In his book Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, Daniel L. Migliore writes that ‘all theology is contextual.’ (1) By this Migliore refers to the now well-established notion of theological work being the result of an interaction between scripture, Church tradition and the cultural and historical situation of the times. The purpose of such an approach is twofold. In the first instance contextual theology seeks to empower and edify the community for whom the context represents. Important examples of this are James H. Evan’s attempt to formulate a systematic theology that represents the experience of African Americans, (2) and Amos Yong’s admirable attempt to speak theologically on behalf of those living with a disability. (3) Second, the contextual method often has a polemical edge, in which it aims to speak on behalf of and advocate for those not traditionally given a voice within the world of academic theology.
Whilst I suspect that few of us would object to the premises of these kinds of theological projects, there are some significant flaws and dangers in the contextual approach that need to be acknowledged. As an initial observation, if ‘all theology is contextual’ as Migliore states, then surely this very concept should be interpreted contextually also. To consider all theology contextual is to make a truth claim that extends beyond that which is contextually conditioned. It is to say something that is binding for everyone, and therefore not a product of the contextual environment. I am reminded here of an experience in a systematic theology class from years ago. The presenter was explaining one of the central tenets of postmodernity using the maxim that ‘there is no absolute truth.’ One of the students, confused by the inherent irony, wryly asked ‘are you absolutely sure?’
This criticism, however, lacks depth. It lies in the realm of the semantic and has little impact on the outcomes of contextual work. But what if it could be demonstrated that the contextual method of doing theology could be utilised to create the conditions necessary for for prejudice, or even atrocity? One of the essential tasks of theology- especially when viewed through the lens of its historical developments- is to critique the overarching cultural zeitgeist if it is shown to be based on ideas and values contrary to those of the Christian faith. One wonders if the contextual approach allows any room whatsoever for a prophetic critique of its own cultural values. One considers here Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s bold and outspoken resistance to the Nazi state as a form of cultural criticism based on a theological understanding that saw the reality of God as (thankfully) transcending the cultural world of his time. Writing of the German Church in the 1930’s, Bonhoeffer’s biographer Eric Metaxas describes how the Nazi’s
‘did their best did their best to portray Germany as a Christian nation. The Reich church erected a huge tent near the Olympic stadium. Foreigners would have no idea of the internecine battle between the German State-approved “church” and the more “fundamental” and somewhat dissenting church; it looked like there was an abundance of Christianity in the midst of Hitler’s Germany.’ (4)
Bonhoeffer’s ultimate task, therefore, was to de-contextualise Christianity in order to save it from the abuses and blasphemies of its then current contextual environment. What’s truly remarkable and tragic about the Church in the Third Reich-era was just how much contextual theology was being done in order to justify anti-semitism and a fanatic German nationalism. The ongoing project of the Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Church Life was to use a variety of exegetical fallacies in order to remove Jesus from his own Jewish background. This was done, of course, as an act of willing submission (the task was instigated on the Institutes own initiative) to the real God of that age, which was National Socialism. The culmination of the Institutes work was the heretical Die Botschaft Gottes; a butchered compilation of selected Gospel readings designed to be the official New Testament of the state Church. Die Botschaft Gottes eliminated the Gospel of John entirely, as well as rewriting various teachings and pericopes to reflect Aryan values.
What emerges from the example of the Deutsche Kirche in the Third Reich period is that ‘contextual’ theology can justify and create evil just as well as it can liberate the oppressed. Therefore, in order to determine which contextual theologies are helpful, we need to judge them not by their contextual location but by their moral assumptions, which are often just assumed and not clearly identitifed. We might even go further, and venture to say that a commitment to contextual theology as a basic principle of the task of all theology is misleading, because what we are really doing when we claim to be ‘contextual’ is espousing various moral assumptions that use theological language in order to justify them. If we can instead conceive of the ultimate concerns of contextual theology as actually located within the realms of moral theology, we are in a better position to determine the distinctly Christian character of a given contextual emphases, and thus avoid the trap of automatically assuming that our cultural context is a legitimate starting place for interpreting the theological task.
- Daniel L. Migliore. Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, Third Ed (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 205.
- James H. Evans. We Have Been Believers: An African American Systematic Theology, Second Edition (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012)
- Amos Yong. The Bible, Disability and the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011)
- Eric Metaxas. Bonhoeffer Abridged: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nashville: Nelson, 2014), 110.