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

What’s Asian theology?

Written by: on May 5, 2015

A church member asked me, “What’s Asian theology?” when she saw the book I was reading. For point of reference, she’s a bright teacher, has served a number of years as a missionary, and she’s more aware than most of cultural differences. She simply didn’t know, and neither did I—that the Eastern civilization needs theology created by and for its own. When we study engineering there are certain laws and principles that are universally applicable. While it must be translated into one’s language, and the knowledge base might need cultural sensitivity and relevant applications, chemical engineering, electrical engineering, and so on, represent static knowledge. That’s likely how many of us consider theology.

But theology isn’t like engineering; theology seeks understanding regarding life’s biggest questions: “Who is God?”; “What is God up to?”; “Who are we”; “What’s gone wrong?” etc. That knowledge is communicated within the context of the cultural norms of the society for which it was developed. It’s no surprise that the Christianized West has a theological knowledge attuned to its constituency. I’m not saying that there are no universal truths; there most certainly are, but the way in which we hear, receive, and live out of those truths will be very different in Asia. I’d also argue, along with Simon Chan in “Grassroots Asian Theology,” [1] that the Asian cultural context will often have more in common with New Testament cultural norms and paradigms than ours. Authentic Asian theology will find fewer obstacles to embracing authentic New Testament faith.

For a Western Christian living in Asia, it won’t take long for your frustration level to rise; you will become more aware of your own self-righteousness than ever before. For example, as an American evangelical I have a fairly keen sense of right and wrong. I see a failure in myself or in others and call it sin; I repent, I change. But while living in Thailand I realized most Asians don’t own their mistakes or shortcomings. They call it “Saving face.” But then how do they improve a process or a practice if they don’t own a mistake? More importantly, how do they come to Christ if they don’t repent of their sin?

For a typical Asian, “sin” connotes a serious crime; if you say to an Asian “you’re a sinner in need of a Savior,” they are likely to take offense, knowing they didn’t murder anyone. Their philosophical underpinnings allows for minor mistakes. [2] Whereas Western theology emphasizes our guilt and God’s grace, Asian theology emphasizes shame and honor. Chan documents that there is actually more said in the Bible about shame and honor than guilt and innocence. [3] Sin recast from an Asian perspective is characterized by offending the honor of another person. A person who sins brings shame to his or her family, or community; they fail to bring the honor and glory to God that He deserves.

One theologian, Robert Jewett, looked at Romans through an honor-shame template and found that “righteousness” is virtually synonymous with honor and glory. He drew out the implication that it’s less about the legal act of being made right “as a divine act in which the sinner’s shame is removed and a new status of honor is bestowed in Christ. Salvation, then, has to do with being given a new status of honor in Christ.” [4] So salvation, in Asian theology, emphasizes the imputing of Christ’s righteousness/honor more so than the forgiveness of sins.

Another difference is in the Asian approach to the Trinity. The Asian would see the Monarchy of the Father; they would make much of the hierarchy between the Father and the Son, the giving and receiving of glory and honor within the Divine family, as well as the role of subordination, of obedience. From a Western mindset, we are more likely to focus on their equality, and their distinct roles—ignoring the hierarchical structure.

I’m just scratching the surface of the differences in theology, differences that can initially feel like “something must be wrong”! Our initial reactions are often uninformed and naïve. Asians need their own theology, they need God’s word understood and applied to their context. They can honor God and his word by answering life’s greatest questions from their own point of reference with God’s Word as their source of truth.

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

[2] Ibid, 80-81.

[3] Ibid, 83.

[4] Ibid, 84.

About the Author

Dave Young

husband, dad, friend, student of culture and a pastor.

8 responses to “What’s Asian theology?”

  1. Jon Spellman says:

    Hey Dave. Your experience serving in an Asian context clearly provides some valuable, unique insight that the rest of us may not have. Thanks for this post. I was particularly interested in your perspective on how an Asian Christian might view the trinity as a hierarchy rather than co-equal elements of a unified whole. Chan addresses this in the section “The Challenge of the Trinity.” When I read that section, I was reminded of how quickly we accept certain very difficult theological concepts as “truth” and never give a second thought into we are challenged to explain it. With this in mind, I wonder, did you bump into any of this when you were serving in an Asian context? If not trinity, were there any other “truths” that we accept at face value in the West that were more nuanced in the Asian context?


