Why the Global Church Should Impact Your Theology: A Conversation with Timothy Tennent
Not long ago, I read a helpful book called Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think about and Discuss Theology. The book is from Dr. Timothy Tennent, and it is intended to be a supplement to systematic theology textbooks.
Dr. Tennent serves as the president of Asbury Theological Seminary and is the author of numerous books on Christianity in a global context. You can read more from him on his personal blog. Dr. Tennent graciously agreed to answer some questions about this volume.
Trevin Wax: Missiology and systematic theology are often seen as two distinct areas of study. In this book, you recommend we bring the two together and incorporate insights and perspectives from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Why is it important to hold these two disciplines together, and why is there a need to engage theologians and church leaders in the Majority World?
Dr. Timothy Tennent: I do not necessarily think that missiology and systematics need to be held together as much as I think that missiology and theology need to be held together. I do think that systematics might be useful at times, but my deeper project has always been to see missiology undergirded with more theological reflection.
This is important because theology is the native language of the church. It is the way we understand and interpret to ourselves and others the significance of God’s self-revelation. Social sciences are valuable, but they must always serve the deeper task of our own speech as the church. Anthropology, linguistics and so forth are important disciplines, but they are not our core discipline. Theology is our core discipline. So, we must keep the “helping” disciplines in their right place.
Trevin Wax: You write: “We are now in the midst of one of the most dramatic shifts in Christianity since the Reformation.” What is this dramatic shift, and how should it impact our study of theology?
Dr. Timothy Tennent: We are in a shift from a Christendom church to a post-Christendom church – a shift from a Western dominated Christian movement to a movement dominated by voices outside the Western world. This is important because post-Christendom, post-Western people will inevitably ask new questions of the biblical text. This, in turn, influences theological development in positive ways. My chapter on anthropology which emphasizes shame is an example of how theology is deepened by the cultural encounters of the gospel outside the West.
Trevin Wax: What are some issues that arise outside of the West that challenge our presuppositions and practices as we study and apply systematic theology?
Dr. Timothy Tennent: Any new question can challenge traditional systematic theology. The problem with Western theology is that we thought that all questions which could be asked had already been asked. But when the majority world Christians started asking new questions, it has rocked the theological boat. Most of the new questions arise in the context of other religions – ranging from the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, revelation outside the Bible, collectivistic vs. individualistic interpretations of certain texts, etc.
Trevin Wax: In the West, we tend to see the cross of Christ as resolving what is primarily a guilt problem. The East focuses on shame and honor. How can our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world enrich our understanding of Christ’s accomplishment on our behalf? How do these distinctions affect our evangelistic strategies?
Dr. Timothy Tennent: They can help us to go back and read the text more carefully and discover, perhaps to our own surprise, that the atonement is deeper and broader than we realized. Christ’s death covered fear, guilt and shame, not just guilt. It should influence how we preach the gospel. I have observed this quite a bit in India. Knowing the actual context makes a big difference in how we communicate the gospel.
My daughter is working in Africa and had a big breakthrough when she quit emphasizing “guilt” and started emphasizing how Jesus delivered them from the power of the evil one and of demons. They really responded to the latter, because that was where they felt their needs were.
Trevin Wax: Missiologists have long said that indigenous churches should be not only self-supporting and self-propagating, but also self-theologizing. What is it about the last term that makes many of us nervous? Why should we embrace this term and what it represents?
Dr. Timothy Tennent: Self-theologizing just means that Christians in every culture must learn to articulate the gospel in their own way using their own thought forms. It probably makes us nervous because we think that we have exhausted every theological point already. However, the truth is that new Christians continue to discover new depths in the Scriptures. It is not enough to simply repeat what others have taught, we must own it for ourselves.
The great news is that a large section of theological reflection is the same around the world because we are all reading the same Bible. We do not need to fear that a new gospel will arise. Instead, we will see richer and deeper dimensions which will ring true with what we already know. However, their articulation will also expose ways in which we have domesticated the gospel and need another reformation in our own context.