The methodological shift in theological thinking


Every Theology is conditioned by time and space. All the theological trends, during Patristic period, reformation, modern and contemporary period had been determined by the context itself. Thus throughout the centuries the classical dogmatic theology had been reshaped and replaced by new trends of theology.

The enlightenment period marked by revolutionary changes in theology as well as in religious attitudes and moral standards. Its consequences are serious dissatisfactions with traditional modes of thinking and religious expression. Since 1960s a new theological paradigm has emerged. Unlike the former theological trends a new theological thought took the context (or Human-situation) as its starting point for theology. It is also characterized by contextuality and historical consciousness. Thus the close of 20th century marked the emergence of Contextual and liberation theology with a paradigm shift in the methodology.

1. Theology from below
As we have mentioned, 1960s marked a methodological shift in theology. It is a shift from Theology from above to Theology from below. In this theological approach the basis of theological reflection is not the abstract realities used by scholastic theology but rather the realities of human life. Migliore, in his “Faith seeking understanding” made a clear definition of this approach as follows; “When we begin “from below” with the “historical Jesus” and his ministry in first century Palestine, we find ourselves face to face with one who proclaimed the near advent of God’s kingdom of Justice and freedom, who blessed the poor, forgave sinners, had table fellowship with the outcaste, befriended women, collided with the self-righteous custodian of the law…if we focus on the concrete ministry, suffering and death of Jesus, we can not avoid that the conclusion that the God revealed and made present by Jesus enters in to solidarity with the poor”

The distinctiveness of this theological paradigm is the insistence and stress of involvement in the world and in human affairs. It is this same theology (from below) that has led to such theological movements like liberation theology and concepts like solidarity with the suffering and preferential option for the poor.

Some of the most creative work in ‘theology from below’ in recent years comes from Latin American liberation theology. Among its leaders are Gustavo Gutierez, Jon Sobrino, Leonardo Boff, J.M. Bonino, and Juan Luis Segundo. According to these theologians, Christology can not be done in a vacuum. It must attend to the concrete setting, the particular historical situation in which the Biblical message is read and heard.

2. Hermeneutics as science of understanding

Hermeneutics is the science and art of Biblical interpretation. It is a science because it is guided by rules. The art is in the application of the rules. The primary need of hermeneutics is to determine the meaning of the Word of God. Since all doctrine rests upon interpretation, we ought to have correct interpretation in order to develop correct doctrine. Hermeneutics seeks to bridge the gap between our minds and the minds of the Biblical writers. The best way to accomplish this bridge is through a thorough knowledge of the original languages, ancient history and comparison of Scripture with Scripture.

Essentially, hermeneutics involves cultivating the ability to understand things from somebody else’s point of view, and to appreciate the cultural and social forces that may have influenced their outlook. Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) and Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) are widely credited with the rise of modern hermeneutics. But in the postmodern theological thought, a German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002) and Paul Ricoeur (1913 -2005) are the most influential figures (or Hermeneuts).

3. Enlightenment Rationality

The enlightenment is the close of the Dark Age and the dawn of a new world. The precursors of the Enlightenment can be traced to the 17th century and earlier. In the religious aspect, it can be understood as the culmination of the move away from the authority and dogmatism of the mediaeval and the awakening of modernity.

3.1. The enlightenment human:
The enlightenment marked a radical change in the conception of Human being. They began to believe in the essential goodness of human nature. The philosophical thought that dominated during the period was a common belief in the power of human beings to reason rationally. The thinkers of the time argued that human beings were good and were able to act in a rational manner.

The enlightenment placed humans, not God, on center stage in history. In contrast to medieval and reformation thinking, which viewed people as important largely insofar as they fit in to the story of God’s activity in history. Enlightenment thinkers tended to determine the importance of God in terms of his value for the story of their own lives. The depiction of human being in the enlightenment was also quite different from that of medieval thought. In Medieval and reformation thinking, human being is placed at the center of the whole cosmos and enjoyed a special status, but the enlightenment depicted human being as a small part of the big universe. Enlightenment not only elevated human kinds by means of its optimistic anthropology but also deprived of the human person.

