Adapting Christianity to Socialist Society: Theological Changes
Changing times are a challenge to Christian theological thinking and bring about profound examination and reflection, calling forth effective responses and adjustments. This is a universal phenomenon, a law of the history of the Christian church and Christian theology. It is natural and inevitable that changing times and social development also bring about changes and development in theology; this is progress. In this paper, I shall consider how the current adaptation of Christianity to Chinese socialist society should be viewed from the perspective of changes in theological thinking.
A history of theology is a history of the development of Christians' knowledge of God. It is also the history of the contextualization of theology in different societies and cultures, and its development within that context. In its latter period, as the ancient church became more Roman Catholic and developed step by step into the Catholic Church of the feudal society of the Middle Ages. The theology of the church fathers gave way to Scholasticism, the dominant philosophy of the Middle Ages. But with the east-west schism, the eastern churches, developing eastern orthodoxy, becoming contextualized and subsumed into Slavic culture, national characteristics and society, and shaping a unique orthodox theology. In the late medieval period, the Catholic Church became increasingly corrupt, selling indulgences on a grand scale. This exposed it to great danger and kept it from adapting to the developing times. Influenced by the humanism of the renaissance and classical studies, Martin Luther said that he would rather be consumed on a bed of burning coals than "rot here." After being sorely tested, he proposed, with God's guidance, the idea of returning to the Bible and "justification by faith." Pasting his 95 Theses on the doors of the church in Wittenberg, he raised the curtain on the reformation of the church, causing a great transformation in theological thinking. His idea of the "priesthood of all believers" allowed people to be in direct communion with God, set free and liberated in thinking by the truth. He brought new life to the church and revitalized believers' spiritual lives. "Martin Luther brought thinking that fought for people's right to independence and self-initiative into religious doctrine and thereby weakened the church's strict control over believers." (1)
Calvin brought religious and secular life together by changing an other-worldly religion into a this-worldly one. This helped people develop their capacity for action, making a realized faith of the religious life, a life in the world that was virtuous, improving, healthy, and promising: a life developing in a direction beneficial to society. This conformed to the tides of history and the forward march of time, spurring transformation and renewal in theology. It is important to note that the religious reformation became the third thought movement of the renaissance, directly involved in the great transformation in thinking that took place. Thus the religious reformation can be seen as the expression of humanism within the church, not only causing changes in theology, but also promoting the advancement of the whole of European history and society. It was the first of three decisive engagements of the bourgeoisie against feudalism, (2) and played a significant role in preparing for modern society. The justice and progressiveness of changes taking place in theology shone into the rest of society. Beginning with the reformation, Protestantism separated itself from Catholicism, and its establishment and development may be said to be an example of adapting to the developments of the times and to society.
In addition to social change and development, theology also changes because of differences in denominations and theological systems. But the three largest Christian churches-Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant-as well as all the smaller denominations and theological systems, are shaped by their encounters with the combined politics, economics, culture, society, mores, etc. of their contexts. It is these differences and riches that bring depth to people's knowledge of God, and it is these, which propel church development and shape theology into systems. At the same time, its particularity and diversity enriches the church universal and unites the particular and the universal. How do we bring about change and development in traditional concepts and values that are unsuitable for today? These must be tested in the present time and reality, changes compared to and considered together with actual conditions, so that a new interpretation and elucidation can be made that is more rational, more penetrating, and more comprehensive.
Moreover, through the revelation of truth that God gives people in different times and contexts, they gain more sight and more light: This means that different regions during the same era may, because of similarities and differences in their contexts, give expression to certain changes and special features in theological thinking. In addition, the sharing, exchanges, learning, and exploration among believers can also raise understanding and artistic conception, and thereby spur adjustment and transformation in theological thinking.
Will changes in theology change faith? No. The prerequisite for changes in theological thinking is that faith remains unchanged. Changes in theological thinking do not act to change faith, but rather to witness to and strengthen faith. "Changes are always taking place in theological thinking, but the fundamental faith of the church is firm and unchanging. Just as the Trinity, the Incarnation, Christ's death on the cross for all, his resurrection on the third day, do not change. And just because these fundamentals of faith do not change, theology must follow the changing times and must make adjustments." (3) Theological explanations of faith are the church in the act of thinking; different ages spread different messages, and have different theological elucidations. In order to meet the needs of the times, theology has to explain faith in terms of the age, so that people of this time can better understand and accept it. Thus, faith is unchanging, but times change and the theological theory that follows the changing times in interpreting faith also changes.
