Chinese Theological Review 17

Some Thoughts on the Subject of Theological Reconstruction


The reconstruction of Chinese theological thinking has become a central issue for China's Protestant Christians. Yet, since embarking on this great adventure three years ago, success has so far been limited. This is only natural, as renewal in theological thinking touches upon people's personal thinking, and adjustments in thinking cannot be achieved overnight. If we want to win people's hearts and minds, we must do much more praying, discussing and waiting. We can say that, over the past two or three years, the issue of theological reconstruction has created relatively large divisions among China's Christian intellectuals, and the effect of these divisions on other matters is growing. Some observers think that the existence of such differences indicates chaos. I do not agree. Since the idea of theological reconstruction was launched, theological discussion in China has grown livelier, and this is a quite different situation from chaos. Through lively discussions we will reach a more sophisticated level of theological understanding and will ultimately achieve a higher level of unity, which is what the Chinese Church needs.

When we talk of theological reconstruction, we first need to clarify the difference between theological thinking and basic faith, for some people think that theological reconstruction is an attack on our basic faith. It is my hope that through this study group, we can come to the consensus that theological reconstruction and basic faith are two separate things and should not be discussed together.

Our basic faith was codified centuries ago in the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. In our efforts to renew our theological thinking, we respect the basic faith condensed within these two creeds. However, the world has changed since these creeds were adopted and so have people's ideas. In order to interpret these two creeds in ways suited to our times, we need to adjust our theological thinking. Otherwise, how shall we maintain our basic faith? Since our basic faith must not waver, our theological viewpoint needs to be adjusted.

Theological reconstruction was not discovered by the Chinese Church at the end of the twentieth century; it has been taking place continually in the Christian Church for two thousand years. We even find instances of this in the Old Testament period. For example, in 621 BCE, Josiah was king of Israel and in Canaan, people set up sites for worship in high places. These small worship sites were scattered everywhere. In some places God was called Yahweh, and in others, Baal. There were various other names used as well. Upon entering Canaan, the faith which had come down from Moses faced a proliferation of worship sites to various deities. This is what we call polytheism; wherever one went, one could worship the local deity. During Josiah's reign, a refurbishment of the Temple was undertaken and in the course of making repairs, a book was discovered and taken to the King. As the King heard it read, he knew it as a command from Yahweh, a command of great importance: Israelites were permitted to worship Yahweh only in the Temple in Jerusalem, and all other sites of worship must be destroyed. This action was important in bringing about a monotheistic faith. This event is recorded in 2 Kings 22.

The change from polytheism to monotheism was a tremendous adjustment in theological thinking. Politically, it contributed to the unity of the Israelites. When all had read the book presented to King Josiah, they tore their clothing, an Israelite practice to express penitence. We find this mentioned frequently in the Old Testament—they put ashes on their heads and tore their garments—and this is what they did upon the discovery of this book. They went out and burned and destroyed the many small worship sites. This was a very courageous thing to do. Theological reconstruction in the Chinese Church today is a much more harmonious matter. Compared to what we read in the Bible, our theological reconstruction is going much more smoothly. Following upon the story told above, the majority of the Israelites felt that worship of Yahweh as God should be centered upon Jerusalem and the Temple there became the center of their religious life. I think this groundbreaking change that took place during the reign of King Josiah deserves our attention. Basic faith did not change, but the place where God was worshipped changed dramatically and this change brought about others: monotheism took precedence; the system of sacrifices and the priestly order were introduced; the religion was based in Jerusalem, where the Israelites also maintained an important political center. There are many other examples of theological reconstruction in the Old Testament. In addition, the many prophets of the Old Testament all had their own unique theological vision.

