The Call for Westerners to Learn from the Majority World

theology in the context of world christianityI’m currently reading a book entitled, Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think about and Discuss Theology. To some, it might sound bland. However, for me, it is a topic of utmost import within discussion of theology and church.

Why?

Well it starts in the reality that Christianity is now largest, and strongest, in the majority world (what some might call the “western world” or “developing world”). This is mainly due to the expansive efforts of Pentecostalism and the charismatic movement right across Latin America, Africa and Asia. This can be noted from such works as Global Pentecostalism: The New Face of Christian Social Engagement and The Century of the Holy Spirit: 100 Years of Pentecostal and Charismatic Renewal, 1901-2001. There are others as well, but suffice it to say that the Pentecostal, charismatic and neo-charismatic branches of the church have now reached epic proportions, totaling some 600 million Christians in the world today.

If interested, you can see the growth charted out in this study.

With this all in mind – the great growth of Christianity outside the west – it means the call will become ever-increasingly real to learn from the church in Africa, Asia and Latin America. This is what Tennent refers in his book to as theological translatability, which he defines as:

“the ability of the kerygmatic [proclaimed] essentials of the Christians faith to be discovered and restated within an infinite number of new global contexts.” (p16)

However, the problem is that I believe this sounds very scary for many theologians and pastors in the west.

How so?

Well, firstly, to put it in straightforward terms, we in the west have built an empire around our theological perspectives. Really – an empire, a kingdom, an immovable fortress. At least in our own minds. And, secondly, in connection to the first, we are afraid of learning from the less-theogically trained.

For me, I’ll call it as I see it: we have issues of both control and arrogance.

In his book, Tennent goes on to share a particular remark from John Mbiti, considered one of the pioneers of African Christian theology:

“Mbiti went on to stress how “utterly scandalous” it is for students of Western theology to know more about the theology of heretics long dead than they do about the living theology of hundreds of millions of living Africans today.” (p16)

Those are pointed words, no doubt.

Why are we so preoccupied with heretics of long ago, and possible sprout-ups of their theology, yet we know not a drop of what our brothers and sisters around the world are teaching? It’s possible that, to hold a healthy theology, we need to understand of both.

And, so, what Tennent takes up in his book is to look at varying theological concepts of Africans, Asians and Latin Americans, all as these groups engage in their own particular non-Christian context. What I mean is that there are current folk in the middle east that have converted from Islam to Christianity. Many of these folk are considering what is transferrable from their previous religious tradition to the new one in Christ. Yes, that is a pertinent question, one that says some is transferrable and some is not. For example, many middle eastern Christians believe they are called to stay within their Islamic context, still attending services at the mosque, all that they might find ways to make Isa, or Jesus, real to their Muslim brothers and sisters.

I applaud these middle-eastern Christians for such!

Or what of Africans looking to consider how they might speak of Jesus as the great Ancestor? Africans have a very strong connection to family, even their dead family members (actually, many of the majority world peoples have this focus). The question that arises for the Africans is this: Can Jesus be considered the “great Ancestor,” especially in light of a theology of first and second Adam, espoused in Paul’s letters?

These are fascinating questions for me, mainly because a) I’m intrigued at the growth of Christianity outside the west and b) I’m convinced western theological boxes are not the say-all, be-all of Christianity. Paul carried forward a predominantly Jewish Christian theology into a Gentile context. It called for theological transferability. The same stands true today as we engage with making the whole Christ known in the whole world today.

If it will make others feel a little better, a little calmer, my feedback is that, in discussing this aspect of theological transferability, Timothy Tennent is a little safer than I think he needs to be or has to be. However, he provides good food for thought on how to engage with theology in the context of global Christianity.

The question stands for us today, in the west: Will we allow ourselves to learn from the theology of the majority world? Not that Jesus as great Ancestor will be applicable in southern suburbia of America. But even dialogue around the principles of theological transferability provide for healthy discussion as we move forward.

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3 thoughts on “The Call for Westerners to Learn from the Majority World

  1. Thanks Scott for your interesting article. I was wondering whether you have specific examples of how western theologians are hanging onto theological hobbyhorses that they need to stop riding if they are to facilitate a necessary and better blending of cross cultural theology?

    Also, I was interested in the example of how “Paul took predominantly Jewish theology and transferred it into a gentile context”. I am wondering just how he did that? My initial thought is that he (and other apostles) didn’t import Judeo-Christian ideas into a gentile model, but rather exploited a gentile belief or practice (eg. Paul at Mars Hill and the altar to the unknown god – or John and “the logos” in John 1:1) – and used these as hooks to pull them out of their pagan / greek worldview, and into Christ centered worldview. If I understand what Tim Tennant is saying, it would appear that the biblical direction of “theological transferability” is more in the opposite direction to that which he is suggesting??

    Even if this is the case – I don’t feel that this completely discredits his point – just perhaps I need to think on it a bit more … !!

    • Jonathan –

      Thanks for your feedback & questions.

      Af for western hobby-horses, for me it comes down to what I sense is an unwillingness to learn from those outside the west, or better stated, an unwillingness to learn from those with not tightly-formed theological boxes. So, case in point, 20-30 years ago, many evangelicals would not feel comfortable learning from Pentecostals & charismatics, due to their not-so-tidy (and, at times, whacky, no doubt) theological perspectives on the work of the Spirit. Those are the whacky tongues-speakers and getting slain in the Spirit. And so a massive portion of Christians were easily pushed to the side, which for you & I is an important part of Christian history knowing we relate to this arm of the church.

      And so, we have a new group in the boat who might not have 1000-page systematic texts (though they have some, if it will appease us in the west), but who have massive insight on a practical and theological level into the reality of Christ and God’s kingdom. Case in point might be the African great Ancestor perspective or being ok with the middle-eastern use of Allah for God’s name by Christians. Both of these, I believe, are acceptable. But can you imagine many in the west (or America) being ok with referring to Christ as the great Ancestor or praying to Allah? But I believe these acceptable practices when considering the wider principles of theological transferability.

      So Tennent notes this in the intro of his book:

      “When Peter brought the gospel to Cornelius’s household, there is no doubt that Cornelius was transformed, but so was the apostle Peter as he went away with some of his theological categories shaken; but in the process he became a more globally minded Christian.”

      He goes on to say:

      “…if you step back and look at the whole picture of Christian history, you must conclude that there is no such thing as a particular Christian culture or Christian civilization.”

      This is massive to theological transferability. We just think somehow God specializes in western theological categories, rather than allowing the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ to reveal himself within African, Asian & Latin American contexts that are quite different from the west.

      When I say Paul took predominately Jewish theology and transferred it into a Gentile context, what I’m talking about is that Paul new speaking of a Messiah or the kingdom of God might not clearly connect with Gentiles. So he spoke of Kyrios (Lord) and life of the age (eternal life). Or he quoted from pagan philosopher sources at times, rather than the Hebrew Scriptures. Paul was taking the truth of God and communicating it within the needed context. This is what you are talking about. It’s translating the truth into particular cultural settings – which is what the incarnation is all about anyways.

      Ok, that was a lot in a comment from me. I hope I made some sense. 😉

      • Hi Scott – thanks for taking the time to write a more lengthy reply. The capacity to see beyond our own borders and recognise the existence of truth in other places – albeit dressed in unfamiliar clothing – is sometimes hard to do.

        I will try to keep open on such things, and ask for God’s wisdom to see the difference between the authentic and the profane. God bless you!!

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