Text and Context in Dialogue

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Article Review
An Introduction to Indian Christian Theology,
by Robin Boyd
Reviewed by Mark Johnson
Rev. Ed. 1975, Delhi: ISPCK and Trivandrum: Indian Theological Library. (First published 1969.)

This book is based on the author's doctoral thesis presented to Edinburgh University in 1966. The revised edition includes new material on several theologians not mentioned in the first edition. To save publishing costs the new material is not integrated into the existing work but added on as four extra chapters (14-17) after the original concluding chapters. The indexes are also not integrated. These defects make the book a bit irritating to study. Having said that, there is very good reason here to give this work close attention. The author set himself to review of a host of significant Indian Christian theologians. Foreigners that have made significant theological contributions to the Indian church are also mentioned, but the emphasis is on Indian theologians themselves. It is the thesis of the author that, though no major summa or Systematic Theology has been produced by an Indian theologian, there has developed a body of Indian theological writing that deserves serious attention. [1] And that is what Boyd attempts to do.

The Historical and Cultural Context

The author does not focus on any one stream of theology but examines the writings of Evangelicals and Liberals, Catholics and Protestants alike, as well as some references to the Syrian Orthodox tradition which is still strong in Kerala. He is at all times careful to exegete the writings of these thinkers in relation not only to contemporaneous church thinking but also to the various streams of Hindu philosophy. It is not a surprise, then, to learn that Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833) and his disciple Keshab Chandra Sen (1838-1884), in his earlier stage, were heavily influenced by British and American Unitarians as well as their own Indian monism (advaita) (p. 21). For a time Pandita Ramabai was also influenced in that direction (p. 45).

The missionary J. N. Farquhar (1861-1929), who had a great influence on Appasamy and Chenchiah, (and whose work foreshadows the later work of Raymond Panikkar) was himself heavily influenced by the evolutionary theory of human development which was at that time dominating the emerging social sciences (p. 89). P. D. Devanandan (1901-1962) was influenced by the neo-orthodoxy of Barth and Kraemer (p. 187); while Nehemiah Goreh (1825-95) was a staunch Anglo-Catholic who fully accepted the Tractarian position on the Church, Ministry and Sacraments (p. 54).

The impact of the nationalist struggle for independence in India can be seen in a number of the writers analysed. Brahmabandhab Upadhyay (1861-1907) was one who was desperate, and indeed went to great lengths, to show his fellow countrymen that he was a swadeshi (see accompanying article). Many of these thinkers were active at a time when the Church in India was consumed by the movement for structural unity and the formation of the ecumenical mega-denominations such as the Church of South India. Men like P. Chenchiah and Vengal Chakkarai (1880-1958) could not get on with this emphasis as they felt that the greater need was Indianisation (p. 88).

Theological Exploration

One of the great struggles many of these theologians poured their efforts into has been that of the understanding of the nature of God and of words that we can use for God. In Vedantic philosophy only Brahman really exists, and Brahman is ultimately without attributes (nirguna). Saguna Brahman (Brahman with attributes) does not really exist. Hence the creator God, the personal Ishvara (which Christians have long adopted in the form Parameshvara or Parmeshwar) is not the ultimate. Goreh attempted to refute this doctrine with rational arguments (p. 48). Others, like Sen and Upadhyay, made use of the advaita description of Brahman as Sat-Cit-Ananda (being-intelligence-bliss) and built a Trinitarian theology on it without rejecting the concept of Brahman (pp. 28, 34, 69-74, 233-7).

The personalist stream of Hinduism, especially that of the Vaishnava tradition, propounds that God, Ishvara, comes down to earth from time to time as an avatara. Such avataras as Krishna and Rama are the focus of much devotion to the present day. Boyd discusses the issue of whether Christians can appropriately use the term avatara as a synonym for incarnation (p. 81). The Indian theologians under scrutiny here have been divided. Those coming from a more advaitin background, such as Sen and Upadhyay (and going back as far as de Nobili) reject the use of the term as coming from a faulty understanding of God himself. Those influenced more by the bhakti tradition, however, such as Narayan Vaman Tilak (1862-1919), Vengal Chakkarai, Sunder Singh (1889-1929), and A. J. Appasamy have had no such qualms (pp. 108, 115, 127, 170, 252).[2] Boyd himself recommends we accept the use of the term avatara, provided it is used with safeguards. One such, he suggests, would be to use the form purna avatara, and to explain that Christ comes once and once only to save the world, not merely from a single disaster but from the guilt and power of sin (p. 240).

