Foundations: No.75 Autumn 2018

Context is Key: A Conversation Between Biblical Studies, Practical Theology and Missiology

“Context” is one of the keys to understanding meaning in all aspects of life. As human beings we live in particular times and places, adapting to our situations and circumstances on a daily basis. Context is also important in understanding and communicating our faith as Christians. This article draws threads of conversation together from biblical studies, ethnography, practical theology and missiology to illustrate the importance of context in ministry and mission. It is shaped by my personal journey as a theologian, academic and Christian, incorporating personal reflections with summaries of significant developments in contextual theology. By sharing some of my story, highlighting the importance of context across theological disciplines and life experiences, I argue that it is important to be intentionally contextual in thinking about theology and engaging in ministry and mission. This includes reflecting on the ways we perceive and interpret experiences and biblical texts. However, it goes beyond reflection and into action, inviting participation from local people. This is particularly important in local church ministry and mission. The opportunities for contextual theology are as diverse and exciting as the situations and circumstances of human life. This is one of many conversations about the possibilities.

“Context, context, context!” This is the resounding call echoing through my academic education, life experience and personal reflection, from my early theological training as a child of the manse to my university studies in general sciences, history, theology, biblical studies and, most recently, practical theology and mission. At each step along the way I encountered divisions between specialisations and studied a range of methods and approaches. There was little scope for inter-disciplinary dialogue alongside completing assessments, which were designed around particular expect-ations for evaluation. In biological sciences I was encouraged to pursue meticulous detail in carrying out dissections and maintain objectivity in describing findings that were consistent with the dominant narrative of evolutionary theory without referencing “religious mythology”. In intro-ductory anthropology and sociology modules I was encouraged to consider gender, age and culture in shaping human experience. In history my attention was directed towards dates and events, facts recorded by historians and archaeologists, often with very little consideration of the lived experience of the people involved or the perspective and bias of the recorder, although one of my professors actively reminded his students of the need to recognise authorial bias.

Even in the broad field of theology there are different perspectives and methods. In studying for a theology degree one can take modules in biblical languages, biblical studies, church history, church law, dogmatics, ecclesiology, hermeneutics, homiletics, liturgy, missiology, patristics, Pauline theology, religious ethics, systematic theology and youth work, to name a few. In biblical studies alone, there are a range of approaches from historical-critical interpretation and redaction criticism, to reception history and ideological criticisms such as feminist or ecological readings. As I progressed through my academic theological journey I learned the skills and applied the methods, striving to maintain the status quo and staying within disciplinary boundaries, but through it all I heard the steady drumbeat of “context, context, context”.

In 2016 I began a PhD in practical theology with a specific focus on Rural Parish Churches in Scotland, incorporating social science methodology with theological reflection and exploring the importance of studying context on practical and academic levels. This article is part of the process and is, by its very nature, representative of a work in progress. It will focus on practical Christian life and ministry, drawing on different uses of “context” in three overlapping fields of theology – biblical studies, practical theology and missiology – and integrating tools from social sciences. In this article I will incorporate examples from my life and academic experiences as a Christian, theology student and researcher by way of encouraging others to actively engage with the discussion of context in relation to ministry and mission. If all theology is contextual,[1] then we should be intentional about being contextual.

I. Putting Context in Context

While the term “context” has become widely used in common parlance, it can be helpful to stop and think about its origins and definition. This is particularly important for a conversation about being intentionally contextual. In the oldest reference to “context” in the Oxford English Dictionary (circa 1475), it is defined as the construction or weaving together of a text, which has come to mean the connected structure or coherence within a text or discourse that shapes the meaning of individual parts.[2] The Oxford Living Dictionary expands this definition to include circumstances and settings for events and ideas, placing the term and associated concept within the realm of lived experience where what happens before, during and after have an impact on meaning.[3] The adjective “contextual” and verb “context-ualise” are relatively modern, appearing in 1834 and 1934 respectively, as “context” becomes an integral part of interpreting meaning.