Furthermore, changes in theology are not in contradiction to the Bible. Changes in the image of God, from disciplinarian in the Old Testament to the image of a loving God in the New Testament, to God is Love (John 4: 8), shows that in the Bible there are people whose understanding of God or whose theologies, change. Acts 15 records the meeting in Jerusalem that decided to abandon observance of the Jewish law and its rituals (like circumcision) and permit the gospel to be spread to the gentiles, causing Christianity to break out of the bonds of Judaism and become a world religion. This is also an example of a great change in theological thinking that caused people to realize anew that Jesus is not Savior of the Jews alone, but also Savior of the gentiles. This was a significant meeting in the history of the church, because it broke through closed and rigid traditional thinking, enabling the church to flourish and develop even more. Thus, rather than opposing changes in theological thinking, the church actively promotes and supports them, just like the decisions of that meeting in Jerusalem.
"Because God reveals things to us in the Bible gradually, (4) 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." It is extremely important to see God's revelation in the Bible and in history as development. Humanity is miniscule and our capacity for knowledge limited. We cannot understand the perfect and ultimate truth all at once, but need to travel a long road of exploration with every means at our disposal, coming gradually to knowledge. Many times and in many ways, God gave explicit instructions to the tribes of Israel through the prophets, and Jesus said "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth" (John 16: 12-13). People come gradually to knowledge. Then that knowledge is gradually changed and increased. We see this in two thousand years of changes in theology: human knowledge of God moves through a process of development from low to high, shallow to deep, simple to complex, abstract to concrete.
Under the influence of the Reformation, not only Protestantism, but also the inner circles of Catholicism, underwent a reformation. Changes took place in theology and there were new trends. Later, with Vatican II, self-reflection and renewal in the face of a changed modern society took place. This meeting emphasized that the church's mission was to serve humanity. In this way the Catholic Church raised the status and role of lay people in the church, and took a more tolerant approach to acceptance of human society, showed a greater concern for real-life societies and gave increasing prominence to the local character of churches. It can be seen that the Catholic Church changed in response to changes in the times.
In the modern period, following the development of modern industry and technology and the awakening of peoples, there has been increasing diversity in Christian theology, such as neo-orthodoxy, liberation theology, process theology, theology of hope, African-American theology, feminist theology, ecumenical theology, dialogue theology, eco-theology, Minjung theology, contextual theology, water buffalo theology, theology of culture, and so on. The appearance of this vast system of theologies once again witnesses to the fact that theology is ever changing and developing. This is a historical inevitability, a demand of changing times, the advance of society. It is also the result of the inner demand and inevitability of the self-development of the church.
Looking at the Chinese church today through the lens of theological change, we cannot be complacent and conservative, abandoning the universal laws of the development of Christian theology, running counter to the church's truth. Rather, we should face the context and environment in which the church finds itself today-a China with a socialist society-and adjust and develop the church's theological thinking in line with the changing times and social development. The reason Protestantism is alive and well today is that it is extremely adaptable. Not only can it adapt to the development of the times, it goes ahead of its times. This is the prophetic voice, its far-sightedness and its vision, the moral character and special nature Christianity should possess.
But we should reflect on the fact that the church in China, as the independent church it is today, is fifty years old, while China, a new type of society, is fifty-one years old. How will Christianity adapt to this new time and society? We certainly do not deny that the church has developed tremendously and that there have been explorations and a beginning in theology, but in another aspect, we must also look at the fact that Chinese Christian theology is still a poor and backward thing. We should use a historical approach to see thing squarely. We have yet to establish a systematic theory of theology and its attendant systems. There is still the issue of existing differences in believers' thinking and quality of faith, to the point that some preaching is still speaking in the categories of fifty years ago, and has hardly adapted to the times and society.
