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  • A Mahāyāna Reading of Chalcedon Christology:A Chinese Response to John Keenan
  • Pan-chiu Lai


The Christological formula of Chalcedon, especially its use of the substantialist concepts such as ousia, hypostatsis, and so on, has long been a target of criticism in the history of Western Christian theology.1 Recently, Kwok Pui-lan, an Asian feminist theologian, has queried not only the language or way of thinking of traditional Western Christology, but also its anthropocentric tendency. According to Kwok, "the majority of Asian people find it difficult to accept a savior in human form because of their cosmological sensibility."2 Kwok also thinks that the Chalcedonian expressions such as "fully God and fully man" or "two natures in one substance" are quite beyondthe understanding of the majority of the Asian people. The lengthy debate on the difference between homoousia and homoiousia is also irrelevant to the average Chinese, because there are no immediate Chinese equivalents to the terms such as "being" or "essence." According to Kwok, Buddhism, in contrast, characterizes the world as transient and impermanent without using the philosophical language such as "being" and "nonbeing."3 Kwok further notes that "The Buddhist tradition asserts that there is not one Buddha, but many Buddhas, and that everyone has the potential to attain Buddhahood. If we get away from the framework defined by a language of substance, we will not be fixated on a one-time incarnation."4 Kwok concludes that the anthropocentric perspective and the substantialist language of the Chalcedonian Creed represent a burden or obstacle that needs to be put aside. She even laments that "the church worldwide is still much under the yoke of the Chalcedonian captivity and Eurocentric theological formulations based on Western heritages."5 Kwok's comment seems to imply that the Buddhist way of thinking may offer a better alternative or a remedy to Chalcedonian Christology.

In the contemporary Buddhist-Christian dialogue, John P. Keenan, when proposing a Mahāyāna theology, also offers a critique of Chalcedonian Christology.6 [End Page 209] Through a response to Keenan's discussion, this paper will examine these critiques and will attempt to reinterpret the Chalcedonian Christology from a Mahāyāna perspective.

The Mahāyāna Theology of John Keenan

In proposing a Mahāyāna theology, Keenan assumes a Christian standpoint and tries to make use of Mahāyāna Buddhism for the service of Christianity. As Keenan himself frankly admits, his basic approach is to adopt "Mahāyāna Thought as Theologiae Ancilla, " which is the heading for the second part of his The Meaning of Christ. Keenan's strategy of arguing for a Mahāyāna theology is to identify the need of Christianity first, and then to argue in what way Mahāyāna Buddhism can help Christian theology to solve its own problems. According to Keenan's diagnosis, a fundamental problem of the Western Christian tradition is the detrimental separation of mysticism from doctrine. In his own words,

It is argued here that, to date, the Christian West has been unable organically to relate its own mystic thinkers to its doctrinal, theoretical thinking. The reason for this inability was not simply, as Adolf von Harnack thought, the adoption and superimposition of Greek patterns of ontology upon the gospel. Rather it is an inability to differentiate that realm of Greek, logos-centered theory from the more primal realm of mystic awareness, an ability to understand the mind of faith in its polyvalent realms of meaning.7

In the first part of the book (ch. 1-5), based on his review of the historical development of the Christian understanding of Christ, Keenan highlights the tremendous tension between the primal experience of "being in Christ" and the theoretical understanding of Christ.8 Keenan believes that the school of wisdom literature in the Old Testament has prepared the New Testament for an understanding of the meaning of Christ as God's wisdom. This wisdom comprises essentially God as Father (Abba) as well as the theology of the cross and resurrection. He further points out that early Christians, following the example of Jesus Christ, had direct experience of God as Father. Owing to the...