by Bruce J. Nicholls
The churches in Asia have shown a disappointing lack of interest in Christian theology. A consultation of the East Asia Christian Conference admitted, "The Asian Churches, so far, and in large measure, have not taken their theological task seriously enough, for they have been largely content to accept the ready-made answers of Western theology or confessions."1
The modern missionary movement has given birth to a network of churches throughout Asia and has sponsored the training of many faithful pastors and zealous evangelists, yet the question must be asked: Why are there so few theologians who have attempted to interpret the Gospel creatively in forms meaningful to their own culture, or sought to answer the theological and philosophical questions their contemporary Asians are asking? The missionary movement must share the responsibility for the lack of theological leadership.
Missionaries from the West are, as a whole, activists and enthusiasts in evangelism, pioneers in educational, medical and social programs. Consciously or unconsciously, they have inherited the Western colonial spirit of bringing enlightenment to under-privileged peoples.
Today the catchword "missionary zeal" is a symbol for enthusiasm and efficiency. But this same zeal, with a few exceptions, has been sadly lacking in the long and toilsome task of training leaders. Theological education has been the Cinderella of missionary aid in terms of personnel and finance. Courses in theological colleges have been structured on Western models, and text books used are almost wholly of Western origin. The writings of the few creative Asian theologians have been ignored.2
Promising nationals have been sent to the West for higher degrees, and in the process many seem to have lost their sensitivity to indigenous theological forms. Missionary control, which still continues in many institutions, often stems from a paternalistic fear that the nationals, if left to themselves, will make mistakes and deviate from the truth. There is often a lack of trust in the self-authenticating power of the Word of God and in the guidance of the Holy Spirit.3 The effect of this domination in theological education has been that Asian churches have been content to accept the ready-made answers of Western theology. Apart from the Batak Church of Sumatra, there has been virtually no attempt of an Asian church to formulate its own confession of faith.4
Another reason for the paucity of Asian theology is what, we might call an introverted form of pietism. The missionary expansion of the church came from communities strong in biblical piety. In the main, Protestant denominational missions stemmed from the pietistic awakenings in Germany, Britain and America in the eighteenth century, while the formation of several interdenominational faith missions followed the Second Great Awakening of the nineteenth century.
Intense devotion to Jesus Christ is the well-spring for evangelism in terms of personal conversion, but if this personal experience cools, the urgency of evangelism is lost. When a Christocentric faith is not anchored in the trinitarian framework of the sovereignty of God, in the life of the world, and is unwilling to acknowledge the freedom of the Holy Spirit to work as He wills, it narrows the witness of the believer. Pietism is introverted. The believer fails to be concerned about the Lordship of Christ in the social, economic and political structures of the world, and at the same time he may lose his sense of involvement in personal evangelism. His goal is limited to the cultivation of his own spiritual life and to enjoying the religious activity of the local Christian community.
This ghetto spirit of communalism seeks for the status quo, and the Christian community understands itself to be just one of several religious communities. It is suspicious of new converts and inevitably accepts a relativistic view of theological issues. Where pietism is introverted, a confessing theology relevant to evangelism and the concerns of the world will be lacking.5
An Asian confession of the gospel will be no more than dead confessionalism unless it grows out of a confessing church. Theology is the expression of living relationships. When it is separated from mission, it is in danger of degenerating into legalism and rationalism, and an unbalanced concern for structures of the church.
An examination of the Great Commission of our Lord as recorded in Matthew 28:18-20, Mark 16:15-18, Luke 24:44-49, John 20-19-23 and Acts 1:8 makes clear that mission includes witness, worship and service. The Good News of the gospel is to be proclaimed in the power of the Holy Spirit to all nations; baptism, instruction in the faith, and fellowship are marks of discipleship. Service to men will be the natural fruit of true Spirit-filled witness and worship.
MISSION IN THE ASIAN CONTEXT
The use of the term Asia in the title may be questioned with some justification, for there is no unity of culture or religion in this vast continent. Yet just as there are common features in Europe that contribute to the solidarity of Western culture, so there are patterns of solidarity in the East. Dr. J. Russell Chandran enunciated seven common factors of contemporary Asian society.6
Our concern here is to discuss some of the issues emerging in the Asian revolution of today, to which a theology of mission must address itself.
