Theology and the Local Church
in the Holy Land: Palestinian Contextualized Theology.
The distinctive characteristics of our local church and the
spiritual and social situation in which she has been living for
many years have encouraged a group of clergy and laity from
various denominations to think with a responsible and ecumenical
spirit about how to understand the mission of our church, her
existence and the nature of her witness in this historical
period in which we live.
After much thought, they have formulated this document as a
starting point, for a local theological movement and a call for
research to direct believers, awaken their hope and deepen their
The document published here was presented for study and
discussion at a conference held at Tantur in Jerusalem in the
summer of 1987 under the title "Theology and the Local Church in
the Holy Land."
In addition to the ideas presented in the introduction and
conclusion, the document concentrates on the following three
points: the meaning of the universal Church and the local
church, a definition of "contextualized theology" and the
characteristics of the church of the Holy Land.
Our contextualized Palestinian theology does not mean isolating
ourselves, withdrawing within ourselves or writing a new
theology developed outside the general trend of Christian
thought or in contradiction to it. What we mean is a theology
which can live and interact with events so as to interpret them
and assist the Palestinian church in discovering her identity
and real mission at this stage of her earthly life.
The intellectual orientations presented in this document were a
great incentive for holding a second conference in the summer of
1988; it affirmed in one of its recommendations the need for
holding such conferences annually with the aim of serving the
church of the Holy Land.
I take this opportunity to extend my heartfelt thanks to my
colleagues, members of the editorial staff of A I- Liqa'
Quarterly Review, for working together to crystalize the ideas
presented in this document and to prepare the programs of the
conferences on "Theology and the Local Church": The Rev. Dr,
Rafiq Khoury, Dr. Joseph Zaknun, Dr. Adnan Musallam, The Rev.
Munib Younan, Mr. George Hantilian, Dr. Peter Qumri and Dr.
Shukri Sambar .
Dr. Geries Sa'ed Khoury
Director of Al-Liqa'
The Establishment of the Church
in Our Country
The Christian communtiy in our country arose from Jesus'
preaching of the kingdom, His death and Resurrection. After the
descent of the Holy Spirit, the Apostle Peter stood and
addressed a crowd before him, whereupon a good number of people
received his word and were baptized (Acts 2). Thus the Church of
Jerusalem was established, taking a tangible form characterized
by vitality and enthusiasm. Before long this church began
proclaiming the good tidings, first in Palestine, then
throughout the whole world, calling people to believe in Jesus
Christ, the ever-living Lord of glory risen from the dead.
The Importance of the Church
Accordingly, our country remains the wellspring of Christianity,
where the Incarnate God was born, grew up, preached, performed
miracles, was crucified, died, was buried and raised from the
dead and ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of the
Father and intercede for us (Romans 8:35). The Church of
Jerusalem remains the source which filled the whole world with
light and led it to faith. She is the "Mother of all Churches,"
as she is rightly called in ancient Christian tradition.
The Identity of the Church
Throughout the ages, the Christian community in our country
interacted with the historical, social, cultural and religious
circumstances prevailing in this sacred part of the world. It
reaches us today in its Arabic identity, Palestinian structure,
and ecclesiastical genuineness. The Palestinian environment
is the immediate cultural context of our church. This
environment, in turn, has been closely interrelated, culturally
and ecclesiastically, with the wider and more general context of
the entire Arab world and through it to the Third World and the
whole of the contemporary world.
A Historical Turning Point
Today this Christian community stands at a historical turning
point of interactions, changes and challenges on internal and
external levels—the ecclesiastical community; Palestinian
society; local and wider Arab levels, the Palestinian people and
the greater Arab world; regional and international levels, the
Third World, the international family. It stands at this turning
point with all historical signs of weakness left behind and with
the seeds of hope which the Spirit sows in its soil.
A Stop for Reflection
At this turning point the community must stop, think and
meditate from the standpoint of these present historical
circumstances, in order to find in its faith something to assist
it to discover, understand, and deepen its identity, vocation,
mission, the meaning of its existence and the nature of its
witness at this critical historical period in which God calls it
to live. It should be pointed out that this reflection is but
an aspect of a serious and distinct search for Christian Arab
identity being made by our brothers in faith in the whole Arab
world. Simultaneously, it is part of a wider and more universal
movement which is the search of the whole Arab world for a mode
of existence and a role in the civilization of the present age.
