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5 Trends in the Theology of Majority World Christians

It is thrilling to see those who once were the object of our missionary endeavors now bringing the gospel back to us and reminding us of that which we have largely forgotten. There is an African proverb that comes from the Akan in southern Ghana:

The mother feeds the baby daughter before she has teeth, so that the daughter will feed the mother when she loses her teeth.

Perhaps there is a lesson here for us. The growing and developing church in the Majority World is producing a number of important theological insights that, if heeded, could help stimulate Christian renewal in the West. While it would be a mistake to underestimate the corrosive influence Western liberal theology has had in the Majority World church and in some of the well-established seminaries, many hopeful, promising trends abound.

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There are five broad trends in the lives and witness of the Christians in these newly emerging churches that I find encouraging.

1. Majority world Christians accept the authority of Scripture and, by Western standards, hold a theology considered conservative, orthodox, and traditionalist.

These believers accept the authority of Scripture and hold a theology that, by Western standards, is considered conservative, orthodox, and traditionalist. The sheer numbers of Majority World Christians who affirm the authority of the Scripture stands as a powerful bulwark against the winds of skepticism that have swept across much of the Western academy and church.

2. Majority World Christians are more likely to be morally and ethically conservative.

The fresh voices of the global South on issues such as homosexuality and abortion provide some needed relief for Western conservatives who are exhausted from the seemingly never-ending conflict these issues have produced in many Western denominations today.

3. Majority World Christians are more likely to be sensitive to the Christian responsibility to address issues related to poverty and social justice.

These new, younger churches are more likely to be sensitive to the Christian responsibility to address issues related to poverty and social justice. Evangelicals in particular have sometimes drifted from a more holistic integration between spiritual and social issues that characterized much of evangelical theology and experience. After all, evangelicals played a major role in such important social movements as health care, putting an end to slavery, child labor, and promoting female suffrage. In more recent years evangelicals have been less engaged in issues such as poverty, environmentalism, ethnic reconciliation, AIDS, prison reform, and the ethics of war. Majority World Christians often live in worlds characterized by such widespread corruption, poverty, disease, and oppression that these issues cannot be conveniently ignored as they often are in our large, seeker-driven, and entertainment-oriented middle-class churches.

4. Majority World Christians are experienced at articulating the uniqueness of the gospel in the midst of religious pluralism.

These younger churches are experienced at articulating the uniqueness of the gospel in the midst of religious pluralism. Many of the younger churches are springing up within the larger context of the sometimes dominating presence of some non-Christian religion, such as Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism. In my experience, because of their own backgrounds as well as their close proximity to other living faiths, Majority World Christians understand more profoundly the relationship of Christianity to non-Christian religions. They often approach the continuities with less defensiveness while, at the same time, are surprisingly frank and candid about the glaring discontinuities that inevitably arise when other religions fail to recognize the true dignity of Jesus Christ.

5. Majority World Christians are more likely to grasp the corporate (not just individualistic) dimensions of the teachings of the New Testament.

This is, perhaps, one of the most glaring blind spots in traditional Western theological reflection. The social arrangements of these Christians are far closer to the dynamics present in the first century than to the dynamics of modern Western societies. This factor has certainly influenced the direction of theological discourse in the West.

If these five trends continue to be present in the lifeblood of these new southern Christians, then I am convinced that these Christians will emerge as the new great hope for the sustenance and transmission of the Christian faith in the twenty-first century.

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Theological Translatability

The theological reflections of the Majority World church need to be heard as a part of the normal course of theological study in the West. Certainly our theological discourse is being widely and carefully studied by Christians outside the West. It is time that we enter into a more mutual exchange of ideas.

We already know that the gospel is culturally and geographically translatable—that is, it has found new homes in a vast number of cultures and places. The Christian faith successfully penetrated Jews, Romans, Greeks, Armenians, Copts, Ethiopians, Berbers, Syrians, Persians, and Indians. Within a short period the feat was repeated with Vandals, Goths, Celts, Angles, Saxons, Scandinavians, Slavs, Turks, Russians, and Chinese. This pattern has been repeated over and over throughout church history. Today the worship of Jesus Christ is as likely to be heard from a Swahili-speaking Bantu as from a Spanish-speaking Bolivian. It is clear that the gospel has the potential of being infinitely translatable.

