on March 24, 2012
"Global Theology in Evangelical Perspective" is the fruit of Wheaton's annual theology conference, which in 2011 focused on the global church and global theology. What an appropriate conference for such a time as this. It's no secret that the world has shrunk considerably thanks to globalization. Thanks to this economic and politic reality, the West is no longer the dominate voice in global and economic discourse. And here's the thing: The same is true of the Church, ecclesiologically and, especially, theologically. And thanks to the folks at IVP for sending along a free review copy, I got a chance to dive deeply into this new global theological reality.
In his introduction to this conversation on global theology, Gene L. Green rightly notes, "the global church is mature and therefor self-funding, self-governing and self-propogating." And here's the kicker: "it is also self-theologizing, with this fourth 'self' being a sure sign of theological maturity and a phenomenon the that the missionary churches in the West had not expected" He goes on to say that, while the so-called "Majority World churches" received a rich theological heritage from the Western church, "[they] have been asking questions about the way the gospel intersects their cultures and the shape of theology expressed in their mother tongues." (9)
Like the original conference, this book sets out to understand how various parts of the Majority World church are giving shape to theology in their own way in their own tongues. This book is a birds-eye view of the theological discourses happening throughout the world, under the assumption that, in the words of Samuel Escobar, "All theology is contextual." It is this assumption, however, that is both helpful and hurtful to the premise of the book: mainly because the assumption that all theology is contextual means that the prevailing theological scheme, so-called Western theology, is simply contextual.
While I appreciate the scope of this book and what it is trying to accomplish, which I'll get to in a minute, I have a problem and a concern almost from the beginning, however. Because this book is interested in capturing and exalting the voices of the global church, and rightly so, several contributing essays rail against the obvious foil to such capturing and exalting efforts: Western theology. The problem, however, comes when that foil is left largely undefined, turning into a caricaturey boogeyman. Since the assumption is that all theology is contextual, including Western theology, globally contextual theologies are considered just as legitimate, yet, the apparently contextual theology of Westernism against which the global theologies of the book are contrasted is left undefined!
I'm fine if the authors want to argue that all theology is contextual and then contrast one context (i.e. Westernism and Western theology) with others (e.g. Asian, African, Latino). I just wish they would have defined what it is they are contrasting! For instance, in his introductory essay, Gene Green says, "most would say that what has typically been regarded as theology for the whole global church actually has been, in many respects, Western theology, which has been assumed to be universal theology." What does this mean, exactly? So the universal theological assumptions of Jesus' divinity, substitutionary death, and physical resurrection are merely Western assumptions? He goes on to say, "Many authors question the premise that the theological heritage that they received from the West is somehow 'neutral' and 'universal.' They recognize that Western theology has a Western accent despite its claim to the contrary." (11) OK, perhaps this is the case, but how exactly? What does the author mean by Western theology? Should it be as self-evident as many of the authors assume? Is he and others referring to Reformed theology, perhaps? Yes, how about dispensationalism? Or prosperity theology that is plaguing American Christianity?
In his essay on "The Rise of Global Theology," Andrew Wells insists that "the twenty-first century will face new theological issues that have little to do with Greek or Latin, and still less to do with the later developments of European and American thought. The issues will arise from the Christian interaction with the culture and realities of life in Africa and Asia and Latin America." (27) Then later he says, "Western theology will have much to gain, for it has long been confined by the Enlightenment worldview." (33) So Nicaea, Constantinople, Chalcedon; the thoughts of Anselm, Aquinas, and Bonaventure; and the Reformation are merely Western, contextual constructs? What's more how are we in the west "confined by the Enlightenment worldview?" Again, what is "Western Theology?"
This lack of precision and definition is slightly annoying, as it lends to sweeping generalities and a minimization of what I believe both the Spirit of God and Communion of Saints have handed the Church, yes even in a global context. Perhaps Wells and Green and the others are following the logic of Supreme Court Justice Stewart's famous pronouncement regarding hard-core pornography: while he said it was hard to define, he said "I know it when I see it." Perhaps they and others believe "Western theology" is so self-evident that it needs no definition. The problem, is that such a view lends to a view that whittles a majority of the Church's history to "a particular cultural context," operating "with a particular set of assumption," that "seeks to answer a particular set of questions," as Jeffrey Greenman insists. While I know "Western Theology" has it's share of problems and I want to be cautious in "pedestalling" it at the expense of other theological perspectives, how we understand the pieces of Church doctrine has indeed come to us through the West, which I think we need to respect.
This book needed a chapter outlining what exactly they mean by "Western theology," and it's accompanying cultural context, set of assumptions, and set of questions. Particularly, the book needed to establish what theological categories and definitions are up for grabs by nature of their cultural conditioning, in order to understand how non-Western theologies can define them while still remaining orthodox. For example, the deity of Christ was (apparently) constructed in a purely Western, Hellenistic context. Does that mean Asian or African contexts have a better, more orthodox way to talk about Christology? More importantly, in light of this Western contextual development, does that mean Jesus isn't God? Without such a chapter the book suffers from a lack of precision and definition from the get go.