The Role of Theology
This call for reflection is directed to all, pastors as well as
laymen, each according to his position, vocation and mission in
the church for a common goal. Theology, in this respect,
occupies a distinctive position as it puts its
potentialities at the service of the body of believers, to
assist them in promoting their faith, hope and love at this
stage of their growth.
Conference on Contextualized
Accordingly, the editorial staff of Al- Liqa' Quarterly Review,
published by Al-Liqa' Center for Religious and Heritage Studies
in the Holy Land, labored to bring about this conference on
contextualized theology that it might become one among other
means for promoting this purpose in a framework of serious
thinking, creative dialogue and humble faith. The preparatory
corn m i ttee presents this basic document as an attempt to
define the general framework of this conference and lay the
foundations for subsequent conferences. It is given here for
discussion and exchange of views so as to become a true and
genuine expression of what we all hope for in building the
church and serving society.
UNIVERSAL CHURCH AND LOCAL
The Universal Church
The Church is universal in her essence: "We believe in One
Catholic...Church...." She is not confined to a race, language
or nationality. She goes beyond limits of any kind, comprises
various opposites and brings together the dispersed sons of God
in One Christ: "There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither
slave nor free; there is neither male nor female; for you are
all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).
The Local Church
But the universal Church is manifested in a tangible form in the
local church which God unites in Christ through the power of the
Holy Spirit. He entrusts her to the "Bishop" with the priests
and laymen around him, each according to his mission, and feeds
her with the word of life and the body of the Lord. In the local
church the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church actually
exists and works. Thus the universal Church becomes not only a
living presence in the local church but also a redemptive event,
incarnate reality and visible truth. Hence, we can say that God
puts what He wants for His Church in the local church and
gives her those spiritual means which make her a sign and
instrument of salvation, provided that she is not separated from
the communion of the universal Church.
Incarnation of the Local Church
The local church does not live outside the scope of time and
place with all historical, geographical, social and cultural
considerations related to them. She is an incarnate church after
the pattern of the Incarnate Christ. As the Son of God came to
all humanity through His Incarnation under particular
circumstances of time and place which were reflected in His
speech, behavior and message, the local churches, in turn, are
called to carry the universal mission of Christ through their
incarnation in tangible human reality with its particular
language, distinctive cultural tradition, historical past,
present conditions and future expectations. Accordingly, the
local church, with the theological elements that constitute her
divine self, interacts with all genuine conditions which form
part of her incarnate being. This gives her her distinctive
marks, aspects and genuine way of understanding herself, her
call and mission within the universal Church and in deep
communion with her.
The Reflection of the Church's
Incarnation on Aspects of Her Life and Mission
This incarnate call is reflected in various aspects of her life
and finds applications in various areas of her existence and
mission: liturgical expression, religious catechism,
theology, spirituality and pastoral practices. But this is not
new in the history of the Church. Historically the Christian
faith has interacted with diverse civilizations without losing
its identity. These interactions led to the emergence of a
genuine local Christian tradition which enriched the universal
Church and gave her the special quality of diversity. This
indicates the universality of the Christian faith and the
catholicity of the Church and her capability to be incarnate in
diverse human civilizations for the glory of Almighty God and
the welfare of man in his earthly life. The fact that this
interaction is not devoid of such dangers as division,
fanaticism and isolation is attributed to human weakness with
all its narrow-mindedness and shortsightedness.
THE MEANING OF
The basis of faith is the Holy Bible as the Church has
understood it and lived it throughout the ages, guided by the
Holy Spirit which teaches her all things (John 14:26). On this
foundation, the Church, working through the generations,
formulated doctrine which serves to help understand and express
adequately the Christian faith. In spite of the fact that this
process took place in particular cultural and historical
cirucmstances, it has produced a common tradition upon which all
those who interpret and teach the Christian faith depend and by
which they are guided, a common tradition to which all those who
work to interpret and teach the Christian faith turn. This
common thought remains the basis of which we boast, on which we
depend and by which we are guided.
What is contextualized theology within this general framework?
Is there any justification for its existence? What is its role?
