Chinese Theological Review 16

Understanding Theological Reconstruction in the Chinese Church
A Hermeneutical Approach

Wang Aiming

1 Introduction

If we view the present work of theological reconstruction in the Chinese Church as a speech event, we can begin with an analysis of the text, thereby understanding its background and causes. Moreover, clarifying the intentions and aspirations behind this speech phenomenon through a general analysis, we can proceed in an unhurried way to make an analysis of the connectedness among all sorts of interrelated items among general concepts and contexts. Approaching this speech event directly, we will discover that the basic line of thought underlying it, in terms of appearance and field of meaning, is helpful to our understanding and appeals to an understanding of words and phrases, whether descriptively or a priori.

Pierre Buhler notes that in Gerhard Ebeling's hermeneutics, theology is not an abstract exercise with itself as goal: it certainly cannot be said that theology is for theology's sake, as people speak of art for art's sake. For Ebling, it is only insofar as it serves the divine speech which constitutes its intrinsic field that theology possesses substantive meaning. This is why theology is always connected to proclamation, as he emphasizes by making it part of the title of one of his works: Theology and Proclamation. After listing the essential topics in theology, he again stresses two topics especially characteristic of theology: Theology is indispensable in giving to the preacher the duty to preach and theology is indispensable in making itself ultimately dispensable, while making the proclamation of divine speech indispensable. Ebeling also says that the standard for theology is proclamation. 1 In understanding what Ebeling's hermeneutics has to say to us, what is most important is this: If theological study does not have the proclamation of Christ at its core, such theology is blind, if the proclamation of Christ is separated from theology, it is empty proclamation.

Again, interpretations of the same text according to the hermeneutics of Paul Ricoeur will necessarily produce a variety of different interpretations, such that the opposite interpretation is always present. Our paths to interpreting the world of the text must necessarily be pluralistic as well. The reader must first of all strive to understand the existential meaning of the world of the text in order to interpret the subjective reality of the world of interpretation of the interpreter him or herself. Ricoeur says that the interpretation of the text and the interpretation of the interpreter's life always correspond and are mutually adjusted. Thus when we read the text world of any interpreter, there are at least two levels of basic structural factors, and when two readings and acts of understanding of the same text coexist, the understanding which comes to us, through its abundant and expanded meaning, possesses an ambiguity and inner tension of the interpreter's understanding. This is the "conflict of interpretations" of theological hermeneutics. 2

Entering into the thinking behind these two hermeneutical approaches will take us into our topic of understanding theological reconstruction in the Chinese Church. Our discussion will cover three aspects: 1) The necessary preparation for understanding theological reconstruction-clarification of thinking, 2) 1 5 topics related to the work of theological reconstruction; and 3) A suggested path for understanding.

2 Groundwork for understanding the ministry of theological reconstruction: Clarifying Thinking

The Work of Theological Reconstruction and the Proclamation of the Word of God; that is, the Mission of the Church.

In 1984, Bishop K.H. Ting posed three questions facing theological education in the Chinese Church, along with several basic directions to guide the its work: 1) How shall we be loyal to the Bible? 2) How shall we be loyal to the teachings of the historical church? 3) How shall we adapt to the new face of China?' Over the past 20 years, the Chinese Church has basically followed the path described by Bishop Ting in carrying forward its guiding work. However, from the vantage of the highest levels of the Chinese Church, it has been far from successful. In the message preached by the majority of our Chinese clergy, there exists across the board a closed-minded view of the Bible. In all facets of the church's work, we have not yet managed to give full play to the unique thinking of the Chinese Church so that it may make its own unique contribution to the church ecumenical. Though the number of believers is increasingly rapidly, marginalization remains their chief external characteristic. In autumn 1998 the Chinese Church passed the resolution on "Strengthening Theological Reconstruction" at its Jinan meeting, and furthermore proposed that "To run the church well according to the three-self principle, we must give full play to the guiding role of theology in building up the church." At the same time, the idea that "Theology is the church in the act of thinking" (K.H. Ting) took its place as a clear theological understanding in the church. In this way, an extremely important message gradually became the focus of attention in the church; that is, that we must ponder our actions and responsibilities from the standpoint of the mission of the church.

