Timothy Tennent, President of Asbury Seminary and former professor of world missions at Gordon-Conwell has written a monumental and masterful work entitled Invitation to World Missions that is aimed at the concerns of 21st century missionaries, students, and teachers. The result of this book is a vast amount of ground covered: from building a theological basis for missiology, to Trinitarian thinking on missions, to an evangelical theology of religions, and then onto a history of missions. What was very alarming to me in reading this great book is that every time I would be thinking of a mission situation or problem in a chapter, Tennent answered my question before I was able to formulate it. This work gives much attention to the theological trajectory of the Bible and how God is ever at work from the beginning to end in missions. I hope to offer a few highlights of the book followed with a criticism and a conclusion here in my review.
Capturing the narrative flow of the Bible
Tennet does an amazing job at focusing in on the narrative flow of the Bible and incorporating this into the role of mission thinking. As God reveals himself in the Old Testament, he does so by calling Abraham to be the father of many nations and accomplishing his covenant promises even thru perilous situations. God providentially enacts his missional plan and carries it forth powerfully. Tennent writes, "Because God already has ordained the final goal, He actually confirms it with an oath, swearing by His own self that all nations will be blessed through the seed of Abraham (Genesis 22:16-18)" (110). As Tennent sees God as both the source and initiator of mission, he also sees the providential hand of God upon all the affairs that take place with Abraham. One caveat here is that I wish Tennent would have drawn us to Genesis 15 as well, because this text brings to the forefront God's tenacious commitment to himself to keep his covenant promise to his people. Nevertheless, Tennent carefully weaves the reader through the Abrahamic narrative by squaring in on God's plan for all nations, regardless of their position. The way that Tennent brings out the essential elements of Abraham's life and connects them with the New Testament and life today is a great encouragement to those working alongside various people groups. In other words, God is committed to the point of laying his own Son's life down for the purpose of his glory going out among all nations, not just a select few.
Robust Theology of Culture
After critiquing the Christ and Culture models put down by H. Richard Neihbur, Tennent delivers some helpful paragraphs for understanding The Son's embodiment in Human Culture. He writes, "First, the life of Jesus as concretely revealed in real history is God the Father's validation of the sanctity of human culture. This should not be viewed as a kind of tangential application of the Incarnation but as central to our understanding of what Chalcedon meant by affirming the identity of Jesus as fully God and fully man" (179-180). We often get the billboard `The Sanctity of Human Life' but we rarely think about the Incarnation as providing the basis for God's validation of human culture. Jesus lived among his Jewish culture with all the things that go along with it: language, food, weddings, physical exertion, emotions. In Jesus, God reveals true humanity. Furthermore, I think this is part of Tennent's point, is that Jesus by his entering into human form affirmed those cultural artifacts that we encounter on a daily basis including a range of human emotion, meals, and cultural identity markers.
Yet, Tennent also recognizes that just as the sending of Jesus of Nazareth into the world was a sign of the sanctity of human culture, it is also a basis for cultural critique (181). The maladies of the plight of the poor and disenfranchised, the horrific wars and terrorist actions, lead us to see that culture easily drowns into death when followed by secular rule. Tennent writes, "The true union of God and man in one person is the ultimate rebuke against the secularization of culture" (181). The takeaway from this is that if we too easily demonize the culture for something or blindly accept some idea or artifact then we are not following the way of understanding culture given to us by the life of Jesus.
Lastly, I found Tennent's analysis in chapter 7 on a evangelical theology of religions to be insightful because it flees from the standard models of exclusivism, inclusivism, and universalism to see the positive and negative in each view. Tennent is right to see that often we want to lay down the lines of belief for battle instead of understanding the heart of another person's desire to be faithful for Christ.
My critique of Tennent's book primarily focuses on ch. 6 in which he talks about a new creation model. Tennent writes, "..we must place the emphasis on cultural adaption and assimilation, which is so heavily emphasized in missions training, with a larger context" (187). The larger context is our identity in Christ and being ambassadors of the New Creation. Tennent goes onto explain that being ambassadors of the New Creation is countercultural and nourishes the best in culture. Part of his answer to understanding the New Creation is looking at communities and their goals. Yet, Tennent seems to brushstroke in a broad way these issues of being in the world and not of the world, while not giving the reader a more particular outlet for understanding these missiological issues. For instance, what does cultural adaptation and assimilation look in a culture that degrades the environmental surrounding in there are for personal gain? Or, how does bringing the particularities of culture under the Lordship of Christ take place when there is such an intertwining of cultural positives and negatives? In other words, I think this chapter was good but that it lacked some real grounded applications of these principles (whether from government, environment, etc.).
This book is a goldmine of solid thinking on missions. You surely do not want to miss reading this book. Tennent is an astute observer of missional thinking, one who has been an active participant in mission and practitioner in the field. This book provides a sound theological and practical basis for understanding mission today without skating away from the issues on the forefront of mission thinking.
Thanks to Kregel Academic and Professional for the free copy of this book in exchange for review.