This review appeared in the Oct-Dec 2012 vol. 169 no. 4 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.Subscribe Today
Local Theology for the Global Church: Principles for an Evangelical Approach to ContextualizationWilliam Carey Library, Pasadena, CA January 1, 2010
One of the refreshing voices in the evangelical community is the World Evangelical Alliance, under which this theological work was commissioned. This book is useful for missiologists, theologians, ministers, and professors. Its chapters acknowledge the universality of the global church while emphasizing the need for theology to accurately communicate to local cultures. Twelve theologians discuss theoretical principles for theological contextualization, adding practical examples and a set of questions to serve as a basis for discussion.
Dean Flemming argues that contextualization is both essential and appropriate. He illustrates how Paul’s letter to the Colossians displays the writing of a theologian whose theology focused on the Colossian culture. The legitimacy of contextualization is further developed by Youssouf Dembele who asks, How is the word for “God” to be translated in Scripture for Muslim readers? Should “Allah” be used, or is this syncretism (with Islam)? Dembele presents a defense for the use of “Allah” in Christian translations of the Bible.
Craig Blomberg assesses how Western evangelicals have already contextualized their theology, offering that the main benefit of contextualization is effective communication. He discusses a dynamic equivalent translation of the Scriptures, which moves away from a rigid literalism without abandoning the teaching of Scripture. He then discusses Luke’s use of Hellenistic cultural references to better communicate to a Gentile audience (e.g., use of keravmwn, “tiles,” in Luke 5:19).
Ruth Julian explores the failure to consider how culture drives theological expression and suggests that Western theology often gears its answers to a postmodern culture without relevance to the majority of Christians in the two-thirds world. In Central Africa, for example, the questions pressing the church are not liberalism, but sorcery and spiritualism. Patricia Harrison develops this issue and exhorts that more must be done in Western seminaries than merely “packaging Western theology for export” (p. 197).
How is contextualization prevented from dissolving into syncretism? This book’s answer is to submit culture to Scripture. Matthew Cook offers the value of culture for theology, but he emphasizes that all cultures must be examined by Scripture. Benno van den Toren suggests there is a “supracultural” core to the gospel message and argues that diversity in its presentation does not undermine its core. He discusses the four synoptic Gospels, each of which has a different perspective and a different audience but a unified core message in the person of Christ. The scriptural witness to this provides the boundaries to safeguard any syncretism of the gospel to a local culture.
With the subordination of culture to Scripture, the final portion of the book addresses how to develop local theology. According to Natee Tanchanpongs, no church should be identical to its cultural surrounding. The church must be authentic and relevant but distinct from the world. Paul Siu points out the numerical center of gravity of Christianity is south of the equator while the dominant theological framework within evangelicalism is still very much north of it, and he offers an East Asian proposal. Osías Segura-Guzmán and Scott Moreau address how to develop an orthodox local theology that effectively communicates the gospel and adopts the posture of humility. That is, a humble local theology does not exalt a local culture above another culture or above Scripture, but readily listens and draws from the universal theological tradition of the church. This is a local theology well placed in the global church.
Of the twelve collaborators in this project, all have extensive cross-cultural experience, largely as missionaries. Only four are not North American or European. It is surprising that more developing world authors were not included, especially when all of its authors would advocate that theology be better contextualized by cultural “insiders” (p. 72). However, a second volume (Global Mission: Reflections and Case Studies in Contextualization for the Whole Church, ed. Rose Dowsett [Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2011]) addresses this issue in part.
This work is valuable for multiple reasons, not the least of which is its thorough bibliography of suggested resources on the subject. The book stands as one of few that address theological contextualization from an evangelical view, the view that theology must be both locally relevant and faithful to Scripture.
—Shane Angland with Jenny McGill