Asian Theology

General Information

Long ago, missionaries in Asia attempted to introduce and develop Christianity in a form familiar in America but very unpalatable on the Asian continent. They generally found minimal success.

Some recent efforts have attempted to first understand Eastern culture and belief systems. With this foundation, it has been possible to develop deeper communication with the residents there which has allowed mutual understanding. This has allowed much greater effectiveness in the missionary efforts.

In order to understand Asian theology one must examine distinctions between Eastern and Western cultures. Since the end of World War II, Asian theologians have been seeking liberation from Western theologies in order to make the gospel more relevant to their own life situations.

Historically, the development of Asian theology is closely related to the development of indigenization in the early twentieth century and to the recent development of the concept of contextualization in missions. The International Missionary Council in Jerusalem in 1930 stressed that the Christian message must be expressed in national and cultural patterns with liturgy, church music, dance, drama, and building structures accentuating national features. This emphasis on using indigenous art forms and structures was carried over into the area of theology.

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The net effect is that the Christianity of the East has absorbed aspects of the local culture (and even some minor aspects of the dominant belief systems). Growth of Christianity in Asia has been spectacular in recent decades.


Asian Theology

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"Theological ideas are created on the European continent, corrected in England, corrupted in America, and crammed into Asia," said one theologian. Because of rising nationalism and reassertion of traditional values in Asia, shoving "the white man's Christianity" upon Asians is no longer advisable.

In order to understand Asian theology one must examine distinctions between Eastern and Western cultures. Since the end of World War II, Asian theologians have been seeking liberation from Western theologies in order to make the gospel more relevant to their own life situations.

Historically, the development of Asian theology is closely related to the development of indigenization in the early twentieth century and to the recent development of the concept of contextualization in missions. The International Missionary Council in Jerusalem in 1930 stressed that the Christian message must be expressed in national and cultural patterns with liturgy, church music, dance, drama, and building structures accentuating national features. This emphasis on using indigenous art forms and structures was carried over into the area of theology.

For example, Kanzo Uchimura, founder of a noted Non Church Movement in Japan, emphasized a Japanese theology: "If Christianity is literally just one, then what a monotonous religion it is." He stated that just as there are German, English, Dutch, and American theologies, Japan should have a Japanese theology. He wanted Christianity expressed from the viewpoint of the Japanese; he wanted a Japanese Christianity.

In the early 1970s the Theological Education Fund introduced a new term, "contextualization," during the Third Mandate Period (1972 - 77). The concept of indigenization was taken one step further by applying it in the area of mission, theological approach, and educational method and structure. Contextualization takes into account the processes of secularity, technology, and the struggles for human justice which characterize the history of nations in Asia. Asian theologians, therefore, have used the concepts of indigenization and contextualization to justify the development of Asian theologies.

Many theologians argue that God's revelation came to us in the Scriptures through a specific cultural form, such as in the NT when God used the Jewish and hellenistic cultures to record his revelation. Therefore the gospel must also be translated today into the particular forms of Asian cultures, and consequently numerous Asian theologies claim to represent Asian cultural forms: pain of God theology (Japan), water buffalo theology (Thailand), third eye theology (for the Chinese), minjung theology (Korea), theology of change (Taiwan), and a score of other national theologies such as Indian theology, Burmese theology, and Sri Lanka theology. The proliferation of Asian theologies has escalated markedly since the 1960s and will continue to multiply in the future. This will undoubtedly produce enormous impact on as well as conflict and confusion in theological institutions and Christian churches in Asia.

The major proponents of Asian theology have been liberal theologians of mainline denominational seminaries. An increasing number of evangelical theologians have sharply reacted against the concept of Asian theology. Other evangelicals are insisting on the necessity of it.

Due to the existence of very divergent religious cultures in Asia, the content of Asian theology is also diversified. It can be classified in four main areas: (1) syncretistic theology, (2) accommodation theology, (3) situational theology, and (4) biblical theology which is relevant to Asian needs.

Syncretistic Theology

Some Christian theologians and other religious thinkers have tried to syncretize Christianity with a national religion (Hinduism, Buddhism, or Islam) in an attempt to contextualize theology into the national situation. The Programme Unit on Faith and Witness of the World Council of Churches (W C C) has sponsored a number of religious dialogues with the leaders of other living religions. Many of these dialogues have resulted in a mutual acceptance of each other's beliefs.

