Last night I read Ralph C. Watkins’ essay “A Black Church Perspective on Minorities in Evangelicalism” and it had me thinking about the common approach to teaching ecclesial history and systematic/historical theology in the context of the evangelical seminary. Watkins challenges the assumed perspective that Eurocentric theology is “normalized” while theology from other places is “contextualized.” He writes,
Black theology, liberation theology, Latino theology, and feminist theology are considered “contextualized,” but Eurocentric theology is not considered contextualized. The theology of the others is not considered worthy of required learning for students in evangelical seminaries. Students are required to take systematic theology, and in these courses they may take note of “minority” theology, but the minority voice is nowhere equal to the dominant Eurocentric voice. The marginalization of voices in text selection, theological discussion, and the very design of the curriculum is a product of institutional racism. 
Similarly, he observes that most courses on ecclesial history center on the development on Christianity in the European context, often ignoring the important role Africa played in the development of early Christianity, and the contemporary reality that most Christians can be found in Africa and Latin America today. As a graduate of Pentecostal and evangelical institutions this statement by Watkins stings:
A student who graduates from an evangelical institution who does not have a working knowledge of two-thirds of the world’s religious and theological history is a student who is ill-equipped to share the gospel of Jesus Christ effectively in a world that is shrinking. 
It hurts because it is true. I wonder if it is time to propose a pedagogical shift among evangelicals. As evangelicals have sought to establish their identity in recent years (how many times have we debated “What is an E/evangelical?”) it has become painfully obvious that most of the discussion is centered on the future of privileged, white Christians who have traditionally defined themselves as reacting against other privileged, white Christians of the more “liberal, mainline” persuasion. Yet, we remain oblivious to the reality that Christianity is shifting globally and our so-called “decline” does not mean Christianity is dying. I know, we’d like to think that if Christianity doesn’t center on us then it may not survive. We’ve educated ourselves to believe this!
When I took systematic theology courses it centered 90% of the content on early Christianity, European Christianity, and North American Christianity from a Eurocentric perspective. Other opinions and debates are “contextual,” as if Asia, Africa, South America, and minority populations in Europe and the United States don’t have anything to say that is that important. Should we be surprised toi find that when we discuss the future of Christianity we do so from the perspective that we must save Christianity as we know it, or else?!
If I had the authority to make changes in the curriculum of an evangelical institution of higher education I’d try to abandon the four to five semester/trimester sequence which includes “Church History I: Apostolic Era to Reformation,” “Church History II: Reformation to Present,” “Systematic Theology I, II, and III” often discussing Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Luther most of the time for a sequence that goes something like this: Asian Church History and Theology, African Church History and Theology, European Church History and Theology, Latin American Church History and Theology, and North American Church History and Theology. This might help us escape the idea that the Spirit has been working through whites in Europe and North American almost exclusively for the last two thousand years and now, and only now, the Spirit is being “poured out on all flesh.” Also, it would help us recognize the contextuality of all systems of theology. There may be catholic doctrines, but that doesn’t mean there are universal expressions of those doctrines, especially when we place our doctrines into interweaving theological systems where one idea informs the other.
 Bradley, Anthony B. (2013-05-06). Aliens in the Promised Land: Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions (Kindle Locations 1693-1697). P&R Publishing. Kindle Edition.
 Ibid., (Kindle Locations 1791-1793).
Thanks Brian. As I grew up in Evangelical Christianity, I was much accustomed to the Eurocentric focus of our “heritage.” It was not until I attended a liberal Catholic university that I received a thorough introduction to liberation theologies of many marginalized demographics, such as Queer, Latino, African, Feminist, etc. I am absolutely convinced that there is something uniquely acute in the perspective of marginalized brothers and sisters. Much to the detriment of Evangelical Christians, we’ve become so enamored with our own “heritage” that we not only demean the others (as you have appropriately pointed out) but we behave as if the others should continue to conform to our own understandings. As Cone says, Christianity ceases to be Christianity when it is no longer from the bottom up, from the lowest and most marginalized in society… it ceases to be the Gospel of Jesus Christ when it coerces others into conformity.
As it turns out. I frankly believe hope is lost for Evangelical Christianity. The conversations taking place now continue in the vein of propping up the same power systems that perpetuate this coercive Eurocentric perspective. In other words, when we continue to hear about how we can make Evangelical Christianity more open to Latinos in order to embrace their masses, we’ve already bought into the Empire building method of Eurocentric “Evangelism.”
