DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Speaking Son

Written by: on February 6, 2015

The contextualization of the Gospel of Christ is the continual challenge of the international-cross-cultural missionary. As the representative of God and His message to a people, the missionary has the responsibility to be the embodied message of the one who desires to communicate to all people. The pressure is further exacerbated knowing that, to a major extent, this God has limited His communicative ability to mankind solely through His human representatives. Therefore proper presentation and interpretation of His heavenly message should not only be of upmost importance to missionaries but to all believers desiring to communicate God’s message and God’s thoughts on any subject to any people. This attempt to take the historical written message of God and apply it to the current culture of the present day is contextualization.

As Stephen Bevans notes, doing theology contextually takes into account two things. “First, it takes into account the faith experience of the past that is recorded in scriptures and kept alive, preserved, defended – and perhaps even neglected or suppressed in tradition. Second, it takes into account the experience for the present, the context.”[1] This is the same thought that Garner brings out in his discussion of public theology as taking into account the past through scripture and tradition but then understanding “the signs of the times” to construct a theology that is for the common good of society.[2] Indeed, the common good is the goal in contextual theology. Societies, cultures, and people everywhere do not need, what I refer to as, “shelf theology.” Shelf theology, in my little world, can be both heavily academic or moralistic therapeutic with little academic weight. Shelf theology is full of nuances and has all the answers to questions that no one is asking. It is the opposite of contextualization or public theology. It has no power. No authority. No passion. It does not address the injustices, nor the heart aches of the people that Christ died for. My “shelf theology” would be described by Garner as that which is vague and tends to disintegrate in the face of radical evil.[3] Is the liken to the moralistic therapeutic deism that is often disseminated at the quintessential youth group gatherings. It seems fun, nice, understandable and always positive but does not have much bearing in my current life situation.

Herein lies a very crucial understanding that all Christians must grasp. Theology was never meant to be a aspect of our religious life that has no bearing on our public life. Theology cannot become intellectual trivia that we posses to answer nonsensical questions (e.g., how many kings were there in Judah vs. Israel? Who was the oldest person in the Bible?). Though this trivia can be entertaining to show off at dinner parties it does nothing to the message of God or in making a relationship with Him our own. Nor is theology to be an elixir that ministers, acting as a kind of alchemist, mix up to eliminate the bad taste of life. Authentic theology is the understanding of the ancient and historical truths of God’s interaction with man but then making those same truths understandably one’s own.[4]

I have spent this week at the 6,100+ feet elevation in Colorado Springs gasping for air as my lungs have become so conditioned to Jacksonville, Florida that, according to Wikipedia sits at the grand highest of 16ft above sea leave. No wonder I get a little light headed climbing the stairs to my daughter’s room. I pled altitude issues for my tardiness with this post. I digress. I have been here with Dr. David Livermore as cultural intelligence was being taught to a group of 70 Young Life national leaders. David did a presentation (that I am going to totally plagiarize, I let him know this up front) on both the necessity and the importance of CQ in ministry. He advocated for CQ by referencing Hebrews 1:1&2. “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son.” God speaks Son! This is the way he has chosen to now speak to all of us and through all of us to others. I couldn’t help but connect Bevans, Neville, and Tanner’s books this week. As Bevans states it the best, “Incarnation is a process of becoming particular, and in and through the particular the Divinity could become visible in someway (not fully but in someway) become graspable and intelligible.”[5] That’s it! Public theology, contextual theology, constructive theology are all attempting to continue the incarnational reality of God in Jesus. These are all the academic definitions and matrixes attempting to assist each of us to speak Son. May we all learn the language of the Son and continue to add to the common good of all the people we come in contact with.







[1] Stephen B. Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2002), 5.

[2] Stephen Garner, “Public Theology Through Popular Culture,” in The Bible, Justice, and Public Theology, ed. David J. Neville, The Bible in the Modern World 63 (Eugene, OR: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014), 176.

[3] Ibid., 179.

[4] Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology, 5.

[5] Ibid., 12.

About the Author


Mitch Arbelaez

International Mission Mobilizers with Go To Nations Living and traveling the world from Jacksonville Florida

8 responses to “Speaking Son”

  1. Liz Linssen says:

    Hi Mitch
    Such a great and thoughtful post. I especially like where you wrote, “Shelf theology, in my little world, can be both heavily academic or moralistic therapeutic with little academic weight. Shelf theology is full of nuances and has all the answers to questions that no one is asking.” So true! Instead, Public Theology as you say, is for the “common good.” It moves beyond the academic into the practical. Into the hurting areas of people’s lives and attempts to point them to the Son, who alone has the healing balm that we all need. Really enjoyed reading your post.

