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/

A review of Fred Sanders’ “The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything”

Sanders, Fred. The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010.

Fred Sanders received his Ph.D. in Systematic Theology at Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California, and he is currently Associate Professor at the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He specializes in the Trinity and has written extensively on the topic since 1998. His prolific work includes contributions to numerous seminary level theological textbooks and scholarly journals, and he has authored three books of his own, two of which are on the topic of the Trinity. Sanders is also a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and speaks regularly at their annual and regional meetings across the United States.[1]

Sanders’ book, The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything, is an endeavor to show “that the doctrine of the Trinity inherently belongs to the gospel itself” (9). To accomplish this task, Sanders labors to remind his readers of evangelicalism’s deeply Trinitarian past, and he exhorts the church to recover it’s vitality though a reorientation with what the church has really known to be true all along, namely that the Trinity/gospel relationship is at the absolute core of the Christian faith (13, 26).

Sanders’ acquaintance with historical theology is evident from the outset of The Deep Things of God. He draws extensively from the abundance of Trinitarian works produced by the church throughout the centuries, from the patristic to the modern periods. His focus, however, remains on the Bible and its overwhelming Trinity/gospel-centeredness. In the introductory pages, Sanders utilizes a mix of both historical theology and what one could only describe as type of dry British whimsy, which is unfortunately isolated to the introduction (8).

The Trinity as tacit Christian reality is a theme that permeates the book, and Sanders uses the testimony of notorious gangster turned evangelist, Nicky Cruz, to illustrate this point (28-33). Cruz was converted from a life of crime and was instrumental in reaching countless criminals and addicts with the gospel (29), but he did not come to realize the depths of the Trinity in his own life until after he had been a Christian for quite some time. His eventual realization of the triune work of God in his life changed “everything about his Christian life” (32). Sanders calls it, getting “on the inside of the doctrine” or “understanding it from within” (32). He interjects this tacit reality of the Trinity with an overly technical excursus on “liturgy, tradition, and sacraments” (51) calling for a resurgence of Trinitarian worship in evangelical churches.

The Trinity as it relates to the church can be understood only when the primacy of the intra-Trinitarian happiness of God is realized (62). The gospel is rooted in the perfect happiness of the preexistent Trinity and extends to sinners “out of an astonishing abundance of generosity” (65). Sanders uses a combination of somewhat helpful diagrams to illustrate, in admittedly imperfect ways (75), the dimensions of how a right understanding of the Trinity impacts the Christian life. Again, Sanders’ goal is to get the reader focused simultaneously on the Trinity and the gospel cohesively and inseparably.

After discussing the details of the inherent happiness of God, Sanders ventures to display the immensity of the gospel, that God is “taking us into the fellowship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to be our salvation” (98). By briefly and brilliantly working out Ephesians 1:3-14 by utilizing the work of Thomas Goodwin, Henry Scougal, and others, Sanders concludes that the gospel “is the work of the untamable holy Trinity” (101) and “is God-sized, because God puts himself into it” (117). Lamenting the current state of Trinity-evasion in the church, Sanders invites his readers to see how the gospel unfolds in the economic Trinity, to embrace the order in which the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit employ themselves for the redemption of sinners (136-142).

The importance of practical application of tacit Trinitarianism cannot be overstated, and Sanders addresses this issue in three stages: experiential spirituality, Scripture, and prayer. He deals adequately with Trinitarian spirituality and considers Francis Schaeffer’s work on the subject in depth. Sanders uses some very helpful illustrations of how the “Trinity, economy of salvation, and evangelical experience” are related (187), and he rightly points out that Trinitarians do not ascend to knowledge of the trinity; they go deeper into what they already have (184). However, Sanders’ description of the relationship between Scripture and the Trinitarian life needs some refining. His comparison of Adolph Saphir, The Fundamentals, and Philip Mauro is slightly confusing (195-199) as is his section, “Love Songs the Bible’ (202).

The book concludes with one of the most important Trinitarian topics: prayer. His conclusion begins well as he explains how to pray as Scripture exhibits, “to the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit” (214). Unfortunately, however, Sanders spends so much time discussing C.S. Lewis’ views on the Trinity that the book abruptly ends almost as though the last chapter should have been expanded into two and then rearranged.

Overall, Fred Sanders has produced a wonderful book to entice the modern Christian to reorient himself to his Trinitarian roots. The Trinity is the gospel, and Christians should indeed revisit and explore all that God is and all that he has done in the gospel. Apart from some stylistic incongruities, The Deep Things of God is a fantastic book that should be in the hands of every thinking Christian.

[1] http://bds.biola.edu/faculty/cvs/fred_sanders.pdf