Once again, genuine Christianity seems to be found in the highways and byways. Surely the prostitutes and the drunkards are entering the Kingdom of Heaven ahead of us.
This is an interesting, and likely fruitful proposal. Among others, I imagine that the main hurdle to this approach is the fact that Evangelicalism is very much in the vein of the Western/European tradition. Many of the conclusions of Evangelicalism are not reached without the groundwork of some very Western and European ideas.
If you were to lose the emphasis on the tradition that Evangelicalism comes out of, I don’t think you keep Evangelicalism very long. I don’t see an Evangelical institution supporting an education that ends in conclusions other than Evangelicalism.
“Similarly, he observes that most courses on ecclesial history center on the development on Christianity in a mediterranean and European context, often ignoring the important role Africa played in the development of early Christianity, and the contemporary reality that most Christians can be found in Africa and Latin America today.”
The first point is wrong because the Mediterranean world includes North Africa and the second point is irrelevant to the content of courses on ecclesial history. The fact that the demographic center of Christianity has recently shifted to the Global South doesn’t change the fact that the bulk of ecclesial history took place in a Mediterranean and/or European context.
I don’t share your pessimism regarding Evangelical Christianity, though I do imagine that it will become something quite different than it is today. Theoretically, Evangelicalism could morph many ways since at the core of the community is the idea of fidelity toward adhering to the Gospel and proclaiming it. Now, white Evangelicalism as a cultural construction associated with group like the Moral Majority is going to die, and that’s ok with me, but I think what makes Evangelicalism more sustainable is that it is far more elastic than rigid, doctrinally defined movements like Lutheranism or the Reformed. Evangelicalism is “mere Christianity” with an adaptable ethos.
This is very true….if we define Evangelicalism a certain way. I think that is part of what Evangelicals must debate now: What is an Evangelical? Many want it to be static, reflecting it’s origins, but I think it is fluid and Evangelicalism will change shape over time. Some may deny that the future of Evangelicalism is Evangelicalism at all, but I think it will be something that shares continuation and discontinuation with modern Evangelicalism.
Yes, Mediterranean does include North Africa. My intention is to use a designation that makes Africa distinct from Greco-Roman influence, though not denying that a hard and fast distinction isn’t possible for the north. Apparently my label failed to communicate my intention.
While Europe has been the center of much of what has happened in ecclesial history, it receives an unbalanced share of the attention. For example, Philip Jenkins has done some great work on Christianity in the Middle East. Thomas Oden has done a lot of work on Christianity in China. I have had several of my students write papers on Christianity in China and India and it has a very lengthy, very deep Christian legacy with as much intrigue as Europe.
I’m teaching an undergraduate class that covers both systematic theology and church history. I have approximately 40 in class hours, 5-10 of those hours focus on Church History. I had planned on spending those hours on things like the development of the Bible, the development of the doctrine of the trinity, the enlightenment & the reformation but I think you make a good point. If I were to spend even an hour focusing on each geographical region, where would I start when looking for resources? Our textbook is Church History in Plain Language.
Your suggestion of looking east is extremely important. The majority of Apostles died ministering in the east. The church they founded, within a few hundred years, ran from the Steppes, to the tip of Africa, to Bejing. It was the largest geographically and numerically for the first 1,000 years or so. Eventually, they were exterminated. But, these things go in cycles. China has been evangelized now three times and this one seems much closer to Wesleyan/Pentecostal doctrine than formally Reformed doctrine. In 100 years, will we say that the Reformed Protestants are the driving force in Christianity?
I suggest the following few books to whet your appetite:
Thomas Oden and The Center for Early African Christianity (http://earlyafricanchristianity.com/) has drawn more attention to Africa’s contribution to Christianity. Philip Jenkins has written a lot on global Christianity, especially the shift southward to Africa and Latin America. Jenkins’ The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died will help introduce the subject and I am sure his notes will provide further leads.
Works like these that seem promising:
On Asia some of my students have read and reported on the following books:
Journey to the East: The Jesuit Mission to China 1579-1724 by Liam Brockey
Frykenberg, Robert Eric, Christianity in India: From Beginnings to the Present (Oxford University Press, New York, 2008)
Kurikilamkatt, James, First Voyage of the Apostle Thomas to India: Ancient Christianity in Bharuch and Taxila (Asian Trading Corporation, Bangalore, India, 2005)
Neill, Stephen, A History of Christianity in India: The Beginnings to AD 1707 (Cambridge University Press, New York, 1984
Thank you both!
