Asian Christian Theology; Evangelical Perspectives
By Timoteo D. Gener and Stephen T. Pardue, eds.
Carlisle, UK: Langham Global Library, 2019.
Reviewed by Ian W. Payne
I was excited to see this title and snapped it up at an ATA conference in Singapore, and devoured it eagerly. I’m a New Zealander who grew up in India and lived there more recently for 18 years. I have had the privilege of teaching theology in the South Asian context for 25 years, and now work to foster partnerships in global theological education through Theologians Without Borders. I’ve loved grappling with the context and dialoguing with students about how to do so. I’m sure I’ve still got lots to learn, and found this book greatly rewarding.
One reason for my excitement is that this book fills a huge gap. As the editors, Timoteo Gener and Stephen Pardue, remark very few evangelical theological resources have been written by Asians. Unfortunately, most have either not deeply engaged with the context (and still reflect an almost exclusively North American outlook) or have failed to maintain a high view of Scripture. As a multi-author book project with a focus on the broad sweep of systematic and contextual theology, this is a real step forward from evangelical contributions in the form of articles or contributions that address smaller theological topics. Till now, it seems Asian evangelical scholars have quietly ceded culturally engaged theological work to liberal scholars and sometimes have imbibed their ideas rather uncritically. This book is a sign of growing confidence and maturity. The book’s goal then is ‘to offer an approach to Christian theology that is biblically rooted, historically aware, contextually engaged, and broadly evangelical’ (p. 2). The book contains 16 chapters and most succeed in fulfilling this goal. Here is a book a teacher can confidently recommend to master’s level students and Christian leaders eager to faithfully and relevantly engage in ministry and mission.
Timoteo Gener’s chapter on revelation is an excellent beginning chapter. He recognizes that revelation is crucial for it ‘forms the basis for doing contextual systematics’ (p. 16). After a comprehensive look at the history of the doctrine of revelation, Gener ably navigates discussion on Christ as God’s final revelation of God, how the written Word of God and the Holy Spirit are bound together in their authority for the church. Recognition that God is present in the wider world leads to consideration of God’s revelation and other religions. Gener argues ‘Asian evangelical theology…is both the result of a considered faith and a constructive process normed by God’s revelation in Christ as witnessed to by Holy Scripture’ (p.25). He agrees with Kevin Vanhoozer that ‘Non-Western Christianity does not need to become Western. Yet non-Western Christianity should strive to stay authentically Christian and one way to do that is to remain in communion with catholic theological tradition’ (p. 25). Asia’s relentless plurality of religions is a constant backdrop to the discussion over syncretism and relevance. Gener doesn’t see staying authentic as a matter of policing boundaries defined by propositions. He prefers a centred-set way of thinking. He acknowledges there is value in experience as a source in theologizing, but is crystal clear about the danger that ‘allowing human experience to be co-equal with the biblical message makes experience to be the underlying foundation and force in theology’ (p. 27). That approach leads to ‘anthropocentrism,’ to reducing the gospel to ‘ethics’ and to ‘an unhealthy syncretism’ (p.28). So, what is distinctively Asian about all this? Gener becomes a little tentative in this section but tries to focus on the Asian church’s vibrant ‘gospel orthodoxy.’
I’m less enthusiastic about George N Capaque’s chapter on the Trinity in Asian contexts. He rightly rejects Jung Young Lee’s use of yin-yang symbolism because it represents a binitarian rather than trinitarian structure, and Raimundo Pannikar’s ‘advaitic trinitarianism’ because it is ultimately unitarian. He also discards Arvind Nirmal’s dalit theology portrayal of God for the oppressed because of its reductionist focus on sociological liberation. In their place, Capaque advances ‘family’ as a better analogy of the Trinity, because it is the basic unit of life and is a cherished value in Asian contexts. He notes criticism has come from ‘(Western) theologians about using human, religious, moral, or cultural experiences as models for understanding God.’ In fact, however, resistance to the family model for the Trinity goes back to an African—Augustine of Hippo. More resistance comes from Thomas Aquinas and particularly Karl Barth (CD 1.1. §8.3) whom Capaque doesn’t address. Unfortunately, enthusiasm for the family model comes mostly from Catholic writers (like Marc Ouellet), who despite the Reformation fail to see the danger of the analogia entis. My main objection to models for the Trinity is their futility. The Trinity made everything, and so everything, by virtue of being created, is ‘like the Trinity’ in some way. Yet, all models fundamentally fail because the Creator is radically unlike every created thing. We can only observe similarity when revelation is our criterion. That’s the safer analogia fidei, analogy ‘from above’. Capaque’s analogy ‘from below’ is seductive but leads us into danger. Models encourage humans to indulge in futile discovery thinking rather than responding to divine disclosure. Is the gospel really made more attractive or understandable because God is a great ‘family in the sky’? Soon the model subverts our method and warps what we see in God, and we even welcome the feminization of the Holy Spirit (Capaque, p. 76) because it fits the model—Father, Son and, of course, Mother. Models subtly distort our theology. Like ‘a Trojan horse’ (Barth), the model betrays our real theological method and bias. We are rightly accused of wish-fulfilment and projection (Feuerbach). We are open to the suspicion that we want the Trinity to be like ‘family,’ perhaps because it really supports a cherished patriarchy (cf., Linn Marie Tonstad, p. 1). Yes, Asian families embody many virtues; and we can urge family members to become like God. No, the Trinity is not enough like a family. We explain the Trinity better by telling the gospel story of the Father sending the Son and giving the Spirit.
Lack of space prohibits more than a mention for other chapters. I found Ivor Poobalan’s Christology clear and nuanced. Ivan Satyavrata’s ‘Jesus and Other Faiths’ provides a mostly persuasive defence of a judicious ‘fulfilment’ approach to other religions in the Indian context. Havilah Dharamraj’s chapter is a very illuminating comparison of the form of the biblical canon with the didactic ‘smriti’ and incantatory ‘shruti’ of Hindu scriptures. Lalsangkima Pachuau’s chapter on ‘Cultural Identity and Theology in Asia’ is a tightly argued and helpful exploration of how Asian evangelicals should ‘minister to the religious and cultural traditions of their neighbours’ through ‘co-operation, encounter, and communication.’
On the whole, I’m tremendously enthusiastic about the book. It demonstrates exceptionally well that, when ‘biblically rooted, historically aware, contextually engaged, and broadly evangelical theology’ is done in an Asian context, the whole church benefits. I’ve already incorporated readings from it in my master’s level theology class. All Asian theology students should read it. It’s exciting to see evangelical voices engaging in the adventure of contextual systematics. I look forward to seeing Asian theologians producing book-length treatments of the topics found in the chapters of this book.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, T&T Clark, ET, 1975.
Marc Ouellet, Divine Likeness: Toward a Trinitarian Anthropology of the Family, Eerdmans, 2006
Linn Marie Tonstad, God and Difference: The Trinity, Sexuality, and the Transformation of Finitude, Routledge, 2015.
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