Book Review

"Globalizing Theology: Belief and Practice in an Era of World Christianity" editted by Ott and Netland

Samuel T. Logan, Jr.
Craig Ott
Wednesday, May 2nd 2007
May/Jun 2007

Is global warming a problem or not? Well, that depends on whose arguments one reads. However, after a significant amount of recent reading, I have become convinced that it is a major problem and that if I don't do something, I will be violating my responsibilities to the Lord and to my grandchildren.

Is globalization a crucial issue for the church in this year of our Lord 2007? I suggest that, after careful reading of this significant book, thoughtful Christians will conclude that it is a crucial issue and that if we, Christ's people, do not take very serious account of it, we will be violating our responsibilities to the Lord and to his church for generations to come.

The book is a collection of essays in honor of Paul Hiebert, a distinguished anthropologist and missiologist, and is divided into three main sections: "World Christianity and Theological Reflection," "Methodological Issues for Globalizing Theology," and "Implications for Globalizing Theology." As with any such volume, some essays are stronger than others, but all reward careful study, resulting in a helpful resource for the church as it seeks to understand the Kingdom opportunities facing it at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

One of the weaknesses of the book is that every author makes the point that "globalizing theology" is both an indicative and an imperative. The reader can feel a bit overwhelmed by the repetition of this thesis. Yet the book's weakness is also one of its strengths. The repetition of the thesis helped to drive home the point that "globalizing theology" is both an indicative and an imperative. Here is just one statistic, provided by Andrew Walls all the way back in 1989 which sets the stage for the discussions in this book, " In 1900, 83% of the world's Christians lived in North America and Europe. Today [in 1989], something approaching 60% live in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Pacific." From 17 percent to 60 percent in less than a century! And the shift continues. The implications of this staggering shift are what this book explores.

In his "Introduction" to the volume, Harold Netland summarizes a statement by Bong Rin Ro and Ruth Eshenaur to set the stage for what follows:

Western theology is by and large rationalistic, molded by Western philosophies, preoccupied with intellectual concerns, especially those having to do with faith and reason. All too often, it has reduced the Christian faith to abstract concepts which may have answered the questions of the past, but which fail to grapple with the issues of today…. Having been wrought from within Christendom, it hardly addresses the questions of people living in situations characterized by religious pluralism, secularism, resurgent Islam, or Marxist totalitarianism.

So what exactly might "globalizing theology" involve? Here is Netland's very helpful answer:

Globalizing theology is theological reflection rooted in God's self-revelation in Scripture and informed by the historical legacy of the Christian community through the ages, the current realities in the world, and the diverse perspectives of Christian communities throughout the world, with a view to greater holiness in living and faithfulness in fulfilling God's mission in all the world through the church … Although the perennial concerns of theology will remain, the specific issues addressed by theologians should, to some extent, be shaped by the new realities of globalization.

Of course, broad statements like the ones just quoted need to be concretized to be either convincing or helpful. And that's what most of the essays in the book seek to do. Here, for example, is Andrew Walls's concretizing of the claim that Western theology is by and large rationalistic and that there may be other perspectives which would complement Western theology:

Africa is already revealing the limitations of theology as generally taught in the West. The truth is that Western models of theology are too small for Africa. Most of them reflect the worldview of the Enlightenment, and that is a small-scale worldview, one cut and shaved to fit a small-scale universe. Sine most Africa live in a larger, more populated universe, with entities that are outside the Enlightenment worldview, such models of theology cannot cope with some of the most urgent pastoral needs. They have no answers for some of the most desolating aspects of life – because they have no questions. They have nothing useful to say on issues involving such things as witchcraft or sorcery, since these do not exist in an Enlightenment universe. Nor can Western theology usefully discuss ancestors, since the West does not have family structures that raise the questions. Western theology has difficulty coping with principalities and powers, whether in relation to their grip on the universe or to Christ's triumph over them on the cross. The reason is that it is hard for Western consciousness to treat them as other than abstractions. So Western theology has difficulty in relating personal sin and guilt and structural and systemic evil and sometimes offers different gospels for dealing with each or to quarrels as to which has priority. Perhaps Africa, which knows so much about systemic evil and where the principalities and powers are not a strange concept, may open the way to a more developed theology of evil, as the issues already appearing in African pastoral practice are threshed out.

