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Models of Contextual Theology: Spiritual Formation Book 7

"A theology that neither issues forth in action nor takes account of the way one lives one's life can hardly be theology that is worth very much."

Models of Contextual Theology looks like the most boring book in the world. Dry academic title, weird geometric cover design - you'd definitely only pick this up if you were required to write an essay on it, wouldn't you?

Well, I wish the outside did it justice, because the contents are much more exciting than the cover. It asks some very interesting and important questions about how our faith relates to the world around us. Is culture mostly good or bad? Is there such a thing as the "naked gospel", free of context? Do you have to be a trained academic to theologize, or can anyone do it? How much does theology from one culture transfer to a different culture?

Bevans describes six models of theology which offer different answers to these questions. All are valid, he says, but they all understand the gospel and its context differently.

What are the main themes of this book?

The layout is very straightforward. There are a few introductory chapters dealing with why theology needs to be contextual and what a model actually is. This is followed by six chapters, each of which describes how one model works, lists the advantages and pitfalls of it, and gives two examples of theologians who use the model.

I'm going to attempt to describe each model briefly: this might be a challenge, so bear with me.

  • Translation - probably the classic model that evangelicals use in mission. The gospel is a message of eternal truth, and communicating it to a new culture involves finding ways to make it intelligible, while preserving the integrity of the original message.
  • Anthropological - at the opposite end of the spectrum. The important thing is to find out where God is already operating in a context, because God has created the world and reveals Godself within it. Only then can you help people develop their own theology in their own culture.
  • Praxis - theology is a dynamic process which involves acting (often for social change) and reflecting on that action. "We best know God by acting in partnership with God."
  • Synthetic - the culture and the gospel are both important, and we refine our theology through continued dialogue with others. Contains aspects of the first three models.
  • Transcendental - we cannot understand God unless we start by attending to how God works in our own lives. It is more important to authentically seek understanding than to arrive at a particular kind of theology.
  • Countercultural - the gospel will always challenge the context it encounters. The church is called to witness to the Christian story and live it out by being a transformed - and transforming - community.

What did you like about the book?

I liked discovering which model of theology I use! Surprisingly, it was the praxis model which most resonated with me. I say surprisingly, because Bevans associated it mostly with liberation theology and social revolution, which isn't something I know much about. But the underlying idea that you do something, then reflect on it, then do something slightly different (he described it as a spiral), and thus you learn about God - that made a lot of sense to me. It reminded me of my blog post A cycle of growth.

It was also useful to read Bevans' thoughts about why theology needs to be contextual. He says, "The time is past when we can speak of one, right, unchanging theology. We can only speak about a theology that makes sense at a certain place and in a certain time." In a mission context, the Western church can't see itself as handing out a "proper theology" to people of other cultures. Local churches must develop their own theology, which speaks to and engages with the local culture. This might look quite different to traditional Western theology. 

As Western churches, we are also engaging with a post-Christian culture. Our previous ways of communicating the gospel may not make sense to people any more. The countercultural model particularly speaks to this situation, but I found it useful to consider more generally what we are trying to say and how we are trying to say it.

What did you find difficult?

Models of Contextual Theology refers several times to one model or another being preferable in a particular situation. The translation model, Bevans says, is often most helpful when the gospel is first being shared in a new context. However, it seems to imply that the person sharing will be able to choose any model equally easily. That is clearly not the case. In fact, people using different models are likely to misunderstand each other, and I felt that the book could have addressed that issue somewhere.

For example, queer theology or womanist theology very much arise out of the experiences of certain groups of people. They use the anthropological or transcendental models, which place a high value on the authenticity of the individual, and the goodness of culture. Somebody who is used to the countercultural model, though, which says that culture is likely to be hostile to the gospel, will struggle to see how any valid theology can be developed from what they see as a deeply compromised context.

Even though the possible conflicts are not directly addressed, I did find the book useful in that respect. Bevans is good at drawing out the strengths and weaknesses of each model, so that hopefully, the counterculturalist might recognize that "God was here before our arrival", as the anthropological model emphasizes. And the anthropologist might be reminded that the gospel challenges cultures as well as recognizing where God is already at work.

Did you learn something new?

The whole concept of "models of theology" was new to me. As I said in my introduction to this year's books, I realised straight away that Richard Rohr used an anthropological model, which I felt went some way to explaining why I struggled with his writing! The idea that someone might not be hopelessly wrong, they just use a different model to you, is a very helpful one. As is the idea that different models might be appropriate in different situations.

Will you do something differently?

Every Tuesday I walk past some street preachers in the city centre, and every time they are shouting about "being saved from your sin". I always want to stop and ask them, "Does that make any sense to people any more? Are you actually communicating the gospel by saying that?"

Maybe I won't do that. Anyway, the bigger challenge is, does what I say make any sense to people? And am I listening to people whose theology comes from their culture, which is different to mine?

What is one thing you will remember?

I think that two quotes sum up this book. The first is the quote I started with: "A theology that neither issues forth in action nor takes account of the way one lives one's life can hardly be theology that is worth very much." The second comes from the same page: "There is no one completely adequate way of doing theology." Those two things strike me as being very helpful to remember when you are trying to understand who God is.

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