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Review of Christianity and Chinese Culture edited by Miikka Ruokanenand Paulors Huang (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010)

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Mark Shan: Review of Christianity and Chinese Culture edited by Miikka Ruokanenand Paulors Huang (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010)

Published on Africanus Journal Vol. 4, No. 2 November 2012

On August 13, 2003, mainland Chinese and Western scholars and theologians gathered for a first-of-its-kind five-day theological conference, “Christianity and Chinese Culture: A Sino-Nordic Conference on Chinese Contextual Theology,” in Lapland, Finland. The 19 papers that comprise this book were all presented at that conference. The book, which includes responses to the papers, is best suited for academics specializing in Christianity in China and theologians interested in church growth in China. Its thesis focuses on a question of both enculturation and contextualization: how is Protestant Christianity, which is experiencing phenomenal growth in China, both reacting to and adapting Christian teaching in the Chinese cultural and traditional context as well as China’s modern social, political, and economic context?

A brief introduction to the background of churches and theologies in China is necessary to better understand the papers.

There are currently four theological approaches to understanding the church in China today:

Academic “theology”—not a theology in the true sense of the word, this is a totally secular, social science approach employed by religious studies experts who want to build up and support Christianity both as a legitimate field of academic study and as a positive influence on Chinese society. This approach counters the communist demonization of Christianity in China, and the prominent People’s University professor He Guanghu in Beijing and the American writer and scholar David Aikman are two of the best-known academic “theologians.” (Aikman’s groundbreaking book Jesus in Beijing, released in 2003 just a few months after this conference, was the first to introduce to the Western world the phenomenal growth and great influence of “house churches” in China.)

Liberal Theology—espoused by the government’s Three-Self Patriotic Movement (which oversees and controls Protestant Christianity in China), by non-Christian Chinese scholars of Christianity influenced by Western postmodernism, and by nationalistic scholars of religious studies influenced by Chinese Communist Party politics, its aim is to deconstruct conservative Christian faith and churches.

Beijing Theology—the theological system sanctioned by the Communist government’s TSPM. Since 1998, the TSPM has been reconstructing the conservative theology inherited from Western missionaries before 1952; the aim is to harm Biblical theology by combining liberal theology and Chinese Communist ideology.

House Church Theology—based on and developed from Evangelical Theology; the aim is to establish healthy, viable churches. This is the most influential theology among churches and Christians in China today.

The first three theologies have very limited influence among churches and Christians in China today, but they are the only ones addressed in this book.

The book’s 19 papers are organized into three sections. The eight papers in the first section, “Christianity in Relation to the Chinese Religious Tradition,” compare Christianity and Chinese traditional religions and philosophies, focusing on the moral and ethical commonalities and differences.

The first paper, “The Goodness of Human Nature and Original Sin: A Point of Convergence in Chinese and Western Cultures” by Zhao Dunhua, is an excellent treatment of the historical theological debate between Confucianism's emphasis of the goodness of human nature and Christianity's teaching that humans are fallen. While Western scholars generally have “emphasized the irreconcilable conflict between [the] Christian doctrine of original sin and Confucianist theory of the goodness of human nature, (3)” the paper argues that the two views are not only not logically contradictory but also theoretically complementary. Of the first point, Zhao says, “the mainstream of Confucianism endorses Mencius’s theory of the goodness of human nature but incorporates in it some Confucianists’ theory of the mixture of good and evil in human nature from the perspective of the individual, and the degrees (pure good, mixture of the good and evil, and complete evil) of human nature from the collective perspective (5-6).” About the complementary nature of the two views, he says, “both … stress the necessity of perfecting human nature and urge people to meet some moral demands (10).”

Zhao skillfully argues the similarities between Confucianism and Christianity by pointing out that both acknowledge that human nature is both good and bad and by emphasizing their common ethical goal. The key difference that Zhao fails to address, however, is that Confucianism is not a religion but a moral-ethical system that requires enforcement by some power group, either the government or the family. Christianity, on the other hand, is a religion, and one that does not rely on dominant social groups but, in fact, most often grows from weaker ones. Furthermore, Confucianism, unlike Christianity, emphasizes man’s good nature to promote a solution, based on the belief that humans can solve their own problems themselves, that is, without supernatural involvement, through an ethical system (as taught by mainstream Confucianism) or a legal system as taught by Xunzi. This view mirrors the communist ethical proposition, and it is why the Chinese Communists have since the 1970s enlisted Confucianism to their cause. Christianity, on the other hand, emphasizes man’s fallen nature to point out that humans cannot solve their own problems and need spiritual salvation and divine ethical guidance from the Biblical Creator. The gross ethical corruption throughout China today proves that humans, or at least the Chinese people, cannot solve their own problems themselves but need help and rescue.

