News Archives



Maafu Palu ~ Eaters of the Soil: Holiness for Tongan Wesleyans

Today we are pleased to share a guest post from Rev Dr Ma’afu’otu’itonga Palu of Sia’atoutai Theological College in Tonga. Read more about the history of Methodism in Tonga here.

maafu-paluLet me offer some observations on the fate of personal and biblical holiness in the enterprise of Pacific Theology. Pacific Theology, as it has prevailed among Pacific theologians (and this is especially true in the efforts of my fellow Tongan theologians), is thoroughly shaped by an attempt to give a response to Dr. Sione ‘Amanaki Havea’s quest in 1986, “What if Jesus was a Pacifician?”[1] Dr Havea suggested that Pacific Theology constitutes of the response to this quest. Such responses must be drawn from our physical surroundings, our legends and myths, our social interactions and even our cultural values. The bottom line is that we must adopt cultural categories and ideas as descriptive frameworks for the Gospel storyline of Jesus.

As far as I am concerned, my Tongan colleagues (with all due respect to them) are still deeply entrenched in Dr. Havea’s quest for a response to, “What if Jesus was a Pacifician?” More recently, Dr. Vaka’uta and Dr. Vaipulu have probed into the social status of the readers and interpreters as being a tu’a (a commoner) in order to determine what contributions such a standpoint could offer to the overall shape of biblical interpretation or a re-construction of the doctrine of God.[2] Despite the great novelty displayed in these academic endeavors, the trend seems to result in no ethical concern for personal and biblical sanctification. In fact, the premises upon which these theological reflections are constructed prevent such ethical implications from being drawn.

Since the Pacific theological enterprise thus far is convinced that our pre-missionary culture was simply good, and that it was the missionaries who corrupted it with their so-called “Western” gospel, we simply fail to see how deeply rooted was our pre-missionary and even our contemporary culture in selfishness and sin. To be honest to God and to ourselves, the historical account in extant of our pre-missionary ancestors precisely reflects what Paul says of all Gentiles which includes us in the Pacific: “that in that time we were without Christ…having no hope and no god in the universe” (Ephesians 2:13 ESV).[3]

This implies that an ethical concern for personal and biblical holiness as can be observed in John Wesley’s Plain

Deity carved from whale tooth.
Deity carved from whale tooth.

Account of Christian Perfection was altogether absent in Pacific culture prior to the arrival of the gospel with the nineteenth century missionaries.  True, our pre-missionary ancestors had “gods” but in relation to the God of the Bible, they were “no gods.” In that context, any sense of morality depends entirely on the sentiments of the chiefs under which our people tend to gather for reasons of safety and security. In pre-missionary Tonga, it was believed that only people of chiefly origins had souls. Thus, they were the only ones who could be assured of an afterlife existence. Pulotu, the abode of the dead, was the eternal destiny of the chiefs. The commoners, on the other hand, were believed to have no souls and therefore they died only to become eaters of the earth – the kainangaefonua (literally: “eaters of soil”). Since the afterlife had no grounding in morality here and now, a concern for personal or general holiness could understandably be missing in the religious convictions of our pre-missionary ancestors.

With the advent of the gospel through nineteenth-century Methodist missionaries to Tonga, it appears that a concern for holiness must begin with an awareness of the encroaching power of sin in us humans. The distinctive lack of any such notion of sin in current Pacific Theology is foundational to the loss of any concern to articulate personal and biblical holiness in the enterprise. In my view, Wesley’s emphasis on personal holiness and perfection can tip the balance of Pacific Theology towards a theological plausibility structure which has the biblical gospel’s concern for holiness in the foreground.

Perhaps a cultural framework such as the following could be drawn upon as an explanatory structure for such a concern for holiness. Just as in pre-missionary Tonga, the moral sense of the people was identified with the moral sense of the chiefs, now in Christian Tonga, Jesus is the “chief of chiefs” – the ‘eiki ‘o e ngaahi ‘eiki. The church as the “Jesus people” gathers around him for safety and security reasons, not only in this life but, more so, in the life to come. Jesus therefore determines the ultimate shape of personal morality.

One of the ways in which the Jesus-shaped morality can be seen is in, “loving the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” – God and a love for our neighbors (Mark 12:30-31). As the chief, the eiki, of the church, Jesus does not get to go to the heavenly abode alone. He promised his people that he will go and prepare a place in eternity for them and then he will come back to take them there (John 14:1-6).

Hence his people, even though they still live here in Tonga, begin their “afterlife existence” here and now. They no longer look forward to the Tongan abode of the departed, to Pulotu, but to heaven itself. With the Apostle Paul, they look forward to departing and being with the Lord which is better by far (Philippians 1:23). Their hope is no longer to be “eaters of the soil” – kainangaefonua – but to be sharers of the divine nature in the likeness of Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:20). Since in Jesus they have partaken of the divine nature, they therefore have made every effort to progress in their life of holiness while still living and worshiping God in Tonga.

Soli Deo gloria.


[1] See S. ‘A. Havea, ‘Christianity in Pacific Context’ in South Pacific Theology: Papers from the Consultation on Pacific Theology Papua New Guinea, January 1986 (Parramatta: Regnum, 1987), 11-15, especially, pp. 12-13.

[2] See N. Vaka’uta, Reading Ezra 9-10 Tu’awise: Rethinking Biblical Interpretaion in Oceania (Society of Biblical Literature. International Voices in Biblical Studies 3. Atlanta: SBL, 2011);  S. F. Vaipulu, ‘Towards and ‘otualogy: Revisiting and Rethinking the Doctrine of God in Tonga’ (Unpublished PhD Thesis. Charles Sturt University, 2013).

[3] I am thinking here of William Mariner’s account of the Tonga Islands (2 Vols. Edited by John Martin, 1827) and even Captain Cook’s Journal bears witness to the blood-thirsty character of our pre-missionary ancestors.