Chinese Theological Review 17

Context and Theology

Li Xinnong

Theology is more than an academic discipline, for it is linked to the mission and faith of believers and the faith of the church community. The general assumption behind statements such as "the priesthood of all believers," "theology is the proclamation of faith," or "the truth of the gospel is eternal," is that through creation and salvation, God is constantly at work—in the history of the peoples of the Bible, in the history of the early church, and in all the world, which of course includes Chinese history and Chinese church history. This essay will look at the interaction of the theological thinking of the faith community in practice and in context, in order to explore possible ways in which to deepen our theological thinking.

Inspiration from people's history in the Bible and early church history

Theology is the proclamation of faith; it is also people's experience of meeting God in their lives, the interaction of God and human beings in context.

Faith has its tradition, truth its source and life its maintenance in God's creation and nurture. Our faith is a commentary on the faith tradition in the course of our lives; it is the practice of truth. Faith and theology are both subject and objective life experience. God spoke to the Israelites in ancient times as well as to the early church, and thus the Israelites and the early church had their faith proclamation and their theology—they encountered God in their context and the experience of that encounter is recorded in the Old and New Testaments. Here there is also an issue of the faith tradition and the commentary upon it. Therefore, theology is first of all a praxis of life, and the spirit of this praxis is what we who do theology in the Chinese context should study.

We have seen that the faith praxis of the Israelites and the early church have been recorded and have become today's scriptures. God spoke to Abraham through his surroundings, and through Abraham's own or his family's actions, revealed his eternal plan and care. The vicissitudes and experiences of Abraham's life are the interaction between human beings' deep feelings towards God and God's revelation to human beings. Human theology here is not a matter of scholars' theories, but of the "praxis" of life's dependence on God. Abraham faced the religious chaos in Ur, political upheaval, human vagaries. His life experiences were founded on his faith in the one true God, and by this he entered the "promised land,"—an ideal, a hope.

Of course the stories of the three ancestors (found in Genesis 1-11 and elsewhere) were told and retold and interpreted in the faith tradition by the theologians of the exile. This tradition would have meaning for Abraham in his context and even more for later generations.

The Israelites' life experience was similar. They developed their own historical theology from their own history. The center of Old Testament historical theology is concentrated in Deuteronomy and this shaped the "D" tradition. God spoke to the Israelites in different contexts, and they were thus trained to be a self-conscious people. But there were other voices as well. The wisdom literature, by the openness of its cosmology and its view of truth, candidly and sincerely accepted truth from "outside the church" or outside the history of the Israelites, because it recognized that wisdom and joy lived among the people of the world. This gives us today, in our discussions of contextual theology, a possible methodology and ontology; its practical and timely approach is one we should note and ponder deeply. "In the Old Testament all the prophets proclaimed God's word to the Israelites within a particular context.

Before the exile, Amos spoke his warning to them and Ezekiel comforted God's people after their exile and en-slavement." 1 The prophet Isaiah's theology of the cosmic Lord is theoretically more advanced than that of the wisdom literature. It speaks of God as being outside the history of Israel, speaking in this external context, within which God finds appropriate servants to do God's will. For example, the case of Cyrus, which offers the Israelites a theology for survival as a people: "In the Jewish Christian tradition, God is a God who originally could only act within the history of the chosen people. Thus, the salvific action of God was set outside the history of the Asia region. This view in fact limits both the freedom and power of God. In Amos' time, the Israelites held to this theological view, yet this was a view criticized and challenged by the prophet (Amos 9:7). In addition, the prophetic message of the Book of Isaiah offers no support for such an exclusivist and self-styled triumphalistic view (Is.10:5; 45:1-4). It would be unimaginable as well as indefensible to locate the work of God as Lord of Creation in Asia as occurring after the western missionary movement. The view that the Spirit of the Creator God was entirely absent from the long history and future of the rich religious cultures of Asia will never gain solid support or rational affirmation." 2

The early church was also located in "context." Its knowledge of the plan and will of God was even more precise, ordering its theology. For example, the synoptic gospels illustrate some of the differences in understanding of the Second Coming. Matthew faithfully records the Lord's words; Mark is even more succinct; Luke's account involves the everyday life of the church and makes clearer that Jesus calls his disciples to live good lives in the world, as witnesses to his gospel. This has allowed the church in later times to have a clearer understanding of the Second Coming.

