Monday, May 9, 2011

Into the Impasse: The Christological Problem in the Work of Amos Yong

Yong, Amos. Beyond the Impasse: Toward a Pneumatological Theology of ReligionsGrand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.

Amos Yong comes from a Pentecostal background and has received degrees from Bethany
College (BA), Western Evangelical Seminary (MA), Portland State University (MAHistory), and Boston University (PhD). He has served as a professor at Bethel College, but is currently the J. Rodman Williams Professor of Theology and director of the PhD program at Regent University School of Divinity in Virginia Beach, Virginia.[1]

In his introduction Yong writes, “the purpose of this book is to propose and begin to explore the possibility of a pneumatological approach to Christian theology of religions.”[2] To this end, he provides the goal of his endeavor (“the what”), the rationale (“the why”), and the target audience (“the who”).[3]  Such a proposal is imperative because the exclusivist-inclusivist-pluralist categories are no longer adequate to engage the soteriological question.[4] Yong aims to attract ecumenical, Pentecostal, and evangelical audiences in his creative proposal.  In chapter two, Yong examines the biblical and missiological components of his pneumatological theology of religions. Biblically, the Holy Spirit is present and active in creation, re-creation, and the final creation of Revelation 21:1.[5] In creation, the Spirit helps to bring the world into existence; in re-creation, the Spirit is present at Pentecost in Acts 2. Finally, the presence of every tongue, tribe, and people in the new heaven and new earth is attributed to “the efficacious activity of the Spirit.”[6] Yong then answers three objections made against his approach: (1) it is sub-Christian, (2) sub-evangelical, and (3) modernist and covertly imperialistic.

In chapter three, Yong provides the “epistemic, methodological, and philosophical framework for the pneumatological approach to theology of religions”[7] through an examination of Donald Gelpi’s foundational pneumatology and C.S. Peirce’s fallibilist epistemology. Yong then concludes the chapter through application of foundational pneumatology and fallibilist epistemology to Pentecostalism. While many Pentecostals view such ideas as vain philosophy, Yong believes that the Pentecostal notion of glossolalia mandates interreligious dialogue between Pentecostals and the world religions.[8] In chapter four, Yong investigates the attempts and failures of George Khodr (Eastern Orthodox), Stanley Samartha (Protestant), and Jacques Dupuis (Roman Catholic) to create a pneumatological theology of religions.[9] While such attempts appear promising, none can escape “the Christological moment.”[10]  

In chapter five, Yong assesses and critiques the work of Clark Pinnock, author of Wideness in God’s Mercy and Flame of Love, both of which detail Pinnock’s inclusivist theology. Yong demonstrates that Pinnock’s claim of the Spirit’s presence in other religions does not assure exclusivists of the relative harmlessness of inclusivism. Why is this so? Pinnock claims that “according to the Bible, people are saved by faith, not the content of their theology,” thus confirming exclusivist fears that inclusivism leads to subjectivism.[11] One can believe in anything and still pass muster in Pinnock’s view. Yong desires to fix this problem and provide a solution of his own; thus, in chapter six, he contributes a theology of discernment. First, he reiterates and builds on his foundational pneumatology with metaphysics of both the Spirit and the demonic[12]; next, he provides a look into a biblical theology of discernment from both the Old and New Testaments.[13] Last but not least he applies the biblical theology of discernment to phenomena, charismatism, and spiritual reality. In chapter seven Yong reviews his work in chapters 1-6 and provides a look into the future of theology of religions. He optimistically notes that “the entire project is still in its infancy,”[14] leaving more work to be done by those who will follow him.

Yong’s purpose in writing his book is to argue that Christians and adherents of other faiths can go “beyond the impasse” (that is, beyond Jesus) in interreligious dialogue. In his discussion of Jesus and the Spirit, Yong seeks to “temporarily bracket” the soteriological question regarding faith in Jesus.[15] Yet and still, the distraction from soteriology is only “temporary”; at some point the world religions must also deal with Christ. Yong never addresses what he calls “the Christological moment”; rather, he distracts himself with the positive benefits of interreligious dialogue: “even a temporary bracketing of the question may open up new lines of dialogue and engagement with the religious other...”[16]  Yong brings the Christological question to light once more in chapter six, titled “Pneumatology and Evangelical Theology of Religions.” In the inclusivist-exclusivist debate, “the focus has been on the question of which approach is more faithful to Scripture.”[17]  Such a claim warrants some discussion of how inclusivism adheres to Scripture. This is the moment in the text when one desires a discussion on why evangelicals should opt for inclusivism instead of exclusivism.

