This essay is a response given at the 2021 Christian Scholars’ Conference to papers presented by S. Twumasi-Ankrah, Daniel Salinas, and Melinda (Mindi) Thompson, which are also published in this issue of Missio Dei. Writing as the dean of the College of Bible and Ministry at Lipscomb University (Nasvhille, TN), the author highlights the implications of each paper for the “adapt-or-die season” in which Western theological education finds itself.
A Response to Sam Twumasi-Ankrah, Daniel Salinas, and Melinda Thompson1
These three papers all address specific and important matters pertaining to the West’s missional relationship to the Global South. Sam Twumasi-Ankrah makes a case for a strong shift in the kind of leadership resources from the West that are needed in Africa in this new season of partnership. Daniel Salinas underscores the shortage of qualified faculty for seminaries in the Global South, the surplus of qualified faculty in the West/North, and the urgent need for a larger pipeline of faculty who will make this missional shift. And Melinda Thompson tracks the growing proficiency in online education—forced to a new level by the COVID quarantine—and its rich possibilities for educating church leaders while minimizing their displacement from the places where they were called and most needed.
I want to frame these specific issues in the larger missional context of our time. There has been dramatic change in the nature of Christian mission and in the relationship between the West and the South.
It is well-known that the West is becoming increasingly post-Christian and that Christianity is becoming increasingly post-Western. This represents nothing less than a revolutionary shift in Christianity’s center of gravity. The new center is South America, Africa, and the Pacific Rim. Since 1950 or so, Christianity has been expanding at breakneck speed in these regions. By the early twenty-first century, sixty percent of all Christians were in Africa, Asia, and South America. And Philip Jenkins says that at Christianity’s current rate of growth, it will have 3.2 billion adherents by 2050, but only one-fifth of those will be non-Hispanic whites.2
Recent decades have brought a big move beyond the paternalism of the “wealthy” Western churches toward the “poor” churches of the Global South. The deep disparities between Western Christians as “donors”—of money, education, leadership, and other resources—and Christians of the Global South as “recipients” of all those gifts is giving way to a new sense of interdependence and mutuality. In all places, the church is both gifted and needy. The churches of the Global South have deep needs and possess great gifts, while the churches of the West also have deep needs and possess great gifts. And it may be that the needs of the Western churches are greater than the needs of those in the South. In the (post)modern West, Christians are beset by rationalism, by deep skepticism toward the Spirit of God, by the snare of affluence and consumerism, by their own version of cultural syncretism (the deep blending of the faith with secular ideologies), and by the heritage of cultural dominance that is the legacy of Christendom. So the churches of each region need the strengths, gifts, and correctives of the other.3
It is helpful—even necessary—for us in the Western academic context to name the gifts to be received. Foremost among them flows from the fact that churches of the Global South have a more missional theology. The churches of the Christendom centuries were not fundamentally churches on mission. And their theologies, understandably, were not missional theologies. Missions may have been one department in the seminary curriculum, one chapter in a book of theology, or one ministry of a congregation—but mission did not animate, infuse, and shape the whole enterprise of Christian faith. In the Global South, the situation has changed. As the noted missiologist David Bosch said more than twenty years ago, “Third World theologies are missionary theologies, whereas First World theologies are not”; for this reason, “Third World theologies may become a force of renewal in the West.”4 That has been happening. This renewal is one of the Global South’s gifts on offer to the church in the West.
Donald Miller, a Christian sociologist, reflects something of this powerful gift of renewal when he writes in consideration of his many travels to study churches in South America and Africa, “I have come back humbled by my lack of faith, my own failure of imagination, and my resistance to commit myself to the high standard of being a servant of Christ.” He adds that “we in North America live in a bubble of affluence and convenience, and this [deeply] affects our theology.”5 In these extensive travels, Miller rightly identifies what churches in the West could receive from the missional theology of churches of the Global South.6
Churches in the West still have much to give as well. Daniel Salinas notes the shortage of “qualified faculty” for seminaries in the Global South and a surplus of qualified faculty in the North. This is a very telling fact of our time. But note that the focus here is on qualified faculty—and it is important to be clear about what that means. It does not (and should not) refer simply to those who have PhDs in biblical or theological studies and are willing to teach overseas. Daniel crucially emphasizes that candidates from the West must be carefully vetted for evangelical commitments, for a posture of humility and learning, and for a deep awareness that no longer reflects “the West knows best.” I strongly second these qualifications. The South does not need Western biblical scholars and theologians who are ensconced in the modernist paradigm and strongly schooled in and attached to the higher critical approaches to the Bible, where naturalistic assumptions about how to approach the text have tended to predominate and where deistic readings of Scripture are the norm. Nor does the South need those who think that the West’s more “enlightened” views of social morality need to be brought to the more traditional and “backward” outlook of the South.