"In the New Testament, the Jews are under Roman rule and the Jewish religious leaders advocate observing the letter of the Law as a means of safeguarding Jewish tradition, but the Zealots plotted the overthrow of Roman rule. Jesus' gospel of the heavenly kingdom was aimed at this rather complex context. When Christianity was preached in the gentile lands, and the early church was gradually established, Christ's gospel encountered a new cultural context, and absorbed quite a lot of Greek and Roman religious and philosophical thinking." 3 The Jerusalem meet ing opened the way for preaching to the gentiles, adjusting theology on the basis of life experience in the church. The Holy Spirit is always speaking to people in their context, guiding them in the formation of their own theology. The Holy Spirit works in the churches of China and churches in all Asian countries, guiding each church to form its own theology in its context. "Some people think the Christian gospel is universal, and if we over-emphasize its contextuality, this may harm the unity of the church and create divisions. Such a view is actually based on a popular misunderstanding that we can completely understand God, or grasp the gospel in its entirety. The mystery of God is beyond any human powers of imagination, nor can it be limited to any society or culture. The gospel is universal and it belongs to all humanity. It has concrete meaning for any context. But with our human limitations we can only understand God within a particular context." 4 Yet the state ment "the truth of the gospel is eternal and unchanging," cannot be taken as theology and tradition according to concrete biblical example or as found in western churches, to be rigidly imposed on our own theological praxis. There are several questions here: how do we deal with the relationship between Scripture (written revelation) and faith traditions from the West? How, in today's context, shall we interpret the Bible, and preach that true and living word to the people? How do we deal with traditional culture and our present context? What is the relationship between God's work in Asia's history and present to the revelation of the written text? These are all questions Chinese theology has to deal with. This is not empty metaphysical theory, but comes out of the life praxis of the church.

Contextual theological praxis of the Chinese Church and other churches in Asia

People need the truth; they are drawn to eternal happiness and joy. At the same time, human knowledge, especially knowledge of God, is limited, and knowledge of the truth of creation and salvation and of God's work in history, is even more limited. Thus, one must be extremely careful in doing theology in context and proceed with great respect for the truth. One cannot make human learning or a little human knowledge of the truth into a reason for human arrogance. This is something Bishop K.H. Ting teaches us constantly. Therefore, whatever "theological" theories we have are all contextual theologies. Human beings need salvation, they need God's mighty hand to support them, they need the inspiration of the light of truth, they need the grace to know God. And so human struggle, and spiritual and physical difficulties, should become the entry points for the gospel and for life practice. Asian theologies—theo-logians of grassroots theology, Minjung theology, theology of the marginalized, homeland theology, etc.—all proceed in this way, as do Chinese theologians. Grassroots theology was created by teachers and theologians in the churches of the Philippines who saw themselves as sharing with the people as blades of grass, lifting the joys and sorrows of the people into theological theory, and gaining identification with the people. Minjung theology makes the exodus and the care for the people shown by Jesus in the Gospel of Mark the focus of Bible interpretation and moves from this to act as advocates for the people in society.

The fate of Korean churches in modern times is linked to that of the Korean people; in difficulty and struggle, the Korean churches have attained identification with and the admiration of the people. The Chinese church in modern times has not, in general, taken active initiative to share weal and woe with the Chinese people. We must consider and ponder this.

In the late 19 th / early 20 th century, western hermeneu tics was marked by textual criticism, bringing about a major shift in the understanding of the Bible and God's revelation. This scholarship had an impact on the Chinese and other Asian churches. Some took it up directly as a ready-made tool, and along with the churches' awakening, gained their own knowledge of historical criticism and textual criticism and there followed a return to the Bible. The revelation of the Bible and the work of the Holy Spirit are the foundation stone on which we do theology and the source of our motive power and vitality. In biblical hermeneutics, human beings and God interact and create our own theology in context.

In the context of socialist society, our Three-Self theology and the present theological reconstruction are the summation and sublimation of the church's life practice. The crux lies in how we come to know more profoundly God's work of creation and salvation in modern Chinese history and build our own ecclesiology, so that the most ordinary member in our church can understand and support theological reconstruction, and it will not be an empty slogan.

We know that God always speaks to people and to churches in concrete contexts. So our theology should be one that moves with the times, a theology of life practice under truth and the Holy Spirit.

Life in this sense includes both the life of the individual and of the church. Life exists in relationship and in context.