The scope of Hinduism and Buddhism is large enough to accommodate all other religions including Christianity. Sri Ramakrishna, founder of the Ramakrishna Mission, meditated on Christ, recognized Christ's divinity as an avatar (incarnation) of the Supreme like Krishna and Buddha, and encourages his disciples to worship Christ.

The idea of the cosmic Christ which was emphasized during the W C C Assembly in New Delhi in 1961 has become prominent among liberal theologians in India. Raymond Panikkar in his book The Unknown Christ of Hinduism stresses that Christ already indwells the heart of a Hindu and that the mission of the church is not to bring Christ to the Hindu but to bring Christ out of him.

Klaus Klostermaier, a Roman Catholic theologian from German, visited Vrindaban, one of the Hindu sacred places in India, to have dialogue with Hindu gurus. After his spiritual experiences with Hindu scholars he testified, "The more I learned of Hinduism, the more surprised I grew that our theology does not offer anything essentially new to the Hindu."

M M Thomas, a prominent church leader both in India and in the W C C, expanded the cosmic Christ into a form of secular humanism. He interpreted salvation as man finding his true humanness so that it is no longer suppressed by social injustice, war, and poverty. Thomas said, "I cannot see any difference between the accepted missionary goal of a Christian Church expressing Christ in terms of the contemporary Hindu thought and life patterns and a Christcentered Hindu Church of Christ which transforms Hindu thought and life patterns within."

Accommodation Theology

Accommodation is another subtle attempt to contextualize theology in Asia. Just as a hotel or a family accommodates a guest, so theological accommodation considers prevailing customs and religious practices of another culture and accommodates good ideas from other religions. Christian attempts to accommodate other religious ideas are observable particularly in Buddhist countries.

The Thailand Bible Society selected the word dharma (law, duty, virtue, teaching, gospel) for the word Logos in John 1:1, because the dharma in Thai Buddhist culture is as meaningful as the Logos in the hellenistic world of NT times. In the same way Matteo Ricci, Roman Catholic Jesuit missionary to China in the sixteenth century, chose the words Tien Chu (Heavenly Lord) as the name for God because that was the popular Chinese Buddhist concept of God.

Kosume Koyama, a former Japanese missionary professor at Thailand Theological Seminary, in his Waterbuffalo Theology opposes syncretism for not doing justice to both parties. He advocates accommodation instead. Koyama believes that one cannot mix Aristotelian pepper with Buddhist salt in the North Thailand theological "kitchen." One must, therefore, emphasize good "neighborology" rather than mere Christology, because Koyama believes that every religion has positive as well as negative points and that Thai Christians must accept the positive elements of Buddhism in Thailand in order to change their life style.

Song Choan - Seng of Taiwan stresses a "third dimensional theology" as seen from an Asian perspective in his book Third Eye Theology. He says, for example, that just as the Holy Spirit works in a Westerner's consciousness to bring about Christian conversion, so he works in the Zen Buddhists of Japan to bring about satori (enlightenment of the mind). Since the same Spirit is working in both religions, the objective of Christian missions should not be evangelization, but rather the interaction of Christian spirituality with Asian spirituality.

Two noted theologians in Sri Lanka have had a similar interest in accommodating Buddhist terminologies and ideas to Christian theology. D T Niles, one of the key leaders in the East Asia Christian Conference (now Christian Conference of Asia), did not hesitate to use word such as dharma and sangha to describe Christian "doctrines" and the "body of Christ" in his Buddhism and the Claims of Christ. Lyn de Siva, a Methodist minister in Sri Lanka, believes that the teaching of earlier Buddhism on the three basic characteristics of existence, anicca (impermanence), dukkha (suffering), and anatta (no - self), provides comprehensive analysis of the human predicament that can become a basis for Christian theology. Anicca affirms the status of constant change of all conditional things; dukkha affirms that attachment is the cause for human suffering; and anatta affirms no soul or any permanent entity in man. The concepts of anicca and dukkha can be easily accommodated into Christian theology, but anatta proves more difficult due to the biblical concept of immortality.