The role and importance of context in interpretation has significant implications in theology, arts and social sciences. As the definition of “context” is expanded from written texts to include lived human experience, it challenges preconceptions and inherited traditions of interpretation and translation. All aspects of life and forms of communication can be scrutinised through the lens of context, at the same time as the lens itself is being examined. Examining “context” becomes a search for meaning in specific times, places and situations, while contextualisation involves communicating thoughts or ideas in ways which can be understood in a specific time, place or situation.

Those who are familiar with the language of hermeneutics will hear echoes of Schleiermacher in the interaction between understanding and being understood. Examining specific contexts can provide insight into meaning that enable general understanding, while general knowledge may provide insight into specific contexts. Meaning can be translated between times, situations, places, people, etc. provided that careful consideration is given to both the original context and the new context. One interprets the other, and vice versa in an ongoing hermeneutic loop or spiral.

II. Context in Biblical Studies

My academic theological training prior to beginning my PhD was heavily weighted towards Biblical Studies, primarily Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, and I spent much of my time working on Hebrew and Greek. I was constantly confronted by the difficulties of translation, not only of words and phrases but also idiomatic constructs. I was challenged to be exegetical rather than eisegetical, being careful to avoid reading my ideas and preconceptions into the text. At the same time, I had a responsibility to translate sentences and verses into clear, comprehensible English, which involved interpretation.

I was required to consider the importance of my hermeneutic lens and frame of reference. What would I choose to prioritise in translation and exegesis? Would it be the author’s intention, so far as it could be implied from the immediate and related textual, cultural and historical evidence? Would it be the text, focusing on genre, style, specific words and phrases and finding the nearest literal equivalent that made sense of the sentence, paragraph, chapter and book? Or would it be the reader and audience’s cultural context, translating the meaning of idiomatic phrases and cultural illustrations?

In Biblical Studies arguably the two most important areas to consider when faced with the question “what is the context?” are historical/cultural and literary or textual context. Both provide important information and have their own challenges. Textual context is relatively simple to identify in a complete text such as BHS[4] or NA28[5] where there is a clear relationship between words, paragraphs and chapters, but becomes more complicated with fragmentary texts. Even in “complete” texts it is necessary to evaluate the presuppositions of traditional interpretation and examine textual variants. Historical/cultural context requires more investigation, relying on extra-biblical sources and historians, such as Josephus, and archaeological evidence. There may also be indicators within the text itself which provide a framework for such investigation.

While a biblical scholar may be primarily focused on the text, he or she must also be aware of the inherited tradition of interpretation. During my Honours degree I wrote a paper on Job 42:1-6. In verse 6 there are two verbs that appear together without an object, traditionally translated as “despise” and “repent”. There is no object in Hebrew, but most English translations add one, either “myself” or “my words”, offering an interpretation of the verse that implies Job’s repentance for having spoken rashly. While this may be the accepted and orthodox interpretation of the verse, the two verbs in conjunction with each other can also be translated and interpreted idiomatically as “take comfort” with no sense of repentance. This difference drastically changes the theological interpretation of the verse and Job’s attitude before God. I understood the argument for the more difficult and ambiguous translation, and noted it in my paper, but I opted for maintaining the status quo in my translation because it was uncomfortable to consider the implications of deviating from interpretive tradition. Although this is an imperfect illustration, it does highlight the influence of cultural and religious context in biblical translation and interpretation.

III. Context and the Prodigal Son

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the importance of interpretive context is by using a familiar and deceptively simple story known to many as the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). To start, let us consider the text. The parable is the third story in a series about “lost” things. All three are a direct response to the Pharisees’ complaint about Jesus eating with sinners (Luke 15:2). The heading which appears in most English translations is not present in Greek and the story very simply introduced by the phrase “and he [Jesus] said” as a continuation from the previous story about the widow’s coin (Luke 15:8-10). The narrative is fairly straightforward and significantly more developed than the previous two parables but is open to a variety of interpretations.