3.2. The enthronement of Human reason
The most remarkable aspect of changes in the enlightenment is in the intellectual aspect which determined all other aspects of changes. It was the period of the enthronement of Human-reason. The era was ushered with the people believing that the reasoning of men could free them of their ills and lead them to peace, security, a good government and ideal society. Reason would ensure the progress of humanity and entire society. The ideas of Rene Descartes (1596-1650) were a landmark in the history of ideas. He declared that one should reason out every thing for oneself and accept nothing that was previously believed. For philosophers like Francis Bacon (1909-1992), Cartesian reason worked by clear logic based on facts learned through sense experiences. The important philosophers of that time were Voltaire (1694-1778) and Hume (1711-1776). The religious philosophers held that god installed the universe but did not interfere with its working.

The pursuit of truth and knowledge was extremely important. They believed that if human beings were freed from superstition, their irrational religious and cultural heritage, and from material poverty, they could express their true good nature, seeking cooperation and mutual assistance. Similarly, they believed they could construct a social order that would respect fundamental human rights based upon the dignity of individuals and their freedom to shape their lives as they saw fit and the protections for personal property.

Skepticism towards the doctrines of the church is one of the characteristics of the Enlightenment. They believed that Church was a barrier in the path of Enlightenment. Many thinkers of the period developed a sceptical view of the church. One of the main characteristics of the period was a desire to question all previously unquestioned ideas, conventions, and values. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), a German philosopher, summed up the era by suggesting that people should ‘dare to know’. Instead of blindly following the church’s dogmatic rules and teachings, human beings were encouraged to think for themselves.

The emphasis on science and experiment is one of the characteristics of the Enlightenment. In the enlightenment era people began to look at the world with a new eyes or a scientific view. The world of enlightenment can be called as empirical world (the world of the senses, i.e. the world we can see, feel, touch, hear and smell).

4. Epistemological breakdown
Epistemology or theory of knowledge is a branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge. The term was introduced into English by the Scottish philosopher James Frederick Ferrier (1808-1864). It has come to be used currently instead of other terms, still sometimes met with, like applied logic, material or critical logic, critical or initial philosophy, etc. Much of the debate in this field has focused on analyzing the nature of knowledge and how it relates to similar notions such as truth, belief, and justification. It also deals with the means of production of knowledge, as well as skepticism about different knowledge claims. In other words, epistemology primarily addresses the following questions: What is knowledge? How is knowledge acquired?, and What do people know?

The Fathers of the Church are occupied chiefly in defending Christian dogmas, and thus indirectly in showing the harmony of revealed truth with reason St. Augustine(Died c.604) goes farther than any other in the analysis of knowledge and in the inquiry concerning its validity. In modern times Descartes(1596-1650) may be mentioned for his methodical doubt and his solution of it in the Cogito, ergo sum, (i.e. I think, therefore, I exist).

Traditionally there had been ‘deductive’ and ‘inductive’ epistemologies. Deductive epistemology implies that one begins with certain presupposition and applies them to the present situation, seeking to understand and arrive it at knowledge. Inductive epistemology looks at data, analyse it and lets the result of the analysis lead to knowledge. Deductive and inductive epistemologies need not necessarily be mutually exclusive. Theologies in the third world were mostly imported from the west and followed the deductive approach.” Epistemology which was once held as a norm for pursuing the true knowledge (or truth)lost its relevance with the emergence of postliberal thought. In the post liberal thinking there can be no absolute and everything or understanding is determined or conditioned by time and space.

At the first ecumenical meeting of third world theologians held at Dar es Salaam in 1976 they affirmed, “we reject as irrelevant an academic type of theology that is divorced from actions. We are prepared for a radical break in epistemology which makes commitment to the first act of theology and engages in critical reflection on the praxis of the reality of the third world” Thus, there had been a radical break with epistemology in the recent theological development. As mentioned above this is due to a radical departure from the former to praxis oriented theology. Thus contextual theologies claim that they constitute an epistemological break with traditional theologies. The classical theology was theology from above as an elitist enterprise, its main source was philosophy where as contextual theology is theology from below which emphasized on the priority of praxis in its epistemology.

