Welcome to The Theology Whisperer, a series of short blog posts on theology and theological education.
What do we bring to the table when we do theology? Today it is common to note a need for attention to problems of self-referentiality and contextualism in any formal thinking activity. But four decades ago, when it was far from common, Catholic theologian David Tracy raised the problem of context. He observed that, when it comes to the practice of theology, we should pay close attention to who the theologian is.
We should ask questions such as:
- What theological tradition does the theologian represent?
- What is their agenda?
- What are their priorities?
- How do their beliefs and subjectivity enter into the practice of theology?
- Where is the theologian located? In a university? In the church? In the marketplace?
- What is their gender, race and ethnicity?
- What is their social class?
- Do their judgments tend to be more conservative or progressive?
- Do political factors significantly affect their theological judgments?
As Richard Plantinga et al point out, “Theologians typically do not tell you about these things outright; you often have to read between the lines to ferret out their point of view, commitments, and the like.”
All such matters affect the process and outcomes of theologising; indeed, “there is no such thing as a culturally disembodied theology.” I’m not referring here to contextual methods of theology, but to the historical and socio-cultural situation in which a theologian is immersed, and which imprints his/her work.
Assuming that the concern is valid, how should you and I go about doing theology in a contextually sensitive manner? Grenz and Olson provide what I think is a simple yet helpful approach. They advocate engaging in a “trialogue” between Scripture, history and culture: “bringing our understanding of Scripture, our cognizance of our heritage and our reading of our cultural context into a creative trialogue.” They illustrate this process with an example of the doctrine of the atonement.
This trialogue assumes two basic principles:
- a biblically constructive theology: “Good theology shows the connections between apparently irreconcilable theological descriptions and brings them together into a unified whole. It was this quest for a unified theology that led to some of the great theological breakthroughs in church history.”
- a contextually constructive theology: “While necessarily biblical, theology is also never the product of Scripture alone … our task is not simply to repeat the theological declarations of any previous era, even the biblical era … Rather, we seek to understand the revelation of God mediated through the biblical writers for our context and our world.”
But what do Grenz and Olson mean by “our reading of our cultural context”? Well, they mean that, as theologians, we should cultivate a desire
to hear the spiritual cries of the contemporary world … by observing people around us, listening to their conversations, keeping up with the news, becoming aware of cultural expressions of a deeper spiritual quest, following intellectual developments, and even studying philosophy. We observe and listen so as to discern the questions and concerns of contemporary men and women. Having discovered these, we go back to the Bible for a response. We take our culture with us to the texts. We read the Scriptures asking, ‘How does the Bible provide answers to the questions people are raising today?’
However, Grenz and Olson also provide a caveat:
We don’t want to rush headlong into the culture-first approach, for it too poses a grave danger. It can lead us into the error of giving too much weight to the questions and concerns of contemporary men and women. Doing so bears three potential difficulties.
First, focusing too closely on our culture may lead us to take our theological agenda from our world rather than from the Bible …. Second, the focus on culture may blind us to places where our society and the Bible are at odds … Third, focusing on culture may lead us to allow our world to determine the content of theology.
Wise words from Grenz and Olson, in my opinion. The significance of attending to the context of our theology is also highlighted by this quote from Plantinga et al: “Christian theology is at its best when it engages the problems and challenges of the real world. Theology ignores its context at its own peril.”
What are your thoughts on these issues? I’d love to hear your perspective.
This post was written by Rod Benson. Leave a comment in the box below, or email email@example.com
 David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism (New York: Crossroad, 1981), 3-98.
 Richard J. Plantinga, Thomas R. Thompson, & Matthew D. Lundberg, An Introduction to Christian Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 24.
 Stanley J. Grenz & Roger E. Olson, Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God (Downers Grove: IVP, 1996), 108.
 Ibid., 112.
 Ibid., 113-115.
 Ibid., 105-107.
 Ibid., 110f.
 Ibid., 111.
 Plantinga et al, An Introduction to Christian Theology, 28.
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2 Replies to “What we bring to theology”
The last sentence is crucial formally, but content-wise it is entirely unhelpful. “Christian theology is at its best when it engages the problems and challenges of the real world. Theology ignores its context at its own peril.” The sentence represents problems and challenges as if they are objective things that can be ignored or tended to such that one could verify one’s theological groundedness in context. The real world. Do tell who grasps it. Far too security inducing and comforting. The problems and challenges themselves are a rabbit-hole of disagreement about ends, means, preferences, needs, desires, aversions, passion. That is enough of a context for theology. The effort to meet at the Bible instead of “culture first” simply trades on the idea of objective reality. Am I to understand that the Bible is an objective reality that someone has a grasp of? What does the sage Jesus recommend to the theologian? “The pure in hear will see the god”. I don’t need to stand on the authority of the Bible for the truth of the sage’s recommendation. All the sages say the same. Clarity on reality is best founded through moral development. Thoughts?
Thanks for your comment. What is real for you? Moral development? On what ground? With what purpose or goal?
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