Are there instances of theological reconstruction in the New Testament? In my opinion, there are many. Jesus Christ himself represents a great adjustment in theological thinking. We know that the Jewish people keep the sabbath according to their Law, and there are many regulations concerning this practice. Its observance by different factions may be stricter or more relaxed. All agree that work is not allowed on the sabbath, but they may differ on what exactly constitutes work. Even walking is regulated. As far as I know, a strict observance says that in order not to offend against the sabbath rules, you may only walk as far as you can throw a stone. This is only one rule among many that bind the people. But Jesus said, "The sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the sabbath." With his acquiescence, Jesus' disciples dared to pluck heads of grain from the fields on the sabbath. When they were criticized for this, Jesus repeated his statement, "The sabbath was made for humankind." When people are hungry, what is wrong with eating some heads of grain from the fields? Jesus often said, "You have heard it said ... but I tell you ...." In this way he was telling us not to be conservative and hidebound.

In Acts 10 and 11, we see how traditional and conservative Peter's theology was, while at the same time we see how patiently the Holy Spirit worked in Peter, step by step helping him to change, and come gradually to see that God's love did not stop with the Jews, but extended to the gentiles as well.

Liberation from rules was developed even further by Paul in his discussion of justification by faith. Paul opposed laws and regulations like those concerning the sabbath that bound people too tightly. He stressed that people were already justified through their faith alone. Was Paul in this way a liberator? Did he not liberate the Jews from the strictures of the Law? It was a very courageous step. Justification by faith also freed them from the rule about circumcision. This thinking made an important historical contribution by changing Christianity from a small group within the Jewish religion to a faith open to everybody.

Some people think that justification by faith is the theme of the whole Bible. But in fact only two of the sixty-six books of the Bible mention justification by faith: Romans and Galatians. Paul's debates with the Jews, where he mentions justification by faith, occur only in these two books. There are also places in the Bible where justification by faith is not commended, a classic example being in James. A few verses from James will show that the Bible is not only about justification by faith. "What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?" ... "For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead." ... "You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone" (James 2:14; 26; 24). My point is that in the sixty-six books of the Bible, it is only in two books of the New Testament that Paul develops his concept of justification by faith, in order to free the Jews from the Law. And, at least in James, the concept is questioned.

In 49 CE, Paul, Peter, Barnabas, James and other disciples, one to two hundred in all, met in Jerusalem. One important decision taken by this meeting was to preach Christianity to the gentiles—Corinthians, Ephesians, Thessalonians, etc. Following on this meeting, the many non-Jews who lived in these regions would not have to accept the strictures of the Jewish Law and therefore the gospel of Jesus Christ spread among them. If not for this important meeting in 49CE (see Acts 15), Christianity would have remained a small Jewish sect and the truth of Jesus Christ would not have been preached to the gentiles. This means China, too, would not have received Christianity, and we would not be sitting here today speaking about Jesus Christ. Therefore, the church council of the year 49 represents an important adjustment in theological think-ing—that the gospel is for all people, not just for the Jews. This breakthrough came about under Paul's leadership. We can also see that justification by faith was a fine example of theological reconstruction for that time.

In fact, we find similar instances not only in the Bible but also in church history. Martin Luther is a case in point. After Paul, justification by faith was not much emphasized for a long while; Martin Luther was its second champion. In 1516 he posted his ninety-five theses on the door of a church. Why was he opposed to the papacy? Because of the practice of selling of papal indulgences. The idea was that after a person died, the soul went first to purgatory; family members could reduce the time the departed spent in purgatory by buying the so-called indulgences. The selling of indulgences was very profitable for the papacy and helped in the construction of St. Peter's in Rome. Luther was strongly opposed to the practice because he felt it cheated believers of their money and property. His exposé of this practice was one of his most prominent theses. In theological terms, this marked an important adjustment in thinking. People relied on faith to gain righteousness, not indulgences. Luther opposed other church regulations as well, including a celibate clergy. (Luther had been a priest himself and married a former nun.) In Luther's time, justification by faith was a means of opposing the Pope and liberating the people, or at least alleviating their suffering.

Luther was followed by others in the Protestant Reformation: Calvin, the Czech Jan Hus, etc., and the reformation spread throughout Europe and England. The churches which came out of the reformation produced further new denominations, like Methodism, which developed from Anglicanism. Each reform movement illustrates the adjustment as well as the liveliness of theological thinking.

