An Academic Interaction with Dr. Bruce J. Nicholls

Posted: May 16, 2012 in General

[Dr. Bruce J. Nicholls, who hailed from New Zealand, had served Union Biblical Seminary as Professor of New Testament as well as its Principal. At present, he serves as the Senior Advisor for Asia Theological Association (ATA). He is also serving as the Convenor of the forthcoming ATA Consultation on Scripture (that will be held in Malaysia from 18-22 June). I personally had a short theological interaction with Dr. Bruce while he visited UBS the last time. Then we mutually agreed to set up a question-and-answer interaction via internet. The following questions and Dr. Bruce’s responses are the final outcome of that internet interaction.]

Read the interaction here…

Question: Dr. Bruce Nicholls, I see that you are enthusiastic in the field of research and publication with special emphasis on contextual theology in Asia. Can you share some of your biblical and theological challenges in the Asian context?

I find the academic faculty in our seminaries have great difficulty in relating their knowledge to the needs of the churches. Their Ph.D studies have given them a mind set of being only able to write for  academia, which of course is necessary, but not enough. I have great difficulty with the writers of the Asia  Bible Commentary series which I am editing, in not being able to write with clarity and simplicity, as John Stott has done in his commentaries. Our writers want to display their knowledge with copious footnotes  many of which are meaningless to our church leaders and readers.

Then we face the challenge of the tension between the globalization of the Gospel and its localization, the universal and the contextual. Evangelicals  believe they stand in the stream of the historic orthodox Faith, which begins in the story of the church from the NT days, to  the saints of the medieval period, to  the Reformers,the Great Awakeing and is now expressed in the exploding churches of the developing world, including Asia. We love the Scriptures and in the power of the Holy Spirit under Christ we seek to put ourselves under their authority. God’s acts in history carry universal authority and meaning. They culminate in God’s supreme act in Jesus Christ, his incarnation, death on the cross, his bodily resurrection and ascension. These facts are non-negociable. and universal to believers in every culture. 

All theology is contextualized whether realized or not. To be meaningful, the Gospel must be incarnate in mind and heart, in every culture and in every religous experience. While we may believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God our theological students grapple with the reality that its sourse is both divine and human. In the hands of a good teacher this can lead from doubt to certainity and inspire confidence. Every Asian culture is a synthesis of  one or more world views, ethical  and spiritual values, a plurality of social constructs and openly expressed  in local customs and lifestyles. Our theological task is to interpret the giveness  of the Word in our own culture and then to  be able to interpret it into the cultures of others. This is a dialogical process in which we either succeed or fail. The Lausanne Covenant expressed  it this way “Because man is God’s creature, some of his culture is rich in beauty and goodness. Because he has fallen, all of it is tainted with sin and some of it is demonic. The Gospel, does not presuppose the superiority of any culture to another, but evaluates all cultures according to its own criteria of truth and righteousness, and insists on moral absolutes in every culture”. Our task is to unpack and apply these truths in evey context we face. Only a Spirit guided person will accomplish this task.

Another issue in our theological task is to define the boundaries between true contextualization and false syncretism. Paul faced this in guiding the church in Corinth, whose culture has many parallels in Asia today. What we believe determines how we live as individuals, as  families and in the wider society. Defining the boundary between contextualization and syncretisim  can be very difficult and we need a tolerant and compassinate heart in dealing with others. Our ethnic heritage, our church allegiance, our  gender, our national history and all these play a part in the shaping of our understanding of the Bible and our theological interpretation of it. Good hermeneutical methods will enabled us to merge the horizons of our own cultures with the horizon of Scripture. This  is to have the mind of Christ.

