Contextualisation; a little test

Contextualisation; a little test.

I wonder if it is widely known that the word contextualisation was first popularised not in mission studies but as a marker of good theological education.

Under the third mandate of the Theological Education Fund led by Shoki Coe from 1970 to 1977, contextualisation, a very new concept at the time, became the criteria for the fund’s financial support of colleges and seminaries especially in the developing world. The root of the issue for the TEF was ensuring that the college, seminary or training scheme is relevant to the context it is serving and not foreign in perpetuating external attitudes, is locally sustainable, and is not just answering problems and questions from outside the context.

I doubt if there is a college, or seminary today which does not aspire to being contextual. It has become such a widely used label that it has often come to mean very little. But what was its original use?

The Theological Education Fund proposed that there should be four levels of contextualisation in theological education: 1) theological – asking if theology is done as a task of relating the gospel to the context issues in ministry and culture; 2) structural – asking if the structure of a college or a programme conforms to social and economic patterns of context; 3) pedagogical – asking if the educational process is reflecting local patterns, is liberating or is reinforcing elitism in ministry and whether it bridges the gap between the academic and the practical; 4) missiological – asking if the college or programme focuses on the task of mission, including renewal and reform in the churches, and the issues of human development and justice in society (Lienemann-Perrin, 1980: Training for a Relevant Ministry; a Study of the Contribution of the Theological Education Fund, 175).

This taxonomy of contextual theological education is by no means perfect but it does provide us with a little test; How does our school measure up in these four categories? If we scored our college or seminary from one to ten in each of the categories, which would come out top and which bottom?

I suspect the answer would vary greatly depending on whether we took a geographical or historical viewpoint.

A local church will often advise its foreign missionaries to plant contextual churches that relate to the local culture but omit to notice that they back home were formed and continue to exist in the culture of a previous generation and so are not, as a church, contextual to their own contemporary culture.

In the same way, theological schools can live within the culture of the past in which they were formed and so not relate contextually to their own contemporary world or church. There are plenty of colleges which teach contextualisation enthusiastically to their students who are going “overseas” on mission but are not contextual themselves in the four categories of the TEF. They sometimes answer outdated questions, teach in outdated patterns, structure themselves in outdated unsustainable forms and relate to a previous culture’s and previous church’s needs.

Of course, there is more to good theological education than contextualisation but you cannot have good theological education without it.

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One Comment on “Contextualisation; a little test”

  1. Perry Shaw Says:

    The four parameters suggested by the Theological Education Fund resonate strongly with the theme of the upcoming ICETE Consultation – Bridging the Sacred/Secular Divide. I will be interested to see the extent to which these for parameters play a role in our discussions together. Thanks for pointing us in this direction, Graham.


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