The accommodation of Asian religious terminologies and concepts such as dharma, Tien Chu, anicca, dukkha, and annatta into Christian theology can be accepted to a certain extent by many Christians as long as the biblical interpretation and meaning are added to such words and concepts. Yet the question of where to draw the line between syncretism and accommodation depends on whether the person is willing to accept the unique revelation of God in Jesus Christ and in the Scriptures in his accommodation. A person's answer to a question such as "Do Buddhists need to be converted to Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins?" will reveal whether or not he believes that Jesus Christ is the only way to God.

Situational Theology

Another type of Asian theology derives directly from a particular situation. This situational theology may not be in agreement with the biblical and historical doctrines of the Christian church, and yet it speaks to concrete situations in Asia. Kazoh Kitamori's pain of God theology in Japan is an excellent illustration. He tried to demonstrate to the suffering people in Japan after their defeat in World War II that the God revealed in the Bible is the God of suffering and pain who could identify with the suffering Japanese.

The minjung theology (theology of the mass of the people) is another typical illustration. The main thrust of ecumenical theology today in Asia is toward the liberation of persons from social injustice, economic exploitation, political oppression, and racial discrimination. The minjung theology is a Korean version of liberation theology and teaches that Jesus Christ is the liberator of these oppressed people. The major papers from a conference on the minjung theology, October 22, 1979, were edited by Yong - Bock Kim, director of the Christian Institute for the Study of Justice and Development in Seoul, and published as Minjung Theology: People as the Subjects of History.

Need for Biblically Oriented Asian Theology. Theology in Asia has been taught by Western missionaries. The West has its own theological formulations derived out of its own cultural background, Calvinism, Arminianism, death of God, etc. Yet in Asia the circumstances facing Christians differ from the West. Asian Christians must make their theologies relevant to their living situations in Asia. Some of the main issues which Christians in Asia are facing today are communism, poverty, suffering, war, idolatry, demon possession, bribery, and cheating.

Most evangelical theologians see the value of Asian theology in allowing Asians to express their theological thoughts within their own contexts. Nevertheless, they are also very apprehensive of the danger of syncretism and of minimizing fundamental scriptural teachings during the process of contextualization.

At the Sixth Asia Theological Association Consultation in Seoul, Korea, 1982, some eighty evangelical theologians discussed Asian theology and jointly produced a twenty page Asian evangelical theologians' declaration, The Bible and Theology in Asia Today. Although there is no particular Asian theology with an evangelical label which is widely accepted by evangelical theologians, this joint evangelical declaration has laid down a few guiding principles for theology in different religious contexts of Asia. (1) The authority of the Bible is reaffirmed as the only infallible, inerrant Word of God: "The Bible, not theologians, is to speak in our theology." (2) Jesus Christ, the only incarnate Son of God, is unique. (3) Mission centered theology aiming to communicate the gospel to the lost is the best protection against syncretism. (4) Love should be the essential part of an Asian theology; only as Christians identify themselves with the needy do they contextualize the gospel.

Conclusion

The key issue in the whole argument around developing an Asian theology is whether in the process of contextualization the biblical and historical doctrines of the Christian church can be preserved without compromise. An analogy can be made with carrying the ark of the covenant in the OT. In OT times the ark was carried by ox cart. Today in several Asian countries the ark would be carried by rickshaw, horse, motorcycle, or car. Yet the meaning of the ark must not be changed. Many liberal theologians are trying to change the ark itself.

Asian Christians must listen to, evaluate, and be open minded to different Asian theological views on contextualization and yet, without compromise, be faithful to the gospel and proclaim it in love, as the apostle Paul exhorts: "Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love" (1 Cor. 16:13 - 14).

B R Ro

(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

Bibliography:
G H Anderson, ed., Asian Voices in Christian Theology; D J Elwood, ed., What Asian Christians Are Thinking; D J Elwood and E P Nakpil, eds., The Human and the Holy; K Kitamori, Theology of the Pain of God; K Klostermaier, Hindu and Christian in Vrindaban; C Michalson, Japanese Contributions to Christian Theology.


The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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