A. The Struggle for National Selfhood. The movement for national selfhood throughout Asia burst into flower after World War 11. Jawaharlal Nehru in his first broadcast to independent India, August 15, 1947, said, "The soul of a nation long suppressed finds utterance." Nationalism in terms of self-identity, freedom and equality has been largely the response of Asian peoples to the impact of Western imperialism, which K.M. Panikkar has called the Vasco Da Gama epoch of Asian history.7
Western imperialism had its tyrannical and shameful periods, yet it was generally motivated by principles of liberal democratic humanism and ideals of social justice. The struggle for selfhood after political independence is the continuing response to democratic humanism. Human dignity, personal freedom and social justice are goals of Asian democracies, whether states are officially secular such as India, Japan, and the Philippines, or officially religious such as Pakistan, Malaysia and Thailand. In order to safeguard unity and equality, Asian democracy demands strong mixtures of authoritarianism and socialism. We must not expect it to follow a Western model.
M.M. Thomas has shown the impact of this struggle on the traditional Asian institutions of the extended family and the village community.8 The former has been challenged by education, technology and the Welfare State, and thus is giving way to the nuclear family. The closed communality of the latter in terms of caste, group custom and hierarchical control is giving way to open community, which is pluralistic in culture and religion. It is not surprising that in the struggle for new societies Asia is preoccupied with politics.
Thomas argues that the support of an open democracy is part of the life and mission of the church in Asia. He pleads for full Christian participation in nation-building on the basis of a common humanity and not on religious grounds.9 The call for "Christian community within the human community is a call for a theology of mission which declares Jesus Christ Lord of humanity as well as head of the Church."10
B. Tension Between Resurgent Religions and Modern Secularism. Asia is in search of new spiritual foundations for "a world view or a new framework of ultimate meaning of life which can provide the foundations for the new Asian Societies."11 The traditional spirituality of Asia in which "reality is essentially timeless and changeless spirit,"12 and in, which the cycle of nature is the pattern of man and his cosmos, is what Kraemer calls "naturalistic monism" and was more recently called by van Leeuwen "the ontocratic pattern."13 Van Leeuwen stresses the discontinuity between this spirituality and the prophetic faith of the Bible, and also between it and secularization of society, so that it cannot become the basis of the new Asian spirituality.
But this generalization is only partially true. Cultural religion is in fact resurgent. In India, for example, the Ramakrishbna Mission keeps within the framework of Vedanta. Swami Ranganathanandran’s recent booklet, "The Christ We Adore," is a clear example.14 Other modern exponents of Eastern spirituality, such as Gandhi, Radhakrishnan, and Chinmayananda, though they have liberalized traditional scriptural authority and absorbed much of the Christian ethic, have retained their fundamental cultural religious heritage. Culture gives meaning to human existence, technology doesn’t. Therefore van Leeuwen’s contention that the triumph of secularization is the doom of ontocratic society is a doubtful thesis.
However, the tension between resurgent religion and secular materialism poses both a challenge and an opportunity for the gospel. The former poses the challenge of religious relativism and ultimately, syncretism, and the latter, the danger of a false messianism and the bondage of a dehumanized society.15
On the other hand, a search for new spiritual foundations becomes a Spirit-created need which only Jesus Christ can fill, while the spirit of secularization (as distinct from secularism) frees men from the pagan fear of the sacral powers of nature and the cosmos. The secularization of society, as van Leeuwen has rightly shown, stems from Western Christendom and ultimately from the triumph of the prophetic movement of biblical history over the total claims of ontocratic society. It is not always realized that the Western missionary movement has been an important agent in this secularizing process in Asia. Christian education and social service, and above all, the gospel itself liberate man from his religious culture.