This is a basic path to understanding the work of theological reconstruction in the Chinese Church. If we look at it hermeneutically, we can assemble a number of fundamental points: 1) The aim of theology is proclamation; 2) Theology is the church thinking; 3) Biblical principles and the heritage of the historical church are related to the development and progress of our nation. To put it another way, theological propositions and thinking in the Chinese Church are entering a period of awakening and, and through the work of theological reconstruction, will become a unique component of the experience and heritage of the historical church.

"The three-self principle" and the heritage of the historical church.

In attempting to understand the work of theological reconstruction in the Chinese Church, it is essential to clarify the definition of the three-self principle, for all the slander and misunderstanding directed toward the Chinese Church is related to the interpretation of this principle. Firstly, our Chinese clergy is very clear that the "three-self principle" is not the same thing as our basic faith. The Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed set out the fundamentals of the faith of the Chinese Church; the "three-self principle" is not mentioned in these creeds. The three-self principle is the working principle of the Chinese Church. The Chinese Church upholds the three-self principle in order to make the Chinese Church well run. As Bishop Ting put it: Three-Self is "but the scaffolding of the building in the construction process. ... As soon as this building of the body of Christ is completed, standing uniquely on the horizon, the scaffold will disappear".

Thus, in attempting to understand theological reconstruction in the Chinese Church, we will see why, from a historical point of view, the Church's insistence on theological reconstruction as a continuation and deepening of adherence to the three-self principle means running the church even better in a new historical context. Seen within the scope of church history, an accurate understanding of the contribution of theological reconstruction in the Chinese Church to the historical church lies in what, for the Chinese Church, constitutes this heritage, that is, its method of witness to Jesus Christ. In this, the experience of the Chinese Church is shaping a distinctive praxis in the history of the ecumenical church. One of my own visions is that one day, when the Chinese Church with Christ as its head is firmly established, three-self will become a unique term of praise for our Lord in the Chinese Church. Today, there are those in the overseas Chinese churches who hurtfully call the Chinese Church the "three-self church," and belittle Chinese theological propositions as "three-self theology," and even call the seminaries preparing our future evangelists "three-self or 'Kaiser' seminaries." If we look at this from the hermeneutical principle of "conflict of interpretations," of differing understandings of three-self as a text-world, all sorts of internal logical propositions and values of the readers are revealed, and from their different readings we see their self-definitions and the political and social choices and value orientations that result.

Theological Reconstruction and the Selfhood of the Chinese Church.

In early 1999, when I returned from Switzerland to serve the Chinese Church, it was with a high degree of enthusiasm and confidence that I focused on the comprehensive theological reflection then underway in the Chinese Church. I spent nearly that whole early spring reading all the documents and theological treatises of the church, especially Love Never Ends [referring to the Chinese versioned.]. I felt that in this act of rethinking, the Chinese Church was beginning to deal with existing basic questions that concerned whether the church could be part of the modernization process the nation was then entering upon. These questions could be subsumed and described under a group of categories and one could attempt to find a necessary balance among them. These categories are: the secular and the spiritual; this life and the eternal; knowledge and faith; love for one's own and love for others; etc. That is to say, the issue is one of finding a balance between the spiritual and the secular.

What then is the most important point of equilibrium for the Chinese Church? My own position is that only by returning to the core issues of the Reformation will we be able to transcend the limitations resulting from the period of control by the mission boards of the major western denominations in the 19th century. These were issues of domination and superiority, just as a core issue of theReformation period was what is meant by the "power" question. In 16 th century Europe, the conflict between the authority of the church and the authority of the King took shape in Lutheran theology as one of Vatican authority vs. biblical authority. Sola Scriptura was the breakthrough, opening up a historical stage of Christian faith. The Swiss theologian Eric Fuchs says that the central issue of the Reformation was authority, that is, how do we critique authority when speaking in faith terms? The answer is that authority is not a secular thesis of the church, for such a judgment harbors an all-too-common historical error. The only authority is the Bible, inspired by the Holy Spirit and witnessing to the self-revelation of God. 5 As for the Chinese Church, presently growing and developing, the issue of "balance," can also be understood as an issue of "authority." And inherent in this issue of "authority" is the mission of the church. Thus, consideration of what sort of view of the Bible should be established has become the point of departure for theological reconstruction in the Chinese Church.