If there is no change in theological thinking in the Chinese church, it will have a very difficult time adapting to the daily developing Chinese socialist society. But it must adapt, and it cannot be satisfied with lip service, adaptation must take place theologically. Only theological adaptation is genuine adaptation. In actuality, change and adaptation in theology is necessary for the survival and development of the church. Thus in order to undertake theological adaptation, it is necessary to break through the unsuitable old and backward traditional concepts and theological thinking, to revise, transform, and renew it. From this it can be seen that there is much to be done in order to adapt. We must work hard to promote theological reconstruction. The goal of theological reconstruction is adaptation to socialist society. "Whether or not theological reconstruction can adapt theology to socialist society is the standard by which to judge it." (5)
Chairman Jiang Zemin has asked that we actively bring about adaptation between religion and socialist society. From a faith point of view, there is no reason to oppose religion's adaptation to socialism. After all, the basic faith of the Bible is not in contradiction to it, nor is it harmful to biblical truth. There is even less reason from the viewpoint of the history and praxis of theological change. Further, the question of adaptation to socialist society also exists for education, social sciences, literature, art, and morality. Adaptation of Christianity to socialist society is in line with the teachings of the Bible, accords with church history and with the direction and laws of the historical development of theology, as well as with the direction and advance of the times, and the will and truth of God. "Socialist society is the newest form of society to have developed up to today. It is a just and progressive society. All culture, art, philosophy, morality and all truth goodness and beauty in the world that have derived from it all come from the "Father of all light," and all this is contained in the pre-existence, perfection, and transcendence of Christ that contains the entire universe." (6) Thus, adaptation is only natural. As Bishop Ting has stated: "For the benefit of the nation, and for the existence and witness of the church, adaptation to socialist society is a natural thing, the natural choice of any responsible citizen, any responsible faith." (7)
Strengthening theological reconstruction at present is related to the future and fate of the church and all the tremendous tasks that go with it, an important guarantee and strategic policy for the continued observance of the three-self principle in running the church well, and an important path to fundamentally resolving the church's adaptation with socialist society. Can the church adapt to socialist society? - to a large extent, this will be decided by the theology of the church. Only by first doing a good job of theological reconstruction can we adjust, transform, and renew our theology, enabling it, in a new time, to be rich in new content and special features. Then religion can genuinely adapt to socialist society. Thinking this through, changing, and adapting in thinking and understanding will inevitably bring us to identify with our country, our people, and our socialist society, adapting in action and practice. Only in this way will the Chinese Church be contextualized and indigenized in the true meaning of those terms.
Finally, let me conclude with two extremely important points. First, looked at from the vertical of history to the horizontal of place, as well as from the praxis of actual churches and the real needs of church development as well as biblically, changes in theology are a universal law and an important principle of the history of Christian thought and the development of the world church. Thus, this law and principle of the adaptation of Christianity to socialist society is reasonable, correct, and inevitable. Second, for genuine adaptation of Christianity and socialist society, there must first be changes in theology. This means we must undertake adjustment, transformation, and renewal in theology, even by leaps and bounds. The late Bishop Zheng Jianye, speaking of the work of three-self, once made the earnest statement: "How will this benefit the nation? How will it benefit the church?" (8) Everything has to be weighed in the scales of love country, love church in order to see how it should be handled. Obviously, theological reconstruction is beneficial to the survival and development of the church. Faced with a changed context, time, and society, change is an urgent matter. Adapting will establish an image in accordance with that of the nation and socialist society today: a Chinese church filled with witness to the glory of Christ.
NanjingTheological Review, 1 (2001): 10-12.
Xiao Anping is Dean of Zhongnan Seminary.
1. Zhang Chuanyou, Sources of Western Wisdom (Wuhan: Wuhan University Press, 1999), 134.
2. Engels saw the 16th century religious reformation in Germany, the 17th century English reformation, and the 18th century French Revolution as three decisive battles of the protracted struggle of the bourgeoisie against feudalism; the religious reformation was the first, showing its importance historically. And the religious reformation brought about the German peasant revolt. See Chen Xiux and Yang Zutao, Draft History of European Philosophy (Wuhan: Hubei People's Publishing House, 1987), 227.
3. K.H. Ting, "Adjustments in Theology are Unavoidable and Inevitable," Nanjing Theological Review 2 (2000): 10.
4. "God's Self-Revelation in the Bible and Our Slowness in Grasping It," Nanjing Theological Review, I (1999),3. Translated in Chinese Theological Review: 14 (2000): 32.
5. Ye Xiaowen, "Take History as the Standard, Strengthen Accomplishments, Open Up the Future", Religions in China 6 (2000): 6.
6. Hua Yaozeng, "Theological Reconstruction is the Main Task at Present to Delve into and Open up the Three-Self Movement" Nanjing Theological Review 3 (2000): 11.
7. Ting, "Adjustments", 10.
8. Shen Derong, Fifty Years of Three-Self Work (Shanghai: CCC & TSPM, 2000), 52