Though this imprecise, largely undefined use of "Western theology" is a problem that hinders one's ability to understand what it is exactly the authors are contrasting, I did find the broader book to be highly informative and highly engaging. After the "Setting the Stage" section, the book is divided into three more parts: Non-Western Theologies; North American Theologies; and then a final "Next Steps" that sketch some implications and ways we can respond to our global theological reality.
Under the heading "Non-Western Theologies" we have six chapters sketching a portrait of five regional theologies: Latin American Theology; Chinese Christian Theology; Indian Christian Theology; African Theology; and Middle Eastern Theology. Each of these are global theologies are given a cursory, yet robust enough, treatment, while also engaging with them in evangelical perspective. Through such engagement, we find such questions as "why is it that as evangelical theologians in Latin American we did not place the Holy Spirit earlier in our agenda?" a question posed by Samuel Escobar from his essay chronicling the historical development of Latin American theology. (83)
There was a curious explanation of Chinese Christian theological engagement with Confucian Chinese culture by Khiok-Khung Yeo: "Our work in CCT assumes the scripture of the Confucian classic as the ideal text of the Chinese culture. The intertextual reading that is inherent in the Confucian classics and biblical canon via a Christian Chinese approach extends itself into the interscriptural reading between these two texts, with the hope that the Bible will be expressed using Confucian language, and the Confucian ethics will be fulfilled by the gospel." (107)
From Ken Gnanakan's essay on Indian Christian theology, we see how early Indian theologian sought to identify Jesus with existing Hindu thought, particularly satpurusha--the true man--a Hindu view that one theologian, V. Chakkarai, viewed as preparation for Jesus' coming. (117) This essay also had a wonderfully insightful section at the end of seven propositions for writing a theology of religion appropriate to varying global contexts, yet true to the biblical claims. These seven propositions include: 1) beginning with a commitment to God as Creator of heaven and earth; 2) the clear biblical claim to the influence of Satan and his forces in creation, which means all spiritual activity--particularly from other religions--is not of God; 3) the biblical description of men and women as fallen and sinful, yet still possessing an "inherent 'religiousness'" and "direction toward God;" 4) God has revealed Himself in limited ways in all religions; 5) this revelation, however, does not directly bring salvation--the test of genuine revealed salvation "is that the Holy Spirit will lead the individual or the community to an encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ, through whom alone salvation is available for all who believe;" 6) there is continuity between the religiousness of humankind and the revelation of God in Jesus; and 7) there is only one decisive revelation of God available to all the world, and that is his revelation through the Lord Jesus Christ. (131-132) I loved this final piece to Gnanakan's essay, because it recognized God's movement and mission in a global context, yet firmly rooted God's economy of salvation in Jesus alone.
And in "African Theology" we see that designation is really incorrect, as there is no unified "African Theology." Instead James Kombo helps us understand several divergent forms: African inculturation theology; African black theology; African liberation theology; and African women theology. (140) These continental African theologies are later contrasted in section three when Vincent Bacote explains the past and future of African American Theology, focusing on Black Liberation Theology and its continuity with the civil rights movement. Actually, I was pleasantly surprised to find a whole section devoted to North American, non-Western theologies, which include not only African American but also Native American, Latino American, and Asian American.
Our journey through global theology ends with a fine essay by Jeffrey Greenman, who offers four reasons in response to the question "Why bother?" First, the deepest rationale is simply that we belong together in the global church. Second, engaging non-Western thinkers and theological trends is necessary given the increasing internationalization of theological education. Third, Western students and scholars should, even must, study non-Western scholarship in order to obtain a comprehensive picture of contemporary theological discussion--Greenman calls this a matter of "intellectual integrity. And finally, we should take seriously global theologies in order to address our own Western blind spots in biblical interpretation and theological formulation. I think we Western pastors and students should pay attention to Greenman's words, because they provide a potent four-punch response to this same question I admittedly had as I began to read through this book.
In the end, I think this will be a solid introductory resource for students and pastors interested in an onramp into the various theologies of the Majority World. It will provide a good textbook for professors to use in class and an equally good textbook for pastors to better appreciate context for doing theology, particularly in a global context. The book is hampered, though, by a lack of context for the basic premise of the book: that all theology is contextually, yet little to no explanation of the Western theological context against which the global theologies in this book compare themselves creates a murky reading and learning experience.
Had this book not been an edited volume, I would have given it a seriously degraded rating--probably a 3 out of 5--because I think the nebulous, imprecise "Western academic theology" label just isn't helpful. It also confuses the reality that the way in which both the Spirit of God and the Communion of Saints have moved is largely into, through, and out of the West--though that's a misnomer in describing the earliest iterations of that movement, me thinks.
Given, however, that the book is an edited volume with multiple contributors all helping us Western theologians and pastors with better understanding theology in a global context, I think the book performs well. It will be a valuable introductory resource for pastors and students alike, help us better appreciate the nature of current theological discourse, and correct some unfounded assumptions that "West is best," while insisting that our brothers and sisters in the East and South should and do have a voice at the table. It's already done so for this Western pastor-theologian.
**I received this book free for review from the publisher, which did not influence the outcome of this review.