What Is Theology?
-- with a Reflection on the Theology of K.H. Ting
Since the Jinan conference in 1998, the majority of pastoral workers in the Chinese church have reached the consensus that theological reconstruction in Chinese Christianity must be strengthened. The reasons are twofold. On the one hand, theological reconstruction is necessary to run the church well. This year is the 50th anniversary of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of Protestant Churches in China (TSPM). This means the independent Chinese church is fifty years old. It has been twenty years since the resurgence of the church following the Cultural Revolution. But up to now, our church has still achieved all that it should. (1) Our church is a long way from being well-run. And all this is due to the poverty of our theological thinking. Bishop Ting states: "There is a great deal involved in running the church well, and building up theological thinking in the Chinese church is the most fundamental, the most decisive step." (2) This is a must if we are genuinely to adapt Christianity to socialist society. Adaptation to socialist society is not just a matter of formal identification. The aim is to enable Chinese Christianity to become a constituent part of the big socialist family. "Adaptation to socialist society is not simply a means of dealing with society as it is, but to have the ability to actively contribute to that society." (3) Therefore, theological reconstruction is crucial to enabling the Chinese church, in its specific context, to express its own worth. Bishop Ting has analyzed this clearly: "Genuine adaptation is adaptation of thinking; in religion, this means adaptation in theological thinking. Theological reconstruction is nothing more than the promotion of adaptation in theological thinking to socialist society. It also eliminates obstacles to a patriotic and socialist theology, enabling an intellectual basis for people's endorsement of patriotism and socialism." (4)
We can also understand the need for theological reconstruction in terms of the need to safeguard basic Christian faith and the church's witness to the times.
First, theological reflection helps purify our Christian faith. Our faith is always guided by theological thinking; faith without theological guidance does not exist. Because of a long absence of conscious theological reflection in the Chinese church, the purity of Christian faith today is subject to attack from all sides. Country villages are awash with superstition, which has seriously overflowed into the churches. In the cities, there are secular influences, such as the pursuit of money. How Christianity is to maintain the purity of its faith in the midst of this complex society is one of the tasks of theological reconstruction. Bishop Ting again: "Theological reconstruction is a safeguard to basic Christian faith, it in no way attacks or changes it. Through theological reconstruction, our faith will gain a fairer and more reasonable exposition, thereby enabling believers to have a better and more confident understanding of their own basic faith, and enabling friends outside the church to be more receptive to the gospel message the church has for people." (5)
Secondly, theological reflection helps make the church more in tune with the times, which will make society more receptive to the church's voice. Christianity has a tradition of social service, a way of glorifying God and helping people, of being salt and light. Society develops and so does the church. At the very least, we cannot allow the church to become a group that has nothing in common with society. When Chinese Christians speak of love country, love church, it is not to separate church from society, for to love country is also to love church and to bring nation and church together, joining the two. For us, running the church well is a concrete expression of patriotism. If our church lags so far behind the times that it cannot influence them, we can hardly call this running the church well.
The consensus to strengthen theological reconstruction has been reached. Then we come to the second question-what is theology? Only when this question has been answered can our efforts at theological reconstruction be carried out effectively and in an orderly manner. Only then can there be a clear direction and goal. The present essay considers the question of theology on the basis of study of K.H. Ting's writings on theological reconstruction. It does not dare to define theology; it is no more than what I have learned.
Theology is the church in the act of thinking
There have historically been many responses to the question of what theology is. It will be helpful to our understanding of Bishop Ting's theological viewpoint to make a simple comparison of some definitions of theology.
In spite of the number and diversity of these definitions, to the knowledge of this writer, no single definition has yet been found acceptable to the majority of people. This writer has found five main types.
The etymological definition emphasizes that theology is learning about the theos. Macquarrie says that the English word theology is made by joining the Greek words theos (God) and logos (rational thought). Thus, theology is a kind of rational thought about God. (6) This type of definition makes God the object of theological reflection. This writer feels it is rather inappropriate from an epistemological viewpoint, because the field of human knowledge is far smaller than God. In terms of our faith, God is hardly a specimen in the laboratory, but rather the One who gives us life, the Lord who is continually renewing our life.
