Friday, April 24, 2020

The Southgate Fellowship: Theological and Missiological Method

So far in this series I have sought to engage with the statement of TSF by describing the group and pointing out a few minor issues, exposing a glaring omission, indicating where it seems to want to fight old battles, and examining how it works out priorities in mission.
That was the warm up.
In this post I want to discuss an even more important issue: the authority of Scripture and the way we do theology and missiology.
TSF argues rightly that Scripture is the ultimate authority for missiology thus:
18a) We affirm that Scripture is the ultimate authority to which all human disciplines, including missiology and social sciences, must be subject.
Whatever happened to theology in that affirmation? Is not Scripture the ultimate authority for that human discipline too? On what basis is theology given such an exalted and privileged place? It may be the queen of the sciences but it is still a science, and so subject to critique in a way that Scripture must not be.
Further on, they warm to their task:
71a) We affirm that local expressions of the gospel should always function in the context of the catholic Christian church, so that local theologians are accountable to the formulations of the Christian faith in the historic creeds and confessions of the church.
But wait, if Scripture is the ultimate authority then are not historic formulations auxiliary? 
This would be a good place to make this explicit. They don't.
Rather they go on the attack:
71b) We deny that faithful contextual formulations of the gospel are merely ‘local theologies’, which have their validity apart from the catholicity of the church.
In other words, a local theology can only be valid if it engages with the historic formulations. Even if there is no translation of those formulations in the local language.
So what are local theologies?
The process of doing theology and interpreting Scripture in a given local context has often been labeled ‘local theology’. For some theologians, such local theologies are context-determined, thus breaking the necessary link between theology and Scripture—the only absolute determining criteria of theology.
I have three problems with this statement:
1.     The phrase ‘context-determined’ is loaded. Everything we say is influenced by our context. The moment we open our mouths we are using language, and there is no context-free language. Thus, there can be no context-free theology just as there can be no context-free visible church, which they acknowledge (§99a). So also there can be no context-free historic creed or confession. If they mean overly influenced by the context to the detriment of the influence of the Scriptures, then they should state this more clearly.
2.     The final clause is recursive: how can theology and Scripture be the only absolute determining criteria for theology? 
3.     The irony of this statement is that, of course, the TSF statement itself is influenced by its context. But this is never acknowledged. Rather, it is held up as a context-free statement to be signed up to by evangelicals all over the world as if it is an absolute standard.
Ultimately this is all special pleading: every other discipline, they seem to be suggesting, must be subservient to theology. But make no mistake, theology here is systematic theology. The work of the systematician is a cut above the work of every other kind of theologian, most notably that of the missiologist.
But why should that be so? Why should it not be the other way around? This is their answer:
86a) We affirm that theology must drive mission methodology, because a failure to deal adequately with the effects of truth suppression will generate an overly positive view of human nature and will manifest itself in distorted methodologies.
Note here that missiology is a ‘methodology’, but theology isn’t. It is a put down.
Two responses to that:
1.     Systematic theology, for that is what this is, is itself based on a methodology, commonly called prolegomena. How bizarre, then, that the prolegomena of TSF’s statement doesn’t even deal with the method by which theology is systematized. It is almost as if the framers wanted to give the impression that the only discipline not open to discussion is systematics.
2.     Missiology proper is not a mere methodology. Ministry methods must come from a robust framework that emerges from a careful interpretation of Scripture in the cultural context in which that ministry is being conducted. 
But that is not how TSF views theology. Theology is a given. 
This view of theology has significant implications, as many cross-cultural workers are aware. 
This is one: when theology is taught in a different context the communication is unidirectional. After all, the theologian is complete. All he needs to do is take his package and ensure it gets across. 
84a) We affirm that theological teaching can legitimately adjust its teaching style, phraseology, selection of content, use of illustrations, and many other ways that prove significant in facilitating the communication and grasp of truth in the audience’s target language and culture.
What if the “target audience” (unfortunate language of objectification) is not even thinking in the categories in which the theology has been framed? No amount of adjustments to its phraseology or use of illustration will connect quite like taking the host’s culture and using that as a framework, all the while probing, extending, and challenging that framework from within.
Why is there such a hard line on contextualization?
83c) We deny that the exigencies of any given local context should dictate how Scripture is to be read, interpreted, and applied.

I trust that none of the writers or endorsers of the statement mentioned Covid-19 in their sermons over the past few weeks.