To speak of “contextual theology” today typically calls to mind one of two possible approaches to theology and culture, distinguishable by both their roots and their intention. In fact, though they share the same label, they’re not often found in the same seminary walls.
Evangelical seminaries are likely to locate the discussion in the missiology department, where examination of culture has an evangelical impetus. With roots in the successes and failures in the nineteenth century Western missionary societies, these approaches are primarily praxilogical, discussing custom and ritual and global cultures. Anthropology and sociology are engaged for their descriptive powers, and synthesizing theologians like Paul Hiebert and Steven Bevans are referenced, in an effort to understand the incarnation and communication of the gospel especially in non-western environment.
Mainline seminaries, on the other hand, are likely visit contextual theologies as an invited critique on the Western hegemony of the academy. The approach is postmodern and plural, and builds on the foundational stones of liberation, feminist, and black theologies, citing Gustavo Gutierrez, Mary Daly, and James Cone. In intention, these voices are studied to rectify a missing voice to marginalized people groups, a segment that is destined to continue its expansion even beyond Womanist theology, minjung theology, Queer theology, Carribean theology, etc.
Each approach maintains some suspicion of the other, not least because of their perceived (and not without cause) position as liberal or evangelical approaches. But both share in common a marginalization in the standard theology classroom. The implicit assumption? The accepted stream of Western theology is neutral, generic, and context free. Of course, nobody wants to say this explicitly, but that course titles allow “Feminist theologies” or “African Christologies” but not “European Reformed Theologies” or “Germanic Pre-Modern Doctrine” underscores the point. The Frankfort school’s Herbert Marcuse helpfully speaks of “repressive tolerance” to describe a hegemonic system that allows minority views with open arms, but in treating them as such uses them as evidence to reinforce the dominant view. And Dutch Catholic Frans Wijsen reinforces that even today contextual theologies are treated like “exotic fruits to supplement their traditional Western theological dishes.”
If these two approaches were to have more than just casual interaction, one might imagine they’d band together on a protest march with slogan posters held high: “All theologies are contextual theologies!”