Sola Scriptura in Asia

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Yongbom Lee, Andrew R. Talbert
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Pickwick Publications
    , November
     266 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


When one hears about past celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, does one think of Asia? When one hears the phrase sola scriptura (by scripture alone), do thoughts of Indonesia instantly arise? Probably not. However, the book Sola Scriptura in Asia should move one to think more along those lines, and about the Reformation’s influence in the world.

Edited by Yongbom Lee and Andrew R. Talbert, Sola Scriptura in Asia is the result of an international conference of the same title, held in May 2017 at the Universitas Pelita Harapan (UPH - University of Light and Hope), a Christian university near Jakarta, Indonesia. The conference featured scholars from Indonesia, South Korea, Australia, Europe, and the United States, illustrating the Reformation’s worldwide influence.

The desire of the conference and the book was to “dialogue with Reformational principles” and to explore “the impact of the Reformation in Asia” along with the effect of Asian influences “on Protestant-shaped practices and modes of thinking 500 years” after the Reformation (xiii). For the book, six additional essays were added to those presented at the conference. This conference and book happened in an historical context which began in 1612, the year that the “first Protestant Church service” was held in Indonesia (xiii). Lutherans in Indonesia now number over six million.

The title reflects the book’s study of Reformation-shaped practices and modes of thinking and not a narrrow focus on the concept of sola scriptura. This volume contains an “eclectic” set of essays and is divided into four parts with essays in (1) biblical theology, (2) historical theology and philosophy, (3) Christian worldview, and (4) Christian higher education. Several essays in the book will be highlighted to examine whether the editors achieved their purposes listed above.

The Asian/Indonesian context of these essays is stated to have been influenced by postmodern relativity, a result of globalization. This postmodern influence has led to a separation of faith and reason. A move to a pre-Reformation view of Scripture is encouraged by one essayist to deal with this situation.

The Laotian bacci ritual was designed to help people prepare for changes happening in their lives, or to return a person’s life “to an ordered state” (20) of greater spiritual calm. Those being helped have someone read prayers to them, calling good spirits back into the person. Others bless those being helped by stroking their arm and imploring evil to leave that person. After the bad spirits have left, string would be tied to the person’s wrist to keep the good spirits in, enabling greater holiness of life, a gift given by the words and prayers of others.

This ritual influenced Jeffrey Spanogle to examine the concept of holiness in much of Pentecostalism. He proposed a concept of Christian holiness that is tied to “theosis or deification” (26). This leads to understanding holiness as “union” with God by means of God’s  covenant, participation in “rituals and festivals,” and adoption like the “election and redemption of Israel” (27). For Spanogle holiness is not something to be achieved by human deeds, but something which exists because of God’s adoption. God has acted. So to speak, God has spoken, stroked the arm, removed evil, and tied the string to make the person holier. This understanding of holiness moves away from a concept of holiness that is moralistic and legalistic. Instead holiness is viewed in a more Reformation way, with an emphasis on God’s promises tied to God’s gracious adoption of the believer which enables the believer to live a holier life.

Sola Scriptura also contains essays applying Reformation themes to Asian life. One essay contrasts the Reformation’s God-centered view of conscience based on the doctrine of justification, with the “heteronomous“ view of Indonesian society which sees one‘s conscience based on harmonious social collectivity and societal conformity (104). Indonesians are encouraged to consider that their view of conscience would benefit from Luther’s God-centered perspective. In another essay the theology of the cross is applied to the opposition and persecution faced by the Chinese House Church movement (CHC) in Wenzhou China. The theology of the cross also has application to other state/church issues in Asia.

An essay on Calvin’s doctrine of election by an Asian theologian, Jessica Novia Layantara, sets forth the idea that Calvin’s election doctrine has a “unique point of engagement” in interfaith dialogue with Asian theologies and philosophies like Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism and their ideas about “fate and destiny” (138). 

The conference and the book’s was met by the essays in the book. Of the 13 essays in the volume, only one did not directly apply Reformation-based principles or theology to an Asian context, or examine Reformation principles in the light of an Asian perspective.

Biblical concepts of servant leadership, the image of God, and justification are offered to influence South Korean church life and national culture. An Asian view of Scripture interpretation is set forth to help Asian Christians respect the scriptural text and to make readers aware of the “reality of the supernatural” in opposition to a more modern Western view (40). The essay on “Human Rights in Islam and Christianity” (139-161),applies the concept of the image of God to all lives and has broader application to all countries, like Indonesia, that are wrestling with the rights of religious citizens (Muslims, Christians, and others). Reformation influences in Christian education are offered as an aid to a sound liberal arts education in Asia, and to provide students with a Christian worldview.

As the editors noted, the essays in Sola Scriptura are examples of the “collective, powerful, ongoing impact” (xvi) of the Reformation in Asia where the majority of the world’s population lives. The essays also illustrate Asian influence on Reformation principles, the Reformation’s shaping of Asian “hermeneutical principles,” and the Reformations’ influence on Asian culture.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Armand J. Boehme is Associate Pastor, Trinity Lutheran Church, Northfield, Minnesota.

Date of Review: 
June 30, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Yongbom Lee is Adjunct Professor at Fuller Theological Seminary and Bethesda University of California.

Andrew R. Talbert is Lecturer in Theology at Universitas Pelita Harapan.


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