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

The Shaping of Theology

Written by: on May 18, 2017

“We bring our culture into our worship.”

Wednesday I sat at our international student lunch talking with Gaetan, a civil engineering student from Democratic Republic of the Congo, and that was his statement to me. We were not discussing Shaping the Church: The Promise of Implicit Theology, by Martyn Percy, we were just talking about how people worship. Gaetan spoke further about the need for people to be engaged in worship in some fashion (singing, dancing…).

This statement did not come from reading a theology book, but rather was an expression of experience within the church in a particular context. Sitting before me was a living example of implicit theology.

Shaping the Church studies and compares implicit and explicit theology. The book helps us to be honest about out stated theology and the influential undercurrents of our unstated theology. The latter is often formed as we work out what it means to be church within our cultural settings. The book looks at the two-way street of influence between church and culture.

Dr. Percy writes, “The opening section of this book primarily focuses on spiritual and ecclesial phenomena that are normally taken for granted.” [1] In the conclusion he says, “Implicit theology pays attention to the normally neglected and often overlooked dimensions of ecclesial life that are constitutive for belief and practice.” He tells us that implicit theology gives us the opportunity to “ponder the significance of many things we might take for granted…” [2]

It was this idea of what is “taken for granted” that particularly caught my attention. In Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes Richards and O’Brien tell us “…the most powerful cultural values are those that go without being said.” [3] Every denomination and every local congregation has its own culture and values (explicit and implicit). Given that Dr. Percy writes about the ways in which culture affects the church, and vise versa, we may infer that the most powerful theology is that which is implicit.

I am intrigued by the parallels between studying implicit theology and the study of cultures. It is a wonderful challenge for Christian leaders to follow: “Thus, theologians and ministers eventually learn that they cannot rely on theological blueprints to determine how congregations could or should be in contemporary culture. In this respect, theology needs to work with fields such as congregational studies, by helping the church to become exegetes of texts, congregations and the local culture of a given context.” [4]

Implicit theology may have the most powerful influence on our practices, and because of that power may also be the most dangerous. This book compels us to be mindful and vigilant regarding implicit theology: not dismissing it or pretending in our idealism that the Bible is our primary influence. Rather we must pay close attention to how it affects who we are and how we live-out our theology. In fact Percy says, “Strictly speaking, the vast majority of theology should be the study of the implicit rather than the explicit.” [5]

What truly affects our theology the most: Scripture or circumstances? I would like to believe that my theology flows from the Bible. But I must be honest and admit that there have been a few times when I have been searching diligently for a phrase I remember from Scripture only to discover that the phrase isn’t in the Bible at all, but rather in a song or hymn. I have assumed that something I believe to be the clear revelation of God, is fact something extra-biblical that has been woven into the practical theology of church.

When considering the honest realities of implicit theology, I am compelled to ask if Scripture interprets life, or if life interprets Scripture. Yes, culture affects the church and our theology. Yes, as culture changes what the church looks like in the world changes. Yes, in reality, our theology is “cooked” in the slow-cooker of contemporary life. But in which direction does the primary influence flow? It is a Scandal of the Evangelical Mind if we do not exegete carefully when studying the relationship of church and culture.

Dr. Percy writes about the need to deal with implicit theology if the Anglican Church is to continue on together. My experience in the Presbyterian Church USA and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church supports his notion. For several decades conservatives and progressives spoke the same explicit theology within the PCUSA. The problem was we used different dictionaries to define our words. Our implicit theologies differed completely although the explicit theology seemed to be the same. For hundreds of congregations within the PCUSA the dissonance finally became too painful and our implicit theologies compelled us to “exit,” having exhausted “voice” that fell on deaf ears. (I wrote of this previously in my blog on the Hirschman book. Percy gives me another angle from which to understand what we went through.)

Through those times of transition we were forced to ask, “What exactly are the forces, currents, practices and ideas that shape the church? How does a congregation or a denomination understand its identity, on the one hand, in relation to the providence and revelation of God, and on the other, in relation to the context and culture in which ecclesial composition inexorably occurs? What is the relationship between the acknowledged propositional truths that order ecclesial identity, and the more hidden and mellifluous currents that might shape the life of the church?” [6]

Shaping the Church reminds me again of the sometimes-awkward dance pairing the church and contemporary culture. The realities of implicit theology always have been, and always will be with us. In this book we have been reminded again of our need to “do theology” well.

1. Martyn Percy, Shaping the Church: The Promise of Implicit Theology (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2010), 15.

2. Ibid., 172.

3. E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders To Better Understand the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2012), 12.

4. Percy, 19.

5. Ibid., 17.

6. Ibid., 1.

7. Ibid.,

8. Ibid.,

About the Author

mm

Marc Andresen

I have a B. A. in Music from San Diego State University and received an M. Div. from Fuller Theological Seminary in 1977. July 1 2015 I retired after 38 years in pastoral ministry. The passion and calling that developed in the last 20 years is leadership training in cross-cultural contexts, as my wife and I have had many opportunities to teach in Eastern Europe and Africa. I have been married for 38 years and have two adult children, one daughter-in-law and a beautiful granddaughter. My hobbies are photography and British sports cars.

