“It used to be that we did our theology in the school and then went and practiced it. Now we are doing our theology out of our practice,” says Taras Dyatlik, Regional Director for Overseas Council and consultant to the ScholarLeaders Vital SustainAbility project. He shared these words over Zoom, speaking to a group of supporters as he discussed the impact of the war in Ukraine on seminaries. (For more on that topic, see the reports in this issue). His statement does not indicate a turn away from the authority of Scripture. Rather, it recognizes that the war is reshaping theology as those living amid horror are bringing new challenges to God.
In the context of war, the idea of praying for one’s enemies elicits a visceral response. After seeing the atrocities left behind by occupying forces in Bucha, many Christians felt less like praying Luke 22:34, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” Instead, echoing the pain of the Psalmist, they shouted the words of Psalm 69:
Pour out your fury on them;
consume them with your burning anger.
Let their homes become desolate
and their tents be deserted.
To the one you have punished, they add insult to injury;
they add to the pain of those you have hurt.
Pile their sins up high,
and don’t let them go free.
Erase their names from the Book of Life;
and don’t let them be counted among the righteous.
I am suffering and in pain.
Rescue me, O God, by your saving power.
Where we do our theology and when we do our theology matter. Bevans (2002) states that theology is inherently and necessarily contextual, in that it must engage a specific time and place. On the one hand, we bring theological truth to our context. On the other hand, we bring our own experiences and outlook, rooted in our context, to the Bible, seeking meaning from it.
Drawing from his mentor, Ted Ward, James E. Plueddeman popularized the metaphor of the rail fence in education. In this analogy, the top rail represents the subject, and the bottom rail represents the learner’s experiences, needs, interests, and struggles (2018, 19). The teacher’s job includes building fenceposts that connect subject and experience. For theology, this metaphor works as well: the pastor, theologian, or educator is constantly connecting text and context. Sometimes we begin with the top rail – what the text says. Other times, the starting point comes from the bottom rail, where contextual realities drive the learner’s questions back to theology.
For example, consider baptism. Various ecclesial bodies have accepted different understandings about the mode, timing, or role of baptism as an entry into the people of God. Yet a particular context may create an entirely new set of questions for the practice of baptism. A seminary professor once asked if a secret believer in a context violently hostile to conversion could “self-baptize” in response to God’s command. For him, that bottom rail, context, raised new questions as to how the teachings of Scripture work out in the face of persecution. An answer would require consideration of the nature of the church, the purpose of baptism, and obedience to the teachings of Scripture – all in relation to this particular situation. In any context, theological education helps build fence posts that connect the bottom rail to the top.
Historical theology reminds us that most doctrines developed to reply to new questions. Disputes over the nature of Christ led to the Council of Nicaea. Many of Paul’s teachings arose not from Biblical reflection but from challenges within churches (like Corinth). In the past, the church has developed theology in response to immediate challenges facing the people of God.
In Latin America, poverty and oppression color many of the theological questions that have led to the development of both liberation theology and the evangelical theology of holistic mission. Theologians in the region talk about doing theology “from below,” learning to exegete the context to understand the issues that affect people’s lives. This posture shapes the process of theology. Cesar Lopes, Rector for CETI Continental, wrote:
Very importantly, such positioning affects how we approach the theological method. Using simple and general terms, in Northern latitudes, the common tendency is to read the Bible first and then develop ideas and principles to be applied in life. Latin American theologians, on the other hand, tend to prayerfully and critically analyze specific issues arising from this context of oppression they face in their Christian walk before even opening the Bible. In other words, “theology from below” looks for the right questions to ask before turning to the Bible for answers, and then looks to address them with concern for the powerless. (2014)
Theology from below does not inherently negate the authority of Scripture. As in the rail fence metaphor, the top rail, authority, does not diminish when the process starts from the bottom rail. Both rails are necessary – as are the fence posts that connect them. War, persecution, or political oppression all drive theological questions. For theological education and theological educators, the call is to build posts that connect these bottom rail realities to the truth of Scripture.
This issue of the InSights Journal features a series of short reflections by theological educators in Ukraine. During the war’s first month, these leaders already found their rapidly changing context bringing new questions to the church, to people witnessing horror and injustice. Their fence posts are in flux. In their essays, they are living out their theology – processing violence, responding where possible, and seeking hope.
The other articles in this issue also address the importance of context in the development of theological education. The article on faculty development draws on years of experience in southeast Asia. In Francophone Africa, history and context shape the maturation of a seminary and its programs. Finally, Wageeh Mikhail offers a vision for how theological education can turn the challenges of Muslim-majority contexts into opportunities. In each piece, the questions posed by a specific context lead to theological responses.
Contextual engagement does not mean limiting learning and application only to those specific places. Instead, contextual engagement provides insights that may benefit other contexts with similar questions. Furthermore, because we are a united body of Christ, what happens in each context reverberates throughout the whole. In every context, we share the common top rail of God’s revelation, interact with various different bottom rails of context, and continue to build relevant connections between the two for the sake of the Kingdom.
Bevans, Stephen B. Models of Contextual Theology. Revised and Expanded Edition. Faith and Cultures Series. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002.
Lopes, Cesar. “Theology From Below.” Global InSights, ScholarLeaders International. July 2014. https://www.scholarleaders.org/theology-from-below/
Plueddeman, James E. Teaching Across Cultures. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic 2018.