Contextual Theology: Why We Study Ancient Theology

Should we baptize infants or restrict baptism to adult, confessing believers?  Should we use hymns or contemporary songs?  Should we use choirs or rock bands?  Should we be memorial or more sacramental in our Eucharistic practice?  Should we think and speak of Jesus as our friend or ancient ancestor?  Does the Spirit proceed from the Son?  What does the word gospel mean?  What do these questions have in common?  Contextual theology and practice.

Contextual theology (defined as believing and practicing or “theopraxis”)has been the buzz for sometime in the academy, and this insight has found its way into the Church even more recently.  The idea, simply put, is that all our theology, worship and church practices are significantly shaped by our history and cultural context.

While all Spirit-filled, Christ-centered and Father-worshipping churches agree that our Sunday gathering is for the glorification of the Triune God, not all churches will agree on the particulars of how that is done and what are the particular outcomes.  Should our gathering result in an emotionally ecstatic experience (contemporary evangelical, pentecostal)?  Should our gathering result in right thinking about God (Presbyterian)?  Should our gathering be shaped by contemporary cultural forces or ancient liturgical practices?  What these questions point to is a diversity of shape, form, practice and experience among Christians in our theology and worship; and this, in turn, is the very evidence that we all, either knowingly or unknowingly, practice contextual theology.

One benefit of seeing theopraxis as a contextualized project is that it humbles our thinking and practice, and it allows us to become wise through the theopraxis of others.  No longer do we stand up, pounding our chest, yelling to other Christians that they need to believe, practice and worship as we do.  Rather we listen to the Church around the world, and we listen to the historical Church through its writings.  This listening awakens us to the different cultural questions other Christians ask and the different angles they find in the biblical text as a result of their culture.  We see different practices, enabling us to see how particular, if not parochial, our practices are.  This deeper sense and experience of the Church helps us invert our sense of the world.  Rather than seeing our expression of the local church as central to experiencing the glory of God in worship, we see ourselves as but one piece of a larger whole that brings us to the glory of God through a variety of means.

Contextual theology, however, is not a relative theology, but it is a recognition of the diverse nature of theopraxis due to its particular culture of origin.  Think of theopraxis as being tethered to a set of central beliefs and practices (Trinity, Cross and Resurrection, the final Eschaton, holiness, prayer, songs, reading of scripture, ect), and being tethered to this center allows for incredible variation within the body of Christ as to the shape or form of a local theopraxis.

To help us grow in our understanding of contextual theopraxis, we are going to start a series of posts looking at some of the earliest, non-canonical Christian writings.  The purpose of this series is to bring the diverse world of ancient theopraxis to a contemporary evangelical audience, making us aware of our contextual theopraxis and becoming enriched by other Christians from another time and culture.  We believe that you will find this Patristic world as fascinating as we do.

I remember the first time I opened up The Didache, a very early Christian writing regarding Church practice.  I wanted to see if it spoke to questions of infant or believer’s baptism.  I wanted to see if it spoke to the question of a memorial or sacramental view of the Eucharist.  Those were my culturally driven questions, but what I found was a different set of questions and responses regarding those practices.  Let me quote from The Didache.

“As for baptism, baptize in this way:  Having said all this beforehand, baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, in running water.  If you do not have running water, however, baptize in another kind of water; if you cannot do so in cold water, then do so in warm water.  But if you have neither, pour water on the head thrice in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit.”

This text was stunning to me.  The burning question for many early Christians regarding the theopraxis of baptism was the nature of the water!  Notice, however, the tether to the center set.  They baptized, and they did so in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  But from that centered set they venture off in a culturally conditioned direction or expression.  Seeing that our questions were not their questions was fascinating to me.  The fact that we have profoundly different questions about baptism changes how the engage the theopraxis of baptism, and the insight into the contextual nature of theopraxis helped me appreciate my tradition and the tradition of other Christians on equal footing.  I suspect such insight may help a much divided Church become more united.

Looking at the early Church Fathers is but one context among many.  We don’t have the time and space to explore it all on this blog, but our hope is that by sampling the one you may thirst for others on your own.  Blessings.

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23 Responses to Contextual Theology: Why We Study Ancient Theology

  1. rainbowmn says:

    guys, guys, guys.
    you have detached from the mother ship. these are interesting discussions to some, but not for a blog that is exists to allow people to think and react to the realities of life. lot of stuff going on out here. feels like the blog community exists for you to hear yourselves talk.

    do appreciate you. Its just that you are not relevant.