Unfortunately, Yong fumbles once more. Instead of responding to the charge that inclusivism is unbiblical in its stance, Yong diverts attention: “At the same time, however, exclusivists have also raised other concerns about the inclusivist project…”[18] Yong’s quote then leads into the inclusivist inattention to discernment of  truth and error in the religions,[19] that inclusivism will never make headway with exclusivists “if inclusivists fail to test their claims.”[20] The issue, however, is not about empirical testing but about biblical faithfulness. To empirically test the world religions without providing proper scriptural warrant for inclusivism does little to aid the inclusivist cause. Yong pursues empirical data because empirical testing is his forte; he evades the Christological question because he is unable to answer it. That Yong cannot go “beyond the impasse” is manifested in the concluding paragraph of his work where he states that “it is far too early to conclude what a renewed form of Christology would look like” if one takes his pneumatological theology of religions seriously.[21] Earlier in his work he accuses Clark Pinnock of confirming exclusivist fears of fideism and subjectivism with his “no-content” faith principle; but is Amos Yong not guilty of doing the same on the Christological question? How can he expect evangelical Christians to consider his proposal if he cannot place Christ in his system? If Yong is right and Christians and non-Christians alike can go “beyond the impasse” in interreligious dialogue, then placing Christ in Yong’s pneumatological proposal should pose no conflict; but if Yong cannot place Christ in his system, what does this reveal about his pneumatological proposal? Can Christians and non-Christians really go “beyond the impasse” in their dialogue and affirm one another as “believers” in some sense? I think not. It appears that if one could hypothetically remove Christ as central to the Christian faith, Yong’s proposal would flourish. Nonetheless, Christ is truly the stumbling block for the other world religions, since one cannot get to Yahweh without faith in Jesus.[22]

Last but not least, Yong’s scriptural justification for his “pluralism” is John 3:8. He references this verse some six times in his work.[23] In one reference he asserts, “But of course, the Spirit cannot be limited to the institutional forms of the church,” and uses John 3:8 as his justification.[24]  The problem with Yong’s assertion is that he merely proof-texts without giving proper attention to the context.  While Jesus mentions the Spirit in John 3 (“being born of the Spirit”) and connects spiritual rebirth with the kingdom of God in salvation,[25] he also connects spiritual rebirth with faith in Jesus Christ. “Entering the kingdom of God” (v.3, 5) and “having eternal life” (v.15) both refer to eschatological salvation. John connects these themes not only in John 3, but also in John 7. There, Jesus states that the one who believe will have “rivers of living water” to flow out of him.[26] This reference to living water refers to the Spirit, “whom those believing in Him would receive.”[27] Only by faith in Jesus can one receive the Spirit. In the context of John, at least, Yong’s “local” Jesus and “universal” Spirit are too divorced from one another; and by so divorcing them, Yong misses John’s context completely.

The church itself does not “mediate” salvation; Christ does, for He is the only mediator between God and men.[28] If this is true, then the Spirit does not work in the world alone; Christ does as well. If Christ and the Spirit both work in the world, then Christ and the Spirit work together in salvation. This is evidenced by Jesus’ words about the Spirit in John 16: “However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority…He will glorify Me, for He will take what is Mine and declare it to you.”[29] Just as Jesus does not come on His own authority, neither does the Spirit; instead, He confirms and continues to teach all Jesus says and does--- which is why Luke writes to Theophilus regarding “all that Jesus began to do and teach”[30] and does not end Jesus’ work in Luke’s Gospel.  Jesus’ work continues when He ascends and sends the Holy Spirit to aid the body of Christ. Since Jesus and the Spirit work together, and the Spirit declares Christ, the Spirit can only lead men and women to be saved by the gospel (John 3:16). Whatever the Spirit’s work in the world, He will never save men and women apart from faith in the message of the gospel of Christ.

[1] Yong, Amos. Beyond the Impasse: Toward a Pneumatological Theology of Religions (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 29-30.

[2] Ibid., 14.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 29.

[5] Ibid., 36-42.

[6] Ibid., 40.

[7] Ibid., 81.

[8] Ibid., 75-76.

[9] Ibid., 81, 103.

[10] Ibid., 103.

[11] Ibid., 123-124.

[12] Ibid., 130-139.

[13] Ibid., 140-149.

[14] Ibid., 192.

[15] Ibid., 22.

[16] Ibid., 22.

[17] Ibid., 106.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 107.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 192.

[22] 1 Corinthians 1:22; John 14:6.

[23] Yong, 22, 55, 74, 103, 112, 192.

[24] Yong, 22.  The Spirit is not limited, but neither is Jesus. He came for the world (John 
3:16), not just for believers. Although Yong claims he is not trying to divorce Jesus and the Spirit (see Yong, 186), at the same time, he does leave open the possibility of salvation in other world religions (pg. 174).

[25] Jn. 3:5, 8, New King James Version. All verses will come from the NKJV unless otherwise stated.

[26] Jn. 7:38.

[27] Jn. 7:39.

[28] 1 Timothy 2:5.

[29] Jn. 16:13-14.

[30] Acts 1:1. 

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