4. Breakdown of modernity
Modernism describes a series of reforming cultural movements in various forms. The term covers many political, cultural and artistic movements rooted in the changes in Western society at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. It is a trend of thought that affirms the power of human beings to create, improve, and reshape their environment, with the aid of scientific knowledge, technology and practical experimentation. Modernism encouraged the re-examination of every aspect of existence with the goal of finding that which was holding back progress, and replacing it with new, progressive and therefore better, ways of reaching the same end. In essence, the modernist movement argued that the new realities of the industrial and mechanized age were permanent and imminent, and that people should adapt their world view to accept that the new equaled the good, the true and the beautiful.

Embracing change and the present, modernism encompasses the works of thinkers who rebelled against nineteenth century academic and historicist traditions, believing the traditional forms of art, architecture, literature, religious faith, social organization and daily life were becoming outdated, they directly confronted the new economic, social and political aspects of an emerging fully industrialized world.

With the breakdown of modernity, a new movement called Postmodernism arose. The term Postmodernism applied to a wide-ranging set of developments in critical theory, philosophy, architecture, art, literature, and culture. Postmodernism was originally a reaction to modernism. Largely influenced by the disillusionment induced by the Second World War(began in 1939 ), postmodernism tends to refer to a cultural, intellectual, or artistic state lacking a clear central hierarchy or organizing principle and embodying extreme complexity, contradiction, diversity, and interconnectedness or interreferentiality.

5. Rise of non-foundationalism
The term foundationalism usually refers to theories about the structure of belief formation or belief justification. For classical foundationalists, a basic belief must be self-evident or incorrigible. It can be said that this had been a thought form of modernity. And Modernity’s quest for an unshakable foundation for certain and objective knowledge (independent of tradition, religious authority, and culture) is commonly traced to Descartes (1596-1650).

With the break down of modernity Nonfoundationalism (or anti-foundationalism) arose which is in contradiction to foundationalism. It is a thought form which is a philosophical view that is dialectically defined by its negation of foundationalism. Rejecting the asymmetric image of basic (immediately justified, foundational) beliefs that support non basic beliefs, Nonfoundationalists prefer the image of a web of mutually supporting beliefs, which are mediated through a particular community. Nonfoundationalists in theology have drawn attention to the way in which doctrine operates as an intrasystematic grammar that regulates the form of life of a believing community. Insofar as they reduce doctrinal beliefs to this function, they are susceptible to the same objections that are generally raised against relativistic forms of coherentism and pragmatism. Foundationalism became the prevailing picture of knowledge in the West during the Enlightenment. Nonfoundationalist theologians do a persuasive job of demonstrating the contextual nature of the process of reasoning. They convincingly argue that individuals are bound to argue from within inescapable conceptual frameworks that condition their standards of rationality and their assessment and interpretation of evidence and arguments.

6. The end of metanarratives
In literal terms, a metanarrative means a big story. In short, it represents an explanation for everything that happens in a society. In Sociology, the concept of a metanarrative is sometimes referred-to as a high level theory or, more-usually, a perspective (ideology). Sociological perspectives such as Functionalism, Marxism, Interactionism and Feminism are all examples of what post-modernists call metanarratives, precisely because they attempt to account for all aspects of a society in terms of the perspective.

Since postmodernists believe all truth to be socially constructed, all presentations of absolute, universal, established truth must be resisted. All grand and expansive accounts of truth, meaning, and existence are cast aside as metanarratives which claim far more than they can deliver.
Thus, all the great philosophical systems are dead, all cultural accounts are limited, all that remains are little stories accepted as true by different groups and cultures. Roger E.Olson observes that Metanarratives silence the stories of the weak and marginalized and impose those of the strong and powerful. Thus, the claims to universal truth (the Metanarratives), in post modern era are considered as oppressive, totalizing and thus must be resisted. At the close of modernity, the metanarratives, which defines humanity in universal terms, is replaced by local narratives, reflecting the values, beliefs and experiences of particular peoples.

