prague, buildings, sunrise

Be careful of undoing white, European theology

Lots of evangelicals are questioning the ascendance of “white, European theology”, especially its export to other parts of the world. “Stop ramming white theology down the throats of people from other cultures”. Instead, we’re told, we need to encourage “indigenous theology”; this theology will be attuned to the sensibilities of Asian and African communities, rather than the white man. 

The trouble with that is that the origins of Protestantism and the “evangelical movement” are unquestionably white and European. The theological documents of the Protestant churches were written by white, European men. Principles like the sufficiency of Scripture and justification by faith alone were hammered out in Europe in the 16th and 17th century. So, it’s hard to see how you can walk away from “white, European” theology and still be meaningfully Protestant. If you want to “undo” white, European theology, you’ll have to wave goodbye to Protestantism and evangelicalism (at least as a doctrinal position).

Now, losing that “Protestant” identity may not bother many evangelicals anyway. After all, plenty of evangelicals think of the Reformation as a “mistake” – a European squabble that we need to get over.  But it’s worth realising that, really, when people advocate escaping “European theology” and cultivating “indigenous theology”, that’s what’s being proposed. It means the basic questions and answers offered by the Reformation about how a sinner stands before a holy God aren’t at the heart of the gospel of Christ. 

That’s not to suggest the superiority of European theology over other areas – not at all! The flowering of European theology was built on some very important, often unacknowledged African foundations. The key developers of Nicene theology of the 4th century, when the doctrine of the Trinity was clarified, wouldn’t have ticked the “white, European” box on a census form! It’s a good and right that the major contributions of different parts of Christ’s church to her theology are recognised, but the church today will not be strengthened by trying to run away from the ghosts of white, European theology. 

Really, this call to abandon “foreign”, “Western” theology reveals an impoverished understanding of what theology and theological truth is. The New Testament sees theology as “treasure” (Matt 13:52), a “deposit” (1 Tim 6:20), a “pattern of sound words” (2 Tim 1:13). It’s gold that the church has mined from the Scriptures, and put her stamp on. To dismiss some theology as “white, Western” is to massively devalue it. We’re being asked to sell the family silver on ebay.

My evangelical brothers and sisters, to walk away from white, European theology is to walk away from your inheritance. It is to impoverish yourself. It’s to cut yourself off from the catholicity of the church. It’s often done in the name of the “relevance”. But “relevance” isn’t the right principle with which the church should set her theological agenda. The theological controversies of medieval Europe might not seem relevant to 21st century Akkra, but I doubt the 4th century theological controversies of Nicaea do either. I suggest it’s still worth teaching everyone about the Triune nature of God! This kind of impoverishment is what happened to the Eastern Orthodox church; the Eastern church never experienced the Augustine/Pelagian controversy. It was a Latin theological controversy, not a Greek one. As a result, the Orthodox churches do not sound the clear note of “grace alone”. Their lack of engagement with a Western controversy doesn’t make them more relevant; it leaves them worse off. 

For the global, international church today to be faithful to her Lord, she doesn’t need to run from, but press in to the riches of her white, European theology. Sure, the Reformation is only one phase of her history. Arguably, it’s not even the most significant phase (though I would argue it’s very significant). By all means, don’t stop with it. Go back, behind it to some very catholic riches beneath it. Go forward and develop it further, showing us new, unseen treasures in Christ’s storehouse. But trying to reverse, and undo white, European theology (apart from where it’s departed from Scripture) isn’t going to end well.