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The Translatability of the Christian Gospel
by Timothy Tennent

The following is excerpted from remarks made by Dr. Timothy Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, at the school’s Fall 2009 Convocation.

In April of 1739 John Wesley was preaching in an upstairs room in London. About halfway into his sermon the supporting post that held up the floor of the room collapsed under the sheer weight of the number of people who had gathered to hear Wesley. Wesley remarked in his journal that the supporting post fell with a great noise. The floor sank, but it didn’t cave in and, to Wesley’s own amazement, everyone settled back down and he was able to finish preaching.

What do we do when it seems like the very floor under our feet is giving way? Many of the traditional props and supports which have long given stability to the world of theological education have fallen away with a great crash—what are we to do? How do we live in a time of disequilibrium, uncertainty, and change? Never in history has the Church undergone such dramatic growth and change so quickly. When William Carey went to India in 1793, 99 percent of all Christians in the world were white and lived in the Western world. Today, the vast majority of Christians live outside the Western world. We are witnessing multiple centers of Christian vibrancy, even as we see the Western world re-emerging as the world’s fastest growing mission field and the home of the most gospel-resistant people groups in the world. In contrast, all of the most gospel-receptive people groups in the world are found in either India or China. We live in an upside down world.
 
The support post upon which was written: “you are the center of the ecclesiastical universe,” has collapsed and we have to regain our footing in this new world we inhabit and think afresh about what this means for theological education in North America. None of these developments were predicted 50 years ago. Today, as I survey the landscape of ecclesiology and theological education in the Western world it is clear that we are living in a time of unprecedented crisis. This is not to be overly negative or alarmist, for I am reminded of the great Dutch missiologist, Hendrick Kraemer (1888-1965), who famously commented that “the church is always in a state of crisis; its greatest shortcoming is that it is only occasionally aware of it.”
 
The floor is creaking beneath our feet. What does this mean for Western Christians in the 21st century?
 
Embracing Cultural and Theological Translatability
 
First, we must understand afresh the profound translatability of the Christian message. Christianity is the only world religion whose primary source documents are in a language other than the founder of the religion. In other words, the New Testament texts are not in Aramaic, but in Koine Greek. This is unique among world religions. Muhammad spoke in Arabic and the Qur’an is in Arabic. The Brahmin priests in India spoke Sanskrit and the Vedas and Upanishads are in Sanskrit. However, in the New Testament, Jesus spoke primarily in Aramaic, but the primary documents which record those sayings are in Koine, Greek. This makes a vitally important theological statement which so dramatically contrasts, for example, with Muslims who maintain that the Qur’an is untranslatable and the Word of Allah can be conveyed truly and fully only in Arabic. In contrast, at the very outset of the Christian message the translatability of the gospel is enshrined in our primary source documents.
 
You would under-realize this point if you only see this as the necessary green light to translate the Bible into every known tongue in the world—in other words, linguistic translatability. It is, of course, that, but it is also the more profound translatability of culture. Indeed, it is this larger point which is the reason why the New Testament is not in Aramaic. In the Book of Acts we are witnessing a massive cultural translation between a church which is predominantly Jewish in its historical and cultural context and one which begins to be received and experienced by Gentile Christians who bring new questions and new vocabulary to the table. “Do we have to be circumcised?” they asked. The amazing shift from Jesus as Messiah to Lord Jesus quietly occurs. The Jerusalem Council decision in Acts 15 was certainly one of the most profound moments in the history of the early church. They chose, quite intentionally, to honor their Judaic roots (thereby the restrictions) even while encouraging the gospel’s transmission into the Gentile world. Those first century believers were full-blooded Jews by faith, culture, and experience, but they chose under God to not absolutize that culture or that heritage and they chose to not insist that it be normative for all future believers. That is why we can be here today.
 
This cultural translatability has profound implications for theology. Theology can no longer assume that all the questions which could be asked have been asked and posed to the biblical texts. As new cultures in non-Christian and multi-religious contexts come at the text from outside the walls of historic Christendom, they are becoming eager readers of the Bible and they are posing new questions which have not previously been asked. The global church will continue to insist that theology will become more closely aligned with ethics in a way which we have not seen since the patristic era. Theology will become more missiological in a way which we have not seen since the writings of St. Paul. Theology will become more ecumenical, without losing sight of the kerygma in a way which we have not seen since the Carolingian commentaries. This is because theology will become simultaneously more diverse and more global while, at the same time, becoming more fully orthodox and centered on the kergyma.
 
Expanding Our Ecclesiastical Cartography
 
The second implication of this new world we inhabit is the need to expand our ecclesiastical cartography. Can you picture in your mind one of those old world maps produced in the Middle Ages? Maps of the world produced by Europeans during the medieval period reveal much about their worldview. Europe and the Mediterranean are situated at the center of the map. The maps were filled with striking details of Europe and the Mediterranean beautifully adorned with various Christian images. However, most of Africa and Asia are not even represented, and the few distorted land masses that vaguely represent the southern continents tend to blend hazily into the margins amidst drawings of savages, dog-headed kings, and grotesque demons.
 