In the postmodern era, Narrative theology began as a late 20th-century theological development. It supported the idea that the Church’s use of the Bible should focus on a narrative presentation of the faith as regulative for the development of a systematic theology. Also frequently referred to as postliberal theology, narrative theology was inspired by a group of theologians at Yale Divinity School, who are to a great extent, influenced by Karl Barth and Thomas Aquinas.

7. Deconstructionalism
Deconstructionalism is a way of reading a text. It was originally a method of literary criticism and only applied to literary texts. Now, however, Deconstructionalism say all of life is a text to be interpreted, whether it is a poem, history, family values, a government, religion, science, a corporate charter, or architecture. The emphasis in this form of reading is never to learn the intended meaning of the author, but rather the subjective interpretation of the reader. Deconstructionalism argue that all writing is reducible to an arbitrary sequence of linguistic signs or words whose meanings have no relationship to the author’s intention or to the world outside the text.” Deconstructionalism was originally a form of literary criticism (as mentioned earlier) but soon took on much wider implications.

7.1. The Method of Deconstructionism
It can be said that Deconstruction starts with a hermeneutics of suspicion. When a reader deconstructs a text he is examining it for prejudice and bias that the author might have used for purposes of control. And also, that what is absent (gender or ethnic group) from a text may loom large in a deconstructionist interpretation of a text. They refer to this as ‘the presence of absence.’ The ultimate aim of an interpretation (or deconstruction) is to construct a meaning that accounts for one’s own experience or that of a group.

7.2. Deconstruction in third world theologies
In third world theologies the process of deconstruction is still going on. Reshaping, re-interpreting and decolonizing theology among the third world theologies are an attempt to prove and show the irrelevance of traditional western theology and to show plurality of different cultures and contexts.

8. The emergence of pluralism
Pluralism is a matter of understanding the complexity of the deeper reality of life in all its aspects, including social, cultural, and religious. The complexity of reality in its plural condition calls for and requires discernment. It requires a new awakening, which is now an awakening from the dogmatic religious dream, and a new enlightenment, of religious stamp, based on otherness and plurality, instead of on subjectivity and an identity with claims to exclusive universality and absolute uniqueness. It also requires a bold acceptance of the epistemological change, which is taking place in our time.

The thought form(or philosophical ideology), which is currently dominant in contemporary culture promotes and celebrates diversity rather than homogeneity, multiplicity rather than unity, difference rather than sameness. Realities, despite their apparent multiplicities. Above all, culture is seen as an integrated and integrating whole whose constituent elements are functionally interrelated to one another.

9. Local narratives and people story as theologies
With the emergence of contextual theologies, local narratives, folk tales and history became important sources of theology. Theologies developed in the late twentieth century are very much self-conscious concerning the context from which they emerge. Contextual theology is an explicit attempt to meet the need of a particular and suitable theology for the praxis and experience of a particular context. For this reason, folk tales, people-history and experience of a particular group in a given context become valuable sources for formulating contextual theologies. For instance, In South African theology, with its indigenized Christianity, the cultural tradition and beliefs systems are heavily used for sources in their theological formulation. Likewise, in the emerging subaltern theologies, unlike the classical and modern theologies, traditions and beliefs of one’s own culture provided sources for the articulation of Christian faith.

10. Resurgence of non-European traditions in theology
In the long history of theology European or Western theology had been considered as a worldwide valid theology to non-western cultures. So the process of Christianization became equivalent to Westernization. The theologies of Asia, Africa and Latin America were mere echoes of academic Western theology. “In the past, there was no conscious effort to understand the context. Philosophical abstractions, Church doctrines and Biblical texts-rather than concrete situations and experiences were used as the starting point of theology. This was true of western theology, which was taught as “universal theology”, applicable all times and contexts.” But in recent years contextuality, culturality of Christian faith and self-consciousness had emerged.