    • Amen Liz. Contextualization brings theology off the shelf and into the minds and hearts of the common everyday people on the streets. May we do more of public theology and less of shelf theology. 🙂

  2. mm John Woodward says:

    Mitch, I have never heard of “shelf theology” before…great term and great way of putting it. I clearly see this kind of theology all the time. Especially in Romania, the churches have (even in their own cultures and communities) have basically become enclaves of “the truth” — only concern to defend their particular interpretation of the Bible without showing any concern with whether the message of the Bible might have something to say to the larger world. It is amazing to think that we have Jesus’ example, which was about take hope, love and healing to a hurting world, and we’ve done such a good job of making the Bible about our little group. That is why I find contextual and public theology so refreshing, as it reminds us of the larger task that our theology is about. It is wonderful to think Jesus is really concerned for “the command good.” But how to get so many churches today out of their shells…or off the shelf…and back into the world (as a book was once titled: Out of the Salt Shaker and into the World!). Great post, Brother Mitch!

    • Indeed John, that is the million dollar question. This is what I am attempting to do in my work around the world as we try to assist pastors and churches to look beyond themselves and get involved in the worldwide completion of the great commission. In this work we find to often churches who are very segregated and into that shelf theology I speak of and do not want to venture out and assist others in the completion of the very commission that Christ gave us to go into all the world. If individual churches believe that they are the sole protectors of the correct doctrine/theology they will not want to work with others who they deem as having a lesser revelation of God. Yet if they could see and understand that God desires the greater common good, I believe and hope that they would then be willing to set aside their shelf theology and pick up a theology that will truly help minister to the society that Jesus desires to reach. Thanks John.

  3. mm rhbaker275 says:

    Thanks for your post, I connected well with your thoughts.

    I like your statement, “the missionary has the responsibility to be the embodied message of the one who desires to communicate to all people.” You also note that all, not only missionaries, which we all are as those reconciled “though Christ” and have received the “message of reconciliation,” ought to desire “to communicate God’s message and God’s thoughts on any subject to any people.” When referring to the catholic nature of people’s need and God’s seeking, Bevans states, “all persons and cultural groups have to dig deep into their own social situation, personal experience, and cultural existence to see how these interact with God’s offer of friendship and relationship in Jesus Christ” (Kindle 480). This is an active, engaging experience as we join God in God’s mission; no place here for a shelf theology; it is living faith in the context of those we encounter.

    • Ron, you are exactly right my friend. It is living faith in the context of the people around us. I believe this is exactly what Jesus was saying when he said that we are to be the light of the world a city on a hill. That we are not to hide our light or place it on a shelf where no one can see it. Theology (i.e. the study of God) ought to be done in the open public where people can see the very light that is the light of the world- Jesus himself. This is done by the theologian who thinks about God but then acts for the greater good of the society and the common man is blessed by that which the theologian brings from his studies to bear upon the decisions of government, education, entertainment, business, and all other streams that interact in his community and world. This is a task of all believers to contextualize the message of Christ so that all men are blessed and see the redemption that is in Christ.

  4. mm Ashley Goad says:

    MITCH! First, I’m very sad that I never got to FaceTime with David Livermore. Next time. 🙂

    Second… This is a great post! This. This is what I love:

    “Theology was never meant to be a aspect of our religious life that has no bearing on our public life. Theology cannot become intellectual trivia that we posses to answer nonsensical questions.”

    Discipleship requires action. Faith requires action. Love requires action. Mission requires action. Christianity cannot just be a religion. Christian requires action. It requires interaction. We may know the answers, but it must be accompanied by action. As you say, our theology should be reflected not only in our private life behind the doors when we pray, but it must be an action in our everyday life.

    Great. Thought.

    • Thanks Ashely. I will be the incarcerational reality of David Livermoore for you. Ha!!

      I am continually challenged by the reality to do theology on the “street level” of our society and community. Here I am getting a DMin, getting more education and reading books that some will never open, but I do it all for the purpose of bringing a better contextualization of the love and message of God. Action is required but I realize that before I go to action I need to think and find God more and more. I need Jesus Ashley! Everyday and in every way.

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