Escaping from the Prison of a Westernized Gospel

“The dynamic of Christianity…is not in the sacredness of cultural forms—even those that God once used. The Christian dynamic is in the venturesomeness of participating with God in the transformation of contemporary cultural forms to serve more adequately as vehicles for God’s interaction with human beings. What we seek is a Christianity equivalent in its dynamics to that displayed in the pages of the New Testament.”1

Since the beginning of the new millennium, mission has been facing a dramatic shift in direction, from the East and South to the rest of the world. Mission is multidirectional, from everywhere to everywhere. Indeed, the majority of missionaries today come from the Global South.

This poses a challenge for Western churches, imprisoned as they are by the view that Western theology is universally valid. The Greco-Roman, Western framework of Christianity has remained in force up until our time. The Western character of the Church has resulted in churches that were born as a result of missionary work and therefore have adopted a Western style of belief.

Fundamentally, Christianity is universally equal for all; however, the forms of Christianity have not always been so.

In order to realize such universality, Christians in all cultures and nations have an equal right to produce their interpretation of the Christian faith. This implies a need for self-theologizing. Churches in the West carried out such self-theologizing for centuries. This was largely based on a shared culture. It is time to realise the limitations of that culture. We are obliged to seriously study our relationship with our own culture and how this relationship formed our understanding of the gospel. “A plurality of cultures,” writes David Bosch, “presupposes a plurality of theologies and therefore, for Third-World churches, a farewell to a Eurocentric approach…The Christian faith must be rethought, reformulated, and lived anew in each human culture.”2

A Norwegian colleague, Notto Thelle, uses the term “the double conversion of the missionary” to describe his own life and his encounter with people of a different faith in Japan. This encounter changed him as a missionary and made his Christian faith unfold in a larger world. I experienced something similar. Ten years in Ethiopia and many additional years in close contact with China and Asia have changed my life, my faith, and my theology. Two additional factors along the road of conversion were (1) meeting with the East-African Revival and (2) encountering growing and transformed churches and Christians in Ethiopia and China.

  
The biblical texts do not suit the unengaged theology of
the Enlightenment. For the same reason, the missiology of the
Global South resonates most closely with the biblical texts.

Letting Missiology Challenge Western Theology
This has, in the course of the years, made me realise that our Western theology is in “Constantine” bondage. This bondage implies a deep crisis of communication. The way out of the bondage and into the future is to let missiology challenge and even replace my Western theology.

The Asian missiologist Hwa Yung claims that “any authentic indigenous theology—indeed, any theology for that matter—must be missiological and pastoral in its fundamental conception.”3 Missiological means that which relates to the mission of the Church; pastoral refers to the process of nurturing the growth of converts and bringing them and their churches to maturity in faith and witness. This implies that the pastoral is linked to the missiological: “If the above is correct, then every theology must ultimately be judged by its efficacy in enhancing or obstructing the mission of Christ, the missio Dei.”4

My first years in Ethiopia made me realise that major parts of the theology I inhaled as a student in Copenhagen in the 1960s were quite far from being “authentic indigenous theology.” Rather, it was a theology developed within the Constantine epoch and therefore characterised by the fact that the Church was more preoccupied with “Christianization” than with mission. Today, we staunch, conservative Lutherans—and other established churches—need to admit that we are at the end of an era. This calls for a dramatic readjustment process.

As a university student I was drawn into a Western theology which, in many ways, was what Yung calls “unengaged.” We were children of the Enlightenment and therefore distinguished between theory and practise. It was my encounter with theologies from the Global South, first in Africa and then as a doctoral student at the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary, that helped me understand that theology cannot and must not be separated from the concrete world.

Truth cannot be separated from practise, and orthopraxis is as important as orthodoxy. Theology must therefore be based on missional/missionary experience—that was how the theology of the early Church came into being, as a theoretical framework of a conceptual thinking based on concrete mission experience. Theological thinking must be missiological thinking if it aims to hold together practise and theory.

