Since 2005, Asian Theological Seminary’s Annual Theological Forum has been tackling relevant issues and contemporary themes. It is open to the public but is mostly attended by seminary students and lay people representing different organizations and denominations. The forum serves as an avenue not just for deeper knowledge on the topics but also for crucial equipping in terms of immediate application in the participants’ own contexts. Plenary sessions feature major speakers espousing the highlights of the theme while breakout sessions further cover the various aspects of the main issue.
From Dream to Reality: The ATS Theological Forum and Relevant Theological Reflection in the Philippines
By Larry W. Caldwell
(This is an excerpt from the article printed in the souvenir program of the 3rd Annual ATS Theological Forum held in 2007)
The Asian Theological Seminary’s annual Theological Forum began as a dream. You see, many years ago—before I came to the Philippines—I presented papers at theological society meetings in the United States, meetings sponsored by the Evangelical Theological Society and the Society for Biblical Literature. At those meetings I learned so much, both in the preparation of papers, but even more in listening to papers presented by others. In the mid-1990s, after I had been here in Manila for a few years I thought, “Why can’t we do something like that here in the Philippines?” My dream had to wait a few more years until I became the Academic Dean of Asian Theological Seminary. At that point it was now or never! So, with much fear and trepidation, and plenty of mistakes, we enthusiastically launched the first ATS Theological Forum in February 2005.
But we at ATS just didn’t want to reinvent the wheel and merely import something in from the West. Our goal for the Theological Forums was, and is, to present papers and have discussions about crucial topics that affect all Christians in the Philippine and the greater Southeast Asian context. We are in effect asking, “What are our issues?” and “What are our problems?” From those topics, we then bring in expert plenary speakers to help us think through some of the complexities of the various issues as well as to solicit many other papers from rank-and-file faculty, pastors and students who address these issues from their own unique perspectives. The evangelical tradition that the ATS Theological Forum promotes demands serious scholarship. But at the same time, such scholarship must be made relevant to ordinary people. As ATS President Emeritus Dr. Isabelo Magalit said in commenting on the first forum: “…it is possible for scholars to become esoteric, and not be of much use to the people of God. The point of theology is application! That is what we are about in this forum.”
As a result, the first Theological Forum was appropriately entitled, “Doing Theology in the Philippine Context.” Here, plenary speakers such as Melba Maggay, Ed Lapiz, Narry Santos, Jose de Mesa, and Timoteo Gener stimulated the over 400 participants on topics like: “Every Filipino Christian a Theologian,” “Connecting Christianity and Our Culture,” and “Gospel and Culture Issues in the Philippine Context.” Most of the 25 other papers presented that year also dealt well with the overall topic. Several of these papers can be found in the book published by OMF Literature that came out of this first forum appropriately entitled, Doing Theology in the Philippine Context.
In 2006, the topic for the second theological forum was addressed both to the Philippines as well as beyond: “Naming the Unknown God: Christians and People of Other Faiths in Dialog.” This forum—attended by over 800 participants—acknowledged the uniqueness of the gospel of Jesus Christ while at the same time seeing that dialog, rather than confrontation, was perhaps the better method of communicating the Good News. As ATS OIC-President, Bishop Cesar Punzalan said, this forum helped us to better consider “how we can sensitively and effectively dialogue and live among people of different faiths within and beyond Philippine borders.”
Three plenary speakers—Hwa Yung from Malaysia, Manfred Kohl from Germany/North America, and E. Acoba from the Philippines—attempted to give guidelines for such dialogue, as did the other 30 papers that were presented. ATS Professor Adonis Gorospe summed up the feelings of those who attended: “It was fairly evident to most, if not all, of the participants at the Theological Forum that dialogue is inescapable if the contextualized gospel is to be presented to the various religions and traditions of Asia.” Some of the dynamics of what that dialogue should be (as well as the comments of Professor Gorospe above) can be found in the book published by OMF Literature after this second forum entitled, Naming the Unknown God.
And thus the dream continues on.