Chinese Theological Review 15

The Nature and Purpose of Theological Reconstruction in the Chinese Church

Wang Aiming

At the turn of the new century, the Chinese church has clearly made theological reconstruction a priority. This illustrates a historical fact that demands immediate attention: the thinking that guides the management of our church and the pastoral care of our believers lags far behind the social reality in which the gospel is preached and witnessed. To put it even more bluntly, what is preached and how the church is run in many local churches actually inhibits the progress of God's creation and favor. Since the Jinan Conference of autumn, 1998, the historic subject of theological reconstruction, a subject related to the future and fate of the Chinese church, has not been substantially understood or emphasized in church administration. Faced with the simple and fervent faith needs of Christians at the grassroots, pastoral workers, especially those in charge of church affairs, easily intoxicated by simplistic ways of thinking, may try to avoid the hard work of theological reconstruction, and sentimentalize the issue, calling for "identification with the believers," saying "religion long ago adapted to socialist society," and "adaptation cuts both ways," or "theological reconstruction in fact sets one faction against another; the modernists against the fundamentalists, or the liberals against the evangelicals."

What, then, is the aim of theological reconstruction? Why is it not a factional debate? Why do we define the central task of theological reconstruction as "actively leading religion to adapt to socialist society?" To answer this we must consider why we feel that to say "religion long ago adapted to socialist society" is incorrect.

The aim of theological reconstruction

In his 1995 speech at the 45th anniversary celebrations for the Three-Self Movement, Bishop Ting clarified the aim of the theological reconstruction we are engaged in today, that is, "construct a theology which is both of the spirit and of the world (and) harmonize the church with socialism."(1) In 1998, the Joint Standing Committees of the Chinese church formally adopted the "Resolution on Strengthening Theological Construction." This resolution was based on the historical scene to which the publication of Love Never Ends was a response. In this we can see the urgent reality the church is facing, what Chen Zemin's heartfelt words at the Jinan Conference described: "There are many concepts and thinking in the church which are not compatible with socialism and cannot adapt to it. When theology lags behind social reality, we can say that compared with the consciousness of the Chinese people today, we are indeed backward." (2) "Whether or not we recognize our church's backwardness in theology, it is an important issue for strengthening theological reconstruction in the church. In August of this year, Bishop Ting spoke on the backwardness of Chinese Christian theological thinking today at a meeting of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in Xi'an, and called for a revisioning and striving for adaptation to and compatibility with socialism."(3)

In early December 1999, the CCC and TSPM held a joint conference in Shanghai on the "Three-Self Principle." The consensus of the conference was "uphold the three-self principle, run the church well, promote theological reconstruction." This is to say that as it faces the 21st century, theological reconstruction is a strategic measure the church takes while upholding the three-self principle. In other words, whether the Chinese church can follow the path of upholding three-self and running the church well in the century just begun hinges on the success or failure of theological reconstruction. Thus, we should say clearly and without misunderstanding that the aim of theological reconstruction just begun by the Chinese church concerns the future and fate of the Chinese church.

The nature of theological reconstruction

We must realize that theological reconstruction does not consist in the views of one religious faction suppressing those of another. In the early 1950s, when the TSPM was initiated, the idea of uniting all patriotic believers was a principle upheld by the Chinese church. The substance of the issue lies in the fact that the principle of uniting is not the same as maintaining harmony all round; establishing theological reconstruction as the leading direction is not the same as being factionalist or separatist. If the argument is formulated that way, we must develop the necessary exposition. In the summer of 1998, when the worst floods in a century devastated the fields and the people who till them along the lower reaches of the Yangtse River, the state mobilized its power in rescue and relief measures, while in the church were heard voices saying, "The floods are God's punishment of unbelievers in China," or God's justice is manifest in punishment," etc. This was even echoed and elaborated upon in some seminaries among faculty and students. Can we really say that such negative and pessimistic ideas clothed as Christian gospel should occupy a spot under the canopy of "let a hundred schools contend" or hold a leading place in theological reconstruction in the Chinese church? Can it really be that, for the sake of safeguarding the doctrinal purity and righteousness of the Chinese church preaching, "God is love" is "one faction suppressing another"?

Why has the Chinese church stressed "patriotism" from the start? The history of the development of Chinese Christianity shows that in the history of the Chinese people Chinese Christians have never truly taken the lead in taking up the deep suffering of their compatriots in the great national salvation enterprise. To put it another way, the Chinese church, at the crucial junctures of history, times of devastation for the nation and the people, have never of their own initiative played the just and moral role they should have taken. Therefore, in the glorious liberation history of the Chinese people, there is no monument to Chinese Christian efforts to save the nation. Besides this, as it says in the Cambridge History of the late Qing, western missionary evangelism in China was marked by exhorting Chinese people to abandon the Chinese cultural tradition, and thus, the Chinese church, which has been deeply influenced by western missionary preaching and devotional writing (though it has cut its political links to western missionaries) has never truly reflected theologically on its own ideas of evangelism.

Therefore, Bishop Ting points out, to understand what it means to bring about the adaptation of religion to socialist society, means for Christianity first of all a theological understanding and acceptance. The thinking of the Christian church is in essence theological thinking. Thus, theological reconstruction must understand and expound the responsibility of Christian faith toward the Chinese people in terms of theological thinking, so that Chinese people will be willing to "hear the message religion has for them." If the role Christianity plays in China is a disastrous and negative one of" harming the people's unity, and giving rise to endless divisions," the Chinese people will have no way to understand, tolerate, or accept it. Furthermore, the ecumenical church, beginning from a desire to safeguard the purity and orthodoxy of Christian faith and doctrine, would see such a Chinese church as heretical and heterodox. Even more seriously, it would ignore or oppose a theologically reconstructed church like this, one that would certainly prove a natural hotbed and haven for heresy. Most seriously of all, such a church would be sure to disintegrate. Therefore Bishop Ting has for years maintained his call for theological reconstruction. He has a truly historic vision of the serious questions facing the Chinese church and their possible disastrous consequences.

Steps in theological reconstruction

We have shown that theological reconstruction is the study of how to better uphold the three-self principle in the new century. Let us follow consider "self-government, self-propagation, self-support" to see what concrete steps are needed in the area of theological reconstruction.

Firstly, the importance of self-government lies in independently dealing with matters of church affairs, especially in rejecting the authority of hostile forces from outside. The demand for theological reconstruction illustrates the principle of the independence and decision-making power of the Chinese church. In its international contacts the Chinese church benefits from the government's policy of reform and openness, by normalized international relationships, which have expanded sympathy and understanding for the impact of the Chinese church's three-self principle. At the same time, we understand the new fruits of the ecumenical heritage of the western churches, especially churches' participation in and contributions to social development. However, the flip side or negative factor in this comes from an indifference to our church's independence. Such interference takes place through normal international relationships. Seen from the principle of theological reconstruction, the international contacts of the Chinese church directly impact the three-self principle of self-government.

Secondly, self-support emphasizes that as it faces the 21st century the Chinese church should study all the successful administrative experience of the ecumenical church. This is to say administratively reforming existing unreasonable or still unhealthy organizational structures. For example, the retirement plan for pastoral workers; pensioners' insurance; abnormal wastage and expense in church finances; supervisory structures for church property; financial support for seminaries from churches in various regions; the legality of having non-Christians in church administration and educational organizations and their financial share based on regulations concerning similar state personnel; and the power of financial safeguards.

