Globalizing Theology: Belief and Practice in an Era of World Christianity

01.01.08 | Denver Journal, Craig L. Blomberg, Urban Ministry and Intercultural Mission | by Craig Ott | by Harold A. Netland

    Dr. Craig Blomberg's review of, "Globalizing Theology: Belief and Practice in an Era of World Christianity," by Craig Ott and Harold A. Netland.

    Craig Ott and Harold A. Netland, eds. Globalizing Theology: Belief and Practice in an Era of World Christianity.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006.  382 pp.  $27.99 pap.  ISBN 978-0-8010-3112-0.

    It is hard to remain unaware of the unprecedented interconnectedness of our global village.  In Christian circles, it has been roughly twenty years since the South and the East overtook the North and the West with the greatest percentage of believers on our planet.  More people have heard the gospel in our generation than ever in the history of the world, but with the ongoing population explosion, more people than ever also remain unreached.  What does all this mean for how the church worldwide does theology and missions?  This anthology of essays, written by premier evangelical missiologists, theologians and biblical scholars, based on papers delivered at a conference at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 2004, and published in honor of Paul Hiebert (in time for him to appreciate them before his death in early 2007), should be regarded as the state-of-the art collection of studies on which all future work in these areas should be based.

    Harold Netland's introduction sets the stage by discussing the need for such a work and previews the coming chapters.  He offers the following excellent, heuristic definition of evangelical globalizing theology:  "theological reflection rooted in God's self-revelation in Scripture and informed by the historical legacy of the Christian community through the ages, the current realities in the world, and the diverse perspectives of Christian communities throughout the world, with a view to greater holiness in living and faithfulness in fulfilling God's mission in all the world through the church" (p. 30).

    Part One offers three essays under the heading of "World Christianity and Theological Reflection."  Tite Tiénou highlights the ongoing parochialism of doing theology even today, which will be rectified only when at least four issues are adequately addressed:  the West's view of itself as in charge, its parallel conviction that its theology forms the "center" of the necessary reflective activity, the view adopted even by many Majority world evangelicals that their views are supplemental at best, and the lack of dialogue among the theologians of the various world's cultures.  Darrell Whiteman offers "anthropological reflections" on the task in the spirit of Hiebert's seminal article, "Critical Contextualization."  While technological advances have in many places improved certain aspects of the lives of the very poor of our world, overall the gap between rich and poor grows ever greater.  And even technology can never replace the slow but crucial process of building lasting personal relationships of trust, which alone can produce mature Christians in authentic community.  Andrew Walls rehearses a major theme of his illustrious career-the amazing diversity of Christianity over time and throughout the world, even in just its orthodox forms, should warn us against expecting as many similarities among contemporary expressions of the faith as we sometimes do.  We all need to learn from each other; until Majority-world scholars can have access to the amount of information routinely available to Western ones and until Western scholars can and will immerse themselves in large quantities of (including at times by learning foreign languages) Majority-world scholarship, we will all still remain significantly impoverished.

    Part Two presents five chapters on "Methodological Issues for Globalizing Theology."  Kevin Vanhoozer surveys the history of the discussion and proposes an approach that is canonical (based on the unique authority of Scripture), christological (recognizing Christ as the center of Scripture), cultural (situationally relevant), and critical (willing to address that which needs changing).  Given an increasingly postmodern world in which narrative is highly valued, he calls for a "theodramatic" understanding of theology, in which all interpreters recognize their place in God's history of acting in our world and "improvise" their current roles according to their social and geographical locations in harmony with what is already written in the existing script.  David and Cynthia Strong study the Apostolic Council of Acts 15, noting the respective roles of experience, the Holy Spirit, Scripture, and a hermeneutical community in any crucial decision about how to contextualize the gospel, and they exhort us to consider each of these factors as indispensable today, too. 

    Steve Strauss draws on his years of ministry and teaching in Ethiopia to note how even some of the classic creeds of (Western) Christianity cannot be elevated to the level of Scripture itself, and might need reformulating in different contexts, with the example of the debate over whether Christ has one or two natures, and what that the relevant terminology meant and means in Ethiopian Christianity.  Strauss's principle, widely applicable elsewhere, insists that "if forms [of theological expression] come with historical or linguistic baggage that overly weigh them down with unintended meaning, it may be impossible to fill those forms with new meaning.  In these contexts, it may be best to choose new forms rather than to insist on using a form that has proven acceptable elsewhere," as long as, of course, those forms do not contradict biblical truth (p. 152).  Indeed, "in certain cultures and situations, a different form might be the only way to express the same confessional truth" (p. 156).  Charles van Engen discusses the "glocal" church, as it has come to be called, stressing the need for all local formulations to be critiqued by the church worldwide and all global formulations to be fleshed and lived out variously in local contexts.  Robert Priest rightly advocates "experience-near theologizing," by which one first comes to know well a receptor culture before preaching in ways that risk unwittingly misapplying valid principles or at least dealing with them inconsistently, as with the Aguaruna in Peru, who think overeating normally goes hand-in-hand with sexual promiscuity!  (Intriguingly, so did Augustine in his Confessions.)