The interpreter or reader may choose to focus on any one of the characters or events in the story. For example, the younger son and the father. I grew up hearing the story of the “prodigal” in Sunday school. It is about a son who demands his inheritance from his father, makes really bad life choices with his money, realises his mistake when his life goes horribly wrong, feels guilty about it and returns to his father to beg his forgiveness, which is freely granted. His father throws a party to welcome him back home and his older brother gets upset about it. A straightforward story of sin, repentance and forgiveness.

Years later I had a missionary housemate who shared her perspective on the story based on the broad range of interpretations she heard in different countries throughout the world. The most striking was her story of cultures which prize family honour and respect towards elders. They were horrified at the shameful action of the younger son in demanding his inheritance. In shaming his father so badly he deserved to be disowned and sent away with nothing, and they were shocked by the father’s behaviour, first in granting the son’s demand and then in running to greet that same son and honouring him by bringing him back into the home to celebrate his return. They felt that the elder son was justified in his anger at his father’s expectation that he would welcome back his “brother” in spite of the shame brought on the family by his actions, but were appalled at the shameful way in which this son spoke to his father, demonstrating his lack of respect and resentment, in contrast to the younger son’s humility.

My interpretive lens was clouded by my familiarity with the culture of Western Canada, leading me to see the prodigal son as an impatient and impetuous young man who failed to manage his money well, not a young man who was shamefully rebellious, casting aside family ties and demanding his half of the estate as though his father were dead. I assumed the story was meant to be about sinners and their relationship with God and did not really spend much time considering the elder brother, who was just a side character. My cultural bias towards independence, expressed in encouraging young people to leave home and pursue their own adventures and ambitions blinded me to the larger societal implications of the story. Where I saw individual sin, guilt and forgiveness as the dominant emphasis, my housemate’s friends and fellow missionaries interpreted the story through a lens of communal and family shame and honour.

IV. Reflection and Reflexivity as Tools

As mentioned above, being intentionally contextual requires reflection and reflexivity. By this I mean two different, but related, acts.[6] Reflection can be summarised as examining a situation or experience in detail, considering the various people and actions involved and the minutiae of what happened in order to better understand it. As a simple example, writing the previous paragraphs required me to reflect on my conversation with my former housemate, reminding myself of the words, expressions and phrases she used in describing her experiences. Reflexivity, on the other hand, challenges the practitioner, in this case me, to articulate and evaluate my biases, preconceptions, attitudes and resulting actions with the express purpose of identifying my limits and transforming my behaviour. In this case, opening my eyes to the limitations of my Western Canadian heritage and encouraging me to question my assumptions about the parable, which, in turn, challenged my approach to reading the Bible.[7]

Although there is a strong tradition of both reflection and reflexivity within theology, my current field of research in rural parish churches incorporates contributions from social sciences and qualitative research where reflective practice is of paramount importance. In qualitative based research, such as ethnography or phenomenology, the researcher is required to examine all aspects of a cultural group and/or experience, providing what Clifford Geertz typified as a “thick description” that can be analysed and interpreted.[8] Every little detail should be recorded as a contributing factor which conveys meaning of some form. This creates a “context” based in lived human experience and, in turn, a lens for interpreting history and culture. For example, the following extract from my research journal after a Remembrance service:

I met —– after the service. —– is a church member who attends for Harvest, Remembrance, Christmas and Easter and was surprised to see me, a young person, in the service. —– introduced me as “a student who is doing some survey work on the rural churches in the area”, which is not quite accurate. I explained that it was a bit more complicated than that as I was specifically looking at two case study churches: —– and —–. —–’s reaction when I named —— started with a tiny pause, a quirk of the eyebrow, a short “Oh?” and repetition of the name of the village with a wry glance before a second pause and a “Well…”. I responded in kind with a raised eyebrow, a slight backward movement of my head, lowering my chin and turning my head to the side saying, “Yes… why?”, while I thought, “Ah, tread carefully here, there is something —- knows about the village.” —-, standing on my other side, looked at —- and said, “Aren’t you a —- [person]?” —– looked affronted saying, “No! Our farm was nearer —–, but I knew them. Good luck to you!”