Although general Christian theology assists us to understand
Christian doctrine properly, it cannot answer all queries that
occupy the heart of believers in every time and place. This
is natural, owing to the diversity of the circumstances and
conditions under which the communities of believers live,
whether they are related to time or place. Hence the role of
contextualized theology becomes the exploration of general
theological thought rich in potentialities, under those
conditions in which believers live. Thus they find in their
tradition something to assist them in understanding, formulating
and living their faith at a particular historical period with
all its demands, challenges, questions, hopes,
difficulties and aspirations. On the one hand, this theology
is not intended to be a parrot-like repetition of the past
without consideration of present conditions. On the other hand,
it should not be a novel theology which develops in isolation
from, or in contradiction to, the general trend of Christian
thought throughout the ages. For any particular Christian
community, contextualized theology is but an extension of
general Christian thought, albeit within a limited period of
time in a specific place, and under special conditions that
might enable this community to live her faith in accordance with
the prevailing requirements.
The Role of Contextualized
The local church lives under the limitations of time and place,
from which she derives her particular characteristics. Theology,
in this cultural context, accepts these characteristics with all
their diversities and realities, analyzes them, probes their
depth and sheds the light of God's word on them so as to
discover the call of God to this church here and now, and, in
the long run, help the church to discover her identity and real
mission at this stage of her earthly life.
Reading the Events
In reference to the historical turning point at which our church
stands, we can say that contextualized theology is called to
read the events, challenges, difficulties, aspirations and hopes
that preoccupy the conscience of the community of believers in
the light of faith and the everlasting word of God so as to find
in them signs of God's call and a motive for the church's work
and commitment in history.
Listening and Interacting
This will never be accomplished unless contextualized theology
listens to what takes place around it, coexists and interacts
with events without false compromise and tries to interpret them
in the light of faith and in a lively manner which promotes
conscious, explicit and intelligent commitment without allowing
the believer to lose his Christian identity.
SPECIAL CHARACTERISTICS AND
Our Church of Jerusalem is distinguished by a number of special
characteristics that identify her genuine face within the
universal Church. The time has come for us to ask
contextualized theology to speak concerning these
characteristics, that we may comprehend them and make them an
integral part of our Christian personality. Otherwise, they may
continue to influence us unconsciously rather than consciously
and possibly even in a negative manner. If these characteristics
are excluded from the liberating, life-giving and universal
vision of faith, they will lead to uncontrollable
practical and intellectual contradictions, or to attitudes
and modes of behavior which do not originate in the pure springs
of faith but come from the unconscious, psychological and social
remnants of the past.
Accordingly, the questions are: What are the special
characteristics of our church? What does our Christian faith say
concerning these characteristics? How can local Christian
thought contribute to the linking of these characteristics with
our Christian faith and daily practices?
The following characteristics cannot be exhaustive, nor
sufficiently cover all aspects of life; they serve only as
Arab Palestinian Christians
We are Arab Palestinian Christians. How do these elements come
together to form our identity? What is the meaning of our
presence here and now? What is the nature of our witness? What
is the origin of our belonging to this geographical and cultural
body which defines us? What is to be done to bring about this
identity of our church?
Rift and Division
We are Christians distinguished by ecclesiastical diversity in
addition to rift, division and fragmentation. What is our
common vocation? What is our joint mission? What are the common
factors that bring us together? What is the call that God
directs to us in this respect? How can we turn a diverse
tradition into a richness common to all of us? How can we live
and work for unity within diversity? How can we move away from
introversion, separation and isolation into openness, communion
Within a Nation
We are Christians belonging to a nation, the Palestinian people,
with a special characteristic and diverse historical
experiences, including all our sufferings and hopes. What is our
contribution, along with that of our brothers, to the progress
of our people and the building of our future? What is the
genuineness of this contribution? Does our Christian faith
assist us in understanding the tragedy of our people and in
committing ourselves to Palestinian issues and aspirations?
We are Palestinian Christians living in close relation with
other religions. What does this reality add to our Christian
identity? How can we comprehend this aspect of our identity?
What type of relations are we called upon to develop with other
religions? What is our special relation with Islam? What is to
be done to deepen the meaning of dialogue and fraternity among
the sons of the one nation: Muslims and Christians?
The Holy Land
We are Palestinian Christians living in the part of the world
which constitutes the geography of salvation, the Holy Land.
What is our relation with this unique heritage? Besides our
message to ourselves, what is our message to the universal
Church linked spiritually with this unique heritage? How can we
turn the existing churches of stones in the Holy Land into
churches of human beings that are brought together?
