Theology in the Context of World Christianity – Timothy C.Tennent

In his book Theology in the Context of World Christianity, Timothy C. Tennent examines how Christianity in the “majority” world could impact the western theological approach. With a few examples from different places and times, the author demonstrates the necessity to review our understanding of Scripture in the light of what others did. He structured the book by major doctrinal areas: theology proper, bibliology, anthropology, christology, soteriology, pneumatology, ecclesiology, eschatology. For each theme, he explores the “Major World” Christians’ views compared to a traditional Western Protestant approach, then draws lessons for Westerners. He concludes the book with a chapter surveying the larger implications for theological discussions in the Western World. This review will summarize each chapter as well as evaluating its applicability in the western church.


Theology Proper
In the area of theology proper, Tennent explores the question “Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad?” He starts with explaining the question itself. Indeed, we have often stated this following question instead: “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” but Tennent argues that question is unclear. First, he argues that there is no valid basis to reject the use of the word “Allah” to refer to the Christian God. The term points the concept of God rather than being a proper name. Second, both Muslims and Christians worship the same ontological God referring to the Supreme Being who created all things. Christians may not believe it, but Muslims believe the Allah from Qu’ran is the same as the One whom Jews and Christians believe in. So the better question is to determine if the Father of Jesus is the God of Muhammad. The Qu’ran has similarities with the Bible, but it clearly differs when it deals with the concept of God. It explicitly rejects the idea of Trinity and the divinity of Jesus. Tennent also compares how Islam and Christianity view two attributes of God: God is One and God is powerful. Though both religions describe God as One and powerful, their concepts are different. Therefore, the answer to the initial question is no. Evangelicals must be careful when they have to deal with this question. The fundamental difference of identity between the Christian God and the Muslim god implies the necessity for evangelization and conversion of Muslims. Indeed, the West has sought to tolerate diversity of religions, but tolerance does not imply coexistence or same identity.

In the domain of bibliology, the author seeks to understand if sacred texts from other religions can be used as preparatio evangelica. He takes the example of Hindu texts such as the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita, and compares how some Christians from Hindu background use them to point to Christ the way we would with the Old Testament. Indeed, Christians have used the Old Testament as source of authority to legitimate the message of the New Testament. Other resources such as 1 Enoch or Greek poems were used in the New Testament as references for the readers, but Tennent argues they are not sacred Scripture with the same authority as the Old Testament. When it comes to other sacred texts, we ought to avoid simplistic approaches whether it is condemnation or acceptance. Though they do not have the authority of the Bible, they can still be used to refer to Christ as the One who fulfills people’s aspirations. Tennent gives three guidelines for their use. First, it must be used for evangelistic outreach as opposed to rule of life. Second, it must be used as corroborative witnessing with the biblical message, which means it backs up the message of the Bible. Third, it must be reoriented in a Christocentric setting implying that it must point to Jesus instead of approving other deities. This chapter helps us not only to deal with other sacred texts, but also to understand how Jews and Christians of the first century dealt with the transition between Judaism and Christianity, as well as with the presence of non biblical texts in the Bible.

In anthropology, Tennent exposes the concept of “honor/shame” present in Asian cultures, which brings a new perspective on interpreting the Bible as well as its application to diverse cultural backgrounds. The honor and shame system is often opposed to the guilt and innocence one. Honor and shame is often perceived as pointing to external behavior, while guilt and innocence points to internal conviction. However, recent studies have shown how cultures are not exclusively guilt-based or shame-based. Tennent reviews a few passages from the Old and New Testaments in the light of this shame-based concept to demonstrate how western theology could be challenged to reflect the Scripture context. For example, the atonement traditionally viewed as the removal of personal guilt can also be understood in terms of social restoration of honor. Indeed, Christ took away the shame of sin as much as he removed the penalty of sin. This perspective helps westerners to understand how missionaries struggle to convert people coming from a shame-based culture, as well as avoiding the trap of depersonalization of human rebellion. Sin and therefore sanctification both gain meaning when it is described in terms of relationship.

In Christology, Tennent explains how African Christians approach Christ as healer and ancestor though they have struggled to define their own theology. Contrary to the Western world, they have not focused on who Jesus is. For example, they are not preoccupied with how the divine and human natures of Christ function together. Instead, their approach is what Tennent calls “theology from below.” They are more concerned with the work of Christ and he deals with their daily sufferings and difficulties. They are also concerned with how Christ relates to their pre-Christian past. Tennent looks at two case studies to explore the African Christology: Jesus as healer and as ancestor. As healer, Christ replaces the traditional healers and brings physical and spiritual healing. There is little separation between what is physical and spiritual. Christ saves individuals, restores communities and overcomes Satan. The concept of ancestor is more difficult to understand from a western perspective. Christ as ancestor plays the role of mediator between living relatives and God. He is the virtuous and exalted guide who lead the livings to a life pleasing to God. The African Christology ought to challenge the westerners to adopt a holistic approach of who Christ is and what He did to avoid the trap of compartmentalization.

