Building a New Ecumenism Through Contextual Theology

by Mark Ellingsen

Mark Ellingsen, former professor at the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France, is a Lutheran pastor, and author of The Ecumenical Movement (Augsburg).

This article appeared in The Christian Century, August 13-20, 1986, pp. 713-714. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.


Ellingsen notes that numerous ecumenical breakthroughs resulted from the Second Vatican Council, but mutual respect does not always bridge the gap between the mainline churches with their primary commitment to contextual theology, and fundamentalists as well as evangelicals with their prevailing commitment to biblical authority. Both sides, however, have been coming to a growing appreciation of each other’s concerns, with mainline denominations placing more emphasis on biblical hermeneutics and theological conservatives sounding the call to contextualize theology.

The past 20 years or so since the time of the Second Vatican Council have been a

remarkable period for ecumenical breakthroughs. Not only have there been theological

convergences, but mainline churches have developed a new ecumenical ethos.

From church bureaucracies to the pews, mainline churches have begun to learn and

practice mutual respect for each other. Bad-mouthing proselytizing and interfering with

another denomination's ministry are now looked down on, and proper ecumenical

etiquette implies cooperation and mutual support.

Yet this mutual respect does not bridge the gap between the mainline churches and

fundamentalists (and, to a great extent, evangelicals). Sharp criticism or total neglect

characterize the relationship between these two groups.

Of course, promising rays of hope do permeate this dark picture. Conservative

evangelicals participated in the 1983 World Council of Churches' Vancouver Assembly

and serve on the National Council of Churches of Christ's Faith and Order Commission.

WCC General Secretary Emilio Castro has offered the open arm of fellowship to

evangelicals, and there has been international bilateral dialogue between the Roman

Catholic Church and conservative evangelicals.

But the dark side of the relationship is still all too evident in the snide remarks that one

regularly hears from both parties' pulpits and in their pastors' conferences. Two

ecumenical officers of major church organizations have even lamented that some staff

members cannot be convinced to relate to evangelicals even on a personal level.

Moreover, even mainline institutions that say they want to build relationships with

theological conservatives sometimes give the impression that their main interest is in

involving evangelicals and fundamentalists in the organizations' established programs.

As a result the evangelicals and fundamentalists often do not feel that they or their

theological concerns are being taken very seriously.

There are, however, developments under way on both sides of the division that offer

hope of these traditions growing together without compromising their commitments.

Oddly enough, it is the hotly debated issue of contextual theology that is the background

for the new convergence.

That all theology must be contextualized has become a prevailing commitment in

mainline theology. Theology and ethics are said to be so intimately related to their

context that one needs different theological and ethical orientations in different cultural

contexts. This understanding is combined with a commitment to biblical authority or at

least the authority of the Word.

Unfortunately, many conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists never hear the

commitment to biblical authority, and even the more sophisticated conservatives

believe that mainline theologians subordinate their commitment to biblical authority

under their belief in contextualizing theology. Thus insofar as the primacy of biblical

authority is perceived to be at stake, the debate over contextual theology appears to

characterize the great chasm between the mainline church ecumenical establishment

and those outside it.

But without quite conceding it, both sides have been coming in recent years to a

growing appreciation of each other's concerns. A number of mainline denominations --

possibly in response to the obvious success of theologically conservative churches --

have begun gearing their educational programs to focus on fundamental biblical themes

and data about the Bible.

Likewise, concerns in academic theological circles about the prevailing use of historical

criticism -- particularly in cases when it is used to obscure the Bible as the church's

authoritative text -- have led to the development and growing impact of literary,

narrative and canonical hermeneutics.

A corresponding emergence of new sensitivities toward these issues is also currently

under way among theological conservatives. In recent years, various influential

evangelical voices -- including eminent middle-of-the-road theological conservatives --

have sounded the call to contextualize theology.

Perhaps the most striking admission that evangelicals should be sensitive to context

comes from stalwarts like Carl F. H. Henry and the International Council on Biblical

Inerrancy. Perceiving a drift among evangelicals away from biblical inerrancy, the ICBI

drafted what became known as the Chicago statements, one of which asserted that

"some applications of moral principles [in Scripture] are restricted to a limited

audience." The statement proceeds to affirm that Scripture has some

"culturally-conditioned applications of truth, which have to be adjusted according to the

cultural variable."

