Theology and Context
Speech on the 50 th Anniversary of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China
What is theological reconstruction and why is it important? There are still those persons in the church who do not have a very clear understanding of the issue, and some who misunderstand it. Others think that it is an attack upon our basic faith and therefore will have no part of it.
Basic Christian faith is not the same thing as theological thinking, and we should make a distinction between them. Our basic Christian faith comes as revelation from God; it is not a matter of somebody making some pronouncement which then becomes faith. Faith is from God, not something thought up by humans. The Trinity, the Incarnation, the resurrection of Christ: these are basic creeds of Christian faith and do not change.We live amid changes and as times change all sorts of questions arise; these new questions tend to present difficulties for believers. Theologians and teachers of theology put forth theological views based on their studies to assist believers to be able to understand and continue to maintain their faith in a new era, to help them continue to be loyal to their basic faith. Thus, theological viewpoints can change; in fact they must.
Many theological views receive a lot of emphasis for a certain period of time, but when circumstances change, their importance diminishes and new theological views take prominence. Prior to the American Civil War, for example, it was the view (a theological view) that black people had no souls and that there was nothing wrong in working them like animals on the land. Lincoln freed the slaves by the war, and this theological view gradually lost ground. Thus theological viewpoints can be played down and even disappear. There are many other examples as well. In the Bible the mother of the sons of Zebedee implores Jesus that one day her sons will sit, one at his right side and one at his left. This is her prayer. But Jesus rebukes her—this will not come about because of her prayer, though we should pray. It is the content of her prayer that is the problem and Jesus helps her adjust the theological view reflected in her prayer. There are very many theological views in the church; for example, those regarding the Lord's Supper. Theological views can differ greatly: some say real wine should be used for communion, others want grape juice; some worship on Saturday, others on Sunday. These are the result of different theological views and are not a part of basic faith.
Theological reconstruction or adaptation can help us to better maintain our basic faith unchanged. I believe it is crucial to separate basic faith from theological thinking.
In fact, our thinking requires frequent adjustments on all fronts. Communist thinking is also being continually adjusted. For the past few months, I have noticed in the newspapers the phrase "the three represents," though I didn't know who was being represented. Later I saw an article that explained this did not refer to three persons, but was a request that Party members represent three important things: the advanced forces of production; advanced cultural direction; and the greatest benefit for the great masses of the people. The Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference journal, CPPCC , noted that the "three represents" summarized scientifically and in three aspects the aim, nature and duty of the Communist Party. They were formulated to answer the question of what sort of Party should be established for a new historical era. As Chinese Christians, we should care about these "three represents." Once I understood them, I felt greatly comforted, because the "three represents" do not say that the Chinese Communist Party represents anti-religious forces. Today the conflict between theism and atheism has been diminished. Prior to the Cultural Revolution, if a newspaper or periodical carried an article on religion, it would almost certainly lump it together with the idea of religion as opium. In those days, if one did not call religion opium, one would be suspected of not being a genuine Marxist. Today, we have no more articles like this, the "opium theory" has been vastly played down and we can see from this that Communist thinking is constantly changing too. My confidence in the Chinese Communist Party's policy of freedom of religion was increased by learning about the "three represents." Thinking in natural science is always being adjusted as well. Thus, if some adjustment takes place in Christian theological thinking, it is nothing remarkable. Playing down some theological views today is permissible, and in fact, necessary.
Recently, in Qingdao we held a symposium on approaches to the Bible. One's view of the Bible is extremely important; it is the "master switch." If we have an incorrect view of the Bible, we will be incorrect in many things, and in our thinking. On the final day of the symposium, I said in my remarks that perhaps Chinese Christianity could play down the idea of "justification by faith." I said this because it is overemphasized in China, as if it is the all in all of Christian faith. The idea is that anyone who believes will go to heaven after death, and those who do not believe will go to hell. This is an idea that denies morality. By extension, Hitler and Mussolini, as Christians, would be in heaven, while Confucius, Laozi, Mozi and Zhou Enlai, nonbelievers, would be in hell. This is the only logical conclusion according to this idea. Such a Christianity may appeal to some, but can we really imagine that most Chinese would be willing to accept it over the long run? Some people say, I really love my parents, but as non-believers they will be in hell while I, as a believer, will enjoy heaven. I really cannot bear such thinking. I have received letters from a few pastors who say they can no longer stand in the pulpit and preach such things. They are pastors of conscience and so they welcome theological reconstruction and put their hopes in it.
At the Qingdao conference on approaches to the Bible, there were dozens of people present when I raised the idea of playing down justification by faith and I asked those who did not agree, as well as those who did, to speak with me afterwards. A number of people felt that playing down this idea would allow a better understanding of God, enable people to know God as a God of love. If God were to send people to hell because of their unbelief, this would create problems in our idea of God—how then could God be a God of love?
The word "justification" in the Greek New Testament has no equivalent in Chinese, which creates problems in interpretation. We should note the way Today's Chinese version deals with this. Today's Chinese Bible was published in 1979, sixty years after the Mandarin Union Version. Today's Chinese Bible does not use the Chinese term chengyi for justification as the Union Version does. In most cases where the Union Version has chengyi , Today's version translates as "in an appropriate relationship with God" (Rom.1:17; 3:28, 30; 4:5, 25; Gal.2:16, 21; 3:8,11,21,24; 5: 4,5). This is both in line with what most theologians in the world today understand by "justification or righteousness" and is extremely helpful in correcting the mistaken view of "justification by faith" found in grassroots churches.
