Intercultural Theology as a Three-Way Conversation:
Beyond the Western Dominance of Intercultural Theology1
Benno van der Toren
Protestant Theological University, Groningen, The Netherlands
Published as: “Intercultural Theology as a Three-Way Conversation: Beyond the Western Dominance
of Intercultural Theology.” Exchange 44 (2015): 123–43.
Abstract: Intercultural theology intends to engage in dialogue with theological expressions from
different parts of the Global Church, but often works with western assumptions about what dialogue
partners and texts are considered academically credible and what the proper focus of the academic
study of such voices should be. This article argues, first, that intercultural theology can only move
beyond the western dominance of its own discourse and become truly intercultural if it takes into
account the theological voices that are expressed in non-academic texts, oral traditions, and
practices; second, that intercultural theology can only engage in true dialogue and truly theological
dialogue if it becomes a three-way conversation characterised by joint attention to God as He has
revealed Himself in the canonical Scriptures as the object – or subject – that brings the conversation
Keywords: Contextual Theology, Intercultural Theology, Missiology, Method, Religious Studies,
Last year, a student from Nigeria spoke with me to share his amazement. He was attending
a one year international study program on evangelism and apologetics in Oxford and I saw
him every week in my doctrine lectures. ‘I do not understand England’, he said, ‘my English
fellow students have a much better understanding of the Christian faith than I see in
Nigerian Christians. I truly appreciate that. But at the same time it seems as if the Gospel
lacks power over here. If we organize an evangelistic campaign in Nigeria, hundreds will
come to faith. If we pray with people for healing it happens. Over here people organise so
many activities, but so few people come to faith. It seems as if the Gospel does not have any
power over here. How can that be?’ I mumbled something about secularisation and cultural
differences and that I shared his incomprehension, but in the end I stood there lost for
words. Yet, these are the type of questions that intercultural theology needs to address.
The use of the label ‘intercultural theology’ for a particular discipline is a recent
development and the field is still in flux.2 My predecessor, Professor Volker Küster, was still
called professor of ‘cross-cultural theology’, itself a new label at the time he was appointed
in 2002. These name changes are an indication of the rapid developments in this academic
field. Though the name itself is older, ‘intercultural’ has probably only been used as a label
1 This paper is based on the author's inaugural lecture as Professor of Intercultural Theology at the Protestant
Theological University, Groningen, the Netherlands, on 11 November 2014. He wishes to express his thanks to
Klaas Bom, Berdine van den Toren-Lekkerkerker and Peter Verbaan for their comments on earlier versions of
this text and to Samuel Bussey for editing of the English translation.
2 Volker Küster, ‘Interkulturelle Theologie’, in: Hans Dieter Betz et al. (eds.), Religion in Geschichte und
Gegenwart Handwörterbuch für Theologie und Religionswissenschaft, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2001, 197-199.
for a theological project since 1975 when Jochen Margull, Walter Hollenweger and Richard
Friedli began the tri-lingual series Studien zur interkulturellen Geschichte des Christentums.3
Opting for ‘intercultural theology’ is, in my opinion, a positive development. Previously,
theological conversations around similar questions were often addressed under the heading
of ‘contextual theology’. This term rightly emphasises that theological reflection is
inextricably related to the particular context in which it occurs. This was an important step
in comparison to forms of theology that address a multitude of theological questions as if
the context plays no role whatsoever in the process. The contextual theology project
presupposes that not just certain elements or aspects of theology are contextually shaped,
but the entirety of the theological edifice. The project stresses furthermore that all theology
is contextually shaped. This is not only the case for theology in Africa, Asia and Latin-
America, but equally for Western theology that is profoundly shaped by the influence of
modernity and, more recently, postmodernity.4
With this understanding we left in 1997 as a family for the Faculté de Théologie
Evangélique de Bangui (FATEB) in the Central African Republic. As a lecturer in systematic
theology, I hoped to contribute to the formulation of a theology that was contextually
relevant and insightful. From the beginning, however, we believed that we did not just
depart for French-Speaking Africa to contribute something, but also, and possibly even more
so, in order to learn, to share in the life of this church in another part of the world as the
eyes and ears of the church in the Netherlands, and to return enriched with these lessons
from a young and growing church to an old and perhaps somewhat tired church in Europe.
It is a great privilege that I am able to accept a Chair for teaching and research in the area of
intercultural theology and so contribute to the conversation between Dutch theology and
the global church.
Intercultural theology orchestrates and studies this conversation between Christian
communities from different cultural settings. Contextual theology mainly focuses on the
relationship between theology and specific contexts, but intercultural theology enables a
critical consideration of that relationship by engaging in a conversation between different
The development of both contextual theology and intercultural theology has been
shaped by the use of and dialogue with the social sciences. Inculturation theologies, a major
stream of contextual theology, mainly relate to cultural anthropology and religious studies.
Liberation theologies, another major stream, mainly relate to sociology, economics and
political science. Intercultural theology also includes insights from various other fields of
study, for example communication studies and interdisciplinary migration studies. This focus
on the description and analysis of processes of cultural change and intercultural encounters
with the help of social scientific tools raises an important issue as to what extent
intercultural theology can still be called ‘theology’. How does it contribute to speaking about
God and about the world in the light of God’s intentions? Or is this only what Robert
3 Frankfurt am Main et al.: Peter Lang.
4 David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books
1991, 448-449; cf. Benno van den Toren, ‘Can We See the Naked Theological Truth?’ in: David J. Bosch,
Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, Maryknoll: Orbis Books 1991, 448f; cf. Benno
van den Toren, “Can We See the Naked Theological Truth?,” in Local Theology for the Global Church:
Principles for an Evangelical Approach to Contextualization, ed. Matthew Cook et al. (eds.), Local Theology
for the Global Church: Principles for an Evangelical Approach to Contextualization, Pasadena: William Carey
Library 2010, 94-95.
