Theology Book Review

Why Evangelical Theology Needs the Global Church

by Stephen T. Pardue
Reviewed date: 2023 Oct 17
191 pages
cover art

Who am I to have an opinion?
When considering my analysis and response to Why Evangelical Theology Needs the Global Church, keep in mind that I am not a theologian. Nor am I a pastor, apologist, evangelist, or missionary. I am an evangelical Christian and I am moderately well-read for a layman. Whether that qualifies me to have an opinion I cannot say. Nevertheless, I've done my best to summarize the book and to indicate whether the theses contained therein are convincing.

But don't take my word for it. Read it for yourself. The book is short (Pardue is concise—a virtue I admire) and accessible. It's not easy reading, but you don't have to be steeped in academic theology to understand it.

Pardue introduces the question that inspired the book: "What difference does it make for evangelical theology that the church is no longer primarily rooted in North America and Europe but increasingly comprises people from an astonishing variety of cultures and nations?"

It's a good question, and Pardue points out that generic appeals to multiculturalism are insufficient. In this book Pardue says he will explain the “compelling reasons internal to the Christian faith” for the evangelical West to look at the theology coming out of the rest of the world.

Next he brings up some terms that will be important throughout the book. First, he makes a distinction between the West (which is, generally, America and Europe, where Christianity's center of gravity has historically been) and the Majority World (which is Asia, Africa, and South America, which is where the majority of Christians live today.) He also introduces the term contextual theology, which (I think) is essentially just theology shaped by cultural context—but he will explain in further detail in a later chapter.

Finally, Pardue gives a preview of what the book will cover, how it is organized, and he lays out his five theses.

Even in this introduction it is obvious that Pardue has done his homework. He is widely read and quotes a lot of people, but he does it in an organic way while making insightful points. He's not name-dropping to borrow other people's credentials or as a sly boast about how well-read he is, he's quoting these people because they make important points that illustrate and illuminate the concepts Pardue is grappling with. After having read books that just throw platitudes and generalities at me, I cannot tell you how delighted I am to encounter a writer who is careful to show his work and root everything he says in tangible examples and real sources. I.e., Pardue never claims people are saying such-and-such without a quote from somebody influential actually saying such-and-such.

1. On God and Gravity: Evangelical Objections to Contextual Theology
I'm glad Pardue started with this chapter, because I have some objections and concerns about contextual theology. He mentions that evangelical theologians, far more than Catholics or mainline Protestants, have resisted contextual theology, and Pardue sees these objections as real and significant: they are rooted in the evangelical zeal for preserving the word of God as revealed in Scripture. (That's the influence of the evangelical high view of the Bible. I.e., the "biblicism" point of the Bebbington quadrilateral.) Pardue's treatment of these objections is serious and deliberate, and I'm glad, because if he dismissed these objections lightly, I would be tempted to take the rest of his book lightly too. But he gives them weight, and responds to them appropriately, and I dare say, convincingly.

Objection: "theology, like science, should operate independent of culture"
This seems reasonable on its face. If God's words are true, then they are true in all circumstances, regardless of culture. They don't depend on culture any more than the law of gravity does. Therefore we should do theology by studying the Bible, and leave culture out of it. In response, Pardue points out what others have said, that science—and in particular, scientific practice—is heavily influenced by culture. For example:

E.g., many North American biologists today are especially concerned with the need for stronger antibiotics to respond to increasingly drug-resistant bacteria, while their counterparts in sub-Saharan Africa are equally focused on mitigating the ongoing impact of malaria and other mosquito-borne illnesses.

Furthermore, Pardue points out that even those who argue against contextual theology do still practice it to some degree: simply translating the Bible from the original languages is a form of cultural contextualization. "[No one], including Hodge, Chafer, or Henry (to my knowledge), has actually argued that Christian theology must use the Koine Greek of the biblical writers or the early church." We can't escape culture when we do theology.

Objection: To avoid idolatry, culture's impact on theology must be kept to a minimum
Again, this seems fair on its face. This is an attempt to avoid syncretism, the mixing of Christianity with pagan cultural elements to create a watered-down, false gospel. As a counterpoint to this, Pardue points out that while evangelicals are on guard against syncretism, "evangelicals have also found themselves in the vanguard of contextualization," for example, by taking "the lead in creating Bible translations that are readable and relevant to everyday people." (Aside: if you're not aware, evangelicals do a lot of missionary work, and a great deal of Bible translation into languages around the world.)

