Friday, September 17, 2010

Contra "Asian Theology" - We confess ONE holy and katholikos faith (Part 1)

It has come to my attention that an article has been posted on the "Christian Post" on the topic of so-called "Asian Theology" here. In this post, I would like to analyze the article according to Scripture.

In this article, Dr. Augustine Pagolu's main thesis is that the only way that Christian mission is to make way in Asia is for more "contextualization" to be done in which Christianity is to jettison its "Greco-Roman" framework that is evidently prevalent today in westernized circles. Instead, just as Christianity contextualized its message to the Greco-Roman world then, Christianity is to be contextualized now for the Asian context, thus giving us the idea of "Asian Theology". Dr. Pagolu then suggests various ways such contextualization should be done in the so-called Asian context.

If it were not for the fact that friends read this article, I would not want to address this issue. So poorly is the case argued for any so-called Asian theology that I very much prefer to go back to my seminary readings of which I have quite a lot to read. After all, going to one of the best seminaries in the world means that the intellectual rigors of education would be very tough.

The Greco-Roman framework?

Dr. Pagolu's main argument rest on various assumptions which are unbiblical and unhistorical. The first major error can be seen in his historical revisionism of the Greco-Roman world. Pagolu claims that the Greco-Roman framework is "primarily rationalistic and analytical". This betrays an ignorance of the Greco-Roman culture. The Greco-Roman culture was very much "spiritual" with many gods who behave worse than humans sometimes. Paul at Athens was provoked within his spirit with the many idols in the city (Acts 17:16). Greco-Roman philosophy was more rationalistic and analytical, yet there is no such thing as a uniform theme of Greco-Roman philosophy as being rationalistic and analytical either. Gnosticism for instance was a very much spiritual yet philosophical religion. The idea of gnosis or secret knowledge was not an end in itself, but rather "passwords" which enable the soul to proceed towards the direction of absolute being[1]. Such gnosis was not propositional knowledge, but rather esoteric empirical knowledge towards union in the divine.

As I have written in my review of the late Pinnock's et al book The Opennes of God, the whole idea of Greco-Roman framework is nonsensical. Refuting Sanders, I wrote[2]:

One major problem with Sanders' thesis is that to postulate that the concept (not just the language) of immutability and impassibility as applied to God as being Greek concepts and not Christian concepts, it must be the case that in Greek thought there must be only one concept of God in these aspects. In other words, there cannot exist in Greek thought concurrently the concept of God being immutable and that of being mutable, or being passable and impassable. If that were to be the case, then either way Christianity can be said to imbibe on Greek thought either way, since both logically contradictory positions are covered by Greek thought. And this is what we will see to the case in Greek culture. The gods present in the popular Greek religion are mutable and passable, whereas the philosopher's Ideal or idea of God is immutable and impassable. Since this is the case, how then can Sanders prove his position? We could say that the Open Theists view is actually the Christianization of Greek popular religion, and that would be even more accurate, since the worldviews of both the modern age and during the times of the Greeks are very similar.

Similarly, the whole idea of the Greco-Roman framework is nonsense. No such common framework exists. There is the Platonic framework, the Stoic framework, the Greek popular religion framework etc, but no Greco-Roman framework. Much less is there a so-called unified theme of rationalism and of being analytical in the pluralities in the Greco-Roman frameworks. After all, Gnosticism is anything BUT analytical. Platonism and Neo-Platonism is analytical and rationalistic but it is also spiritual in nature.

Contextualization of the "Greco-Roman framework"?

The next error is the contention that the church contextualized her message towards the so-called Greco-Roman framework. We will address this by looking at (1) the Apostolic church, (2) the early church.

(i) Contextualization in the Apostolic church?

The prime example of such contextulization in the Apostolic church is normally taken to be Acts 17. Paul supposedly approved of the religiosity of the Athenians in his speech in the Aeropagus, and approvingly quoted from two of their religious poets in order to create "common ground" with them.

Such however is a misrepresentation of what actually happened in the Aeropagus.In Act 17:22, Paul mentioned that he looked at or perceived (θεορω; Lexical form θεορεω) the Athenians as being "κατα παντα ώς δεισιδαιμονεστερους". The adjective δεισιδαιμονεστερους seems to be a hapaxlegomena, yet according to the lexicon is based upon two words of which the second word is δαιμονιον or demon. This gives credence to the view that what Paul was actually describing was not being religious in a virtuous sense, but rather superstitious in a a weak negative sense — "Men of Athens, I see that [in] according to all things [you are being] superstitious" (literally translated).