What we further need to recognize is that the Christian faith is not only culturally translatable, it is also theologically translatable. I am defining theological translatability as the ability of the kerygmatic essentials of the Christian faith to be discovered and restated within an infinite number of new global contexts. Today, theologies are being written in Creole as well as in Korean and in dozens of other languages. To be frank, some of these new theologies are too particularized and isolated from historic Christian confessions to be useful for nurturing the faith of the worldwide church. However, many of these theological reflections have the potential of shedding new light on the gospel and helping to correct blind spots and biases that have developed in our own theological reflections.

What is unique about this particular time in Christian history is that today we are not observing a geographic or cultural shift to one new center, but a more complex, multifaceted emergence of what Mbiti calls multiple “centers of universality.” The problem is that even while many in the West are acknowledging the rapid globalization of the church, we remain theologically provincial. As Mbiti has pointed out, even though the center of gravity has shifted from the North to the South, there does “not seem to be a corresponding shift toward mutuality and reciprocity in the theological task facing the universal church.”

Implications of Theological Translatability in the New Global Context

We must take up the challenge to approach the theological task from a more global perspective.

What are some of the practical implications of this?

First, it is vital that we become more informed and conversant with the growing theology from the Majority World church. We can no longer afford to ignore the theological implications inherent in the demographic reality that Christianity is currently experiencing a precipitous decline in the West and that the vast majority of Christians now live outside the West. The typical Christian is no longer an affluent, white, British, Anglican male about forty-five years old, but a poor, black, African, Pentecostal woman about twenty-five years old. This reality will inevitably shape and form the development of theology since new questions are being posed to the text within the larger context of poverty, powerlessness, pluralism, and the inevitable challenges that occur when vernacular languages begin to wrestle with theological issues.

Second, it is important to realize that, while we may live and work within certain well-defined theological systems such as the Reformed or dispensationalist traditions, none of these systems is universal, even though the kerygmatic truths they seek to organize and reflect are. This fact should not lead us to abandon the important task of writing systematic theologies that seek to reflect a consistent system that best reflects our understanding of the whole of the biblical data. Furthermore, this should not lead us to abandon our commitment to teach from a particular theological perspective. Nor should entering a broader, global theological discourse lead us into some nefarious world of theological relativism.

We must find new ways—which may actually be a recovery of more ancient ways—of engaging in a more globally informed discourse with committed Christians from around the world. Hopefully, not only will this effort help enrich our own theological perspectives, but, more important, it will lead us to a deeper understanding of the depositum fidei, that ancient apostolic faith that forms our common confession.

Third, this open and honest exchange will help us to recognize some of our own, less obvious, heresies and blind spots. I have already criticized the misguided tendency within most of Western, mainline Protestantism to secularize Christianity and abandon the historic confessions of the Christian faith. I have expressed a sincere hope that the global church may help to gently, but firmly, guide mainline Protestantism back into the mainstream of historic orthodoxy.

Evangelical churches have their own set of problems as well. Evangelicals have been guilty of turning the gospel into a market commodity, all in the name of evangelism. Far too often the gospel is handled as something to be packaged, popularized, and marketed to various identifiable niches. The call to repentance, the certainty of final judgment, and the reality of hell are seldom mentioned lest it lead to a decline in our “market share.” Evangelicals would rather be a respected “acolyte in the Temple of the Global Market God” than a prophetic voice in a culture that revels in using religious, even Christian, language to baptize the autonomous self. So as we evangelicals in Western churches enter into a more sustained dialogue with many poor and persecuted Christians from around the world who are eagerly reading the Bible and living faithfully for Jesus Christ, it may help to expose our own deep heresies and revitalize our connection to historic Christian faith.

As we engage in this important, although somewhat painful, task we will come to realize that the Christian gospel is translatable not only on the linguistic, cultural, and geographic levels, but also on the theological level. At each of the crucial junctures in the ongoing story of the recession and advance of the church, the theological translatability of the church was tested. Frequently, as in the Protestant Reformation, the newly emerging Christians were forced to restate the kerygma in ways that enabled them to clarify for their own time the crucial issues of the day necessary to keep the church faithful to Christ and the gospel “once for all delivered unto the saints.” Today, as we are in the midst of another major period of recession and advance, it should not surprise us when, during the emergence of these Christian movements, new forms of theological discussions emerge.

These new conversations demand our full and undivided attention. The theological discussion emerging in these new global contexts is not a “mere squabble” among a bunch of new Christians with strange faces from even stranger places, but rather the voices that are transforming the Christian church and changing the trajectory of human history.

This article is excerpted from Timothy C. Tennent’s Theology in the Context of World Christianity. View the newly-released Theology in the Context of World Christianity lectures.

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