Moreover, Henry wrote in Vol. V of his important six-volume magnum opus, God,

Revelation and Authority, that "each passing generation finds biblical elements

specifically significant for its own intellectual and cultural context" ([Word, 1979], p.

402). A similar perspective is also evident in the writings of several other evangelicals

and charismatics. Thus these staunch proponents of biblical inerrancy want to affirm

that the whole Bible is God's Word, but that certain biblical themes are more

appropriate in some contexts than in others. What else is this understanding but a

commitment to contextual theology?

Of course, one could contend that this sort of contextual theology differs from

prevailing interpretations in mainline ecumenical circles. Indeed, for some mainline

theologians contextual theology is a commitment to the idea that particular biblical and

theological themes must be interpreted and formulated anew in each different context.

This understanding is often connected to the assumption that not all portions of

Scripture are the Word of God, at least those portions that are not appropriate to the

present context.

Yet even this distinction does not preclude ecumenical rapprochement between the two

groups, partly because these two distinct approaches do not follow strict party lines. Not

only have certain radical evangelicals appropriated mainline hermeneutical

commitments, but some prominent mainline figures are approaching the contextual

theology question in a manner at least compatible with Henry and his colleagues.

For instance, Brevard S. Childs, formulator of the new canonical methods of exegesis,

has stated that the task of Christian theology is "to seek to discern God's will . . . within

changing historical contexts" (The New Testament as Canon [Fortress, 1985], pp.

442-443). At different times one portion of Scripture will sound the primary note, and at

other times other portions will be primary. But the witness of the whole canon must

continue to be deemed authoritative. Such an approach is logically shared by other

mainline theologians who follow Childs's canonical method or who utilize the

literary-analytic techniques of narrative theology.

The convergence between this sort of contextuality and that of some evangelicals is

perhaps more readily apparent when one recalls the impact that historical criticism is

having on theological conservatives, who are using these techniques -- subordinated to

the authority of the biblical canon -- in ways that are similar to the framework that

Childs advocates.

One should be very clear about the nature of the convergences we have observed. We

have not identified convergences in theories about Scripture or even in how to do

contextual theology. Rather, we are simply observing a common sensitivity among

evangelicals and mainline Christians to the issues raised by contextual theology. And

perhaps most important of all, we observe a more-or-less common use of Scripture on

both sides, insofar as both claim that only a limited number of biblical themes are

appropriate for a given context.

The principal question raised by ecumenists is not whether precise theological

agreement exists, but whether disagreements must divide churches. This question

should be asked in view of the mainline/evangelical convergence sketched here.

Of course, agreement to be contextually sensitive does not overcome all the divisions

between the two groups; other sociological factors, and serious doctrinal differences

over issues like the sacraments still divide them. But is there enough emerging

rapprochement to facilitate more serious theological conversation and mutual respect

than has hitherto taken place -- enough so that the conservatives could truly become a

part of the current ecumenical ethos?

If mainline churches become informed about developments in the evangelical and

fundamentalist worlds, perhaps there would be fewer accusations that they are

unconcerned with relating the gospel to our cultural contexts. And if evangelicals and

fundamentalists begin to see that many mainline theologians are using the Bible as a

guide for faith, perhaps some of the barriers that have been erected can be broken down.

After all, the elaborate fundamentalist theories about the Bible's inerrancy and

inspiration were originally formulated to ensure that the Bible was used properly in the

church -- a purpose that would be supported by many mainline theologians. And since

doctrine is developed to ensure correct praxis, the doctrine of Scripture is less divisive

if both sides share a common use of Scripture.

The issues raised by contextual theology touch the heart of the difference that caused

the original fundamentalist -- modernist breach. Though these observations do not even

pretend to heal that breach, perhaps this central issue is the place to begin a serious

theological conversation without feeling the need to repeat the traditional polemics of

both sides. An awareness of the commonalities in the seemingly unlikely areas of

contextual theology and use of Scripture may help us overcome our suspicions of one

another so that the ecumenical spirit of the past 20 years might include all of God's