(Continued from Part 2)
he three streams that I have identified as constituting the decisive moments of Christian missions in Nigeria continue to exist simultaneously and in mutually impacting ways despite reflecting ecclesiological paradigms profoundly different in experience, practice and thought. Today, the overall frame of reference is that Nigerian churchgoers understand and experience Christianity in ways marginally commensurable with their respective ecclesiastical traditions. Perhaps it is appropriate to add, however, that these turning points have demonstrated that Christianity does not have to be so intellectualized as to lose bearing with reality. A theology must be redemptive enough as to seek to save the human soul, yet constructive enough as to address his existential aspirations. This is exactly what the prophetic Aladura churches and the New Charismatic/Pentecostal Movements have done. Both have precisely articulated the absurd and anarchic realities of their respective ministry contexts with all the tension-ridden ambivalences. Yet, they have expressed these contextual issues in symbolic forms without the kind of disenchantment which expels them as figments of the imagination.
What they have done is to speak languages that render these situations understandable, offering the people the theological and psychological powers to deal with them in the process. It should not be surprising, therefore, that many people have and continue to secede to these new forms of churches, whether Aladura or Neocharismatic. As it is today, they continue to push the limits of ecclesiastical boundaries. In all practicality, the shift in the center of gravity of Christianity validates their claim and existence. Even more than that, they continue to represent a shorthand rubric of the pervasiveness and effectiveness of Nigerian Christian creativity.
It must be noted, however, that the task of doing church in a way that connects the believer's transcendent experience of the sacred with the environment is not new. The early Church, as I have shown in my previous writings, was forced into a critical hermeneutic approach that encouraged a dialogue between text and context in its Christianizing mission. The Bible is replete with accounts that testify to sharp differences among the earliest Christians as they attempted to connect their transforming message with their surrounding cultural contexts. The passages in the epistles to the Romans and to the Corinthians referring to controversies about food offered to idols, for example, are ample evidence of these sharp differences in relating to context and scripture. It can be argued, therefore, that the environment guides and shapes church forms, meanings and practices.
In the case of Nigeria, while these decisive moments represent vigorous attempts to contextualize Christianity to local aspirations, it must be emphasized, however, that contextualization should not a springboard to relativism. Contextual ecclesiology fails when it allows the context to dictate the issues and the terms of the meeting. Unfortunately, this seems to characterize the contemporary way of doing church in Nigeria. The result is that the Nigerian psyche is not challenged at its depth but rather absorbs and domesticates the gospel and uses it to sacralize its own purposes. It is a fact, of course, that Scripture, church and context are related to one another as three concentric circles but in the final court of appeal, both church and context are answerable to the Scripture. It is in this reflection that contextual ecclesiology stands either as a drastic distortion of the grand Christian story or as an affirmation and corresponding appropriation of its claim-a biblical Church. The following diagram articulates this truth in an impressive way:
THE CONTEXTUALIXATION CONTINUUM
The above diagram is an adaptation of Dean Gilliland's work on the "Limits of Contextualization and the African Independent Churches" (1999:2). The contextualization process or continuum, according to him, requires "a critical selection process." The "critical selection process" takes place as Scripture interacts with contextual phenomena. While much of the contextual phenomena can be accepted, other aspects "can be modified and then incorporated" or rejected out rightly. Thus, the contextualization process flows within a continuum of what is "acceptable," "allowable," and "unallowable." In working with this continuum Gilliland explains:
(1) Acceptable: Belief and practice is clearly Biblical and cultural forms can be accommodated without distortion. (2) Allowable: Belief and practice can usually be reconciled with Christian truth and the Scripture but must constantly be tested. . . . (3) Unallowable: belief and practice is in conflict with the Scripture and is oriented in a direction which leads away from Christian teaching (ibid.).