How do we explain the Biblical concept of sin to a Hindu who is more aware of his karma than sin? Here again, the influence of the bhakti tradition, which has produced some moving confessions of sin, is expressed in the writings of such as Appasamy (p. 131) and Sunder Singh (p. 245). The doctrine that we reap what we sow is, of course, a Biblical one (Job 4:8; Gal 6:7-8). Sunder Singh, then, interprets karma to mean automatic retribution for sins' God sends no one to hell, but our sins, by a process of karma, can take us there unless we turn to Christ in repentance and self-surrender. But this leaves the reviewer uncomfortable, which leads to me to the way that the various thinkers have dealt with the cross of Christ.

The New Testament interprets the death of Christ in terms that come directly out of the Hebrew sacrificial tradition and the Roman justice system. Indian theologians, however, steeped as they have been in Vedanta and bhakti, have tended to go light on such concepts as atonement and propitiation. So for Sen, the Cross is regarded as a beautiful emblem of self-sacrifice (p. 246). The doctrine of penal substitution is not found, says Boyd. Indian theologians have found it difficult to accept. Such suffering seems to contradict the idea of justice implicit in karma, where everyone must suffer for his own sins. That is surely one of the greatest stumbling blocks for Hindus as they are presented with the claims of Christ. It simply does not sound right. Chakkarai accepts that something more than moral influence has happened but cannot accept vicarious suffering (p. 177). It seems to this reviewer that this is an area in which more work needs to be done. We must find words, concepts that communicate the fact of the atonement in such a way that people can understand the full Biblical doctrine without feeling that God must be unjust. Is it enough to say that Christ has died for our sins? Is the listener able to grasp how Christ's death and our sin can have any connection? Here in Nepal the tradition of animal sacrifice is still alive and vital, though it has died out in much of India. Can we use this tradition more effectively to introduce this fundamental concept to our neighbours and friends?

A number of Indian theologians point out that there are certain ideas in orthodox Hinduism which are not found in rationalism and which serve as a preparation for the gospel (praeparatio evangelii) (p. 54). The readiness to accept the possibility of the miraculous and even the incarnation are pointed out by the author in his discussion of Goreh (p. 55). In the Hindu world we are very often tempted to think that we have a harder task than many of our brothers and sisters in other contexts. This is a reminder to us to give thanks to God that we are witnessing in such an environment and to appreciate all that is good.

Approach to Hinduism

The theologians surveyed have approached Hinduism in various ways. Upadhyay conceptualized Hindu culture and religion as distinct and so advocated that one could be a Hindu Catholic (p. 68). He made a sharp distinction between what we might call social religion and soteriological religion, which he called samaj dharma and sadhan dharma respectively. Devanandan also inclined to the view that it is possible, though difficult, to distinguish between cultural and religious Hinduism (p. 204). It was his impression, it seems, that Hindu society was becoming increasingly secular and that all that might be left is Hindu culture. The role of Christian mission, then, he asserted, should be permeate society and provide a new religious basis to replace the traditional one that is fast eroding.

The relationship of the believer to the church has clearly been a vexed issue for many Christian thinkers in India. Chenchiah had an almost totally negative attitude toward the organised Church, which he regarded as a purely human institution (p. 160). Manilal Parekh (1885-1967) remained apart from the church for most of his life (p. 161, 265ff.). Clearly the problem for these men, as it has been for a great many Hindus, has been the foreignness of the church and the social and cultural tension that membership brings about.

The influence of Christian missionaries crops up again and again throughout the book. Not every missionary made a positive impact on India's Christian thinkers. But there were the individuals whose simplicity of life, clarity of Christian conviction, and ability to humbly point the way to Christ led one and another to the Lord. One such was the CMS missionary William Smith, whose street preaching was instrumental in the salvation of Nehemiah Goreh and, through him, Pandita Ramabai (pp. 40, 44). William Miller of Madras deeply influenced both Chenchiah and Chakkarai (p. 165).

As an introduction to the thought of these men and women, this volume is well worth careful study. If you do not find it in your bookshop ask the shopkeeper why he has dozens of theological books by Westerners and so little by Asians? It should still be in print as the revised edition has been reprinted at least four times. Inspect your copy before you leave the shop, my copy is missing pages 139-54. When will such a book on Nepali theologians be written? This reviewer hopes that such books as Boyd's will stimulate creative thinking this side of the border every bit as much as that side.


  1. This reviewer is not aware of any such subsequent systematic work.
  2. See also A Brahmin's Pilgrimage in Christ: Lessons from N.V. Tilak
    by H.L. Richard, VOB Vol. 2, No. 3, August 2003, p. 12-17

A honey bee goes to a flower to gather honey. While engaged in this delightful task, it is sometimes stung by a spider. This sting makes it numb, and the bee falls and easy prey for the spider. Likewise, Satan may attack us not only in evil places, but also while we are engaged in doing good, useful and pleasant work. If we are not prayerful, there is a danger of our being attacked and overwhelmed by Satan.

Sunder Singh, Reality and Religion

bhakti. bhakti, nom. devotion, love, loyalty