These maps reveal as much about European theology as about their cartography. In fact, it was from the lips of Jonathan Bonk, director of the Overseas Ministries Study Center, that I first heard the phrase “ecclesiastical cartography” as a reference to how the church views the world. Undoubtedly, our cartography has improved dramatically over the years, but it seems that our theological analysis of the world has not kept pace. In my earlier point I noted that many of us still see the West as the ecclesiastical center of the world, even though the vast majority of Christians in the world today are located elsewhere.
 
However, as the sun rises on the Majority World Church there is a second problem we face here in the West. Sometimes the emphasis on global Christianity and directives to notice what is happening in the global south or, as I prefer, the Majority World Churches, has caused Westerners (especially white, European-descent Americans) to feel like God is moving everywhere but here. That the shifting center of Christian gravity has moved beyond us and we are, if I can use the phrase in a different context, “left behind.” There was a period in theological and missiological literature which framed it in this way. We found ourselves in the ecclesiastical equivalent of the wood shed. We were left hanging by a thread as an embarrassing, post-colonial whipping boy, a poster child for everything that the church has done wrong. Mercifully, thanks to the work of the Gambian scholar Lamin Sanneh, among others, we are now making further adjustments to our ecclesiastical cartography by realizing that there is a vitally important distinction between a post-Western Christianity and a post-Christian West.
 
Christianity may, indeed, be emerging as a post-Western faith, but the West is also experiencing renewal as it rediscovers Christianity in the West as a post-Western faith. Far from being “left behind,” God is shaking us free from our ecclesiastical provincialism and our equating Christianity with the Western forms of it and we are beginning to explore a new, previously unexplored country. In the 19th century God commanded us to Christianize Africa. In the 21st century He may very well be calling us to Africanize Christianity. In His sovereignty God may have permitted the decline of Western Christianity in order to shake us free from the weakened, domesticated version which became the standard bearer of Christendom. Today the West is re-discovering the vibrancy of historic, apostolic Christianity with all of its prophetic surprises and anointed vibrancy.
 
What are the signs of this?
 
Sign #1: The ethnic diversity of the global church is moving rapidly into North America. Global Christianity is not just about Africans and Koreans and Chinese and Brazilians and Indians and a host of others “over there,” but these are the new realities in our own towns and cities. The largest churches in Western Europe are pastored by African Christians. The fastest growing churches in North America are ethnic churches. Global Christianity is actually the greatest force for renewal in the North. Yes, we are finally discovering the truth of that wonderful phrase which is the slogan of the Lausanne movement: The whole church bringing the whole gospel to the whole world.
 
Sign #2: We must recognize the unique place we are in as Christians in the 21st century. Christianity, unlike Hinduism or Islam, has had serial, not progressive growth. In other words, what was once a center of Christian vitality later has languished while the center of the world Christian movement has constantly moved. We can trace the shifting center of Christian vibrancy from Jerusalem to Rome to Alexandria to Constantinople to Western Europe and so forth. The shifting of Christianity to a new center of cultural vibrancy is not new. What is new today for the first time in history is that we are not seeing the emergence of a single new center of Christian vibrancy. Instead, we are witnessing the simultaneous emergence of multiple centers of vibrancy.
 
Sign #3. We must understand that the center of Christianity only refers to the aggregate of all Christians everywhere. This says nothing about the center of gravity of financial resources for global Christian work. This says nothing about the center of gravity of graduate level theological education programs. This says nothing about the center of gravity for the availability of Christian books. More Christians globally praise God in Spanish than any other language, including English. However, there are far more books about Christianity written in English than any other language. The center of gravity for graduate level theological education will remain in North America for the entirety of your generation. Thus, we have a global disparity between where you can get graduate level theological training and where most Christians actually live.
 
***
 
Christianity is not about fast, cheap, and easy. Our DNA is actually on the side of the ledger, however unpopular … it is about bloody sacrifice, costly kenosis, and, praise God, profound transformation. On the anvil of Asbury Theological Seminary you will learn that the most important work of your life cannot be achieved in a single lifetime. We are those who live in eschatological hope, caught between the “already” and the “not yet.” We live in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who came before us and will follow after us. We also looking for that city whose maker and builder is God. We await the new creation and the consummation of the ages.
 
The floor beneath our feet may be creaking. The familiar supporting post may have fallen away, but the preaching goes on! God is at work in your lives and in the world, so let’s get to work, shall we? Amen.
 

Dr. Timothy Tennent is president of Asbury Theological Seminary, which has campuses in Wilmore, Ky., and Orlando, Fla.