The Value of Context for Theological Education

Fill-In-The-Blank Theology?

Theologian Stanley Grenz once wrote a statement that quite literally, changed both my life and my perspective on theology and the teaching of it. Grenz noted that

“Despite its positive contributions, the concordance understanding of theology has one decisive flaw. It does not give adequate attention to the contextual nature of theology.

Theological reflection always occurs within and for a specific historical context. Consequently, all theological assertions are historically conditioned.”[1]

My own theological education involved what I term ‘fill-in-the-blank’ theology, or what Grenz refers to as a ‘concordance understanding of theology.’ For example, when I went to Bible College and later on seminary for graduate work, we students were required to purchase voluminous class notes prior to the term starting. When in theology class, the lecturer would read from his notes and we students would—quite literally—fill in the blanks on the page. Statements such as ‘God is…blank, blank, blank’ needed to be filled in (omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, in case you’re wondering what the answers were!).

However, little if any attention was given to how this doctrine or belief came about, other than a few scattered Bible verses thrown in to ‘prove’ that the doctrine was, in fact, biblically-based and therefore correct. The overarching presupposition, never stated outright of course, was that ‘all genuine Christians believe this’ and therefore, as those training for aspects of vocational ministry, we were supposed to go back to our churches and teach and preach accordingly. None of us really thought to question it, and the contextual nature of doctrine was something rarely—if ever—mentioned. Although we did study church history, it was presented more as an overview of historical events in which the church and its major players somehow figured prominently in Western history.

The truth of the matter was, however, that both students and lecturers were all participating and operating within—however unwittingly—a particular theological tradition. In the case of my example this tradition involved the following elements: a western, North American, conservative Baptist, evangelical (read ‘second-generation fundamentalist’), white male-dominated, grammatico-historical hermeneutical, Biblical authority/inerrancy/inspiration tradition. Additional descriptors could be added in, but by now you should be getting the idea. For most of us students, this conservative slant was why we chose to attend this particular seminary as opposed to a so-called ‘liberal’ institution; and for its lecturers, those hired to teach there fit within those theological and hermeneutical parameters also. If they hadn’t, then obviously they would not have been hired in the first place. Thus both the seminary and its graduates could view themselves as proudly upholding the standard of a particular (if narrow) theological and biblical point of view.

The Contextual Nature of Theology

To return to Grenz, his first statement of a ‘concordance definition’ of theology fits the educational pattern described above, and also showcases its major decisive flaw: the failure to account for the contextual and historical nature of doctrinal formulations. The reality is, however, according to Bevans, is this: “There is no such thing as ‘theology’; there is only contextual theology…the contextualization of theology—the attempt to understand Christian faith within a particular context—is really a theological imperative.”[2] Bevans points out the reality that “our context influences the understanding of God and the expression of our faith. The time is past when we can speak of one right, unchanging theology, a theologia perennis. We can only speak about a theology that makes sense at a certain place and in a certain time.”[3]

Unfortunately, even today many still hold to the notion that there is ‘one correct theology’ that has not, nor will not, ever change. This ‘true theology,’ it is believed, builds upon the reflection of two loci: Scripture and tradition. Moreover, it exists somehow above culture and historically-conditioned expression. However, the reality is that Scripture itself was historically conditioned—the product of human beings and their particular historical and cultural contexts. The point is clear: one must acknowledge, notes Bevans, the importance of context for the development of both Scripture and tradition.[4]

Even a cursory overview of the history of the church reveals that most doctrinal formulations were formed out of a particular historical context and typically involved a reactionary stance. Take the Nicene Creed, for example. It was written in 325 AD, at the bidding of a nervous emperor Constantine, with the express purpose of excluding the apparent heresy of Arius and his followers. This heresy could not be allowed to undermine Constantine’s empire politically…unfortunately it did not entirely do the job in quashing all of the alleged heresies, and thus had to be expanded in the Creed of Chalcedon in 451 AD. This longer and more detailed creed was written as a reaction to further apparently heretical views on the person and nature of Christ not stamped out by the earlier Nicene Creed. Other creeds, such as the Athanasian Creed, also sought to clarify the nature of the Trinity and the true nature and person of Christ and thus exterminate the heresy of Arianism. The creeds also sought to be exclusive as well as inclusive regarding such questions as the following: who is a genuine Christian, and who is not? To what beliefs does one need to hold to be considered a ‘true believer’ or a heretic?

As a second example, later creeds and confessions written by the Reformers and Puritan theologians also arose within a specific historical and cultural milieu. Based upon their convictions concerning the Roman Catholic Church and how they held that it had gone astray biblically and theologically, creeds in the Protestant tradition often affirm such doctrines as: the priesthood of all believers, the right of all believers to read and interpret Scripture privately, the preaching of the pure word of God in the vernacular by an ordained minister (in a church service setting), and the ‘five solas’; sola Scriptura, sola fidei, solus Christus, sola gratia, and soli Deo Gloria (Scripture alone, salvation by faith alone in Christ alone, through grace alone, and all to the glory of God). Again, these sets of core beliefs sought to draw the line between ‘true believers’ in the Protestant tradition and the ‘Papists’ who followed the allegedly erroneous teachings of a fallible, corrupt Pope and a subsequently theologically misled Catholic Church.

