I believe there is a reason why Peter viewed Paul’s writings as complicated (2 Peter 3:15-16). The question of personal convictions does not bring divisions in the church but the distinctiveness of the individual members. What am I driving at? The question I am facing and lately have been trying to reconcile is one of theological accuracy versus contextual application. I do not, in any regard desire to be controversial neither do I advance any special or specialised knowledge. What I aim to do is to understand where personal conviction (contextual application) falls within the bounds and confines of theological accuracy.
As one studies the doctrine of the word of God and the authorship of Scripture. What stands out is the diversity and variety of the authors. From fishermen, doctors, nobles and herdsmen, we find all kinds of narrative that sum up redemptive history in the most beautiful way. A question often arises on the individuality of the authors, were they pens in the hand of God? Did they dictate the words of God? If so, why does Paul talk about his ‘court and sandals’ or Peter state that what Paul writes is ‘complicated’? Can all these be regarded truly as the ‘words of God breathed’? Surely some of these things seem unnecessary. How do we then reconcile these apparent failings of Scripture?
Wayne Grudem describes the authorship of Scripture in view of God superintending the process of writing, without discrediting or overlooking the personalities and uniqueness of the authors. These authors then wrote the word of God in their own words, thoughts, and styles, but the Holy Spirit authored every single word. This is not confusing to me, which might be an indication of how confused I am. Yet the point is, the authors were convinced of the truthiness of what they wrote, not that they in of themselves proved themselves true, but they knew these were not mere human words (2 Peter 1:21). Beyond a shadow of a doubt, none of the authors of the individual books of the Bible was put forward opinions, it was the Holy Spirit. If you wish to ask the question of proof, this would be a fool’s errand, this is a matter of belief, even more conviction.
The focus of my discourse falls on the issue of the variety and distinctiveness of the human authors of Scripture. What is the present day application for it? Where does it leave you and me? These questions may seem relatively insignificant yet they, if not universal then autonomously, reveal the subtle but important role of contextual applicability of theology. That might be a mouthful for some, to put it mildly “how then shall we live”. With the knowledge that an all knowing and all wise God used men, imperfect, diverse colours, pedigrees and passions to give us His word and progress his purpose and plan, how then shall we live?
As I have alluded before, there is a reason why Peter called Pauls writing complicated. This is no way an indication of conflict or friction. I believe it is a great indication of distinctiveness. Paul and Peter shared the same conviction for the church, the gospel vision was universal, but they both had personal convictions. Theological accuracy falls on “And they continued in the teaching of the word and instruction of the Apostles”. The church held theological accuracy, yet in terms of application, it was left to the personal convictions of these men. It must be settled however that any conviction that does not align with the gospel (Scripture) false.
In ‘The River Between’ Ngugi Wa Thi’ongo makes a rather brisk but somewhat true narrative of the gospel in Africa. This is how I can sum up the argument. ‘The missionaries made strives to redeem the native, they realised he had a soul and desired it’s salvation, but they overlooked, to a point negated the fact that the native had a lifestyle, culture and personality’. The gospel not only was, but still is a great or good to the man, but its application is vital as well. If we overlook the distinctiveness of individuals and their cultural setting we miss the point of the universality of the church. I point out this observation because I believe we must have a contextual application of our beliefs that not only changes the way we live our lives but also of those around us.
Peter points out that Paul’s writings are complicated to some because he acknowledges that Paul applies the truth in a different world than himself. Peter acknowledges the writing of Paul as part of the Bible. So, in essence, it is theologically accurate. For readers outside of its context or new to it, it is complicated and some have perverted it. Paul was called to suffer for Christ, was a logical man, with zeal and much learning. At the point of his conversion, we must realise that none of these distinct attributes were altered, they were redeemed. God redeems the whole man, culture and all. It is this total redemption that makes a difference In the lives of individual Christians.
For such a long time, I and maybe a few others who are zealous for theology have gotten it wrong. Theology does not overlook personality or uniqueness, it does not seek for uniformity. It must lead to conformity to the image of Jesus Christ, not subjective outlooks and expectations. The purpose of the word of God is unto salvation and the continued pursuit of holiness. Paul is a great example of the contextual application of belief. He’s calling is to the Gentiles, he does not put “yokes” (Acts 15) on them. He applies the gospel to their context, for their salvation. He reasons with the Greeks and pleads with the Jews. It is most encouraging to realise that the distinctiveness of these men advances the Gospel. Peter called to the Jews and Paul to the Gentiles, yet both men ruled over by the Infallible and accurate truth of Scripture.
The sad and disheartening reality I sometimes find myself facing in my walk is ‘learning an accurate gospel (theology) without having the right contextual application’. Remarks of how ‘reformed theology’ is foreign and impractical in an African context are not entirely false. We must endeavour to make the truths that we hold to be practical for our neighbours, brothers, sisters, friends and society as a whole. As we learn of the realities of unity in the church, we must understand the need for personal convictions that are biblical. It’s common to see the words ‘I am convinced ‘come from Paul, not because of his own intellect but the convictions of the Holy Spirit and the scriptures. The driving factor towards thriving in the church and the world is personal conviction. Only a personal understanding of the environment will lead to a proper contextual application of the word of God. The question of culture and religion are too widespread and dynamic to be handled in a rush but I do believe it begins on how the person views and lives out the gospel.
As a lover of everything C.S. Lewis I found much practice in his essay on Christianity and Culture. He alludes to the fact that our contexts (cultures, traditions and values) are not in themselves Christian, yet we spend all our lives in them, in this regard we are to carefully and intentionally approach them with a heart of redeeming them and using them in both living out and sharing the Gospel. What do I mean? In my African context I must address the heart idols of my context, I must fight them and view them in the light of the Gospel. I cannot reach out to you with the struggle for racial justice in America when your problem is witchcraft, neither can I talk of freedom in Christ without consideration of child marriages and other forms of social injustice in my own context. I firmly believe the Gospel will move forward if we are carefully aware of our personal convictions aligned with theological accuracy in our immediate contexts.
An odd thought also occurred to me in view of James 2:15-22 with a highlight on “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” The bearer of faith (theology) must be aware of the need before him, they must be able to align their faith to their immediate contexts, otherwise it would be knowledge without care, affection or compassion. So as I continue to learn of my own cultural, social and physical context I am implored to have conversations with my neighbors, to understand their struggles, to be connected with my history, to see the reasons we disagree, that I might win some for Christ, and not my theological perspective.