Learning about Theology from the Third World

Learning about Theology from the Third World

by William A. Dyrness


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With the growing awareness of cultural diversity, evangelicals are beginning to realize that "growing up into Christ in all things" (Eph. 4:15) is a corporate enterprise. Due to involvement in mission and international travel, many Westerners are beginning to realize how much they have to learn from different cultural traditions. LEARNING ABOUT THEOLOGY FROM THE THIRD WORLD is designed to introduce western Christians to discussions about theology going on in the Third World. The assumption is that western thinking about theology has not taken third world perspectives into account, and the day has come for us to bring these brothers and sisters into our conversations about Christianity. For the churches in this part of the world are rapidly becoming a significant force in the world and their leaders are becoming increasingly articulate about their faith (and about distortions the feel missionaries have introduced!). It is Dyrness' thesis that if we approach these sometimes unsettling writings as learners rather than teachers, we will find our own perspectives significantly altered. The maturity of the whole church demands this kind of inter-change. After an introductory chapter on the nature and problems of contextualization, the book gives major overviews of the theology of Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Issues are presented in such a way as to show that each area of the world has developed a unique approach to theological issues, and that each perspective has something to contribute to the development of theology. To illustrate this a final chapter discusses Christology form this cross-cultural perspective and the conclusion sketches out ways in which both western and non-western traditions may interact to enrich theology.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780310209713
Publisher: Zondervan
Publication date: 08/28/1990
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.63(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

William Dyrness, after doctoral studies in Europe, was a missionary in the Philippines and most recently Dean of the School of Theology and Professor of Theology and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Read an Excerpt

Learning About Theology from the Third World

By William A. Dyrness


Copyright © 1990 Zondervan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-310-20971-4

Chapter One


After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: "Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb." All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying: "Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!" Revelation 7:9-12


When I was growing up in Illinois, most of what I knew about what is now called the Third World came from returned missionaries. During long Sunday evening services they would show slides of mud huts and talk about people who seemed to have little in common with me. It never occurred to me that what happened in those strange areas of the world had any real relevance for me or people I knew. In this, I suppose, I was much like most of my contemporaries, whose primary contact with that other world was via National Geographic magazines. When I went away to seminary in the late 1960s I learned about theology and the history of the church. But outside of our missions classes nothing that happened in this other world was considered of real significance. Any theology worthy of the name came from Germany, the Netherlands, or Britain, and, now and then, from America. If there was theological reflection taking place in other parts of the world, we knew nothing about it.

Today, while there is still much ignorance about the Third World, there is a growing awareness of the interconnectedness of peoples and nations. Not only is it possible to travel to every corner of the world in a few hours, but events in these places are seen to be signficant in world terms. Famines, earthquakes, and unrest in one part of the world, we are coming to see, inevitably have effects elsewhere. Rioting on the West Bank, oil strikes in Africa, or drug trafficking in South America are watched with interest not only by diplomats or financiers, but by almost everyone. The question I would like to ask in this study is this: Has this world setting signficantly affected the way we Christians in the West think about our faith? Have we made the connection between economic and political relations and theological exchange?

This challenge was brought home to me during one of the last years our family lived as missionaries in the Philippines in the early 1980s. Each spring missionaries from our mission gathered for a planning conference. The speaker at this particular meeting was one of the older respected Filipino leaders who was brought to Christ, recruited, and trained by the people he was talking to. At the end of his message he told us something that must have been very difficult for a soft-spoken, modest Filipino to say to Western missionaries. The situation of missions was changing, he had been telling us, and the need for new relations was urgent. In conclusion he summarized the situation as he saw it: "We have had the privilege of being dependent on you. Now we would like you to have the privilege of being dependent on us."

Many events of the last generation made such a shift possible and, many would argue, necessary. Following World War II, during the so-called Cold War, many of the newly independent countries refused to line up behind the communist East or the capitalist West. In 1955 representatives of twenty-nine of these countries met at the famous Bandung Conference, the first of many conferences of "nonaligned" nations. It was there the term "Third World" was born, as a description of this new politically independent section of the world.

Accompanying this growing political maturity, and arguably one of its causes, has been a rapidly growing Christian church in the Third World, a church that has come to overshadow that in the West. In 1900, for example, Christians in Latin America, Africa, and Asia numbered a mere 86.7 million, compared to 333.2 million in Europe and North America. By 1988 Third World Christians numbered 826.6 million, compared to 594.7 in the West. Indeed it is hard to overemphasize the importance of this growing and maturing part of Christendom. Professor A. F. Walls, of the University of Aberdeen, puts such changes in these terms:

One of the most important ... events in the whole of Christian history, has occurred within the lifetime of people not yet old. It has not reached the textbooks, and most Christians, including many of the best informed, do not know it has happened. It is nothing less than a complete change in the centre of gravity of Christianity, so that the heartlands of the Church are no longer in Europe, decreasingly in North America, but in Latin America, in certain parts of Asia, and ... in Africa. (1976:180)

Professor Walls goes on to draw a conclusion from this that is important for the thesis of this book. If it is true that theology that matters will be a theology of the majority of Christians, then "theology in the Third World is now the only theology worth caring about" (182). If theology is to be rooted in the actual lives of Christians today, increasingly it will have to be from the poor to the poor, in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. And theology done in the West, if it is not to become increasingly provincial, he notes, will have to be done in dialogue with the theological leaders in the Third World.