Secularization bears the message of the gospel incognito, for it stands in continuity with biblical-prophetic history. It is therefore important for an Asian theology of mission that the question be asked, What is God saying through this movement of secularization? What are its hopes and what its terrors? This is the concern of Lesslie Newbigin in his book, "Honest Religion for Secular Man." M.M. Thomas, following the viewpoint of A.G. Hogg, believes God is creating a new spiritual quest which only Christ can fulfil. He writes, "Through the Asian revolution, God is preparing the Asian people to face up to the challenge of deciding for or against Jesus Christ."16 It is the simple issue of Christ or anti-Christ, as Newbigin constantly reminds us.17 This demands that our dialogue I with men of other faiths be in depth, "at the level of fundamental theological doctrines about the ultimate reality and human salvation, and the relation of God, man, and the world to each other."18 Here we touch our deepest humanity.
From this discussion it follows that our theological framework- must be trinitarian, based upon the revelation of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in human history, political, religious, and secular, challenging men to personal faith in Christ. A narrow, moralistic pietism fails to speak to the question: What is God doing through the contemporary Asian revolution?
CONTENT AND FORM IN TRANSPLANTING THE GOSPEL
When the gospel and the church are transplanted into a new culture, some degree of transformation is involved. It has been customary to speak of this as a process of indigenization. Visser ‘t Hooft prefers the more neutral concept of "accommodation" which he limits to the "modus" or form of the presentation of the message. He wants to show that the substance of the message is given; it doesn’t belong to us.19
In distinguishing between content and form, Visser ‘t Hooft has alluded to the fundamental problem in Asian theology. In the transplanting of the gospel into Asian soil, does the transformation take place only in the form and language used or does it include the actual content of the gospel as well?
C.H. Hwang, former Principal of Taiwan Theological College, is right in warning us against absolutizing our understanding of the gospel, which must never be equated with the gospel itself. But in this transplanting, can the form be transformed without compromising its content? Accepting Barth’s concept of the human fallibility of both Jesus and the Bible, Hwang argues, "The Word of God did not come to us men as ‘pure’ Word in itself, it came as Incarnate Word in the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth at a particular time and in a particular place."20 In extending "capacity for error" to the content of the gospel, Hwang suggests that both the form and content of the gospel will be transformed when transplanted into the Asian soil. He illustrates this with the fact that only rice with the husk will grow, while pure polished rice will not grow in any soil. He adds that Christ indissolubly associated Himself with the husk.
This position is open to serious criticism. The very gospel itself is endangered.
Historic Christianity claims that the content of the gospel is given to us by God Himself – that is, it is given by direct and special revelation. The testimony of the Old Testament prophets is, "Thus saith the Lord." Paul speaks of having received the Gospel of Christ as Savior and Lord (I Cor. 15:3ff); Peter, of holy men of God speaking as moved by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21). The writer to the Hebrews says God spoke in the past through His prophets, and now finally and fully in His Son (Heb. 1:3 ff).
God has revealed Himself both in act and word, and in this sense, revelation is objective. It is through concrete history that God has revealed Himself once and for all. The history of Israel is the medium of this revelation culminating in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word. In the cross and resurrection, God’s acts have eternal significance for the whole of humanity, while in Pentecost, God gives final proof that He has from the beginning promised to interpret these acts.
Revelation, then, relates both to the special events of history and to their interpretation, for unless God interprets the events, the events per se have no meaning for us. This means that revelation is rational and personal as well as historical. Revelation distinguishes truth and falsehood and is self-consistent. The reformers saw so clearly the implication of this for understanding the gospel.
Dr. Saphir P. Athyal of Yeotmal Seminary has pointed out that the verbal communication of truth by Yahweh was the key to the ministry of the prophets of Israel. History was preceded by promises, and the knowledge of the person of Yahweh was not derived from history, but by direct personal revelation. Furthermore, this is also true of the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament, which is generally devoid of historical consciousness.21 It is customary to speak of this verbal revelation as propositional. Recently scholars such as James Barr and Edmond Jacob have shown a more sympathetic approach to the idea of propositional truth. It has always been crucial to evangelical theology.
Revelation is subjective as well as objective. It is personal. It is an I-Thou relationship. We can be grateful to neoorthodoxy for emphasizing this fact. It is the Holy Spirit who is the divine agent in this intercourse. We affirm then that the content of the gospel is unchanged; it is objective and given to us. But what of the form?