Geertz’ focus on description and interpretation is a foundational element of modern ethnography and phenomenology.[9] In both disciplines there is a common element of writing that moves beyond superficial reporting of “he said…, she said…, they did…” into interpretation. The witness (researcher) is responsible for asking questions that invite reflection and is, in turn, required to reflect on their own assumptions. The external experience and context are important, but the process of examining these elements leads the researcher and participants to consider their interpretation of the situation. It becomes a question of hermeneutics and a call to attentiveness and intentionality. This call echoes through contextual theology, where culture, experience, tradition and scripture overlap with each other.

On the face of it, the description above appears to have little significance, as the average reader does not possess the necessary contextual knowledge to interpret the clues. It is also a truncated excerpt from a longer conversation and journal entry. Alongside other journal entries and accounts of conversations or encounters the statements themselves become more significant. In this case it was not the first time I had experienced such a response to naming this village. As I continued to investigate I discovered a regional prejudice about the village and the people who lived in it. My reflections about it reminded me of Nathanael’s question in John 1:46, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” I began to question the external and internal narratives and associated influence on a sense of value and worth that might result in a mindset of decline and self-deprecation. As I looked at the church in —– I wondered whether the pattern of decline was more complicated than simple “hot” (spiritual growth or revival) or “cold” (socio-economic or societal trends) explanations. If so, how could it be uncovered, articulated and addressed in ways that were sensitive, meaningful and contextually appropriate?

V. An Unexamined Life?

In the previous sections I have attempted to demonstrate the importance of context and perspective in interpreting meaning. By sharing examples from my own life and experience I have drawn attention to the need to be reflective and reflexive. Human life is complicated and messy as people constantly adapt to changing relationships, circumstances and situations, but we rarely stop long enough to examine why and how we behave in certain ways. Socrates is credited with saying, “an unexamined life is not worth living”, which has led to numerous adaptations of the sentiment for different groups and situations – contextualisation in action – among which is the phrase “an unexamined faith is not worth having/believing”. One might also ask whether an unexamined faith is worth sharing with others.

VI. Taking Context Seriously and Changing Perceptions

As I mentioned in the introduction, I am working on a PhD in practical theology. I am currently engaged in immersive autoethnographic fieldwork in the Scottish Borders, exploring the challenges and opportunities facing two case study churches in rural areas. I was recruited as a PhD researcher to move into the area and immerse myself in the local context, participating in the life and activities of the churches and surrounding communities. I was encouraged to engage relationally with local people, asking questions and reflecting on what I saw and experienced. The primary goal of the studentship as defined by the presbytery was encouraging and facilitating the growth and development of initiatives that would be appropriate for each church. As I prepared for the two and a half years of fieldwork I read widely on accepted research methodologies and found myself wrestling with the need to balance academic reading and writing with daily lived experience and reflection.

I experienced a form of culture shock when I started my fieldwork, which was quickly complicated by the knowledge that I had a very different set of expectations and biases which had been shaped by my life experience and education. I could no longer assume that my understanding of theological terms or concepts, such as “church,” would necessarily be the same as those I was interacting with in the local area. I was encouraged by examples of others who had similar experiences, such as Leonora Tubbs Tisdale who writes about the “culture shock of preaching” in a rural parish and the resulting shift in her approach as she began developing a local theology around “exegeting” the congregation.[10] As she engaged in parish visiting she began asking questions and drawing on qualitative social science methodologies to begin shaping a concept of her parish. She was seeking a way forward in ministry that was biblically, doctrinally and theologically sound and contextually relevant. Through the process she learned that “wise pastors do not craft local theology in isolation, but do so in conversation with the wisdom of the church through the ages.”[11]