Locating Oneself Contextually

These examples above have been given in order to demonstrate that whatever one’s theological tradition, it is possible to locate oneself in terms of a theological ‘branch’ or tradition. Imagine, if you will, that in the history of Christianity, since the founding of the church in the first century, it is conceived of as a tree. Its roots are obviously Judaism, and from the founding of the church the tree had one major ‘trunk’ for centuries—what was to become the Roman Catholic Church. One major ‘split’ in the trunk occurred in the Great Schism of 1054 between the Eastern and Western branches of the Church, which had been developing for centuries. In the Western tradition, however, the main trunk was still the Roman Catholic Church, up until the time of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, when a second major schism occurred.

This major break with the Catholic church left four ‘branches’ on the Western Christian tree: the first was Catholicism, the second was Lutheranism, the third was the Reformed (Calvinist and later Puritan) tradition, and the fourth and smallest at that time was the Anabaptist (later much larger Baptistic) tradition. After decades of persecution, wars, polemical writings and sermons, and infighting between these major traditions, many, many smaller branches have continued to split off from these four major branches. This trend continues currently–in fact a friend of mine who used to teach at a Bible college in Zambia described the African church context of today as having a similar narrative.

One key word to describe the church since the Reformation has been ‘fissiparous’—that is, the tendency to split off from the main group and divide into smaller (often more militant and separatist) groups. Each of these smaller sub-groups, once having split off from the larger branch (and usually over some minor but apparently all-important point of doctrinal disagreement), now believes that it is the ‘one true church’ holding to the ‘one true doctrine’ or belief system. Often these smaller sub-groups will formulate a ‘new and improved’ doctrinal position that serves two purposes: one, it defines who belongs to the new split, and two, it serves to exclude those who do not agree with or believe in the new doctrinal formulation.

Conclusion: Implications for Theological Education

The reason for this brief historical overview of the history of the church and its fissiparous nature should by now be clear: whatever one’s particular theological tradition, one can locate oneself theologically along a particular branch (possibly with numerous splits along its length). Ultimately that branch to which the person belongs–despite the number of splits off the larger branches–can eventually be tied back into one of the four major branches from the time of the Reformation; and if one goes back far enough, to the Roman Catholic church main trunk. Although the Eastern or Orthodox tradition will be slightly different, nonetheless the branch can be traced back to the first century church, from which all Christians trace their origins regardless of theological tradition.

The irony of all of this, of course, relates back to my story with which this article began regarding my own theological education. Without an awareness of the contextual nature of theology—and the fissiparous nature of the church throughout its history—we as students were done a major disservice. It also raises a series of questions, such as the following: what exactly is the purpose of theological education? Is it to reinforce one particular (however narrow) theological, doctrinal and hermeneutical position, to the exclusion of however many others? What are the graduates of an institution holding to such values expected to go out and do once they finish their degrees? Apparently they are meant to go out into the wide world (in whatever capacity of ministry they find themselves) and uphold and defend those self-same values.

But if this is the objective of theological education, by corollary implication, one must raise the question: what kind of Christians are we producing in our churches? Week in and week out those sitting in the pews listening to sermons in one particular tradition are being formed and shaped as well within their own particular (and possibly narrow) theological tradition and context. The church functions like a factory whereby new Christians enter the front, are shaped and moulded by the theology to which they are exposed, and exit the church later, shaped according to that particular theological worldview.

Perhaps there is another angle to the question raised above concerning the nature of theological education. For one, teachers of theology should allow their students the opportunity and freedom to explore and grasp the contextual and historically-conditioned nature of both Scripture and theological formulations. Both are the product of human contexts and need to be understood as such—and in the case of many doctrinal statements and confessions, as noted above, most were written and produced in a reactionary, and exclusionary, context. Second, helping the students to locate themselves along their particular theological tradition (as in the example of the tree given above) gives them a more balanced perspective on not only their own tradition, but also can engender respect for the views of others, with whom they may well disagree.

Virtually every teacher of theology has had the experience of the argumentative student who is determined to uphold and defend his or her own particular theological perspective, typically to the detriment of both the teacher and the other students. It is a supreme irony that this combative student believes that his or her ‘correct’ belief or biblical hermeneutic is the ‘one true understanding’, but all the while failing to grasp the contextual (and often highly reactionary) nature of that particular narrow tradition.

Therefore for those involved in theological education, the purpose of teaching should be viewed more as that of enabling students to grasp the contextual nature of both Scripture and theological traditions, rather than seeking to reinforce one particular point of view. Oftentimes Christians are accused by non-believers of being constricted in their perspectives; given the state of theological education and the corresponding narrow viewpoints given within churches, is it any wonder why this accusation is justly levelled?

[1] Grenz, Stanley. Theology for the People of God, 6 (emphasis mine).

[2] Bevans, Stephen B. Models of Contextual Theology, 3.

[3] Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology, 4-5.

[4] Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology, 5.

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October 1, 2016