It’s Time to Emancipate our Theology from Western Culture #AlwaysReforming

While teaching a course at a leading reformed seminary, I referred to African American theology.  One of my students objected, “There is no such thing as ‘African American theology,’ there is only ‘theology proper.’” 

I asked, “Would the library of this seminary carry a book on theology from a cultural perspective?”  He emphatically said, “No!”  Later, I held up a book from the library.

Its title: Scottish Theology.

What my student did not realize is that all theology is contextual—historically and culturally determined. What he called “theology proper” developed in a Western context. Accordingly, while it addressed the true nature of salvation, etc., this “theology proper” also addressed Western cultural concerns. All theology is contextual. Click To Tweet

Addressing cultural concerns theologically is to be expected. There is nothing wrong with this.  However, we get into trouble when our theology is bound by those “cultural concerns.”  While theology is contextual, it needs to be emancipated when it is constrained by the limitations of its context—in this case, Western culture. The only “limitation” theology should have is a biblical one.

If we forget this, we will end up failing to make the necessary distinction between theology and Scripture. Confusing the two is a form of idolatry. One result will be trying to transpose a pre-formulated theology geared to one cultural context to another. While commonalities will exist, the cultural differences can be significant—so much so that some theological content gets distorted in the transposing process. Only the Word of God itself is capable of being directly applied in all cultures. However, if these theologies are true to Scripture, they will be complementary.

What is theology anyway?  Most would define it as “the study of God.”  While this is true, Dr. John Frame’s definition fits the bill better, “The application of God’s Word by persons in every area of life.”  Even though we have the Word of God, it needs to be correctly applied in order to fully benefit from its wisdom.

Lessons from History

The Westminster Confession of Faith illustrates the above point.  It was commissioned by the English Parliament in 1643. Twenty-one Presbyterian clergymen were tasked to compose this Confession. They convened in Westminster Abbey.

Why did they need to develop a new confession of Faith when they already had access to the Belgic Confession?  It was written in Holland between 1552 and 1561 and the participants in the Westminster Assembly agreed with it. All they had to do was translate it from Dutch to English.

The Belgic confession, as good as it was, did not address the issues the Westminster Assembly was wrestling with. This was during the time of the English Civil War (1642-1651) between the Parliamentarians and the Royalists. The Parliamentarian forces consisted of a coalition of English and Scottish armies.  The Royalists forces consisted of armies loyal to King Charles I and his Episcopal Anglican bishops. The Parliamentarians advocated government by the House of Commons and presbyterian church government. The Royalists supported the monarchy and episcopalian church government.

The Episcopal Anglican establishment had been persecuting the Scottish Presbyterian church for many years. The Westminster Confession was developed in fulfillment of a solemn covenant the English Parliament made with the Scottish Parliament. It provided the basis by which the Scots would join the Parliamentary coalition against King Charles and his Royalist forces.

The Westminster Confession continues to be an accurate expression of Christian beliefs—one I proudly subscribe to. Nevertheless, a question remains: does it address all the theological issues we wrestle with today?

Western theology in general has given us valuable methods such as exegetical theology and systematic theology. However, there are other valid theological methods that are not represented in the Western tradition—for example, paradigm theology. More on this later.

How to Approach Theology

Theology can be approached from two perspectives, in terms of epistemology (what we should know about God—”Side A”) and ethics (how we should obey God—”Side B”). Theology can also be done on both sides of human intelligence, the cognitive side (involving conceptual knowledge) and the intuitive side (involving perceptual knowledge).

Epistemology—The “Side A” Perspective

Propositions embedded in the Bible make Scripture more accessible to those who are more cognitive than intuitive (“Side A”). Narratives embedded in the Bible make Scripture more accessible to those who are more intuitive than cognitive (“Side B”).

Western theology developed under the challenge of unbelieving philosophy and science.  Defending and communicating the faith required facing specific issues using culturally determined means, often involving philosophical categories. In order to do this, theology had to be translated from its concrete apostolic language into a technical idiom. Thus, Western theology was mostly concerned with epistemological issues involving cognitive knowledge.  This is an example of “Side A” theology.

