The worldwide growth of Christianity has brought about a flowering of theological perspectives. Yet many Western theologians have little familiarity with theologians working in non-Western contexts. Stephen T. Pardue, a professor at the Asia Graduate School of Theology, addresses this problem in a new book, Why Evangelical Theology Needs the Global Church. J. Nelson Jennings, editor of the journal Global Missiology, spoke with Pardue about the blessings of engaging with majority-world theologians.
Over the course of your life, you’ve spent significant time in both the United States and the Philippines, where you currently live and teach. How has that background shaped your thinking on theology and the global church?
Like most culturally hybrid people, I couldn’t possibly trace all the intricacies of how I’ve been shaped. One of my joys in writing the book was getting to reflect on these complex realities, which often get either ignored or oversimplified in theological books. In my own book, I try to move beyond these simplifications—for example, speaking of “Eastern” and “Western” theologies as if all theologians within these categories think the same way. I hope readers will feel invited to consider how the cultural plurality of God’s people helps us hear the Good News more fully.
Why, to invoke your book title, does evangelical theology need the global church?
We need the input of the whole church to thrive. This means not just celebrating the church’s growing diversity for vague reasons of politeness or political correctness, but developing a coherent framework for how culture can inform our theology without undermining its primary focus: the triune God revealed in Scripture.
One of my big themes is that the “younger” parts of the majority-world church are an underappreciated theological resource. At the same time, the goal should not be simply to reverse the imbalance by ignoring the contributions of North American or European churches.
We can deepen our theological perspective by attending to the exciting work happening in majority-world churches while also acknowledging that we need the whole body of Christ—east, west, north, and south. Importantly, this includes paying close attention not only to the full range of churches today, but also learning from Christians of previous generations.
You argue that theology always arises within a given cultural context. How do you reconcile this belief with the evangelical commitment to God’s eternal, unchanging nature?
Evangelicals are correct to ensure that doing theology involves hearing the voice of God—something outside of us that is speaking to us. The problem is that we’ve used this conviction as a license to downplay the influence of culture and language on theological reflection. We tend to bracket culture to one side and reserve it for the end of the theological process, so to speak—we’ve distilled various “timeless truths,” and now we need to express them in culturally relatable ways.
But this is not God’s strategy for communicating with us, which incorporates media, language, and practices adopted from ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman culture. We have a divine mandate to make the gospel at home in every culture, and that involves not just translating it well but also recognizing how culture can help (and potentially hurt) us in this process.
In current conversations about the relationship between evangelical theology and culture, you hear echoes of earlier conversations about evangelical theology and church tradition. How are these conversations following similar trajectories?
A few decades ago, most evangelicals weren’t thinking of church tradition as a theological resource. There were textbooks that barely referenced what Christians of previous generations had believed. But more recently, evangelical theologians have come to embrace tradition as a crucial resource for addressing theological questions we’re facing today.
I think we’re at the beginning of something similar with culture. For decades, some evangelicals denied that culture has any formative role to play in the theological process. But increasingly, theologians are conscious that culture matters. It’s inescapable. As with tradition, we should be more intentional about engaging it wisely.
The book mentions that God has “even [been] willing to risk confusion and syncretism,” having “first moved to accept the risks of deep cultural engagement.” What do you mean here?
To clarify: I don’t think these are risks from God’s sovereign perspective. But the work of enculturating the Christian faith does entail some risky processes.
Any missionary or Bible translator has encountered this dynamic. You ask questions like “How do we describe God?” You can try introducing an entirely new word—perhaps by importing something from Hebrew, Greek, or American English. But when early Christians were bringing the gospel into new places, they didn’t import from beyond. Instead, they took from within, recognizing the risk that people might confuse the Christian conception of God with concepts that already existed in their culture. They did this because they saw God do it first in Scripture.
Of course, we want to be wise in taking risks. We make every effort to point at the triune God of Scripture and not some other concept or deity. But we are obliged to jump into this messy process because God has done it first.
Why, in your view, has the doctrine of the church gone relatively overlooked in discussions of theology and global Christianity?
When we think about contextual theology, the doctrine that usually comes to mind is the Incarnation. And this is natural—it’s the clearest example of God, who is outside of culture and time, entering human reality in a specific place. In Jesus, God speaks with remarkable particularity: in a certain language, even a certain accent.
Yet I don’t think the Incarnation is a good model for understanding what theologians are doing when they proclaim the Good News in a new culture. The Incarnation is a unique event where a God outside of culture comes and dwells within it. But as theologians, our starting point is never outside of culture.
The church is essential here, because it is the vehicle God has designed to bring this crazy diversity of humanity into a single household. Especially in the Book of Acts, we see this process of blending different cultures is actually the divinely ordained space within which theology is supposed to emerge. And if that’s the case, then cultural diversity of the church must matter for the task of theology.
I’ve been greatly influenced by the work of Simon Chan, an Asian theologian. Chan is concerned about efforts at contextual theology that ignore the church. It’s an understandable temptation in the Asian context—where Christians, for the most part, are a tiny minority—to look outside the church for where God might be working. But Chan argues that this is something of a dead end in that it ignores how Christians in these places are already allowing their faith to make a deep acquaintance with their local cultures. If we look there, we can learn to see the church as a fertile ground for building a contextual theology.
What do you most hope readers will take away from your book?
I hope they will appreciate not only the theoretical arguments, but also the specific, on-the-ground detail. I hope they’ll focus on the case studies, which essentially say, Here’s the payoff; here’s what happens when we allow culture to have this formative influence in theology while keeping Scripture in the lead role. Come and enjoy what God is doing, and allow it to nourish your church wherever you are.
[This interview has been amended, since its posting, to better reflect the timeline of when the book’s author, Stephen Pardue, lived in the United States and the Philippines.]
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.