“White Theology”? (Part Three)

Finally, after explaining what I meant by alluding to “white theology” and after addressing the practical and ecclesial objections to such a concept, two more objections need to be addressed: the missiological and theological objections. I know, I know. The theological one is the big one that we’ve all been waiting for!

Missiologically, should the concept of “white theology” hinder the work of white missionaries?

The notion of “white theology” should not hinder the work of white missionaries. It should humble them as they seek to translate the gospel into a new culture and language. It should help them to minister in a self-critical way.  According to Sf Weekly It should highlight differences between their culture and their receptor cultures in writing, leading them to marvel at the diversity amongst the imago Dei and within the body of Christ. “White theology” is not something that is only for white people. “White theology,” just like “black, latino, or asian theology,” is for all the people of God. Just because something came out of a certain context doesn’t mean it isn’t useful for other contexts. The concept of “white theology” can aid missionaries as they teach people the value of multiperspectivalism.

Theologically, isn’t it better to affirm an acultural theology to prevent relativism? If we admit that all theology is contextual, how do we protect ourselves from relativism?

To raise the notion of “White Theology” is to highlight the cultural rootedness of all theology, even Western theology.

What is theology? “Theology” can be understood as a word from/of God, such as the a se and preexistent Word/Logos, or the condescended Logos made flesh. It can also be understood as a word concerning God. For this discussion, by “theology” I am referring to the condescended Logos of God who became flesh, the one to which Scripture (also the Word of God) points. I’m also referring to humanity’s culture-bound articulation of God’s inculturated communication to us.

What I want to drive home in this section is that even while we conceive of our role in theology as simply speaking God’s thoughts after Him, we would do well to heed Harvie Conn’s point that theology “must be culture-specific in recognition of the receptor-oriented character of divine revelation” (Eternal Word and Changing Worlds: Theology, Anthropology, and Mission in Trialogue, p.210).

And it isn’t just God’s words to humanity that are culturally-oriented, but also humanity’s words about God that are culturally-oriented. D.A. Carson admits: “No human being living in time and speaking any language can ever be entirely culture-free about anything.” (Biblical Interpretation and the Church: The Problem of Contextualization, p.19). The task of doing theology cannot escape the bounds of cultural influence.

Of course, one might object that these very statements and assertions, according to their own logic, are culturally conditioned themselves. And if so, “how can we trust the absoluteness of these merely culturally-conditioned claims?”

This is a valid objection. Those who argue that all theology is contextual theology (or culturally influenced theology) must not base their convictions upon their own observation and understanding of theology and reality. Instead, they must and can base their convictions upon Scripture. In what follows below, I hope to demonstrate that Scripture itself embraces this complex relationship between its diverse, yet unified meaning and the reality of contextual influences upon the communication and interpretation of its message(s).

It is not only clear within human experience that theology cannot escape the bounds of cultural influence. Scripture itself testifies to its own rootedness in history and culture. In his essay, “Normativity, Relevance, and Relativism,” Harvie Conn wrote:

…all reading is necessarily culturally dependent, both in text and in its translation by the reader. Even our human commonality as image of God…does not eliminate that dependency. There is a “preunderstanding” written into the Bible as a partner in hermeneutical dialogue that must be recognized. The Scriptures…assume…a number of cultural givens that surround and amplify the text itself. (“Normativity, Relevance, and Relativism” in Inerrancy and Hermeneutic, p.196)

An example of the cultural givens that Scripture assumes is the OT notion of ‘covenant,’ an Ancient Near Eastern concept, used by God to communicate His plan and promises. Even the Ten Commandments, recognized by most Christians as universal, come in a “wrapper of cultural conditioning.” The first commandment to Israel, that they should have no other gods before YHWH, was given in a culture where the surrounding nations were polytheistic. Additionally, a close look at the original Hebrew in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 will demonstrate contextual differences. Who would’ve thought?! Unity AND diversity, even in the Decalogue.

