John Roxborogh, 1989

Although anyone can read Asian theology and critique it within its own terms and values, there is some validity in saying that to do Asian theology in the creative sense one has to be Asian. It will be for others to judge how far what follows is adequate, from the perspectives of Asian Christianity and from those of the Church in other times and cultures. It has a modest intention that of providing a framework to help grow and test our understanding of what it means to be Christian in a particular time and place.

           Theology can be elementary or it can be profound; it can be the task of an individual and it is the responsibility of the church. At any point it is provisional and subject to improvement in its own time and place and to change with the passage of time and changes in the surrounding culture. It must constantly be subject to the judgement of Scripture.

            At its most basic Christian theology is what happens when those who follow Christ try to work out their understanding of God and God's will in their time and place.  In this task there are things which do not change very much as they are given; and there are things which change a good deal because Christian perception of the mind of God is not static and it is considerably varied.

            Part of the process of theology is criticism and dialogue within and beyond the Christian community. This is not simple. Attitudes, both Asian and non-Asian, can inhibit critical conversation. The recognition of the limitation of someone outside a culture trying to tell people what their theology ought to be, can be used as a way of avoiding hard questions. Nevertheless someone has to ask whether all that is called Asian theology is what it claims to be and worthy of the name. One does not have to be from any particular culture to ask whether a body of reflection or even the work of one particular writer is internally consistent. A foreigner may have inappropriate ideas about what Asian theology ought to be but there are valid questions which he can ask. Romanticism, reverse paternalism, guilt from past and present Western and missionary sins, and straightforward laziness can all conspire against the sort of critical engagement and enquiry which is essential for the discipline to gain further maturity. 

             All theology done by Malaysians has a claim to being Malaysian theology. It may be good theology or bad theology; it may be self-consistent or contradictory; it may be true to people's spiritual experience or it may be spurious; it may have a claim to being representative of the best aspirations and reflections of many people or it may be idiosyncratic and unrepresentative; it may bear checking against what God has revealed through Scripture or it may not; it may be a veneer over Western liberal theology or a veneer over Western conservative-Evangelical theology; it may be Christian theology or some other sort of theology, but it is still Malaysian theology. 

            The very term Malaysian Theology without qualification means that of itself we are talking about something which draws attention to the spiritual experience of the culture as a whole and to continuities of theological agenda and formulation with other religions. It also means that before we are talking of ideals and what that theology ought to be, we are talking first of the mess and confusion of the reality of what that theology is. It is important we accept the validity of this sort of enterprise and recognize that theology is what it is and not what we would like it to be.

            There may be aspects of Malaysian spirituality, Christian and other, which we find repugnant, but there has to be some principle of selection other than just choosing what fits our own inclinations. Such principles of selection and evaluation are things that need to be considered carefully. Without them our methodology is not self-critical and is likely to be weak. Nevertheless to start with Malaysian theology good or bad is what it is there even when there are parts we regard as more valid from our point of view than others.

            Malaysian Christian Theology should interact with wider Malaysian theology and be on the way to being self-critical and reflective, to being systematic and true to the experience of the country in a way which can be more widely recognized. The task is not easy, it requires time, patience, and the participation of many people. Remember how long it took to sort out Christology in the early church!

            Writing Malaysian Christian Theology is an aspect of the problem of Gospel and Culture and in Malaysia we are dealing not with one culture, but with many. Which of the many should provide the context which dictates these tasks? How are we to be fair to the contradictions that are found?  Whereas some of the principles of doing local theology will be fairly universal, their application in different sub-cultures will not bring the same results because those subcultures are different. At the same time there are things about Malaysia as a whole which affect all Malaysian society. For example this is a society in which it is common to be religious and that is accepted; the agenda of Western theology which has long been dominated by wrestling with the questions raised by philosophical scepticism is very much less relevant here

The work of doing Malaysian theology has two important elements:

Task One: What items should be on the theological agenda because of the historical experience of Malaysia?  ie How does the context affect the content?

Task Two: What should be different about the form or presentation of theological statements when they are being expressed in Malaysia? ie How does the context affect not just the content but the form?


1. There is a local and particular form which is properly given to truths which are universal.

This is an ideal statement.  Christian truth is always in some culture or another and you can argue, at length, about the idea of universal truth. Nevertheless there is truth which is more than local which finds expression in different ways in different cultural and different historical contexts. An example is bible translation. The texts from which the translations are made are more or less fixed; the languages and cultural contexts into which they are translated are various.

2. There are particular truths which are neglected or distorted in one culture, but which may be recognised and highlighted by another culture or historical context because the events of that culture enable those people to see things in Scripture which are missed by others.  

