After nearly two millennia in the west, the Christian church has, over the course of a single lifetime, lost its popular center of gravity in the U.S. and Europe. Christians are now found in more non-Western than Western nations, and the faith is declining in the lands of its historic influence. This means that the average Christian is no longer a white, middle-class European or American Protestant, but South American, African, East or Central Asian, and missionaries going every which way pass each other in the airports of the world.
At the same time, Western intellectuals—philosophers, anthropologists, linguists, scholars of religion and literature—have given a great deal of attention to the idea of cultural and historical ‘situation’. They have taught us that not only are cultural contexts strikingly different, but also equal, and so incomparable. Influence is contamination, even violence, critique unthinkable; we can only observe. The global dissemination of these ideas, too, has been swift. Western secular thought has spread as quickly as Western Christianity.
If Christianity is historically Western, then its relevance for non-Westerners is immediately suspect. So the confluence of cultural relativism and the global spread of Christianity has evoked a minor crisis of identity for non-Western Christianity. Not without reason, this identity crisis has often bred anti-Western sentiment. It is often said that what global Christianity has received from the West is not Christianity pure and simple, but Western Christianity, and, the argument goes, majority world Christians should beware of the theological parochialism of triumphalistic, milk-fed Westo-centrists.
Taking these marching orders to heart, many scholars argue that Christians in the majority world should expel all vestiges of Western heritage and begin again, building from the Bible grassroots ‘of us’ and ‘for us’ theology. The question, they say, should not be “who is Jesus?” but “who is Jesus for us?” Non-Western Christians are encouraged to shed yesterday’s Western tradition in order rebuild with anything fresh and self-expressive. Curiously, the non-Westerners who are most suspicious of the ‘Western’ in their Christianity were educated in the West. In a pitiable irony, many majority world scholars learned from the West to distrust Western cultural heritage. Leaving that for another day, the point is this: theology for us is the issue of the day for the global church.
So, is there theology, or only theology for us?
An essay by Kevin Vanhoozer, called “Christology in the West,” addresses the question of the role of historic Western tradition in the doctrinal reflection of the expanding global church. Vanhoozer’s question in the article is whether Western Christology is more Western than it is Christological. On a practical level, he seeks to answer this question: How much of historic Christology should the global church accept from the West, and how much of it is dispensable cultural baggage? And anyway, what is the real difference between essential content and non-essential cultural packaging?
Vanhoozer notes that ‘Christ is Christ’—there is one and one only. So, “Christology is . . . about discerning the same (Christ) in the midst of the different (context)” (11). This statement is more significant than it might at first appear. In general, when we define something, we say what the thing is; but we must also say what a thing is not. Definition and distinction are inseparable. Positive statements are discriminatory. In Christology, we must identify who or what Christ is; and this must also include saying who or what he is not. Vanhoozer notes here that changing context can be helpful in this regard: if Christ really is who he is, then he will remain the same even if the context changes.
Clearly Vanhoozer is aware that his study cannot avoid its dogmatic character: Scripture attests to one Christ only, and only this one saves. In this sense, as Vanhoozer argues later in the essay, there is a notion of truth that comes with Christian belief. Here is one example: “the Christian faith necessarily involves certain ontological presuppositions” (31). The first commandment (Ex 20:3), Vanhoozer explains, requires God’s people to make a distinction between God and everything else, between the one, true, sovereign Creator, and everything else which he has made and upholds by the word of his power. Gen 1:1 is an even better example of this, as Paul demonstrates when preaching at Athens (Acts 17:24-25). The one, true God, sovereign and self-existent, and everything else, created and dependent—this is nothing but a basic ontological distinction.
Scripture never states, “God and everything else is the most basic ontological distinction in Christian teaching,” or “in the beginning, an ontological distinction was drawn.” Scripture never states this, but it certainly teaches it.
In the same way, Scripture teaches something about Christ that the early church called the “hypostatic union,” describing this as the claim that Christ is two natures in one person. These formulations, says Vanhoozer, ‘hypostatic union’ and ‘two natures in one person’, are not Scripture’s words, but they represent Scripture’s teaching.
Both of these are good examples of how theology ought to be done. In both, we see this structure, highlighted by Vanhoozer:
(1) historico-cultural terminology, used to articulate
(2) a doctrine drawn from
(3) biblical revelation.
Biblical revelation is the actual, inspired statements of Scripture, the very words of the Bible. Some theologians, such as Karl Barth, deny that the statements of Scripture are themselves revelation; but this is false. The Bible views itself as revelation, and teaches the doctrine of plenary inspiration: the Spirit inspired every utterance of Scripture. So the Bible is inscripturated revelation, and it imparts true knowledge of God.
Doctrine drawn from Scripture includes whatever Scripture teaches, even if it does not explicitly state those things. Scripture teaches explicitly, by stating things directly; but it teaches much more by implication. The Scripture must be explained, and the meaning of it must be given, and it must be preached. All of this is more than merely recitation; it is interpretation that, if sound, carries biblical authority.
Historico-cultural terminology includes whatever terms and concepts are used to articulate the doctrine drawn from Scripture and to distinguish biblical teaching from error. We use words to grab on to ideas, and we use the best words we have on hand for carrying the desired meaning.
In his chapter, Vanhoozer takes it for granted that biblical revelation, the Bible itself, is shared by all Christians all over the world. There must be one and the same Bible for the whole global church. (Thus the crucial importance for seminarians to study Hebrew and Greek.) Then he points out that the specific terminology, the historico-cultural linguistic machinery, is adjustable, even replaceable. Particular extra-biblical terms can be extremely helpful; but they are not holy, as the words of Scripture are.
Vanhoozer focuses on the “judgment” or doctrine drawn from Scripture. This, he says, so far as it is faithful to Scripture carries the authority of Scripture. And therefore, so long as the judgment or doctrine drawn from Scripture is actually taught in Scripture, it cannot be disregarded, since it is taught by God himself. Here is how Vanzhoozer says it: “It is not the propositional content alone but the biblical judgments of which they are ingredients—that the man Jesus is God; that humanity is not divinity—that are theologically binding” (31).
Is there theology, or innumerable, incomparable theologies? Does the Bible teach different things in different contexts? There are different ways of phrasing the question, but the answer is a resounding “no.” The Bible is divinely inspired, objective revelation of God and of redemption in Christ. The very words of the inspired manuscripts are there, in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, for all to see; and the teaching—on God, man, sin and salvation in Christ, ecclesiology and eschatology—is attainable by all through inference from the combined testimony of the canonical Scriptures.
It must not escape our attention that in revealing himself to the image-bearer, God himself used human language. In fact, God spoke first (Gen 1:3), before humans did. We cannot buy the line that words and linguistic structures are impossibly relativistic, hopelessly conventional, simply sounds with function, and so too frail to bear the weight of real truth, or we impugn the trustworthiness of God himself.
Kevin Vanhoozer, “Christology in the West: Conversations in Europe and North America,” in Christ without Borders: Christology in the Majority World. Edited by Gene L. Green, Stephen L. Pardue, and K. K. Yeo. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014.