Book Review

"Christianity at the Religious Roundtable: Evangelicalism in Conversation with Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam" by Timothy C. Tennent

John D. Koch, Jr.
Timothy C. Tennent
Friday, April 29th 2011
May/Jun 2011

In the twenty-first century, as globalization continues to draw people of different religions into closer and closer proximity, it is good to be reminded that for much of our history, Christians were engaged in intense and fruitful dialogue’whether by choice or necessity’with adherents of other religions. Indeed, the apostle Peter enjoined the nascent first-century church to be "prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect" (1 Pet. 3:15, ESV). Christianity at the Religious Roundtable by Timothy C. Tennent, current president of Asbury Theological Seminary, is a book that strikes just this sort of elusive balance between reason, gentleness, and respect.

This book, explains Tennent, is "based on the premise that genuine dialogue can occur in a way that is faithful to historic Christianity and yet is willing to listen and respond to the honest objections of those who remain unconvinced" (240). This book is situated squarely between a comparative religion textbook and an apologetic for the Christian faith. Tennent locates himself along the well-known inclusivist/exclusivist missional spectrum as an engaged exclusivist, a position he argues that recognizes that "while we must be careful not to allow general revelation to swallow up special revelation (inclusivism), we must not relinquish the basic truth that there is a continuity between the two" (26). In other words, this book is written from the perspective of a convicted Christian who allows the mutually exclusive and competing truth-claims of Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam to speak for themselves. The subject matter alone makes it a must-read for anyone interested in gaining a deeper knowledge of how these four world faiths interact, but its particular strengths and uniqueness lie in its layout, content, and conviction.

Tennent separates the book into two distinct sections: a roundtable dialogue followed by three case studies. In explaining the layout of the book, Tennent writes, "What makes this book distinctive is that it is more than a one-way defense of historic Christianity. The upcoming dialogues allow for a vigorous, two-way exchange of ideas" (27). This exchange, he notes, is not without precedent, as his is written with the idea of Martin Luther's famous religious roundtable discussions’later known as "Table Talk"’firmly in sight. "The present work," he writes, "seeks to emulate the give-and-take of Luther's talks in an informal, noncombative way for the mutual edification of all who participate" (28).

In the first section, the interreligious dialogues are based upon "numerous formal and informal conversations that the author has had with non-Christians around the world, [and] presents fictional conversations between an evangelical-Christian and members of the three largest non-Christian religions’Hin-duism, Buddhism, and Islam"(29-30). The second section of the book’the case studies of Justin Martyr, Brahmabandhav Upadhyay, and A. G. Hogg’is a thought-provoking and valuable addendum to the foregoing dialogues. Keeping with the theme and tenor of the book, these studies are presented with little criticism or comment, although they are followed by thoughtful discussion questions, which could be used by a teacher or leader to help work through the implications of each case study presented.

In addition to its helpful layout, the book is to be commended for its depth of content’evidenced by the need for an appended thirteen-page glossary’that reflects its stated intention to take each religion seriously, and the Christian religious terminology is no exception! Not only will the reader learn the differences between how Madhyamika and Yogacara Buddhists articulate the Dharma-kaya, or the intricacies of Hindu cosmology as it developed during the Vedic period, but the reader will be (re)introduced to similarly sophisticated Christian theological concepts concerning the nature of the Trinity, ontology, and epistemology.

In an intriguing move, Tennent does not directly address each faith's soteriology’the question of salvation. Instead, he begins each dialogue with a discussion of the respective doctrine of God (or lack thereof) upon which each theological system is grounded. Tennent then follows up with a particular doctrine distinct to each. This silence on soteriological particulars, explains Tennent, "is an important and strategic omission that is intentional….I strongly believe it is virtually impossible to really explore this question without understanding it within the larger worldview and context of the religion" (32). In this way, each is allowed to articulate its own beliefs concerning the nature of reality and existence of God and, as such, the soteriological framework is revealed.

Finally, the most refreshing and commendable aspect of this book is its conviction. "True interreligious dialogue," he argues, "acknowledges that all religions in one way or another seek to defend certain truth claims. It is not fair to any religion to allow it to be ensnared in the swamp of religious pluralism, which concludes that we are all saying the same thing" (240). An acknowledgment of just such real differences between religions is the first step toward developing genuine relationships’not superficially concocted ones’between convicted people of differing faiths. "True witness to someone of another faith," writes Tennent, "means that we must understand his or her actual position, not a caricature of it" (241). Needless to say, those who deny the validity of any sort of objective truth-claims both within Christianity and without will find fault with this book, and its technical specificity may make it seem inaccessible to the casual reader; however, its conviction and sophistication are exactly what is to be commended, because it is just this combination that has characterized the best of the historic Christian witness and is itself a testament to the gospel.

Friday, April 29th 2011

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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