Different parts of scripture have come to prominence at different periods in church history. What has happened at different times in history in one broad culture stream also happens at the same time in history in different cultures (there is no conceptual difference between saying cultures are different in space and saying they are different in time; the `rules' for relating in space apply to time and vice versa).

Hence we should expect the contemporary historical experience of particular cultures and subcultures to draw attention to aspects of God's revelation which have been/are neglected by other cultures and subcultures.  As a result Task One is important not just for the Malaysian Church but for the world church.  We may be uncovering things about the Gospel that others have not heard.

3. Some would wish to extend the concept to include theological concerns and insights which do not necesssarily have some clear biblical basis  -  ie there is a move from discussing things which are recognisably Christian to things which do not have that as a particular concern. The process of localisation and what can be learnt from it also applies to pre and non-Christian experiences. Islam and Buddhism, for example, face these issues as well.

There is a fair degree of consensus that contextualisation of a given theology is a good idea, but mixed feelings about how far it is appropriate to determine the content and emphasis of theology from local needs and interests. However this hesitation probably has as its real focus not the expression of theology in local dress, or even the fact that different historical experiences will have different theological agendas, but the need to affirm that the revelation of God stands outside all our cultures, all our theologies, and all our agendas.  The whole exercise can appear - an indeed become - hopelessly adrift in a sea of cultural relativism. While this is an occupational hazard, it is not the necessary consequence. People do local theology anyway; the main thing is whether they do it well. The criteria for this judgement also need discussion.

Malaysian Church History and Asian Theology

It is not so much impossible as dangerous to attempt to do local theology without an understanding of local history. If the particular historical context is ignored the real meaning and significance of theological expression is lost. Christianity is an historical religion. Local theology which is attempted using faulty history will itself be distorted, though it will still say something about people who thought something happened and thought this is what it meant. For local theology to be of significant quality the tasks of theology and history must go hand in hand.

          However the idea that there could be significant diversity in theology is a fairly modern one.  The Jesuits, some of whom worked hard at accommodation were also those who as the "shock troops of the Counter-Reformation" were arch defenders of the narrowly defined theology of the Council of Trent.

            Until fairly recently the question of local theology arose only in terms either of accommodation or of contextualisation. It arose in answer to the question how can these truths be expressed in such a way that they can be understood in a particular context of time or place.

            The acceptance of the idea that behind the different local dresses there was not necessarily one theology, but many, and that some of those `many' have a contribution to make back into `world' theology is very recent. For long in Malaysia theology meant catechism and obedience to the teachings of the church; creativity did not come in to it.

            It is possible to blame missionaries for this, and in terms of responsibility it is difficult to do anything else. However it is also important to say that we are all children of our time, and missionaries were and are no exception. As long as the common idea of what theology was, and this was both a Catholic and a Protestant assumption, was that it was essentially given and static, and at most we could talk about contextual expression of what was given, then a major component of what we now understand by local theology simply did not conceptually exist.

            I am not sure we should talk of blame when somebody does not know something which has not been invented! It was the nature of the case that it took time for people to realise that the theological formulations they wished to translate into other cultures were themselves culturally conditioned statements and were therefore themselves relative and not absolute. This is a realisation which people of all cultural backbrounds have difficulty bearing in mind when they very strong convictions on some issue. The most `liberal' Western Christian or Asian Christian who has strong convictions about something will try and tell everybody about it - whether it is appropriate to do so or not. I have heard those who are very critical of Evangelical and Western missionaries for stuffing a Western theology down the throats of others doing exactly the same thing themselves. I can only conclude this is human nature.


In a sense what we are talking about in all this is to do with the universal and the particular. Christianity is both universal and particular; Christ is both above cultures and within Cultures. We must be true to all these dimensions.

            A particular local theology has then the task of translating the universal theology into its context; but it also has the task of discovering things within the universal theology which other particular contexts have not recognised.


The Philippines under Marcos gave rise to thinking on the relationship of Church and State.

The experience of China gave rise to sensitivity on the ambiguities of missions and imperialism.

The experience of Christians on Bali gave encouragement towards thinking through Christianity and culture in the sense of drama, dance and the arts.

The ecumenical movement in the West helped Western Christians to work through the theology of the Church and the churches.

 In general experiences of War stimulated Western rather than Asian thinking about pacifism (significantly Japan is the exception); the threat of nuclear annihilation has led to theological reflection as to whether the medieval theology of a `Just War' is still adequate to deal with these issues.

Concern for the environment has had its theological counterpart.

The experience of living in the midst of other religions has raised the question of revelation and salvation in other faiths.


In many cases it is necessary to remind ourselves that we are mostly just talking about the obvious and looking at familiar things in a different way.