Theology should be intimately related to real life. Yet what theological people (especially theological people in Chinese seminaries) easily overlook and so often lack is a contextualized message, a message for the real life of the church. They easily enter into an ivory tower and follow along the path of western theology. However, western theology primarily reflects the theological thinking that is drawn from the western context. Since China has a unique context, it should naturally have a Chinese contextual theology that reflects on that context, one that affords believers, as they deal with the realities of their own lives, a lively theology to draw upon.

"The term contextual theology, has come into frequent use only recently, yet the concerns of contextual theology are the same concerns Christian faith has always had. Christianity believes that God is at work in human history, that believers must seek to understand God's will in the context of their own cultures and societies, and then preach God's message." 5

"Indigenization refers to the way traditional culture responds to the gospel; contextualization on the one hand does not overlook this responsibility, on the other hand it focuses on secularization, technology and the struggle for human justice. These are all processes of history in the modern Third World." 6 The modern movement for unity and ecumenism also focus on social complexity, humanization and liberation, issues which have caused the church to shift its concerns from the explanation of texts to practical issues of how to reflect on human suffering and oppression.

As for methodology in contextualization, there must first be real participation in society, focusing on God's "will in history," only then does text explication follow (as in the case of liberation theology). Then this explication takes place even more under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, with loyalty to the truth, commitment to Christ and to the church. The Bible takes pride of place and interpretation interacts with and challenges its surroundings, with the highest and ultimate aim being to allow the gospel to speak to every real situation of human life, thereby preaching the gospel in language that the people in this place can understand.

In the encounter between the text and the context, the text challenges the context, and vice-versa. The interpreter's task is to facilitate the encounter of the text with real human issues to produce a dialogue, to enable faith and deeds to come together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to link the text and the context, that God's word may be proclaimed. Therefore, contextualization is a reflection process of the church, a reflection process undertaken using the text, the word of God, and the unique human condition as a context. Contextualization is a missiological concept, and is also closely linked to hermeneutics. 7

The mission of the church is to continue the incarnation in history, that is, to make the truth of Christ's creation and redemption known to people, to realize it in the realities of life. Therefore, contextualization is the most important task of the church's mission.

"The Incarnation itself is the best model for carrying the text into the context. Jesus Christ is the word of God.

He became a Jew, identifying with a particular culture and lived withhin the confines of a history. At the same time, he elevated that history. Through his life and his work, he expressed a contextualized model of education. ... an expression of the process of contextualization, can be gleaned from the apostolic writings and the life of the early church. If we compare Paul's approach, whether in speaking about the basics of theology or in preaching the word, in the synagogue in Antioch in Pisidia (Acts13:16-41) and in the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17:22-31), we find it was entirely different from one to the next. In each place his methods reflect the exigencies of the context." 8

"Context" includes the interpreter, and this interpreter is the person or church in the environment of the faith tradition, the people and culture, or the concrete political and economic situation. Therefore, "contextualization" includes so-called "indigenization." Indigenization is used to indicate how the traditional culture responds to the gospel. Contextualization on the one hand, does not ignore this responsibility; on the other hand, it emphasizes the struggle among forces for secularization, technology and human justice. 9

The hermeneutical circle sees the interpreter as static, and makes the text and the interpreter objective objects for scientific study, it does not bring the "context" together with history or with the life experience of the interpreter. Yet in actuality, the relationship between the interpreter, the text and the receptor is one built up layer upon layer. "On the one hand, the interpreter identifies with the text through faith. On the other hand, through reflection and study, the interpreter preserves a distance. In the same way, the interpreter maintains the same identification and distance with the context, so that the text dealt with in this way may encounter the context and real contextualization take place. When the text and context meet, they can dialogue: the context bringing its questions, seeks answers from the text. At the same time, the text raises new questions and challenges for the context and demands a response from the context." In this circle of response and exchange, "the text should take the initiative and leading position." ... "The sole source of faith for the interpreter is the Holy Spirit, the interpreter believes the Holy Spirit will inspire, enabling the interpreter to come to a greater and greater clarity with regard to the real meaning of the gospel and of how the gospel can respond to each and every human context." 10

In true contextualization, the interpreter, while identifying with the environment, must maintain a spirit of dedication to the triune God and the church.

Therefore, any theology of contextualization must also be praxiological: we do not look for theoretical evidence from the Bible, but in a three-way interaction, allow the biblical text and the Spirit to be in dialogue. The hermeneutical process is the process of the church partaking in God's work of redemption and creation in history. Bishop

K.H. Ting's perception of the Cosmic Christ and God as Love is such a praxis. At the same time, Minjung theology, theology of the marginalized, grassroots theology, homeland theology and Japanese theology are also praxiological.

