Contextual Theologies: The Problem of Agendas -- By: Harvie M. Conn

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 52:1 (Spring 1990)
Article: Contextual Theologies: The Problem of Agendas
Author: Harvie M. Conn


Contextual Theologies: The Problem of Agendas

Harvie M. Conn

Mention the word “contextualization” in Reformed and evangelical circles and sooner or later another word pops up—syncretism. Why? There are many answers to that question. Most certainly a basic one is our legitimate concern that the authority of the Bible will become lost in the plethora of localized theologies. If we start with our particular, historical situation, what will happen to the once-for-all character of the Bible as norm? In constantly taking account of the receptor cultures, isn’t hermeneutic in danger of letting the medium become the message and the message become a massage? Will the “sameness” of the Bible get lost in a diversity of human cultures?

There are plenty of illustrations to confirm these fears. Liberation theologies often reduce the Bible from canon to paradigm. Korea’s Minjung theology often sounds, through the voices of some of its advocates, to be more Korean than biblical.

My purpose in this paper, however, moves in another direction. I wish to suggest that there is still another cause for fears, and this among those committed to the full inerrancy of Scripture. It is not as obvious to us as is the expression of doubts regarding the authority of the Bible. In fact, we are only beginning to recognize its potential for creating trouble. I speak of our lack of sophistication about the circumstantial issues which all theologies, including evangelical and Reformed ones, address.

To put it positively, I wish to underline the place of the historical context in rightly doing theology. I shall use several key figures from the early church to point out the liabilities of misjudging context and indicate how that misjudgment has affected our understanding of theology. And, finally, I shall make a few comments about how evangelicals in the two-thirds world are attempting to be more aware of this issue of context.

I. Shifts in Perspective

The basic purpose of theological reflection has never changed—”the reflection of Christians upon the gospel in the light of their own circumstances.”1 John V. Taylor, the missionary statesman of the Church of En-

gland, remembers the heartbreaking moment when his son decided to give up on the church. “Father,” he said on one occasion as the two left church together, “the preacher is saying all of the right things, but he isn’t saying them to anybody. He doesn’t know where I am and it would never occur to him to ask!”

Relevance and irrelevance are the words we have used in the past to justify the dilemma placed ...

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