A Dictionary of Asian Christianity

By Scott W. Sunquist, ed., and David Wu Chu Sing and John Chew Hiang Chea, associate eds.
Grand Rapids : Eerdmans (2002). xliii + 937 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Dennis Swanson
13.2 (Fall 2002) : 296-297

 One does not have to work long in biblical and theological reference before questions related to Christianity in Asia or the Pacific Rim bring frustration. Only a few resources existed in non-English sources and virtually nothing in English. The frustration was even evident in Asian Bible schools and seminaries where, the editors noted, “The Asian story was available, but it was difficult for our students to find. As a result we all inadvertently reinforced the notion that Christianity was a Western imposition on Asia even though we knew this was really not the case” (xxi). Over a period of about 15 years, this present work was conceived and put together by the editors, and the result is an excellent source of information on the history of Christianity in the Asian world.

As with most reference works from Eerdmans, this volume is a model of what a reference work should be. It has a thorough indexing of article entries (over 1,200) and contributors (nearly 500). The articles are generally several paragraphs, with many reaching essay length (e.g., World War II, Korean War, entries for individual countries). It includes useful bibliographies for all of the entries and an extended preface detailing some of the unique features and challenges of the project. One feature is the articles dealing with Christianity in China. As the editors note, “[T]he sensitive nature of the material from China meant that the writers should work as a team with their articles signed only as ‘China Group’” (xxiv). T hey also detail their decision on the extent of the geographic region that the volume would cover. They acknowledge that the work does not cover all of Asia. There are, for instance, entries related to Pakistan, but none for Afghanistan. It omits the Pacific Islands, for the most part, and Russia. That decisions related to the scope of the work are “somewhat arbitrary . . . is confirmed by the way in which Asian church history is taught in most seminaries in Asia today” (xxiii). The editors also acknowledge that the spelling, especially of proper names, is occasionally problematic. Often background material is sketchy and contradictory, because the editors were also confronted with the translation into English of articles originally written in over a dozen different languages.

Many notable entries mark this work. For the reader with limited or no background in Asian Christianity, the main entries on individual countries serve as excellent introductions. Though one can understand the pressure under which the “China Group” submitted their work on China, the otherwise excellent article is very sketchy on details from the Cultural Revolution (1966) to the present and should have perhaps been supplemented with additional contributors. It is disappointing that Mao tse-Tung is not even mentioned, nor is the “Red Book” which was the formal replacement of the Bible in the Cultural Revolution and whose writings have eclipsed even Marx and Lenin with those who still embrace Communism.

There are significant entries detailing the work of all of the significant denominations in Asia. The editors are to be commended for the manner in which controversial articles (e.g., the Vietnam War and Imperialism) are handled. The articles reflect a clear, dispassionate, and factual presentation, free from the kind of political correctness and/or rhetoric that has marred some recent reference works. Significant articles include those on Buddhism (98-104), Minjung Theology (552- 55), the Nestorian Church (595-98) and Theological Education (838-42).

This is an important volume of immense usefulness for theological students, mission boards, prospective missionaries, and those who teach church history. The long history of Christianity in Asia is well represented and documented in this fine work.