We finished reading the book Models of Contextual Theology by Stephen Bevans, and I really enjoyed it. Below is my take on the models that he described. I really recommend this book as useful for understanding the various ways we attempt to contextualize what we believe.
The first model Bevans describes is the Translation Model (TM). The model consists of studying a given culture for potential equivalencies and communicating biblical ideas through them. In this model Bevans says “The values and thought forms of culture and the structures of social change are understood not so much as good in themselves, but as convenient vehicles for this essential, unchanging deposit of truth.”(Bevans 1992 37) The TM is easily suborned for cultural colonization.
The second model is the Anthropological Model (AM) which is pretty much Step 1: taking what exists in a given culture and looking for god in it, Step 2: ???? Step 3: Theology! This model is very strong in taking people seriously and very weak in seeing any change as necessary.
The third model is the Praxis Model (PM) and it is focused on action. In practice it follows a continuous cycle of action—reflection—action. Self-disclosure: I really like this model. The PM “regards theology not as a generally applicable, finished product that is valid for all times and all places, but as an understanding of and wrestling with God’s presence in very particular situations.”(Bevans 1992 78)
The fourth modes is the Synthetic Model (SM): “tries to preserve the importance of the gospel message and the heritage of traditional doctrinal formulations while at the same time acknowledging the vital role that context has played…even to the setting of the theological agenda.”(Bevans Models of Contextual Theology 1992 89) Primary benefit is in the idea that every voice belongs at the theological table, primary concerns are in selling out to a dominant cultural narrative or avoiding confrontation.
The fifth model is the Transcendental Model (XM): “theology happens as a person struggles more adequately and authentically to articulate and appropriate this ongoing relationship with the divine.”(Bevans Models of Contextual Theology 1992 105) There must be a conversion of our minds in order for us to comprehend the revelation of God into ourselves through the Holy Spirit. This reminds a bit of the old African-American saying “So heavenly minded you ain’t no earthly good.” There are some benefits, but also serious concerns in employing this model of theology, the primary benefit is in recognizing that all theology is contextual the primary negative is in the question of who gets to define what “authentic” is.
The sixth and final model is the Countercultural Model (CM): “some contexts are simply antithetical to the gospel and need to be challenged by the gospel’s liberating and healing power…the gospel represents an all-encompassing, radically alternate worldview that differs profoundly from human experiences of the world and the culture that humans create.”(Bevans Models of Contextual Theology 1992 118) Primary benefit is in taking culture seriously and critically, primary concern is that of alienating those we desire to engage.
The TM an AM are opposites, each attached to the poles of the redemption-centered—creation-centered continuum respectively. The TM sees itself as having the answers needed for culture x to be redeemed and the AM sees itself as searching for the created beauty of a given culture. The PM is, by nature, not in a static location in the continuum, but uses aspects of the TM and AM to locate itself in relation to necessary action and reflection. The PM then treats creation-centeredness and redemption-centeredness as a paradox to be held in tension rather than a continuum.
In my current community, there is a combination of models at work. I would say that we are primarily transcendental in our methods with the support of synthetic and anthropological methods. I honestly think we need to adopt a more Countercultural focus with the supports of praxis and synthetic models to better connect what happens on Sunday to the rest of life.
The real lesson in this is that the exclusive use of any of this models is unhealthy, since each model brings important considerations to the table. I think that the measure of which model should be primary at any point in time or space is going to depend entirely on the context we are doing theology.
Bevans, Stephen B. 1992. Models of Contextual Theology. Faith and Cultures Series. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.
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