    • “Think and react to the realities of life” is precisely what we are after. The “reality” of our theology and practice in the church today is DRIVEN by our context. Our cultural narratives (success, methods, pictures of flourishing) drive how we understand scripture and the practices we employ to live out scripture.

      Reading and practicing scripture is more real than “reality” that is sketched out for us by the world. Therefore, becoming aware of context helps us very practically understand how it influences our reading of scripture and the meaning we construe from it. Failure to acknowledge the contextual nature of theology and practice is in fact to do the opposite of what you advocate, that is, “allow people to think and react to the realities of life.” Attempting to ground people in scripture and meaning of scripture, it seems to me, the most relevant act of reality for us as Christians. It is like attempting to free Trueman from his socially constructed world in order that he might understand the difference between the socially constructed (context) from reality (gospel narrative).

    • Mark Notestine says:

      I think this type of discussion is very relevant. Correct theology relates to the realities of life in how you envision and practice you faith, which from an eternal perspective is the most important reality in life. How do you know if you are being led astray into heresy unless you understand the past? Rarely is a current heresy novel, it is usually a heresy from the past with new lipstick.

      Most Christian traditions/schools of thought say they are either continuing true faith of the early church or are rediscovering/recovering that true faith. How do you know who is correct unless you study them?

      On the other hand we should realize that these early are not infallible. But like any historical document, the closer in time and geography a document is to the original events the more weight it has in the discussion. This directly plays into sola scriptura and why we hold the Bible as more reliable than other Christian writings.

      • Mark Notestine says:

        Hmmm, after reading the other replies perhaps I should endeavor to use bigger words like Ryan and Scott. 🙂

      • “How do you know who is correct unless you study them?” … This is a great question, Mark. But in reality, how many people in the church have the necessary time on their hands to actually delve into these issues? And that is why one of the things that we most desperately need are more pastor-theologians – individuals who have been properly trained not just to drive a text to weekly “application,” but men who can root a text in the larger theological discussion.

        I think a great example of this need can be found in common teaching on the subject of David and Goliath. How many times have we heard that passage preached from the perspective that if you have faith like David, you, too, can conquer the giants you will face in this world? The problem is, when people face the “giant,” and he doesn’t collapse, they are left to wonder if God’s word is true or if they had enough faith. In reality, that passage has little to do with the listener having a faith like David. It’s about Israel’s suffering under a false king, and its desperate need for a true king that can free it from oppression. Looking forward, from a Christological perspective, it about the church having that same need today. We live under false Ceasers and false kings, and we long for the day when the True King will finish that which He began on the cross, as he takes his rightful throne.

        • Mark Notestine says:

          Granted a lot of people don’t have the time, but they should make time do try. My question actually takes one step further back. When it comes to initially deciding what pastor-theologian(s) to follow, each person must make a fallible decision as to which tradition to follow. Presbyterian? Baptist? Episcopal? Catholic? Orthodox? Mormon? Jehovah’s Witness? 7th Day Adventist? Islam? etc. This would hopefully involve some initial listening to teachers and study by the person on their own. Even after choosing which pastor-theologians to follow, a person lneed to continue to read things for themselves to check if they are still following a correct teacher and tradition. So-called “pastor-theologians” (or their equivalent) are found in almost all faith traditions.

          It makes me think about those who convert to Roman Catholicism for “unity” and “infallible teaching.” We know that Catholic “unity” is a myth. Infallibility is also claimed by Mormons, among others. Also, that type of certainty in Catholic “infallible teaching” is impossible since the foundation is an initial “fallible” decision by the individual as to what tradition of pastors/theologians to follow. Did my “fallible” choice choose the correct “infallible” authority?

          In light of 1 Peter 3:15 and priesthood of all believers, we are all accountable for attempting to discern what is the correct set of doctrines and to “give the reasons for the hope that we have.” We cannot hand off that responsibility to an “infallible” church hierarchy, etc.

          And on the David and Goliath story. People usually thing of David’s sling as almost a toy. In the ancient world, slings were very deadly ranged weapons and slingers were very dealy fighters, Balearic slingers being the most famous. So as remarkable as the story may be, to kill someone with one shot of a sling was not in itself miraculous.