In an Ever-growing Society
We are Palestinian Christians living in an evergrowing and
developing environment. What are the aspects of this
development and growth? What are the problems that result from
this reality? What does our Christian faith tell us concerning
this reality and the problems arising from it? How can we
express our commitment to the issues of social justice and human
We are Palestinian Christians. Our churches embrace a great
number of foreign guests. What is the meaning of their presence
among us? What is our relation to them? What is their relation
to us? How can they contribute to the highlighting of the
real image of our church? How can we turn their presence into a
We are Palestinian Christians. We receive in our Holy Land large
numbers of believing pilgrims from all over the world. How can
we establish genuine relationships with these pilgrims so that
we can become acquainted with each other? What is our message to
them? What is their message to us? How can we convey to them
the message of the Holy Places?
These special characteristics and others require that we think
through our faith; they call us to develop a local theology to
assist us in motivating ourselves and pointing out the way of
the future. Are we not called, within this framework of
characteristics, to develop a genuine theological thought as a
reply to our reality and the questions arising from it? Are we
not called to develop a theology of communion and presence?
relation and dialogue? Commitment and message? Dealing and
understanding? It is noteworthy that this thought cannot be
born in a vacuum but depends on the experience of those who came
before us to this land. It is our duty to start from this
experience and develop it in the light of the requirements of
the present historical period.
As we see, the questions are many, but the intellect is fertile
and lively. Everybody is called to participate in pointing the
way so that a creative interaction between our faith and our
real circumstances can be achieved. "And he who sat upon the
throne said, "Behold I make all things new" (Revelation 21:5).
THE ANSWER: THINKING
The Work of the Spirit
There are no ready answers available for all the questions
raised and all the present challenges. We are at the outset of a
road which might prove rough, thorny and filled with dangers.
But the Holy Spirit that has worked in the Church throughout the
ages and led her to fertile pastures is still working in us and
directing our steps even through dangerous and difficult paths.
We do put our trust in this life-giving and creative Spirit,
which enables us to overcome our own weaknesses and
We are called to think, and think together, in the spirit of God
to develop a contextualized theology in an atmosphere of
fidelity to ourselves, our churches, our circumstances and the
work of the spirit in us because we believe that "the Spirit
gives life" (11 Corinthians 3:6).
Ecumenical Character: Its
Requirements Its Difficulties
It is noteworthy here that we want this theological thinking to
be distinguished by an ecumenical character. All Christians
irrespective of their various ecclesiastical backgrounds are
called to participate in it. It is true that our differences are
a factual reality which we cannot disregard. But this painful
reality cannot exempt us from thinking through our common
situation together, we all face the same questions, challenges
and future. This requires that we free ourselves from fears,
prejudices and sterile fanaticism. It also requires that we not
undervalue the doctrine that each party adheres to and that we
avoid any useless dogmatic ambiguity. Simultaneously, we should
hold firmly to dialogue without the fanaticism which makes it
impossible for us to come together. Dialogue does not mean that
we give up belonging to our individual churches, but aims at
deepening this belonging through discussion and exchange as we
wait for the day on which we become one in full communion with
the Church. Undoubtedly this ecumenical thinking is not void of
difficulties and stresses; these we must accept, comprehend and
work together in truth and love to overcome.
Spiritual and Human Aptitudes
We must add here that such a process can be achieved only within
a framework of spiritual and human values that make it a
lifegiving, fertile and creative movement. The most important of
Intellectual modesty in the face of the richness of reality
and its complexities.
Constructive critical spirit toward ourselves and the
conditions that surround us.
Dialogue with all in truth and love.
Positive thinking and behavior without fear or anxiety.
Creative and genuine ecclesiastical commitment.
Clear vision, given by the Spirit to those led by its
The Church moves along in history, tries to discover in it the
presence of God and works to respond to His call. In the life of
the people of God, theology puts its instruments at the service
of the Church in order to contribute to her progress, vitality
We hope that the conference on contextualized theology will be a
table around which participants meet in spiritual serenity to
start a creative dialogue on issues that preoccupy the minds of
the Christian community in our country. We hope that all good
and constructive views combine to enrich the church at this
stage of her course, and to assist her to deepen her identity
and the meaning of her existence and witness. Accordingly, the
task is to contribute, each within his specialization, to the
building of the church and the serving of society. We hope that
from this movement will result studies and research to guide
believers, support their faith, awaken their hope and
consolidate their course of life. "When the Spirit of truth
comes, he will guide you into all truth" (John 16:13).