To say that the history of the Western church and in particular of its theologizing has been specifically Western or White European theologizing is to state something obvious, and if so probably insignificant, but also potentially misleading. But it is a common saying, and uncommonly examined. My guess is that the saying is assumed to be if not profound, certainly sufficiently innocent, obviously true, and in any case useful. One writer argues that, in light of the ‘strangeness’ of Western theological history to Christianity’s newest host cultures, we ought to be engaged in “thinking the faith from the ground up.” This is the thesis of Simon Chan’s text, Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up (IVP Academic, 2014).
As the global topography of confessing Christianity has shifted, interest in emerging localized theologies—Asian theology, African theology, Latin American Theology, and so on —has increased. And these themed endeavors are propelled by movement-like charters grounded principally in the complaint that Christian theology until recently has been written by white European men, coupled with the inference that the theology then too suffers from the particular narrowness of a singular sociology. Accordingly the charge is afoot that, therefore, ‘our own’ theology must be written for ‘our own people’. Best of all, this makes for plenty of fodder for professorial tenure and spills academic ink as quickly as we can produce it.
Certainly the Christian faith should lead from the regeneration of individuals to the transformation of society, of particular societies in particular times and places. And we should not expect that the goal of missions and world evangelism is cultural uniformity—a single, global Christian mono-culture. So there should be Christians of all nations. Conversion is not from or out of culture and context; it includes all aspects of the present, ‘among you’ kingdom of God, as we look forward to the eschatological kingdom. So, a fruit of the gospel taking hold in a new land and among a new people would be the renewal of a new culture, not the shedding of culture nor of the importing and imposing of culture.
To this I think we may all agree, and even cheer. But some caution is in order. “All races and all ethnicities and all cultures,” John Piper reminds us, “will be present in hell.” Cultural or ethnic diversity is an amoral phenomenon; to say ‘many people groups are represented here’ is no moral improvement on ‘there are many people here’. Our focus should be on where, covenantally, ‘here’ is: in Adam or in Christ. So our interest in the multiculturalism of the kingdom should be carefully monitored. My concern is that the vision of a multi-colored world Christianity bearing endlessly the fruit of [pick your socio-cultural] demo-theologies is too often embraced without caution.
In what follows, I’ll address three points of unease with the typical rhetoric of ‘[pick your socio-cultural] theology’.
The claim that ‘Western theology is not helpful for non-Westerners’
No Western theologian ever set out to do Western theology for Westerners. The contemporary diagnosis is that this is in fact is false, and that theology done by Westerners is particularly, inevitably, and irrecoverably Western theology. Our failure to recognize Western parochialism is attributable to cultural-monism, or colonialism, or modernism, or a general lack of interest in other cultures. In some sense this is undeniable. But in another sense, it is a hermeneutic of panicked suspicion and trial-by-angry-mob. To simply dismiss all theology which pre-dates our post-colonial post-enlightenment ‘humility’ is to disregard two important things.
First, that many of these theologians were very seriously invested in hermeneutics and methodology and in reading Scripture as Scripture; that is, they were invested in a Scripture vs. sinful man and sinful culture distinction. To put it another way, faithful biblical interpreters were very aware of a cultural distinction, but not a pluralistic or relativistic one. They were engrossed in a covenantal in-Adam/in-Christ cultural distinction—in fact not a distinction but an antithesis of revelational-covenantal origin. We may inquire with some seriousness into the consistency of this distinction in any or all areas of historic Christian thought, but this in fact is the first and primary cultural distinction with which Christians should be concerned, and which in the best cases characterizes historic reflection on the data of Scripture, particularly when anthropology and culture in view.
Second, the depreciation of historical theology due to a well-intended concern for Euro-centrism, implicitly—not secretly but anyway by implication—depreciates the work of the Spirit in guiding the church via the ordinary means of the preaching and writing of extraordinary men. Of what use are old books, or books from far and different places? Distinctions of culture, history, and geography are vastly superficial compared to the active sustenance of the church by the Spirit of Christ. The life-giving Spirit is thicker than blood and culture. And certainly no one invested in the faithfulness and usefulness of theological reflection would deny that among the most valuable gifts the Lord bestows upon the church are theologians and biblical interpreters (Eph 4:11–12; 1 Cor 12:28), some great—Augustine, Luther, Calvin—and some small.