Evangelical theology begins by accepting the Bible as the divinely-given form. While there may be levels of revelation in the Bible, there are no "degrees of inspiration" of the written form. Because all Scripture is inspired of God, it is authoritative and wholly trustworthy (2 Tim. 3:16). In other words, God’s providence in revelation extends to the written, inspired form. The New Testament is abundantly clear that this was Jesus Christ’s own view of Scripture.
We now speak of a third term, illumination. Inspiration refers to the form of Scripture, and illumination to our understanding of it. Modern theology generally confuses these two. The distinction between inspiration and illumination is fundamental to the subject of this article. Their confusion constitutes a confusion of the issues in the transplanting of the gospel into Asian soil.
If we accept the Bible as the fully inspired Word of God, we will accept the language and symbols used in the Bible as intended by God. This does not make these symbols absolute in themselves, but it cautions us against expecting to find ‘more effective ones.
Take, for example, the symbol of God as Father. Samuel Laeuchli in his important book, The Language of Faith,22 points out that father is used 400 times in the New Testament. Many of these references belong to cardinal statements of biblical faith. In the Gnostic literature of the second century, the term father undergoes a subtle change. The mother principle of nature fertility creeps in. Fatherhood is intellectualized and abstracted, in terms of cosmological speculation of being, and finally when emptied of all personal attributes, it becomes the Incomprehensible One. In effect, the Gnostics shifted the center from the redemptive activity of the Father to the speculative, non-biblical concern for the "being" of Father. The peripheral became central.
Laeuchli goes on to show that when the concept of God the Father disappears, other concepts such as sin, salvation, also disintegrate. The lesson to be learned here is that what began as a transformation of the symbolic forms ended up as a radical transformation of biblical content.
It seems to us that the Western theologians Bultmann and Tillich and their popularizer, Bishop Robinson, are following the same Gnostic pattern. Bultmann’s principle of demythologization has abstracted belief from historical event and the realm of objective reality, while Tillich has replaced the biblical symbols of time and personality with those of space and things.23 The tragedy of the New Theology is that in attempting to make the gospel more relevant to modern man, it has changed it into a mystery religion grounded on idealist philosophy. No wonder Robinson’s Honest to God has proved so acceptable to the Hindu pundits of Benares. The new Gnosticism finds an acceptable seedbed in Hindu and Buddhist culture, and therefore constitutes a major challenge to the historic evangelical faith.
If the Bible is normative and authoritative for all Christians in matters of faith and conduct, what is the significance of illumination to our understanding of the content of the gospel? If we distinguish between the church and the gospel (but do not separate them), it will be seen that greater freedom will be found in the Spirit’s illumination of the forms of the former than of the latter.
The practical expression of the gospel in a particular community will be influenced by the cultural life of the community to varying degrees, depending on the element of compatibility with the gospel in its biblical content and form. In other words, church government, forms of worship, patterns of evangelism will accommodate to forms of national culture where these do not conflict with biblical revelation.
The problem of Western missions is to accept the disaccommodation of their Western structure in order to allow national churches to develop their own forms The evident failure of the missionary movement to do this is perhaps one indication of our lack of trust in the Holy Spirit to illuminate the truth revealed and communicated in Scripture to the mind and lives of Asian believers.
But another difficulty arises: Where do we draw the line between content and form? For example, where do we put episcopacy, asceticism, the religious dance? In what sense, if any, do they partake of the biblical norm? Has the Spirit given us different illuminations of such issues? What then does accommodation mean? We have seen that the basic structure of the content and form is given to us in the Scriptures. This is our canon or yardstick. The critical question is now one of illumination.
In the context of the present Asian revolution we may select three areas of concern where the illumination of the Spirit is needed.
A. Theological Terminology. Throughout Asia translations of the Bible are being revised, and here the question of terminology is important. What terms should be used for God, salvation, heaven, hell, love, faith, to mention a few key concepts? To what extent should Muslim and Hindu terms be adapted? If such terms have a fundamentally non-biblical meaning, can they still be accommodated, or is there an alternative approach?
