Chinese Theological Review 17

Obstacles in the Path of Theological Reconstruction

Xu Xiaohong

At the Seventh National Chinese Christian Conference called at the beginning of the new century, it was noted that "theological reconstruction is the most important of important requirements for running the church well," pointing out that strengthening theological reconstruction is the focal point of the church's work at this time. 1 A renewal in thinking and views and raising the quality of faith of both clergy and believers is crucial to this work and to achieving a well-run church.

Since the Jinan Meeting in 1998 where the "Resolution on strengthening theological reconstruction" was passed, recognition of the necessity and importance of this reconstruction has grown, for it represents a deepening of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and is the inevitable demand of Three-Self in this new historical period. Essential factors in theological reconstruction are: having a biblical basis, absorbing the essence of church tradition, joining Chinese culture to our church's experience on the Three-Self path, and in a language contemporary Chinese Christians can understand, explaining basic Christian faith and its moral rules and principles. An emphasis on theological reconstruction does not mean a change in basic faith, Basic faith is unchanging. Since ancient times, theological thinking has been continuously adapted and developed; theological reconstruction is for the purpose of maintaining and protecting our basic unchanging faith. At present, this work is being developed in churches all over China, but progress is uneven. In addition to those churches in which there is insufficient organization and publicity, knowledge of theological reconstruction can be hampered by conservative theological views. In this article, I will try to analyze some of the factors which impact the development of theological reconstruction.

Educational limitations of Christians against a background of modernization

Some scholars believe that, when it comes to modernization, Christianity represents a "pre-modern" culture, which was surpassed by modernization in the movement toward secularization of the 18 th -19 th centuries. Now, with post-modernization on the horizon, modernization, as represented by modernity, is in its turn being supplanted by post-modernity, and the socio-cultural function of Christianity continues to decline. These scholars also believe that Christianity must adapt to modernity and post-moder-nity, that it can only survive and develop as a modern or post-modern cultural component, and the various schools of what is termed "post-modern theology" that have appeared within Christianity seem to confirm the reasonableness of the above views. 2

Setting aside for the moment the question of whether or not these views are correct, the view which says that Christianity must adapt to the development of modern and post-modern society has very positive significance. Looking at the current developments in Chinese Christianity, not only has its socio-cultural function not declined, but can possibly grow stronger. This is due to the fact that Chinese society has not experienced a capitalist stage, and the influence of religion in China is much less strong than that of Christianity has been in the West, so that in some sense, all religions in China have first of all to come out of the "Middle Ages," that is, the influence of feudal culture.

In the late 1970s and the 1980s, the policy of reform and openness spurred the process of modernization, established socialism with Chinese characteristics and the idea of a market economy, attacking people's long-held traditional views. The Chinese church, at the same time as it was occupied with restoring religious activities and assisting the government in the thorough implementation of the policy of religious freedom, called for making the Chinese church well-governed, well-supported and well-propa-gated. It was not until the late 1990s that the need for theological reconstruction was recognized. At the time, eighty per cent of Chinese Christians were in rural areas, though following the universal spread of free education to primary nine, the level of education of youth in the countryside was rising. However, compared to the rate of development for the whole era, illiteracy or partial illiteracy was still concentrated in the countryside, especially in border areas and poor districts. Educational level was thus an important factor in limiting the quality of clergy and believers.

Frankly, Chinese Christianity's influence among intellectuals is still limited, even though this situation is slowly changing. But, among non-intellectuals, it is finding rich soil for growth. Yet, in comparison with the mainstream of Christianity worldwide, it is still quite rudimentary and retains an admixture of superstition and backwardness. 3 Though many churches are enthusiastic in their evangelism, they overlook the fact that the educational level of the believers, pastoral care and nourishment are inadequate. Because of the way Christianity has functioned in the modernization process in Europe and America, we had "Christianity fever" in China, with some people (especially intellectuals) going to church, but not staying in the churches. The gap between their expectations and the reality of the church caused them to lose confidence in the clergy. It must be said that this is an important negative factor in influencing the church to initiate theological reconstruction.

The corrosive effect of traditional feudal superstition

Related to the factors discussed above is the way feudal superstition can act to corrode Christianity. Though traditional culture in China is represented by Confucianism, polytheism proliferates among the people and folk religions (including every sort of superstition) are much more influential among the ordinary Chinese people than Confucianism. This faith includes ancestor and demon worship as its main content. Since reform and openness, there has been a resurgence of folk religions in many places and temples have been built on a grand scale. Folk religious superstitious activities have been held, not only in these fixed sites, but in streets and alleyways, and even under the guise of scholarly exchanges, and packaged as the essence of traditional culture, have attracted men and women who feel spiritually needy and experience a spiritual vacuum.

Superficially, since Christianity is opposed to idol worship, believers basically do not take part in these folk religious activities, but many concepts in Christian faith have been given a superstition-ized explanation (this is not the same as indigenization)—in some places God is no more than a powerful god with a different name. This has already attracted the notice of some scholars, and Sun Shanling in the essay Chinese Folk Christianity, points out that "because the growth of Christianity in China has been mostly at the rather low cultural level of the rural folk, and because the Han religious concept is limited to the rather primitive stage of belief in gods and demons, ancestor worship, etc., superstition and fortune-telling are widespread, and Chinese folk Christianity includes a large measure of feudal superstition. "4 Relative to this, in areas that are more economically and socially developed, the quality of believers' faith is also higher, while in those areas that are relatively less economically and socially developed, faith is proportionately more superstitious. In churches in large and medium-sized cities, religious activities are relatively regularized, while in villages and minority areas, religious activities are more diffuse.