The idea that ‘we must go back to the Bible and do grassroots theology for the [pick your socio-cultural] context’
Again, there is much of value here. But precision in terms of where the variable of socio-cultural context meets the business and content of biblically grounded theology is at a premium. The worst of this rhetoric gives the impression that everything goes but the Bible. I can imagine the appeal of this idea, particularly when Scripture is translated into a language for the first time. Must we also translate multi-volume systematic theologies in order to have healthy preaching, teaching, learning, and ministry? It seems a little overbearing—some will say ‘neo-colonial’—to insist on importing, say, 19th century Dutch Reformed theology fast on the heels of the first translation of the Bible. It seems overly selective, for one thing, but it also makes a strong magisterial impression on new converts: ‘here is your Bible, and here are your authoritative interpreters’. Caution is warranted.
But reckless biblicism should also be avoided. And the thing to remember is that the Bible itself is not biblicistic. Scripture itself enjoins extra-scriptural reflection upon Scripture, and expects faithful readers to approach Scripture with a somewhat developed notion of its divine nature and authority in place as a kind of unshakable a priori. Remember that the attributes of Scripture are mutually implicative; they imply each other. So if Scripture is necessary for salvation, it is necessary as the authoritative word of God. And it must be intelligible if it is to impart saving knowledge of the gospel, and it alone must be adequate for this purpose. So ‘biblicism’ is perhaps not actually the problem here; it is a crippled doctrine of Scripture that leads one to say, or at least to imply, that extra-biblical reflection on the teaching of Scripture is devoid of biblical authority and is in fact nothing more than the muck and naiveté of cultural embeddedness. If this were true, Scripture could not command the people of God to talk about, reflect upon, teach, preach, or proclaim the word of God, and even to preserve those reflections for posterity; it could only require recitation, and only in Hebrew and Greek—and down the road, perhaps not even that; all creaturely language will be abandoned. And there would be no such thing as dogmatic theology. We could achieve only dispensable and shifting cultural application. So the Bible itself speaks against biblicism, and the idea that theology needs completely to be rebuilt for each new [pick your socio-cultural] context implies a dangerous and indeed unbiblical depreciation of the formulation, proclamation, and defense of doctrine. This is a non-starter.
Theology for whom?
My third and final curmudgeonly complaint is that [pick your socio-cultural] demo-theology sounds so self-important. I think that “theology” says quite enough about the purpose of what we do. That purpose is God. Nor is it any enhancement to tag theology with the banner of a given (or self-selected) cultural identifier. Anyway, as for me, I am not so interested in the demographics of the theologizer; I am interested in the faithfulness of the theology—and I mean faithfulness to Scripture, not to a generation of man. The usefulness of doctrine—in any context—depends upon its faithfulness to the Word of God in Scripture, not upon its faithfulness to man, since it is primarily God who works in us to complete what he has begun.
Paul condemns divisions in the church: “one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos’” (2 Cor 3:4). Precisely the error Paul has in mind is Christian sub-culture parochialism. No doubt on other occasions Paul himself sided with some folks against others; but Paul’s divisiveness, if we may call it that, was always doctrinal. That is, his concern was unequivocally faithfulness to revelation and to the one, self-consistent gospel. His jealously for the purity of the gospel led him to curse angels (Gal 1:8) and publicly rebuke Peter (Gal 2:11–14). And Jesus says, “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt 12:50). But the dissension and tribalism in Corinth that Paul sought to undo exalted a non-doctrinal metric: people groups. And isn’t this very distinction between genealogy and faith in the Word the substance of Paul’s law/gospel discussion in Romans 3:21–4 and Galatians 3? God is able from the stones to multiply ethnic diversity.