The methodology of the New Testament writers is instructive on this point. A study of the history of New Testament terminology shows a great deal of overlapping with the language of the religions of the Hellenistic period. Visser ‘t Hooft24 shows that some key words such as eros were avoided; others, such as mythos and daimen, were used only in a negative sense-, others, such as kyrios, logos, soter and euangelim, though they were in current Hellenistic usage are found in the Greek Septuagint translations of the Old Testament, and therefore it is likely that they came into the New Testament via the Septuagint, a view that has been reinforced by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Many of these terms were capable of syncretistic misunderstanding, yet the concern of the early church to communicate the gospel to the pagan world made them willing "to take a spiritual risk."25 Visser ‘t Hooft takes the words mysterion and gnosis to show how Paul and John used terminology overlapping with the syncretistic world, yet never allowed the form to dominate content. The biblical message remained undistorted. As Laeuchli has shown, New Testament language centers on the Old Testament and rejects the Gnostic shift of the peripheral philosophic concerns to the center.26
B. Structure in a Theology of Mission.
In the formulating of an Asian theology, the structure of theology becomes a critical issue. Do we with Calvin follow the outline of the Apostles’ Creed and begin with the knowledge of God the Creator, or do we begin with the Word and the Trinity, as Karl Barth does? Or should we begin with the doctrine of the authority of Scripture as in modern Western evangelical statements of faith? Should the pivotal point be "Justification by faith" as it was for Luther, or "conversion" as it is for evangelicals today? How will neo-gnosticism, resurgent Hinduism, intransigent Islam, militant Communism, or the decrees of Vatican Council 11 affect the structure of our theology? Christians in Asia can no longer be preoccupied with largely Western and generally static issues, such as Calvinism versus Arminianism. An Asian theology must be structured in terms of mission to a non-Christian world.
C. The Unity of the Church. The multiplicity of denominations in Asia, mostly of Western parentage, is becoming a serious hindrance to evangelism and church growth. With the breaking up of static patterns of Asian society, the principle of comity becomes meaningless. The mushrooming urban and industrial centers are increasingly unevangelized. Cooperation in the training of pastors and evangelists and in the production of literature is sadly inadequate. Evangelical groups with their strong sense of independence stand to suffer more than others in these changing societies.
These facts point to a critical issue today, our understanding of the doctrine of the church – its nature, unity, and function.
The statement of the national Evangelical Anglican Congress held at Keele, April 1967, expresses the conviction of a major grouping of evangelicals in England. The section, "The Church and its Unity," opens with these words, "God’s Church is one as God is one. This oneness is God’s gift to those who obey the Gospel. It finds its proper expression when all the Christians of a locality appear as a single visible fellowship united in truth and holiness displayed in love, service and worship (especially at the Lord’s Supper) and active in evangelism."27 What does this particular illumination mean for evangelicals in Asia? Does it point to a priority in our theology of mission?
There is another issue which evangelicals are recognizing to be of critical importance for today’s mission – the uniqueness and finality of the gospel itself. Paul Tillich, Arnold Toynbee, W.E. Hocking, along with many other scholars, are searching for a world faith, for common principles of faith that are universally true. The spirit of the times is toward a relativizing of religious truth, questioning the exclusiveness of the gospel, and interpreting the Scriptures in terms of universalism. This climate of concern is one step from syncretism, the synthesizing of inharmonious religious elements around a "creative center."
Kraemer has shown that this development may be either spontaneous or self-conscious and intentional.28 In the Wheaton Declaration of the Congress on the Church’s Worldwide Mission, "Mission and Syncretism," "Mission and Neo-Universalism" head the list of ten crucial issues to which the Congress addressed itself.29
There is clearly an urgent need for a positive biblical apologetic to answer these philosophically-oriented movements. Such an apology must of course be matched by the spiritual quality of life of the Christian community. There is no substitute for a living witness.