As for believers generally, seeking God's protection and healing because of events or sickness is quite widespread. Some believers even treat the Bible and cross as talismans to ward off evil, requiring a picture of Jesus while they pray. The Bible takes the place of fortune-telling sticks and dragons and snakes are taboo. Once while at a remote church, I found out that the responsible person at the church had in his former life been banned for being an office-holder in the Brotherhood of the Righteous Fist ( Yiguan dao ). It is easy to see, then, why erosion through feudal superstition is such a vast hindrance to theological reconstruction. At the same time, it is the source for all those heretical sects that wave the banner of Christianity. Only by making a clear differentiation between feudal superstition and traditional culture can we better witness to Christ.

"Orthodox" conservative theology

Another hindrance to theological reconstruction is the conservative theology bequeathed to China by the missionaries.

Missionaries entered China in the nineteenth century under the protection of the unequal treaties. Many of them saw traditional Chinese culture as "heathen," filled with superstition and inimical to the gospel. One missionary saw behind these non-Christian religions a terrible despair, backwardness, ignorance and fear. The missionaries came to China to "Save the souls of the Chinese people from the darkness of heathenism." 5 Despite this, many among them came to China filled with enthusiasm to spread the gospel, and they did much good in the areas of education, health, and rescue work. Yet the "euro-centric" mindset of cultural superiority 6 caused many missionaries, "wittingly or unwittingly to make common cause with imperialism." 7

The consciousness of the Chinese people was raised under the influence of the New Culture Movement in the 1920s and campuses and intellectual circles initiated the "anti-Christian movement," which expanded into an "antireligion movement." Knowledgeable people in some of the churches learned from this experience and initiated the movement for independent churches and reflection on indigenization. This played a very important role in laying the groundwork for the Three-Self Reform Movement which followed liberation. But in another respect, due to the fact that education rights reverted to the Chinese government in the 1920s, government higher and middle secondary schools began gradually to supplant church-run schools, and influential books and periodicals such as those published by the Christian Literature Society were supplanted by publications of the Commerical Press and other secular publishers. The space for theological modernists began to shrink in the cities, and in the village and grassroots churches (where they had very little influence in any case), whereas the influence of fundamentalists continued to grow in these areas, taking shape as a unique tradition.

Some scholars overseas have pointed out that it is worth noting that these evangelical missionaries (originally fundamentalists) led hundreds of thousands of people to Christ ... in the Chinese countryside today, there are over a million Christians, and most of them are the fruits of the labors of those evangelical missionaries. 8 Of course, putting things this way may be somewhat of an exaggeration, but we must note that this "new growth" kind of missionary and believer have always been extremely conservative in their theological thinking. The important thing is that such ideas have gradually come to form part of the "faith tradition" of believers in some churches and sometimes these "traditional churches" are treated as the only orthodox ones. Dr. Richard Mouw of Fuller Theological Seminary, in a speech at Nanjing Union Theological Seminary, pointed out that "When we look anew today at the content of the faith preached by our forbears, we discover that we cannot agree with it in all respects; it may be that the thinking of these missionaries has not been popular in the United States for some time. Yet I was amazed to discover that these not very current ideas are entirely preserved in some of the churches of China."

What Chinese believers accepted was that through faith in Jesus Christ, the believer could obtain spiritual riches. They cared more for the spiritual life than for the material life. Many Christians had contempt for this world and material life while waiting for the next, or adopted the utilitarian view that "prayers would be answered." They set faith and reason, intellect and spirit, the material world and the spiritual world in opposition. For reasons of space I will not go into examples here.

Theological reconstruction will be a difficult task for the Chinese church. In "A Look Back at the Way We Have Come," Bishop K.H. Ting says: "Theology has to do with faith and convictions held deep in human hearts. Adjustment is therefore slow..." 9 Adjusting conservative ideas in faith may be quite painful for some, but if we do not do so, the long-term danger to the church may be even greater. The former vice-principal of Nanjing Union Theological Seminary, Rev. Chen Zemin, hit the nail on the head in quot ing the Bishop in his Foreword to Love Never Ends , "A religion that does not speak of theology is crude and primitive. A religion which does not apply reason to problems is unreasonable." 10 As the new century progresses, may we develop a Chinese Christianity filled with the life of the Spirit, one that treats of ethics and reason, one that can adapt to all the changes of our great nation, one that can move forward in step with modern society and bear a wonderful witness to Christ in the worldwide church.

Xu Xiaohong is dean of the Shaanxi Bible School. This talk was delivered during the 50th anniversary celebrations at Nanjing Union Theological Seminary. Nanjing Theological Review , 4 (2002): 32-34.

1 Documents of the 7 th National Chinese Christian Conference . (Shanghai: CCC/TSPM, 2002), 10.
2 Gao Shining and He Guanghu, Christian Culture and Modern Culture . (Beijing:CASS, 1996), 24.
3 Ibid., 255.
4 Ibid., 252.
5 Luo Guanzong, Essays on the Chinese Christian Three-Self Patriotic Movement. (Shanghai: TSPM Committee, 1993), 484.
6 The World of the Colonialist , translated by Tan Ronggen. (Beijing: CASS, 2002), 9.
7 "Efforts of Chinese Christianity in New China," in Luo (see Note 5), 1.
8 Representative of these scholars is the American Paul Cohen.
9 K.H. Ting, Love Never Ends . (Nanjing: Yilin Press, 2000), 494 .
10 Ibid., 5.