Can systematic theology cross cultures?

I’d like to engage briefly with a comment from missiologist Eddie Arthur’s blog. The statement forms part of some notes Eddie jotted down listening to a discussion on Evangelicalism and the Majority World.

The majority world church needs to develop its own language to express gospel truth. “I long for the day when we will not be studying systematic theology”

My comments here are not intended to be a definitive response.  I’ve some more thinking to do on this. Rather, here is an initial reaction, some jottings of the thoughts going round in my head if you like.

First of all, I think there are some important things to consider about what it means to talk Gospel and theology meaningfully in context.  With that in mind, I’d encourage you to have a look ata nother articles from Eddie’s site. In Hyphenated Theology, he quotes a middle-eastern theologian who talks about how we need in context theology but accountable to one another. A middle eastern theologian needs to be in conversation with African, Asian and European theologians. This is in line with the arguments Mike Ovey makes in the first essay in “The Goldilocks Zone.” 

However, the author asks why it is that theologies from majority world church contexts come hyphenated so that we talk about African Theology but Western Theology is just “theology”. 

This links to a question I asked recently of my missiologist friends in terms of how we are doing regarding the growth of theological resources produced by African, Asian and Latin Amrican theologians.  The main response seemed to be that there were in existence volumes such as an African Evangelical Commentary.  My question was “why then are these authors seeing their work edited under an African label rather than simply being allowed to comment as scholars in their own right?”

Secondly, I’ve some question marks around the longing for a day without the study of systematic theology.  Why is that? Well my initial gut instinct is that there are lots of people who would rather not study Systematic Theology, indeed the discipline has been under attack within Western evangelical circles for some time.  My opinion is that a more robust systematic theology would have been helpful in countering both some of the errors we have seen in recent years and some of the less pleasant aspects of evangelical culture.  

The risk here is that African. Asian and South American theology is simply being co-opted into a pre-existing debate within western theology between disciplines.

Thirdly, whilst I hear people commenting that in their non-western contexts they don’t get questions about perspicuity* and the covenant of works**, I have to say that I don’t get those types of questions on council estates. Furthermore, I don’t remember them coming up in middle class churches either.  That does not mean that there weren’t questions about whether or not we can trust and understand God’s Word for ourselves and how God related to man before the Fall. Just because people are not using the same technical language does not mean they are not handling the same questions.

Let’s take the issue of perspicuity. This aspect of our doctrine of God’s word cuts to the very heart of the matter.  Can we guarantee that a western Christian and an African Christian may look at the same Biblical text and draw the same interpretation. If not then we are either doomed to a relativist approach where we cannot talk with each other or we end up needing a  priestly caste mediating truth through their thought categories to the majority world and the majority world’s   questions and thinking back to the West.

Furthermore, whilst western thinking has been shaped by classical theism, the reformation and the enlightenment, that is not to say that the category of thinking we associate with systematisation has been the historical and dominant approach of the Western mind.  Early missionaries encountered poly-theistic cultures when they showed up in northern Europe and Britain.  Romanticism and Post modernism are examples of reactions back against the type of mindset and world-view associated with Systematic Theology.

So, I would challenge the assumption that Systematic Theology is an example of western thinking being imposed onto non western thinkers. Rather, in some respects, it is a discipline that does not come naturally. And yet, going back to the creeds and confessions of the early church, it has been an essential part of our tool kit in teaching truth and guarding against error.

As Mike Ovey used to say, “It’s not whether or not you have systematic theology. We all do. It’s whether or not you have a good and healthy one.”

*perspicuity is to do with the clarity of scripture and our ability to understand it. See how-do-you-know.pdf (wordpress.com) especially pages 19-20.

** The Covenant of Works refers to an approach which sees an initial covenant made with Adam whereby the basis for his life in God’s presence was his work and obedience prior to The Fall.

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