Walls is very careful not to say that Western theology is wrong. It is simply limited, just as African theology is limited. His point is not that the Western church must abandon its traditional theologizing; to do so would weaken the church worldwide. But the Western church does need to recognize that its concerns are not the only legitimate twenty-first century Christian concerns and that Western ways of "doing theology" are not the only ways.

I have had first-hand experience of the kind of phenomena Walls describes and the kind of challenge he is issuing. The World Reformed Fellowship requires that all members submit "ministry reports" annually, allowing all members to see the scope of the Lord's work around the world and to learn from and to assist one another in the accomplishment of ministry. The authors are doing Kingdom work; their contexts call for different expressions of their Kingdom concerns. It is a way of allowing the strengths of a few to become the strengths of all. The gospel is the same everywhere; the challenges to the gospel are, however, quite different and the volume here under consideration calls us to see this and to act accordingly.

Further excellent concretization of the notion that the Western way of theologizing is not the only way of theologizing is provided by Steve Strauss ("Creeds, Confessions, and Global Theologizing: A Case Study in Comparative Christologies") and by Robert Priest ("Experience-Near Theologizing in Diverse Human Contexts").

Strauss examines Christology in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC) and explains why, in that context, use of Chalcedonian terminology in describing Jesus will, in fact, produce heresy rather than orthodoxy. He makes a strong point that EOTC concerns may provide a biblical corrective to some of the Nestorian tendencies of Chalcedonians, while at the same time, the emphases of Western Chalcedonians can help to safeguard the EOTC from Apollinarianism and Eutychianism.

Priest argues that use of the Western word "sin" will be totally ineffective among the Aguarana tribe of northern Peru and suggests ways in which the Aguarana describe what we Westerners mean by "sin" can help to complement (not to replace) the Western understanding of that which offends God and separates sinners from Him.

Additional concrete examples of the limitations of purely Western theological models are provided throughout the book. But what about concrete positive examples of what "global theologizing" might look like? The best essay in the entire volume, Kevin Vanhoozer's, "One Rule to Rule Them All?" provides just such an example.

Here are a couple of quotations from Vanhoozer. The first is his procedural premise with respect to what he sees his suggested model as fundamentally doing: "It affirms a canonic and hence christological principle, namely, that the Spirit speaking in Scripture about what God was/is doing in the history of Israel and climactically in Jesus Christ is the supreme rule for Christian faith, life, and understanding."

Vanhoozer then continues,

The main proposal concerns the nature of doctrine and the purpose of systematic theology. It departs from the stereotypical portrait of systematic theology as an abstract theoretical "science of God" that works primarily with concepts and seeks instead to reorient systematic theology toward sapientia (wisdom) or phronesis: practical reason, lived knowledge. The proposal therefore employs drama theory rather than philosophy as its handmaiden. To anticipate, it views the gospel as essentially dramatic, the Bible as a script, doctrine as theatrical direction, and the church as part of the on-going performance of salvation. It also insists that "theo-dramatic" reason is as imaginative-intuitive as it is analytic-conceptual and that theology's primary aim is to help disciples discern how best to "stage" the gospel of the kingdom of God in concrete situations.

To understand the point Vanhoozer is making, it is crucial to note that he is not dismissing the "analytical-conceptual;" he is arguing that the analytical-conceptual be complemented by the "imaginative-intuitive." Likewise, he is not saying-just as no other author in this volume is saying-that Western models of theologizing must be rejected and abandoned. Vanhoozer's point, and that of the other contributors, is that what has been done so extremely well in the West must be supplemented by models that have been developed and that are being developed by faithful and wise and obedient Christians in other parts of the world, specifically in those parts of the world where Christ's church is growing so dramatically.

Vanhoozer argues that the advantage of using a "theodramatic" model lies in the fact that drama seems to be a much more universal human experience than does the kind of abstract philosophical reasoning which tends to characterize Western theologizing. It thus potentially serves as a better universal handmaiden to theologizing than does abstract philosophizing. But one must read Vanhoozer's essay in its entirety (and his 2005 book, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology) to appreciate the full weight of his arguments.

And that is, of course, true of all the essays in this volume. Reading them will not resolve all the issues related to doing theology in a global context. In fact, reading them is likely to raise questions where there were no questions before. But the reader and the church he/she serves will be significantly richer as those questions are addressed in community with other members of the Body of Christ worldwide.

Wednesday, May 2nd 2007

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

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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