“Christ our Lord came and took upon Himself our humanity. … He suffered hunger and thirst and hard toil and temptation.… He emptied Himself and became a servant. He showed the way to true leadership by coming to minister, not ministered unto…. He set the example and we are supposed to imitate Him.” Dorothy Day
“Our theology of justice matters; it ultimately informs how we live our lives. It is the heart of the gospel. We can’t speak of God without speaking of love.” Eugene Cho
In his book on Contextual Theology Stephen B. Bevans explains that theology has three sources or “loci theologici” – scripture, tradition, and present human experience. These are the context for doing theology.
Up until relatively late in history only scripture and tradition, “rational” sources, were considered by theologians. But increasingly theologians are realizing that the subjective, “empirical” aspect is important also. As humans the culture surrounding us influences us. We don’t think our thoughts in a vacuum. Stephen Bevans “changes the whole equation” of fomer methods of doing theology by including the subjective.
Theology must be done in a context – including culture, history, and contemporary thought forms.The world is made up of billions of individuals – no two alike. We know this and yet we want to treat everyone in cookie-cutter fashion. Contextual theology recognizes the vast differences in human experience, and so “Contextualization … is a theological imperative.”
Bevans lays out in a clear, comprehensible fashion the basic issues that are involved for doing contextual theology. He then explains his rationale for the use of models. I think that this is one of the most clearly laid out, understandable books I have ever read. Bevans discusses each of his six models using the same format. In his discussion on the six models, Bevans will cover the elements of the theological method of each – Past, present, scripture, tradition, human experience, culture, social location, and social change. He offers critiques of each and examples of theologians using each method.
Following are my interactions with each model:
Translation Model –A key point for me is the idea that the original message of the Gospel had become captive to Greek categories in the early centuries. In the last few years this has become more important for me as I study the issue of patriarchal, hierarchical constructs in theology. The Greek society was structured around “pater familias”. A closer look at Christian life in the earliest centuries after Christ reveals that women were much more involved, not relegated to second class positions, even as Paul admonished the church (Galatians 3:28). In other words, they were counter-cultural (more below).
Anthropological Model – The method in this model is the opposite of the Translation model in that instead of bringing a message into the context, the practitioner looks for God’s revelation as it is hidden within the context. The theologian starts where the people are and begins a dialogue. This method is very respectful of people. Bevans explains that a drawback might be “cultural romanticism”.
Praxis Model – This model doesn’t just look to the past (Translation model) or the present moment (Anthropological) but reflects on both and looks to the future. It is interested in social change.
This is a model that is being taken seriously by Christians in our day. Jesus Himself changed things when He came. No longer were the rulers supposed to “lord it over” the people. There was to be a new way of doing things. Jesus shattered cultural expectations by affirming the status of a woman (Mary of Bethany) as his disciple. Jesus is the greatest liberator of women the world has ever known.
I am old enough to remember some of the excesses of Marxism however. There is a danger in fomenting revolution for the wrong reason. Reflection on our motives as suggested by Bevans and Garner should alleviate this drawback.
Stephen Garner – Garner points out in his essay how helpful this model is. It involves the community, the minister, reflection and action. As an ongoing process it brings the people into dialogue with each other. Changes are made, reflected upon, and more change may come. This method brings about a theological way of thinking about the problems of the world. The Church shows that it is concerned with more than just the catechism questions. This process is iterative (or a spiral, Bevans). Engaging is a long term process for “you always have the poor with you,” (John 12:8). Until Jesus comes again the Church should be actively involved in justice to the poor, the marginalized, the mourning, and the abused.
Synthetic Model – Just as its name implies, this model tries to balance the insights of the first three models discussed so far as well as the countercultural model. The procedure is “much more like producing a work of art than following a rigid set of directions.” The openness of the model is a great strength; a weakness could be that it might be too easily manipulated by the culture. Let’s don’t lose sight of the strong message of the Gospel.
Transcendental Model – In this model it is more important for the theologian who is producing the theology to be an authentic, converted subject. The starting point is transcendental – one’s religious experience and experience of one’s self. The theologian attempts to conceptualize or “bring to speech” her experience of God. It is “faith seeking understanding”.
For me, I think that this method is too far to the subjective end of the spectrum of “rationalism to empiricism”. In my lifetime I have seen too many who would throw out the baby with the bathwater. Facts, history, scripture, and tradition are all important too.
Countercultural Model – This model takes the context seriously, however the context should be treated with suspicion. Some contexts are antithetical to the Gospel and need to be challenged. I used to think of the United States and Britain as the missionary sending capitals of the world. But Ravi Zacharias points out that the “West is on the verge of collapse at the hands of its own secular intellectuals. It is only a matter of time.” No matter where one lives, it seems that the Gospel message will be countercultural.
It stands to reason that the claims of Christ are always an offense to those who would like to just live without bending the knee to their Creator. Much more could be said, but I agree with Bevans. I think his critique is spot on.
Public Theology – This is a new term for me though not a new concept. There is no sacred/secular divide. God is the Lord of all of His creation. Even if the rest of the culture is bent on kicking God out of the conversations, we can still strive to make the community a better place to live for everyone.
I believe that transformation takes place “bottom up” not “top down”. What I mean is that I agree with Garner’s summary, that “Public theology should not be subsumed into either civil religion ….nor a political theology where religion is infused by a particular political ideology and theology becomes the servant of politics.”
With an awareness of the many contexts of our lives, Christians (we’re all theologians here) should speak and act in them. “The good news of Jesus Christ is embedded in and speaks to our contexts of the everyday world.” The bottom line – live as Jesus asked us to, loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves.
 Ellsberg, Robert, Editor. Dorothy Day: Selected Writings (Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY, 2015) p. 77
 Bevans, Stephen B., Models of Contextual Theology (Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY, 2016) p. 15
 Ibid., p. 92
 Zacharias, Ravi and Vitale, Vince, Jesus Among Secular gods: The Countercultural Claims of Christ (Faith Words, New York, 2017) p. 11
 Garner, Stephen. “Contextual and Public Theology: Passing Fads or Theological Imperatives?.” Stimulus: The New Zealand Journal of Christian Thought and Practice Vol. 22, No. 1 (2015): 26
 Ibid., 28