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.