A review of Timothy C. Tennent’s “Theology in the Context of World Christianity”

Tennent, Timothy C. Theology in the Context of World Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007.

Timothy Tennent is the president of Asbury Theological Seminary and is the author of numerous books on missiology, including Christianity at the Religious Roundtable and Invitation to World Missions.[1] He is a blogger, a former theology professor in India, and the former pastor of a North American church. He received his Ph.D. in Non-western Christianity with a focus on Hinduism and Indian Christianity from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.[2] He is ordained in the United Methodist Church.

Tennent’s book, Theology in the Context of World Christianity, challenges Christians in the West to reconsider the myopia of Western Christianity (17) and welcome the rich theological insights of the Majority World church. He highlights the “theological translatability” of the gospel in global theological conversation, but he clarifies that this is not synonymous with syncretism (2). He also addresses the danger of over-contextualization in the ecclesiastical milieu of indigenous Muslim communities (217).

Tennent confronts the reader with the controversial task of determining whether or not Christians and Muslims worship the same God (27). Using a convincing etymological and historical approach, he argues that the words “Allah” and “God” can and should be used interchangeably in a Muslim context (37) so long as the “predicates of Christian identity” are retained (38). That is to say, the word “Allah” may be used in order to connect with the Muslim background conception of God, but the ontological particulars and uniqueness of the biblical revelation of the Trinity must be transmitted as well. However, this seems to clash with Tennent’s own view that “Christians can celebrate with Muslims their timely rejection of idolatry and their acceptance of monotheism” (44).

Continuing his discussion of global discourse, Tennent attempts to draw a line of congruity with the sacred texts of Christianity and Hinduism. He effectively communicates the benefits of using a religious culture’s existing sacred texts in evangelistic discourse in order to break down the existing walls of defense (71). He points out that, in Acts 14 and 17, Paul used the words of revered pagan writings to communicate general truths about the one true God in order to build a bridge for the communicability of the gospel. Using Paul, Tennent gives a very helpful hypothetical example of using the Upanishads to contextualize the gospel for Hindus (72).

Tennent’s insightful perspectives on Eastern religious backgrounds continue with his discussion on how the atonement is viewed in shame-based cultures. Tennent says, “In the cross Jesus bore our shame as well as our guilt” (91). Tennant argues that the public shaming of Jesus on behalf of sinners cannot be missed in the pages of Scripture. The scandal of this substitutionary shaming translates well into Eastern cultures where the largely social aspect of honor retention is valued more than anything else, whereas the West focuses heavily on the personal individualistic nature of conversion.

The church’s doctrinal roots in Western creedal formulations can often be taken for granted in the scheme of global theology. However, the Christology formulated in many African churches happens in more of a grassroots environment with or without the aid of Western missionaries (109). In chapter five, Tennent compares and contrasts the Christ of the Scriptures, the Christ of Western missionaries, and Christ the Healer of African indigenous Christianity. He brings in more Majority World voices in this chapter than any other and benefits the reader with a well-rounded view of African Christology.

Tennent’s stellar work in chapter five is met in chapter six with a complex, unnecessary overload of information in order to draw similarities between Christianity and Shin Buddhism. Despite an in depth synopsis of the concept of grace in Shin Buddhism, the author fails to successfully relate it to the concept of grace in the biblical sense (156). Tennent concedes that the idea of Shin Buddhism is merely “the desperate cry for grace” pushing its way “to the surface of world religions” (158).

Tennent’s chapter on pneumatology in Latin American Christianity is extremely helpful. He deals with many of the major issues in the Latin American church, specifically the rise of Pentecostalism and the reciprocal decline of Roman Catholicism. He is, however, obviously sympathetic to the Pentecostal movement, but given his amiable description of the movement, it is easy to see why he would stand behind it.

In the book’s most fascinating chapter, Tennent compares the eschatologies of Jonathan Edwards and the Chinese Back to Jerusalem Movement. Although the two eschatologies are separated by centuries and cultures, the result is the same: emphatic evangelism. Tennent does a spectacular job of drawing the lines of demarcation in the two eschatologies while still relating the similar outcomes based on their respective views of the return of Christ.

Tennent’s flow of thought in this book is biblically and exegetically driven. His arguments are solid and are based on biblical, historical, and cultural data, but at times he veers off the mark perhaps by either accommodating the religious culture too much or overloading the reader with background specifics. Overall, the book is readable and profound. It will benefit all Western Christians, especially those who have a waning zeal for world missions.

[1] http://www.asburyseminary.edu/about/office-of-the-president/

[2] http://timothytennent.com/about/

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