Therefore, in a purely scientific or technical sense, the hermeneutical circle depends on our necessary grasp of historical critical research and all sorts of new methodologies in biblical research: textual criticism, redaction criticism, literary criticism, etc.; all are essential. However, we must believe that the Holy Spirit is leading us to understand in context what God wants us to do, and what the text is saying to us Chinese theologians today as we do our own theology.

A basic point is that theology must face the sufferings and cries of human hearts in a pluralistic context. These sufferings and cries come out of the many symbolic images of traditional culture, religion and folk tales, as well as from the modern political and economic environment.

Therefore, to a certain extent, theology cannot simply be "knowledge about God," metaphysical argument, or the discourses of Greek philosophy, but must be "human issues and knowledge about humanity," 11 Christians' reflection on faith in context, or in the words of K.H. Ting, "the church in the act of thinking."

"What is the basic substance of human culture as expressed in language and culture? In fact, all languages cause people to come into contact with the basic truth every religion seeks to understand; the difference lies only in the means of expression. These truths encompass: the meaning of human life and its fate, human obstacles and limits and the endless potential for transcending these difficulties, human and cosmic liberation" 12 This view reflects both indigenization and contextualization investigations. The essential point lies in uncovering the (church and cultural) life represented by the signs and symbols, or the realities of life and the conditions of real life. In Asia, religion tran scends national, ethnic, social, political and even ideological barriers. Buddhism, whether Mahayana or Hinayana, holds sway among most countries and peoples of central and south Asia, and Confucian thinking has molded not only the history, culture and politics of the land of its birth, but influences the nations of southeast Asia as well. The nation with the largest Muslim population is not located in the Arab world of west Asia, but in southeast Asia, in Indonesia. Furthermore, various forms of ancestor veneration are part of the lives of most people in Asia. Thus, in terms of religion, culture and history, Asia differs from other nations, especially those of the West.

This view rests on a basic assertion: that God is working in the history of every country in Asia. Remember the doctrine of God as creator Lord, breeding in our cultures wisdom and biblical clarity, seeking in common the source and meaning of life in the depths of human hearts, and reflecting the mystery of the Creator God. We should have theological freedom to move between the world of the Bible and the world of Asia, to broaden our theological vision and gain a deeper perception of God's saving action inside and outside Christian history. This is to say that having a clear picture of our context can enable us to have a clearer understanding of the particular features of God's work in Asia and to know more clearly what God expects of us as theologians in Asia. In this way, the responsibility of Christian theology is not to rationalize or dispute universal doctrines, but to enable us as Christians to open our hearts and minds to the different ways in which God works. God uses different methods to work in different places, in different times and among different peoples. We Christians must perceive God's will and goal for Asians.

Thus, theology is an involvement in and practice of life, "the praxiological spirit," means the spiritual essence of doing theology, even more it means the methods and guiding tenets for doing Chinese theology. The theological process is a practical one.

Our inspiration is to see God as the God who carried out creation and the work of salvation in the history and context of China. We must make a theology out of Chinese history, culture, religion and reality, our own experience and civilization. Theology becomes "reflection on faith" in this way and not through some metaphysical "erudition about God."

Mission and Status of the Church: Building an Ecclesiology for the Church in the Chinese Context

The greatest misperception about context in traditional theology is its bias against cultured, or educated, circles. "Culture" is not static, but dynamic, connected to all the vigor and liveliness of human life. If we look at culture from another angle, that of the experience of human existence, incarnational creation and salvation are all contained within culture. We want to avoid wandering about among concepts; rather we should be practitioners of life.

