Theology attempts to answer the questions of what and why we believe as we do. In answering those questions, theology forms the basis of who we are as Christians, or, in other words, it provides a sense of identity. That identity, while being worked out for the Christian personally and theologically, is expressed within a cultural context. Thus, the expression of Christianity in a particular context is to some degree a result of the search for a meaningful identity that relates theology to culture and culture to theology. Let’s consider Kwame Bediako.
The Ghanaian theologian, Kwame Bediako, sees the value of understanding Christianity history in order to address the questions of modern Christian identity. He looks at four apologists of the Christian faith in the second century AD for examples of how the early church wrestled with the question of identity. In his landmark 1992 book, which consisted of his doctoral dissertation, Theology and Identity: The Impact of Culture upon Christian Thought in the Second Century and Modern Africa Bediako suggested that the formation of theology takes place in the cultural context of Christianity’s search for self-understanding.
Bediako proposed that Greco-Roman society initially looked at early Christianity as a superstitious sect of Judaism. As the church grew, it increasingly took on more of a Gentile character and brought Christianity to the attention of the empire. The Roman identity was deeply tied to the empire and the religion of the empire. While Judaism was to some degree tolerated in the Roman Empire, Christianity was viewed as out of step with society and more importantly as un-Roman. Consequently, Christians in the empire were looked upon as a “third race.” To Christians, however, the idea of a “third race” undermined their identity and continuity with ancient Scripture.
By the second century, philosophy began to replace religion as the dominate aspect of the intellectual and spiritual life of the educated. The rise to prominence of philosophy suggested the need for conversion from a “lower” standard to a “higher” standard of life. Christians, considering that the Roman religion was untrue, began to see a continuity with philosophy as it posited the need for conversion. As a result, Christians hoped to reconcile philosophy with their own teaching. The conversion idea suggested by the philosophical movement of the time gave Christianity legitimacy in its confrontation of classical Paganism with a superior belief system.
Utilizing the works of Tertellian, Tatian, Justin, and Clement of Alexandria, Bediako posits that Christian self-understanding began to take form in varying degrees in relation to its discontinuity and continuity with the cultural milieu of the time. Tertellian and Tatian provide an example of Christianity’s discontinuity with Greco-Roman culture whereas Justin and Clement provide an example of its continuity.
Tertellian saw that Christianity had nothing in common with the culture. His discontinuity formula contrasted the divine revelation of Christianity with the human speculative system of Greco-Roman culture. This is epitomized in his aphorism, “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens, the church with the academy?” Tatian saw Christianity’s exclusivity from culture based upon the truth of Christian tradition in contrast with the inherent error of the Greek. He demonstrated that Christianity’s antiquity in comparison to Greek philosophy gave it its own tradition and heritage apart from the Greco-Roman culture.
Conversely, Justin was the first to attempt continuity between Christianity and Greco-Roman culture. He saw that since Christianity had access to the illumination of the divine Word (logos) it stood in the tradition of Socrates’ true reason. Justin believed that Socrates’ true reason exposed the erroneous beliefs of Greco-Roman religion. In this way, the conflict between truth and falsehood exemplified in Socrates’ struggle with his detractors mirrored Christianity’s struggle. Similarly, Clement of Alexandria understood Christianity as the fulfillment of Greek philosophy. In particular, he held that the philosophical ideas that were congruent with Christianity should be incorporated into its theology. Clement believed, due to the antiquity of Christianity, that Greek religion and philosophy was in actuality borrowing from Scripture.
Bediako suggests that the situation in contemporary Africa is not all that dissimilar to the situation of the Roman Empire in the second century; and he might be correct. What is compelling is his distancing of African Christianity from European Christianity in search of an identity. While he does not deny the impact of European Christianity on the continent, he suggests that modern missionary efforts have had a Judiazing effect on African Christianity. In other words, Western Christianity replaced African Christianity with an identity unrecognizable to the second century African theologians.
For many, like Bediako, we make sense of who we are as much from what we believe as from where we are from. An evangelical identity rooted in the Reformation as McGrath suggests seems to be disconnected from the stories and places where evangelicals live all around the world. Like European Christianity did in Africa, an evangelical identity based upon the 16th century Reformation has had a Judaizing impact on the rest of evangelicalism as it has not allowed indigenous expressions of identity to emerge from the soils where Christianity has been planted.