Thursday, 2 May 2013

Post-Liberal vs. Contextual Theology

A major problem in Modern Christian theology has been the tendency to emphasize methodologies like historical critique and the contextualization of scripture over and above understanding scripture as God’s word preserved by him throughout time as his canonical revelation through the church. Post-liberal theology wants to affirm that God was in control of the canonical process, and continues to speak to us to through his word in the here and now. Furthermore we should not be so arrogant to assume that God’s voice was muffled in Christian theology before the modern age. The theology of Irenaeus, Luther, and Augustine should be taken just as seriously as modern historical critical thinkers like N.T. Wright and Marcus Borg. At the end of the day, the revelation of Scripture speaking into our lives is God’s work not our own. The methodology of inter-textual canonical reading is used heavily by post-liberal theologians along with examining the patterns in past Christian theology to see how God was and is continuing to work in the Scripture. Post-liberal theologian David Yeago, as an example, likes to show how past theologians like Martin Luther would actually agree a lot with what folks like N.T. Wright and the New Perspective on Paul have to say. In his commentary on Matthew Stanley Hauerwas gave himself rules that he would not fall into the historical critical trap of theorizing Matthew’s historical context. Instead his only exegetical reference would be scripture itself (how does a passage in Matthew relate to other passages in the Old and New Testament?) and how it applies to our current context today.    

While Contextual theologians like Sylvia Keesmaat, Brian Walsh, and Ellen Davis understand the danger of thinking historical critical lenses will allow us to more objectively understand scripture, examining our context as it potentially relates to the context or narrative of scripture is seen as important in understanding how God might be moving in our lives. When we see the human context of the scripture, we are able to relate to each in other in our joys and our suffering...

When speaking to theology students and clergy in South Sudan, Ellen Davis read Exodus 1 and 2 to the students and asked them what it took to for the women in the story to keep the baby Moses safe, and how is it that Israel as a nation was birthed through the narrative? In a location that is just a few miles from the Nile and in a culture that often has to worry about infanticide, the people could deeply relate to the pain and suffering that was going on in the story, and the importance for seeing God’s mercy and justice in the story rose to a whole other level. From this Biblical understanding Davis says the people began to talk about the practical implications for living in the midst of a God who sees their safety and nurturing of their people as important. Contextual theology allows people to see the power of scripture in its resonance with and against the culture of the day. However, Stanley Hauerwas’ warning for keeping Scripture and Culture so close is that we never forgot how Romans 13 was used to keep people in line during the reign of Nazi Germany.

While there seems to be a tension here, to me it seems it is mostly a matter of balance. Historical contextual theology should never be about proving or disproving the resurrection or other divine actions, nor should we ignore the fact that God uses our examination of context to bring about his justice and mercy in the world. When we are called to remember that God is in control, this is not a call to simply accept whatever the church has said throughout time, but to earnestly and faithfully discern God’s call in our lives and in history. When we examine the historical context of scripture this does not mean that we are somehow closer to the truth of scripture than before. It is simply another way God is speaking to us in our time and place. We should always try and remain faithful to the call and leading of God in the Church throughout time, even as he is continually calling us to re-imagine that call in light of our current and past contexts.  

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