One of the most defining moments in my entire life is coming to the realization that the formulation of Christian theology is a dynamic process, with centuries upon centuries of shaping and reshaping as the world moves on and various cultures and philosophies impinge upon it. What may seem obvious to us Christians raised up in church in the 20th century may not be obvious a couple of decades or centuries ago. From the early debates on the issue of circumcision in the Apostolic church, to the heated councils arguing about the divinity of Jesus; from iconoclastic movements, right up to the Protestant reformation – many divisive debates, creative thought and painful revolutions have gone into shaping Christianity into what it is today in all its diverse forms. Sometimes, we got it right, sometimes not.
And who is to say that we now have got everything right? Even if a particular idea or theology was ‘right’ or useful for a particular era, what makes us think that the concepts will continue make sense in the present or future? As we move from the modern era to the postmodern era, it is time for those in the church who are living at the intersection to rethink Christian theology. What does it mean to follow Jesus in our culture today?
No matter how ‘high’ your doctrine of the Bible, it cannot mean that theology becomes static. Theologies express our ongoing attempt to interpret Scripture, our attempt to say what it means here and now – in this world, reacting to these new ideas, in conversations with these people, in dialogue with this or that world religion or philosophy. Theologies are never the absolute revelation of God, for they always include a human dimension – the perspective of their authors. ~ Philip Clayton, Transforming Christian Theology
This rethinking of theology needs to go beyond new church programs, or dressing up older practices in modern styles to retain its relevance. These are just outward changes, cosmetics that only serve to hide the wrinkles of an aging relic. The church has spent enough time arguing about whether or not to allow contemporary or rock music, and about the use of technology in worship services. Some of these things may be hip, but is definitely not enough. They do not address the questions that are being asked by our generation. As Philip Clayton writes, “The church is great at giving answers, but not so good at understanding the questions.” We need to rethink our core theologies, and the language we use to express those theologies. The context for those theologies has changed. For example, for the Asian church still searching for its identity in a post-colonial-Western-imperialistic-missionary era – how relevant will all this language of the ‘kingdom of God’ and its imperialistic overtones be? What does biblical imagery such as ‘King of Kings’, ‘crowns’, ‘thrones’ etc mean to indigenous tribes living in the rainforests of Borneo where the family unit forms the dominant social structure? Wouldn’t the ‘family of God’ make more sense? Contextualizing Christian theology for a new age and for the diverse cultures in the world is the challenge of our time.
Some individuals and denominations are employing creative methods in order to get their message through despite the challenges. Together with many others, however, we are worried that innovative techniques by themselves don’t go far enough unless they also free the gospel from imprisonment within modern ways of thinking. ~ Philip Clayton, Transforming Christian Theology
Martin Luther realized that the church practices of his time were bad, but he didn’t stop at correcting bad practices. He rethought entire swathes of Christian theology. He realized that to change the bad practices, the entire worldview of the church had to change.
Those involved in such an enterprise can expect lots of criticism from within. The Apostles Peter and Paul, Martin Luther, not to mention Jesus himself, were not exempt from criticism by their contemporaries. But that is the cross we have to bear, part of the painful process of renewal.