I’m not convinced that Evangelicalism is anything more than a very broad and very hard to define designation. Being such, of course it will have plenty of neighbors camping under its banner. But at the same time, Evangelicalism is tribal, with many different sub-groups waging war against each other (as you mentioned) in order to out-define those who seek definition. All that to say, I fear that the Moral Majority (and things like it) will never go away. There is simply too much money, too many resources, and too much emphasis on that tribal preoccupation. If “Evangelical” means we simply love the Gospel, then every Christian denomination under Heaven can claim to be “Evangelical.” But as we are operating on the assumption that Evangelicals are known as different things depending on their geographical location, and since we also understand that by and large Evangelicals have become identified with Fundamentalism–are we not also trying to define ourselves against someone else?
Does Evangelical simply mean “Protestant but not high Church”? Meanwhile, the rest of the Church is marching forward across the globe.
What is the object of study in theology? Is it man or God? If theology is a humanity, than yes, let us remake it in our image, Babylonianizing it, giving equal measure to the ethnic voice of the theologian, recategorizing the European theological voice to yet one more voice at the multi-cultural table.
However if theology is not strictly a humanity, but somehow related to the study something universal, objective, eternal, unchanging, something neither European, nor black, nor Latino – let us not taint this study with elements of those human attributes that do nothing but divide us.
Personally, when I look to theology, I don’t wish to see man, rather I wish to see beyond man.
In some sense your observation that the centrality of the Gospel for Evangelicals allows for any denomination to be Evangelical is true. This is why you can find Roman Catholic Evangelicals, Anglican Evangelicals, Anabaptist Evangelical, Methodist Evangelicals, Pentecostal Evangelicals, et cetera. If Evangelicals are more ethos driven than propositionally defined this makes sense. Once may be Roman Catholic or Mennonite, yet share the conviction that the center of Christianity is the message of what Israel’s God has done through his Messiah by his Spirit. While this proclamation may morph here and there, and it may become attached to other doctrines (which is where the distinctions are to be found), it is central. Evangelicals presume the Gospel is something that needs to be proclaimed and that (while not necessarily determining what happens to those who reject it) it is something the whole world should be given the opportunity to embrace.
It could be said that there are large swaths of some denominations that do not affirm the centrality of the Gospel nor the necessity of its proclamation to the world. This might include a pluralistic Episcopalian or a separatist Amish community, but there are those who are Christians who de-emphasize the Gospel. This doesn’t mean they deny many of the implications of the Gospel, e.g., the humility, simplicity, and peacefulness of the Amish is quite the testimony to the potential impact of the Gospel. This doesn’t make it central though and I think that is the difference.
I may disagree on many things with the Moral Majority, The Gospel Coalition, or self-designated Fundamentalist, but I do agree that the Gospel is central to Christian identity and proclamation, which means I find myself closer to them on what is most important than to other groups where I might share a lot more regarding ethics, practice, and political presence. This is why their behavior upsets me deeply. As much as I’d like to define myself over against those groups, it is apparent that I am frustrated with them because I think they affirm the centrality of the Gospel as I do, yet they present it in a way that is distracting, confusing, or even dangerously abusive.
The point is that all of us understand God from our perspective. None of us have an unfiltered, decontextualized theology. If we think our theology is universal, untainted by everything from the language we speak (which deeply shapes our categories of thought and our perspectives) to our place in society, then we are apt to live an unexamined life. The effort to broaden our perspective by engaging our Christian siblings from other cultures is not to learn about humans, but to humbly ask our fellow Spirit filled siblings to tell us about our shared God from their perspective, asking if how they see it may help us recognize some of our own problematic presuppositions and cultural influences.
Brian, I’ve said before I see tension within the American believing community as an outsider, so please forgive if this question is naive but is this tension not driven more by American political perspectives than faith differences?
If you were to mask people’s belief, and ask what separates us, would not what remains be politics?
I’m sure politics has a lot to do with it. But politics aren’t atheological, so even in that sense, yes, how we American Christians engage political discourse and activity is unique to us and we may have a lot to learn from others. For example, when speaking of being a Christian who engages politics what might I learn from my siblings in Egypt at this point in history? China? Brazil? A Chinese Christian may not have the opportunity to influence his/her national outlook in the same way as an American Christian. For American Christians who see our political influence as the end all and be all of our faith, our Chinese siblings remind us that Christianity can remain powerful and necessary even in a place where we cannot impact our society through politics.