Past missiology developed in the West and mission work took the Paul who was "Jew and missionary in one" as its spiritual guide. In Israel and in the Christian church, the tree of salvation , what is meant by "evangelism" is the conversion of gentiles who receive or take up this tree of salvation; Israel and the church came together in one, together forming "salvation history" and gentiles could only climb aboard. As for Paul, Jews were the nucleus. Then the nucleus expanded to include all Christians; but as for those gentiles who were not part of this inner core of Jewish-Christians, the church looked coldly, even hostilely, on them. This kind of attitude, pushed to its extreme, shaped a fortress mentality in the church; surrounded by darkness and heresy, its mission became defensive, to the point that the biblical mission to preach the Christian message was simplified to the work of revival. Conversion and church growth became the primary church duty. Conversion meant entry into the church, proclamation of the faith, joining the team. "Conversion" came to mean leaving everything behind in order to be a member of the church. In the nineteenth century, European and American churches sent numerous missionaries overseas. Though they established many churches and certainly spread the seeds of the gospel, the missionaries lacked understanding of the culture, history and traditions of the countries to which they were sent, and their bias and prejudice frequently harmed the cultural traditions of the peoples they worked among. At the same time they often subjectively saw the theology produced by their own culture as normative and universal. As they demanded that the people accept the gospel, the missionaries also wanted them to accept the missionaries' culture, which led to a humiliating situation for local churches. At the same time, this kind of gospel, divided from the indigenous culture, even when spread throughout the Third World, had no relevance to the real lives of local peoples; it could not carry the true meaning of the gospel. Because of this, it is unsurprising that it took on, in these places, a highly spiritual and other-worldly coloration, which led to local Christians' hostility to their surroundings in this world. Actually this is a foreigner's attitude and reduces the incarnational mission of the church to a simplistic idea. The church is both a fellowship of those who have been saved and a continuation of Christ's incarnation in time and place. The theological explorations of the Chinese church into "ecclesiology" have been rather weak, and this raises a question for us: what, after all, does it mean for the church to exist and to grow? We should bring all the implications of the mission to spread the gospel and of incarnation into the actuality of the church.

The church exists as a vessel for God to use to fulfill God's work of mission; this is the meaning of its existence. Evangelism by God is that evangelism by which God's suffering love enables human liberation from suffering and hardship. The incarnation is Christ's self-emptying and the model for the church. Therefore, the attitude we should adopt as we do theology and live as Christians is to act as the Lord's disciples among the people, receivers with them of the goodness of the gospel, together with them worshipping and raising our eyes the Lord of salvation who created all things. For, "through the incarnation of Jesus Christ, humankind received liberation, through the suffering and sacrifice of the cross, all oppressors were overthrown, and all forces of humiliation, and self-sacrificing love identified itself with human despair, cast into suffering and through his resurrection proclaimed his power and gave hope to humankind." 13

We can gain insight here from K.H. Ting's God is Love, and Cosmic Christ theologies. Our church and our believers do not take a "church as fortress" attitude and seek to overcome the world, but modeling themselves on God the Father, unite with their neighbors through love, entering together into the work of God's creation. Christ is Lord of the cosmos, why should we seek to overcome the world through human strength? This is not to deny the Great Commission, but rather to deepen and broaden our mission. Thus, Chinese theology is not a matter of concepts but rather is rooted in the life experience of Chinese people; it is the practice of God's love for human beings. The duty of us theologians and theological students is to look with Christian eyes upon the world around us, shaping a worldview, lifting up the experience of believers at the grassroots, making theology from life. The incarnation is fulfilled in a definite and particular time and place. This is the theological basis for establishing a Chinese ecclesiology. God is the center of the cosmos. The church, as a human organization, is not the center of the world. "Our understanding of the church should not stop with the definition of its status, or abstract conceptual description, the church should not simply be some body praising on high. Like the incarnate Christ in human form living among other humans, the church must be incarnated and with believers be joined to its social surroundings, culture, politics, economy and every reality ... only within the living experience of people will we be able to discover the role and status the church should have." 14 An actualized or contextualized theology is one that adjusts and changes with its context. And this is a description of the establishment of Chinese theology.

Li Xinnong teaches at Nanjing Union Theological Seminary.
Nanjing Theological Review,3 (2002): 13-17.

1 Kwok Pui-lan, Foreword to God among the Peoples of Asia (in Chinese). (Hong Kong: CCLC, 1997), 1.
2 Archie CC Lee, "Biblical Commentary from an Asian Perspective," in Biblical Commentary in the Asian Context . (Hong Kong: CCLC, 1996), 65-66.
3 Kwok, 1.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid., 1.
6 Yang Mugu, Dictionary of Modern Theology (in Chinese). (Hong Kong: CCLC,1997), 244.
7 Ibid., 245.
8 Op.cit.
9 Yang, 246.
10 Ibid., 247.
11 Po-ho Hwang, Towards an Asian Theology (Tainan: Tainan Theological Seminary, 1996), 3.
12 Aloysius Pieris, in God among the Peoples of Asia (Hong Kong: CCLC,1995), 82.
13 Po-ho Hwang, 66.
14 Ibid., 69.