When contemplating how the Bible should be viewed, we begin to see a Chinese Church in which selfhood is gradually taking shape. The principle of selfhood in the Chinese Church is the principle of self-determination. In all aspects of the ministry of the church, especially in theological thinking, the principle of selfhood enables the Chinese Church to make a unique witness in keeping with Chinese society and cultural context. Thus, in understanding the work of theological reconstruction in the Chinese Church, we also need to pay attention to the formation and development of the church's self-consciousness. Only in this way can we honor the will and proposals of the Chinese Church in international exchanges, only then will the unique theological propositions and standpoints of the Chinese Church not be slandered and misunderstood as political.

3 Fifteen Basic Propositions Related to the Work of Theological Reconstruction

If we treat the work of theological reconstruction in the Chinese Church as a text world waiting to be read and understood, we will certainly come up against a problem: which issues in the work of theological reconstruction bear upon theological thinking in the Chinese Church? Furthermore, in the comparatively long period that stretches before us, which are the issues that will have a substantive effect on the work of the church? Here I will attempt to summarize, from among the many issues under consideration, especially among church leaders, since the "Qingpu Meeting" in the summer of 1999, when the work of theological reconstruction was begun, 15 propositions which I feel are basic to the work of theological reconstruction in the Chinese Church, and thus help international church friends and colleagues to gain a rough understanding of our basic position and thinking. In other words, along a hermeneutical line of thought, these 15 propositions make up the text of theological reconstruction in the Chinese Church.

1 God is love and all God's attributes, such as justice or compassion, are rooted in love, God's paramount divine attribute.

2 Christ is cosmic in His nature; or, we might also say the nature of His Lordship over all creation is cosmic.

3 God's revelation is gradual and progressive, as is human understanding of God.

4 God's work of creation is ongoing.

5 Seek a proper understanding of "justification by grace through faith" that does not lead to the nullification of good deeds or morality.

6 Affirm that Truth, Goodness and Beauty created by God exist not only in the visible church (the Chinese Church), but also outside it.

7 Human beings are a work-in-progress in God's creation. Martin Luther says we are all in an unfinished state.

8 To establish a correct understanding of the Bible requires us to anchor ourselves in the supreme authority of the Scriptures and in the two basic Creeds of the Church (Apostle's Creed and Nicene Creed), and to study and to preach the Word of God in response to the context of Chinese society. In other words, the most important ministry of the Chinese Church and the most important study of the Gospel ministry in China is how to establish a proper view of the Bible.

9 At China's current stage of social development, it is imperative that the moral aspect of Christianity be amplified to its greatest extent.

10 It is insufficient to expound the Three-Self Principle merely in light of the historical background of imperialism and the corresponding Western missionary movement. Our understanding of the Three-Self Principle shall be grounded in biblical and doctrinal evidences, with reference to its profound meaning in the history of Christian faith as a whole.

11 The positive contributions of many Western missionaries to China should not be denied. It is unacceptable to brand all Western missionaries as imperialists and dismiss their contributions.

12 Efforts shall be made to adjust religious viewpoints and actively bring about the adaptation of Christian faith with socialist Chinese society. The aim is to bring the Church in China out of its marginal position and into that of a moving force contributing to Chinese social development.

13 In administration, the direction should be toward a democratically run church. The Church is seriously concerned with avoiding the patriarchal and autocratic models prevalent in the Church and is determined to change this situation to bring about healthy development.

14 Theological reconstruction in China is founded on the following principle: the fundamentals of our faith are unchangeable, but theological thinking can be adjusted.

15 Theological reconstruction in China shall follow three basic principles: a) Upholding the Bible and its supreme authority, and a better understanding of the fundamentals of our faith; b) Prevention of factionalism in the Chinese Church-no one shall be permitted to use theological reconstruction to belittle those who hold different views, and c) Effective mobilization of the work of evangelism in China.

