Adjustments in Theology are Necessary and Unavoidable
Recently there has been much talk in Chinese Christianity about theological reconstruction. Theological reconstruction does not attack or change basic Christian faith, but safeguards it. Through theological reconstruction, our basic faith will be expressed in terms that are more accessible and more reasonable, and this will aid believers in their understanding and will strengthen basic faith. And non-believers, our friends outside the church, will be more willing to hear the good news the church has for them. We should not fear theological reconstruction then, but welcome it as a good and important development. Christianity has been in existence two thousand years, and during this time, theological reconstruction has been constant, and the process has resulted in better theology. If we do not want to call this reconstruction, we may term it development, adjustment or improvement.
I would like to discuss a number of examples to show how, though our basic faith does not change, it is usual for theological thinking to undergo adjustments large and small.
Before the slaves were freed in the U.S., they were treated as little better than animals on the southern plantations. The church then believed that black people did not have souls, but had been born simply to labor for the whites. Some black people even believed this themselves. This view provided a theological basis for the oppression of black slaves and their maltreatment by the slave owners. Capitalism had begun to develop in the northern part of the nation, and Lincoln led the north in a civil war against the south under the banner of freeing the slaves. After the war, many pastors and theologians began to affirm the humanity of the African Americans—they were also children of God and could be baptized into the churches. Later African Americans started their own churches and seminaries. This is a modern example of how the church can, and must, adjust its theological thinking. This particular change was vast and came about quite quickly. It also brought about the demise of the southern slavery-based economy, an Illustration of the way in which developments in theology and capitalist society are interrelated.
Birth control, which the church historically opposed, is another example. The church's opposition was based on the biblical exhortation to "be fruitful and multiply," seen as a blessing from God. As a result many believers had large families, which impoverished them and kept their educational level low. Today, the situation is greatly changed and one- and two-child families are the norm in Europe and North America. The new theological thinking is that it is not God's intention that people be poor and downtrodden. It pleases God more for parents to put their energies into raising one or two children well. As for China, the church no longer advocates large families, nor do many believers want to raise six or seven children. This also marks a big theological adjustment.
Other attitudes which were once supported with biblical evidence and have now been supplanted by new theological thinking include polygamy and the church's opposition to divorce.
Do we find examples of adjustment in theological thinking in the Bible? Many. Take Acts, chapters 10-15, for example. Peter's theology was quite simple in the beginning: he took everything over from Judaism—that the Israelites were God's chosen people, observance of the sabbath, circumcision, etc. On accepting Jesus as Lord, he added the belief that Jesus was the awaited Messiah. Under the gradual guiding and revelation of the Holy Spirit, which brought him down from the rooftop to meet the gentile Cornelius, he came gradually to the realization that Jesus was not only redeemer of the Jews, but of the gentiles as well. Together with Paul, Barnabas and others, Peter held the meeting in Jerusalem where the decision was taken to break out of the bonds of Judaism and allow the good news to be preached to the Romans and Greeks. To do this, the Christians had to abandon the Jewish customs such as keeping sabbath and circumcision. These changes allowed Christianity to evolve into the world religion it is today. That meeting in Jerusalem, which took place about 49 CE and is recorded in Acts 15, was crucial in the history of the church. This one example is sufficient to show that there is historical evidence in the Bible of theological thinking in the church being adjusted with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
There are people in the Chinese church who like to point to the contradictions between so-called modernists and so-called fundamentalists, putting theological reconstruction in the so-called modernist camp and saying that the so-called fundamentalist theology needs no adjustment. They insist that theological reconstruction is factional in-fight-ing. They are mistaken. Were Peter, Paul and James modernists? In 49 CE there was neither modernist nor fundamentalist. For two thousand years, the Holy Spirit has been guiding constant adjustment of theological thinking without regard to camps or factions.
A couple of months ago, I was looking through the most important publication of American fundamentalism, or we might say evangelicalism, Christianity Today , and saw a report about a conference among pastors and theological educators on the topic of the fate of non-Christians after death. Some felt that as non-believers they would go straight to hell, where they would suffer the fires of eternal damnation. Some felt this would be too merciless an action on God's part and proposed the idea that after death both the flesh and spirit of non-believers would be destroyed, something they felt to be more humanitarian. And there was a third view: because of God's grace, non-believ-ers too would share in eternal life. Such a conference shows that within fundamentalism or evangelicalism people also feel the need for adjustment of theological thinking, and that things are in process.
These examples tell us that changes are always taking place in theological thinking in the church. Theology in this way differs from the church's basic faith, whose tenets, such as belief in the Trinity, Christ's Incarnation, death on the cross for all and resurrection after three days, are firm and unwavering. Precisely because these tenets of basic faith do not change, it is imperative for theological thinking to change with the times and make necessary adjustments. Change takes place in theological thinking in order to protect and safeguard our unchanging basic faith. We firmly believe that the cross brought to completion the work of bringing God and humanity together, but how this came about, we cannot say for sure, and this gives rise to numerous theological views. We need not fight over these, but can adopt an attitude of mutual respect. Changes in theological thinking take place in order to safeguard the immutability of basic faith.
The appropriate distinction between basic faith and theological thinking was an important development achieved through theological study in the Chinese Church by the TSPM in the decade from 1940 to 1950. This development enabled Chinese Christianity to guarantee maintenance of a pure basic faith while having a lively thinking and witness, and was beneficial to bringing about unity among Christians on the basis of their common basic faith. We cannot but recognize that making the appropriate distinction between basic faith and theological thinking is not something humans could invent on their own; it is the Holy Spirit leading the church. We recall that the letter to the gentiles from the Jerusalem meeting said, "The Holy Spirit ...and us." Today the experience of the church in China is even more marked by the presence of the Holy Spirit working with us.
Jiang Zemin, chairman of the Communist Party of China, called for an active adaptation of religions in China with socialism. There is no reason at all to oppose this. Suppose we do not adapt to socialist society. Shall we then adapt to capitalism, imperialism or feudalism? For the good of our nation, as well as for the survival and witness of the church itself, we should naturally adapt to socialist society. This is the natural choice of every responsible citizen and every responsible believer. We cannot be satisfied with a mere politic expression. Genuine adaptation must have an intellectual foundation. For Christians, genuine adaptation must include theological adaptation. Our pastors should not content themselves with preaching a word from fifty or one hundred years ago. Adjustment must take on vitality of expression and be marked by Jesus' promise, before he left us, that he would send the Spirit among us to lead us into all truth.
Friends, the twenty-first century is upon us, a century in which educational levels will continue to rise. Even now, many intellectuals come to the churches full of expectation, willing to listen to our message. They arrive full of expectation, but leave full of disappointment. Why should this be? The church is growing, but our message does not attract people with a modern mindset. Let us welcome theological reconstruction with open arms, so that the church will no longer fall behind, but be a lively community that keeps up with changing times.
Recently, the TSPM/CCC set up a "Theological Reconstruction Promotion Team" whose function is to 1) heighten awareness of the importance of theological reconstruction among our co-workers and fellow Christians, especially clergy; and 2) assist church offices closely involved in theological thinking (seminaries, publications departments, etc.) to thoroughly implement the spirit of theological reconstruction. Our goal is to gradually raise the theological level of Chinese Christianity and foster understanding of theology in world Christianity so that we would be able to participate in theological exchanges with Christians all over the world. This is truly a great responsibility and I hope all our colleagues and fellow Christians will support it. I am retired from my positions in the TSPM/CCC, but I will do my utmost to support this endeavor which is so important for the future of our church.
Based on a summary in Amity News Service2000.3/4.2.