Schreiter calls ‘theological tourism’,5 an interest in exotic expressions of the Christian faith
that remains a hobby for specialists but rarely touches wider theological debates?
This is the question I intend to address in this article. To gain insight into the importance
of this question, I will first draw attention to how the specific Western cultural setting that
has given birth to the project of intercultural theology has shaped its current form. This
secondly raises the question of whether intercultural theology is sufficiently open to the
particular character of theological voices from the global church. In the light of these
explorations, I will finally discuss the place of God in intercultural theology.
The Cultural Location of Intercultural Theology
Because intercultural theology studies the role of the context for the shaping of theological
views and insights, it cannot itself escape from such an analysis. How is the project of
intercultural theology itself shaped by its cultural and social context?6 Such a critical self-
examination is a precarious enterprise, because we normally find it harder to perceive our
own tacit cultural presuppositions than those of others. Intercultural theology, however, has
an advantage compared to some other disciplines because it studies the critical perspectives
of others on its own context and because it aims to nurture the ability to look at oneself
through the eyes of others.
The shape of the discipline is partly determined by the institutional history of the
professorial chairs concerned. In Europe a number of chairs in intercultural theology have
come into existence because of the restructuring of older chairs in missiology or mission
studies.7 This partly reflects a growing unease with the notion of ‘mission’, 8 but also means
that missiology itself is still a part of the area that intercultural theology will need to cover;9
resulting in a tension that may not always work out well for the teaching of missiology.
It is fortunate that some institutions such as the Protestant Theological University (PThU)
have opted to maintain chairs in both Missiology and Intercultural Theology. This means on
the one hand that the church’s call to mission receives full attention. Mission is part of the
essence of the church. And as Frances Oborji notes in a reaction to the changes in German
Theological Faculties from missiology to intercultural theology: not all mission is
intercultural and not all missiological questions can be reduced to questions of intercultural
5 Robert J. Schreiter, ‘Foreword’, in: Volker Küster, The Many Faces of Jesus Christ: Intercultural Christology,
Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books 2001, xii.
6 Werner Ustorf, ‘The Cultural Origins of ‘Intercultural’ Theology’, in: Mark J. Cartledge and David A.
Cheetham (eds), Intercultural Theology: Approaches and Themes, London et al.: SCM Press 2011, 11-28.
7 Missionswissenschaft Als Interkulturelle Theologie Und Ihr Verhältnis Zur Religionswissenschaft, 2005,
website of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Missionswissenschaft,
http://www.dgmw.org/Missionswissenschaft.pdf; Frans J.S. Wijsen, ‘New Wine in Old Wineskins? Intercultural
Theology instead of Missiology’, in: Martha T. Frederiks, Meindert Dijkstra and Anton W. J. Houtepen (eds.),
Towards an Intercultural Theology: Essays in Honour of Jan A. B. Jongeneel, Zoetermeer: Meinema 2003, 39-
8 Werner Ustorf, ‘Rethinking Missiology’, in: Anton W.J. Houtepen and Albert Ploeger (eds.), World
Christianity Reconsidered: Questioning the Questions of Ecumenism and Missiology: Contributions for Bert
Hoedemaker, Zoetermeer: Meinema 2001, 67-78.
9 Cf. a number of recent German manuals: Klaus Hock, Einführung in die interkulturelle Theologie, Darmstadt:
Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft 2010; Volker Küster, Einführung in die Interkulturelle Theologie, Stuttgart:
UTB 2011; Henning Wrogemann, Interkulturelle Theologie und Hermeneutik Grundfragen, aktuelle Beispiele,
theoretische Perspektiven, Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus 2012.
theology.10 More mission work is taking place today than ever before which asks for critical
missiological reflection.11 It also asks for our attention from an intercultural perspective,
because many non-Western believers have a strong missionary drive,12 a drive that also
leads to mission in the opposite direction, from non-Western to Western contexts.13 On the
other hand there is a risk that making intercultural theological studies part of missiology will
lead to a pragmatic use of intercultural theology for which interculturality is only relevant in
view of cross-cultural mission. If intercultural theology is an independent chair, it shows that
this discipline is not only considered to be of importance in view of the missionary calling of
the church. All our theology is being questioned in the mirror of the intercultural ‘other’.
Intercultural theology contributes to the self-understanding of believers, of Christian
communities and pastors in relation to the global Christian community – and in this light
also contributes to a renewed understanding of God.
More important than the institutional history of the discipline is the wider cultural context.
This context is in the first place shaped by the often discussed shift of the demographic
centre of global Christianity from Europe and North-America to Latin-America, Africa and
Asia.14 This development runs parallel to declining church participation in Europe and it is
justified that we look to the church in the Global South to learn from the zeal, the
confidence, the missionary drive and the social involvement of Christian communities in
The wider context that shapes the genealogy of this theological discipline is furthermore
shaped by a number of developments that are linked to the label ‘globalisation’. The older
notion of contextual theology focuses mainly on local cultural contexts and their
particularity.16 Intercultural theology is appropriate for a context of globalisation in which
different regions of the world are becoming increasingly intertwined. It fits a context in
which economic developments in China impact the stock market in Amsterdam. In the
global church we also find a great complexity of flows of information, money and migrants.
