Theology is theology is theology…isn’t it?

Most Christians are either afraid or don’t like the idea of theology. They think it either destroys people’s faith or is a dry, boring, intricate mind game that has little or no relation to life. This, of course, is rather distressing to somebody who loves theology. But sometimes they are correct.

When addressing the communication of the gospel, theology is vital. Add to that complex the communication of the gospel in another language than your own and into another culture theological issues fly around your head like demented mosquitoes!

An American Catholic mission theologian, Stephen Bevans has written a fascinating book called Models of Contextual TheologyHe proposes that all theology is contextual and that there are at least six ways in which theologians have done their theology.

We will look at two of these models over the next three days.

The translation model claims that the message of the gospel, expressed in supra-cultural, essential doctrines, is unchanging. There is a core, central truth that is identical forevery cultural context in the world. We need to identify this core and then express that core in the cultural categories that are relevant for that context.This model is most often employed by those doing pioneering work among those who have never heard the gospel before. In many ways, every mode of contextual theology is a model of translation, that is, of translating the truths of faith into symbols that are recognizable in culture.

However, this model struggles to liberate that message from captivity to Western categories of thought. The tendency is to believe that the Western understanding of the core gospel is the correct one. However, the emphasis on the eternal truths of faith is not a unanimously accepted concept. Bevans, therefore, classifies those reflections with an implicit presupposition of the eternal truths under this model of translation.

This form of contextualization has been the most common and most employed by evangelical missionaries, although Roman Catholic doctrine since the 1970s has also extensively employed this model. Although the work of David Hesselgrave and John Paul II are highlighted by Bevans, evangelicals such as Paul Hiebert, Bruce Nicholls and Bruce Fleming are important.

The anthropological model, starts from the opposite end from the translation model. Whereas the translation model emphasizes the gospel, the anthropological model emphasizes the importance of cultural identity of each Christian. It emphasizes that one is not so much a Christian who is Luo or any other culture but is a Christian Luo expressing his or her cultural values through being a Christian.

Theologians who employ this model, while taking the Bible and the Christian tradition seriously, also seek for God’s self revelation within the values, relational patterns, and concerns of particular cultures. Therefore, the belief is that the Gospel is already present in the culture and the job of the Christian missionary/church is to draw out that which already exists. It puts greater emphasis on culture rather than on the eternal truths.

The model’s primary concern is the establishment of cultural identity as a person articulates his or her Christian faith. Bevans describes this as to define the “human as the place of divine revelation […] equal to scripture and tradition”. Such articulation may disregard the presupposed eternal truths of the translation model.

This model is especially appropriate in contexts where there has been a colonial break with past culture. Even more so if that cultural break was imposed by a “Christian nation”. This regains cultural values through Christian engagement.

Tomorrow the praxis and synthetic models.