Friday, February 12, 2010

Contextual Theology: Is the Bible speaking to us or are we speaking to the bible?

I once thought that the only way to get an unbiased opinion of the message in the bible was to get a bunch of people who had never heard of the bible or Christianity or Jesus to read it and then tell me what they thought it meant. Obviously this was a foolish notion. In today’s world, it would be practically impossible to find anyone who has not heard of these things.

But it was foolish for another reason. I presumed that, if they hadn’t heard of these things, then their opinion would be unbiased. But in reality, they would still be reading the bible with ideas about spirituality, meaning, life and death and morals. They would also be influenced by their culture and background. Their worldview would determine how they read the bible, just as surely as if they were reading it with a set of preconceived ideas about what it actually meant.

Much theology today tries to give a voice to certain groups that may have felt excluded from theological discussion in the past. So we have feminist theology and black theology, to name the two most well known ones. There is also the broad category of liberation theology, which can refer specifically to groups of oppressed people, for example those in Latin America. Yet it can also refer to any group of people that have felt marginalised or oppressed in any way. Contextual theology can also be more narrowly defined to groups within groups. My readings for university include papers on Aboriginal theology and Samoan Women theology.

This type of contextual theology does have its benefits. The bible is for all people at all times. And what it says to me, as a white Australian woman, may not be the same as what it says (at least in part) to a Samoan woman. Also, the bible uses a variety of metaphors to describe spiritual truths. How those metaphors are understood may be different from culture to culture and individual to individual. To look at these metaphors in the context of specific peoples should not involve changing the metaphor to fit their understanding, but of ensuring that their understanding fits with the biblical truth.

Yet there are also dangers. The first of these is that the message of the bible may become segmented. Instead of being one universal message, it becomes a series of different messages for different peoples. Related to this is the danger that what the bible ‘says to me’ becomes more important than what it says ‘to people everywhere’. We raise the individual or group message over the universal one. Yet it is the universal message to mankind that is the most important.

Another danger is that we tell the bible how it should be read. In Faith Seeking Understanding (2004), Migliore says that the bible should be read as a liberating message. Yes, liberation and freedom is one strong message of the bible. But it is not the only one. The bible also speaks to us of judgment, for example. To approach the bible with our own ideas about what it should be saying may be to miss what else it has to say. Taken to an extreme, it may also involve correcting the bible when it does not fit in with our ideas.

Theology should involve letting the bible speak to us, rather than speaking to the bible. If contextual theology means seeing what the bible has to say to a specific group of people, bearing in mind that its universal message to mankind is more important, then I am all for it. If, however, it means paying attention only to certain parts of the bible or changing the bible to suit our own ideas, then theology and the bible become simply tools to achieve our own ends. We are closing our ears to what it really has to say and we are placing ourselves above God.


  1. Hi Liz,

    An interesting passage of Sacred Scripture about this is Chapter 24 of St Luke.

    Even after Christ's resurrection, when he appeared to the apostles, it says:

    But while they yet believed not ...

    A little further on, it says:

    Then he opened their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures.

    If you go to the Catena Aurea and read the commentaries on Chapter 24 of Luke, much of the subject matter of this post will be made much clearer.

    As for contextual theology or any other form of theology? Theology is theology. Modern prefixes don't change its intrinsic essence or nature.

    The modern world is obsessed with change.

    St Paul had a fair bit to say about this in prophesy, when he said:

    For there shall be a time, when they will not endure sound doctrine; but, according to their own desires, they will heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears: And will indeed turn away their hearing from the truth, but will be turned unto fables.

    (It is from his second Epistle to Timothy. Timothy was a Bishop).

    Labeling a 'sub-branch' of theology 'Contextual Theology' is a bit like advertising for a counterhand or deli-assistant and saying, Seeking sandwich artist.

    When the modern world and its values and principles don't disgust me, they amuse me.

    When I was delivering junk mail, I used to tell people I was the CEO of a local logistics company. I was living in a caravan park which had a swimming pool. I used to say, I'm currently living in a 48 room residence with a swimming pool.

    I'm glad you're including a bit of information about your university course.

    I wonder if they'll say anything about St Paul's Epistles to Timothy?

    In his first Epistle, he says:

    Let the woman learn in silence, with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to use authority over the man: but to be in silence.

    If a class is ever boring, one day, just ask them to expound on this passage.

    Men will always be men, and women will always be women. We have our differences both inwardly and outwardly.

    If women ever get upset with me over the patriarchal nature of the Church, I just remind them that all Catholic men who get to heaven will be subject to our Lady (Mary) who is the Queen of heaven.

    And if they get on their high horse about women's rights, I just say, if anyone ever had the right to be a priest(ess) it was Mary, but she chose to do the will of God, and that's why she's above all men in heaven. Apart from our Lord of course.