Particularly in the global church the hubs of these flows are no longer all located in the
North-Atlantic cultural sphere. There are around a million migrant Christians in the
Netherlands,17 including, for example, over 30 congregations of the Redeemed Christian
Church of God led by Pastor Enoch Adejare Adeboye with its headquarters in Nigeria and a
broad and professional presence on the Internet.18 Theology in this context can no longer
be described as ‘local’, but with a neologism ‘glocal’: it has a local colour, but is linked to
global flows and networks.
10 Francis Anekwe Oborji, 'Missiology in Its Relation to Intercultural Theology and Religious Studies’, Mission
Studies 25/1 (2008), 113-114.
11 Wijsen, 47.
12 Wijsen, 54.
13 Cf. Israel Olofinjana, Turning the Tables on Mission: Stories of Christians from the Global, Watford: Instant
14 Cf. Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, Oxford et al.: Oxford
University Press 2002; Todd M Johnson et al., Christianity in Its Global Context, 1970-2020, South Hamilton,
MA: Centre for the Study of Global Christianity, Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, June 2013, website of
15 Contra Ustorf, ‘Cultural Origins’, 21.
16 Cf. Robert J. Schreiter, Constructing Local Theologies, London: SCM 1985.
17 Marten van der Meulen, ‘Assessing the Impact of Migrant Christianity. A Case Study of the Netherlands, with
a Special Focus on Amsterdam’, forthcoming.
18 Website RCCG Netherlands Mission - Parishes, http://rccgnetherlands.org/index.php/parishes-list, accessed 8
A third factor is the growing influence of the social sciences on the self-understanding of
the contemporary European academy and also on theology.19 We are increasingly aware of
how deeply our values and truths are influenced by our social and cultural environment.
Contextual and intercultural theological studies have themselves contributed to this
awareness in the wider church and in academic theology. In studying new Christian
communities, it has become clear how the great variety of Christian expressions is not
primarily determined by doctrinal variations and contrasts, which for centuries determined
the relationships between church communities in the old world. This diversity is rather
related to the varying socio-political and cultural contexts that continue to raise new issues
that the Gospel needs to address.20
The relationship between social and cultural developments on the one hand and the
desirability of changes in the theological enterprise on the other is, of course, complex.
Sometimes social developments simply mean that academic theology will need to develop
accordingly in order to remain relevant in this new environment. This is exemplified in the
development of intercultural theology. In a globalising world and in the context of global
Christianity, academic and ecclesiastical theology cannot allow itself to invest its energy only
in the study of local history and traditions.
Social and cultural changes may also present a more positive opportunity to gain new
insights that were harder to access beforehand. In this way the growing influence of the
population of the new cities and the growing literacy among this population in the time of
the European Reformation contributed to the (re-)discovery of the importance of the
accessibility of the Scriptures in the vernacular languages and to a consideration of the
claritas Scripturae. In a comparable manner the process of globalisation has led to a new
consideration of the meaning of the ‘catholicity’ of Christian theology. According to Robert
Schreiter, globalisation challenges us to look for a ‘new catholicity’ according to which the
church can only be truly catholic if she listens to voices from different geographic and
cultural contexts.21 In this process marginalised groups and voices need our special
In this way intercultural theology contributes to the wider theological debate in the Western
church and to the training of pastors and chaplains. It does so by giving a voice to the global
church. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is so multifaceted and has a much richer meaning than
we can perceive from our limited historical and cultural perspective. In this context Andrew
Walls points to the Epistle to the Ephesians, in which we find the notion that it is only ‘with
all the saints, [that we have the power to comprehend] what is the breadth and length and
height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge’ (Ephesians 3:18-
19 Stefan Paas, ‘Alles Wordt Vloeibaar’, Wapenveld 63/1 (2013): 2-10.
20 Ustorf, ‘Cultural Origins’, 17-18; cf. for the related influence of postmodernism Anton W.J. Houtepen,
‘Intercultural Theology: A Postmodern Ecumenical Mission’, in: Martha T. Frederiks, Meindert Dijkstra and
Anton W.J. Houtepen (eds.), Towards an Intercultural Theology: Essays in Honour of Jan A. B. Jongeneel,
Zoetermeer: Meinema 2003, 30-31.
21 Robert J. Schreiter, The New Catholicity: Theology between the Global and the Local, Maryknoll NY: Orbis
22 Cf. World Council of Churches, Together towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes,
2012, website of the World Council of Churches, http://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/wcc-
Christ’s completion … comes from all humanity, from the translation of the life of Jesus into the
lifeways of all the world’s cultures and subcultures through history. None of us can reach Christ’s
completeness on our own. We need each other’s vision to correct, enlarge and focus our own;
only together we are complete in Christ.23
Obviously, social developments are not always only positive for theology. This is also the
case for the developments that contributed to the rise of intercultural theology.24 This type
of intercultural theology in the tradition of Margull and more recently Ustorf considers
theological identities as fundamentally determined by ‘the pressing needs of ... social,
political, religious and cultural contexts’, joined with the conviction that social engagement
is a, if not the fundamental mode of being Christian.25 This understanding of intercultural
theology can relatively easily be combined with epistemological constructivism: the content
of theology is not in the first place determined by its orientation towards the God of Israel
and his self-revelation in the Scriptures, but principally in the light of what this theology
means for the self-understanding of concrete Christian communities and how it helps them
to live in a particular social and cultural context. In the analysis of the meaning of religious
beliefs and theological convictions the role of God and his revelation is diminished in
comparison to the context. As in the ‘cultural-linguistic’ understanding of doctrine and
theology of George Lindbeck, one does not necessarily deny that the God of Israel may be
the referent of theological statements. For understanding the meaning of such statements,
however, this reference is less important, because they are understood first and foremost in
relation to the life and practices of concrete Christian communities.26
As such, this understanding of intercultural theology reflects the late-modern or post-
modern context in which it originates. It fits the modern and postmodern scepticism
concerning a historical revelation. It reflects the growing influence of the social sciences on
theology. It fits the postmodern attention for the thickness of the concrete life of (religious)
communities. At the same time it creates space to practice theology in a secular academic
environment. Even more, it shows that religious beliefs are relevant in a way that secular
people can understand because these beliefs play a major role in providing meaning and
supporting community cohesion and social engagement. In this form, intercultural theology
is not only a discipline that fits a globalizing world and a global church, but also a discipline
that reflects a number of typical late-modern or post-modern Western values.27
Therefore, the project of intercultural theology is paradoxically on the one hand an
expression of a new openness for the global church and her theologies, but on the other
hand, in certain principal forms, also a quintessentially Western project. This Western
character may be unavoidable. Intercultural theology itself stresses that Western
23 Andrew F. Walls, ‘The Ephesian Moment: At A Crossroads in Christian History’, in: Andrew F. Walls, The
Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History: Studies in The Transmission and Appropriation of Faith,
Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books 2002, 79.
