Some helpful quotes from David Wells’s 1985 essay, “The Nature and Function of Theology.”
On biblical revelation as both in and above culture
Biblical revelation was given in a particular cultural context but it is also intended to be heard in our own context. This revelatory trajectory, then, has a point of origination and a point of arrival.
It is the fact of inspiration and the contemporary work of the Spirit which secure a consistency between its terminus a quo [end from which; starting point] and its terminus a quem [end to which; ending point]. The work of the Holy Spirit was such that the responsible human agents who were used in the writing of Scripture were able to employ cultural materials and, indeed, to shape the revelation in terms of their own understanding, but what God the Spirit willed should be revealed was exactly what was written, and the content and intent of this revelation were alike transcultural.
The biblical revelation, because of its inspired nature, can therefore be captive neither to the culture in which it arose nor to the culture in which it arrives. It was not distorted as it was given, nor need it be distorted as we seek to understand it many centuries later in contexts far removed from those in which it was originally given. . . .
On de-contextualizing and re-contextualizing Scripture
It is the task of theology, then, to discover what God has said in and through Scripture and to clothe that in a conceptuality which is native to our own age. Scripture, at its terminus a quo, needs to be de-contextualized in order to grasp its transcultural content, and it needs to be re-contextualized in order that its content may be meshed with the cognitive assumptions and social patterns of our own time.
On the task of theology in making doctrine incarnate
Theology is that effort by which what has been crystallized into doctrine becomes anchored in a subsequent age and culture. It is the work of making doctrine incarnate. God’s Word is “enfleshed” in a society as its significance is stated in terms of that cultural situation. . . .
On how theology differs from doctrine
Theology differs from doctrine as what is unrevealed does from what is revealed, fallible from what is infallible, derived from what is original, relative from what is certain, culturally determined from what is divinely given.
Doctrine cannot change from generation to generation, otherwise Christianity itself would be changing.
Theology must change in each succeeding generation, otherwise it will fail to become a part of the thinking processes and life-style of that generation.
The attempt to change doctrine imperils Christian faith; the unwillingness to incarnate doctrine in each age by theology imperils the Christian’s credibility.
In the one case Christianity can no longer be believed; in the other, it is no longer believable. . . .
Contextualization is the servant role of theology
Contextualization, then, is but another name for describing the servant role of theology.
The Son of God assumed the form of a servant to seek and save the lost and theology must do likewise, incarnating itself in the cultural forms of its time without ever losing its identity as Christian theology. God, after all, did not assume the guise of a remote Rabbi who simply declared the principles of eternal truth, but in the Son he compassionately entered into the life of ordinary people and declared to them what God’s Word meant to them. But in so doing, the Son never lost his identity as divine.
Christian thought is called to do likewise, to retain its identity (doctrine) within its role as servant (theology) within a particular culture.
Reformation as both past event and contemporary experience
. . .[R]eformation should not be seen merely as a past event but should always be a contemporary experience. In every generation the Word of God must be heard afresh and obeyed afresh if the God of that Word is to be accorded our obedience at the places where it really counts.