    The final main Part of Ott and Netland deals with "implications of globalizing theology."  Six studies round out this rich resource of writings.  Daniel Carroll Rodas calls for a hermeneutics of responsibility to the Majority world in light of global economic realities and with specific reference to the history and current realities of Latin America.  He quotes Desmond Tutu approvingly to support his concern that the "worldwide church heeds Latin America and other troubled regions for its own theological health and faithfulness."  Or, in Tutu's words, "Be nice to whites, they need you to rediscover their humanity" (p. 211)!  Vinoth Ramachandra demonstrates in the context of the Indian subcontinent how religion becomes a pawn to support what in fact is more fundamentally nationalist resurgence and how the exported versions of Eastern religions to the West excise their most objectionable elements and thus mask their true natures.  Further ironies include the secularizing elements that tend to go hand in hand with the exporting of Christianity from the West, not to mention our own uncritical nationalisms paraded as if Christianity actually supported them.  Until we learn to listen to the church worldwide before we unilaterally go to war or veto ecological treaties, the rest of the world will be justified in rejecting our positions.

    Eloise Hiebert Meneses analyzes the tension between current manifestations of essentialism (returning to the perceived roots of a nation, culture, or ethnic group) and epochalism (believing that a new and better stage of history for a people has arrived).  Essentialism typically proves the stronger force, but our changed world means that a return to roots never really is that.  The greatest change today is the nearly universal triumph of market capitalism; the greatest danger in America is the idea that this is somehow a (re)turn to national or even biblical ideals.  In fact, the U.S. is today's closest equivalent to Rome in the ancient Mediterranean world.  The only way we can avoid a syncretized Christianity in the U.S. is to listen attentively to evangelicalism in the rest of the world.  James Plueddemann highlights the ways in which world missions increasingly occurs "from everywhere to everywhere" (borrowing Michael Nazir-Ali's 1991 book title) and defines legitimate and distinct roles for both local churches and parachurch sending agencies in the missionary task.

    Lois McKinney Douglas' chapter is the only one that focuses directly on theological education.  She cites the objectives of ICETE (the primary Majority-world accrediting body for evangelical theological institutions) as equally appropriate for Western schools: "contextualization, churchward orientation, strategic flexibility, theological grounding, continuous assessment, community life, integrated programs, servant molding, instructional variety, a Christian mind, equipping for growth, and cooperation among programs" (p. 269).  Her own reflection leads her to affirm that "globalized theological education is rooted in missio Dei, celebrates spiritual formation, affirms the missional nature of the church, and emerges from hermeneutical communities" (p. 274).  Paul Hiebert himself concludes the collection, reiterating and reapplying a number of the concepts that have made his work so influential, most notably, the need for globalized theologians to be transcultural and thus not entirely at home in any culture.  But they understand various cultures well enough to represent them accurately to others and to assess their strengths and weaknesses in light of Scripture.

    Craig Ott's conclusion reviews the major themes that have emerged, compiles a list of key questions that must be asked missiologically, ecclesiologically, historically and ethically, and offers suggestions for making globalized theology happen:  creating truly round tables (where no one rules or dominates) involving theologians representing all the major cultures, submitting our work to peer review of this kind, leveling the playing field especially concerning access to resources among those at the table, and building even more bridges from one culture to another.  Only then will we be preparing ourselves well and adequately modeling for others the fully intercultural dimensions of God's people in the new heavens and new earth still to come.

    As with all such anthologies, one may raise minor queries here and there.  Vanhoozer quotes Segovia on how non-Western students attending Western seminaries find "neither the content nor the mode of discourse" their own (p. 89, n. 4).  One wonders if most Western students might not agree, even if the foreignness is intra- rather than inter-linguistic!  Perhaps the principles of this book need to be applied to Western theologizing, evangelism and seminary education, too.  Meneses may have swung the pendulum too far in not interpreting Jesus' famous "Render to Caesar. . .and to God" dictum as having anything to do with separation of church and state, even when American evangelicals may have typically not realized how often giving to God what is his means denying Caesar what he claims.  Douglas applauds a few triumphs during her long career as a missionary but is overall somewhat disappointed at what slow progress has been made.  As a happy exception, she cites my manifesto-of-sorts written in 1993 in the ATS-sponsored volume on The Globalization of Theological Education, edited by Evans, Evans and Roozen.  But unless she knows of schools that have consciously acted on my call, then Denver Seminary's two-decade long, three-steps-forward, two-steps-backward globalization program may be the only intentional outgrowth of that essay (which itself was a partial outgrowth of our program in its incipient forms)!

    A more significant concern is that one finishes this book still wondering (if one hasn't already seen examples elsewhere) what concrete, detailed illustrations of regional theologies faithful to the global narrative might look like.  Strauss comes closest to this with his musings on monophysitism among the Ethiopian Orthodox, but these kinds of examples would have proved welcome throughout the work. It may not have been Ott and Netland's intention to include such studies but, given the repeated calls for them by the contributors, it is a shame that one can't find at least a few chapters that provide case studies in what is being called for.  The volume is pleasantly free from typographical errors, though I did notice that a "[sic]" was inappropriately introduced into a quotation after "moulded" (which is merely the British spelling) on p.27, an ironic error in a work stressing cross-cultural awareness.

    Nevertheless, it has been years since I read a work on any topic and found myself proclaiming to anyone who would listen over and over again, "there has to be some place in our curriculum for this to be required reading." If only our entire faculty and administration would agree to read it!  Ironically, the logical place for it in a curriculum would be in a second, core intercultural ministries course after students had been given the basic introduction to the field offered in their first core course.  But, alas, no such course exists today.  One can hope at least that seminaries that have preserved the historic evangelical commitment to missions as a central part of their curricula will find a place to require a large swath of their students to read Ott and Netland.  But it deserves a far broader audience as well.

    Craig L. Blomberg, Ph.D.
    Distinguished Professor of New Testament
    Denver Seminary
    January 2008

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