24 In addressing this issue, we need to ask ourselves what we refer to with the label ‘intercultural theology’.
Ustorf believes, for example, that the renaming if the Fuller ‘School of Mission’ to ‘School of Intercultural
Studies’ is an inappropriate appropriation of the label, because this institution does not share the radical basic
assumptions that should characterise the intercultural project; see Ustorf, ‘Rethinking Missiology’, 15.
25 Ustorf, ‘Cultural Origins’, 17; Küster, Einführung, 56.
26 George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, Philadelphia:
Westminster Press 1984, 19, 35; cf. for an analysis of Lindbeck’s position Benno van den Toren, Breuk en brug.
In gesprek met Karl Barth en postmoderne theologie over geloofsverantwoording, Zoetermeer: Boekencentrum
1995, 76-79; Benno van den Toren, Christian Apologetics as Cross-Cultural Dialogue, London et al.: T. & T.
Clark, 2011, 63-64.
27 ‘Interkulturelle Theologie ist ursprünglich ein europäisch Projekt’ (Küster, Einführung, 110).
theologians themselves should not pretend to be able to practice context-free theology. Yet,
postcolonial theologians such as Kwok Pui-lan show in their analyses how important it is to
ask who shapes a certain theological discourse and whose interests it serves.28 This raises
the question of how an open intercultural conversation should be conducted and who gets
to set the agenda.
Barriers in the Dialogue with the Global Church
In light of what has been discussed, we need to address the question of how we can truly
listen to the cultural ‘other’. Is true intercultural dialogue possible if one of the parties sets
the agenda and the parameters of the conversation? In light of my experience29 I would like
in what follows to discuss two closely related obstacles that need our attention if we want
to engage in an open intercultural conversation and so contribute to a new catholicity.
These obstacles relate to the nature of the sources used and the place of God in
The first obstacle concerns the nature of the sources that tend to be central in the
Western theological enterprise. Western theologians – and particularly Western systematic
theologians such as myself – are mainly used to working with written texts. These texts also
need to be written in a certain style and comply with certain formal criteria in order to be
considered adequate theological dialogue partners. If we look for similar texts of non-
Western30 origin we often end up with doctoral theses of African and Asian theologians
published by Western publishing houses. These are by definition written for a Western
academic audience and therefore do not always address the themes that are locally most
important and are not always in line with forms of theologising that are common in non-
Western churches. This is still the case – though slightly less so – for the compendia and
conference volumes that are easily accessible to Western theologians. Western interests –
also Western intercultural interests – and Western criteria – also Western criteria for what
counts as good intercultural theology – still determine who are invited to academic
conferences, which books are published and which non-Western theologians are invited to
teach at Western institutions where they have the best platform to contribute to the
Western intercultural conversation.
This does not always mean that these theologians are always the most influential
thinkers in the context from which they originate or where they continue to work. On the
one hand, training institutions in those countries often study Western theological sources.31
28 David Bradnick, ‘Postcolonial Theology’, The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization, Oxford: Blackwell
Publishing Ltd 2012, 1850-1851; see for an example Pui-lan Kwok, ‘Unbinding Our Feet: Saving Brown
Women and Feminist Religious Discourse’, in: Laura E Donaldson and Pui-lan Kwok (eds.), Postcolonialism,
Feminism, and Religious Discourse, New York: Routledge 2002, 62-81.
29 If we do not want to decide beforehand the ways in which other cultures differ from our own, it is impossible
to determine a priori what the obstacles are to intercultural encounters. These can therefore only be discovered
in concrete encounters with others.
30 The notion ‘non-Western’ is itself problematic because it defines theological contributions from other parts of
the world in relation to the West and thereby presents the West as the centre of the theological conversation. At
the same time this label is unavoidable in the context of this article, because it explores the meaning of global
theology for the Western world.
31 See for example Martin Accad, ‘Middle Eastern Theology in Evangelical Perspective’, in: Jeffrey P.
Greenman and Gene L. Green (eds.), Global Theology in Evangelical Perspective: Exploring the Contextual
Nature of Theology and Mission, Downers Grove: IVP Academic 2012, 148-162.
Different factors may contribute to this situation. Maybe Western sources are more easily
accessible, either in terms of their content or in terms of their availability; maybe academic
contextual theology is experienced as alienating; or still other factors may play their role,
such as an unexpressed tension between theologians working in their region of origin and
those working in the Western diaspora. On the other hand, local students and pastors may
use local publications that Western theologians will not recognise as academic sources and
that may not be written by academically trained theologians, but that are locally
experienced as the most relevant texts available. Consider, for example, publications such as
The Blood Triumph32 of David Oyedepo, presiding bishop of the Living Faith Church World
Wide (also known as the Winners’ Chapel network), pastor of the Faith Tabernacle with an
auditorium that seats 50,000 in a suburb of Lagos, and founder of two universities. Today
there is an important production of Christian texts in churches that show little interest in
the West and least so in Western academic theology.
