Book Review: Why Evangelical Theology Needs the Global Church

An introduction to the riches available within the worldwide body of Christ and learn how to engage productively with the global church.

Phil Tinker | 05 Dec 2023

Book

Stephen T. Pardue, Why Evangelical Theology Needs the Global Church

Stephen Pardue seeks to bridge this divide by arguing, biblically and theologically, that it is imperative for Western evangelical theology to engage with the global church, and he provides examples of how this can be done.

The story goes that just after the new US Constitution had been drawn up, Mrs. Powell of Philadelphia asked Benjamin Franklin, ‘Well Doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?’ ‘A republic’ replied Franklin, ‘if you can keep it.’[1] A republic of united states was a bold idea, but keeping it was another thing entirely.

We might feel the same way about the global church. What do we have after the ascension of Christ and Pentecost? We have the church which possesses unprecedented global diversity and profound unity. This is the Lord’s bold idea, if we can keep it. Living out church unity in global, contextual diversity is challenging and hard to ‘keep’.
Stephen T. Pardue’s Why Evangelical Theology Needs the Global Church (Baker Academic, 2023)[2] is a manifesto for evangelical theologians to ‘keep’ the unity in diversity of the global church despite several challenges for global evangelical theology. Developing five clear theses, this book is about why and how evangelicals should pursue contextual theology in the global church.

More to be done

Pardue, an American theologian who has spent the majority of his life in the Philippines, aims to ‘articulate some of the ways that evangelical theology ought to be influenced by the changing realities of the global church.’ (19-20) The kind of ‘contextual theology’ he urges evangelicals to consider are ‘those theological efforts that intentionally make use of local cultures and languages as key resources for the theological task.’ (60)

Why does he need to do this? Are there not enough books on contextualization? Put simply, Pardue believes evangelical theology has more work to do, and more fruit to enjoy, by living out its vocation in Christ’s multi-ethnic church.

There are a number of reasons I think this book is a valuable contribution to this discussion.

Firstly, global theology is not in a happy and settled state of affairs. Pardue sympathetically deals with ongoing evangelical objections to doing contextual theology, such as believing theology is an a-cultural ‘science’ or that culture only influences the application of theology, not its content. Meanwhile, amongst those already committed to contextual theology there are a range of conflicting approaches as well as issues of real concern that evangelicals need to address.

Secondly, we are still in the early days, relatively speaking, of theologising in such a globalised world and in a more global and diverse church than ever before (178-182). Such a moment, which Pardue considers understated in its significance (181), demands careful, ongoing reflection for fruitful ways forward. 
Thirdly, Pardue offers a self-consciously theological approach to these issues to complement the work of historians and missiologists. The calling of theologians is to ‘consider God and all things in relation to him’ (15). Pardue acts as a guide for evangelical theologians to consider the triune God and the global church in relation to him, providing a toolkit for evangelical contextual theology.

A positive posture

Pardue’s posture is one of positivity towards the hard work of keeping and cultivating contextual theology. His tone throughout is one of commendation: Pardue wants evangelicals to want what is on offer in the global church. Witnessing to the riches of Christ ‘is accomplished precisely through rather than in spite of the diversity of the church’s cultures.’ (203) As Pardue reminds us, ‘culture is a material good’ from God for the church.

Pardue knows that not all evangelicals share his positive vision. To my mind, he convincingly deals with evangelical objections as a sympathetic insider addressing the real concerns of friends, for ‘they speak to serious concerns that come along with considering these issues in the light of evangelical commitments.’ (30) These commitments are to uphold the self-revelation of God in Scripture, to keep cultural idolatries from contaminating the church, and to avoid un-biblical revision of doctrine in the light of culture.

Overall, Pardue seeks to persuade his readers that contextual theologising need not undermine these commitments. Rather, contextual theologising is the very way in which we can best do what we value as evangelicals: ‘culture is not rightly understood ultimately as a prison but rather as a locus for God’s work of transformation and sanctification. If this is right, then the invitation to contextual theology is far more than a contemporary fad—it is a summons to hear Scripture better, to know God more deeply, and to be transformed increasingly into the likeness of Christ.’ (49)

The evangelical theological toolkit

To equip us, Pardue dusts off historic evangelical theological tools that may be underused. These include the distinction between the magisterial authority of Scripture and the ministerial authority of culture; the doctrine of sin via Babel which tempers cultural over-optimism; and Babel’s reversal in redemption and the doctrine of common grace which tempers scepticism about culture’s contribution. Pardue deftly surveys a range of contemporary approaches to contextualisation, assesses them against evangelical convictions, and suggests adjusted ways forward using these tools.