  2. Rainbowmn … Interestingly enough, your closing comment is actually an example of contextual theology. The concept of “relevance” presupposes that we are to adapt our practices, language, and even discussions to the accepted norms of the surrounding culture as opposed to forming counter-cultural communities that stand apart from the larger culture. Thus, your assertion, by its very nature, is a cultural claim and a great example of contextual theology.

    Having said that, I suspect you are actually commenting to express disappointment that we are straying away from the subject of Harvest Bible Chapel. I have said it before in other comments on other posts, but I will say it again, here. This blog is not dedicated to the subject of Harvest. From time to time, we have written on that subject, and in the future, I suspect we will continue to do so. But this blog was never meant to be limited solely by that subject, and if that disappoints you … well, perhaps you can check in from time to time and just read the stuff on Harvest.

  3. XPat58 says:

    Guys,

    I think you swallowed the hook. Nicely done Rainbowmn.

  4. Kevin W. says:

    Ok – I will put out a Harvest Bible Chapel reference… Having been a member there for many years and having experienced all of the disillusionment noted by others on this blog, I became very interested in going back and studying the early church and the church fathers. I am just a “lay person” and so doing this on my own has been hard. I am grateful for this blog post and am hoping for some resources. You have already provided one, The Didache, which I have never heard of but am eager to explore. It is hard for us commoners to evaluate the contemporary church without guidance. We may know something doesn’t seem right but don’t know how to articulate it – it is just a gut feeling. For example, this current James MacDonald “Vertical Church bringing God’s glory down” – something smells rotten but I don’t know exactly what it is. So I appreciate this post and am looking forward to what comes next.

    • Kevin you are an astute man. You have made explicit what was implicit in this post.

      There are so many resources for developing a theology that are not accessible to the average Christian; they just don’t know where to look for it. We want to be about constructive theology not just deconstruction of ecclesiology, even if deconstruction is a necessary part of construction.

    • By the way The Didache can be found free online, along with a host of other early church writings. It is also very short, allowing it to be read in one brief sitting.

    • Hey Kevin … The next post in this series (based on 1 Clement) will be going up sometime in the next few days. So if this really is a field of interest for you, I think you’ll really like this series. And seeing as how I currently teach Church Theology, I’m guessing we’ll have stuff running in this series all year long.

      With regards to that curious odor you smell, I think I might be getting a whiff of that in my direction as well. Something just doesn’t sit right. Seems to me that the “glory” came down in the form of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. So this appeal to Isaiah and the glory of the Temple … something feels off. But truthfully, I haven’t had the time to really explore it, and I don’t want to say something that is completely off base. So I’ve been quiet on the subject, even if I do catch a weird smell from time to time.

      • Kevin W. says:

        Thanks Scott and Ryan. I appreciate the resources. Years ago at Harvest, there was a full blown education program for the congregants. Teachers and professors came in from Moody, Wheaton, and Trinity Evangelical among others. I really liked these classes. Harvest even issued a certificate of learning once you completed a certain series of classes. I don’t know where these classes went or why they went away. I asked, but no one seemed to know. Anyway, I want to learn everything I can about our historic Christian faith. Harvest has become so shallow that I have taken to the internet for resources but do not always know where to look or what to look for. I am looking forward to the rest of the series here. Keep up the good work.

        • Stauron3n1 says:

          Kevin,

          I can’t say exactly why “The Foundation” got axed, but I can say that the Church’s gigantic debt load didn’t help the situation. The dire financial situation shifted the focus to getting people through the front door and into the seats with their wallets and checkbooks and those wonderful little “extras” like evening classes became excess baggage.

          Of course from James’ perspective there is a potential side benefit. If you stop teaching biblical truth, over time your congregation “dumbs down” and then it’s easier to pull off a theological paradigm shift (ala Steven Furtick & T.D. Jakes) without the congregation noticing or complaining too much.

          Reread Animal Farm. This trick worked really well for the pigs. The rest of the animals knew something was different, but they couldn’t quite put their feet, paws, hooves or trotters on the change.