From the above we can see that, throughout the past two thousand years, new theological ideas have continually appeared, and theological reconstruction is not some recent Chinese invention. All I have said here today is to make this one point: it is not that the TSPM and CCC wish to start something new that has never been done before in Judeo-Christian history. Our current efforts to renew our theological thinking are in complete accordance with church tradition and history. In order to maintain our basic faith, these methods are reasonable and necessary.

The missionaries who brought Christianity to China can be divided into two groups: The first group comprises those who came to China offering services like schools, and universities. The second group is made up of those who came with the aim of increasing the number of believers in China. Those who came to build schools and hospitals were not, in general, too concerned with evangelizing among those they sought to help. If they came to run universities, they might be teaching chemistry or engineering and their energies were focused on education. Those who came to build churches measured their success by the annual number of converts. I studied at St. John's University where there were very few new Christians among the students—and sometimes none—but the university did not consider this a failure, as conversion was not one of its emphases. For the other group of missionaries, evangelism was primary, they went to the churches in order to set the people's faith on fire. They felt there were too few Christians in China and they wanted to increase the number tenfold, even ten-thou-sand-fold. These missionaries had two ways of attracting potential believers. The first was offering material advantages to the potential convert. For example, children of Christian parents would gain access to Christian schools, or if you were an obedient Chinese, close to the missionaries, your children had access to scholarships abroad and so on. Many people who received these benefits, admired the foreigners greatly. Some studied their methods of preaching so closely, that when they spoke, they sounded like foreigners. You may not have met such Chinese pastors, but I came into contact with many such in my youth. How foreign were they? They spoke Chinese with a foreign accent, as if only in this way could they be confident that what they preached was Christian. This resulted in a situation in which, in the eyes of ordinary people, Chinese pastors were half-foreign. On occasion, these pastors could help people in the courts because they could presume on their friendship with foreigners, who would intercede with the authorities. This was another aspect of advantage and the situation was common.

Their second means of attracting converts was through exaggerated descriptions of heaven and hell. For China's simple-minded ordinary people, the threat of hell and the prospect of heaven were very strong incentives to accept Christian faith. Of course, many people genuinely believed and accepted Christian faith, but in general it was common to convert in order to gain some advantage, and because of fear of hell and desire for heaven. At Liberation, Christians in China numbered 700,000, a number that concerned the missionaries. The mission boards which sent them to China, Japan and other countries, required reports on how many conversions and baptisms took place, and placed great importance on these numbers. Thus, getting people to convert was crucial for these missionaries and their methods were heaven, hell and justification by faith.

Justification by faith meant that no matter what your deeds were in your everyday life, whether you were honest or not, your political attitudes: all this counted for nothing. As long as you had faith, in the eyes of God, you were justified, and thus you could enter heaven. Otherwise you were going to hell. In fact even today, many Chinese become Christians primarily in order to enter heaven and escape hell. They fear hell, but heaven attracts them.

This leads us back to the question of justification by faith. The notion of justification by faith has played an important role in liberating believers—first, when Paul fought the "legalism" among Jewish believers and then a second time when Martin Luther voiced the idea in order to oppose the pope. However, in many developed countries today, the idea of justification by faith has been watered down because it easily creates conflicts between believers and non-believers. In this context, it is worth noting that, in the modern Chinese Bible translation of 1979, the expression "justification by faith" does not appear even once. Instead, the expression "to have a harmonious relationship with God through faith" is used instead.

Today, as we meet here at Nanjing Seminary, the staff and students are polarized. A great number of students work hard to participate in the reconstruction of Chinese theological thinking—they re-read the Bible, write papers, discuss and reflect. I think they will be the future pillars of the Chinese church. But there are also a number of indifferent students who exert a bad influence on their fellow students. Just as Nanjing Seminary is polarized at this point in time, so our whole church is divided into different groups. This diversification does not mean chaos but rather reflects a diversity of theological reflection and will help us to renew and deepen our theological thinking.

I hope that, after a lengthy period of time, a new form of Chinese Christian faith will emerge, a rational Christianity which, at the same time, has a strong sense of right and wrong; a Christian faith that emphasizes Christ, morality and a loving God. Such a Christianity would bring an important message to the whole world.

Based on a partial translation in Amity News Service 12.2 (1998).