Review of “The Future of Evangelical Theology” by Amos Yong
From the title “The Future of Evangelical Theology. Soundings from the Asian American Diaspora” it is evident that Amos Yong is seeking a renewal of Evangelical Theology. If this would be the sole purpose of the book his attempt would be partially successful and partially unsuccessful at providing the impetus for momentum. Reading the book, however, it becomes quite clear that Yong has a secondary aim. This is also evidenced in the subtitle. He seeks to call his fellow Asian American Evangelical theologians to retrieve their own Asian distinctiveness and locate it at the heart of their theologizing endeavor within an Evangelical context. Yong sets himself to this task with great persuasion and effectiveness.
Yong gives an overview of the presence of Asians in the United States in all its bewildering plurality and complexity. He then proceeds to show that mainstream Asian American theologians have paid attention to the Asianness of their identity and used this creatively as a core component for their respective theological projects. Yong then proceeds to examine how Asian American Evangelicals have done in this regard. Yong points to the virtual lack of a distinctive Asian component in evangelical theology produced by Asian American Evangelicals. This lack is deplorable since it does not do justice to the character of the Asian American presence and because it shows how evangelical theology produces by Asian American Evangelicals is merely a sub-set of white, standardized, universalized Evangelical Theology. Evangelicals in the West have already done all the work of outlining the core-theological concepts of Evangelical theology; all non-Western theologians have to do is elaborate the mode and content of the contextualization of this theology. Non-Western theology becomes a sub-set of missiology and functions as an afterthought to the official Evangelical theology. Or so the (subconscious) story goes.
Looking at the way Yong proceeds in his book, moving from Asian American migration to Asian American Mainstream Theology to Asian American Evangelical Theology, one might wonder if he is ever going to address the real issues at stake here. But he does. He points to Evangelicalism’s foundationalism, hermeneutics-as-retrieval-of-absolute-truth, and biblicistic theological method as the culprits for Evangelicalism’s blindness to its own assumptions and its indebtedness to its own cultural and philosophical heritage. His analysis is concise but to the point. One of the core components of Evangelical Theology, namely its modernist biblicism, is to blame for the universalizing of its Western theology and the implicit subjugation of non-Western thought to already defined theological categories and methods.
However, what Yong does next is not to provide a full-scale assault on this type of theologizing. Instead he takes us to Acts 2 in which the outpouring of the Spirit on all flesh and in many tongues is metaphorically applied to the task of theologizing: the transposition of the gospel message in the vernacular of the many nations represented at Pentecost indicates how theology is to be done not from one cultural center, one ideological location, or one theological paradigm but, rather, from many paradigms, locations, and centers.
While I completely agree with Yong on this point, I wonder if such an approach will be able to achieve its intended effect. Western white Evangelicals will potentially nod in agreement but will inevitably proceed as usual. Again, what is the problem? Evangelical biblicism. It locates the Bible as the inerrant and exclusive source for theological statements; it uses the Scriptures as the foundation for such statements which are considered to be universal and absolute. Yong’s own laudable effort to produce a theology of migration, in order to capture some of the essence of the universal experience of American Asians, will be met with the monolithic approach of foundationalist biblicism that will at best label it as contextual theology. The theme of migration will never enter the august assembly of classic theological loci; it will neither be starting point nor major subject material for Evangelical Theology. Similarly, the chapter entitled “Spirit of Jubilee” will not be seen as a contribution to pneumatology but as a good example of practical theology, i.e. marginal to and irrelevant for actual evangelical systematic theology. Yong’s Bible-based approach to craft both a theology of migration and a theology of Jubilee will, inspite of it’s strictly evangelical methodology, not convince the evangelical establishment. Does Yong really believe that shouting from the (Asian) margin to the (white evangelical) center that the margin is also the center, is going to change anything? Is merely identifying evangelical biblicism and then moving to a (admittedly beautifully executed) metaphorical use of Acts 2, going to usher in a future in Evangelical Theology? I think not.
This is where Yong’s secondary objective (as I understand it) comes in to focus. Evangelical Asian American theologians will, because of their experience of marginality, be more prone to come to the insight that Amos Yong is right. They will be lured out of their fundamentalist and evangelical theological frameworks and wake up to their own identity. Yong’s book is definitely going to be a voice heard among that group of theologians. But I’m afraid it will fall largely on deaf ears in the larger community (indeed one evangelical reviewer recommended the book only to an audience interested in the intersection between globalization and theology—there you go: a recommendation that effectively neutralizes Yong’s powerful message). Yong, working from an evangelical paradigm and working in an evangelical institution (Regent) cannot deliver the punch to Evangelical Theology it needs. This is not to criticize Yong. It simply indicates that working from the evangelical paradigm precludes one from making a dent in its bulwark. To achieve that, more is needed: a wholesale iconoclastic assault. But then again, would that approach work? Not very likely either, because the Evangelical Left—to give a simple example—is already totally being ignored.
Given that the New (Next) Evangelicalism is non-Western, it may well be that in time, because of the work of Amos Yong, Soong-Chan Rah and others, the Evangelical paradigm will change and will truly embody the lived reality of humanity. Western Evangelicalism will eventually become a minority and its monolithic domination will be shipwrecked. What a different theology this will yield. But even then, the Global Evangelicalism that Yong foresees will still need to wrestle with the burden it inherited from Western Evangelicalism, foundationalist biblicism. And that Yong does not do at the present.
Recommendation: readable; great overview of the field of study; laudable initiative; good message.