Do they reflect the spirituality of all the people or of only some. Who do those doing Asian theology really represent?

            We need to apply some of the same sort of radical criticism to those who do this exercise as some of them apply to others. Who pays? Who benefits?  When they hold American passports and are funded from America then the dress of their theology may or may not be Asian; but the theological body inside the dress is less likely to be Asian. This is true whether we are talking about ecumenical/liberal theologies or evangelical ones.

            I doubt if anyone is really taking very seriously the full range of Asian spirituality as it is actually lived. I sense there is a reluctance to take seriously some of the very basic aspirations of Asian spirituality without which it is impossible to understand Asia. Singapore has been written off the ecumenical map, yet who has really taken seriously the theology implicit in the growth of the charismatic movement in Singapore? It is just assumed by some that it is a Western import more than a valid local expression, but the real questions have to do with the way in which classic Pentecostal aspirations and spirituality have found congruence with aspects of the blend of Chinese culture and Western forms, not to mention leadership styles, found in Singapore. We must deal with the theological aspirations of people as they are if we really are to do Asian theology.

Malaysian theology in different periods of Malaysian Church History.

This exercise needs to be done not only for the Christians, but for all the groups in Malaysia at any given point in history.

Before 1511

There were Christians among traders in Melaka before the Portuguese and possibly in an earlier trading community which existed for a time well before the Melaka Sultanate. There was no interest in evangelism, rather an attitude of respect and live and let live. Christianity was seen as the religion of a particular foreign community and the boundaries of the community were the boundaries of the faith. It was a lay phenomenon with priests and a more firmly Christian environment a long way away.

Under the Portuguese 1511 to 1641

This was a period when Christianity was bound up with the political power and weakness of the Portuguese and where opponents of church and opponents of the faith were seen to be the same. As the 16th century developed the effects of Counter-Reformation Catholicism were felt even half-way round the globe. Catholicism became stricter and more narrowly defined, but also more energetic. What Catholics believe was now set forth by the Decrees of the Council of Trent. In India and China it more seriously faced coming to terms with people of other cultures and religions. This raised theological questions which were unresolved. Francis Xavier was attracted by the Japanese and by China; locally prayer was about dealing with the hazards of life away from a supporting Christian culture, particularly recurrent crises as people went off to local battles perhaps not to return. Faith was about survival under siege and in the face of suffering generally. Malaya did not have a Roberto de Nobili, Matteo Ricci or Alexander de la Rhodes.

Melaka under the Dutch 1641 to 1795

The official religious leadership changed from Catholic to Protestant, and there was even less concern for Christian outreach outside the community itself. At a popular level the Catholics are able to keep their form of the faith in the face of Dutch repression. Yet for both beliefs are static, Christianity was a given and religion something identified with and bounded by particular communities.

Malaya under British influence 1786 to 1941

Early in this period the Protestant churches of the West changed their perception of the will of God for the Church and begin to think in terms of missionary outreach to those who were not Christian - in other words a new theology of mission brought about by changing political circumstances as well as by theological reflection. This did not mean this was the theology carried by every Christian, clerical or lay, who came to the area, but it was found among some and a growing number. There was a loosening up of Calvinism and of the complacency which could easily use predestination as an excuse for inaction. From the 1830s many Anglicans became less willing to co-operate with other Christians because of the theology of the church formulated by the Tractarian movement.

These new theologies also had to come to terms with the knowledge of God some began to see as existing within other religions. This experience was the seed-bed of a theology of religions and of cultures, but it was early days, the thinking was not settled and many different possibilities were tried out. The way in which China `opened' to missions after the Opium wars of 1839-42 provoked thinking about Providence; the existence of different churches in the mission field provoked thinking about co-operation.

The theological understanding and agenda of the missionaries was thus modified by their experience of other cultures, religions and Christian denominations. These were Asian, African and Pacific concerns, not just specifically Malaysian. Some missionaries were more sensitive and thoughtful, others were less. William Milne in Malacca realised the problems of relating to Malay and Chinese cultures, but some others were not so open. The editorials of William Shellabear who was also fairly sensitive and others who wrote in the Malaysia Message from 1885 would be an important source of how the theology of the missionaries was changed by their being here.

Japanese time

For expatriate church leaders imprisoned by the Japanese this raised questions of the need for co-operation and localisation of leadership. This resulted in the decisions to found Trinity Theological College Singapore and the Malayan Christian Council after the War (even though a decision to found the Council was in fact made before the fall of Singapore).