We should certainly affirm—with reservations—the value of critical biblical scholarship. Academic biblical studies have helped people of faith to understand the Bible in richer, more accurate ways. It has brought the world of Scripture to life and shed much light on how both the background and foreground of Scripture enable and enrich its faithful interpretation. It enables us to read Scripture in context and to reveal ways we too readily contemporize the text due to our own cultural assumptions.
But much “higher” critical biblical scholarship tends to be shaped—if not overwhelmed—by naturalist assumptions and, thus, to embrace the deep-seated modern convention that “all texts are simply natural, historical entities.” John Webster calls this a “ruinous, even ludicrous” assumption.7 This assumption drives apart the natural and the supernatural, so that modern Western readers of the Bible tend to inhabit a world where God is not present and active, that is, a deistic world. In sharp contrast, the deep assumption of the Great Tradition—and of the churches in the South—is that in and through holy Scripture one encounters the living God.8
The “higher” critical methods should be subordinated to the church’s focus on and participation in the mission of God. As Joel Green insists, the various critical Bible study methods must all be “tamed in relation to the theological aims of Scripture and the ecclesial context in which the Bible is read as Scripture.”9 Missional scholars recruited to teach in the seminaries of the Global South must understand this and be able to practice this kind of interpretation. If not, they will be a dampening force, not an empowering force for the mission of God in the region. Geoffrey Wainwright’s observation seems telling in this regard: “Where, geographically and culturally, the church holds fast to the Scriptures, interpreted according to the classic tradition, it appears that the Christian faith is spreading. Revisionism seems to thrive only amid decline.”10
Jenkins notes that amid the great diversity of churches in the Global South, one of the most visible common features is “the critical idea that God intervenes directly in everyday life.”11 The strong emphasis upon God’s daily activity in everyday life distinguishes the ascendant Christianity of the global South from a dis-Spirited Western Christianity. This burgeoning global Christianity has not been through the travails of the Enlightenment and Western modernity. It has not had two centuries and more of being shaped by the West’s “subtraction stories” (philosopher Charles Taylor’s term for secularization). “Africa has never had an Enlightenment,” says Peter Leithart. “There is no African [David] Hume, with his rejection of miracles; no African [David] Strauss, with his ‘mythological’ interpretation of the gospels; no African [René] Descartes or [Baruch] Spinoza or Kant or Galileo or Newton.”12
As a result, “Africans are not the least embarrassed by the world picture of the Bible—a world of angels and demons, of miracles and exorcisms, of virgin births and life after death, of heaven and hell. . . . They see and hear things in the text that are lost to jaded post-Christian readers in the North.” According to Leithart, “Africans read the Bible in a way that is free of the rationalisms of modern method. They are not content to read the Bible as a source of doctrine, or an account of ancient history, or even as a practical manual that tells them what to do. For African believers, the Bible is a book to inhabit, a narrative to participate in.”13
Christians in the South have much to teach Christians in the West, including theology. Africa is holding up to Western Christians a way to do Christian theology without the confining restrictions of the Enlightenment.
Jenkins, who has been a major chronicler of the rise of global Christianity, sees continued rapid growth throughout the Global South. “Christianity should [continue to] enjoy a worldwide boom in the coming decades,” he wrote in 2011, “but the vast majority of believers will be neither white nor European, nor Euro-American. . . . The era of Western Christianity has passed within our lifetimes, and the day of the Southern [global] churches is dawning.” The Christian movements that are “triumphing all across the global South are stalwartly traditional”; their dominant theological emphasis is “traditionalist, orthodox, and supernatural.”14 And the influence of these vibrantly missional churches is spreading to the West. As the church in the West has gone “lite,” God is raising up vast new expressions of the faith, committed to the spiritual and doctrinal effulgence of the Great Tradition.
Let me close by putting Mindi Thompson’s report on the status of online theological education in the context of this new situation. A key aspect is the deep challenge facing seminaries in the West or, at least, in North America. Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Seminary, said in 2018, “[This is] a time of industry-wide disruption so great that many seminaries are closing. . . . During this era of profound disruption, we believe we must take bold risks and have a bold vision in order to transform for the next season of theological formation. . . . We must reinvent ourselves in order to do it.”15 Frank Yamada, the new president of the Association of Theological Schools, spent his first year listening to most of the 270 member seminaries; he concluded “that schools are changing rapidly and profoundly, perhaps in unprecedented ways; and while these challenges appear daunting, this environment is also generating creativity among schools’ faculties.”16
Yamada observes that two themes run through this new creativity in seminaries: the use of technology, particularly in distance education, and the ongoing need to rethink student formation. The emerging technology and pedagogy for distance learning has changed the landscape. And the COVID quarantine has forced the issue. The new online capacities can be a game-changer for the global South; but not without an important theological and spiritual shift—away from the confining restrictions the Enlightenment has imposed upon the West. To put it differently, the value of ministry training contained mostly within seminary walls is declining and will continue to decline. Mostly closed and isolated academic programming will have a limited shelf life going forward.
