July 16, 2008
What Is Theology?
I often get the impression that Christians—maybe evangelicals in particular—think that theology is a comprehensive and timeless summary, or distillation, of biblical truths. And systematic theology is organizing these truths in one of a handful of established patterns. So real theology is what comes out of the Western, Eurocentric tradition. All the other theology is contextualized—that is, probably a contextualized version of Western theology, or else it’s a case of assembling theological data around a cultural bias. If there is one thing I hope the Global Dictionary of Theology will overturn, or at least undermine, it is this notion. For one thing—which should be enough—it’s just not true.
Theology in the Western tradition is in fact a theology that answers and is shaped by particular questions that have arisen within the Western tradition. This is not to say that in our present postmodern or global setting the Western tradition has been eclipsed, is unimportant or that it should not continue to play a significant role in the global theological conversation. I happen to think that over two thousand years, the Western tradition has raised and wrestled with some very significant issues and come to consensual conclusions that are classic in their formulation. And I think that traditional cultures, which put a lot of stock in antiquity and pedigree, are naturally inclined to give that tradition due respect.
Western theology is, however, (among other things) contextual. And if Christianity had first taken root in China rather than “Europe” (a complex designation in itself), and if it had developed faithfully and biblically for centuries in that culture, we would expect that theology to have quite a different weave and texture than it does today. We might hope and speculate that if it were biblically faithful, its main profile would be in recognizable continuity with what we today call Western theology. But would its Christological and Trinitarian formulations be quite the same? I doubt it. Would its prevailing view of the atonement be what some evangelicals today think is the only true view? Again, I doubt it.
Now, one can argue that in the providence of God, it was in fact Western theology that took root and developed, and Western questions that were brought to the fore and wrestled through to some conclusion (or rather conclusions, since we are simplifying “Western theology” into a monolithic and homogeneous entity). And there is a lot going for that argument. But it still does not escape the contextual argument. And it is still a fact that other cultural traditions bring different questions to the theological enterprise and find aspects of Western theology to be answering (what are for them) non-questions.
The Global Dictionary of Theology surveys this scene in about 250 articles. And, of course, global in the title does not mean one theology for the globe; it signals the diversity of theologies around the globe, many of which are local. So we could have called it the Glocal Dictionary of Theology, if reference book titles did not shun neologisms. (And who would want to answer the mail from all those who wanted to point out an embarrassing typo in the title?)
Recently I’ve been “locked up,” neglecting all sorts of other demands (including blogging), while I reread and do a final edit of all of the articles in this Dictionary. As demanding as the work has been, my conclusion is that, overall, this is a scintillating reference work—it sparkles and shines with interesting and thought provoking perspectives. While there is much that is familiar to those who have been around the global theological block a few times, there is also much that is new.
Now, you would have to be a theological chameleon of the most spectral hues to agree with it all. But that’s not the point of this Dictionary. The point is to enter, listen and become engaged in a global theological conversation. This is fascinating, mind-expanding and perhaps at times culture-shocking and even maddening for some. But presumably good theological education is also formative of spiritual and theological maturity.