Fundamental to such an apology is the authority of biblical revelation. "When in former times God spoke to our forefathers, He spoke in fragmentary and varied fashion through the prophets. But in this the final age, He has spoken to us in the Son," declares the writer to the Hebrews (1:1,2, NEB). This special revelation can only be fully understood in the light of God’s general revelation to mankind. We believe that clarity on the unity and distinctions of general and special revelation is essential to a theology of mission.
Through universal revelation all men are without excuse. All men are sinners and thus no man can keep the law or live up to the light he has. He abuses the law by making it into a way of earning salvation. There is no biblical ground for universalism or syncretism. The only ground for salvation for Jew and Gentile, Christian and Hindu, is the atoning cross of Jesus Christ. Salvation is God’s loving offer in grace; repentance and faith, the necessary response to God’s particular call.
To those who have heard the Gospel the basis of acceptance is clear. We may assume that infants and imbeciles, who are sinners but without personal guilt, are covered by the blood of Jesus Christ.
To those who have never heard the Gospel, Scripture holds no positive hope, though there is some biblical evidence, mainly Old Testament, that God’s forgiving grace may be wider than the knowledge of the Gospel. We may assume that God in His mercy may reckon the repentance and faith of those who, over the ages have forsaken their self-righteousness and cast themselves entirely upon the God they dimly knew, as a sufficient response. But here too this very act of repenting and believing is a response to God’s particular grace.
The mystery of the multitudes in Asia today who have never heard hangs heavy upon us. Our only confidence is in the testimony of Scripture: "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" (Genesis 18:25). Our responsibility is clear to obey our Lord’s commission to take the Gospel to all nations.
We conclude this article with two appeals:
1. We appeal for an Asian confession of the Gospel, relevant to the issues of the contemporary Asian revolution. Such a confession will be subordinate and subject to Scripture. Our distinction between illumination and inspiration demands it. In speaking to contemporary issues it will be local and historically limited. It will not only attempt to defend the faith, but also articulate it for mission in the world. It must be a "signpost" of a confessing Church speaking "to the Asian situation and from involvement in it."30
The lessons of the history of confessions will be noted. The three main creeds of the early church, the Apostles, Nicene and Athanasian, have stood the test of time as confessions in public worship. They represent the need to objectify Christian experience in confession, unity and orthodoxy. They are trinitarian in framework and strong in their emphasis on the historical facts of the gospel.
The confessions of the Reformation era stand as manifestos of a teaching nature clearly enunciating biblical truth and refuting error. The central Reformation affirmation of "justification by faith alone," common to all the confessions, was not clearly stated in the early creeds. It needs to be re-emphasized in Asia today. In appealing for an Asian confession we note the warning of Asian church leaders, "When we make absolute the written confessions of the Churches of another culture range, we become incapable of discovering new depths of truth God can reveal to us in Christ amidst Asian life."31
2. We appeal for a more serious involvement in dialogue with men of other religious and secular faiths as an essential part of our witness. In universal revelation and our common blindness to it, we humbly confess our own sin. We will be willing to listen and seek to understand other men, their culture and convictions. We will respect them as persons and identify ourselves with their joys and sorrows, assuming as our Lord did, the status of servant. But on the basis of God’s gift of grace to us, we will seek every opportunity to witness to what Christ can do for them now and for eternity. We accept our commission, "As the Father sent me, so send I you."
1. Confessional Families and the Churches in Asia: Report from a Consultation convened by EACC and held at Kandy, Ceylon, Dec. 6-8, 1965, p. 21.
2. In India this attitude is beginning to change. The Union Theological College, Bangalore, is planning to publish in English the major works of Indian theologians. The Theological Education Fund is effectively stimulating Asian theological literature and new patterns in theological education.
3. See Roland Allen, The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church, (London, 1960, Fourth Edition), Chapter 4.
4. W.A. Visser ‘t Hooft, "Accommodation – True and False," S.E. Asia Journal of Theology, VIII, 3, (Jan. 1967), p. 15f.
5. A careful analysis of the causes and consequences of communalism in a large Asian city is found in J.P. Alter and H.J. Singh, The Church in Delhi, (Nagpur, 196 1). IMC Study Series on the Churches in India. See especially Chapters 8, 9.