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What Is Contextual Theology?

By Laura Metz
Updated May 23, 2024
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Contextual Theology is a Christian philosophy which attempts to view the principles of the Bible apart from their cultural context. Aspects of contextual theology include adapting non-Christian practices for Christian purposes, deciding which biblical statements applied only to the original culture, and determining how biblical principles apply to new technology. Some of these facets can be seen in the sermons and in letters of the New Testament.

One aspect of contextual theology, known as inculturation, seeks to adapt any compatible pieces of a non-Christian culture for Christian purposes. For example, December 25 was originally a pagan holiday held in ancient Rome to celebrate the invincible sun. When some Romans became Christian, they took many aspects of the well-known pagan holiday and used them to celebrate the birth of Christ, in the holiday now known as Christmas.

A biblical example of inculturation can be found in Paul’s sermon in Acts 17:22-31. Speaking in Athens, Greece, Paul quoted Greek philosophers and poets to prove that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. By using familiar poets, Paul made it easier for the Athenians to accept his message. This same type of contextualization is on display when a minister quotes a current movie or book to illustrate his point.

Considering the cultural relevance of a biblical statement is another aspect of contextual theology. Certain biblical statements are considered universal, relevant for all people and cultures, while others are cultural, applying only in the original culture. A common example is found in 1 Corinthians 11:4-7, which states, among other things, that women should not shave their heads. Many scholars believe that shrine prostitutes shaved their heads. Thus, many believe the cultural commandment was for women not to shave their heads, while the universal statement is not to dress like a prostitute.

Anything that the Bible does not specifically address may also be discussed under contextual theology. For example, the Biblical authors did not have things such as cars, cell phones, and televisions. Contextual theology seeks to find the underlying principles of Biblical commands and apply them to the modern culture.

Many Christians encourage great caution when using contextual theology. While the differences between the first century and modern culture must be taken into account, most theologians urge that statements should be considered universally relevant unless there is very strong evidence to the contrary. Otherwise, people might simply ignore all the commands that they find most difficult to follow.

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