          • Kevin W. says:

            Stauron,
            Yes that was what it was called, “The Foundation”, and those classes were always filled. There was a pastor there at the time, David Jones, who often taught and he was an exceptionally good teacher. I don’t know where he went but I was told he is no longer with Harvest. But he would give us the historical context and really flesh out the Biblical text. He was also good about answering questions so someone like me with no seminary background could feel comfortable asking questions without being made to feel dumb. He would even answer e-mail questions. I don’t know who I would even go to at Harvest now. When I have called needing pastoral guidance I had to either leave a voicemail message stating the reason for the call or I would get a gatekeeper secretary who interrogated me and would not put me through to a pastor. Like I want to discuss those personal things with a secretary. But yeah, I have read Animal Farm and your reference frightens me. I knew there were problems at Harvest but I am sure I have no idea as to the depth. MacDonald has become downright scary. I don’t trust anything he says.

          • David Jones is the senior pastor at Village Church of Barrington with Josh Caterer as the Sat night worship leader.

            David is a smart, humble and excellent teacher. If you are looking for help he’s a great person to start with. Blessings brother.

          • Stauron3n1 says:

            No longer trusting Pastor MacDonald is arguably one of the wisest things you could do. Our boy James often says the darndest things and many don’t appear to be completely grounded in reality. To compound the problem he seems to believe whatever comes out of his mouth because he’s the one speaking it.

            Ryan is absolutely on target about his assessment of David Jones. His departure from HBC was a great loss to that organization whether or not they ever choose to admit it.

        • Kevin while you wait for other posts on the early church might I recommend a title to you? Stuart Hall’s Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church. It is a smaller survey volume that will give you the sense of the whole into which the parts of our posts will fit. Of course, as Protestants we don’t hold tradition to be a second source of special revelation but tradition is a source of wisdom that can guide our contemplation about theology and practice.

          • Kevin W. says:

            Thanks. Do you know where I can pick up this book locally? Also, do you know of any churches or other places in the Chicago area other than colleges or seminaries that teach classes on the early church for ordinary people?

          • I subscribe to amazon plus, the fee pays for the shipping charges I’d otherwise accrue. So, amazon is your best bet because bookstores don’t carry good books and amazon discounts can’t be beat.

            As for churches teaching about ancient theology, I don’t know of any. If you graduated from a local Christian university they will let you audit classes cheaply.

  5. Stauron3n1 says:

    Ryan,

    Your post made me think of Justin Martyr. As a church, it seems to me that we have too often occupied ourselves with creating “forms” that aren’t necessarily designed to only promote worship in ways that glorify God, but to also “distinguish” ourselves from others whose practices confirm to us that their theological understanding is inferior to our own.

    I’ve found Justin Martyr’s description of a 2nd century worship service does a wonderful job of reminding me of the fundamentals.

    “On Sunday, all are gathered together in unity. The records of the Apostles or the writings of the Prophets are read as long as time allows. The presider exhorts and invites us into the pattern of these good things. Then we all stand and offer prayer.

    When we have concluded the prayer, bread is set out together with wine… The presider then offers prayer and thanksgiving, and the people sing out the assent, saying the “Amen”. There is distribution of the things over which thanks have been said, and each person participates, and these things are sent to those who are not present.

    Those who are prosperous give what they wish according to each one’s own choice, and the collection is deposited with the presider, who aids orphans and widows, those in want because of disease, those in prison, and foreigners who are staying here.

    We hold this meeting on Sunday since it is the first day on which God, having transformed darkness and matter, created the world. On the same day Jesus Christ our savior rose from the dead. On Sunday he appeared to his apostles and disciples and taught them the things we present to you.”

    It also reminds me of an old joke.

    One day, a man was walking across a bridge and saw another man standing on the edge, about to jump off. He immediately ran to him and said, “Stop! Don’t do it!”
    “Well, why shouldn’t I?” he replied.
    The other said, “Well, there’s so much to live for!”
    “Like what?
    “Well … are you religious or atheist?”
    “Religious.”
    “Me too! And are you Christian or Jewish?”
    “Christian.”
    “Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?”
    “Protestant.”
    “Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?
    “Baptist.”
    “Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?”
    ” Baptist Church of God.”
    “Me too! Are you Original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?”
    “Reformed Baptist Church of God.”
    “Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?”
    “Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915!”
    To which he said, “Die, you heretic!” and pushed him off the bridge.

    I think that this could be one of the most important posts you guys have published.

  6. Pingback: Contextual Theology: Before there was a Christian Canon, there was a Church « Blood Stained Ink

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