The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South - Philip Jenkins

06 December 2006 - Print Version

Source: Christianity Today

Philip Jenkins

  Our understanding of the Bible is different from them. We are two different churches.
  —Archbishop Benjamin Nzimbi (Kenya)

In recent years, gatherings of the worldwide Anglican Communion have been contentious events. On one occasion, two bishops were participating in a Bible study, one an African Anglican, the other a U.S. Episcopalian. As the hours went by, tempers frayed as the African expressed his confidence in the clear words of scripture, while the American stressed the need to interpret the Bible in the light of modern scholarship and contemporary mores.

Eventually, the African bishop asked in exasperation, “If you don’t believe the scripture, why did you bring it to us in the first place?” Christian denominations worldwide have been deeply divided over issues of gender, sexual morality, and homosexuality. These debates illustrate a sharp global division, with many North American and European churches willing to accommodate liberalizing trends in the wider society, while their African and Asian counterparts prove much more conservative. These controversies are grounded in attitudes to authority and, above all, to the position of the Bible as an inspired text. Fifty years ago, Americans might have dismissed global South conservatism as arising from a lack of theological sophistication, and in any case, these views were strictly marginal to the concerns of the Christian heartlands of North America and Western Europe. Put crudely, why should the “Christian world” care what Africans think? Only as recently as 1960 did the Roman Catholic Church choose its first black African cardinal. Yet today, as the center of gravity of the Christian world moves ever southward, the conservative traditions prevailing in the global South matter ever more.

Of course, Christian doctrine has never been decided by majority vote, and neither has the prevailing interpretation of the Bible. Numbers are not everything; but at the same time, overwhelming numerical majorities surely carry some weight. Let us imagine a (probable) near-future world in which Christian numbers are strongly concentrated in the global South, where the clergy and scholars of the world’s most populous churches accept interpretations of the Bible more conservative than those normally prevailing in American mainline denominations. In such a world, then surely, Southern traditions of Bible reading must be seen as the Christian norm. We will no longer treat the culture-specific interpretations of North Americans and Europeans as “theology”—that is, as the real thing—while the rest of the world produces its curious provincial variants, of “African theology,” “Asian theology,” and so on. We will know that the transition is under way when publishers start offering studies of “North American theologies.” As Joel Carpenter observes, “Christian theology eventually reflects the most compelling issues from the front lines of mission, so we can expect that Christian theology will be dominated by these issues rising from the global South.” If in fact the numerical strength of Christianity is increasingly in the South, that might suggest a decisive move toward literal and even fundamentalist readings of the Bible, to the horror of American or European liberals, and the delight of conservatives. Having said that, intellectual traditions change and develop over time, and there is no assurance whatever that approaches popular today will still prevail in twenty or fifty years time. But current controversies do raise questions about the future of Christian thought, and they challenge popular assumptions about the seemingly inevitable directions it will take. In an earlier age of conflict in American Protestantism, in 1922, Harry Emerson Fosdick asked, “Shall the fundamentalists win?” In North America, they clearly did not. On a global scale, though, matters might develop differently.

More here

0 Responses. Comments closed for this entry.