North American seminaries are in an adapt-or-die season. As Ben Witherington says, “Those seminaries will survive that are well-grounded in their biblical roots, missionally minded, and future focused, looking for increasing ways to train people to be global Christians who are focusing on partnering with Christians around the world to do theological education.”17
Each of these three papers has lifted up specific ways that seminaries in the West can do that.
Leonard Allen serves as dean of the College of Bible & Ministry at Lipscomb University (Nashville, TN). He taught theology, ethics, and philosophy for over twenty years, serving as visiting professor at Biola University (La Mirada, CA), adjunct professor at John Brown University (Siloam Springs, AR) and Fuller Theological Seminary (Pasadena, CA), and professor at Abilene Christian University. He holds a PhD in History of Christian Thought from the School of Religion at the University of Iowa and is the author of numerous books, including The Cruciform Church: Becoming a Cross-Shaped People in a Secular World (3rd ed.; ACU Press, 2016), Poured Out: The Spirit of God Empowering the Mission of God (ACU Press, 2018), and, most recently, In the Great Stream: Imagining Churches of Christ in the Christian Tradition (ACU Press, 2021).
1 Several paragraphs in this paper are adapted from Leonard Allen, In the Great Stream: Imagining Churches of Christ in the Christian Tradition (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 2021).
2 Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 2–3.
3 See Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), ch. 9; idem, “Can the West Be Converted?” Princeton Seminary Bulletin 6 (1985): 25–36; and Alan Kreider and Eleanor Kreider, Worship and Mission after Christendom (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2011), 196–98.
4 David Bosch, Believing in the Future: Toward a Missiology of Western Culture (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity International, 1995), 36.
5 Donald E. Miller, “Emergent Patterns of Congregational Life and Leadership in the Developing World: Personal Reflections from a Research Odyssey,” Pulpit and Pew Research Reports 3 (Winter 2003): 9.
6 With the recent and growing sense of North America as a mission field, a strong movement toward a dynamic missional theology has emerged among more than a few theologians in the West. Lesslie Newbigin helped pioneer this focus in the last season of his life, and it has been furthered by a growing body of literature since the 1990s. Two key works were Between Gospel and Culture: The Emerging Mission in North America, ed. George R. Hunsberger and Craig Van Gelder (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996); and Darrell L. Guder, ed., Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998). A missional theology has been emerging alongside the traditional theology that may have been limited to a chapter on missions.
7 John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 28–29. For the long history behind this approach to the Bible, see Michael Legaspi, The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
8 See J. Todd Billings, The Word of God for the People of God: An Entryway into the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 86–90; and Hans Boersma, Scripture as Real Presence: Sacramental Exegesis in the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017).
9 Joel Green, Seized by Truth: Reading the Bible as Scripture (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007), 125. David Steinmetz ended his controversial and now famous article of 1976 with this sentence: “Until the historical-critical method becomes critical of its own theoretical foundations and develops a hermeneutical theory adequate to the nature of the text it is interpreting, it will remain restricted, as it deserves to be, to the guild and to the academy, where the question of truth can be endlessly deferred” (“The Superiority of Pre-critical Exegesis,” in Taking the Long View: Christian Theology in Historical Perspective [New York: Oxford University Press, 2011], 14).
10 Geoffrey Wainwright, “Schisms, Heresy, and the Gospel,” in Ancient and Postmodern Christianity, ed. Kenneth Tanner and Christopher A. Hall (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2002), 198.
11 Jenkins, The Next Christendom, 98.
12 Peter Leithart, “What Africa Can Teach the North,” Leithart, November 1, 2018, https://patheos.com/blogs/leithart/2018/ 11/what-africa-can-teach-the-north.
13 Ibid. See also Philip Jenkins, The Face of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 1–18, 182–86.
14 Jenkins, Next Christendom, 2, 3, 11.
15 Mark Labberton, “The Future of Fuller: The Way Forward,” Fuller Blog on Patheos, May 22, 2018, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/fuller/2018/05/the-future-of-fuller-the-way-forward.
16 Frank Yamada, “Living and Teaching When Change Is the New Normal: Trends in Theological Education and the Impact on Teaching and Learning,” The Wabash Center Journal on Teaching 1, no. 1 (2020), https://serials.atla.com/wabashcenter/article/view/1580/1738.
17 Ben Witherington III, “Ancient Future: The Future of Seminary Education,” The Bible and Culture: A One-Stop Shop for All Things, October 21, 2011, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/bibleandculture/2011/10/21/ancient-future-the-future-of-seminary-education.