@Brian, yes we all see God in limited ways because of our sin, and unbelief. Does that mean we embrace our limitedness? Saying that we should celebrate the voice of humanity in theology is humanism. The point of theology isn’t to study or even reflect humanity – so I reject the proposal outright.
“Another angel, a second, followed saying Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, she who made all nations drink the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality”
What was her sexual immorality? If we read [Hos 2:2; 42-14] we know this description of the ‘wine of the passion of her sexuality immorality’ has nothing to do with sexuality, but with being enamoured with the cultures of the world, which is what led Israel to abandon her God.
No, if there is a relationship between theology and ekklesia it is that theology is to establish the culture of the the Kingdom of God which is Holy, righteous, true, without shade or variation like the God it mirrors.
Cultural diversity as a theme, is trite, and the foundation of racism. It has nothing to do with the study of God, the gospel or evangelism.
I should add, I’m not suggesting all other global voices give way to the Euro-centric voice, rather I’m saying all other voices give way to that voice which establishes the kingdom of God – and that voice is a heavenly voice, neither Euro-centric, nor Latino etc.
We must all equally abandon our worldly cultures to pursue a heavenly one. I believe this is the fundamental choice between the wide and narrow path.
What does it look like for us to live for the Kingdom without doing it through our languages, cultures, ethnicities, and races? I’m not so sure that this is obtainable, nor necessary. The beautiful image of Rev. 7:9 shows people from all nations, tribes, people groups, and languages worshipping God. This is not an image of colorlessness, or one where there is no identity, or even one where there is one language. Instead, God’s deliverance of all types of people is celebrated for they are reconciled to God as themselves. Inevitably, if we try to tell someone of a certain culture to abandon that culture to adopt a transcendent Christian culture we will end up demanding that they becoming like white Europeans and Americans.
FWIW: Those who are reading this post may enjoy a post from Andy Crouch that I shared here: http://nearemmaus.com/2013/07/03/andy-crouch-on-the-future-shape-of-theological-education/
I don’t think that engaging churches from diverse cultures and their training is meant to accommodate elements of their culture, therefore possibly diluting holiness. The point for me is to see what doctrine other churches (especially at other times) might have embraced because they had a different world view, and how different our worldview is from the one of the people who wrote the our scripture (and its interesting to me that none of them have ever formulated things like Calvinism the way we have).
One simple example might be one of the points that Martin makes in “The Corinthian Body” (very important book in my opinion). It wasn’t until recently, and only in western thought, that there became anything like the dichotomy of normal and paranormal, or natural and supernatural (the rise of scientific thought allowed for these new definitions). When American Christians think of something as spiritual (based on pneumas) they tend to see the thing as paranormal or supernatural. This was an impossible category for those in the first century. They would simply say that the spiritual thing is on end of the spectrum where the real, physical, spiritual thing just happens to be invisible, like air. This has major implications for everything from being born spiritually to having a pneumatic resurrection body.
Also, I think it would cause us to completely reconsider our eschatology to accept that important Christians live outside of the area represented by “the Revived Roman Empire”. There is a lot to say about that topic, but one of the only ways that Historicism and Dispensational Futurism work is to assume that the leadership of the church, or important part of the church, is the part that is based in America and the west.
Of all of the books I liked to earlier, I think that Soro’s might be the most important (I suppose I ought to have placed it on top, but the order is based on the sequence of my trip down the rabbit hole). There has been a lot of theological hand wringing over the years regarding Christology (and bad Christology has given the western church the excuse to ignore the existence of the eastern church for 1800 years) that might have been started by having theologians debate each other in incompatible languages. An analogy for what might have happened would be an attempt to completely define gold, when one of the languages has no such word and is stuck trying to use “shiny yellow” instead. In addition, we sometimes don’t appreciate the politics that went with the theology, though thankfully there has been some reconciliation between church leadership in this generation. Soro is a leader in the eastern church, and I challenge you to read it and tell me that we should completely dismiss them from legitimate Christianity. If we can’t, then we have a lot of learning to do.
Finally, I get the distinct impression from the American version of church history that we think we are finally succeeding in breaking into the third world, possibly with some important eschatological results (the Great Commission, etc.). The reality is that every major part of the world has already been evangelized at least once. For some places like China their current success is the third major wave of Christians history. This indicates to me that Christianity is more like a fire that rolls across the globe with certain success in various areas in a given era. But, it’s not like a giant game of Risk, where we’ve successfully captured and held Australia, Europe, and North America, and if we can just push into the Kamchatka Peninsula we can finally conquer the whole map.