Even more important than such printed sources is the theology that is done in other
forms: theology that is expressed in sermons, songs, liturgy, and in pastoral practices such
as a prayer for healing or a service for the inauguration of a new president. Because a
number of these newer Christian movements are prominently present on the internet,
much material can be found on church websites and on social media. This means that the
study of intercultural theology is only possible if we are learning to look beyond the
boundaries of dominant forms of Western academic discourse. This also demands the
development of new skills needed to locate and interpret the relevant sources and
investment to make these accessible so that they can contribute to the wider theological
When after decades of studying secularisation the American theologian Harvey Cox
turned his attention to international Pentecostalism, he discovered that the research
methods he was used to were not adequate in this new field:
As a theologian, I had grown accustomed to studying religious movements by reading what
theologians wrote and trying to grasp their central and most salient doctrines. But I soon found
out that with Pentecostalism this approach doesn’t help much.33
In this respect missiologists have an advantage over classically trained systematic
theologians because many of them are also trained to use social sciences such as cultural
anthropology. Social sciences provide tools to interpret, for example, the meaning of church
meetings and to describe and analyse the implicit theology in religious practices.34
The use of social science tools, however, does not always result in a true intercultural
theological conversation. Social scientists were ahead of mainstream theologians in
recognising the importance of the spectacular growth of global Pentecostalisms.
Researchers studying these movements, however, are mainly interested in pertinent
contextual factors, social causes and the social impact of these movements. These
32 David O. Oyedepo, The Blood-Triumph, Ikeja, Lagos: Dominion Publishing House 1995.
33 Harvey G. Cox, Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the
Twenty-First Century, Reading, MA et al.: Addison-Wesley Pub 1995, 7.
34 See for example Allan Anderson, Michael Bergunder, and André F. Droogers (eds.), Studying Global
Pentecostalism: Theories and Methods, Berkeley: University of California Press 2010; Miranda Klaver, This Is
My Desire: A Semiotic Perspective on Conversion in an Evangelical Seeker Church and a Pentecostal Church
in the Netherlands, Amsterdam: Pallas Publications 2011.
researchers study, for example, how Latin American Pentecostalism has contributed to the
formation of a work ethic that has a similar effect as the influence of European Calvinism on
the development of modern capitalism, as analysed by Max Weber. The influence of
Pentecostal types of Christianity on social mobility is indeed remarkable and an important
area of research. The discovery that conversion to a Pentecostal community results in social
mobility does not, however, mean that we can conclude that people are converted because
of the economic advantages. This conclusion only follows if one has a thoroughly
materialistic anthropology, an anthropology that most theologians would not share. The
motives of believers themselves will often be of a religious nature and should be studied as
such. What is more important: these implicit or explicit theological convictions should be
taken seriously in a theological intercultural dialogue.
How easily this can be overlooked is seen in Cox’ analysis of the global Pentecostal
movement. For Cox Pentecostalism is not merely a social phenomenon, but a truly religious
movement. He considers its rise as a revival of what he calls ‘primal spirituality’, a
spirituality that originally belongs to what it means to be human, which was suppressed in
our secular world, but that is revived in Pentecostalism and similar movements. In a
surprising, critical analysis the Nigerian theologian Nimi Wariboko asks whether Cox in his
Fire from Heaven has indeed departed from his earlier secularisation thesis, as is often
assumed. For Cox, this ‘primal spirituality’ is after all an immanent characteristic of human
existence that is not necessarily related to a truly transcendent God. Cox uses the
Pentecostal movement to create space for a spirituality that is furthermore individualistic,
undogmatic and post-institutional. According to Wariboko, it is therefore a type of religion
that does not counter secularisation, but fits well within the Secular City that Cox described
It is clear that Cox conducted many conversations with adherents of a variety of
Pentecostal movements. He, however, mostly engaged in conversations about their
religious experiences and explained these within his own theological framework. The
engagement did therefore not yet result in a theological conversation. Pentecostalism
remains for Cox first of all an object for study and not truly a theological dialogue partner. It
is difficult, for example, to imagine that after such a dialogue Cox would still unquestioningly
place Pentecostal spirituality in line with religious expressions such as forms of shamanism
and the African Instituted Churches.36 Most Pentecostals themselves would see such
movements as the result of the influences of demonic powers that are directly opposed to
the Holy Spirit of God.37 It is of course possible that Cox does not agree with this theological
evaluation, but he gives the impression that his own judgement is formed mainly on the
basis of a phenomenological analysis of ‘primal spiritualities’ rather than after engaging in
conversation about different theological convictions and judgements. In the end for Cox,
Pentecostal believers are research objects rather than conversation partners.
Methodologically intercultural theology does not, therefore, just ask to engage with a
wide range of sources. Church historians are equally used to studying different genres and
religious practices as sources for our understanding of the life of faith of the church through
35 Nimi Wariboko, ‘Fire from Heaven: Pentecostals in the Secular City’, Pneuma 33/3 (2011), 391-408.
36 Cox, 213–262.
37 Cf. the criticism of Ogbu Kalu of forcing African Pentecostalism into line with the African Instituted
Churches: ‘The predominance of Western Sociologists, coming from cultural contexts that emphasize
inclusivism and promote religious pluralism, has informed the study of both the AICs and Pentecostalism. They
ride roughshod over distinctions that matter to the practitioners.’ (Ogbu Kalu, African Pentecostalism: An
Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2008, 67.)
the ages. A fundamental difference with intercultural theology is that the latter discipline
can engage in a conversation with persons and communities of faith it actually encounters.