In his book Presuppositional Confrontations[3], apologist Vincent Cheung addresses the exegesis of this clause. Instead of being a positive commendation of how much they seek after God,

Rather, the point is that they did not know the true God at all. They may realize that there may be a divine existence beyond and other than what they were worshiping, and so constructed altars to these "unknown gods" just as a safety measure. One cannot conclude from this that they were already worshiping the God of Christianity. In fact, the point is that they were not worshiping the God of Christianity. Their altars to "unknown gods" merely constitute a confession of ignorance, and Paul's statement intends to exploit this confession without conceding anything positive about their present way of worship.[4]

While it may not be a direct insult, Paul was negative about their religiosity and contrasts their admitted ignorance with the truths of Christ he positively knows and will proclaim to the Athenians. The only "common ground" seen here is to use their cultural artefacts to show forth their ignorance of God in order to launch forth the proclamation of the Gospel.

What about the two quotations of the pagan poets by Paul? Here however Paul gives no grounds to the Athenians. Rather, his quoting of the pagan poets was appropriated for the Gospel message, not an accommodating to the poets at all, in the same way as John used the word logos and turned the concept upside down from the Greek point of view.

The first quotation "‘In him we live and move and have our being" is stated to be from Epimenides of Crete[5]. In its original context it is talking about Zeus. However, we can see in context that Paul uses the phrase to refer to the fact that we can come to know God; that "God is not far from each one of us". Paul is thus using the words of the pagan poet as an unconscious reflection of the truths of General Revelation which they consciously reject. Although the Athenians rejected God and are thoroughly pagan, yet remnants of General Revelation still remain (cf Rom. 1:18-23). The Greeks knew that God can be known, yet they twist that into a pantheistic idea of God permeating the creation. Paul eviscerate the quote (if it is one which I do think it is) of its original meaning to show the General Revelation that the Greeks have rejected in their sinfulness.

Such a reading can also be applied to the second explicit quotation in the later part of verse 28. The original intent was to say that the Greeks especially were Zeus' offspring. Instead, Paul took the same saying and showed that the Greeks had an idea of being created by God, although they twisted it into making an immanent finite deity Zeus their creator.

The whole sermon by Paul at the Aeropagus therefore was not in any way "contextualized". As much of the Gospel was preached by Paul before the Greeks could not stand it any longer. Even before arriving at the Gospel proper, the Greeks were offended by Paul's teaching of such ideas as [the highest] God [of spirit] being the Creator [of matter], the idea of bodily resurrection, of final judgment, of them not being special above other nations etc. The Gospel cuts and offends those who are perishing, while bringing salvation to those who repent and believe, and this two-fold response can be seen in verses 32-34.

Paul's sermon at the Aeropagus has nothing to do with contextualization with the Greco-Roman framework. His message was a thoroughly Jewish Messianic one which is indeed foolishness to Greeks

(ii) Contextualization in the early church?

As we move away from the apostolic era, error of course starts to creep in, thus the various controversies in the churches. The Gnostic error of Docetism came in early, of which it is likely that the epistles of John were written to combat it. The Gnostic heresies are the epitome of any capitulation to Greco-Roman religions and philosophies, and the church did not accede to it at any time, kicking out Marcion and the Valentinians from the church[6].

Of course, it cannot be doubted that some form of syncretism happened especially in the person and teachings of Origen[7]. However, even then there was controversy as some churches reject Origen's teachings. At the Reformation, the battle cry of ad fontes expunged as much as possible pagan teachings that has infiltrated the church between the apostolic age and then, and seeks as much as possible to obey Scripture alone.

So while there is some contextualization in the ancient churches, by and large the compromise was slow and not uncontested. Since the Reformation removed as much of pagan infiltration into the churches as possible, it is not true that there is a capitulation to any kind of so-called Greco-Roman framework within the Christian church in general.

[to be continued]


[1] Class notes taken by me for ST501: Christian Mind, by Dr. Michael S. Horton

[2] Daniel H. Chew, Book Review: The Openness of God. (accessed Sept 16th 2010; Online

[3] Vincent Cheung, Presuppositional Confrontations (Boston, MA: Reformation Ministries International, 2003). I do not necessaily endorse everything by Cheung but on this issue there is large agreement.

[4] Ibid., 35

[5] See Ibid., 56-57 for discussion regarding whether it really is a citation.

[6] Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (London, England, UK: Penguin, 1967, 1993), 33-41

[7] Ibid., 100-114, 180-181

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