Brian, I completely agree with this post. For many years I’ve been questioning the way evangelicals in the West structure theological education. I’ve been an undergraduate biblical studies student and I’ve been a graduate biblical studies student—both evangelical schools. And in both environments, european and white theologies were treated as normative while black theologies, Latin American theologies, African theologies, etc. were all treated as “contextual.” This is symptomatic of the white privilege of the theological academy. While Luther and Calvin are placed on pedestals, Cone and Gutierrez are ostracized, if not vilified.
Another book I think you might like (if you haven’t already read it) is _One Church, Many Tribes_ by the late Richard Twiss. His perspective on the evangelical church in the West has had a profound impact on me.
While in my school we were primarily educated in the eurocentric approach we were faced much more broadly with the theologies from the two-thirds world. It was a great challenge to many who were in the class because they believed that when we learned these views that they were simply fringe views from the appropriate understanding of the word of God.
Now as much as I would love to go with you on the regional approach to Christian learning the issue because that most of the time we stay within the stream of the Christian West. However, Christianity even in Europe, is not simply Catholic and the Orthodox Church has much to teach us. I believe if more Pentecostals understood the theology of the Christian East they would have a greater appreciation for the role of the Spirit within traditional theologies.
Be that as it may, I do believe that you offer a great consideration and I would quite possibly consider this. One resource that would be helpful for people to check out theologically would be Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen who in each of his theology books takes you through the various theologies.
Exactly. This is one of the challenges we Euro-centric Christians face at times. We have to be reminded that our Christianity has been shaped by our culture. Some of this is good. Some of this is bad. If we engage other cultures it will help us understand the uniqueness of our culture. Otherwise, it is too easy to assume something contextual is universal. You give some great examples.
That is a helpful point to make. It is one thing to ignore the contribution of others, but something even worse to demonize them. Cone is a great example, as are many theologians from the Black church in the US. Sometimes (ok, often) white Evangelicals confuse money and influence with doctrinal correctness.
That is a good point. In Europe and North America there are minority cultures whose expressions of Christianity has a lot to teach us. And yes, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen is a great recommendation. I was trying to think of his name earlier today since I’ve read some of his writings in the past.
Brian asked “What does it look like for us to live for the Kingdom without doing it through our languages, cultures, ethnicities, and races?”
It looks like a community overcoming base humanity through faith in the Holy Spirit who isn’t limited by languages, cultures, ethnicities or races …. or are you suggesting the Holy Spirit is unable to overcome all that?
…no, I’m suggesting that the Holy Spirit glories in creating a diverse body, one where our differences do not disappear into the body of Christ, but instead the body of Christ is made evident in our world as unity in diversity. A singular church that speaks Arabic, English, French, Spanish, Mandrin, Japanese; that is represented by Native Americans, Russians, Greeks, Jews, Brazilians; that has a wide variety of skin colors and shades; that proclaims the Gospel over a cup of coffee or a dish of Pad Thai; that worships God in store fronts, open fields, and cathedrals; this is beautiful church, a mosaic. Our differences can divide us, but they can also glorify the God who made us all, made a diverse, beautiful world.
That’s very idealistic Brian, but I doubt it’s biblical. For example, diversity in language was a consequence of pride, not some attribute God gloried in. In fact it is called confusion:
[Gen 11:7] “Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.’”
The diversity you seem to celebrate is at the heart of why people were enamoured with Babylon. [1 Cor 12:25] suggests that there be no division within the bod of Christ, and amplified in [Eph 4:4] we read “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call-”
In Hebrew ‘one’ implied not only indivisibility but also without shade or variation. Rather than remaking the ‘Kingdom of God’ into something that mirrored a fallen Babylon and an echo of the world, the bible seems to suggest that it would in fact be something quite different.
Incidentally, I’m not denying that Babylon has its appeal – it does.
However choosing Babylon over the New Jerusalem, or mistaking one for the other is choosing the wide path rather than the narrow one ….
I visited your blog today to get this question addressed. I am discussing theology frameworks with a young theology student who is trying to find a way through the maze of contemporary approaches. Abandoning the traditional western focused framework that was unquestioned in the mid-20th century might just result in chaos. The contemporary scene is exceedingly diverse. There isn’t a center and there isn’t any system. It is comparable to studying linguistics, frameworks all over the place. Chose one. Live with it. The never ending Karl Barth thing reminds me of early-Chomsky enthusiasts. Old frameworks never die as long as there is a means for the faithful to contact one another.
Comments are closed.