Book Review: Theology in the context of World Christianity: how the global church is influencing the way we think about and discuss theology

By Timothy C. Tennent
Zondervan, 2007
295 pages
ISBN-13: 978-0-310-27511-4
$43.99 CAD

In the era of late globalization, it is jarring that there is not a greater concern and focus on theological discussions with a global framework. Timothy C. Tennent’s Theology in the context of World Christianity is a much-needed work, particularly for theologians who still operate under the assumption that Christianity solely follows a Western narrative. As the tides of Christianity have shifted to the Majority World, it is important “to explore the implications these shifts are having in the formulation of theological discourse” (11). Tennent argues for the “mutual exchange” between theologians and missiologists (22), between Christians from old Christendom and new burgeoning areas of religious plurality, in the hopes that with humble collaboration, a beautiful church of Jesus Christ would emerge.

Tennent unapologetically structures his book under major headings of systematic theology (19), which include, theology, bibliology, anthropology, Christology, soteriology, pneumatology, ecclesiology, and eschatology. He explores each topic within the context of emerging churches in non-Western continents, particularly those who have come to know Jesus Christ from an Islam, Hindu, or Buddhist background (21).

Tennent seeks to bridge the gap between students studying systematic theology from a Western perspective and Christians who are from the Majority World asking questions rooted in their culture and traditions. He notes that while there may be some acceptance of cultural translatability—referencing Andrew Walls’ “pilgrim” and “indigenizing” principles (12)—there is a greater hesitancy to accept theological translatability, which he defines as “the ability of the kerygmatic essentials of the Christian faith to be discovered and restated within an infinite number of new global contexts” (16). It is upon this premise that he engages his readers in hopes that they will listen to the various theological questions that are being asked by a rapidly growing church. By structuring his book in this manner, Tennent is bringing this conversation to the forefront, highlighting the fact that it is no longer “mere squabble” among “Christians with strange faces from even stranger places,” but these new Christian voices are influencing what the West has viewed as essential truths and expressions (19).

An example of the significance of this conversation is how Christians from an African heritage express their Christology—see Chapter 5. Tennent begins most of his discussions with a general background to the particular topic of systematic theology from a Western perspective. He then introduces the particular people group or religion and then provides a case-study on how these emerging Christians influence the theological discussion of the specific topic at hand. While many may be comfortable with their “Christology from the shelves of universities” (117), Christians from Africa are challenging Western Christians with a different “ontic expansion of God in Jesus Christ” (111). Tennent demonstrates that these are no longer peripheral matters, but are central to the developing Christology not only in Africa, but for Christians around the world and through time.

In the concluding chapter, Tennent promotes for a “renaissance in Western theological scholarship” (250). He concludes with four key themes that may mutually benefit theological scholarship and missiological praxis, which then will serve “to pull the entire church forward into that great eschatological fact of Jesus Christ” (272).

While a theological scholar may easily dismiss this work due to the brevity and treatment of each theological topic, Tennent is well aware and admits that this book is not exhaustive. Yet, it is “suggestive” of the “general direction of theological inquiry in the context of global Christianity” (271). Theology students studying in Western contexts simply may not have the experience or awareness of some of these matters discussed in Tennent’s book. He provides a broad background and technical language so scholars may, hopefully, engage with these topics and even more so, the people behind them (22).

Tennent writes with experience as a pastor, missionary, and seminary professor (250), thus knowing the strengths and weaknesses of each vocation. While he has nearly twenty years of experience in India and with Hinduism (xxi), he gives fair weight to other regions and beliefs such as Africa, Japan, Latin America, Muslim nations, and China, to name a few. He assesses the complexities of each culture and or religion and the impact they have on theological reflection and practice. He asks in the conclusion of his chapter on theology, “Why do theological students in the West continue to spend countless hours learning about the writings of a few well-known, now deceased, German theologians whose global devotees are quite small, and yet completely ignore over one billion living, breathing Muslims who represent one of the most formidable challenges to the Christian gospel today” (49)? Upon reading this book, at the very least, students will no longer be able to plead ignorance.

On the other side of the spectrum, Tennent also does not want to dismiss the importance of traditional systematic theology. He does not give in to mere syncretism or relativism, but defends against some of the emerging trends with strong biblical references. His posture though is not one of determining which train of thought is most correct, but again “to think more globally about the formation of theology and to expand our own understanding of what it means to be a Christian in the twenty-first century” (xviii).

It is this very theme that interweaves from the beginning of the book to the end. And in doing so, Tennent’s work provides a refreshing critique of Western theological scholarship. During my own studies, I have found that much of Christian reflection is done in a “theological vacuum” (35) and many of the questions being asked have little to no relevance in a globalized, pluralized world. Global or World Christianity should not be an elective course or peripheral topic for students in the West, but rather be mandatory regardless if one ventures out of their comfortable Western lifestyles and thought. At the least, this book may equip Western students to converse with people of different backgrounds. Or with more hope, to humble ourselves to admit that our “experience and expression of Christianity” is not “normative for all Christians everywhere” (6).

In my own reading, it was difficult to pinpoint any major issues with Tennent’s work. Perhaps at times he could be overly harsh on Western Christians, however, I believe his criticisms are warranted. His main audience is Western theology students. Thus, he still uses language, such as kerygmatic or preparatio evangelica, which is tailored to this demographic. However, he provides a glossary at the end of the book to ensure that this work can be used as a platform for all Christians to engage with one another. Another minor point of contention is Tennent’s use of Protestant or Evangelical interchangeably. It may have been helpful if he clarified what he meant by his use of labels, however, it may also reflect how muddy denominational affiliation can be.

Tennent reminds us that “in the context of global Christianity we must first and foremost see ourselves as Christians proclaiming the apostolic faith and only secondarily as Reformed Christians, Pentecostal Christians, Dispensational Christians, or Arminian Christians” (269). With the aid of this book and more importantly with God being sovereign over all, we Christians in the twenty-first century can do our part and begin this long and complex process of being a people from every nation, tribe, people, and language (Rev 7:9).

The author is currently undertaking a Masters in Theological Studies at Regent University.