The whole church for the whole church

The second half of the book is particularly insightful. Pardue surveys three images contemporary theologians use to conceptualise the unity and diversity of the church and contextualisation: globalisation, the Trinity, and the incarnation. He ultimately finds them ill-fitting models for ecclesiology. Instead, following the evangelical impulse to ask ‘what does the Bible say?’, Pardue demonstrates how the main images Scripture offers of the church— family, temple, body—are ripe for reflection on contextual theology.

Building on this focus on ecclesiology, Pardue takes us to an ancient tool: the Nicene Creed. Here we find one of Pardue’s most interesting contributions. He develops the doctrine of the church’s catholicity (universality) for contemporary evangelical contextual theology. 

Catholicity here has two horizons:

First, the present catholicity of the global church shares the fruits of our varied theological reflection and undercuts the danger of splintered tribalism: ‘Only a church established by God’s perfecting grace can realize this vision—one in which the triune God fosters the plurality of Pentecost rather than the chaos of Babel or the anemia of cultural tribalism.’ (191) Pardue is realistic about the messiness of actually living out theological catholicity, yet he’s persistent that we must pursue it: ‘whatever the hardships involved, theologians have a mandate to help the gospel find a genuine home in every cultural context.’ (184)

The second horizon for the church is historic catholicity, the church’s past riches. This is a tool that protects against endless reinvention of the faith. There is a current assumption, though for different reasons, from both Western, conservative evangelicals and postcolonial scholars ‘that a necessary condition for the development of genuine contextual theology is a diminishment of the Christian past as a resource.’ (214) Pardue sees this as misguided. Silencing the past plunges the global church into a kind of poverty as much as silencing diverse global theological voices today.

In a move which I hope will see more development in missiological reflection, Pardue draws heavily on ‘theologies of retrieval’ which cast a discerning yet appreciative eye on the saints who have gone before us to learn lessons from their contextual theologies grounded in the unity of creedal Christianity. This tool of ancient catholicity holds great promise for evangelical contextual theology.

Opening up global horizons

Five of the chapters conclude with case studies. Pardue invites fellow evangelicals into a global conversation that has enriched him. He tells stories of serious but flawed attempts at evangelical contextual theology. But he also introduces us to his friends, as it were, pointing us to faithful guides who hold robust evangelical commitments and who are also in innovative contextual theology. We meet Antonio González, René Padilla, Carver T. Yu, Simon Chan, Jules Martinez-Olivieri, and Kwame Bediako. For some these will be familiar names. For others, these will open up exciting doors to the kind of carefully balanced, catholic, evangelical contextual theology that Pardue invites us to.

In this way, Pardue’s book is a great introductory survey for students of missiology to the recent past and present state of contextual theology, as well as having its own proposals for evangelical contextual theological method. Readers completely new to the topic might look elsewhere for an introduction, but any with a basic grasp of some of the issues involved will find Pardue’s work both accessible and stretching.

More Boldly Evangelical

I would have liked to see Pardue wear his evangelical colours more boldly in two ways.

First, though Pardue does not name it, a number of his theological tools are of the reformed evangelical variety in particular. To readers sceptical of reformed evangelicalism’s usefulness for the global church, Pardue’s contribution might be cause for reconsideration.

Second, this book not only answers ‘why evangelical theology needs the global church’, but also ‘why the global church needs evangelical theology.’ In a time when the label 

‘evangelical’ might cause embarrassment, Pardue’s work could more confidently be a commendation of evangelical theology as having much to give the global church.

I would also have appreciated some concluding suggestions of application. As a theology professor in the Philippines, how does Pardue’s approach shape contextual theological education? How can on-the-ground ministries like church planting amongst the unreached practice present and historic catholicity?

God will keep it

Pardue’s vision for evangelical contextual theology is realistic about the challenges while doggedly hopeful for its possibility. But the hope is not ultimately in the church itself, but that ‘the triune God can and will make good on the promise to draw to himself a people from every tribe, tongue, and nation and that he will therefore bolster the church’s efforts to join in the divine mission of causing Christian faith to flourish among all peoples.’ (185)
To revisit Mrs Powell’s question, ‘What have we got?’ A church with a spectacular array of cultural colours and different expressions united in the deep bond of our common, historic confession of the name of the triune God… not ifwe can keep it, but as this book reminds us, because Hewill keep it.

Endnotes
  1. Brockell, Gillian, ‘A republic, if you can keep it’: Did Ben Franklin really say Impeachment Day’s favorite quote?, The Washington Post, www.washingtonpost.com/history/2019/12/18/republic-if-you-can-keep-it-did-ben-franklin-really-say-impeachment-days-favorite-quote/.
  2. Stephen T. Pardue, Why Evangelical Theology Needs the Global Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2023).

Phil Tinker lives and serves with his family in South East Asia. He has previously pastored in London and has completed his Master of Theology from Edinburgh Theological Seminary.