    And if Christ wanted women to be priests, surely he would have made his own mother one. She lived on earth for approximately 16 years after his death.

    That being written, studying theology is a good thing. And I like you attitude towards it. I would style you a discerning soul.

    And I enjoy reading your posts. They are always well written, and you are very open and honest about everything.

    David ...

  2. Hi David,

    I had a look at Luke 24 in the Cantena Aurea. There was a lot there. I might copy parts of it into a document and print it out. Because I'm scrolling up and down a lot, trying to look at different sections and I think it might be easier if I had a print out of the bits I am interested in.

    One of the things that made an impression on me was the connection between the breaking of the bread and their understanding. Although I remembered both these things, I guess I thought of them as two separate events. And it wasn't until I started reading the commentaries that I went back and saw that they were connected. And I didn't remember this verse at all:

    35. And they told what things were done in the way, and how he was known of them in breaking of bread.

    I even went and checked that in one of my other bibles. Because I thought maybe the Protestant bible says something different and that's why I didn't remember it. But the NIV and the KJV both talk about how he was known in the breaking of the bread.

    It's very interesting when I come across these verses that I have read many, many times, but never actually seen before.

    My plan is to write quite a lot of posts that are related to my uni studies in some way or another. Which goes back to how I think better when I'm writing. Because I have all these things that I'm trying to think about and all these kind of side issues that come up. So I figure if I write them down as blog posts it may be more productive than simply thinking about them. And hopefully, it will also help me focus when I get to writing my essays. Last semester, I did fairly well with my essays. But I spend a lot of time getting confused and frazzled before starting each one. Because I had all these thoughts running around in my head and I didn't know what to do with them all.

    That verse about women not having authority over a man gets a fair bit of discussion in Pentecostal women's bible studies. But because they do accept women preachers, it's more from the point of view of how do we reconcile this verse with what we actually do? And that's an interesting point in itself. Because a lot of bible study can come down to that. It's not what is this verse saying to us? It's how can we justify what we do, considering this verse?

    In uni last semester, the issue of women's submission came up. In fact, it was me that either brought it up or asked a further question about it. (There was a reason for that, but I've forgotten what it was now.) And the tutor said that he would prefer the topic not to be discussed at that moment, because he was too busy to go into it properly and it usually got fairly heated.

    I agree that men and women are different. But it's amazing how many people don't think that they are. My sister believes that women are just culturally conditioned to be carers and nurturers. To me, it makes no sense at all that we would be given the physical characteristics that enable us to bear and nurture children, yet not given any mental or emotional attributes that help us to do that.

    And thank you for your nice compliments again. One thing I do hope to bring to my blog is openness and honesty. So I'm particularly glad you said that.

    And now I think my comment is longer than my original post.


  3. Hi Liz,
    First of all i have to say that i haven't actually read the bible. I meant to but never got round to it. But I have heard priests talk many times - and i have seen a few tv shows - so i won't be deterred from making a comment.

    I think the very fact that people still live by, discuss, argue and refer to the bible - in spite of how long ago it was written - shows that it is, culturally and spiritually, remarkably important. Like great literature, the work itself invites interpretation and the way it engenders argument might be seen as a very positive thing.

    I imagine it to be like the pinnacle of great literature - which can be interpreted according to the times, or even according to your personal experience - but with certain underlying and eternal truths - the universal message - which is irrevocable(?).

    I thought it was funny how you talked about the women's pentecostal bible studies group (in your comment). People will always do that sort of thing because it is often their only way of comprehending something that is beyond their realm of experience. They should admit that some things ...they just don't understand. And leave it at that. Instead of trying to re-interpret to fit in with what they know. They might get a sudden inspiration. I mean, people have told me that the bible is inspiring and i believe them.

  4. Hi Teresa,

    I probably shouldn't say this, but there's probably a few preachers out there who get most of their knowledge of the bible from television shows.

    I think the idea of the bible containing 'underyling and eternal truths' is an important one. And the bible should be read with those eternal truths in mind. The problem is now there's not always agreement on what those eternal truths are. And if you asked people for the underlying message of the bible, you're likely to get different responses, sometimes based on what the person wants the underlying message to be.

    One of the readings for uni has been discussing the bible as a symbol that needs to be interpreted. There was a lot in that that related to what you said about the bible 'inviting interpretation'. But because it's late, I am struggling to remember exactly what it said, even though I only read it today. I haven't typed up my notes yet either. So I can't even check them.

    I use examples from the Pentecostal church a lot, because that's what I know. But I think it's fairly common, with many different Christians, to try to re-interpret the bible to fit in with our ideas. I'm sure I've done it. Taken the attitude that I don't like this. And so how can I twist that so that I do like it. It's not a good way of reading the bible at all. But it's very tempting to approach it in that way.




Bookmark and Share

Blog Patrol