The hermeneutical definition proposes that theology is a question of how to understand the biblical text. The nature of a complete theology is hermeneutical. In practice theology is hermeneutics. ... Theology is the question of how to understand the text of the Bible, the question of how to understand the theme expressed in these passages. (7) The Bible is the point to which all theology returns, the starting point of theology, as well as its ending point. Therefore, a correct view of the Bible is a prerequisite for gaining correct theological thinking.
The contextual definition says that theology is the expression and understanding of Christian faith in a specific context. "Theology, as a function of the Christian church, must serve the needs of the church. A theological system is supposed to satisfy two basic needs: the statement of the truth of the Christian message and the interpretation of this truth for every new generation. Theology moves back and forth between two poles, the eternal truth of its foundation and the temporal situation in which the eternal truth must be received." (8) Theology is the circulation between the real context and Christian truth.
The church construction definition may be illustrated by K.H. Ting's statement that "theology is the church in the act of thinking" is representative of this type. Bishop Ting says, "... Theology is the church in the act of thinking. Our theological work is naturally conditioned by the historical and ecumenical church, but it is not imitation work. It is rather based on reflection by Chinese Christians ourselves as we face up to the problems of the Chinese Church." (9) I will have more to say about this below.
The faith in practice definition says that theology is reflection on Christian faith. "Theology may b defined as the study which, through participation in and reflection upon a religious faith, seeks to express the content of this faith in the clearest and most coherent language available." (10) In one sentence, theology is the principles related to faith. (11) Faith includes the subject and the object of faith, as well as the relationship between the two.
All these definitions have their own emphases. This writer feels that in light of the current situation of the Chinese church, attention should be focused on the fourth definition, Bishop Ting's "theology is the church in the act of thinking." Because it is our task to run the Chinese church well, and make it better run, we must reflect. Philosophy says that existence determines consciousness, and consciousness directs action. According to modem psychology, there are two types of consciousness: one is the conscious consciousness (I call it active consciousness), the other the unconscious consciousness (I call it passive consciousness), what we generally call the subconscious. The goodness or evil of a person's life is determined to a certain extent by his active consciousness. His perception of his present life and his hopes for and grasp of the future-all this is his active consciousness. One cannot always live in the subconscious. The Chinese church is the same; we cannot live in the subconscious, we must make a profound analysis of the current situation. We must have a vision for the church. Many coworkers in the church today tire themselves out with busyness; they are like a fire brigade, running off to the next blaze. They have no vision. Of course, there are many reasons why this situation arose, but the poverty of theology is a crucial element.
To say "theology is the church in the act of thinking" is not to say that the metaphor is complete. In comparison with traditional conceptions of theology, two points stand out. One is that theology is clearly a task for the church. Traditional Christian definitions of theology make it primarily the work of individual theologians. Thus, most Christians set theology far to one side. But theology is reflection by the whole church, which shows that theology is not simply a matter for theologians, but for the whole church, and for each believer. Chen Zemin wrote in the 1950s: "Theology is created by the church, not by individuals." (12) The second point is that in this metaphorical explanation, theology touches on the witness of the church to the times and on the quality of believers' faith. That is to say that theology should concern itself not with what seems strange or obscure, but rather with what relates to our church construction and our genuine Christian faith. I say "genuine Christian faith," because there exists in our church, to a greater or lesser extent, faith which is Christian in name but not in substance. We know that a person who does not reflect is one who is poor in thought. In the same way, a church that does not reflect is of course a church that is poor in theology. Poverty of thinking can make a person appear shallow, impetuous, lost. In the same way, poverty of theology will make a church appear foundationless, easily shaken by the winds of heresy.
Two questions have been dealt with so far. One is Why do we need theological reconstruction? and What is theology? The next question is How do we go about theological reconstruction? We have no answer for this yet, but we know where to begin, with reflection on theology in its actual context, as Bishop Ting has pointed out.
Theological reflection cannot be divorced from its actual context
In the history of modem Chinese thought, many enlightened thinkers and reformist thinkers have been enamored of Buddhism. However, their understanding of Buddhism proceeded not from an individual point of view, but from that of society, of the group. For example, Gong Zizhen a type of creative spiritual power hidden within people's hearts, a factor in the transformation of society. Kang Youwei used the Buddhist concept of saving the world to demonstrate his "Great Harmony." Tan Sitong, in his A Study of Humanity also used a Buddhist concept, that of the interconnection and equality of all life, to emphasize the democratic improvement of society. We might sum this up in Liang Qichao's praise of benefit for all, rather than benefit for the few.
