Beyond the Impasse: Toward a Pneumatological Theology of Religions

Amos Yong Baker Academic, Grand Rapids March 1, 2003
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Yong, a Pentecostal professor of theology at Bethel College, proposes a “pneumatological approach” to the theology of religions, with implications regarding the question of salvation outside the church. He seeks to establish a pneumatology that opens up the possibility for mutual discussion and learning among the world religions. In so doing, Yong addresses both ontological and epistemological questions. Ontological concerns deal especially with final truth and the Trinitarian structure of reality revealed particularly in Jesus Christ and witnessed universally by the Holy Spirit. Epistemological questions are directed to how ultimate reality is known and expressed in the non-Christian religions of the world. Revisiting the debate between exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism, the author contends that his pneumatological theology of religions transcends all these categories. The book “spirals toward its goal from biblical and missiological (chapter 2), philosophical (chapter 3), theological (chapters 4 and 5), and practical (chapter 6) perspectives” (p. 33). A final chapter serves as “transitional,” invoking further development of a Spirit-theology of religion.

Yong’s case is built on three axioms: (1) “God is universally present and active in the Spirit” (p. 44). (2) “God’s Spirit is the life-breath of the imago Dei in every human being and the presupposition of all human relationships and communities” (p. 45). (3) “The religions of the world, like everything else that exists, are providentially sustained by the Spirit of God for divine purposes” (p. 46). Surveying Orthodox, Protestant, Catholic, and evangelical theologies of religion, Yong asks what he deems the primary question: On what grounds are religions to be evaluated? And from a Christian vantage, “How is the Holy Spirit to be distinguished from other spirits in the religions?” (p. 163). Yong suggests that religions are discerned both by objective, empirical investigation and by subjective, personal experience. On one hand criteria for objective discernment of God’s presence in other religions include aspects of truth, goodness, beauty, and holiness. In other words do other religions reflect what God would do in contexts and language quite different from that of Western Christianity? On the other hand Yong also values pneumatological intuition, that is, the charismatic discernment of the presence of the Spirit or its absence (the demonic) in non-Christian religions. Admitting the complexity of the task, the author urges increased dialogue and interaction between Christians and adherents of other religions in order to discern in what sense the Spirit of God is at work within them. Yong asks, if Western Christian faith has been shaped by dialogue with Plato, Aristotle, and Kant, then could Christian faith appear in dialogue with Buddha, Lao-Tzu, and Dogen?

Carefully researched, Beyond the Impasse offers sophisticated interaction and critique of leading religious theoreticians, including Paul Knitter, George Khodr, Jacques Dupuis, Donald Gelpi, Stanley Samartha, and Clark Pinnock. Yong correctly asserts that Western Christians are often not attentive to biblical truth and the Spirit’s activity expressed in different cultural and religious contexts. Although the attempt might be suspect, the author likewise seeks to define universal ethical standards in religiously neutral, empirical categories so that other religions come to the table as partners in openhanded dialogue. Yong brings a Pentecostal contribution to the theology of religion that, apart from Pinnock’s recent writings, has received little attention among evangelicals.

Certain premises, however, may leave readers uneasy. Yong’s pneumatological emphasis is reminiscent of the debates in the 1950s in the World Council of Churches when some argued that Christology divides but pneumatology unites. Although the author argues that his is a robustly Trinitarian theology that gives proper place to the work of the Holy Spirit (he rejects the filioque), he struggles with the relationship of a universal witness of the Spirit in relation to Jesus Christ (pp. 167–70). Yong’s central axiom that “God’s Spirit is the life-breath of the imago dei in every human being” (p. 46) does not define adequately what it means for every person to have the Spirit; the distinction between a non-Christian having the Spirit and a Christian being born again is certainly not clear. Nor are issues of human sinfulness, depravity, and election meaningfully addressed. Therefore, although Yong avers that his pneumatological approach avoids the exclusivist, inclusivist, and pluralist paradigms, the work does not escape an inclusivist perspective.

One of the Pentecostal aspects of the work that identifies Yong as more than merely a generous Arminian is his division of the world religions as either reflecting the presence of the Spirit or of the demonic. There is little middle ground. Among the classical categories of the world, the flesh, and the devil, the first two receive little attention—even though Yong’s term “demonic” is defined in broad categories. Interestingly his dialogical approach toward other religions conflicts significantly with classical Pentecostalism’s aggressive exclusivist preaching that only faith in Jesus saves.

Yong’s book consists of papers and articles presented in rather diverse settings—from a graduate seminar at Boston University to a paper at the Society for Pentecostal Studies at Evangel University (Springfield, MO). One suspects that the book may attempt too much. Commendably Yong seeks to hold together an evangelical soteriology with a broadly ecumenical, pneumatological approach to religions. But these reviewers suspect he has not accomplished this goal.

—Jay A. Womack with J. Scott Horrell

October 1, 2005
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Oct-Dec 2005 vol. 162 no. 4 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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