Pardue also points out that the Bible itself offers examples of contextualization. Paul didn't preach to the Gentiles the same way he preached to the Jews. He used different cultural references.

Objection: cultural context may help us apply and express theology, but it should not affect theology's content
This is the objection I found myself tripping over when I first read the title of Pardue's book. Obviously culture influences the way we explain theological truths, and it affects the way we use theology. But it shouldn't influence the content, right? God's truth is eternal and unchanging, right? I have heard progressive Christians say that God's truth changes based on our cultural context; that is, what was sinful in Paul's time is not sinful today, because God actually takes cues from our cultural norms. But as an evangelical who believes the Bible is authoritative, I reject that absolutely. Doesn't this objection severely curtail the usefulness and the necessity for contextual theology? If Pardue can adequately answer this objection, he will be halfway to convincing me. (The second half will be showing me what positive value contextual theology can provide.)

The main response to this objection is that, because we are human beings who live within a particular cultural context, we cannot wholly separate cultural influence from our attempts to understand and discern God's truth from the Scriptures. Pardue summarizes David Clark: "the shaping force of context applies as much to the process of principlizing or abstracting lessons from Scripture as it does to the expression and application of those principles." Pardue doesn't mention this in so many words, but I suspect a great many fundamentalists would disagree, and would claim instead that the Holy Spirit reveals to us the timeless truths from Scripture, free from any cultural context. As I'm not a fundamentalist I will grant Pardue's point.

In what I find to be the strongest line of reasoning, Pardue notes that God uses culture: "in Scripture and in Christ, God chooses to use local languages, genres, and cultures to reveal himself, rather than communicating with us in some supracultural or supralinguistic mode." These cultural aspects are not temporary either: "the perfected humanity of Revelation 7 praises the Lamb in a diversity of tongues rather than leaving their cultural baggage altogether behind."

So, we cannot escape culture and context. It is part of who we are as God created us to be. There are still dangers, though: "our talk of God must not be so dominated by culture that we merely reaffirm what our communities already believe." Pardue closes the chapter by saying that the rest of the book will show how we can make use of culture and context while "preserving the coherence of the church and of Christian teaching."

Pardue has managed to convince me: the objections to contextual theology per se are insufficient. I am still concerned (and Pardue seems to agree that this is a valid concern) that any particular form of contextual theology is in danger of syncretism or of losing core Christian doctrines. But just because something can be done badly does not mean it cannot be done well, and as Pardue points out, we cannot escape cultural context. In that sense, all theology is contextual theology, and to insist that the only valid context is Western thinking is dangerous because we will have no outside voices to raise the alarm when we fall into error. But my thinking is getting ahead of Pardue, so let me put on the brakes and continue reading.

2. A Word Very Near: Contextual Theology and Christian Scripture
All theology is contextual to some degree, but Pardue offers a more nuanced definition:

"With that caveat, for the sake of clarity, we will refer to contextual theologies as those theological efforts that intentionally make use of local cultures and languages as key resources for the theological task." - page 37

Then Pardue takes us on a whirlwind tour of how to categorize contextual theologies. There are different ways of looking at things, but (from an evangelical perspective) it essentially boils down to this: some contextual theologies treat Scripture more highly than others. On one end there are contextual theologies that find God's revelation anywhere and everywhere. For example, there is theologian Rubén Rosario Rodríguez:

“[Rodríguez argues that] Christians [should] look beyond their own canon of revelation for insight into God's being and work. … Specifically, Rodríguez highlights what Christian theology may gain from the revelation to be found in Judaism and Islam, as well as from contemporary movements of liberation, such as the Black Lives Matter movement.” - page 50

Islam? Really? I am deeply skeptical. From my perspective, what Rodríguez is proposing shouldn't even be an option on the table for Christians. I would have liked to see Pardue issue a stronger condemnation of looking to Islam and other false religions as a source of revelation, but he does at least challenge Rodriguez’s dangerous proposal.

"Yet there are powerful reasons to insist that, even when we consider all the other sources that inform the theological task, Christian Scripture must play a uniquely normative and definitive role." - page 51

I still wish he'd been more forceful in pushing back against the proposal of looking to Islam for revelation from God, but I suppose in a book about contextual theology he must look at all the ways people are practicing contextual theology. But he's not forsaking the evangelical emphasis on the Bible as authoritative. In fact, that's one of his theses. For evangelicals, even when doing contextual theology, the Bible must be the source of authority:

"This leads us to our first thesis regarding an evangelical contextual theology: evangelical contextual theologies must look to Scripture as their magisterial authority, even as they increase their appreciation for the crucial ministerial role of culture for the theological task." - page 52

Well put.