In the soteriology area, Tennent demonstrates how the broad idea of salvation by grace is not unique to Christianity. He explains how the Jodo Shin Shu teaching of Shinran deserves to be called “Japanese Protestantism.” Shinran is a widespread branch of Buddhism in Japan. It emerged from a buddhist priest, Shinran Shonin, who lived in the thirteen century. Shinran became disillusioned with traditional Buddhism’s means to “salvation.” He realized how men were still trying to merit “salvation.” So he developed the theme of “Pure Land” in which only trust in the power of Bodhisattva Amida, a man who managed to reach Nirvana, can take others to Nirvana through his own merit. Tennent surprisingly finds similarities between Shinran and Luther. They superficially converge on the ideas of grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone, and Christ/Amida alone. However, they differ for multiple reasons: the notion of sin and heaven are different; Jesus is God but Amida is a man; etc. What Tennent concludes is that God has not left men without ways to point to Him. Though Jodo Shin Shu is not Gospel, it is preparatio evangelica. As for westerners, we ought to marvel at this example instead of trying to defend Christianity’s uniqueness. There is only one way to God: Christ, but God has prepared people to hear the Gospel.

Concerning Pneumatology, the author looks at the Pentecostal movement in Latin America. The Pentecostal movement is a Christian movement characterized by its focus on the Holy Spirit. Latin America has resisted to traditional Protestantism with its theological statements, but was attracted by the themes of the Pentecostal movement. Traditional Protestantism has focused on the ontology of the Holy Spirit, while Pentecostals have focused on His powerful work: miracles, speaking in tongues, gifts, etc. Their concern is practical rather than defining a systematic theology. They had the urge to return to the primitive roots of the church described in the Bible where the Holy Spirit is seen as empowering believers to serve and to evangelize. Western Protestantism seemed to be too influenced by the Enlightenment. Doctrines of cessation were part of the response to challenges brought up by the new cult of the Reason. But Pentecostals believed that if the Holy Spirit is alive, then He is still at work. They felt empowered to evangelized instead of relying on paid clergy or church structures to move. This pneumatology ought to challenge the western churches. We need to reconsider how we relate to the Holy Spirit. Maybe we need to be opened to hear from Him whatever it means, but at the same time, be careful enough not to fall in the other extreme visible in the nonsense displayed some charismatic churches or individuals which can lead us to dismiss what the Holy Spirit really does.

In Ecclesiology, Tennent focuses on C-5 followers of Christ among Muslims. John Travis published in 1988 a spectrum from C-1 to C-6 to classify Muslims Background Believers (MBBs). C-5 believers are Muslims who believe in Jesus as their savior but who still identify themselves as Muslims, attend the Mosque and potentially believe the Qu’ran is inspired by God. Tennent assesses if the C-5 position is legitimate. He points out that self-identity is the main issue of C-5 MBBs. They still see themselves as Muslims rather than people who have embraced their new identity in Jesus. The author analyzes this issue with biblical, theological and ethical arguments, but cannot agree with the C-5 position. Through this analysis, he links the doctrine of salvation and of the church together. Indeed, conversion is not only a personal affair but also demands the person to integrate a new community of believers. This issue is reflected in the fact that C-5 MBBs do not get baptized. Baptism is both the sign of internal conversion and entrance to the covenantal people of God. If they do not get baptized, what is the value of baptism? Where is the conversion if there is nothing to convert to? Tennent’s conclusion is “one’s religious identity with Jesus Christ should create a necessary rupture with one’s Islamic identity, or else our identity in Jesus Christ would mean nothing.” This C-5 MBB group has challenged western Christians to rethink what the Church is.

The comparison Tennent makes for eschatology is quite surprising. He demonstrates how Jonathan Edwards and the Chinese Back to Jerusalem movement have a clear resemblance. What Jonathan Edwards wrote about the end of times did not have the purpose of predicting the future, but rather to encourage the present evangelistic mission of the church. He believed that there would be a major expansion of Christianity before the millennium. This would only be possible through fervent “concerts of prayer” that would cause the outpouring of God’s Spirit to reach the nations and bring them into the millennium period where Christ rules. This expansion would necessarily deal with converting Muslims and Jews. In the same way, those are core features of the Back to Jerusalem movement. Though Communists sought to destroy Christianity in China, the Chinese Church resisted and found its expression in small underground house churches. In 1942-43, Mark Ma had this vision that the Gospel needed to go back to Jerusalem that the “earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord” (Hab 2:14). There was no official structure for the movement, but key leaders of house churches believed in self-sustaining and independent Christians who would take the Gospel back to Jerusalem by the way of Silk road. This missional eagerness was understood as necessary to prepare the second return of Christ. This perspective is not so developed in the Western churches now, but we ought to challenge ourselves to see if we are compelled by this missiological eschatology and act upon those theological convictions.

Tennent concludes his book with a reflective chapter on western “theologization.” The development of Christianity around the world demands the Western world to rethink its theology formulation. The western approach found its source in a particular context driven by the Hellenistic thought. The globalization of Christianity has now injected other issues that the western theology has not dealt with. Tennent believes it is an opportunity for the renaissance of systematic theology to answer other cultural questions with practical applications of God’s Word in different contexts than the West.

This book is valuable because it challenges our framework of thinking. It emphasizes the necessity for ministers – and all Christians – in the Western world to go beyond our traditional approach that cannot be imposed on the whole Christian world. This has been a challenge for western missionaries and pastors who want to obey the great commission but at the same time were not aware of the cultural differences shaping everyone’s own understanding of the Bible. The globalization has “diminished” the distance between different cultures and we are now more exposed to them. What I believe this book does is to raise people’s awareness of cross cultural theological differences and approaches. One can hardly move beyond his own worldview if he does not receive a new flow of information. I believe the work of Tennent leads Western Christians to acknowledge the necessity and opportunity to refine their perspective and be prepared with the cross cultural work whether in global mission or even in local places where we now welcome more people from other parts of the world.

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