We still need to find out more about what Malaysian Christians who took over leadership of the churches thought at the time. Along with others their confidence in the invincibility of the British was broken, and they must have become more aware of Christianity as a faith which was independent of the British, something which was both truly universal and genuinely local (both go together). However this awareness had to develop further before a truly local theology was possible. We need to remember nobody much was thinking about local theologies at this time; the model was still that of universal truths applicable everywhere with limited changes in local dress.

After World War II.

Theology was still seen as essentially given to be believed. Theological thought is about dealing with problems inherited from the west such denominational differences and the possibilities of church union. Western theological thought was also dominated by the blow to Western confidence after two world-wars where the principal protaganists had been Christian. Barth and Brunner reigned supreme. Those who talked of Bultmann met with blank stares, though his existentialism was closer to much Evangelical piety than either recognized.

The structures of the church were also seen as given from elsewhere, things to be followed whether or not they were appropriate. Some of those lax with regard to theological innovation were anything but when it came to departure from American and British authority structures and committee systems. D T Niles and Raja B Manikam were influenced by Barth and worked within Methodist and Lutheran structures, but were very much aware that looking to the future the East Asian Christian Council could not and should not be the voice of the WCC in SEA, but needed to be a Council of local churches. Niles was accused of being inappropriately slavish in his acceptance of Barth, but his hymns are a reflection of Asian concerns not just language and a considerable legacy to the world church.

With the Emergency in Malaya, the agenda of the churches under expatriate leadership related not only to the pastoral needs of people in a war situation, but also the evangelistic and social opportunities and obligations which resulted from the formation of the New Villages and the openness of the government to having expatriate workers among the Chinese at least. Co-operation in mission led to ecumenism, but both the problems and the solutions did not seem to have local roots. Leaders in Syrian Orthodox churches might discuss with real passion theological battles a millenium and more ago, most were concerned with practical and ethnic issues near at hand. We need to know more how or whether these were seen in theological terms.

From the 1950s the agenda for the churches moved to that of independence and greater efforts for transfer to local leadership. Again it is difficult to think how much these issues had a primarily theological base since their origin lay so obviously in the political changes which culminated in Independence for Malaya and Singapore. More recently again politics has shaped ecumenism by encouraging the formation of the Christian Federation of Malaysia.

Many of the theological issues that were and are discussed were imported from a world theological agenda. This is not necessarily bad, but it does indicate it is not just somebody else's theology which may arise in this way. These concerns included women's issues, environmental concerns, racisim, techniques of evangelism, and charismatic gifts, though not peace issues strong elsewhere.

Perhaps there is a capacity to resist modern forms of theological imperialism though it is something Christians ought to think about more. The rights and wrongs of migration have led to some local theological reflection and the "multi" context has been a seed-bed of neigbourology. The Christian social service agency, Malaysian CARE has a unique concept of spiritually based community social concern and social work. National planning for "2020" has invited and received Christian reflection.

In much of this it is notable that patterns of leadership seem to arise out the culture and received tradition more than out of Scripture. Much of prayer and worship is a rather unreflective contextualisation and the theology behind it is relatively unexamined. Resistance to the idea of contextualisation, as elsewhere, is often a form of contextualisation that simply goes unrecognized and uncontrolled.

The agenda for Malaysian theology today. Some suggestions:

1. Some issues discussed under Asian theology have something to say to Malaysia. Some will some will not, Asia is a big place. Some issues from other "Third World" situations will apply and again some will not. The fundamental difference between Asia and Latin America is that while both are religious environments (compared with the West which is one reason why Western preoccupation with the existence of God is largely though not totally irrelevant), and both have endemic poverty alongside considerable affluence, one context is that of widespread nominal Catholicism, the other is that of other world religions - Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism. Even the Philippines which has superficially the closest historical and religious parallels to Latin America must recontextualize the Latin American contextual theology - Liberation Theology, before it is properly applicable locally.

2. Do not be in a hurry. Be prepared to do work on methodology - there must be critical thinking on the how not just the what of theology.

3. Malaysian Christians have to take seriously the theological concerns of the different components of the total Christian community in Malaysia. It is not just Malaysian Chinese, not just Malaysian English and Bahasa educated Chinese, not just Eurasian, not just Indian - it is all these things in some sort of balance. This is one of the distinctive things of Malaysian Christianity and it must be reflected in sensitivity to one another and in theology.

4. The religious and political context will continue to set some important items on the theological agenda, but it should not set all items on the agenda.

5. The writing of a systematic local Christian theology is a large task which requires careful and systematic planning.

6. Malaysian theology and spirituality need to be worked out in non-systematic forms as well, short stories, novels, poetry, art and architecture. The value of this to the Christian community cannot be overemphasized. Asia Beacon has an important role, so has the opportunity of the building of new worship facilities during times of relative affluence.