The Bible as Casebook of Mission
The New Testament narratives are the prime examples of this. The Bible was not intended to be a textbook in theology, but to be a casebook about mission—God’s mission and our mission. The Bible includes narratives about the God who acts to our salvation and therefore equips his people to be sent to the world. Theology is therefore meant to be “an accompanying manifestation of the Christian mission and not a luxury of the world-dominating Church.”5

The Gospels are clearly written to witness about Jesus Christ to diverse target groups in the Greco-Roman world, and all the epistles have grown out of the pastoral needs of the new congregations in a mission situation. There was hardly time and space for the theological research of today. Rather, the scriptures of the New Testament came into being “in the context of an emergency situation, of a Church which, because of its missionary encounter with the world, was forced to theologize.”6

The biblical texts do not suit the unengaged theology of the Enlightenment. For the same reason, the missiology of the Global South resonates most closely with the biblical texts.7 A major problem, however, is that it is most often the Western, unengaged theology that has been exported to the rest of the world as part of the missionary period from the end of the eighteenth century.
 

This theology has become largely speculative, and often irrelevant to the mission and pastoral concerns of the Church in the Global South and in the West. It represents a blind alley and should not be regarded as the norm of Christian theology. This implies that we, together with the younger churches in the Global South, must protest against this theology; it is inadequate as a model for an engaged theology. It is a blind alley also in light of the Christian understanding and tradition as we find it in scripture, in the early Church and in the Reformation.

Authentic Theology Based on Pastoral and Missiological Practise of the Church
There can be no authentic theology unless it is based on the pastoral and missiological practise of the Church. Such an authentic theology will demand a personal engagement from the Christian and from the congregation: “Just as the church ceases to be church if it is not missionary, theology ceases to be theology if it loses its missionary character.”8

The first door out of my Western prison is called contextualization and enculturation. Let me say a few words about enculturation9:

  1. The two primary agents in enculturation are the Holy Spirit and the local community (the laity more than the clergy), not a missionary from another culture.

  2. The focus is on the local situation. God prefers to use the local dialect and relate to the social, economic, political, and religious context.
  3. Churches need to relate on a regional level in the same way as the Protestant Reformation was an enculturation of the gospel in a Germanic context. In our time and age, it therefore makes sense to talk about an African or an Asian theology.
  4. Enculturation is about incarnation. The Church, the witness to the gospel, is being born anew in each context and culture.
  5. Enculturation is both a matter of enculturation of Christianity and of Christianization of culture. It is like the flowering of a seed that has been planted into the soil of a particular culture.

A second door out of the Western prison is to look critically at how we have identified the Church with the elite rather than with the marginalised classes. Indeed, this was a major reason why the churches were alienated from the working classes. How may a nineteenth-century, middle-class church come to terms with the twenty-first century?

The questions we need to ask ourselves are: (1) How can Western systematic theology continue to act as if it is universally valid and almost dismiss the contributions coming from the Global South? and (2) How is it possible for a Western theology to close its eyes to the screaming fact that the Church is confronted with a mission situation—and not with “Christianization”?

Endnotes

1. Kraft, Charles. 2005. Christianity in Culture: A Study in Dynamic Biblical Theologizing in Cross-Cultural Perspective. Maryknoll, New York, USA: Orbis Books, 382.

2. Bosch, David. 1991. Transforming Mission. Maryknoll, New York, USA: Orbis Books, 452.

3. Yung, Hwa. 1997. Mangoes or Bananas? The Quest for an Authentic Asian Christian Theology. Oxford: Regnum, 19.

4. Martin Kähler, quoted from Bosch’s Transforming Mission. 16.

5. Kähler, quoted Bosch’s Transforming Mission. 16.

6. Bosch, Transforming Mission. 16.

7. See Philip Jenkins’ The New Face of Christianity. Believing in the Bible in the Global South. 2006. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

8. Bosch, Transforming Mission. 494.

9. Taken from Bosch’s Transforming Mission. 452ff.


Dr. Knud Jørgensen is dean of Tao Fong Shan in Hong Kong and associate professor at the Norwegian School of Theology.