Theology & Spirituality

Contextual Theology, part II

In Part I of this two-part series on contextual theology, I set about addressing the question: What is the primary context, the fundamental context, of Christian theology? Because the Triune God is the object of theology, I argued, the context of the study of God must first, i.e. fundamentally, be God (for God is, to speak improperly, his own context). Because the Triune God is essentially communicative, there is the possibility for creatures to be brought into communion with him, the blessed fullness that makes humans fully blessed. All that is to say, a properly contextual theology will place the emphasis first upon the first half of the syllables: theology.

Theology is also theology. That is, it is the study of God; or, perhaps better, the coming to a fuller understanding of God; even better yet, the receiving of the communication of God. Much could be said on this point. For the purposes of this brief series, let me pick up on one part. We might get at that part by asking: By whom is that communication received? In this post we will entertain the answer, “By human beings.” And so, for contextual theology, we ask further: What is the context of the human being who receives the communication of God?

I’m going to call this, broadly, the derivative context in a contextual theology.

The Human as Created

Humans receive the communication of God. That is to say, human knowledge is always creaturely knowledge. Human knowledge of God is always, and can only ever be, creaturely knowledge of God. In the Reformed tradition, this point was made by appeal to the distinction between archetypal theology and ectypal theology. The former is identical with God’s knowledge of himself, infinite, full, and unified. It is God’s essential wisdom. The latter, ectypal, is the refracted and multiplex knowledge of God held by finite creatures; true, but never comprehensive. It is always creaturely.

Though most basically creaturely, human knowledge of God is not only creaturely. More specifically, it is human-creaturely. As such, human knowledge of God is set apart as rational from other animal knowledge. Crucially, this rationality includes the limited capacity to say yes or no to the law of its being. As will be detailed further below, human knowledge of God is intimately tied to joyful submission to the Lordship of God; and the corruption of human knowledge of God is likewise sourced by the willful rebellion against his loving rule.

It is also to set human knowledge of God apart from other rational creaturely knowledge of God, as in the angels, for example. Angelic knowledge of God is creaturely and tends to the same end as human knowledge of God—i.e. union with God. But because angelic nature is different from human nature, angelic knowledge of God is distinct from human knowledge of God. (Creaturely knowledge is always, after all, refracted according to the nature of the creature knowing.)

The first thing to say about the derivative context of theology, then (i.e. about the context of the subject, the human knower), is that it is creaturely, rational, and human.

The Human as Individual

All human knowledge of God, though always creaturely, human, and rational, is not identical. Not every human has the same knowledge of God. Rather, it differs from person to person and from time to time. It is not that I have simply human knowledge of God; I have this human’s knowledge of God at this time.

This is not to deny social aspects of human knowing, nor community dimensions. It seems to me, in fact, that the social and communal aspects of human knowing are accounted for at a metaphysical level by the basic categories of creature, human, and rational noted above. That is, because there is a shared human nature, which is creaturely and rational, there is the possibility of communally shared knowledge. To put it still another way, not all individual human knowing is utterly individual. Theology, for example, is unified not only in its source (God) and in itself (as truth), but also in the community of individual human knowers, though to a lesser degree. There is not only credo, but credimus.

Given this fact, it remains important to note the individual aspect of human knowing. My knowledge is not your knowledge. My understanding of theology is not your understanding of theology, though there may indeed be large portions of overlap. The derivative context of the individual human knower may be developed further, then, by attending to the temporal quality of the human creature’s finite existence. Human creatures are historical.

The Human as Historical

The broad historical context of the human knower will take into consideration that broad sweep of the biblical narrative. There will be a difference, for example, between the knowledge of human knowers in the state of original rectitude and those knowers who live east of Eden. And there will be a difference between those who, living east of Eden, continue in their rebellion against God and those who, living east of Eden, are caught up in the redemptive work of God.

The former, still actively rebelling against God, are actively thwarting the law of their own nature and, thus, the ends to which it tends, one of which (namely, the highest) is knowledge of God. A human being in the historical context of a fallen state will generate theologia falsa.

The latter, being caught up in the redemptive work of God through the mediation of his Son in the power of the Spirit, will be ‘on the way’ of that right knowledge of God. Being instructed by the Word of God, now inscripturated for us, and enlightened by his Spirit, the fallen human being takes pilgrimage home. A human being in the historical context of redemption will receive theologia vera.

That’s the broad historical context. There is, of course, the even more particular historical context of this human being. To put it somewhat tiresomely, this human knower is not only a fallen human knower, caught up in the redemptive work of God, but is a knower during a particular period of history (the twenty-first century, for example, is different from the sixth). He or she is a knower in a particular socio-economic situation, from a particular family, with a particular physiological makeup and educational background, etc. All of these factors serve to fill out the particular historical context of the particular human knower; they shape and shade their particular knowledge of God.

It is, I think, this last point that many so-called contextual theologians wish to emphasize. And, as I stated in my previous post, I wish to emphasize it as well. What concerns me is that the emphasis becomes disproportionate when not balanced by what I have called the fundamental and derivative contexts of theology.

Contextual theology may not be appropriately used to foster the claim that theology is a human construct. That is to miss the fundamental context of theology. As the medievals were want to say: ‘theology is from God, teaches God, and leads to God.’ Neither can one claim that because all human theology is done from within a particular, historical context, it is therefore only individual and dispersive. That is to miss important parts of the derivative context. True theology is unified primarily on account of its source, and, proximately, on account of human nature, which participates in the source.

Balanced in this way, one can and ought to say, that the particularities of one’s context matters for theology. It certainly does shape and shade it. It does not, nota bene, determine one’s theology, but shapes and shades it in ways that are more or less helpful, more or less good.

We do well to pay attention to this particular context. And we do well to carefully and proportionately build it into our understanding of the full context of theology. Then we may truly lay claim to the descriptor ‘contextual theology.’

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.

Previous post

Mere Christianity for Today

Image of a laptop and cup of coffee.
Next post

Church in the Time of a Pandemic