This new development in local theological awareness had been greatly encouraged by the achievement of political independence in former western colonies by the transfer of ecclesial authority from mission to local Churches and by movements for cultural independence. For instance, the Western impact on India in the eighteenth century had far reaching implications for almost every aspect of Indian life and served as a catalyst for the cultivation of attitudes of rational inquiry and criticism. The early Indian theologians made a remarkable effort to articulate Christian faith (in Indian context) within the frame work of Hindu philosophy. Thus, departure from the European tradition took place in different parts of the world in the post colonial period.

The awareness of contextuality characterizes a new dimension in doing theology. It is accepted that every theology carries elements of the historical, cultural, political and economic conditions in which it has developed. In the emerging theological development the context has been taken seriously for a theological formulation. This is to develop theologies that are meaningful and relevant to the context out of which we are born. This is the way in which theology responds to the questions and problems of its own context (i.e. of its own people).


Roger E Olson rightly observed that Post- world war II Christian theology is diverge as never before. Especially during the culturally revolutionary 1960s, the story of Christian theology took so many dizzying twist and turns and went in so many new directions, that even experts find it difficult to draw it all together into one coherent story. How ever, 1960s marked a significant change in theology. It marked a paradigm shift in theological method (from above to from below). The priority of Human individual in liberal thought was replaced by emphasis upon importance of communitarian aspect of Human life. Since 1960s the new theological trends have been characterized by awareness of contextuality, historical consciousness and decolonization. Above all, the emergence of liberation theology had been one of the most remarkable one in the history of theological thought.

A retrospection of history of Christianity would reveal that between Patristic theology to contemporary liberation and contextual theological paradigm there had been a number of paradigm shifts in theology. But it is important to note that when a paradigm shift took place the old paradigm, did not vanish completely. David J. Bosch rightly says, “in the field of religion, a paradigm shift always means both continuity and change, both faithfulness to the past and boldness to engage the future, both constancy and contingency, both tradition and transformation.”

Suggested books for further reading:

Alister E. McGrath, Historical Theology, Oxford: Blackwell publishing, 1998

Allen, Diogenes Philosophy for understanding theology, London : SCM Press,1985

Chapman, Collin, Christianity on Trial, London : Lion publishing, 1972

Colin J.D. Greene, Christology in Cultural perspective, Michigan: Eerdsmans publishing company, 2003,

Dennis P. McCann, Christian realism and Liberation Theology, New York : Orbis Books,1982)

Daniel, Liechty, Theology in Post liberal perspective, London:SCM Press Ltd,1990)

Haight, Roger, Dynamics of theology, New York: Orbis Books, 1990

Harvey, Van A. A Handbook of Theological terms, London: Samuel Bangster & Sons Ltd, 1964

Hendrikus Berkhof, Two Hundred years of Theology (Michigan: William B.Eerdmans,1989)

Jeanrond, Werner G. Theological Hermeneutics: Development and significance, London :Mac MIllan,1991

McGrath, Alister E. (ed), The Blackwell encyclopedia of Modern Christian thought, Oxford: Blackwell publishing, 1993

Roger E.Olson, Stanley J.Grenz, & 20th Century Theology, Secunderabad: OM Authentic Books, 2004

Vidler, A.R., Soundings ; Essays concerning Christian understanding, Cambridge : Cambridge university press,1966

Webster, John and Schner, George P. Theology After Liberalism, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. G.Lalchhanhima
    Jun 02, 2013 @ 16:03:29

    I just find your blog. How very interesting ! Please continue it and impart the systematical understanding of theology among the mizos. At the same time Do you agree that – When theological arguments arose in the church, there came negligence of the church community life losing its stronghold among the neglected community.


  2. Hoho Shikhu
    Nov 30, 2016 @ 18:57:24

    I have been searching this particular theme on ‘The Methodological Shift in Theological Thinking since 1960’s’ for long time and I just came across your site/blog. It’s comprehensive, helpful and fascinating! I’m wishing to see more about ‘Resurgence of Non-European Traditions in Theology’. Please do continue to update. Thank you!


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