Next Pardue uses liberation theology as a case study in contextual theology. He starts with Gustavo Gutiérrez, who created a new way of doing theology that centers the poverty and oppression of people in Latin America. I found Pardue to be far too generous to Gutiérrez and his liberation theology (I say call it like it is: heretical and Marxist, and either one of those should be enough to condemn it) but he does conclude the Gutiérrez and other first-generation theologies of liberation used the Bible only “superficially” and they failed to catch on because they looked at social trends and forces but were not gospel-centered. Which is to say, they lacked an emphasis on personal salvation and personal relationship with Jesus.

OK, so if Gutiérrez's liberation theology is lacking, what's a better way? Pardue points to Ecuadorian theologian René Padilla, who developed a Scripturally-based theological framework called misión integral (Integral Mission) that pairs a high view of Scripture with an understanding that the church has a role to play in fighting poverty and oppression, and in combating "systemic evil."

An aside: I've read Gutiérrez's book A Theology of Liberation but I've never encountered Padilla's ideas before. So while I can easily see the problems with Gutiérrez's liberation theology—he owes more to Marx than to Jesus—I'll take Pardue's word that Padilla's version is more true to the gospel.

Pardue pulls his punches
I would have liked to see Pardue issue a stronger condemnation of looking to Islam and other false religions as a source of revelation. I wish he would have called out Gutiérrez for being heretical and Marxist, either one of which is enough to condemn his liberation theology. Pardue does, ever so gently, explain why their theologies are wrong or out of balance. But as I ponder this, it occurs to me that if Pardue were to forcefully call out someone for heresy, that claim would overshadow everything else in the book. People who might otherwise read the book and learn something will get hung up—triggered, one might say—by such a statement, and would no longer be open to anything else Pardue might have to say.

3. The Wealth of the Nations Shall Come to You: How Culture Matters for Theology
The thesis of this chapter is: "evangelical contextual theologies must acknowledge culture as a material theological good, a gift from God designed for the benefit of the church." That is, culture is not only necessary, but it is good.

Pardue spends a lot of time talking about what culture is, how various anthropologists define it. Then, to demonstrate the culture is good, he looks at the biblical example of Babel, where God accelerates cultural diversity. (He also explains why the text of that biblical account is not just about language, but about culture and people groups.) Then he ties it to what we see at Pentecost and in Revelation 7: "Babel is undone not through a return to a monolingual, monocultural past but through a redemption of vast cultural and linguistic diversity." Culture is not a curse. It's a blessing, and although we've made our cultural differences into sources of conflict, culture will be redeemed in the end. Until that time, we can recognize that culture is a gift from God, but at the same time, sometimes we create evil things. Eg, sometimes culture perpetuates racism and sexism.

Finally, Pardue looks at a concrete example: Carver T. Yu, a Chinese theologian in Hong Kong, takes the concept of ren (which has the sense of communal human flourishing, I think) from Confucianism and uses this to communicate to a Chinese audience the depths of what salvation in Christ means. Yu is not afraid to criticize the culture, though: he sees that market capitalism has created a highly transactional view of marriage in China, and he identifies the biblical concept of covenantal love as the solution.

I must admit some confusion after this chapter. I see that evangelical theology must be attuned to the culture. An American theology would likely entirely miss the need for a theological response to transactional marriage, because marriage in Western culture is seen in romantic, not financial, terms. But…what does this mean practically for theologians? Does this mean that American theologians must learn from Chinese theologians, and vice versa? Or does it just mean that theologians must work independently in the culture they know? In other words, is there an inherent good in a cross-pollination of ideas? Or is it enough that the American theologian speaks to Americans and the Chinese theologians to a Chinese audience?

4. A Great Multitude From Every Tribe and Tongue: Grounding Contextual Theology in the Doctrine of the Church
Note: I took a break after reading the first three chapters. After I came back from the break and picked up at chapter 4, my note-taking was less comprehensive. From this point, my review is a rough draft consisting of fragmentary notes. My apologies.

p92 "evangelical contextual theologies should look to the Christian doctrine of the church in order to coordinate the once-for-all of the gospel and the remarkably diverse expressions of the faith that emerge in the real world."