I began engaging with scholars who take local and contextual theology seriously, such as Stephen Bevans, Helen Cameron, Laurie Green, Leanora Tubbs Tisdale, Frances Ward, Pete Ward, Samuel Wells and others.[12] John Swinton and Harriet Mowat’s Practical Theology and Qualitative Research proved to be an invaluable guide in navigating the tension between social scientific methodology and theological sensitivity, resisting the temptation to secularise my research and forget about God in attempting to answer a research question and construct a thesis.[13] Instead of narrowing my focus into a specific method or interpretive paradigm, I found that the dialogue between my lived experience and my academic reading broadened my perspective and began to challenge my preconceptions. As my context changed, I found that my concept of what constitutes “theology” began to change as I examined it more closely and explored the possibilities.[14]

VII. Bevans and the Contextual Imperative

Professor Stephen Bevans is among the foremost proponents of contextual theology, arguing that there is no such thing as an “objective” theology, and therefore all theology is contextual.[15] Bevans is thoroughly committed to the importance of understanding and communicating Christian faith in relation to specific contexts as a “theological imperative”. He bases his claim on a selection of external and internal factors. In his opinion the external elements of history, geography, culture, socio-political change and intellectual development serve to highlight the importance of the internal factors in Christian faith which support the necessity of being intentionally contextual in approaching theology. Chief among these is the incarnation of Christ and the scandal of particularity, closely followed by God’s ongoing presence and revelation in the daily life of men and women, the relational nature of Christian faith and, finally, the Trinity as a “dynamic, relational community of persons, whose very nature it is to be present and active in the world”.[16]

Bevans’ offers six models of contextual theology – translation, anthropo-logical, praxis, synthetic, transcendental and countercultural. The Translational model is possibly the most familiar in practice, routinely demonstrated in sermons which start with Christian scripture and tradition, seeking to “translate” the core tenets of Christian faith and identity into any given culture or context. The practitioner, who may be anyone confident in their faith, takes the gospel and inserts it in the language and customs of the local context, like Paul preaching about the unknown god in Athens (Acts 17:16-34). In contrast, the Anthropological model starts with cultural or sociological study and seeks to find God’s revelation in human experience and specific contextual situations. Scripture and tradition are viewed through the lens of present experience and recognised as culturally informed by their local contexts. This model seeks to articulate a specific, local and personal belief indigenous to the cultural context rather than imposing an external system of belief.

The Praxis model is an active model, whereby participants are encouraged to take Christian action in culturally and contextually appropriate ways. Both reflection and action are encouraged, analysing the local context and engaging with the Bible and Christian tradition. God is understood to be at work in history and in partnership with those who act in accordance with God’s will and purpose. The Synthetic, or dialogical, model brings together elements of the other models in Bevans’ book, seeking to balance the value of scripture and tradition with the importance of context and cultural uniqueness. This model involves humility and openness to learn from others and explore new things in creative ways. Cultural context and influence can be good, bad or neutral in relation to exploring and articulating Christian faith.

The Transcendental model is a departure from the rest of the models in Bevans’ book, focusing on the experience of the “authentic subject” who recognises the overarching contextual nature of all theology, seeking deeper understanding as a theologian rather than a formalised articulation or communication of theology. Bevans suggests that this model might be best explored creatively by artists as a means of inspiring others to engage in similar theological reflection.

Finally, the Countercultural model which takes all the aspects of context seriously and examines them closely through the lens of scripture and Christian tradition. The emphasis of this model is on encounter and engagement between cultural context and the Christian community. This model follows a progression from accepting scripture and tradition as the hermeneutic lens for viewing present experience to interpreting and challenging experience, culture, society and socio-political change. This model has strong roots in prophetic tradition.