4 A guide to understanding

How our sister churches in partnership can enter the text world of the Chinese Church.

In scholarly terms, my personal feeling is that once the text-world is fully understood, the internal world of understanding of the reader should be entered into. From the standpoint of our relationships with churches internationally, the most important consideration is that we should make our views clear to our partners, but perhaps we have no way to enable them to completely accept our positions and standpoints at a single stroke. Thus, I would like here to raise seven points as suggested means to understanding theological reconstruction in the Chinese Church and offer them to our international church friends for their consideration:

1 The Sitz im Leben of theological reconstruction in the Chinese Church;

2 The entire historical pattern of theology from the entry of Protestantism into China until the present;

3 Respect the special form of Chinese Christians' witness to Christ;

4 Respect the fact that the Chinese Church is still coming into its inheritance from the historical church, and especially the unique form by which this inheritance is received;

5 The special feelings of Chinese Christians for the Bible;

6 Theology is intellectually applied in three ways in the Chinese Church: (a) Lessons and doctrine from the historical church (traditional western); (b) Understanding and interpretation from classical Chinese culture; and (c) Today's modernized models of interpretation, or what may be called the pluralistic value orientation model of understanding in the world (global and secular) context;

7 The changing make-up of the body of Chinese Christians: (a) the majority of rural Christians with their solid emotional grounding in love of God, (b) intellectuals with a clear civil consciousness who show their love of God in a sense of responsibility and participation; and (c) the urban middle classes, a substantial number of whom were led to convert to Christ through spiritual seeking.

We Need to See Clearly our Own Situation and Challenges

On observation of the actual situation of our Church in China, the urgency of theological reconstruction comes from the need to improve the imbalances and abnormalities in our ministry. Allow me to list concrete issues in a question format:

1 Churches have been built in many places in China, but isn't the church in believers' hearts far from being realized?

2 How can Chinese clergy, in a modernizing China, take up the burden of their mission to spread God's holy word? What is the overall quality of our clergy?

3 If we have a vision for the Chinese Church where the CCC becomes a church in which all Chinese churches are united, will all denominational backgrounds be truly willing, on the basis of respect for each other's differences, to join together in this united church?

4 As the church's self-consciousness is awakening and being formed in the context of the market economy of the civil society, isn't it imperative that the Chinese Church reflect on the new spiritual challenges the new era will pose for pastoral workers and believers?

5 Conclusion: Prospects and Confidence

What are the prospects for theological reconstruction in the Chinese Church? We feel that in terms of principle, there are at least three important points or guidelines for this difficult and vast task:

1 Lead and guide upward, turn to Christ and build a Chinese Church with Christ as its Head,

2 Send roots downward, anchoring a church firmly grounded in Scripture and in the traditions of the Church, especially in the principles and teachings of the New Testament Church, while at the same time drawing broadly on all the superior concepts and models of the historical church which can be of benefit to the Chinese Church, in order to build that church up as an independent, self-determined church;

3 Move forward on all sides, expand and push forward in all aspects of the church's ministry and life: practicality.

Based on the text of talks given at a sharing session on Ministry in the Chinese Church under the auspices of the China Leadership Exchange (CLE) in Pasadena, CA, Sept. 2001 and Feb. 2002.

Rev. Ambroise Wang Aiming is Vlce-Principal and Dean of Nanjing Union Theological Seminary.

1 Gerhard Ebeling, Wort and Glaube l, pp. 447ff. Quoted in "Parole de Dieu et hermeneutique, Introduction a la pensee de Gerhard Ebeling," by Pierre Buhler, Irenikon (4/1997): 457.
2 Paul Ricoeur, The Conflict of Interpretations (Paris: Seuil, 1969), 376.
3 K.H. Ting, "On Theological Education in China," Nanjing Theological Review (New Series) (9/1984): 46.
4 ___, "Another Look at Three-Self," in Love Never Ends ( Nanjing: Yilin Press, 2000), 106.
5 Eric Fuchs, "Actualite de I'ethique protestante," in Etudes theologique et religieuse, vol. 68 (1993/2), 203-21 2.