Christology, Contextualization, and the Sufficiency of Scripture

 

(The following is a brief reflection I wrote in seminary.)

1.  Sociohistorical Context

The center of gravity of the Christian faith is rapidly shifting from the West, particularly North America, to the Global South, and this is best epitomized by the popularity of Christianity on the African continent.  At the heart of the Christian faith stands the person of Jesus Christ.  Thus, as Christianity shifts from the West to the Global South, so too does theological reflection on the person and work of Christ.  This means that Christology is increasingly a topic of conversation and reflection for African Christians, whereas in the past this was not the case.  The effect of this is that Christology has taken on an African flavor, so to speak, which provides the church with a new context and perhaps even new categories for understanding the role of the person and work of Christ and its relation to practical things in life.

2.  Question

“What can be said of Jesus of Nazareth that has not [already] been said?”[1]

3.  Response by Author

It is an important concept for Timothy Tennent that “the full Christological puzzle will not be complete until the Africans have reflected long and deep on what it means for Christ to come into Africa.”[2]  What he means by this is that what is found in Scripture and in the classical creeds of the ecumenical church are not sufficient for a complete understanding of the person and work of Jesus Christ.  This is the case because, for Tennent, the Africans have a crucial piece to the puzzle without which the church cannot fully understand Jesus Christ.  Each successive generation must do Christological reflection in their own context in order for the church as a whole to have a full picture of the glory of Christ.  Without this contextual Christological reflection, the church misses out on the fullness of who Jesus is.

4.  Assessment

While I agree with Tennent that contextual theological reflection is necessary and valuable for the universal church, I think there are a few cautions that should be added to this discussion.  First, I think it is questionable to set up Christ’s question to Peter and the disciples (“Who do you say that I am?” [Matthew 16:15]) as a paradigm for all future generations and their Christological theologizing.  Part of the problem with saying, “this question has stimulated a whole generation of African Christians and theologians…to speak out about the meaning of Jesus Christ for the African”[3] is that the answer to the question is already found in the text.  Peter says, “you are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).  We know this is the right answer because Jesus replies, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah!  For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in Heaven” (Matthew 16:17).  The answer itself, since Jesus affirms that it is correct, therefore necessarily applies to Americans, Africans, Asians, Australians, Europeans, and literally everyone who has lived, lives now, or will live on the planet.  That is to say, what Jesus means to the American, African, Asian, Australian, European, and everyone else is that he is “the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  The idea that Africans, or anyone else for that matter, have to come along and add their own point of view in order for the church to gain a full picture of Christ seems to miss the very point of the text from which the idea apparently springs.  Now, of course, this does not mean that we should not try to understand what this text means or that we should not try to apply it appropriately in our own contexts; it is only to say that the question itself should not motivate us to look for other answers since the right answer is already given in the text.

5.  Further Implications

Secondly, how far exactly does this idea go that every successive generation needs to do their own contextual theological reflection in order for the whole church to have the full picture of Christ?  If this is true in an absolute sense, does that mean that we do not currently have a full picture of who Christ is, since presumably there will be generations after us who do their own reflection?  Or since generations are made up of individual people, what happens when, for example, two people in the same generation say two completely different things about Christ?  Can both of them be right?  What standard should be employed to make sure that contextual theological reflection is accurate and therefore useful?  Tennent says that “all of these images must be tested by the Scriptures and the apostolic witness to Jesus,”[4] but it seems that what most fundamentally shapes Christological reflection is context, not Scripture.  And I think this should raise at least a yellow flag in our minds.


Endnotes

[1] Timothy C. Tennent, Theology in the Context of World Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 110.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 109.

[4] Ibid., 111.


Thanks for reading.  Have additional thoughts?  Leave a comment below.

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