Thirdly, the principle of self-propagation in promoting theological reconstruction is expressed in our church's guiding principles for running our 18 seminaries and bible schools, in their theological guidelines, in principles for classroom teaching, and in the standards for the literature and publication work of the CCC. We can say that this is an extremely crucial part of theological reconstruction. The publication of Love Never Ends initiated the historical task of theological reconstruction, and provided a guiding call to the concrete task of upholding the principle of self-propagation in the Chinese church. At present the reality of pastoring believers in grassroots churches is far from meeting the demands of the truth of the gospel. The basic problem is that its theology is not broad enough, to the point that many evangelists simply have no idea of theology.

In his 1995 speech, "A Look Back at the Way We Have Come," Bishop Ting said, "In general terms, sadly, there seems to be only one genuinely important doctrine in Chinese Christianity: If you believe in Christ, then you are justified in God's eyes; if you do not believe in Christ, then you are not justified in God's eyes. From a shallow insistence on this point have evolved many views contrary to common sense: So and so believes, so though he is counterrevolutionary and a traitor, he will go to heaven. Imperialist aggression is bad, but the aggressors were Christians, justified in God's eyes, while the objects of their aggression were non-Christians, not justified in God's eyes, so the objects of aggression got what they deserved-it was God's punishment. Notice to what extent emphasis on only one point of faith and no others can turn right and wrong upside down. According to this point of view, God is well aware that the majority of humankind is bound for the eternal flames of hell because they are unbelievers. Yet day and night without ceasing he keeps creating human beings. What kind of view of God is that? Where do we begin to talk about God's mercy?" (4) Here Bishop Ting has pointed out for us the fundamental responsibility of teaching and research in our seminaries and bible schools for training pastoral workers, that is, the question of the direction of theological education.

This also touches on the question of a correct view of the Bible, because only in establishing a correct view of the Bible can we interpret doctrine and faith principles in accord with God's word. These are the theology of God, Christology, creation theory, redemption theory, theory of grace, eschatology, and so on of systematic theology. When we look at Bishop Ting's call for establishing a well-run church based on three-self principle in terms of theological reconstruction, we see that the direction for the task of theological reflection for the whole church must be in accord with the ecumenical grace contained in the word of God.

At present the task of publication in the Chinese church directly relates to another important aspect of the principle of self-propagation. This is the tendency to hang on to what is outmoded, to think inside the box, to be lost in nostalgia, and simply reproduce either those sermons and works that are semi-colonial and semi-feudal, or to broaden our vision and look to the great heritage of the ecumenical church and our Chinese traditional culture to establish a theological tradition in the Chinese church that leads to the adaptation of the church and socialist society. This is an issue that must be considered in considering how literature and publication work in our church can uphold and advance self-propagation in the realm of theological construction.

The significance of theological reconstruction

The significance of theological reconstruction is first of all to guarantee that in the 21st century Chinese Christian faith will be understood by the Chinese people, to guarantee that the Chinese church continue to advance and prosper in taking up its given responsibility and duty, and to guarantee that what the church preaches is orthodox and pure faith and doctrine. Secondly, the realization of theological reconstruction means that the Chinese church's reputation and prestige in the church ecumenical will finally be established. Third, it means that no heresy or heterodox preaching will find any way to mislead the millions of Chinese Christians.

Thus, the significance of theological reconstruction is theological and ecclesiological, as well as sociological and political. We have every reason to believe that actively leading religion to adapt to socialist society, as the guiding thought of efforts to promote theological reconstruction in the Chinese church, will decisively enable Chinese Christians to walk the advanced path of identification with the Chinese people, and on this great path, Chinese people will affirm the patriotic will and humble contributions of Christians to the common enterprise of reconstruction.

Nanjing Theological Review 1 (2000): 3-5.

The author has served as acting dean of Nanjing Seminary.

1. K.H. Ting, Love Never Ends (Nanjing: Jiangsu Translation Press.2000), 470.

2. Chen Zemin, "Intensify Theological Reconstruction in the Chinese Church," Chinese Theological Review 14 (2000): 45.

3. Ibid: 46.

4. Ting, 492.