The Universality and Particularity of the Gospel: Confessing Christ in Context

Below I’ve included some keypoints from the introduction to a chapter entitled “Confessing Christ in Context” in Daniel MiGloire’s Theology textbook, Faith Seeking Understanding.  It seems to me that, much as Paul Tillich perhaps pointed out best with his theology of correlation, Christians are constantly struggling here and usually erring on the side of either universality or particuarlity with regard to “gospel proclamation.”  This is no new philosophical quandry, but I can’t help but still suspect that the state of things is especially polarized today, at least in North American Christianity, between naïve and ideological conservative-exclusivist universalists on the one hand, and reactionary, progressive-inclusivist particularists on the other (not that the former can’t be reactionary or the latter naïve and ideological — this is just the tendency I notice).

By “universalists”, here I mean those who trust in the applicability of “the gospel” for all times, people and places.  Conversely, particularists are for my purposes here roughly those who either refuse or hesitate to say much about whether “the gospel” is for everyone in light of pluralist, postmodern, postcolonial, and other political, contextual, and epistemological concerns — many of which are valid in my view.  I know there are others somewhere in between, but they seem so much less known, noticeable and/or appreciated.  I do not think, however, that the solution in this case is a mere balancing act of moderation.  Rather, I believe that when the universal and particular are worked out concretely and through praxis, there can be a transformation into a qualitatively new kind of community that is at once robust in its Christian identity and radically inclusive.  This is what Brian McLaren writes about in his latest book.

Here are MiGloire’s simple but very helpful assertions on this front:

All theology is contextual.  Historical and cultural context is a factor in all Christian life, witness and theology.

Many Christians in Asia, Africa and Latin America are convinced that their theological reflection must attend to their own distinctive non-Western cultures and forms of thought.

Just as God’s decisive self-communication is through incarnation in a particular human life, so the transmission of the gospel message by the church makes use of concrete and diverse languages, experiences, philosophical conceptualities, and cultural practices.

For example, we have not one but four Gospels, each of which proclaims Christ in a  distinctive way that is shaped by its particular context.

Paul declares that he has become “all things to all people” that he might “by all means” save some (1 Cor. 9:22).  This does not mean, of course, tailoring the gospel so that it no longer offends anyone.  It does mean, however, that the labor of interpretation is necessary if gospel is to be proclaimed clearly to different people in different cultural settings.

The true scandal of the Gospel must be distinguished from false scandals created by the assumption that only one language and one culture can be vehicles of the gospel message.

On the one hand, if we seek to emphasize the universality of the gospel by generalizing its message and stripping it of all historical contingency, we lose sight of the gospel’s own particularity and its power to receive and transform human life in all its historical particularity and diversity.

On the other hand, if we emphasize one particular expression of the gospel to the exclusion of all others, we lose sight of its universal power.

Robert Schreiter states the problem the way: “In the midst of the tremendous vitality that today’s Christians are showing, one set of problems emerges over and over again: how to be faithful both to the contemporary experience of the gospel and to the tradition of Christian life that has been received.”

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