apostles had speaking a relationship with the Spirit. how in the heck do peter, stephen, paul, and ananias all get to talk with post-ascension Jesus? either i believe that or i dont. the application of that belief is where its gone south. damn the enlightment's pompous ripple effects on spirit-filled christianity. paul told us to desire to prophesy. i want that. i want to FEEL that. but what moron concludes that the beauty and "subjectivity" of that means i cant desire to pound my brain away at those three volumes of wright?

this has nothing to do with contextualizAtion and presuppositions. owell.

John Paulling said...

amen, and amen.

John Paulling said...

I don't know if it would yield any help, but it's an interesting study to look at the way Judaism was contextualized through the different periods of exile, and diaspora.

jim thompson said...

i just read about that in NT & people of God this morning.

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