Should We “De-colonize our Theology”?

A growing number of evangelicals are making calls to #DecenterWhiteness or #LiberateEvangelicalism or “Decolonize theology.” They observe -correctly- that American evangelicals are heavily influenced by theologians who are white. ColonialismGiven that the global church as a whole is heavily non-white and non-European, shouldn’t Christians untether their beliefs from white theologians and seek out minoritized voices?

On the one hand, there’s no question that Christians can benefit from diverse theological perspectives. Our cultural surroundings can produce blind-spots in our theology that can be exposed by reading outside of our own tradition. Furthermore, many of our beliefs and practices can be man-made traditions inherited from our culture rather than Biblical injunctions. There is no one ‘correct’ culture and we should constantly be on guard against confusing our cultural preferences with God’s commands.   Yet I’m concerned that the call to “Decolonize our theology” or #DecenterWhiteness can be rooted in several invalid assumptions which need to be unearthed and examined.

In what sense are theological truths ‘true’?

The first question we need to ask is whether theological truth is the same kind of truth as mathematical or scientific truth. When someone declares that “2+2=4” or that “the Earth is a sphere,” we don’t scrutinize their ethnic background. Similarly, despite the fact that modern empirical science is heavily dependent on the work of white, European men in the 16th through 19th centuries, no one argues that we need to untether modern science from Newton, Galileo, or Maxwell. Why?

Our first gut-check has to come from questioning our approach to theological truths. Do we believe that theological claims are either true or false independent of the racial, ethnic, our cultural background of the person making the claim? Can people from oppressed, colonized groups still make false theological claims and can people from oppressor, colonialist groups still make true theological claims? If so, then we need to treat theological claims the way we treat other truth claims: test them against the available evidence which, for Christians, means testing them against the Bible.

If our approach to theological truth instead focuses on the group identity of the person making the claim in question, then we may have unconsciously adopted a postmodern approach to truth that sees “truth” as a subjective, social construct rather than as correspondence to objective reality.

Is social location the most important factor in interpretation?

Another way to focus attention on group identity rather than on evidence is to insist that our social location dramatically affects our ability to determine the truth. We could say “Yes, the Bible is objectively true and trustworthy. But our interpretation of the Bible depends on our social location.”

While this claim is more reasonable, it likewise faces several problems.

First, it can greatly overstate the degree to which interpretation is colored by ‘social location.’ For example, scientific and mathematical truths are also colored by social location; the way I interpret data on the efficacy of modern medicine will certainly depend to some extent on whether I live in a culture that accepts the existence of germs or one that attributes all disease to evil spirits.  Yet it doesn’t follow that we can just throw up our hands and insist that it’s impossible to know which interpretation of the data is correct.

Second, this approach overstates the important of our cultural background relative to other factors. Yes, social location is one factor that will influence our ability to correctly interpret the Bible, but other factors are far more important like intensive study, awareness of and access to other biblical scholarship, knowledge of the original languages, etc… While certain social locations may give us an advantage in interpretation, surely one’s race or nationality is no substitute for years of training in biblical interpretation and a humble heart that seeks a genuine understanding of Scripture.

Finally, calls to #DecenterWhiteness tend to collapse ‘social location’ onto a single axis like “participation in a colonialist society” or “belonging to an oppressed group” that guarantees better access to the meaning of the biblical text. Yet a person living in 19th-century Algeria and a person living in 16th-century Geneva are both equally far removed from the culture of 1st-century Palestine. So why think that one would have a substantial advantage over the other in understanding the historical context of the writings of Paul or the teachings of Jesus?

How ‘decolonized’ is ‘decolonized enough’?

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the call to “decolonize our theology” is the open-ended and vague nature of this commitment. Is it merely a call to read more broadly? Or does it require us to actually change our central theological commitments?

How would you respond to a person who insisted that the Five Solas of the Reformation (Scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone, etc…) are irreducibly Eurocentric? What if they claimed that we should not belong to a confessional denomination that subscribes to a historic document like the Westminster Confession of Faith, whose framers were all white, European men? What if they insisted that South American Liberation Theology was the only true, de-colonized expression of the Christian faith? On what grounds would you object?

And why not go even farther? The Council of Nicea was held against the backdrop of imperial Roman rule and was convened at the request of the Roman emperor. Should we re-examine our adherence to the Nicene Creed in light of our commitment to extricate the Christian faith from the entanglements of Empire?

Rethinking decentering

I would argue that all of these problems can be avoided by recognizing that we need to adjudicate truths claims on their own merit. Like scientific or mathematical truth claims, we can’t accept or reject a theological truth claim merely on the basis of the race, ethnicity, or nationality of the person making it.

While truth claims are all made within a particular social and historical context, truth itself transcends history and culture. Moreover, the insistence that our social location will effectively prevent us from knowing theological truth is a subtle attack on the perspicuity of Scripture, the doctrine that the great redemptive truths of the Bible are clear and can be known to anyone.

While we shouldn’t tether our beliefs to a particular culture, we should tether our beliefs to the unchanging God who can be known by anyone from any culture during any historical period through his revelation in the Bible. Rather than trying to determine which theological beliefs are tainted by colonialism or whiteness, we should be committed to determining which beliefs are objectively true because they are taught by Scripture.

For those interested in the ideological perspective on which the language of ‘de-centering’ is based, see these articles on critical theory: