Chinese Theological Review 16

Theological Change and the Adaptation of Christianity to Socialist Society

Xiao Anping

Changing times are a challenge to Christian theology, and profound reflection, intro-retrospection and effective response and adaptation are universal phenomena and patterns in the history of the Christian churches and theology. Changing times and social development bring changes and development in theology as well, this is natural and inevitable. It is progress. This essay will examine the adaptation of Christianity to Chinese socialist society in terms of changes in theological thinking.

A history of Christian thought is also a history of the development of believers' knowledge of God, as well as a history of the way in which theology develops in response to societies and cultural contexts. In the latter years of the ancient church, as the it gradually became more Romanized, developing into the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages and part of feudal society, the theology of the church fathers was supplanted by the reigning Scholasticism. With the east-west schism, the eastern church split from the western church and developed into Eastern Orthodoxy. Thus joined to the context of Slavic culture, ethnicity and society, the eastern church gave shape to its unique orthodox theology. The Catholic Church became increasingly corrupted in the late Middle Ages, the sale of indulgences on a grand scale caused a great deal of damage and the church failed to adapt with the developing times. The religious reformation of Martin I other sprang up under the influence of the renaissance, humanism, and classical studies. Guided by God, and after arduous searching, he formulated a return to the Bible and "justification by faith," pasting up his 95 Theses on the church door at Wittenberg, raising the curtain on the religious reformation. This caused tremendous changes in theological thinking, and through "the priesthood of all believers" which allowed direct knowledge of God, brought freedom and liberation of thinking through truth, new life to the Church and reinvigoration of the spiritual to believers. "Martin Luther brought the idea of struggle for the human right to self-determination into the realm of religious doctrine, and thus weakened the church's strict control over believers." 1 By means of changing a world-denying church into a church that engaged the world, Calvin joined the religious life to the secular life, which helped people realize their own potential for positive action, making religious life into a practical faith, a human way of life marked by good morals, improvement and healthy behavior-, all developments beneficial to society.

All these followed the tides of history and the progress of the times, propelling theology toward change and reform. The movement for religious reformation movement became the third thought movement of the cultural renaissance, taking direct part in the great intellectual transformation of the time. Thus the religious reformation can be seen as the expression of humanism within the church. This not only propelled changes in theology, but propelled progress in all European history and society, becoming the first of the three decisive engagements of the bourgeoisie against feudalism. 2 This is sufficient to show its sign ificance as preparation for modern society. With changes in theology illuminating its just and progressive nature, Protestantism broke out of Catholicism, finding its feet and setting out on the path of development. Thus the establishment and development of Protestantism was a development of adapting to the times and to society.

Besides changes and development in society, theological change is brought about through different denominations and theological systems, but these, such as the three main streams of Christianity -- Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox -- and other smaller denominations and theological systems, are formed by their encounter and union with their different political, economic, cultural, social and ethical contexts. It is because of these differences and riches that human knowledge of God grows deeper. It is these that strongly propel development of the church, improvements in theology and formation of theological systems. At the same time, the church universal is enriched by particularity and plurality, enabling the particular and the universal, the individual and the shared to be united. How can we keep theology from simply fitting in with traditional views and values today, and reach for change and development? This requires that traditional views and values be tested against today's times and realities, pondering and measuring them against transformed circumstances and actual conditions. We must more rationally and thoroughly bring forth new explanations and expositions of theology. Moreover, through the revelation of truth God give us in our new times and different contexts, we must allow persons to gain greater sight and light. The contextual differences and similarities in different places during the same times can also be expressed as changes and different characteristics in theology. Additionally, sharing, exchanges, study and research among believers can also serve to improve knowledge and ideas, thus promoting adjustments and changes in theology.

Do changes in theology change faith? No. Theological change takes place within the prerequisite of an unchanging faith. It does not change faith; quite the opposite, it witnesses to and strengthens faith. "Theological thinking in the church regularly undergoes change, but the basic faith of the church is firm and unchanging. The Trinity, the Incarnation, Christ's death on the cross for all humankind, His resurrection on the third day; all these cannot change. And it is because these fundamentals do not change that theological thinking must make necessary adjustments according to changing times." 3 Theology is an explanation of faith, the church in the act of thinking. Different times have a different message to transmit and different theological explications of that message. In order to be in line with the needs of the times, theology has to explain faith according to the times so that the people of this time can better understand and accept it. Thus faith is unchanging, but each age changes, and the theology which follows along with the changes in each age to explain faith, also changes. Nor is change in theology in conflict with the Bible. The progression from the image of God as disciplinarian in the Old Testament to the loving God of the New Testament to God as Love (1Jn. 4:8), illustrates that in the Bible, too, people's knowledge of God, or theological thinking, changes. The meeting in Jerusalem recorded in Acts 15 decided to abolish adherence to Jewish law and custom, such as the practice of circumcision, so that the gospel could be preached abroad, enabling Christianity to break through the bounds of Judaism and become a world religion. This also represents an instance of great change in theology, allowing people to come to a new understanding that Jesus is not simply the savior of the Jews, but Savior of the Gentiles as well. This was a meeting of great significance in the history of the church. Because it broke through old barriers and the rigidity of traditional thinking, it enabled the church to flourish and develop, and in this way, changes in theological thinking were not opposed by the church, but rather were actively promoted and supported, just as the decision made by the gathering in Jerusalem.

"Because God reveals things to us in the Bible gradually, revelations are not single events, over and done with. In the same way, human understanding of God's revelation does not come all at once either, but unfolds and increases gradually." 4 It is extremely important to look at God's revelation in the Bible and in history developmentally; in addition, humans are so minute and their capacity for understanding so limited that they cannot understand the perfect and inexhaustible truth all at once; they must follow a long path and use every means, ceaselessly exploring, to come to a gradual understanding. God, many times and in many ways through the prophets, instructed the ancestors, and Jesus said, "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them all now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth..." (In. 16: 12-13). Human knowledge comes gradually, changes and grows gradually, just as the two thousand years of theological history tell us: Human knowledge of God develops through a process from limited to greater, from shallow to deep, from simple to complex, from abstract to concrete.

In Roman Catholicism as well as in Protestantism, and influenced by the religious reformation, inner reform took place. There were changes in theology, arid there were new trends, such as an emphasis on positivist theology and theological terminology. Later there was Vatican Il, where, faced with modern society, the Church undertook self-reflection and reform. Vatican II stressed that the Church s mission was to serve the people and pointed out that people join together as one in the body of Christ through baptism and the sacraments ... sharing in the priesthood of Christ and the orders of prophecy and kingship, and within their individual selves carry out the whole mission of sons and daughters of Christ within the church and in the world. Thus the Catholic Church raised the position and status of the laity in the church, as well as adopting a more tolerant and canny attitude toward human society and increasingly showing forth the local character of the church. Obviously even the Catholic Church makes relevant changes along with the changes in the times. In the modern period, following along with the development of modern industry, science and technology, and ethnic awakening, greater pluralism appeared in Christian theology: neo-orthodoxy liberation theology, process theology, theology of hope, black theology, feminist theology, ecumenical theology, dialogue theology, environmental theology, Minjung theology, contextual theology, water buffalo theology and cultural theology, to name but a few. The appearance of such a great many theologies witnesses once again to the fact that theology is continually changing and developing. This is a historical necessity, a demand of the times and social progress, as well as an internal developmental demand, an inevitability for the church itself.

Looking at the Chinese Church today in terms of theological change, we cannot be closed off upon ourselves, nor discard the universal laws and church truth of the development of Christian thought to run in the opposite direction. Rather, we should face the context and environment in which the church finds itself today -- Chinese socialist society -- and, following along with changing times and social development, adjust and develop the theological thinking of the Church. The reason Protestant Christianity has developed to its present state of vitality is because it has a strong capacity to adapt, not only to developing times, but an ability go ahead of the times. This is its prophetic voice, this is its long-sightedness and vision, this is the moral quality and special character a Church must have. Still, we should ponder the fact that the Chinese Church has a 50-year history of development, while the new social form established in new China has a 51-year history. How has Christianity adapted to this new era and new society? We would certainly not deny that the church has indeed greatly developed and that it has achieved some explorations and first steps in theology. At the same time, however, we must see that theology in the Chinese Church is still poor and backward. If we look at things with a historical attitude, we have not yet established a systematic theology and its attendant systems. We still have a problem in that believers remain poorly educated and lacking in their grasp of the faith, even sermon content is like that of 50 years ago and has not adapted to the times or to society. If change does not take place in the theology of the Chinese Church today, it will be very difficult to adapt to the ever-developing Chinese socialist society. But if we want to adapt, we cannot be satisfied simply with lip service: we must undertake to adapt theological thinking. Adaptation in theological thinking is the only true adaptation. In reality, if we want to adapt theological thinking, we must break through the old backward, stagnant traditional concepts and thought, and make some adjustments, changes and renewal. From this we can see that adaptation requires a great deal of effort, and we must strive to promote the reconstruction of theological thinking with all our might. The goal of theological reconstruction is adaptation to socialist society. "Whether or not it can promote the adaptation of Christianity with socialist society is the standard for assessing theological reconstruction." 5

