Studies in World Christianity 29.3

Theological Negotiations in World Christianity

In the last issue, Studies in World Christianity highlighted several papers presented at the 2022 annual conference of the Yale–Edinburgh Group on World Christianity and the History of Mission. The journal took stock of three decades since the group’s first meeting in 1992, which has since been instrumental in ushering into existence the field of ‘World Christianity’. As was noted in that issue’s editorial, this new academic endeavour had at its origins a postcolonial posture which moved away from a Christendom paradigm of expansion and conquest towards a new paradigm of indigenous initiative and Christianity’s polycentric and multicultural manifestations. Hence, World Christianity is not a shorthand for idiosyncratic expressions of Christianity ‘out there’, as is often (mis)understood. Rather, it is the dynamic nature of a worldwide religion that experiences encounter and contestation, continuity and discontinuity, growth and decline.

In the academic study of Christianity, disciplines most disposed towards phenomenological analysis have tended to be the most embracing of World Christianity’s claims. Social historians, anthropologists, ethnographers and sociologists have been at the forefront of World Christianity studies. These scholars recognise change and difference as commonplace. In contrast, disciplines like theology and biblical studies, which often underscore normative claims about a transcendent God and how he relates with the world, have tended to be much more resistant to the developments of World Christianity. This is accentuated by Enlightenment-influenced pursuits for a ‘reasonable’ and ‘objective’ faith. While the role of contextual factors is acknowledged in human perceptions of the Bible and theology, albeit often as a handicap, what is prioritised is the Wholly Other Who reveals Himself in the created order. To put it another way, while the earlier disciplines are much more disposed towards the indigenous expressions of the Christian faith, theological and biblical studies tend to underscore what Andrew Walls calls the ‘pilgrim principle’ – a universalising factor that brings ‘Christians of all cultures and ages together through a common inheritance’.

Despite the propensity of these academic disciplines, the lived realities of Christian experiences and engagements with theology and the Bible are often much more varied. In these articles, what we see is not a pristine, normative theology transplanted from a Western origin to Africa or China. Rather, there is a much more complex negotiation of theological ideas and experiences. The resultant theology and biblical interpretation may be new and innovative, but it is also sometimes esoteric and unnerving. Despite the reservations one may have, these are expressions of World Christianity, just like their Western antecedents. These are examples of a worldwide faith seeking understanding.

This is an excerpt from the editorial for SWC 29.3 by Alexander Chow, entitled ‘Theological Negotiations in World Christianity’.

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