Six Models of Contextual Theology

bevansmodels bevans

Stephen Bevans’ book, of the above title, isn’t a new book (first published in 1992), but it is new to me and I did find it helpful in thinking through an important issue, so I thought I’d share a brief synopsis of its contents. He outlines six models of contextualisation as follows:

  1. The Translation Model – this is the attempt to take the truths of the gospel and find ways to make them understandable to a different culture (think Acts 14, 17).
  2. The Anthropological Model – this approach begins with the ‘host’ culture, and assumes its basically good. It’s the opposite of the translation model. It’s attempting to recognise the good, or the ways God is already at work, in the culture. Not so hot on seeing the places where the gospel may directly challenge a culture.
  3. The Praxis Model – essential views theology as something that needs to be practised first, reflected on later (to misuse Jam 1:22). Practice, reflection, practice in unending spiral of learning. Ditch the books; just do something. Right to emphasise the need for ortho-praxy, but how do you know what that looks like without ortho-doxy?
  4. The Synthetic Model – This model seeks to balance the insights from the first three models in synthesis. A sort of theological ‘fence-sitting.’ Always ‘both/and.’ Dialogue and openness to listen and learn are important. Humility good, but a potential danger of selling out.
  5. The Transcendental Model – this model is less interested in the theology than the theologian. The truth isn’t out there, it’s in here, and needs attending to. The emphasis is not on the object of knowledge but the knowing subject. Theology intensely private and personal. God revealed in personal experience, not Scripture or historical tradition/teaching. Navel-gazing! [This is the one model I’m struggling to see any redeeming feature in – of course self-awareness is important, but to make it the final epistemological arbiter is bonkers]
  6. The Countercultural Model – this model recognises that ‘the gospel always presents a “challenging relevance” to the human situation.’ The culture is treated with a degree of suspicion. Rightly recognises the church as resident aliens, but in danger of ignoring common grace, and even becoming ‘anti-cultural.’

Here’s a few extra things to note:

  • Bevans is writing from a Catholic perspective and argues that each model is potentially valid. With this I’d disagree (in particular on model 5). So you’ll have to do the work of evaluation yourselves.
  • These models represent a spectrum with countercultural at one end, and anthropological at the other. Neat and tidy models are always difficult, but I think Bevan’s outline is broadly illuminating.
  • Most of these models (with the exception of #5 I think) offer something positive to reflect on, given the appropriate nuance, care, and balance.
  • Perhaps the most important thing that strikes me from all this: WE ALL DO THIS! This isn’t the reserve of academics. All of us form our beliefs from somewhere, and we all think about how to live out those beliefs vis-a-vis others. Some of us will instinctively take the counter-culture, others the anthropological, others will like the balance of the synthetic, and some of us, if we’re honest do the transcendental thing – belief based on feelings or experiences. We all have theology, and we all have ways of living it out – that right there my friends is contextualisation. In fact Bevans says in his intro (rightly I think), ‘there’s no such thing as “theology”; there is only contextual theology.’ He goes on to define contextualisation as ‘the attempt to understand Christian faith in terms of a particular context.’ And who of us can say we don’t do that (or worse, aren’t interested in that). I know there’s a debate somewhere about the legitimacy of contextualisation. Seems to me we all do it. The real question is whether you’re doing it consciously and reflectively. And a consciously reflective contextual theology will be aware of other contexts as well as their own – past, present, global etc. All these things help us to be, in simple terms, responsible theologians. THAT you contextualise what you believe is beyond doubt in my view. HOW you do it is the key thing to reflect on.
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