Pardue says we can attempt to ground contextual theologies in three different concepts, but each of them have flaws. The best answer is to look to the doctrine of the church. The three flawed concepts are:

  • Process of globalization
  • Doctrine of the Trinity
  • Doctrine of the incarnation

Economic and consumerist, not a model for good theology. (My response: Pardue is a bit too willing to see the problems with globalization and less willing to highlight the absolutely stunning advances that have brought about an unprecedented alleviation of global human suffering. Globalization of the economy has been a boon in almost every conceivable way. But that's a minor quibble.)

anchor contextual theologies in the trinity.

"The concepts developed by Christian theologians for understanding the plurality and unity in the Godhead point to a strategy for engaging the wild diversity of culture and the created order discovered in modernity with hope instead of despair." p96. I do not know what this means. I do not know what it could possibly mean. It is words strung together with no tangible idea underlying them. Or possibly I have completely misunderstood what Pardue is saying.

Trinity -> points away from monarchy and toward social orders that embody equality, not oppression and marginalization. Mutuality, mutual submission, communion. My response: I don't see the connection. This is too clever by half.

p98 - but monotheism does not naturally lead to oppression

p98-99 NT claims are not about egalitarian social structure, it's about God incarnated as a man

p99 Also this is a misunderstanding of the Trinity as "independent cooperative beings."

p102 not just Jesus, but a "model for the church"

Should the church "incarnate" to local cultures to reach people? Does this lose the distinctiveness of the gospel? Or can we be all things to all people, but still retain the gospel distinctive?

p107 the doctrine of the church -> that's a better place to ground contextual theology

Simon Chan, Singaporean theologian
Asian contextual theologies fail by focusing too much on West vs. East thinking, being intentionally different from the West. And they focus on the Spirit's work outside of Scripture and outside the church.

Corrective: see where the Spirit is working in the church. The Spirit's work outside the church is in preparation to bring people into the church.

Chan says to study and listen to the church. Asian culture is built on religious worship at home in family units. Christianity thus rips people from their basic social unit, their families. Western-style individualistic church structure and culture is not a sufficient replacement for what Asian Christians lose when they follow Christ.

Asian churches thus develop a more collectivist ideology and practice. E.g., ministerial dress codes, communal "faith homes," group missions, and radical hospitality across castes. Another point: ancestor veneration brings to mind the doctrine of "communion of the saints" including the dead, which the West tends to dismiss as pagan.

5. The Children of God Scattered Abroad: Contextual Theology in the Fellowship of the Worldwide Church
Contextual theology must engage the Great Tradition of the church. Unity, catholicity, holiness, and apostolicity. But mostly unity/catholicity.

ancestor Christology in Africa and Asia, where Christ fulfills—even better—the role that ancestors play in the local cultural worship traditions. Challenged by some as not a fully valid comparison or illustration.

Puerto Rican theologian Jules Martinez-Olivieri
A kind of liberation theology, but grounded in the Trinity and the historical person of Jesus, and the work of the Spirit.

  • Awareness of the full Christian tradition
  • Openness to other voices
  • Wisdom, discernment, patience

6. A Great Cloud of Witnesses: Contextual Theology in the Fellowship of the Saints
Look to history, not just present-day theologies.

Thesis five: evangelical contextual theologies should engage the Great Tradition of the church, finding there a rich treasury to support contemporary renewal as well as a community that helps prevent slavish obedience to the theological present.

p146 evangelicals are skeptical of culture and tradition, even—or especially—our own. E.g., insisting we throw away Western ideas in order to reach new people groups. Maybe there is some value in Western thought?

p147 primary task of evangelical missionaries is to cut away traditions and history to introduce people to the pure, authentic gospel. But we lose the value of tradition. So, just give them the Bible. My thoughts: this is unlike, say, the American Baptists who also set up Bible schools and seminaries, helped the people organize. This isn't polluting them with Western ideas, it's giving them tools.

p152-3 "Thus the New Testament offers a vision of tradition as a central, life-giving force that acts not only to demarcate and preserve doctrinal boundaries, but also to spur the living saints on to a life of holy commitment to divine purposes."

theologians of retrieval -> recover truth from older works and traditions. Compare to local theologies/contextual theologies.

Kwame Bediako looked to the 2nd century church to see how they handled a growth similiar to what Africa is experiencing.

Pardue sums up and gives a recap.

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