Western theological thought is deeply influenced by the Enlightment with its emphasis on analysis, rational coherence, individualism and science. Sadly, much of our teaching in theological schools reflects this methdology. Across Asia the search is for synthesis and harmony, intuition and the mystical, the reality of demonic evil, and for personal identity in the community or family to which we belong. It is significant that the spirit of  postmodernity begins to merge with eastern spiritualty. This challenge gives us new opportunities but also  new dangers. At the same time the spirit world of tribal animism pervades  every developed religion of Asia including Islam. The spirit of agnostism and atheism is common to every religion , even Judaism, where it has been stated that 40% of the people of the state of Israel are atheists.

Question: As you are a scholar from the Western context and serves in different capacities in the East, how you bridge the Eastern and the Western in Biblical scholarship? Whether we need to interpret the scripture globally or locally? Share your views with us.

All Asian cultures are based on the ideology of honour-shame in all human relationships, while Western Christianity emphasises glory-sin and guilt and gives little attentioin to the role of honour and shame. Feeling on this issue is very deep in Asia, especially in  Islam, where a convert from Islam has so dishonoured his family and the whole community, he is worthy of “honour-killing”. The apostacy and blasphemy laws of Pakistasn and now in  several Middle Eastern countries reflect the depth of feeling of these  communities. Scripture is the bridge between these two ideologies, as it emphasises  both, especially in the Old Testament. It is significant that  while most Bible dictionaries  in the West have exstensive articles on sin and guilt, but little if any, on honour and shame. In our theology of mission both concepts are important. Western scholarship is very analectical. A student studies the Bible in small sections usually by different professors. In the end he has little comprehesion of the unity of the Bible. The same is true in the study of theology. By contrast Islam is a totally intergrated faith based on the Qur’an and the Hadith, where rules for every detail of living are given. There is no sharp distinction between religion and politics. Ideally the mosque and the state are one. Perhaps one of the greatest  needs of contemporary Asian Christianity is the integration of biblical  and theological understanding and of the harmony of the  sacred and the secular in daily living. Dr. Ken Gnanakan of Bangalore is  a strong advocate for integrated learning and knowledge.

Question: I think that Integrated learning and knowledge is a good area to be explored further. Can you name out a few scholars/experts who influenced you the most during your academic pursuit?

In biblical studies, Howard Marshall late of Aberdeen; in biblical exposition, John Stott; in reformed theology,nEarnest Kevan, the first principal of the London College of Theology, formerly LBC; in Christianity and other faiths, Professor J. N. D. Anderson of London; of missions, Professor Peter Beyerhaus of Tuebingen; of apologetics,  Vishal Mangalwadi formerly of New Delhi; of churchmanship Bishop Azariah of CSI, South India; of Asian cultures, Lesslie Newbigin and of environmental studies  R. J. Berry of London.

Question: I am happy to hear about your monograph, “Is there Hope for Planet Earth?An Ethical Respose to Climate Change”. May you give a glimpse about this subject-matter?

To observe and enjoy all of creation is a call to wonder at the awesome beauty and harmony of the universe and of our world. God created it good, he loves it and he will redeem it. The tragedy of the disruption of this harmony is the consequence of human greed and the arrogancy of wanting to be equal to God. The human race is abusing it and progressively destroying it. The cause is human greed. We are polluting planet earth, the land, the air and the sea. Global warming and climate change are the consequences. Despite the advances of science and technology and global consultations such as the Earth Summit at Rio de Janiero 1992 , the Kyoto Protocol and the Copenhagen Summit of 2009, the human race seems powerless  to save and sustain it. Our only hope is in God himself.  The church’s impact has been muted by those who on the basis of one interpretation of II Peter 3.10, believe the earth is soon to be burnt up and destroyed, and therefore any attempt to sustain creation is of no avail. However, the Bible as a whole points to God’s plan to redeem his creation. The prophet Isaiah caught the vision  of God creating new heavens and a new earth. The closing chapters of the Book of Revelation confirm this. The New Jerusalem is coming to earth. The resurrection of the transformed body of Jesus points to the redemption of all of creation. Perhaps this earth will be our new heaven.

Interviewed by Johnson Thomaskutty, Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India

  1. […] (8) An Academic Interaction with Dr. Bruce J. Nicholls […]

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