Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Theology from Below

Written by: on May 6, 2015

Last fall, I was first introduced to Simon Chan through his book Spiritual Theology. For my essay on theology, this core text summed up much of my own understanding of God.   With a contextual theology to be in a “conscious, personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ,”[1] Chan applies his systematic understanding about God to the “lived reality”[2] of spirituality. In that pivotal book, Spiritual Theology, Chan quotes many of ancient fathers to describe the reality of and living into faith. With his use of Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical influences, he acknowledges the value of traditions while laying the foundation for the added dimension of context from Asian culture.

“Theology is an exact tracing of the glory of God.[3] Diadochos, 5th century Greek bishop

“[Theology] is the doctrine of living unto God[4] William Ames, 16th-17th Century Puritan theologian

Spiritual theology…can be defined as the science which decides from revealed principles what constitutes the perfection of the spiritual life and how man can advance towards and obtain it.”[5] Joseph de Guibert, Jesuit father of the late 19th Century

After Spiritual Theology, Chan’s foundational thesis in Grassroots Asian Theology comes as no surprise, other than providing even more Asian context. Chan offers that theology – both Western and Asian – is meant to be lived out in “the encounter with God’s revelation of himself in Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit.”[6] With the unique blend of contextual-systematic theology, Chan expresses how to understand God within traditional Christianity along with an Asian lens that remains consistent to what he wrote nearly 20 years ago.

In summary of the chapters, first, the Trinity reminds us, especially in the communal culture of Asians, that God operates with others in mind. Secondly, God wants to heal us, emotionally and physically, as reflected in many of the Asian Pentecostal grassroots churches. Thirdly, the family as central to Asian culture connects us to the understanding of our identity with the “elder brother” (Jesus Christ). Fourthly, Asian cultures respond readily to the work of the Spirit through personal encounters with God. And finally, Chan demonstrates the value of integration of grassroots and ancient tradition. Both are necessary, and easily accessible within Asian churches, and from which Western churches can benefit.

The point that resonates most deeply comes as a result of his use of “grassroots” for a descriptor. From the World Council of Churches, Chan states their assessment: “[Ecumenism] must touch the life of people in all its layers and dimensions.”[7] The lived out reality of theology, as in the unity of and purpose of the church, emanates from what it means to understand the prayers – the liturgy – of the people. As people pray and interact with God, that’s where faith and understanding reside. Quoting a student of Augustine, Chan reminds us that the “rule of faith should be based on the rule of prayer” (Prosper of Aquitaine).[8] People, within their context, live out theology. Can we not learn from them, rather than having to rely on elitists who proclaim the way God operates?

Now to my point – how does “theology from below” or a “grassroots” theology inform us as we live our faith? From Chan’s contribution about Asian culture, the understanding of God seems to provide a way to hold God in his mystery and grandeur along with the reality of God’s work on earth. Rather than explaining everything, the encounter becomes informative. Rather than relying only on an academic understanding of God, we can learn also from those who respond to God in “amazed recognition.”[9] With this posture of recognizing what little we know, yet with a deep desire to connect with God, we can live in both the transcendence and immanence of God. From that place, we have the opportunity to hear what God has to say about the hard places where there seems to be no formula or academic solution.

I’ll be honest. I’m not one to best articulate the value of starting with “theology from above” as Barth would argue to “theology from below” as Grenz proposes. But I do know that I understand God best in my experiences of him, whether in scripture, encounters with others, through service, or simple silence and solitude. And that’s where I hold Vanhoozer’s doctrine as drama close, “Doctrine is not merely a proposition, or an expression, but a prompt: a spiritual direction for one’s fitting performance of the script.”[10] The purpose of theology – to understand God – is knowing God. Chan appears to believe the same with his exhortation: “The whole created order will participate in the eternal liturgy of glorifying God and enjoying him forever.”[11]

[1] Simon Chan, Spiritual Theology: a Systematic Study of the Christian Life (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1998), 9.

[2] Ibid, 16.

[3] Ibid, 16.

[4] Ibid, 17.

[5] Ibid, 17.

[6] Simon Chan, Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 50.

[7] Ibid, 28.

[8] Ibid, 7.

[9] Quoting C.S. Lewis, Ibid, 17.

[10] Ibid, 13.

[11] Westminster Shorter Catechism, Ibid, 204.