The hallmark of Bishop Ting's theological reflection also lies in "benefit for the whole world (jianshan tianxia)," and not for oneself alone. Of course, he sees this question, not only from the vantage of social improvement, but also from that of the apex of Christian theology: for God so loved the world. Bishop Ting holds this view because his theological reflection is deeply rooted in the real context. As Chen Zemin said of Ting, "I knew him as a man who did theology not by feeling reality for some theological ivory tower, ignoring the world while pursuing his own academic and moral cultivation, but rather by seeking ways in which Christian faith and teaching could be combined with the cause of national salvation and social transformation." (13) It is not difficult to see from the pages of Love Never Ends that the impetus for Bishop Ting's theological reflection lies in the conflicts of the real context. In "The Cosmic Christ," for example, it is the stark contrast between bad things within the church and true goodness outside it that impels him to reflect on the parameters of Christ's love: Is Christ's love only for the small circle of the church? Or is it for the whole of God's creation, the whole cosmos? Bishop Ting comes naturally to his theory of the Cosmic Christ. (14)
In the tradition of the church, we may divide theological thought into two main classifications. One centers on personal salvation, emphasizing the opposition between the sacred and the secular, the church and the world, theology and politics, the spiritual and the worldly. This type of theology is generally called redemption-centered theology. The other kind is centered on love for all that God has created. Where Bishop Ting differs from other theologians of this sort is that he does not negate salvation, rather he simply joins God's creation to redemption, seeing these as two expressions of the same thing.
Guided by such thinking, Bishop Ting's emphasizes context in his theology, reflecting on God's care for human beings and for the world in the actual context of the Chinese church.
Of course, K.H. Ting did not discover contextualized theology. Contextualization became the hallmark of theological reflection in the Third World in the 1970s. Contextualization means the actual society we live in, made up of a diversity of ethnic and cultural traditions, its political and economic development, its synthesis of all that makes a people, the influence of world culture, etc. No person, no theologian, can avoid this real context. Therefore, consciously or unconsciously, theological thinking is always strongly colored by its times and context. Bishop Ting is not averse to contextual issues, but actively moves to adjust his own theology, in order to adapt it to our present society.
In essence, contextualization is the identification of the church with its nation, people, and culture. Prof. Wang Weifan, in his "The Word was Here Made Flesh,' concludes thusly, " 'The word was here made flesh.' Here in China we are a people with thousands of years of cultural tradition, a people who have also experienced all the difficulties and vicissitudes of life. And the body of Christ made flesh here is the tiny church of China, which has identified with its people in suffering and in suffering has built itself up." (15) This is a markedly specific context. Bishop Ting also said, "The Incarnation needed Mary to be the mother. Chinese theology needs Chinese culture as its mother." (16) At times, we who are in Chinese traditional culture, make this culture abstract, not historical. We abstract it from our actual society, creating a pseudo Christian theology that identifies with some distant ancient culture. In fact, culture does not exist in a vacuum, culture is a whole. It includes the whole history and the whole present reality of a people. If we speak of Chinese culture separate from the history of the Chinese people in this century, or from the context of our present reality of socialist society, we clearly cannot completely express what makes the Chinese culture what it is. This type of theological reflection is obviously not contextual reflection.
When I read the works of western theologians, I am aware of a kind of linguistic (or we could say conceptual) obstacle, which is not present when I read the Selected Writings of KH ring (translated as Love Never Ends). Reading the latter, I have a strong feeling of intimacy, as if I was chatting with K.H. Ting. The reason for this, besides the spareness and fluidity of Bishop Ting's language, is, I think, primarily the result of his theological reflection being intimately tied to the context of our society, culture, economics and politics-a context in which we are situated and with which we are very familiar.
Now we must turn to another question, what is the central material of theology, its subject? For Bishop Ting, it is the reconciliation between God and human beings.
