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.