This means that we can present them with our interpretation of their texts and practices
and test these accordingly.
It is a further characteristic of intercultural dialogue that our conversation partners are
not static and fixed, as in the writings and religious expressions of historic persons and
communities. They change constantly. They will also change through the intercultural
conversations with Western Christians and theologians, as we ourselves also hope to change
through our dialogue with them. Intercultural theology can therefore not limit itself to
research methods in which the researchers intend to neutralise their own presence as far as
possible. It will need to experiment with elements of ‘participatory research’ and ‘action
research’ in which the interaction between the researcher and the research population is
itself thematised. It is after all the experience of those involved in intercultural exchange
that one can learn much more in an actual encounter than would be possible if one
observed others from a distance. The insights gained in Wilbur Donovan’s classic Christianity
Rediscovered: An Epistle from the Masai would not have been possible if he had not allowed
himself to be questioned while engaging in a conversation with the Masai concerning the
From Dialogue to Three-Way Conversation
In order to engage in a truly intercultural conversation, we therefore need to critically
consider the sources which we use in intercultural theology and the way in which we study
these sources – and allow the voices of our conversation partners to be heard. For
intercultural encounters to lead to a truly theological exchange, we will also need to create
space for a dialogue that touches on God and other theological themes. In this respect
intercultural theology is also deeply influenced by its Western context of origin. This
represents a second important obstacle to an open intercultural conversation that I would
like to address in this article. One contributing factor is the influence of the social sciences
already mentioned, because these tend to explain faith convictions – and sometimes also to
explain them ‘away’ – in relation to the social factors that played a role in the formation of
these convictions. Another factor is the influence of a dominant methodological atheism in
the Western academic world which allows reference to God only as the object of people’s
religious convictions; He cannot Himself be the object of academic reflection.39 A final factor
is the ‘postcolonial Angst’ about the way in which Western theological models have in the
past sometimes been declared universally valid and imposed on Christian communities in
contexts in which they were less appropriate. As Frans Wijsen notes:
Very often scholars feel embarrassed about the mistakes of mission in the past, and therefore
want to replace missiology for something else, not only exchange missiology for comparative or
intercultural theology, but exchange theology as a whole for science of religion.40
38 Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle from the Masai, London: SCM 1985.
39 So for example Ustorf, ‘Rethinking Missiology’.
40 Wijsen, 44.
That intercultural theological conversations should in principle be conversations about God
is given with the vocation of theological faculties and divinity schools as academic
institutions and as centres for the formation of pastors. If intercultural theology intends to
contribute to the broader research programs of theological faculties and to the training of
pastors, it will need to contribute to the knowledge and service of the God who has made
Himself known in Christ. It is beyond the scope of this article to justify this basic conviction.
There are, however, also a number of reasons to make God and His work one, if not the
central theme of intercultural theology that are bound up with the particular nature of the
discipline of intercultural theology.
The centrality of God in intercultural theology is, first of all, required if we want to
approach our dialogue partners with utter seriousness. I have the impression that the
overwhelming majority of communities in the global church understand themselves
primarily as communities who find their identity in their relationship with the triune God. If
they are interested at all in an intercultural conversation with us, this is mainly because of a
shared belief in God. People are indeed conscious about the social significance of the Gospel
and long for signs of the Kingdom of God. More than in the West, many of the more
evangelical and Pentecostal believers in the poorer parts of the world expect that their faith
has meaning for their struggle against poverty and their longing for healing and for a more
just society.41 But this does not make this faith and the implicit or explicit theologies of
these communities a function of their social engagement. Rather, this social engagement is
the product of their faith in a God who heals and liberates and of an experienced unity of
life in which Christian faith and the challenges of daily life are closely related.42 These
theological motives are equally present in non-Western forms of liberation theology, which
are often profoundly theologically motivated. These theologies are not only rooted in
experiences of injustice and oppression, but also in a faith rooted in the Scriptures and
inspired by Christ that God is a liberator.43 Menno van Oel thus notes in his study on
international theology students in Kampen:
In the South-African theses (and this is equally valid for those from Korea and Indonesia)
secularisation is not present … They are convinced: God exists and He is at work and the church is
a witness of this. The main question is: where is God at work? On whose side is He?44
The decisive role of faith in God and in his work is not only present in the lived faith of
communities, but also in the work of academic theologians who work in a context in which
God is more easily taken into consideration than in the West. This leads to the paradox
noted by Wijsen that non-Western academics working at faculties of religious sciences often
understand themselves as theologians while researchers in intercultural theology at
41 C. René Padilla, ‘The Biblical Basis for Social Ethics’, in: Transforming the World? The Gospel and Social
Responsibility, Nottingham: Apollos (IVP) 2009), 187-204; Adoniram Gaxiola, ‘Poverty as a Meeting and
Parting Place: Similarities and Contrasts in the Experience of Latin American Pentecostalism and Ecclesial Base
Communities’, Pneuma 13/2 (1991), 167-174; Allan H. Anderson, ‘The Hermeneutical Processes of
Pentecostal-Type African Initiated Churches in South Africa’, Missionalia 24/2 (1996), 171-185.
42 Cf. Anderson, ‘Hermeneutical Processes’.
43 Cf. the classic text of Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation,
Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books 1973.