So, it isn’t just our theologizing that is influenced by culture. Theology, which is God’s Word to humanity, admits the cultural particularity of its own message. Again, Harvie Conn, drawing upon Alan Johnson, wrote:

The cultural particularity of the biblical message must be acknowledged in our search for the message for all people of all cultures. Whether we speak of the ‘culture-bound’ character of Scripture or of its ‘culture relatedness,’ we are recognizing that ‘the eternal message of God’s salvation was incarnated in a specific, cultural language of an ancient, historical people.’ (“Normativity, Relevance, and Relativism” in Inerrancy and Hermeneutic, p.190)

Likewise, Geerhardus Vos wrote:

Because God desires to be known…He has caused His revelation to take place in the milieu of the historical life of a people. The circle of revelation is not a school, but a ‘covenant’. [emphases mine] (Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments, p.8)

This is how God reveals Himself: in history and therefore in culture. Lesslie Newbigin got it right: “There can never be a culture-free gospel.” (Foolishness to the Greeks: the Gospel and Western Culturep. 4)

Therefore by previously alluding to “white theology” I was seeking to recognize that there is such a thing as “white culture” and that it has interfaced with the discipline of theology in a real and particular way, even if difficult to articulate.

Again, I 100% believe that God is capable of revealing Himself and His will through language to His creatures, and that He has done so. At the same time, our finiteness as ectypal theologians and our sinful natures prevent us from knowing God and His will as He knows own self and will. Culture affects our theologizing, and God is sovereign over that process!

Now let me take a brief moment to discuss hermeneutics more directly. I understand that my interest in advocating for contextual theology might militate against many evangelicals’ beloved insistence upon the “plain meaning of Scripture.” I certainly do not want to ignore the perspicuity of Scripture. However, I do want to consider what we mean by the “meaning of Scripture.” Most evangelicals define that as the author’s intent, while also acknowledging both divine and human authorship. The most conservative of these evangelicals would maintain that there is only one possible meaning for any given passage but also many possible applications depending upon various contexts. To those of you who are of this conviction, may I please recommend to you Vern Poythress’ God-Centered Biblical Interpretation? In chapter 6, he writes:

God plans and intends that his words should have the effects on readers that they have. This intention includes all the details of all the applications through all history. The applications are part of God’s intention. Hence, in the usual approach that identifies meaning with authorial intention4, all the applications are part of the meaning. Conversely, each application, if it is an application at all, is an application of something: it is an expression or instantiation of the intention of God, an intention that covers more than one application.

Also, in an article titled, “Divine Meaning of Scripture,” Poythress writes:

The usual way of distinguishing between meaning and application is to say that meaning has to do with what the text itself says (in itself), whereas application has to do with a relation between the text and the reader’s situation.  But we have already seen that, in general, we cannot properly assess “meaning” even in the narrowest possible sense apart from attention to the author’s situationThis situation includes the hearers.  All assessment of an author’s expressed meaning must reckon with the intended hearers and their situationIn the case of divine speech, all future hearers are included, hence all their situations are included.  Therefore, focus on what the text says most directly and obviously, and focus on what it is seen to say in the light of relation to a situation, are both a matter of degree. (emphasis mine)

Application is part of authorial intention, which means it’s a part of Scripture’s meaning. Simultaneously, then, context, which orients application, is part of the meaning of Scripture! If Poythress is right, which I think he is, the meaning of any given passage of Scripture is infinitely richer and more pregnant with meaning than we can imagine, hence we should welcome multiple contextual perspectives (such as “white theology’s”)!

In summary, theology as God’s Word to man is communicated within history and culture. Also, theology as man’s words about God is done within history and culture. Both these understandings of theology are supported and assumed in Scripture. Finally, biblical interpretation and the quest for meaning in Scripture ought to include the quest for application, which, due to its contextual nature, expands the meaning(s) of Scripture. As Dr. David Garner taught us at Westminster, orthodoxy always exists in triadic relationship with doxology and orthopraxy. There is no right knowledge of God and His will apart from worshipful hearts and the embodiment of faith in one’s life.