As I read through Models of Contextual Theology I found many elements that could be applied practically in a situation of ministry or mission. Although I am wary of neat and tidy boxes or models when it comes to working with people, I find that Bevans’ models are useful tools as I examine the practicalities of my research and life. As Bevans argues in his opening chapters, Christianity is inherently contextual. The same could be said of human life. Everything I do is shaped by my context in one way or another, but I can be intentional about examining my presuppositions and biases, making choices about the value I place on different aspects.

While these models are most commonly discussed in relation to the study of practical theology, missiology or World Christianity, some of the components and themes Bevans incorporates in each model are also found in approaches to biblical studies and social sciences. Each of Bevans’ models has its strengths and weaknesses, which lie far beyond the scope of this article, and the models themselves should be examined and adapted for specific circumstances and contexts. Bevans himself acknowledges this and offers his suggestions concerning situations in which each approach might be appropriate.[17] For example, he advocates the countercultural model of contextual theology, as modelled by Lesslie Newbigin, for Western countries such as the United Kingdom because of its critical approach to cultural context and its rootedness in Scripture and tradition. While I would agree on some levels, I am wary of the potential of dismissing the importance of context and experience. It would be easy to become anticultural and isolationist rather than maintaining a position of humility in missional engagement with those in our churches and communities.

VIII. So What? Why is Contextual Theology Important?

Earlier I referenced the appropriation of Socrates’ statement concerning unexamined faith and hinted that failure to examine one’s faith could prevent sharing it. Although it may seem to be a stretch, my research to date indicates a trend whereby many who regularly attend church services lack confidence in their knowledge of Christian faith, scripture and tradition. They are uncomfortable with conversations about such things as spiritual development, discipleship, pastoral care and mission. To complicate matters, many fail to see, or have never been shown, a corresponding relationship between their understanding of Christian faith and their everyday lives in their local communities.

I agree with Bevans’ definition of contextualisation as “the preferred term to describe the theology that takes human experience, social location, culture, and cultural change seriously”[18] and his appeal for a theology that is lived rather than simply discussed. In my view, a church, minister, missionary or Christian who fails to practice and express their faith contextually is unable to effectively evangelise. As any minister or missionary knows, the task of engaging with people is complicated. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to communicating the gospel or living out one’s faith. The “what” may be clear with an agreed biblical text and translation, and there may be a particular ideological or theological identity that is accepted within a mission organisation or denomination, but that does not mean every person understands it in the same way. Decisions must be made about how to communicate, and this involves contextual awareness.

Training in contextual theology and cross-cultural or inter-cultural dialogue is often a foundation of missionary training but is rarely addressed towards ministers working in their own countries. As a result, many are left unsure of their way, having been taught to construct biblically sound exegetical sermons or how to carry out pastoral visitations and counselling sessions, rather than how to communicate their faith with those who do not share the same worldview or values. Bridging the gap between their theological training and the practical realities of ministry and mission is a problem for many ministers.

One of the great benefits of the move towards contextual theology is the invitation for everyone to be involved. It is accessible because it is directly related to lived experience. By encouraging “ordinary” Christians to examine their faith and engage with their local context, these approaches can help address the deeply ingrained cultural mindset within many UK churches that sees the educated minister or missionary as the “theologian” and therefore the only one who is capable of speaking about God and the Bible. Others who possess a certain amount of theological knowledge, in the traditional sense of learning “theology” through study or reading, are commonly viewed with respect and invited to contribute in leading discussions or Bible studies, while the so-called “ordinary” Christians feel self-conscious about expressing their opinion or understanding. One woman who shared her experience with me explained that she “didn’t know all the right words” and thought no one would want to listen to her. She assumed I would know the “right answers” as a “trained theologian” with two degrees and a wealth of experience in churches as a child of the manse and lifelong Christian.

This concept of the theological élite supresses rather than encourages involvement of lay people, the everyday Christians and church members. This type of theological exclusivism is directly challenged by those who take contextual theology seriously. The call to involve local people in seeking to understand how to communicate theological truths is echoed in the work of Laurie Green, Samuel Wells, Helen Cameron, and many others.[19] Each is committed to the integrity of the gospel, while recognising the need to be grounded in the local context and working with local people.