  2. Dave Young says:

    Jon, So when an Asian reflects on the trinity they are going to be attracted to the Monarchy of the Father, and that the Son eternally proceeds forth from the Father. They will see and emphasize the embedded hierarchy. We downplay the hierarchy because we think it implies lesser worth. It really has nothing to do with worth or value. It simply means that within the divine family there is order and subordination. Submission. Asians value subordination, and family based hierarchy. Westerners largely don’t. Because of our autonomy, and because submission can be abused we tend to downplay it in our theology. Another area I’d see the difference I mentioned in my post. Asians don’t readily take responsibility for mistakes, so the need to really recast sin as that lack of giving appropriate honor. I don’t claim to know how to recast it in a way that is authentically biblical – but I see the need to rethink theology from their perspective.

    • Jon Spellman says:

      Isn’t it telling though, how we assign value to position? It seems that in the Asian context, there is no problem being subordinate and equally valuable at the same time.


    • Nick Martineau says:

      Dave…Really good stuff. I appreciate your insight and think it really adds to this week’s reading for me. The subordination/submission piece is so interesting to me. It’s hard to not think we westerners are “more enlightened.” I know that’s an arrogant thought and I truly want to like you said, “I don’t claim to know how to recast it in a way that is authentically biblical – but I see the need to rethink theology from their perspective.” Rethinking theology from another’s perspective is powerful but difficult process.

  3. Mary says:

    You articulate the Asian context well with their approach to what Christ’s righteousness does for us. “So salvation, in Asian theology, emphasizes the imputing of Christ’s righteousness/honor more so than the forgiveness of sins.” A girlfriend of mine works for an organization called KnowledgeWorks that helps in cultural sensitivity by describing three worldview: fear, shame, guilt (perhaps a bit simplistic, but does provide some good context). As Western Christians, we could learn from Asian Christians the value of knowing how our sin is not only personal, but also impacts an entire community. Social norms can lead to a flourishing of community, over and against our own individual Westernized choices. However, at the same time, as we’ve seen with the whole Brene Brown movement around shame, sometimes it’s good to simply acknowledge our sin, but then move on from there without all the baggage that shame can bring. Interesting how we can learn from one another in our view of God. It’s like we need all three worldviews, as we approach the “elephant” in the room from different angles, in order to fully understand God’s character and interaction in our world. Sure appreciate your perspective, Dave, especially from your own personal experience.

  4. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Dave, While not being like engineering … I love how theology does lead to same ultimate conclusions. I like your thought, “But theology isn’t like engineering; theology seeks understanding regarding life’s biggest questions: “Who is God?”; “What is God up to?”; “Who are we”; “What’s gone wrong?” etc. ” What I found amazing about asian theology is that while developed rather independently, it concluded the same ultimate thoughts. Maybe from a different approach but God pursued in any culture seems to be the same God and his nature is unchanging. For some reason this produce great hope in me for my faith and the spread of the gospel throughout the grassroots cultures throughout our planet. Love your missionary perspective!

  5. Dawnel Volzke says:

    Amen… ” God pursued in any culture is the same God and his nature is unchanging.” The point is that God is pursued. Our job is to introduce people to the pursuit of God, then we can and should leave the rest to the work of the Holy Spirit. This doesn’t mean we don’t educate and inform, but we focus on the leading of the Holy Spirit – otherwise we deliver the message blindly. In our Western ways, we want to be the problem solver and solution deliverer. We don’t just want to open a door, rather we want to usher people through it and to direct their paths. But, He is the one to direct paths.

  6. Travis Biglow says:

    Saving face, wow. I think Asian theology is similar to different cultures in that we are not raised with the same views. For instance we are pregrogrammed to think that we are wrong and to have a guilt complex. I am not saying that that is such a bad things. We need to be responsible for our actions!

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