Theological Humility: Thinking About Thinking

Theological Humility: Thinking about thinking

Because Christian theology necessarily draws from contextual factors (culture, language, pedagogy), Christian theology necessarily exhibits contextual variation – and that is a good thing!

Samuel Escobar, “All theology is contextual.”

A) Where you stand affects what you see – Joseph story:

American, German, Nigerian, Indian, Egyptian, Arab, Turkish

B) Theology as reflection on the scriptures in the light of what God is doing

Peter and Cornelius

He was angry because the vision overthrew his long-held opinions. It pressed Peter to change his entire perspective on how God works in the world. Was he suddenly expected to overthrow the understandings of centuries?

Pioneering involves personal worldview change. You can’t break new ground externally unless you are breaking new ground internally. It is God’s prerogative to call us to do things which we had previously considered to be wrong, like calling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, or calling Joseph to shamefully marry pregnant Mary. For Peter, eating with Gentiles was wrong. And yet here he was!

The account of Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10 is a powerful example of the way in which mission experience impacts biblical interpretation. Shawn Redford.

Acts 15 – reflection moment.

C) Theology comes from the questions you are asking, and in different contexts people are asking different questions

The contrast between the West and the non-West is never between culture-free Christianity and culturally-embedded Christianity, but between varieties of culturally embedded Christianity. Mark Knoll.

Philip Jenkins, in The New faces of Christianity, writes that Christian libraries have books on “Asian Theology”, “African Theology” etc., but that books written by Europeans or North Americans are just called “Theology”;

We will know that the transition is underway when publishers start offering studies of “North American theologies.”

Shaw and van Engen, thinking about the history of interpretative approaches with different cultural emphases, write;

As the church moves through history, it deepens its understanding of the Gospel. It does not rewrite or change the Scriptures, but it does deepen its understanding and interpretation of them. That means that what is true is not unchangeable. It can be true at that moment, in that historical context, yet be understood differently later. Without this kind of critical thinking about historical development, there can be no multicultural evangelism. Without the development of theology through history, there can be little communication from one era to another or from one culture to another.

D) Different cultures notice different things and have different blind spots

We need people from other cultures who understand the gospel to set us free from similar prejudices. “The gospel is not safe in any culture without a witness within that culture from beyond itself”.

The frog in boiling water.

E) Apostolic Plurality 

Christianity was multicentric from the beginning:

Cultural difference between Pauline and Yacoban spheres.

We can speak of ‘’apostolic pluralism’ in the canon, provided the term ‘apostolic’ carries its Irenaean and canonical sense of fundamental agreement in a common message.

1st hundred years. Different centres. Different emphases. 4 different gospels.

Fourth century – Augustine and Ephrem.

Augustine lived in a world (much like ours) where the rapid spread of Christianity had led to many divergent, contextual readings of scripture.  He wrote in the Confessions:

Accordingly, when anyone claims “Moses meant what I say,” and another retorts, “No, rather what I find there,” I think that I will be answering in a more religious spirit if I say, “Why not both, if both are true?” And if there is a third possibility, and a fourth, and of someone else sees an entirely different meaning in these words, why should we not think that he was aware of all of them?

Augustine was comfortable with a degree of plurality of interpretation. His contemporary, Ephrem the Syrian, rather more poetically, expresses a similar perspective. 

Anyone who encounters Scripture should not suppose that the single one of its riches that he has found is the only one to exist, rather he should realize that he himself is only capable of discovering that one out of the many riches which exist in it… A thirsty person rejoices because he has drunk: he is not grieved because he proved incapable of drinking the fountain dry.

These church fathers at the end of the Fourth Century were working out what it meant for interpreters to live as part of a multi-centric religion, in a way that we are beginning to grapple with again in the Twenty-First. I wonder if the fascination with singularity of meaning is a “distinctly modern anxiety.”

Today: Apostolic spheres


It is important for a faithful doing of Christian theology that we should affirm and insist that the New Testament contains not one Christology but several… The variety of Christologies actually to be found in the New Testament is part of the fundamental witness to the nature of the gospel; it points to the destination of the gospel in all the cultures of mankind. 


A plurality of cultures presupposes a plurality of theologies and therefore, for Third-World churches, a farewell to a Eurocentric approach. The Christian faith must be rethought, reformulated and lived anew in each human culture, and this must be done in a vital way, in depth and right to the culture’s roots.