Asian voices in Christian theology

Written by Gerald H. Anderson Reviewed By Jonathan Parreno

In Asian voices in Christian theology, nine Asian theologians from India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Taiwan and Japan describe the theological issues that confront the church in the light of the Asian revolution. Gerald H. Anderson, one-time Methodist missionary to the Philippines, notes that the third world, where two-thirds of humanity currently live, is the area of greatest church growth and theological ferment. The Asian revolution is conceived as ‘the most dynamic factor in the history of the twentieth century’.

Asian voices is an encouraging label to the volume for it draws attention to the emergence of indigenous theological and evangelistic creativity among third-world churches. It also heralds a break from ‘the Teutonic captivity’ and ‘the Aryan bias of Christian doctrine’ on the part of Asian churches, although in the process of contextualization and indigenization, Christian theology always runs the risk of cultural captivity. For so many centuries, third-world churches have been characterized by a theological dependence which is just as real and serious as their economic dependence. Christianity has been largely a potted plant in Asia. It was transported without being transplanted. To many Asians, it still is a white man’s religion, a foreign importation, a colonial imposition.

Ironically, the voices in the compendium are the cries of Barth, Bultmann, Tillich, and Neibuhr re-echoed from Asian lips. One also wonders whether they fairly represent all the major Protestant groups making a spiritual impact in Asia today. It seems as though the voices themselves are muffled and lost in the midst of the confusion of the Asian situation, as each attempts to interpret biblical revelation to their particular cultures.

At the risk of over-simplification, the ‘voices’ err in making the concrete historical situation—i.e. the Asian revolution—the focal point of their theology, instead of viewing the Asian dilemma within the framework of ‘salvation history’. Thus, ‘The historicity of the person of Jesus is (conceived as) the non-essential part of Christianity; it is the principle of Christhood, not the person of Christ, that is essential.’ And the church is called to the task of discerning ‘the presence of Jesus Christ in contemporary Asian history, so that men may respond to Him and participate in His work for the world’. A Chinese theologian, for instance, voices the necessity of discarding theological systems which speak of general and special revelation, or which conceive of the church as the communion of saints. Rather, these systems should be replaced by ‘an existential dynamic that creates and re-creates man and the world with the divine love and compassion’.

At least half a dozen themes run through the reflections of these theologians. For lack of space, I cite only three.

First, the ‘theology of harmony’ endorses syncretistic and universalistic ideas which attempt to reconcile the Christian faith with the major religions of Asia. An Indian theologian welcomes the Vedanta as a source of Christian theology. He claims Christians should accept the Vedas as the Indian Old Testament. The task of the theologian is to discover those spiritual values in Hinduism which were fulfilled by Christ. In Indonesia, the Commission on Faith and Order of the WCC is working on a common confession where ‘the doctrine of the Trinity is to be restated in the light of the challenges from Muslims who question the Trinitarian formula in the name of the Oneness of God’.

The ‘theology of incarnation’ is also popular among these third-world theologians. But sadly, this central truth of the Christian faith is not shaped by normative biblical revelation. A Taiwanese theologian expounds his version of incarnational theology in a culture characterized by resistance to change. Like most of the ‘voices’, he finds his locus theologicus in the existential present. That which gives meaning to Chinese life is contemporary ‘incarnational events’. The past proves meaningful and the future hopeful only when ‘brought into focus with present incarnational events’. Such a theology of the incarnation attempts to reconcile ‘strayed truths in human history and culture with the Truth which is in Jesus Christ’. Here again, one is left in the dark by thinking which affirms the need to wrestle with the existential present while discarding any form of prior theologizing about the nature of God and the person of Christ. The church must march with progress and modernization, and any theological system or confession which allies itself with the past is an impediment.

Yet another keynote of the ‘Asian voices’ is the ‘theology of liberation’ which, according to one Indonesian church leader, challenges Christians to be involved in the revolution along with persons of other faiths. The church joins in the struggle for justice and a fuller human life, while critically fighting against demonic and utopian tendencies in the revolution. Both man and God are at work in modern revolutionary movements.

A Filipino theologian sees the gospel of liberation as indispensable to the maturation of the new Filipino. Coming closest to the ethos of the good news, he defines liberation as men’s deliverance from the wrath of God, from sin, and from death and the devil. But the gospel also means ‘liberation from the structures of cruelty and injustice, and a building up of a society of “shalom” ’. It is freedom in Christ to love God and neighbour.

What challenges do these ‘Asian voices’ make to us? First, they obviously convey a deep sensitivity to the Asian historical situation. They disclose an adverse reaction to a gospel that still has a foreign sound. Their denunciation of ‘other-worldliness’ and their depreciation of the metaphysical in favour of crisis theology is their way of saying ‘Go home!’ to an alien theology which is acutely revivalistic and which focuses solely on the individual’s needs, while remaining indifferent to the dreams and anxieties of society. In the words of Filipino theologian Emerito P. Nacpil, the questions of God and the divine-human relationship can be understood by the Asian mind only in so far as they ‘illuminate the human predicament, reveal the truth about man, and dignify his existence with freedom and meaning’. Asian theologians are therefore confronted with the challenge of a systematic and adequate exposition of the social dimensions of the Christian faith. Nacpil admits that such an exposition can be true only by being theological. I would add that a theology which is not anchored in the Word of God and directed by the Holy Spirit can easily degenerate into the deification of man.

This compendium also exposes the lack of conservative evangelical scholarship in the Asian churches. I venture to say that many Western missionaries to Asia still suffer from the colonial hangover of not wanting to see nationals attain higher education. Missionaries who are only interested in multiplying the number of ‘believers’ and in planting so many churches see little wisdom in helping promising national leaders go beyond the Bible-school level.

On the other hand, Asian theological institutions still need qualified teachers from the West. But they should be people of cultural sensitivity who are able to relate evangelical theology both to the ‘rice-roots’ and the ‘high-rise’ levels of Asian mentality. It is imperative that they should leave behind the theological colouring and the ‘pet doctrines’ of their missions and churches. They should possess a broad world-view and be able to appreciate the unique and redeemable facets of Asian cultures.

The Asian churches need evangelical scholars whose indigenous theology is shaped by the norm of Scripture. Such men and women should formulate an indigenous theology of a ‘functional’ rather than an ‘ivory-tower type’ even though they use the basic tools developed by European and North American biblical scholarship. In their evangelistic zeal, they must avoid the pitfall of divorcing evangelism from theology. For their voices to sound out loud and clear to their fellow Asians, they should seek to understand the relevance of the gospel and apply the whole counsel of God to the totality of human life.

Jonathan Parreno

Jonathan Parreno is a former pastor and staff worker of the IVCF, Philippines, currently completing the MDiv at Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary, Denver, Colorado, USA.