Here the Nigerian Christian creativity can benefit from the first Christians in establishing a theological-hermeneutical framework not only for comprehending biblical truth but also for manifesting an authoritative base in the contextualization process. The early Christians possessed contextual presuppositions that enabled them to maintain the essence of biblical truth while applying this truth to specific place and people. Whether in the misunderstanding of the Christian way of life (Corinth and Rome), or in the inability to postulate the starting-point of a new paradigm of redemptive history (Acts--Jerusalem), apostolic responses negotiated the delicate balance of context and Scripture in ways that nothing of the essence of Christian truth was ever omitted in the contextualization process.
The decisive moments of Christian missions in Nigeria, notwithstanding, the church stands between two worlds, the descriptive and the prophetic-"what it meant and what it means." The descriptive represents the historical endeavor of discovering "what it meant" while the prophetic represents the theological-hermeneutical task of articulating "what it means" to be a biblical church (Krister Stendahl, 1962:418-431). An understanding of this approach offers us objective criteria not only for the theological-hermeneutical process but also for constructing a biblical and contextual ecclesiology as we navigate our path into the future.
As Stendahl has suggested, one of the advantages of an autonomous descriptive method is that "once we confine ourselves to the task of descriptive biblical theology as a field in its own right, the material itself gives us means to check whether our interpretation is correct or not" (Stendahl, 1962:422). My argument, therefore, is that regardless of the creative attempts to use cultural forms that make the church relevant to broad sectors of Nigerian church-goers, contemporary efforts at contextual ecclesiology must evolve out of the history of early Christian thought or theology as portrayed in the New Testament.
The following diagram is a visual representation of this process:
THE HERMENEUTICAL SPIRAL OF CONTEXTUAL ECCLESIOLOGY
As the above diagram shows, the Nigerian church is challenged to look back in time and place to historical precedents and use those insights to navigate its path on historically-becoming what it is already by faith. It is imperative to emphasize the wisdom of Hans Küng's warning that "the Church must constantly reflect upon its real existence in the present with reference to its origins in the past, in order to assure its existence in the future" (1968:15). One thing that is characteristic of the decisive moments represented by the three streams of Nigerian Christianity, however diversely expressed, is the experiential appropriation of the Christian faith in contextually appropriate ways. By continuing to respond to the existential questions of those within and outside the church, Africa could very well determine the direction that a relevant church in the world should take.
This, notwithstanding, I must add that contextual ecclesiology or even contextual theologizing is not a new phenomenon. It is rather very traditional and the sine qua of all genuine theological thought. As Francis Watson has observed, "the world is the context of the church just as the church is the context of the biblical text. . . to renounce all claim to universality would be a drastic distortion of the Christian story itself, set as it is within the universal horizons of creation and eschaton" (1994:10). What may be new is the understanding that in the rhetoric of superlatives, the context does not occupy a self-contained autonomous space. Rather, it (the context) must be treated in a way that is symbiotically located within the Scriptural space. The theological-hermeneutical framework for biblical contextualization, therefore, is the conception of Christ as a corporate or inclusive personality and of his church as being entrusted with the same incarnational mission of disclosing this fundamental reality in the world.
In conclusion, therefore, our task as a church is to engage in the delicate exercise of holding context and scripture in a creative tension without breaking the inescapable workings of the hermeneutical circle. Despite the transforming nature of the Nigerian church, the overall fundamental concern should be the development of a hermeneutic and a corresponding church practice oriented towards questions about contextual relevance that is equally and ultimately faithful to biblical ecclesiology. It is not my intention to ask the Nigerian church to replicate itself as the early Church of the twenty-first century. Rather, my yearning is that it allows the "hermeneutic of description" to inform its Churchness thus enabling it to function as the biblical representation for its own time and place. This way, there is no reason in principle why contextual ecclesiology should not be practiced as a theological enterprise.
S. 'Jide Komolafe, Ph.D. is Professor of Intercultural Studies and Leadership Development, International Leadership University (ILU), Lagos - Nigeria. He has taught African Languages and Cultures at The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He is Adjunct Professor of World Religious Traditions at The University of Phoenix, Southern California Campus. He is Executive Director, Christian Research Institute, Lagos - Nigeria.