The book’s second section, “Christianity in the Context of Modern China,” contains six papers on the contextualization of Christianity in China, in particular the integration of Christianity into the Chinese context, the contradictions between the two, and the contributions of Christianity. The dominant tone is that since "Chinese cultural tradition is self-sufficient for meeting China's spiritual, intellectual, moral and social needs (211)," Christianity must therefore adapt and be integrated. This view is well represented in the first paper, “Comprehensive Theology: An Attempt to Combine Christianity with Chinese Culture.”

The author, Zhuo Xinping, a well-known religious studies scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, writes that “seeking similarity between Christianity and Chinese culture is the precondition and basis of constructing a comprehensive theology and real Chinese Christianity.” He basically supports the view of early 20th-century Chinese liberal theologians, saying that “the God hidden within the Four Books and Five Classics is the same as the God of the Bible (187).” He even proposes “[writing] a kind of Christian historical philosophy using the Chinese historical-critical method of yin-yang order-disorder (189),” and bringing “Chinese traditional cultural ideologies into Christian faith and to lead the whole system with the Dao of Christ (191).”

Zhuo’s suggestion is typical syncretism, not contextualization. This approach sees many similarities between the Bible and the Chinese Classics because when both are viewed from an atheist or a Deist perspective, evidence can be found in the Chinese Classics of theism or supernaturalism, which are then regarded as similarities with Christianity. This liberal trend is also promoted by some overseas Chinese Christians, most notably Yuan Zhiming, author of Lao-zi and Christ. Actually, compared with the Chinese Classics and religions, Islam and its holy book, the Quran, have much more in common with Christianity and Bible. Does that mean Christians should also embrace Islam?

Chinese academics, influenced by their post-modernist liberal theology “comrades” in the West, have been pushing this trend of theological construction for “made in China Christianity” through anti-Western nationalism directed specifically at the West’s Christian and democratic culture, but the main promoter of this view is the Chinese Communist government. Hence, this view is widely rejected by most churches, and the situation is not at all as Zhuo says, that “such a direction is becoming the mainstream of developing Chinese contemporary Christianity (185).”

The main theme of the five papers in the third section, “Challenges to the Contemporary Chinese Protestant Church,” is how to reconstruct conservative Christian theology to fit Chinese socialist society – an adaptation that is supposed to occur as part of the theological vision of the TSPM, or more specifically, the vision of Ding Guangxun, the head of the TSPM and its sister body, the China Christian Council. One of the papers is an apologetics-like defense of this theological vision in response to opposition voices, voices which the paper does not identify but which clearly were “house church” Christians.

The first paper, “The Basis for the Reconstruction of Chinese Theological Thinking” by TSPM vice chairman Deng Fucun, is a typical example of the TSPM theological vision at work. “House church” theologians call this “Beijing Theology,” and it has these features: love the nation (or even love the Communist Party, as we’ve seen recently) and love Christianity; deny miracles; and justification by love.

Deng’s paper asserts that “over the past five years [that is, since 1998], the Chinese church has been rethinking its theology, and this has been noticed by churches in other countries (297).” The “Chinese church” he refers to here is only the government-sanctioned TSPM Protestant churches and does not include Protestant “house churches.” Therefore to use the term “Chinese church” is simply inaccurate.

Deng also says that the TSPM’s work over its fifty-year history “proves that Christian theology can be adapted to a socialist society” but added that “conservative theological thinking can have results that are not compatible with our socialist country (299).” He listed examples of some of these unwelcome results (all 300), including:

“…it draws a clear line between believers and nonbelievers, and regards all Christian believers as of one family”;

“It places the church above country and emphasizes that Christian’s love for the church must be prior to that for the country”;

“…listening to God but not to men”;

“It claims that to join with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement is to ‘submit the church to government control.”

Deng even said, “the doctrine of justification by faith is not included … it is only a doctrine…. We do not emphasize it. (307)”

All this clearly show that the goal of the TSPM’s theological reconstruction is to subdue the church and bring it under government control, and that heretical patriotism is the first commandment for TSPM Christians.

Christianity and Chinese Culture presents a limited theological picture of churches in China because it totally ignores the existence of “house churches,” which have 45-60 million believers compared with the 18-30 million believers in TSPM churches. Therefore, the book presents a seriously limited view of Christianity in China and cannot be viewed as either comprehensive or authoritative in what it says about Christianity in China. As such, I do not recommend that the GCTS bookstore sell it, nor that CUME students and alumni buy it. Nonetheless, it is a good collection of papers about the other three theological trends, though they have very limited influence to churches in China today, and I would, therefore, recommend that CUME professors use it for courses related to churches in China.


Mark Chuanhang Shan, from Xinjiang, China, has written a number of books and articles, including
History of Christianity in Xinjiang, China (Boston: Chinese Theological Association, 2009). He has an M.A.R. from Gordon-ConwellTheological Seminary and an S.T.M. from Boston University’s School of Theology, and is currently in a Ph.D. researchprogram in Church History and Historical Theology at the London School of Theology, in Britain’s Middlesex University,through the Julius Africanus Guild of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (CUME). This review was edited by CharleneL. Fu.

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