For our part, if we are able to distance ourselves from the noise and heat generated by the theological battles of the West-not an easy thing for us to do-we will find that an increasingly sophisticated theological discussion is being carried on in the Third World. Already in 1966 the All-Africa Conference of Churches met in Ibadan, Nigeria, and produced important reflections on Christianity in an African setting (see Dickson and Ellingworth, 1971). In 1976 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, the Ecumenical Association of Third World theologians was born (see Torres and Fabella, 1978), and it has become an important forum for theological reflection. As we will note, evangelicals have been slower to encourage such reflection, but hopeful signs are appearing here as well. In the 1970s fraternities of evangelical Theologians were formed in Latin America, Asia, and Africa and have sponsored important conferences (see Gitari and Benson, 1986; Samuel and Sugden, 1983). It is significant that the theological commission of the World Evangelical Fellowship along with the Lausanne Committee has encouraged important discussion on these issues (see Nicholls, 1979; Stott and Coote, 1980).


Our concern in this book, then, is with theology coming from that part of the world that is called the Third (or more recently the Two-Thirds) World, consisting of Latin America, Africa, and South and Southeast Asia. Before going further it is fair to ask whether it is possible to make meaningful generalizations about an area so large and so diverse.

This vast section of the world, making up three-fourths of the world's population, is a kaleidoscope of cultures and traditions. Even so, it has many common characteristics that distinguish it from its northern and southern neighbors (see Paul Harrison, Inside the Third World).

In the first place, a large portion of the people of this region are poor. The World Bank estimated in 1980 that the number of people unable to afford the basic WHO/FAO-recommended diet was 750 million, or one person in three in the noncommunist developing countries (ibid., 462). This situation is aggravated by widespread shortages of medical and educational facilities and even more basic social services. As a result Third World literature and art reflect a concrete and continuing struggle to survive hardships with dignity. Overpopulation (or, less often, the reverse), hostile physical environments, and an unrelenting tropical sun, among other factors, conspire to make life for most people of the Third World an unceasing struggle.

Second, these countries have all survived unequal and sometimes debilitating relations with the richer northern countries (which I will ordinarily call the West in this study), relations that have left their mark in the form of economic and cultural dependencies and inequities. Ali Mazrui notes, "The bonds between Africa and Asia include the experience of racial humiliation as non-white people. The bonds between Africa and Latin America include the experience of exploitation" (1980:xi). As newly formed nations struggle to find their own identity, there is often, quite understandably, suspicion or outright rejection of Western influences. At the same time there is a desperate need for external capital to finance infrastructure (roads and communication facilities) and an industrial base.

Third, all three of these areas were once the home of sophisticated civilizations and religious traditions. In Latin America the Inca and Maya civilizations equaled and surpassed some of the technical and political achievements in the West. The Sudanic and Chinese civilizations, in Africa and Asia, were in advance of contemporary civilizations in the West in many respects. India is the home of some of the richest religious traditions of the world. Today, in a world where rules are made somewhere else, these countries struggle to maintain the integrity of their traditions and a continuity with their past. Memory is very important to a people, and much of modern history has had the effect of eliminating or belittling such memories in the Third World. Both Marxism and capitalism, each in its own way, have communicated that the history of these regions reflects weakness and failures that must be overcome if the people are to enter the modern world. Consequently many people in these countries feel that they are forced to lose their soul in order to come to terms with the developed world.

Fourth, the peoples of these areas share a deeply religious outlook on life. Often nourished by their ancient and deeply rooted traditions, they treasure the spiritual and mystical dimensions of life. As a result, though they are sometimes slow in appreciating the technical skills of the modern world, they possess profound skills in fostering interpersonal relations and family and alliance systems.

These issues, and others I have not listed, characterize the Third World as a whole. Accordingly, theology emanating from this part of the world will in some ways reflect and engage the issues of poverty, indigenous and modernizing traditions, and cultural and family pride. But the way these issues are addressed will reflect the unique history and culture of each region (and even each ethnic group).

In this study I will be arguing that each of the three major regions of the Third World has a distinctive way of responding to these issues and thus a special way of reading Scripture and formulating the Gospel. While neat boundaries are not possible, I will argue there are distinctive styles that Latin American, Asian, and African people reflect in thinking about Christianity (just as there is a distinctive style we Americans bring to our faith; see Dyrness, 1989).

Let me try to summarize these styles in an introductory way. African theologians tend to focus on the way Christianity relates to particular cultural forms and ask how the Gospel can be expressed in terms of these traditions. All peoples have cultural forms, but no people have been so preoccupied with how their rich cultural traditions provide a warrant for the values of the Gospel as have African theologians. Latin American theologians, because of the political oppression they have suffered and their resultant underdevelopment, have tended to focus on the political dimensions of poverty and the struggle to preserve cultural integrity. For reasons we will explore, they have tended to find in their own history political dynamics that urgently call for resolution. All peoples organize themselves into political groupings, but for various reasons


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