44 Menno van Oel, De wereld in huis: buitenlandse theologiestudenten in Kampen, 1970-2011, Kampen:
Protestantse Theologische Universiteit 2011, 66 (translation by the author).
theology faculties in the West will frequently limit themselves to the use of religious science
If intercultural theology limits itself to the use of social science methods in the study of
the meaning of non-Western faith communities, this leads to another paradox. It means
that the perspective that their dialogue partners consider to be decisive for their self-
understanding is excluded as a proper theme of research and dialogue. Apparently the
desire to take these communities more seriously in our post-colonial times does not always
result in judging their voices on their own merits. This shows how difficult it is to ask critical
questions about the supposed superiority of the secular Western perspective.46
Focusing on God as a theme of intercultural theological conversation is also essential if
one wants to arrive at a critical dialogue. One important aim of intercultural encounters is
that they help us develop respect for the cultural ‘other’ and in this way come to know and
evaluate our own cultural presuppositions and blind spots. In his Exclusion and Embrace,
Miroslav Volf uses the example of Abram as the father of all believers who needs to leave
his own family and culture in order to follow the calling of the Lord.47 Intercultural exchange
with other parts of the global church is a prime means to help create this distance.48 Volf is,
however, rightly critical of postmodern thinkers such as Giles Deleuze for whom the
nomadic departure of every place and every certainty has no clear goal.49 Volf points out
that such nomadic wandering without going somewhere will therefore arrive nowhere.
What can those who wish to depart without wanting to arrive do to resist the evildoer? Without
subjectivity, intentionality, and goal-orientedness, they will be carried by the stream of life,
“blissfully” taking in whatever ride life has in store for them, always saying and accepting
everything, including every misdeed that those who have goals choose to commit.50
The necessity to arrive at a critical judgement not only concerns ourselves, but also the
other. We cannot be welcoming if we do not set boundaries for the other. As Hans Boersma
argues, absolute hospitality, and absolute and limitless welcome to others is impossible.51
This is true if only because in intercultural conversations we meet many others and hear
many voices. If we are equally welcoming to all voices, there is a danger that the voices of
the strong will drown out the voices of the vulnerable and weak. I also believe that we do
not truly take the other seriously if after careful listening there does not come a moment
when we are able to say that we do not agree, that the other according to our best insights
45 Wijsen, 45. Wijsen refers to Mercy Amba Oduyoye (Ghana), Jesse Mugambi (Kenya) and Felix Wilfred
(India) as examples.
46 Adherents of theological exegesis have pointed to a similar paradox that affects much of modern Biblical
studies. Biblical scholars use a long and growing number of methods to study Biblical texts – philological
analysis, form and redaction criticism, literary analysis, rhetoric analysis, social analysis, etc. – but the issues
that according to the authors of these texts were the true reason to write these texts – the God of Israel and his
concern for people shown in Jesus Christ – often remain out of sight as a proper research interest. Cf. Joel B.
Green and Max Turner, ‘New Testament Commentary and Systematic Theology: Strangers of Friends?’ in: Joel
B. Green and Max Turner (eds.), Between Two Horizons: Spanning New Testament Studies and Systematic
Theology, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2000, 8.
47 Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation,
Nashville: Abingdon Press 1996, 40ff.
48 Volf, 50ff.
49 Volf, 40.
50 Volf, 41.
51 Hans Boersma, Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross : Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition, Grand
Rapids: Baker Academic 2004, 28-38.
embraces ideas and walks paths that are false and harmful, false in as far as their view of
God is concerned and harmful for creation, for the vulnerable members of society and for
the flourishing of true humanity.
The question, therefore, is how we can, in the words of Stephen Bevans and Roger
Schroeder, engage in ‘prophetic dialogue’.52 How can we join true listening, in which we are
able to be self-critical, with a prophetic voice that has the courage to address ignorance,
judge evil and lies, and offer hope? That is, to my mind, only possible if the intercultural
conversation is theological in nature and engages in a conversation about the God whom we
have come to know in Christ. A non-theological intercultural conversation will also most
often arrive at a point where critical issues are addressed and conversation partners will
defend values such as freedom, mutual respect and the protection of the vulnerable.
Nevertheless, how do we avoid ending up being prophetic about Western values that we
consider universal? It is possible that these are indeed values that have developed in
Western culture under the influence of the Gospel,53 but how do we judge for ourselves and
others where our values concern the message of the Gospel and the Kingdom and where
these are varieties of evangelical values that are particularly appropriate to our Western
context, or where these concern Western cultural additions, or worse, secular varieties of
ancient Christian values that have lost their evangelical power and inspiration?
The study of church history and of global Christianity shows a mind-boggling variety of
expressions and beliefs and for an onlooker it is sometimes difficult to believe that these are
indeed expressions of the same faith. The vast majority of traditions and expressions,
however, share a number of characteristics, among which is the conviction that God has
revealed His character and His project for this world decisively in Jesus Christ, and that we
learn about this Christ and this plan in a collection of texts that have canonical authority.54
Consequently, Christians are able to take a step back from their own culture because
they have come to know this God and because their loyalty to this God and to the future He
has promised surpasses all other loyalties and ties.55 It is precisely because of this that
Christians, according to Volf, are on the one hand open to all the good gifts any culture has
to offer, but on the other hand have access to a perspective from which the evil in all
cultures can be exposed.56
With this appeal to Jesus Christ as we know Him in the canonical Scriptures, we have of
course not solved all the issues that have been raised so far. It is the encounter with global
Christianity itself in all its cultural variation that shows how many images of Jesus are
circulating, how varied the biblical passages are that guide the different believing
communities and how believers can interpret and apply the same biblical texts in very
different and sometimes even contradictory ways.57 And yet liberation theologians,58
52 Stephen B. Bevans and Roger P. Schroeder, Prophetic Dialogue: Reflections on Christian Mission Today,
Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books 2011.