At the end of the day, contrary to what I may have led you to believe, I’m okay with never explicitly using the term “white theology” ever again. My main purpose for these posts was to argue for the contextual nature of theology. I hope you’ll give that some thought and apply it in your ministries in a Spirit-led way. Thanks for coming along with me on this thought exercise that I plan to be on for the rest of my life!

Andrew Ong

Andrew is a third-generation, San Francisco Bay Area ABC (American Born Chinese). He and his third-gen wife have two daughters and still live in the East Bay. After graduating from the University of California Irvine and Westminster Theological Seminary, he completed his PhD in World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, researching Chinese American evangelicals and Neo-Calvinist theology. He presently serves on staff at Christ Church East Bay in Berkeley, California. Andrew's a simple guy whose passions include: sushi, pizza, nachos, and the Golden State Warriors. On his less sanctified days he lives by the maxim: #ballislife.

5 thoughts on ““White Theology”? (Part Three)

  • January 22, 2016 at 2:50 pm

    Hi, Andrew. After reading this, I suppose I’m left with only one objection. I believe the term “white theology” is an oversimplification. It seems unfair to me to have certain people who may share a particular physical trait lumped in together arbitrarily, and then treated as a group. It seems like this is what you have done with the term “white theology.” A term like that ignores the great variety of cultures represented by those whom you would lump together.

    I ask you, as a Chinese American, how it would feel to have all Asians lumped together and treated as one homogeneous group? Chinese, Japanese, Korean: http://www.alllooksame.com. They’re all speaking “asian theology.” (I learned about that website from a Korean friend of mine. Neither of us did well on the test.)

    I think that ignores the wide diversity of culture represented by different people who happen to share a particular physical trait. I think it would be dangerous to say that anyone whose ancestors shared physical traits and came from one quadrant of the world has the same or similar perspective.

    Additionally, these distinctives become very blurred over time, at least in the USA. You’re not Chinese, you’re Chinese American. I’m not Russian, I’m Russian American. We both bring an American perspective to whatever we do, because we share an experience from a similar geographic location. That’s what the melting pot is all about. Much of what you’re experiencing of the culture in Edinburgh is, I’m sure, alien to you as it would be to me–because you’re not from there. Is it fair to lump me in with the inhabitants of Edinburgh and say we’re the same because our skin has a similar shade? Is it fair to lump you in with the inhabitants of Edinburgh because you’ll eventually have a degree from there? Of course either option is ridiculous.

    Basically, I think we should all listen to each other, to the content of what we are saying. I can’t judge how your cultural background informs what you say just as you can’t judge mine, for the simple fact that we don’t know those cultural backgrounds well enough to have them inform our opinions. In fact, we can’t know them well enough because we didn’t live them ourselves.

    But we can listen to each other talk about them, and in that way, we can learn. We’ll get a picture or a map of them, but as Alfred Korzybski stated, the map is not the territory. It’ll never be exactly accurate.

    So what do we do with this? I don’t think oversimplifications like “white theology” or “asian theology” or “black theology” are the answer. I think we simply need to treat each other like brothers and sisters in Christ, love each other as He taught us, and stand shoulder to shoulder in unity to spread the good news of His death, resurrection, and gift of eternal life in a world filled with white, black, asian, and other people who reject Him. If we do those things, we’ll also learn how to listen to and learn from our cultural distinctives, for our mutual benefit and edification.

    • January 22, 2016 at 3:40 pm

      Yes, Rich. I’m definitely pro-listening! And thank you for limiting your objections to one 🙂

      “White Theology” was never my main point. I’m beginning to see how my desire to be provocative and add rhetorical power to my argument have actually led to more confusion and distraction. I probably just should’ve titled the series “Contextual Theology” or “Western Theology” but come on, man, that’s so much less sexy! And admittedly, I haven’t read enough about race and ethnicity to be speaking in such crass racial categories as white and black and asian. Ethnicity is probably a better and more accurate means of differentiating people than race, which many would say is a mere social construction and a very American phenomenon. So in short… my bad for the confusion.

