Christian Theology in Asia – Book Review

Christian Theology in Asia
Editor:  Sebastian C.H. Kim
Publisher:  Cambridge University Press
ISBN:  9780521681834

Book Review by Dr Kang-San Tan, Head of Mission Studies, Redcliffe College.

The book is divided into two parts: formation in Asian Christian theology and theological themes of Christianity in Asia. The stated aim of the book is on “the relation of these distinctive theologies to the specific contexts from which they emerged” (p.xi). Some of the theological themes of Christianity in Asia discussed in the book are religious pluralism, cross textual hermeneutics, feminist theology, ecumenical movement and mission.

Within the stated aim of the book, John A. Titaley offers a good historical narrative on Indonesia’s struggle for independence. However, there is not much on the works of Indonesian theologians. Of special interest to readers of Asian theologies will be those essays that not only relate to theology in context, but also refer to specific theological works of Asian theologians. Notably, Selvayagam’s fine essay is well researched and introduces the reader to a host of Indian theologians. Foreign readers entering into foreign territories are confronted with issues such as indigenous use of Hindu concepts, dialogical and vernacular attempts, Dalit theology and hyphenated Christians in early twentieth century India.

Readers get a distinct sense of constructive developments in Asian theology through essays by Choong Chee Pang, Nozomu Miyahira, and Sebastian Kim from the Chinese, Japanese and Korean contexts, respectively. On the one hand, we are struck by common themes emerging from these essays such as the importance of inter-religious engagements, poverty, responses to Western imperialism and how these theologians are grappling with social political realities. For example, Korean Minjung and Indian Dalit theologies are both critical responses to the problem of poverty. On the other hand, these surveys also showed how local theologies developed in quite distinct ways in a post-colonial Indian context, communist China, and Korean Christianity.

Another noteworthy feature of the book is the range of perspectives from Catholic and Protestant studies, covering various Asian regions. Jacob Kavunkal’s study from a Catholic perspective on Henri Le Saux and Bede Griffith’s attempt at using Indian mystical traditions as a natural base for Hindus to receive the supernatural Christian truths will challenge those within Protestant movements to engage with Asian religious traditions. In the same way, Catholic readers will benefit from insights from Evangelical writers such as Hwa Yung. The bibliography of these essays provides readers at undergraduate level with important leads into further research on these pioneers in Asian theologies.

Within the modest aim of the book, Sebastian Kim is to be congratulated for bringing a diverse team of contributors representing different traditions and contexts. The selection of articles in the first part of the book contribute to an increased appreciation of the important role that historical and socio-political dimensions play in the development of contextual theology. Readers are reminded that numerous Asian thinkers have sought to develop theological responses to common issues of identity, church and religious encounters. Careful readings of these works would hopefully challenge Asian readers of our common neglect of the rich theological resources within Asia. In addition, it can also encourage readers from the West to better appreciate the complexity and diversity of Asia and its Christianities. The book could be said to achieve its stated aim in exploring the distinctive theologies in context, succeeding as it does in documenting the growing literatures from Asia. Thus it makes a valuable contribution to the contemporary discussion on world Christianity.

Nevertheless, the challenge for some interactions between theological polarities and presuppositions comes with the reading of writings from theologians of such diverse backgrounds. Readers are left wondering whether some form of evaluation is needed, which could well be modelled within this volume. When one discusses a continent as diverse as Asia, and brings together scholarship of different theological presuppositions, there is a need for some tentative integration.

For example, Thangaraj’s essay on religious pluralism and Archie Lee’s essay rightly devote some space to the role and authority of the Bible for Asian Christians, and the Bible’s relation with other scriptures in Asia. Controversially, Evangelical Christians will have difficulty with Thangaraj’s pointers toward those theologians suggesting that Hindu and Buddhist scriptures be regarded as almost synonymous with “Old Testament” scriptures (p.165). Agreeing with Samartha, Lee seems to argue that a high regard for the Christian scriptures should be surrendered if one is to engage in cross-textual hermeneutics. The question is: do Christians need to adopt such a presupposition, or wouldn’t a high commitment to scripture be a prerequisite for serious cross-textual hermeneutics, regardless of one’s religious background? In privileging Hindu or Buddhist scriptures, Lee in particular seeks to promote a pluralist approach that demands a presupposition of scripture’s authority that is foreign to the biblical text itself. Hwa Yung’s essay on Mission and Evangelism, surveying streams of Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism in Asia, argues that Evangelical theological thought in Asia would contribute to or challenge traditional theologies in four areas: holistic mission, the supernatural, contextual theology and a distinct theology of religions. Clearly, Thangaraj’s religious pluralism and Archie’s cross-textual hermeneutics collide with presuppositions of Paul Cho Yonggi or theologians such as Vinay Samuel, as briefly surveyed in Yung’s essay. To encourage some synthesis between these polarities, it would have been good to have, say, a final section on Catholic and/or Protestant cross-responses; or a theological critique from a systematic or biblical theologian on a major theme covered in the volume. This may have modelled how such evaluation and conversion could take place, albeit provisionally.

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