Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think about and Discuss Theology

Timothy C. Tennent Zondervan, Grand Rapids November 20, 2007
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Tennent, newly appointed president of Asbury Seminary, admonishes Western theologians to appreciate and interact with the increasingly articulate theology of the majority world church. He says that his “long-standing academic pursuit has been dedicated to finding new ways to reconnect the disciplines of theology and missiology” (p. xi). He pursues this end by surveying categories of systematic theology from the perspective of various non-Western theological viewpoints. Until mid-2009 Tennent was the director of world missions at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and has taught for two decades at Luther W. New Jr. Theological College in India as well as other international locations. He has authored Christianity at the Religious Roundtable (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002) together with other works and various articles in international journals.

A foreword by Andrew Walls defines the nature of Tennent’s book: “The true matrix of theology is not the study or the library. Theology arises from situations—social situations, intellectual situations—where one must make Christian choices, and previous Christian experience offers no clear precedent” (p. xv). Tennent himself clarifies that the work seeks to integrate systematic theology (by nature a “precise, analytical, and reflective” activity) together with missiology (by nature “a bold, activist, imprecise, and even experimental work”). His “purpose is to show how the expansion of global Christianity (a vital missions theme) can serve as a positive influence on the way we think about and discuss God, his revelation, and his work in the world (vital themes in theology)” (p. xvii). He later adds, “The premise of this book is that the theological reflections of the Majority World church need to be heard as a part of the normal course of theological study in the West” (p. 16), not merely as an exotic aside.

Tennent begins his book by observing significant changes in global Christianity as geographical and cultural centers have shifted through the centuries and notably today from the West to the majority world church (chap. 1). He balances the need for authentic nationalized theological endeavor with an appreciation of the gains of systematic theology concerning universal questions of the faith. He notes five trends in majority-world theology: (1) acceptance of the authority of Scripture and (by Western standards) conservative, orthodox, and traditionalist views; (2) moral and ethical conservativism; (3) sensitivity to poverty and social injustice; (4) ability to articulate the gospel amidst religious pluralism; and (5) appreciation for the corporate, not merely individualistic, dimensions of biblical teaching.

The next eight chapters discuss fresh issues (and tensions) raised by the convergence of Western systematic theology with global theological reflection. Tennent discusses each doctrine in light of the challenges and innovative thinking from another culture of the world (chap. 2); Christian theology proper within the Arab/Islamic milieu (chap. 3); bibliology within the Indian Hindu context (chap. 4); anthropology amidst the shame-based cultures of the Far East (chap. 5); Christology from a traditional African vantage point (chap. 6); soteriology amidst Chinese and Japanese Buddhism (chap. 7); pneumatology in the context of Latin American Pentecostalism (chap. 8); ecclesiology in world Islamic contexts; and eschatology within Chinese nationalism (chap. 9). Tennent concludes by suggesting how the sometimes disparate world of Christianity may foster “a renaissance in theological scholarship” (p. 250), including incorporating the renewal of systematic theology with global rather than merely traditional Western concerns, fresh appreciation for acculturated theological discourse, and increased theological engagement with secular and non-Christian worldviews. A glossary gives readers a guide to missiological language and selected terms from other world religions. A helpful bibliography is included at the end of each chapter.

The weakness of this work is that the reader is not informed as to what constitutes “historic Christian faith,” or by what standard the author deems some international theologies untenable. Also the book lacks material by global theologians themselves. To be sure, Tennent strives for objective assessment of the issues raised by emerging global theological reflection. But regional examples would be more readily accepted if more insights by national theologians themselves were incorporated.

In the end Tennent illustrates “how the expansion of global Christianity . . . can serve as a positive influence on the way we think about and discuss God” (p. xvii). But more importantly he brings the tensions and methodological questions into focus.

—Jonathan Seabourn with J. Scott Horrell

October 1, 2009
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Oct-Dec 2009 vol. 166 no. 4 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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