This is the foundation for Laurie Green’s development of a practical God-study – “theo-logy” – which brings together the practical elements of action and reflection, like that of Bevans’ Praxis model. In his book, Let’s Do Theology, Green advocates a contextual theology which is based on a hermeneutic spiral.[20] His approach to “doing theology” with groups of people brings together many of the terms and concepts I’ve already discussed and involves four key elements:[21]

  1. Experience – identifying a key moment or situation and sharing initial thoughts and emotions coming from that concrete contextual experience;[22]

  2. Exploration – where the group gathers more information and asks questions about the situation and the underlying historical, geographical, social, economic, cultural and religious implications;

  3. Reflection – bringing the first two stages into dialogue with “the great wealth of Christian history, teaching and faith”,[23] using the bible and faith traditions to illuminate the situation, and vice versa, by identifying similarities and differences, seeking God’s presence and guidance in going forward;

  4. Response – A suitable action(s) based in faithful reflection and desire for transformation according to God’s guidance.

While I am not convinced that Green’s “Doing Theology Spiral” is the approach for all groups, I do agree that there is a need for bringing both action and reflection together in “doing theology” for everyday mission and ministry in the United Kingdom. Each of Green’s four elements corresponds on some level to the rest of the discussion in this article.

There is an urgency for those engaging in mission and ministry to examine their preconceptions and explore the opportunities to learn from each other. While I hesitate to place human experience and cultural context at the forefront of theology, I am confronted by the reality that my lived experience and the insights of my research have shaped, and continue to shape, my theological reflection. I am both a biblical theologian and a practical theologian. I am constantly questioning and examining “context” in ways which derive from my experience and academic training. It is complicated and messy, but it is also a place for humility and dependence on the sovereignty of God.

IX. Conclusion

Throughout this article I have attempted to provide evidence and examples of the importance of intentional contextual engagement. It is a conversation and an exploration of key concepts. By starting with a definition of “context” I introduced the idea of the search for meaning and the interpretive loop. My academic education and training in biblical studies offered a foundation and example of the importance of context in determining meaning and interpretation which has influenced my development as a theologian.

The example of interpretive tradition affecting translation in Job demonstrated the uncomfortable nature of challenging status quo, while the extended discussion of cultural interpretations of the prodigal son illustrated the importance of evaluating preconceptions and biases. The discussion of the importance of reflection and reflexivity and creating “thick” descriptions which can be interpreted and analysed in greater depth demonstrated the wealth of meaning present in human interactions and events. A summary of my current research demonstrates the complexity and need for contextual approaches, while Bevans’ six models illustrate the range of possibilities.

The shift in theological study towards incorporating human experience and culture as a basis for interpretation is both liberating and intimidating. On the one hand, it is possible to discuss the historical cultural setting and modern contextual interpretations of a passage of scripture and discover a richness in the passage that may not be immediately apparent in the text, as in the story of the prodigal son. On the other, it becomes possible to argue the validity of any interpretation of meaning with reference to context and perspective, prioritising those views which agree with our preconceptions or biases.

In asking the question “So what?”, I considered the implications of contextualisation for church members and for clergy. I suggested that a key challenge facing the future of church is a lack of confidence among members and a lack of teaching or training about theological reflection. I argued that contextual theology offers an invitation and an opportunity to challenge culturally-ingrained perceptions of theological élitism and finished with Laurie Green’s “Doing Theology Spiral”.

As my part of this conversation ends here, I reflect on the many things that could still be said; on the possibilities for local parish ministries that are relational and contextual; on the opportunities for mission that come because I happen to stop for a conversation with my neighbour. One of the joys of studying contextual theology is found in its infinite variety because life and relationships are always changing, reflecting the wonder and beauty of God’s vast creation and endless imagination. The drumbeat continues: “context, context, context”.


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