Paradigm Theology — A ‘Side B’ Perspective

African American theology developed under the challenge of oppression (slavery, racism, etc.).  A great challenge for African Americans was injustice and dehumanization.  They identified with the Old Testament people of God when they were in similar situations—in the North the paradigm was Israel in the Exile; In the South it was Israel in Egypt. These theologies were mostly concerned with ethical issues. In the South, it involved intuitive knowledge because there, Blacks had no access to formal education. In the North, it involved cognitive knowledge because there, Blacks had access to formal education. These are examples of “Side B” theology.

Paradigm theology can be defined as the application of the basic patterns of biblical life situations. In order to really understand the biblical narratives, we must first know Scripture’s Ultimate Author, The Holy Spirit (II Peter 1:20-21). The meaning of the narrative is its application in our life situation. Apart from this it is just a story. Not only does God reveal himself in the words of the Bible, he also reveals himself in the basic patterns of the biblical narratives.

There is no situation we go through in life whose basic pattern is not already revealed in the Bible. The biblical narratives clearly show us how God was redemptively in control of the situation then, speaking to the situation then, and also present in the situation then. When our life situation matches the basic pattern of a biblical narrative, we will have real insight into how God is redemptively in control of, speaking to, and present in our situation now. There is no situation in life whose basic pattern is not already revealed in the Bible. Click To Tweet

The Bible itself employs the paradigm approach, for example, the parables and illustrations of Jesus, the apostles and the prophets. The classic example is when Nathan the prophet told David exactly how he sinned with Bathsheba. The basic pattern was the same but the details were different (II Samuel 11 and 12).

The biblical narratives leave out many details of the original life situation on purpose because they are designed for us to get into their patterns and supply details from our own lives.  However, the biblical narrative does not necessarily tell us that our story will have the same ending. The purpose is to give us wisdom in our situation—to see it as God sees it.

If paradigm theology leads us to attribute God’s people to anything other than being in Christ, it also becomes idolatry. Our theological focus must always be on Christ and his body.

Reformation Theology—Sound, but Wanting?

Indeed, reformed theology is true and robust as far as it goes, but the reformed community’s failure in the area of justice goes a lot deeper than one would suspect. It was not only due to our depravity, it is also due to the inadequacy of reformed theology as it has been handed down to us in its present state. It is unacceptable to say that one can be “theologically sound,” yet be errant on the issue of social ethics.

The problem goes to the very foundation of our theology itself, namely, a weakness on “Side B”—a weakness that has tainted our understanding of the character of God, Christology and “imago Dei.”  This has rendered our theology deficient at the core, allowing much of the reformed community to peacefully co-exist with slavery, Jim Crow, racial discrimination, maltreatment of immigrants, cruelty toward first nations, etc. It is unacceptable to be “theologically sound,” yet be errant on the issue of social ethics. Click To Tweet

Emancipating reformed theology from this deficiency will require us to do some serious “Side B” theology without neglecting “Side A” (Matthew 23:23b). In order to make this a reality, we must humbly recognize that what we have perceived as the “whole counsel of God” falls short of the biblical standard. Our vaunted theology has only scratched the surface of the full application of biblical truth. Teaching about the “whole counsel of God” does not equal the application of the “whole counsel of God.”

The Final Say

God Himself must have the final say in all of our theology. We must remember that the Scriptures must always inform and critique our theology and not the other way around. The Scriptures are “God breathed,” our theology is not. It is the Scriptures that are “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (II Timothy 3:16).

Our theology must always serve Scripture. If we make Scripture serve our theology, we “suppress the truth by our wickedness” (Romans 1:18).

On the other hand, to be faithful to Scripture, the man-made categories we employ must always serve our theology.  If we make theology serve our categories, we produce an enslaved theology—one that will incapacitate us from proclaiming and practicing the “whole counsel of God.”  Such a “theology” will never be a true theology as long as it is bound by man-made categories or limited to them.

Furthermore, philosophical categories are not the only ones that can serve theology. Other categories will serve theology just as well or better in various cultural contexts—categories including historical, sociological, anthropological, etc.

Let the history books say that early in this century, we began to work toward a fully functional and robust theology—a theology seamlessly encompassing “Sides A and B”—a theology committed to the “whole counsel of God” as revealed in Scripture. I believe that this can be the basis of a new and powerful reformation, all to the glory of God.

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