“Though I never met the person, I felt like I’ve known him all my life,” have you ever caught yourself saying these words. I have, and I’ve said them about Harvie Conn. It’s easy to make much of someone when they’ve passed away and their living, breathing, sinning flesh isn’t four feet from you but I think I would have respected and admired Harvie Conn as much as I do know even if I had the honor of meeting him. Harvie was the kind of guy who wasn’t afraid of rocking the boat, of saying things in a non-PC theology sort of way. Take for instance his position on contextual theology. Harvie knew of the dangers involved in affirming the importance and value of that form of theology in Evangelical and Reformed circles and yet he still did, listen to him explain why there was dangers (WTJ Spring 1990, Contextual Theologies: The problem of agendas);

Mention the word “contextualization” in Reformed and evangelical circles and sooner or later another word pops up—syncretism. Why? There are many answers to that question. Most certainly a basic one is our legitimate concern that the authority of the Bible will become lost in the plethora of localized theologies. If we start with our particular, historical situation, what will happen to the once-for-all character of the Bible as norm? In constantly taking account of the receptor cultures, isn’t hermeneutic in danger of letting the medium become the message and the message become a massage? Will the “sameness” of the Bible get lost in a diversity of human cultures?

There’s always the outstanding fear of syncretism, of losing that which makes the gospel particular and redemptive while engaging thoughtfully the many cultures of people throughout the world. As Harvie said playfully “isn’t hermeneutic in danger of letting the medium become the message and the message become a massage”, instead of the cross being a stumbling block as Paul declared it, the danger we enter in contextualization is that it becomes a cultural massage free of pain or irritation. Yet should that fear be a reason to not enter into the contextual labor of theology? Harvie would say you really can’t do theology without a contextual dimension, its not a matter of ‘whether’ but rather of ‘how’. Listen to what he says further;

Theology is always theology-on-the-road. And, in this sense, it is not simply a question of relevance or of application. It is not a twofold question of, first, theological interpretation, and then, practical application. Interpretation and application are not two questions but one. As John Frame says, “We do not know what Scripture says until we know how it relates to our world.” Theology must always ask what Scripture says. But it always asks in terms of the questions and answers our cultures raise. And to ask what Scripture says, or what it means, is always to ask a question about application.

Theology-on-the-road is what every theology is, but unfortunately some theologies are on roads few people travel today. We must always ask ‘what Scripture says’, but we should never forget that we ask that in terms of the questions and answers cultures we’ve been informed by have raised.

As I walk away from this delightful Conn-text I’m left with the desire to have a theology-on-the-road that’s on the road the people in my life are walking, a theology that can live and breath and speak to them with the wisdom of the Church throughout the ages as she lived with Scripture but aslo to speak to them in the language of the streets…