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Context and Contingency

Is there any theology that does not have a context? Is there any theology which can avoid a hermeneutic of suspicion? Clearly, the answer to both these questions is ‘no’. Are we obliged to do our theology in context? Absolutely ‘yes’. But, do we need ‘contextual theology’ to do theology in context? In my view, ‘no’. It is important to realise the significant differences between these questions and why they invite such different answers.
Let me explain, albeit with some broad brush claims.

The appeal to context in theological discourse emerged during the second half of the 20th century as a corrective, and therefore with a strong polemical edge.

First, it corrected the lack of historical consciousness which, it was said, characterised Christian theology prior to modernity. In executing this correction, ‘contextual theology’ has drawn attention to the socially- and culturally-conditioned presuppositions and axioms with which the theologian or theological community works.

Its second corrective was to challenge the close alliance between theology and the academy characteristic of Western theology from the medieval period onwards. In executing this correction, ‘contextual theology’ fostered more populist and transformationist explorations of theology in relation to race, nation, class and gender.

Thirdly, it drew attention to the power relations which have shaped so-called classical theological discourse. In executing this correction ‘contextual theology’ has applied various ideological critiques to received theological discourse, especially the dominant theological discourses of Western Christendom as they moved to non-Western communities. Theology has been chastened by these corrections and is unequivocally richer for them.

But something of that powerful corrective of ‘contextual theology’ has been lost. It has become a particular academic discipline and, as with all such disciplines, it has become subject to the influence of institutional agendas, publishing house preferences, and the ideological commitments and aspirations of its proponents. Indeed, one of the ironies of ‘contextual theology’ is that as a discipline it is not in fact bound to any context: it has become a general discourse at home in many different contexts. ‘Contextual theology’ now has its own metanarrative about theology.

In his book Grassroots Asian Theology, Singaporean theologian, Simon Chan, has recently argued that much ‘contextual theology’ in Asia is actually driven by the transfer to Asia of the dominant ideologies and methods of the Western academy. Chan’s argument is prone to overstatement, but he has pointed to an issue, not so much about Asian theology, but about just how local and contextual any self-designated ‘contextual theology’ actually is. There is a sense in which ‘contextual theology’ has settled down and taken its place in the world of professional theology. Therefore, it seems to me, we are invited to expand our reflection on what it means to do theology in context.

I propose that we learn to speak, instead, of ‘contingent theology’. I choose this term because it relates directly to the freedom of God and because it suggests a mandate for theology to concern itself with the living God and the history of God’s diverse and lively engagement with the world.

This shifts the focus away from the diversity of theologians and their various perspectives on texts and communities and towards the dynamism of God’s diverse ways in the world.

In a recent book proposing theological attentiveness to the living God revealed in Jesus Christ, American theologian Christine Helmer has argued that theology, so understood, means “disagreement and explication, competing perspectives and various proposals – all are part of its formulation”.

In other words, doing theology contingently is not just a matter of following a method. It is about engaging with others, being corrected by them, identifying biases and prejudices, keeping each other away from parochialism, nudging each other towards the articulation of a common faith, and holding each other to account in the name of the gospel.

As such, theology is as much a spiritual discipline as it is the implementation of a method. Yes, it requires the self-awareness and discipline of method. It also requires the theologian – be she or he an academic teacher of theology or a congregational minister preaching sermons – to cultivate those contingent practices by which we live the Christian life: repentance, thanksgiving, praise, proclamation, speaking prophetically, love and mercy.

Such practices and dispositions can’t be put on hold as we do the technical theological work of reading, interpreting, writing and speaking. They have the potential to render our theological work attentive, humble and constantly open to correction but also gently confident and passionately committed to God’s living witness mediated through Scripture.

Theology can only do its work in particular contexts. That is the abiding insight of ‘contextual theology’. But it can never settle down in a given context. It must always respond to the living God who meets us in the contingency of life’s realities.

Geoff explores the themes of this article in greater detail in his book, Disturbing Much, Disturbing Many: Theology Provoked by the Basis of Union (UAP, 2016) which is available through CTM Resourcing:

Geoff Thompson

Associate Professor Geoff Thompson is Co-ordinator of Studies in Systematic Theology. He teaches in the major areas of Christian doctrine and is especially interested in the role doctrine plays in shaping the life of discipleship and in forming the collective imagination of the church.

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