ScriptureTheology & Spirituality

Contextual Theology, part I

I recently wrote a minimal critique of one aspect of the contextualized theology of Jürgen Moltmann. This engendered an article-sized rejoinder comment. I would like to thank Chris Warne for the time he spent crafting his comments. It was clearly a labor of love.

The substance of the comments, however, I found somewhat less beneficial. For example, to Chris’s challenging me to show where Moltmann has deviated from the tradition, need I do more than cite his own article, wherein he states very plainly that “tradition has told us that God is impassible” and that Moltmann rejects this tradition? As for the history of Moltmann’s theological development and writings, those interested can read the essay of Moltmann with which I was interacting, “A Lived Theology,” and find my various claims substantiated by Moltmann’s own description of his theological development and writings history. It is possible, I suppose, that he himself was mistaken on his own history, but that is a debate for others to pursue. I’m not too interested in it.

This article is not a surrejoinder to Chris (though his comments, I am sure, merit it). Rather, I aim to use both my original critique and Chris’s comments as a sort of springboard for the topic I wish to write about today: contextual theology. I think I’ll write about this in two parts. The remainder of this is part I.

Contextual Theology

Contextual theology seems all the rage in a good many academic circles. There is good reason for this as well. Postmoderns (or, rather, late-Moderns?) have stumbled upon what they think to be an insuperable challenge to the hubristic Modern notion of a rational and universalizable theology. We all, say the postmoderns, have our various contexts from which we do theology. The dream of a universally agreed upon, rational theology is a delusion borne on the wings of drastic oversimplifications.

I say this is a good reason for preferring contextual theology. Of course, those schooled in the patristic and scholastic theological traditions of the church will not find much news in this postmodern proclamation (though scholastics will find the subsequent pessimism and despair of knowing anything characteristic of so many postmoderns to be quite unnecessary). The patristic and scholastic traditions have, after all, been saying something similar in a better way and for much longer. I will take this up further in part II.

I want to throw my hat in with those who advocate for contextualized theology. But, I hasten to begin, we really ought to ask the following question: What is the primary context, the fundamental context, of Christian theology? For the remainder of this post, I want to sketch an answer.

The Two-Fold Context of Theology

I have spoken elsewhere of theology as the study of God and all things in relation to him. I’ll take that as a preliminary definition here. There are two basic points of consideration, then: God and the study of God; object and subject; that which is studied and that which studies. (There is another important point, of course, the act of studying, but we will leave for another mini-series.) Let us consider the first point: God.

God is, and must be, the primary context for theology. To speak of the context of theology is not to speak only of the context of the subject, the ‘studier.’ The object must be studied in its context as well. But God has no context. Or, to put it another way, he is his own context. As Absolute Reality, God is unlimited. He cannot be within, for within entails boundary. God is not bounded. “There is nothing greater than you,” says Anselm, “no place or time holds you…And since this can only be said of you, you alone are uncircumscribed and eternal” (Pros. XIII). All things are bounded, most fundamentally, within him. “You are not in place or time, but all things are in you. For nothing contains you, but you contain all things” (Anselm, Pros. XIX).

The context of the object of theology (God), then, is God. Or—as Alexander Pope may have been inclined to put it—the proper study of God is God. He is his own absolute context. Our study of theology is contextualized primarily by the prima causa, who is primus actus, and whose being in act is equiprimordially three in one. We can develop this context, then, along trinitarian lines.

The Primary Context: Intra-Trinitarian Communication

God in himself is essentially communicative. In all the vast profundity and mystery of our feeble discussions of the processions of Son and Spirit in God, what we are grappling with and pressing to understand in at least some measure is this, the communication of love that is the ever stable and unchanging movement of the divine life.

We get glimpses in Scripture which indicate this communication. The Son is the Word of God (John 1:1). The Spirit is the Understanding of God (1 Cor. 2:11). It is this self-communicative act of Father, Son, and Spirit that constitutes the whence of our theology. God is himself. God knows himself. Therefore, he can be known. The Word may be spoken (Heb. 1:1-3). The Understanding of God may be breathed (1 Cor. 2:10). To put it in a classical theological register, the external acts of God mirror the internal act; the missions follow the processions.

Thus, the Triune God is the primary context of theology, the deep context, but he is not the only context. For he has created. The order of that created realm is the history of what John Webster has called, in a lovely phrase, God’s “eloquent presence” to his creatures. The order consists of his creating, sustaining, redeeming, and consummating his creatures. These external acts, in other words, are revelatory. And these external acts of God are the proximate context of theology.

The Proximate Context: Extra-Trinitarian Communication

The purpose of God’s communication with human creatures is to bring about communion with them. Humans, who at bottom are ‘knowers’ and ‘desirers,’ are summoned to know and love God as the fulfillment their natures. God accomplishes this purpose by the missions of the Son and Spirit, which constitutes the economy of nature and grace. This is world history; the history of God’s fellowship with his creatures in the Son and the Spirit.

Among other things, the Son is sent to communicate to us the things of God (Jn. 17:6-8). Among other things, the Spirit is sent to communicate to us the things of God (1 Cor. 2:2-16). God demonstrated his love to us by sending his only Son into the world that we might live through him (1 Jn. 4:9). And so, we love him as a result of his love for us (1 Jn. 4:19). God sent his Holy Spirit to shed abroad his love in our own hearts (Rom. 5:5). We know God by the Spirit in the Son. We love God by the Spirit in and because of the Son.

The missions of the Son and Spirit, the history of God’s creative and redemptive work, the economy of nature and grace, then, forms the proximate context of our theology. That is to say, our study of God—coming to know and love him—takes place only on account of and in relation to God’s missions.

To conclude this first part, I’m all in favor of contextual theology. The first question that must be asked when doing contextual theology is: What is the primary context, the fundamental context, of Christian theology? The answer as I have sketched it is that the primary context is God in himself. Note carefully, I have not said ‘God as he knows himself.’ To be more specific, if somewhat ungainly, the primary context of theology must be God in himself as he is known to the creature; but still God in the fullness of his intratrinitarian communicative life.

The proximate context of our theology follows from the fullness of the primary context. As God is, so he communicates externally, revealing himself in the Son and by the Spirit.

Having outlined the contextual relation of our theology to the God who is and who speaks, my next part will take up humans who are and who listen.


Joshua Schendel

Joshua Schendel

Joshua is professor of theology at Yellowstone Theological Institute in Bozeman, MT, where he lives with his wife, Bethanne, and their three kids.

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