About the Author

Mary Pandiani

Spiritual Director, educator/facilitator, follower of Jesus, a cultivator of sacred space for those who want to encounter God

11 responses to “Theology from Below”

  1. Jon Spellman says:

    Hey Mary! Great thoughts. I have not read any Chan prior to this one so it is interesting to me to hear your perspectives on his overall theological motif. In the book, he tends to come across as critical of Asian elitist theologians who don’t change and adapt to the shooting culture. Do you find that he is guilty of the same charge? If his message is essentially the same now as it was 20 years ago, is he guilty of not innovating?


    • Mary says:

      I thought long and hard about your thought, Jon – does Chan becomes an elitist as a result of his academic book? I don’t think so. Mainly because of this quote: “Contextual theologies emerge as the church lives out its given script in new situations. In other words, theology is first a lived experience of the church before it is a set of ideas formulated by church theologians.”
      In the lived out experience, you can’t really become elitist because, if you’re honest, you fall down and get back up and fall down again and get back up. Certainly, it’s difficult to stay on the pedestal of academia. I this that’s the beauty of contextual theology. It reminds me of when our ACADEMIC advisors – Caroline, Stephen, Len, and Jason – all said
      (never above, never below, always beside)

      • Dawnel Volzke says:


        Thanks for the reminder (never above, never below, always beside!) – and Happy Mother’s Day! As I read these posts, I think about the type of people who have been able to be always beside. Often, we start our faith journey below, and as we gain knowledge there is a danger that we go above. This is the elitism that so easily finds it’s way into our theology and evangelical endeavors. The challenge is to stay beside others. Our human nature and Western culture is to always strive for above. Even with our academic pursuits, we strive for more and better. Often, this is done with good intent. However, we know that we must die to ourselves and our human nature so that Christ is above. When Christ is our focus then we can more easily avoid the human and cultural pitfalls, and live in harmony and community beside each other. This is a challenge for even the strongest Christians, and those who have walked with Him for a long time.

      • Jon Spellman says:

        Never above
        Never below
        Always beside

        I’m also thinking about the need to innovate. It seemed that Chan’s expectation is that a grassroots, organic theology will necessarily undergo adaptations frequently… As the culture shifts, so will the theology. It seemed to be that a criticism of his toward elitist theologians was that they didn’t demonstrate adaptations and innovations. But what if it’s as simple as “we got it right!” No adaptations needed?


  2. Nick Martineau says:

    Mary, It’s really helpful to see you connect Chan’s other book to this one. Thanks!

    Loved your comment, “Rather than explaining everything, the encounter becomes informative. Rather than relying only on an academic understanding of God, we can learn also from those who respond to God in “amazed recognition.”

    That statement so clearly points out our elitism. Here we are as a Cohort in an academic setting with the privilege to study God. Nothing wrong with the privilege we’ve been given but so good for us to learn and engage “with those who respond to God in amazed recognition.” Just a good reminder that none of us have arrived and we can all learn from one another. Thanks.

    • Mary says:

      I love C.S. Lewis’ quote on “amazed recognition” – there’s such a beauty to encountering the awe of God. Something even elitists, and certainly a layperson like myself, can’t put into words. Almost feels like when God passes by Moses, and God has to cover Moses’ eyes. That kind of glory is too much. Yet this is the same God who calls us into relationship. I seem to experience it most with those who don’t have all the right language down.

    • Phillip Struckmeyer says:

      Nick, I like the lines you captured and the thinking demonstrated. Good thoughts on Mary’s post.

  3. Dave Young says:

    Mary, Your post and Chan reminds me of the tension of transcendence and imminence. It seems like within the Asian culture can more readily embrace both/and at the same time. Certainly they resonate with the grandeur, monarchy, transcendence of God, but then they’re very responsive to the folk religion / pentecostal / experiential. Like you I also have probably best understand God based on my experiences with Him, but I imagine my knowledge is distorted because I have such a familiar (intimate) view of God. Maybe I should wear a suit to church this Sunday?

    • Mary says:

      I actually was going to take that route in writing about Chan with regard to immanence and transcendence. That tension certainly expresses Chan’s hope for us in understanding Asian theology.
      Now going from that tension to a suit on Sunday?!!!! Well, that should be interesting. 🙂

  4. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Mary, I think “lived realtiy” speaks of what “grassroots” are all about. Your line, “Chan applies his systematic understanding about God to the “lived reality”[2] of spirituality.” Captures the great balance Chan used and the emphasis he wanted to make on the experiencing of God as the key component of theology emerging or being developed. I have had a chance to look at your essay but I hope to be able to take that in soon.

  5. Travis Biglow says:

    Mary, i am glad that Chan has a traditional view and that the main jest of things is that God through the Holy Spirit is living out through us. I like that. More often then not this should be high principal in our lives more than being culturally precise or an elitest!

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