Is theology always a golden calf?

To what degree is theology an outgrowth of its context?

A student of church history is taught early on that the great Christological debates of the early church grew out of the cultural brew of late antiquity. The proclamation of Christ ran up against the philosophy and world-view of the Greco-Roman culture. Out of this encounter eventually came the orthodox doctrines of the Trinity and the Chalcedonian definition.

Reading Augustine’s Confessions and studying his theology, you can see how pressing questions of the day created crucibles in which theology was clarified and refined.

We might say these doctrinal truths were always lying in wait to be discovered — like pure silver hidden in the surrounding rocks. But you don’t have to go far into church history to see the way local and particular concerns give shape to theology in ways that can have lasting influence.

And so, I wonder, to what degree we should understand theology as the product of its times and circumstances.

This kind of question has been pressed quite forcefully in the last 50 years by feminist and liberation theologies of various kinds. My introduction to these forms of theology has come through the work of theologians concerned with disability. What I see them doing is placing a priority and primacy on experience as the source of key theological questions and the standard by which theological answers are judged useful.

It is writers such as James H. Cone, however, who put this in the most pointed terms.

For instance, in the introduction to his book Risks of Faith, he writes about his struggle to articulate a theology that was responsive to his deepest concerns as a black man living in the 1960s. He writes that his education at Garrett and Northwestern did not prepare him to respond to the questions black people of faith were asking.

I found myself grossly ill-prepared, because I knew deep down that I could not repeat to a struggling black community the doctrines of the faith as they had been reinterpreted by Barth, Bultmann, Niebuhr, and Tillich for European colonizers and white racists in the United States. I knew that before I could say anything worthwhile about God and the black situation of oppression in America I had to discover a theological identity that was accountable to the life, history, and culture of African-American people.

When I read Amos Yong’s Theology and Down Syndrome, I hear a similar commitment to making the experience of the disabled the test of theology. In Yong’s case, the commitment to experience becomes a strainer through which scripture must be squeezed. It leads Yong to find much of scripture unhelpful to his theological project and leads him to suggest new readings that fill in the silences of scripture with the experiences or points-of-view of those with disabilities.

I am tempted to say that all these are instances of a canon within a canon becoming the touchstone for all theology. The idea of a canon within a canon is not new. What I see here is an expansion of the idea of canon. For some theologians the canon within the canon is a particular book or the particular reading of a book of the Bible. For others the canon within the canon is the experience of being black in America or a woman or poor in South America or mentally disabled.

I think Cone would argue that the received theology in the Western church is based on the canon of white (straight?) (male?) European experience.

From these points of view, then, what is theology other than the momentarily popular opinion of whatever person or group happens to be writing and speaking right now?

How do I know I’m not dancing in front of a golden calf?


10 thoughts on “Is theology always a golden calf?

  1. I’m always a little surprised when I hear someone say that Barth isn’t valuable to their community. Of course, in the 1960s and 70s, the Barth work in the U.S. was really just beginning in ernest. There are two concepts in Barth which I think should be useful for all cultural/situational theology: God is wholly other and God is for man. The first keeps us from interpreting God as validating whatever we want for happiness, and the other causes us to look at a God who does not seek our destruction, nor ignore injustice done to us at the hands of others.

    In regard to our Wesleyan roots, our pneumatology should also keep us well grounded, since we trust that the Spirit will give us wisdom as we seek to understand the Truth. Could we still foolishly end up doing a dance in front of a golden idol, perhaps, but when tested, we’ll at least be humble enough not to say, “I threw my contexts in the fire and this is what came out, so it must be God.”

    Thank you as always for your engaging posts!

  2. This important question is one more people, particularly those who self-identify as evangelical, need to ask. As a female theologian, I would say, “Our theology is always a limited human construct and biased by our experiences, education, cultural context, gender, race and experience of being either/or/both oppressed/oppressor. However, if you were being educated at one of the more traditional evangelical seminaries, particularly one with leanings toward the calvinist concept of total depravity, and holding an inerrancy statement, the answer would be “no–there is an objective, non-biased, perfectly true theology and I happen to be the one who can articulate it for you.”

    1. If all theology is a shadow of our context, then why trust any of it? That is what I don’t understand.

      1. John, all of us are trying to make sense of the world, which is often a painful, confusing, swirling mass of events out of our control. Those of us who are drawn to theology, once known as the Queen of the Sciences, do so because we sense that this is a way to find wholeness and holiness in the midst of the brokenness and evil we see so much of. It’s a worthy pursuit when it is accompanied by genuine humility and awareness that we will never fully figure it out because of our human limitations. We see through the mirror darkly–but someday, we will indeed see face-to-face. Lord willing, our choice to wrestle with the great theological questions also impacts the world around us in a way that eases the movement of grace and opens doors to the kingdom of heaven.

  3. There will be false teachers “among you”–says the epistle writer–who will smuggle in “destructive opinions”…and the tragedy is, “many will follow their licentious ways.”

  4. John, for me the only answer is that context does not change God or His word. It is hard to get ourselves and our agendas out of the way and focus on the primacy of Scripture, but that is what we must honestly try our best to do. Actually, I think God speaks a lot more plainly in His word than some people seem to think He does; I think we over-complicate things.

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