One of the big surprises of the 20th century was the dramatic growth of the churches in the non-western world. A bigger surprise was that, as Philip Jenkins asserts, those churches growing fastest are all strongly supernaturally oriented. ’In this thought world, prophecy is an everyday reality, while faith-healing, exorcism, and dream-visions are all basic components of religious sensibility.’ This is true of African Initiated Churches, Latin American Pentecostalism, house churches in China and India, plus numerous others.
I too grew up in a thought world wherein ancestral spirits, demonic powers, ’gods’ and miracles of all kinds abound. Modern education, the most powerful of secularization forces, almost succeeded in getting me to toss out everything as mere superstition. Some clearly are, but not all. Careful reading of the Bible and the sheer weight of empirical evidence eventually forced me back to a supernatural Christianity. But in this I found myself out of sync with much of western theology. Here at least liberals were consistent, but not evangelicals. The liberals denied the supernatural both in the Bible and the present; evangelicals fought tooth and nail to defend the miraculous in the Bible but rarely could cope with it in real life!
Increasingly it is now recognized that much of the western mind has been domesticated by modernity, with its roots in Enlightenment thought. The autonomous rationalism initiated by Descartes and a narrow empiricism pioneered by Hume have so emasculated the modern worldview that what is left is merely a mechanistic universe. The resultant denial of the supernatural crippled much of theology, leading to at least two serious consequences.
First, most present-day western systematic and pastoral theologies fail to address the realm of the demonic, at both the personal and cosmic levels. Many scholars simply deny or ignore the whole subject, explaining away numerous related biblical passages. Paul’s references to ’principalities and powers’ are reduced to mere sociological structures; sin and evil are discussed without reference to the demonic. Such theologies may sit well with modernity, but provide little or no help for evangelists and pastors ministering to people who are demonized or under spiritual bondage of various kinds. Without these issues being properly addressed, many in the non-western world will find the gospel impotent and irrelevant.
The other consequence is that western Christianity often fails to fit the ’signs and wonders’ of the Holy Spirit into its theological framework. Until recently, classical Pentecostalism has tended to be treated as some form of aberrant religion. The same attitude was taken toward the various versions of non-western indigenous Christianity that also took the New Testament teaching on spiritual gifts and the miraculous seriously. But today, with Pentecostalism and the charismatic movement increasingly accepted in the west, and most of the dynamic non-western churches taking the miraculous seriously, it increasingly looks as if, by New Testament standards, the real aberration is ’mainline’ western Christianity!
A 21st century Reformation will demand that the supernatural be reinserted back into the heart of Christianity. The result will be not only a sounder biblical theology but a more powerful missional church. The world will then understand what Jesus meant when he said, ’But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you!’ (Mat 12:28)
Hwa Yung is a bishop of the Methodist church of Malaysia, and a member of the management team for Cape Town 2010. He wrote Mangoes or Bananas—The Quest for an Authentic Asian Christian Theology.
This article was a part of a special series called ‘The Global Conversation’ jointly published by Christianity Today International and the Lausanne Movement in the months leading up to Cape Town 2010: The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization to help prepare the global church for the issues to be addressed at the Congress. Each lead article had several commissioned responses, and was published by dozens of publications around the world. (View all Articles)