      Still, whether or not race is a social construction, it is part of the reality of people living in the US today, and it was part of the reality of the American slaves. Therefore, whether or not it’s the most helpful or nuanced construction, I still want to respect the fact that it is used by many to interpret and articulate their contexts. And I think contexts, however impurely they are interpreted or however imprecisely they may be defined, have value, and bear on theological reflection.

      While I haven’t thought about what race is as much as I should, the practical reality is that people believe in “Asian culture(s)” and “Black culture(s),” and do so in juxtaposition to what they perceive as “white culture” (however they perceive it..). I just want to say that these are contextual factors that will and can helpfully influence theology.

      It’s become clear to me that you and I just don’t agree on whether or not there is such a thing as “whiteness,” “white people,” “white culture,” “white privilege,” and “white theology.” I could probably agree that there may be a better, clearer, and more nuanced way of getting at these things (maybe like “Western”), however at a practical level, I just don’t know how realistic it is to insist that there is no such thing as “white culture.” As a Chinese American, I’m happy to identify myself with Asian culture. In fact, I personally see myself as more in line with Asian American culture than either “Chinese culture” or “American culture,” whatever they may mean.

      Anyway, thank you for reading my thoughts. It means a lot to me, and your perseverance in keeping up with the posts and interacting with them has been absolutely astounding!

      • April 6, 2016 at 5:47 pm

        I recognize I’m a whole 3 months late to this conversation. So, Andrew and Rich, you may very well never respond to this. However, having read your conversation from Part 1 to Part 3, I have come away with one overarching thought.

        How much has the fact that American churches have so self-selected and subdivided themselves contributed to the very reason why any of this conversation need occur?

        This is to say, if people in the US actually went to churches with those in their neighborhoods and not to churches based upon the color of people’s skin and also (though not stated in your articles, Andrew) with those in a similar socio-economic demographic, would we be able to look at theology not as “white”, “black” or “asian” but actually as Western? It seems that the fact that we self-segregate every Sunday creates this otherness and consequently creates a space for these different theologies to emerge.

        I appreciate the both of you and your thoughtful responses in these (three) threads.

        • April 7, 2016 at 3:26 am

          Thanks for the thoughtful and warm interaction, Nate. I always brace myself when I see comments on my more controversial posts!

          I think you’re onto something. I would say that “white theology” whatever it is, is a product of what’s happened in the American churches. Thank you for putting it this way. That’s exactly the point I was driving home. There is a contextual situatedness that all theology finds itself in. Theology is never done in a vacuum, and in this case, you are absolutely right, when I speak of white theology, I’m speaking of a theology that has largely been shaped by America and its history with race.

          You are also correct in your mention of socio-economic demographics. Just as I think we can meaningfully speak of a “white theology,” I also think we can speak of a “poor theology.” Liberation theology often touches upon both with its preferrential option for the poor. I’m no liberation theologian, but I do think that it has some positive impulses that can be redeemed by the Reformed (specifically the Dutch Neo-Calvinist tradition). I’m hoping to figure out what this “redemption” might look like in my PhD project out here in Edinburgh.

          I do think that Western theology is a completely legitimate category, and very much tied in with “white theology,” but in my view, “white theology” is more contextually tied to America and its racial history. After all, it’s a term that came out of Black Liberation Theology. Western theology, though related to “white theology,” in may ways is shaped less potently by American history than “white theology,” in my humble opinion. Also, Western theology, in a sense was shaped by non-whites, especially if we admit its (partial?) continuity with the early New Testament church in Jerusalem. Even St. Augustine was not white.

          For these reasons, I think it’s helpful to speak of both Western theology, as well as contextual theologies that are named by racial experience.

          Thanks for commenting. I sense your desire for unity in the church, and I’m all for that. The American church has a long way to go. May we both pray for and embody the change that needs to happen!

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