Chairman Jiang Zemin has asked that we work actively to bring about the adaptation of religion and socialist society. There is no reason to oppose this in terms of faith: there is no conflict with basic biblical faith, nor is it harmful to biblical truth. There is even less reason to oppose it in terms of changes that have taken place in historical and practical theology. The issue of adapting to socialist society also exists for education, social science, literature, art and morality 1 he adaptation of Christianity to socialist society is in line with the laws and standards of the Bible, church history and theological development, in line with the tides and progress of the times, and also in line with the will and truth of God. "Socialist society is the newest form of human society up to the present, it is possessed of a just and advanced nature, and because of this has shaped a new culture, art, philosophy, ethics, which, with all that is true, good and beautiful in this world alike emanate from the 'father of all light'. All this implies the pre-existence, perfection and transcendence of Christ, who overarches all in the cosmos." 6 Thus, adaptation is a matter of course. As Bishop Ting states: "For the benefit of our nation, and for the existence and witness of the church itself, adaptation to socialist society is a reasonable course, the natural choice of any responsible citizen and any responsible believer." 7

The present emphasis in the Chinese Church on theological reconstruction is an epic and tremendous work that concerns the future and fate of the church. It is an important guarantee and strategy in the continuation of running the church well according to the three-self principle, an important path to resolving the adaptation of religion and socialist society on a fundamental level. Whether or not it is possible to adapt to socialist society is to a great extent dependent upon theological thinking in the church, only by first doing a good job of building up theology, enabling it to adjust, transform and renew, enriching its content and special features in the new era, will religion be able to truly adapt to socialist society. Only when this takes place on the level of thought and knowledge will we be inevitably led to identify with the people of our nation and socialist society and adapt in action and practice. In this way, the Chinese Church will be contextualized and indigenized in the true meaning of those words.

And finally, two very important points. First, from the vertical of history and the horizontal of geography, and from the reality of the church to the practical needs of church development and the Bible, changes in theology are a universal law and important principle of the history of Christian thought and the development of the world Church. Thus, the adaptation of Christianity to socialist society is in line with this law and principle. It is reasonable, correct and inevitable. Second, for Christianity genuinely to adapt to socialist society, there must first be changes in theology, that is, we must undertake adjustment, change and renewal-invigorate theological thinking. The late Bishop Zheng Jianye measured the work of three-self by the following standard: "What benefit will doing this have for the nation? How will it benefit the church?"' All must be weighed in the scales of love country, love church. Clearly, it is beneficial to the existence and development of the church as it faces a changing context, era, society and nation, that the theology of the church change, and thus adapt and establish a Church in China with a similar image to today's socialist society, full of the witness to the glory of Christ.

Nanjing Theological Review 112 001: 10-12.

Xiao Anping is the Dean of Zhongnan Seminary in Wuhan.

1 Zhang Chuanyou, Sources of Western Wisdom (Wuhan: Wuhan University Press, 1999), 134.
2 Engels included the 16 '" century religious reformation, along with the 17 11 century English Reformation, and the 18 11 century French Revolution, in a list of three decisive battles by the bourgeoisie in the protracted struggle against feudalism. The religious reformation was the first, indicating its historical significance. Moreover the religious reformation led to the German Peasant Revolt. See Chen Xiux and Yang Zutao, History of European Philosophy (rev.ed. 1986) (Wuhan: Hubei People's Press, 1987), 227.
3 K. H. Ting, "The Unavoidability and Necessity of Adapting Theological Thinking" ( Nanjing Theological Review (2/2000): 10.
4 ___, "God's Self Revelation in the Bible and Our Slowness in Grasping It" ( Nanjing Theological Review (1 /1999): 3; translated in Chinese Theological Review (14/ 2000): 32.
5 Ye Xiaowen, "With History as the standard, Strengthen results, open up the future" Chinese Religion (6/2000): 6.
6 Hua Yaozeng, "Theological Reconstruction is at Present the Main Task in Making Deeper and Developing the Three-Self Patriotic Movement" (Nanjing Theological Review 3/2000): 11.
7 See note 3 above.
8 Quoted in Fifty Years of Three-Self by Shen Derong ( Shanghai: CCC, 2000), 52.