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Building a New Ecumenism Through Contextual Theology

by Mark Ellingsen

Mark Ellingsen, former professor at the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France, is a Lutheran pastor, and author of The Ecumenical Movement (Augsburg). This article appeared in The Christian Century, August 13-20, 1986, pp. 713-714. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.

The past 20 years or so since the time of the Second Vatican Council have been a remarkable period for ecumenical breakthroughs. Not only have there been theological convergences, but mainline churches have developed a new ecumenical ethos.

From church bureaucracies to the pews, mainline churches have begun to learn and practice mutual respect for each other. Bad-mouthing proselytizing and interfering with another denomination's ministry are now looked down on, and proper ecumenical etiquette implies cooperation and mutual support.

Yet this mutual respect does not bridge the gap between the mainline churches and fundamentalists (and, to a great extent, evangelicals). Sharp criticism or total neglect characterize the relationship between these two groups.

Of course, promising rays of hope do permeate this dark picture. Conservative evangelicals participated in the 1983 World Council of Churches' Vancouver Assembly and serve on the National Council of Churches of Christ's Faith and Order Commission. WCC General Secretary Emilio Castro has offered the open arm of fellowship to evangelicals, and there has been international bilateral dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and conservative evangelicals.

But the dark side of the relationship is still all too evident in the snide remarks that one regularly hears from both parties' pulpits and in their pastors' conferences. Two ecumenical officers of major church organizations have even lamented that some staff members cannot be convinced to relate to evangelicals even on a personal level.

Moreover, even mainline institutions that say they want to build relationships with theological conservatives sometimes give the impression that their main interest is in involving evangelicals and fundamentalists in the organizations' established programs. As a result the evangelicals and fundamentalists often do not feel that they or their theological concerns are being taken very seriously.

There are, however, developments under way on both sides of the division that offer hope of these traditions growing together without compromising their commitments. Oddly enough, it is the hotly debated issue of contextual theology that is the background for the new convergence.

That all theology must be contextualized has become a prevailing commitment in mainline theology. Theology and ethics are said to be so intimately related to their context that one needs different theological and ethical orientations in different cultural contexts. This understanding is combined with a commitment to biblical authority or at least the authority of the Word.

Unfortunately, many conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists never hear the commitment to biblical authority, and even the more sophisticated conservatives believe that mainline theologians subordinate their commitment to biblical authority under their belief in contextualizing theology. Thus insofar as the primacy of biblical authority is perceived to be at stake, the debate over contextual theology appears to characterize the great chasm between the mainline church ecumenical establishment and those outside it.

But without quite conceding it, both sides have been coming in recent years to a growing appreciation of each other's concerns. A number of mainline denominations -- possibly in response to the obvious success of theologically conservative churches -- have begun gearing their educational programs to focus on fundamental biblical themes and data about the Bible.

Likewise, concerns in academic theological circles about the prevailing use of historical criticism -- particularly in cases when it is used to obscure the Bible as the church's authoritative text -- have led to the development and growing impact of literary, narrative and canonical hermeneutics.

A corresponding emergence of new sensitivities toward these issues is also currently under way among theological conservatives. In recent years, various influential evangelical voices -- including eminent middle-of-the-road theological conservatives -- have sounded the call to contextualize theology.

Perhaps the most striking admission that evangelicals should be sensitive to context comes from stalwarts like Carl F. H. Henry and the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. Perceiving a drift among evangelicals away from biblical inerrancy, the ICBI drafted what became known as the Chicago statements, one of which asserted that "some applications of moral principles [in Scripture] are restricted to a limited audience." The statement proceeds to affirm that Scripture has some "culturally-conditioned applications of truth, which have to be adjusted according to the cultural variable."

Moreover, Henry wrote in Vol. V of his important six-volume magnum opus, God, Revelation and Authority, that "each passing generation finds biblical elements specifically significant for its own intellectual and cultural context" ([Word, 1979], p. 402). A similar perspective is also evident in the writings of several other evangelicals and charismatics. Thus these staunch proponents of biblical inerrancy want to affirm that the whole Bible is God's Word, but that certain biblical themes are more appropriate in some contexts than in others. What else is this understanding but a commitment to contextual theology?

Of course, one could contend that this sort of contextual theology differs from prevailing interpretations in mainline ecumenical circles. Indeed, for some mainline theologians contextual theology is a commitment to the idea that particular biblical and theological themes must be interpreted and formulated anew in each different context. This understanding is often connected to the assumption that not all portions of Scripture are the Word of God, at least those portions that are not appropriate to the present context.

Yet even this distinction does not preclude ecumenical rapprochement between the two groups, partly because these two distinct approaches do not follow strict party lines. Not only have certain radical evangelicals appropriated mainline hermeneutical commitments, but some prominent mainline figures are approaching the contextual theology question in a manner at least compatible with Henry and his colleagues.

For instance, Brevard S. Childs, formulator of the new canonical methods of exegesis, has stated that the task of Christian theology is "to seek to discern God's will . . . within changing historical contexts" (The New Testament as Canon [Fortress, 1985], pp. 442-443). At different times one portion of Scripture will sound the primary note, and at other times other portions will be primary. But the witness of the whole canon must continue to be deemed authoritative. Such an approach is logically shared by other mainline theologians who follow Childs's canonical method or who utilize the literary-analytic techniques of narrative theology.

The convergence between this sort of contextuality and that of some evangelicals is perhaps more readily apparent when one recalls the impact that historical criticism is having on theological conservatives, who are using these techniques -- subordinated to the authority of the biblical canon -- in ways that are similar to the framework that Childs advocates.

One should be very clear about the nature of the convergences we have observed. We have not identified convergences in theories about Scripture or even in how to do contextual theology. Rather, we are simply observing a common sensitivity among evangelicals and mainline Christians to the issues raised by contextual theology. And perhaps most important of all, we observe a more-or-less common use of Scripture on both sides, insofar as both claim that only a limited number of biblical themes are appropriate for a given context.

The principal question raised by ecumenists is not whether precise theological agreement exists, but whether disagreements must divide churches. This question should be asked in view of the mainline/evangelical convergence sketched here.

Of course, agreement to be contextually sensitive does not overcome all the divisions between the two groups; other sociological factors, and serious doctrinal differences over issues like the sacraments still divide them. But is there enough emerging rapprochement to facilitate more serious theological conversation and mutual respect than has hitherto taken place -- enough so that the conservatives could truly become a part of the current ecumenical ethos?

If mainline churches become informed about developments in the evangelical and fundamentalist worlds, perhaps there would be fewer accusations that they are unconcerned with relating the gospel to our cultural contexts. And if evangelicals and fundamentalists begin to see that many mainline theologians are using the Bible as a guide for faith, perhaps some of the barriers that have been erected can be broken down. After all, the elaborate fundamentalist theories about the Bible's inerrancy and inspiration were originally formulated to ensure that the Bible was used properly in the church -- a purpose that would be supported by many mainline theologians. And since doctrine is developed to ensure correct praxis, the doctrine of Scripture is less divisive if both sides share a common use of Scripture.

The issues raised by contextual theology touch the heart of the difference that caused the original fundamentalist -- modernist breach. Though these observations do not even pretend to heal that breach, perhaps this central issue is the place to begin a serious theological conversation without feeling the need to repeat the traditional polemics of both sides. An awareness of the commonalities in the seemingly unlikely areas of contextual theology and use of Scripture may help us overcome our suspicions of one another so that the ecumenical spirit of the past 20 years might include all of God's people.

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