Paul’s response to the strife in Corinth is to emphasize the servanthood of gospel workers (2 Cor 3:5–9). In other words, Paul’s view is that theology should never find itself without a charter; it should be eagerly attentive to the word of the Lord and the work of the church that is founded upon and sustained by that word. An irksome lack of self-image haphazardly plugged with tribalism indicates neglect of this most determinative identity: “whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present of the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (2 Cor 3:22–23).
I am Reformed, not because I wish to be associated with particular persons or skin colors or a socio-cultural narrative; but because I believe the Reformed faith to understand and to interpret Scripture most faithfully. One can be any sort of person and be Reformed; this is because ‘Reformed’ is a doctrinal designation, not a socio-cultural one. And this follows the example and teaching of Paul, even of Jesus himself. Of course ‘Reformed’ is not the point here; but it is a case in point. My fear is that sub-culture-demo-theologies are a substitute, displaying laziness or even subversiveness, for rigorous attention to Scripture. And certainly the tendency toward demo-theologies does fail to partake of the urgency of Paul’s gospel—of his preaching, evangelism, missions, and doctrinal rigor. I fear that interest in a culturalized Christianity, meandering into demothasized religiosity, indulges in an intellectual extravagance unauthorized by Scripture and unbecoming of Christian servants.
Perhaps there is something in the way theology is often done that evokes these concerns. Perhaps Evangelicalism’s post-post-modern sensibilities are not solely to blame; maybe there is in fact something amiss in the way we present theology.
For the theologian who teaches theologians as his subject matter, I think he has well earned native distaste. Faithful theologians teach theology from Scripture, and entrust the cultural conundrum to the Holy Spirit, in his management of the universal church and his blessing the conveyance of the doctrines of Scripture and of good and necessary consequence. Non-speculative, exegetically and biblical-theologically guided theologizing will never be alien to the ear that is primed to hear.
I teach systematic theology far from my home and my native culture, and I have never heard anyone say, ‘that teaching of Scripture does not apply here’. And if I ever do hear something like that, I can say already that the problem will not be with Scripture or with biblically sound theology. Nor is the cause or even the catalyst of theological breakdown necessarily or primarily cultural. Breakdowns in the interpretation of Scripture are ascribed properly, ultimately, to finitude or to sinfulness.
There is need for and great wisdom in cultural adaptability in Christian witness, just as there is, we may say, from person to person in local church ministry. Paul became all things in order to witness to all, even “a servant to all,” he says, that he “might win more.” But Paul embraces with his whole heart this adaptability in order to witness to the self-same truth, “for the sake of the gospel” (1 Cor 9:19–23), and no other (Gal 1:6–9). My view is that Scripture and theologizing according to Scripture’s own self-witness are neither one of them subject ultimately to variations of culture or era, that the only always important demographical distinction is between under-wrath and under-grace, and that for all the wonderful variety of the body of Christ, to which believers are called and for which they are gifted in untold variety and variation, “there is one body and one Spirit . . . one hope . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:4–6).
Choose your sub-culture demo-theologies may certainly produce helpful, edifying, and biblically sound insights. There is no reason from the mere idea of such things to reject a priori the possibility that they offer insights good and necessary for the church in accordance with the gospel. Indeed if it is true that, for example, protestant theology, has throughout its relatively brief history been produced by the same type of people, then it stands to reason that folks of different types will excel at exposing blind spots and heralding refreshing insights. But of course the premise is dubious, since to group, say, a 16th German with a 17th century Frenchman with an 18th century Scotsman with a 19th century Dutchman with a 20th century Texan with a 21st century South Korean, even if they are indeed all of the same gender, is to stretch the guilty demographic beyond usefulness. Such a motley gathering has far too little in common to ascribe its theological fellowship to anything cultural or sociological. That just cannot be the most likely explanation. And if the premise is dubious, the endeavor itself is something of an imprudent balancing act. But anyway I have not in the preceding claimed that it is impossible for such theologies to produce anything good or helpful, or that they never have. My purpose here has been to articulate some general theological concerns that I think any such endeavor would be wise to keep in mind.