53 Govert Buijs, Publieke liefde – Agapè als bron voor maatschappelijke vernieuwing in tijden van crisis.
Inaugural Lecture at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, 3 February 2012.
54 Andrew F. Walls, ‘The Gospel as Prisoner and Liberator of Culture’, in: The Missionary Movement in
Christian History : Studies in the Transmission of Faith, Maryknoll NY et al.: Orbis Books; Edinburgh: T. & T.
Clark 1996, 23-24.
55 Volf, 51.
56 Volf, 52.
57 See for example Priscilla Pope-Levison and John R. Levison (eds.), Return to Babel: Global Perspectives on
the Bible, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 1999; R.S. Sugirtharajah, Voices from the Margin:
Interpreting the Bible in the Third World, Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books 1991.
prophets in African Independent Churches59 and charismatic prosperity preachers60 all
appeal to the Scriptures and to the God they encounter in its pages. In spite of the confusing
variety of interpretations, this does provide the possibility for a critical and prophetic
What happens in such an intercultural theological conversation can be understood with
Kevin Vanhoozer and with reference to the analytic philosopher Donald Davidson as a
process of ‘triangulation’.62 An intercultural theological conversation is not just an exchange
in which we pay attention to each other. This is a conversation that aims – in the language
of cognitive psychology – at ‘joint attention’, joint attention to a third reality, to God in
Christ as we have come to know Him in the canonical Scriptures.63 Intercultural theological
dialogue is therefore in principle a trialogue, a three-way conversation between
representatives of the global church in which the third or rather the first voice is the voice of
God who Himself in the Scriptures and through the Holy Spirit addresses His church. This
results in a surprising change of perspective in which we as supposedly autonomous
researchers turn out to exist in relationship to a God who has freely chosen to address us
and who shows Himself to be at the origin of this encounter.
This provides the global church with an important means to counteract the cultural
imprisonment of the church, which was itself the starting point of the argument developed
so far. According to cultural relativists it is impossible to step outside our own cultural skin
and distinguish between our own cultural perception of reality and reality itself. It is
precisely in this context that, according to Davidson, triangulation can play an important
role: our understanding of reality develops in conversation with others which allows us to
critically compare our own perception of reality with the perceptions of others: ‘objectivity
itself is ultimately a matter of personal relations and communicative interaction’.64
Intercultural theological dialogue has a similar critical function. In itself it is unavoidable and
legitimate that every Christian community reads the Scriptures contextually, understands
the triune God with idioms and images available in that environment, and shapes
discipleship in a manner that fits this particular context. Christian communities and
theologians have always had a certain means of limiting the distorting influence of culture
through their engagement with the Scriptures and their participation in a Christian
58 Ignacio Ellacuría and Jon Sobrino (eds.), Mysterium Liberationis : Fundamental Concepts of Liberation
Theology, Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books; North Blackburn VIC: Collins Dove 1993.
59 Anderson, ‘Hermeneutical Processes’.
60 Joseph Bosco Bangura, ‘The Charismatic Movement in Sierra Leone (1980-2010): A Missio-Historical
Analysis in View of African Culture, Prosperity Gospel and Power Theology’, Amsterdam: Vrije Universiteit
61 In what follows I set out some initial guidelines for an intercultural theological conversation on the basis of
the canonical Scriptures. I am aware that an intercultural conversation is not possible along the same lines with a
group of theologians that is particularly represented in India and that believe that in a postcolonial context it is
no longer appropriate to give such a privileged status to the Christian Scriptures compared to the sacred texts of
other religious traditions. So for example R.S. Sugirtharajah, ‘Inter-Faith Hermeneutics: An Example and Some
Implications’, in: R.S. Sugirtharajah (ed.), Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World,
Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books 1991, 352-363. In my opinion this approach does not do justice to the
eschatological character of Gods revelation in Christ (cf. van den Toren, Christian Apologetics, 204-208). This
does not make an intercultural conversation with such theologians impossible, but it will give such encounters a
62 Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ‘On the Very Idea of a Theological System: An Essay in Aid of Triangulating Scripture,
Church and World’, in: A.T. B McGowan (ed.), Always Reforming: Explorations in Systematic Theology,
Downers Grove: IVP Academic 2006, 16ff.
63 Cf. Van den Toren, ‘Naked Theological Truth’, 102ff.
64 This is the rendering of Vanhoozer, 161.
community that stretches across history. In the current context of globalisation the
opportunities for a critical consideration of our own culturally coloured perceptions of Christ
have exponentially grown because we can now engage in conversations with other parts of
the global Christian community. These possibilities have not only grown quantitatively; they
have also gained a new quality. We no longer have to limit ourselves to the voices of fellow
believers and fellow disciples on paper; we encounter them in person. This allows us to
engage in an actual conversation about the person and significance of Jesus Christ. We can
invite others to reflect with us on what it means to be a believer and disciple of Christ in our
particular contexts in the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Benno van den Toren (b. 1966) is Professor of Intercultural Theology at the Protestant Theological
University in Groningen. He studied theology in Utrecht, Oxford and Kampen. Before moving to
Groningen, he taught systematic theology at the Bangui Evangelical School of Theology in the
Central African Republic (1997–2005), Wycliffe Hall, Oxford (2005–2013), and the Vrije Universiteit
in Amsterdam as Extraordinary Professor in the Theology of Charismatic Renewal, 2010-2014. His
recent publications include Christian Apologetics as Cross-Cultural Dialogue (London: T. & T. Clark /
Continuum 2011) and La doctrine chrétienne dans un monde multiculturel. Introduction à la tâche
théologique (Carlisle: Langham Global Library 2014).