Theology is done by theologians, and only a few of them are professional at it. It is the result of something that happens to them. What makes this happening “theology” is how it causes “connections.”
Stephen Bevans explains that one set of connections is a theologian’s experience of the past and present. In the past is a sacred story transmitted by traditions which has become meaningful to the theologian. The theologian also has to experience the present as connected meaningfully to the past. Bevans says there are at least 4 contexts (aspects of the present): (1) human experience such as a health crisis or presidential election, (2) one’s social location as a person of a certain gender or age, (3) one’s cultural identity as a Black American or Thai Buddhist, (4) and change that is going on in one’s context – globalization, collapse of civilization.
Theology is also affected by both external and internal factors. (A) External factors that impact theology include the consensus that all cultures are good and are valid sources for theology. (B) Factors within Christian theology that impact how theology is done these days are acceptance to the implications that God is incarnate always and everywhere, that God can choose to transform whatever God chooses into a sacramental object or event that mediates God’s saving presence, that God’s “revelation” is not conceptual but God’s very self in society and history, that theologies must be in dialogue with each other, and finally that theology must be in dialogue with the particular.
Theology can be judged as legitimate, despite being based on experiences in contexts that are always unique. Four standards apply: (1) inner consistency, all the conclusions work together, (2) theology (including Buddhist and Muslim theology – all of them) must be in the language of worship, (3) the theology should lead to the practice of justice, peace and holiness, (4) a theology should be open to correction by the wider faith community and at the same time (5) have the power to enrich theologies espoused by others in the faith community and beyond.
Stephen Bevans’s best-known concept is his models of contextual theology.
There is one Truth and happiness comes from knowing it.
The central concern of theology done following this model is to preserve the original tradition when it is transferred into a new context. Divine revelation is propositional and prioritizes what it identifies as the supra-cultural Gospel, or revelation that is unchanging from culture to culture. Therefore the supra-cultural Gospel may be separated from culture and the Gospel may be inculturated in a host culture without being influenced by that culture.
…we are concerned with translating the meaning of doctrines into another cultural context – and that translation might make those doctrines look and sound quite different from their original formulations. Nevertheless … there is “something” that must be “put into” other terms. There is always something from the outside that must be made to fit inside; there is always something “given” that must be “received.” [Bevans, pp. 32-33]
Note: This is a conservative and defensive model even though it intends to change others while remaining true and unchanged.
If you listen carefully you can hear God speaking, saying the same things in every culture.
Divine revelation and culture are inherently related. “God reveals Godself in every culture and thus the revelation of God impregnates every culture” [McLean, p. 35]. Theology, done according to the anthropological model, “seeks to preserve the tradition by mining it for new developments and expressions that come out of a particular context and can enrich the entire church” [Bevans, Contextual Theology, paragraph 10].
This does not mean that the gospel cannot challenge a culture, but such a challenge is always viewed with suspicion that the challenge is not coming from God but from a tendency of one culture to impose values on another. [Bevans, p. 48]
Note: a challenge to culture is suspicious, because the one making the challenge may be assuming cultural superiority and therefore domination.
God is in the midst, wherever life is going on, and most discernable as one becomes most involved with where life is most challenged.
This model includes the insights that come from the practice of faithful living. Action leads to reflection which leads to plans for more action. Theology flows from an identification of divine revelation with the active presence of God in history.
God manifests God’s presence not only, or not even primarily, in the fabric of culture, but also and perhaps principally in the fabric of history. [Bevans, p. 63]
Consequently it prioritizes theological action over theological reflection. The central insight of the praxis model is “…theology is done not simply by providing relevant expressions of Christian faith but also by commitment to Christian action” [Bevans, p. 65].
Note: Theological validity (i.e. truth) is constantly assessed and subject to challenge, but so is the cultural context.
If you listen you can hear God telling you new things that God has revealed to these others.
The synthetic model draws these three models together. “Christian doctrine has developed in a dialogical, synthetic way as various circumstances in history and in the church’s life call for clearer articulation of Christian faith.” [Bevans, Contextual Theology, paragraph 12]. Every culture has elements that are unique to it and elements that are held in common with other cultures or contexts and so intercultural dialogue is beneficial. This model sees value in being respectful of other cultures where divine revelation may contribute to an understanding of God.
In terms of theology, it will be recognized that it is not enough to extol one’s own culture as the only place where God can speak to a particular cultural subject. One can also hear God speaking in other cultures. Attention to one’s own culture can perhaps discover values in other cultures that these cultures have never noticed before, and attention to others … can transform and enrich one’s own culture and worldview. [Bevans, p. 83]
Note: Cultural superiority prevents valuable new insight as well as the opportunity to effectively communicate.
God wants to change you.
This model recognizes the importance of religious experience: divine revelation may only be “known” as it is experienced. It is primarily interested in the process of inculturation that occurs as an individual experiences God. “…theology happens as a person struggles more adequately and authentically to articulate and appropriate the ongoing relationship with the divine” [Bevans, p. 99].
Emphasis in this model is not so much on the content that is produced, but on the process of theologizing itself. When one theologizes as an authentic cultural subject on the one hand and as an authentic person of faith on the other, what will be produced will inevitably be a theology that is rooted both in a particular context and in Christian tradition. The transcendental model proceeds by a method of sympathy and antipathy. One listens to or reads a particular theological expression and it may trigger an appreciation of aspects in one’s own context that can contribute to genuine theologizing. [Bevans, Contextual Theology, paragraph 13]
Note: One acquires theological insight through concentration on the subject at hand. The change to be sought is one’s own insight.
God wants you to be a change agent.
More recently, Bevans has added a sixth model for doing theology. Context is taken with utmost seriousness and also with the greatest suspicion. Theology must confront context with the truth of the gospel, calling it to be transformed by the life-giving power of God’s grace and mercy. This is the prophetic tradition in Christian scripture, adopted by the likes of St. Francis of Assisi and Martin Luther King, Jr. [See Bevans, Contextual Theology, paragraph 14].
Note: Dire circumstances call for bold responses. An adequate theology instructs what must be said. Contextual awareness tells one how to transform those words into powerful symbols to bring about change.
1. The first portion of this essay is based on an article entitled “Contextual Theology” which Stephen B. Bevans wrote for The New Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology, which is forthcoming.
2. The second portion of this essay is based on references to Bevans’s book now in its 7th printing, Models of Contextual Theology, Faith and Cultures, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books 1992, in Patricia McLean’s 2002 thesis Thai Protestant Christianity, for the University of Edinburgh.
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