9 responses to “The Shaping of Theology”

  1. Looking back after 38 years of pastoral ministry, what had a greater affect on your churches, explicit or implicit theology?

    • mm Marc Andresen says:

      Aaron,

      The short answer is, “I have no idea.”

      Perhaps I can identify a few items in each.

      In the Presbyterian world our explicit theology has been strong and well developed for 500 years: the writings of John Calvin continue to be our foundation. In the ministries in which I was involved there has always been a tenacious loyalty to consistently teaching the Bible.

      One of the implicit theology tensions that has shaped the church has been “worship wars,” particularly in th 90’s, as the church tried to figure out how “reformed worship” was supposed to interface with “contemporary worship,” with its emphasis on more contemporary music and less liturgy. Ironically the 32 year old pastor that replace me has moved our church back towards a more reformed style, with call to worship, confession, assurance of pardon, etc.

  2. mm Rose Anding says:

    Thanks Marc,
    You gave us a lot to chew on in your blog about Implicit Theology. I was taken with your question. “What truly affects our theology the most: Scripture or circumstances?”

    However, leaders must understand when Transforming Church, churches function best when their explicit theology matches their implicit theology and vice versa. If there is any discontinuity between the two, there will be underlying conflict. Such conflict should not be overlooked, but used as an opportunity to change either explicit or implicit theology, so that it better aligns with Scripture. To help encourage spiritual transformation, therefore, church leaders should be aware of both explicit theology and implicit theology, so that churches can be healthier and more apt to grow.

    A great blog! Blessings Rose Maria

    • mm Marc Andresen says:

      Rose,

      We do have more congruence when implicit and explicit theology are consistent.

      I agree with what you’ve written. it strikes me that the church would be well served if we had a mechanism and rhythm of examining the match between implicit and explicit theology. This process would require trust, honesty, and good communication.

  3. mm Phil Goldsberry says:

    Marc:
    It sounds like you are in a conundrum with implicit, explicit, and the power of culture. Percy intrigued me and challenged me to examine the “why” behind my foundational theology. It is easy to flow with the “culture” of your “tribe” and exclude others because their strand is extremely different than yours.

    What have you found helps you with this?

    Phil

  4. mm Marc Andresen says:

    Phil,

    I’m not sure if I’d call it a conundrum, as much as a fascination. On the other hand, perhaps “what goes without being said,” is a conundrum, since it can be so hard to figure out.

    What have I found helpful? I think a significant help has been extensive involvement for nearly thirty years with ministries very different from my own. Hearing the theologies and practices of others makes me alert to how church-culture affects (and becomes) our theology. When I observe implicit theology in others with which I disagree, it causes me to ask if I am functioning based more on implicit or explicit theology.

    An example of this would be various churches’ practices regarding women in ministry. Because my close ministry partners in town have different practices, it forces me to examine my own theology of gender.

  5. Pablo Morales says:

    Marc,
    I’m glad to see how your research on ministering to the international students is developing well. I just had a conversation with a Chinese student visiting us today who had lots of questions about God. We will meet on Wednesday to do the Gospel Explanation. Stepping out of our cultural comfort zone and reaching out now to the Chinese community at UTD is shaping the way we are doing ministry, and their questions are also shaping the way I explain things.

    Reading Percy left me wondering about the fine line between compromise and elasticity. He encourages the Anglican Communion to be flexible and not break fellowship in light of disagreements. In your experience with the Presbyterian Church, what do you see is a legitimate breaking point in a communion of churches? When does elasticity end? Just wondering.
    Pablo

    • mm Marc Andresen says:

      Pablo,

      The question you ask covers 35 years of my ministry. From my perspective, as progressives asked us to be elastic, for us it meant compromise.

      For my congregation, the breaking point came with a complete emasculating of the Lordship of Christ and setting aside of the unique authority of God’s Word. One of the presenting issues had to do with ordination of those who practice a homosexual way of life. But the issue beneath what was presenting was placing Scripture on the same level with the Book of confessions. Not to give too short attention to the question, but the explanation is long and complicated. But when our polity was changed so that it no longer said we were to live “in obedience to Scripture and guided by the confessions,” to “guided by Scripture and the confessions,” our elders essentially said, “We’re done.” For us it was a setting aside of the Lordship of Christ. So for us, that was the breaking point. We could no longer stretch.

  6. mm Garfield Harvey says:

    Marc,
    One of the reasons I enjoy this doctoral program is because of the cultural implications. You stated that we need to “work out what it means to be church within our cultural settings.” We are often guided by a desire to be cultural without ever learning what cultural even means. Therefore, we negotiate scriptures to appear cultural relevant and when our assumptions fail, we’re left trying to find answers. As I read these books while working on my dissertations, it is increasingly clear that the church struggles to be the church within its cultural setting. There needs to be intentionality to create a balance between cultural relevance and biblical guidance.

    Garfield

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