When we speak of playing down the doctrine of "justification by faith" then, we mean first of all a superficial and doctrinaire understanding, which, with the mention of "justification by faith" makes a simplistic connection with heaven and hell as if this were the whole meaning of "justification by faith." Actually, in the Bible Paul's use of "justification by faith" is always closely linked to the important ideas of grace, reconciliation, being made new in Christ, tearing down barriers, etc. In Paul's letters, the word "hell" does not occur. Paul said, "For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh" (Rom. 9:3). What feeling is this? In our discussions of "justification by faith," this is something to keep in mind.
The uplifting of justification by faith by Paul in the first t century and Marin Luther in the sixteenth, was not a matter of dealing with the question of individual salvation only, but a desire that those already in the church would oppose Jewish legalism and papal hegemony. Some people think that without justification by faith, Christianity has nothing to offer. There are no grounds for such a worry. Paul's writings contain many messages which should be loudly and uniquely proclaimed, and which are more easily accepted than justification by faith, for example, "faith, hope and love, these three; and the greatest of these is love." In fact, if we are not willing to play down justification by faith, but insist on emphasizing it, we will create a host of theological difficulties for ourselves (for example, whether or not truth, goodness and beauty exist outside the church).
To play down does not mean to eradicate. Playing down simply means not making this the all in all of Christianity, but manifesting all the riches of Christian faith. We live in a socialist society, and Chairman Jiang Zemin hopes that religions can adapt to this socialist society. Socialist society is at present the most advanced society known to humanity. There are still many bad things left from the old society, such as drugs, corruption and waste, and we do not want to adapt to these things, but to those things which are the essence of socialism, especially in terms of adapting our thinking, and not only general thinking, but theological thinking.
At the same time, Christianity must adapt to our ever-progressing society, and narrow the gap with Chinese intellectual circles. We Christians cannot be content to stay at a lower level, but must dialogue with intellectuals to ensure our future. Otherwise, we will begin to resemble Falun gong or some other cult. If that happens we will not have a future. Thus, theological reconstruction is not only for adaptation to socialist society, but to raise our level to that of our culture and intellectual circles. If we do not do this, intellectuals will look down on us and pay no attention to us. We will be left behind.
The level of theological studies in the West is in many respects higher than our own and many westerners with theological education are not that willing to have anything to do with us. In the 1950s, they were interested in understanding how we would implement Three-Self Chinese Christianity under socialism, but they are not so interested in what we are doing now. Some say our colleagues have only two phrases they trot out for foreign guests: "Thank the Lord," and "Praise the Lord." These are fine, but not conducive to discussion. Christians overseas feel there is no theology in the Chinese Church or that our theology is very primitive. When we send delegations overseas, or invite people here, what sort of theological thinking shall we have for discussions? In four years of seminary, few of our students are able to achieve a high level of theology. People from churches overseas do not simply want to hear "Praise the Lord"; they want to have a theological discussion. Even at the seminary, they feel that China has no theology. Theological reconstruction aims to raise the level of theological thinking in the Chinese Church, so that we have a theology to discuss.
We have had some concrete results in theological reconstruction over the past two years. I have seen a letter from an instructor in the philosophy department at People's University, and another from an instructor at the Party School in Anhui, both expressing how pleased they were that we are undertaking theological reconstruction and that they had great hopes for it. They are intellectuals but not Christians, and they did not want to see Christianity go the way of Falun gong, but rather wanted to see it improving. I have received even more such letters from colleagues within the church. These letters made me very happy and made me feel even more the need for theological reconstruction. We must not disappoint our friends inside and outside the church.
We in the TSPM and three-self organizations at all levels, provincial and municipal have been promoting theological reconstruction for nearly two years, but there are some colleagues within three-self organizations who are still not very committed to it. Why is this? One reason may be that they are not very sensitive to theology or to what theology is. Another reason may be that for decades TSPM has stressed broadening unity and this has become its paramount focus. We must continue to emphasize unity, but sometimes this has meant that people are afraid to deal with theology in case it affects their basic faith. This has caused stagnation in theology. Another reason may be that they do not understand the changes that have taken place in theology worldwide. Today in Martin Luther's Germany the opposition to the pope has been played down to the extent that they speak of signing a pact of friendship with the Vatican, announcing the cessation of their disagreements over "justification by faith." I hope Chinese pastors will not simply follow the methods of nineteenth century foreign missionaries and some church leaders for the sake of church growth and pushing faith only, but rather emphasize Jesus' morality and ethics. This is in keeping with theological trends in the world today.
Some say you are liberals, modernists while we are traditionalists, evangelicals: we cannot adjust our theological thinking. But this doesn't really appear to be so. Several months ago, we had as our guest the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Australia, a prominent evangelical. When we introduced Chinese theological reconstruction, he thought this was an excellent thing for the Chinese church to do. He quoted Jesus' teaching from the Bible: "You have heard it said ... but I tell you ...": isn't Jesus telling us to adjust our theological thinking here? Though he is an evangelical, the archbishop upheld the adjustment and reconstruction of theological thinking, and held up Jesus as a model for us.
I hope that our clergy, theological teachers and students will lead the way and show our Christians that they are participating in theological reconstruction. When the TSPM and CCC send delegations overseas for meetings and visits, the first criterion is politics, then language; theology should also be a consideration. We don't pay much attention to people's level of theological training when putting delegations together at present and most of those we send are not really able to have a theological discussion, which leads to foreigners thinking that we have no theology. I recently met a friend who had gone overseas to attend a meeting and asked him a few questions about it, but he couldn't answer them, saying merely, "I just went along to familiarize myself with the situation." This is not good enough. In future I hope we will consider people's theological abilities in choosing those to send overseas.
I hope what I have said here will help you in considering the value of theological reconstruction, and enable it to continue to develop, so that there may be a new day in Chinese Christianity, pleasing to our friends in and outside the church here at home and garnering respect in the church ecumenical.