The subject of theology is reconciliation between God and human beings
The theme of theology is its core, its essence, and this is also the goal of theology. In whatever we do, we have a goal, and so it is with doing theology. As to what the goal of theology may be, responses have varied through the ages. The great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas may be representative. For him the goal of theology was to understand the origins and destiny of God and humanity. "According to Aquinas, in whom Scholasticism attained it noblest development, the aim of all theological investigation is to give knowledge of God and of man's origin and destiny." (17) Paul Tillich divided Christian theology into two types (mainly in terms of systematic theology): kerygmatic theology and apologetic theology. Kerygmatic theology emphasizes the eternal nature of the Christian message, thus overlooking the specific context of that message. Apologetic theology considers both the eternal nature and the concrete context of the Christian message. Therefore, Tillich places more emphasis on apologetic theology. (18)
My preference is to divide theology into three basic types: apologetic, pastoral, and speculative. Different types of theology have different goals, and there is some difference in subject as well. When the church is the object of accusations, criticism, and misunderstandings from all sides within its specific context, theologians employ methods those outside the church can understand and accept to explain Christian faith and doctrine: This is apologetic theology. The goal is to harmonize relations between the two and resolve the issue of the existence of the church. To do this, one must have a clear knowledge of Christian theology. This type of theology was more in evidence during the early years of the church. These early theologians are now known as apologists because their goal was to explain and introduce Christianity to those outside the church. To sum up, apologetic theology is a cross-disciplinary, theology of the margins. (19)
Pastoral theology was primarily formed to better minister to the church. Its goal is to strengthen the church, that is, to lead believers and the church to have a correct and perfect faith, to help us to have a correct understanding of the God we believe in, and to better understand our present human life. This type of theology arose because of the attacks of heterodoxy and heresy within the church. To prevent these, it is necessary to raise the resistance levels of believers, and indeed, of the whole church. Pastoral theology, on the foundation of biblical teachings, seeks to cleanse our faith, and to make our doctrines more rational and more systematic.
The development of speculative theology is closely tied to philosophy. It is concerned with the more abstract ontological questions, more at odds with the phenomenological world. It absorbs the essence of world culture and considers theological questions from a metaphysical standpoint. Of course, one needs to have undergone a certain level of philosophical training to understand this theology, and to be familiar with some basic philosophical concepts. Although this type of theology is not of immediate benefit to the church, because it is in contact and dialogue with the latest and most advanced thinking, it guarantees that theology will be up-to-date. In addition, speculative theology ensures that our theology has a profound grounding; it is the intellectual storehouse of the church's theology. Of course, speculative theology has also had an apologetic goal at times, especially in the early church.
Each of the three types of theology discussed above has its different goal, and thus, different subject matter. But looked at overall, they seem a bit vague. Bishop Ting's response to the lack of clarity in terms of subject in traditional theology is to state the purpose from the very beginning: the subject of theology is reconciliation between God and humans. "The theme of the Christian gospel and of Christian theology must of necessity be the reconciliation of God and humanity in Jesus Christ." (20) This theme has its source in the Bible: " The Bible has 'reconciliation' and 'covenant' as its central message." (21) Led by this kind of thinking, Bishop Ting concentrates his own theological thinking on the theory of God and Christology, emphasizing God's guidance and care for humankind, and the forgiveness of Christ.
Finally, it must be specially pointed out that although Bishop Ting's theology differs in places from traditional Christian theology, as a theologian in the Third World, he does not strain after originality like some other Third World theologians, doing some so-called indigenous theology to please westerners. Rather, within the context of the Chinese church, with a heart set on resolving the real questions facing Chinese Christians, Ting reflects on God's revelation in China today. Therefore, Bishop Ting's theology is not narcissist, but is a theology for the masses, a theology summed up on the foundation of theological mass movements in China.
"By this time you will probably have got the impression that Chinese theologians have not ventured to take heroic, not to say sensational, steps to make headlines in their theological pursuits. It is our conviction that we should stay where our constituencies are and wrestle with their problems in ways helpful and acceptable to them." (22)
Nor is Bishop Ting's theology anti-traditional. He has not abandoned tradition, but rather, with tradition as a basis, returned anew to the Bible to seek God's revelation. We know that the core of the "covenant" of the Bible is the reconciliation between God and humankind.
"The days are surely coming says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them out of the land of Egypt-a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, 'Know the Lord,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more" (Jer. 31:31-34).
The emphasis of the covenant spoken of here is the reconciliation between God and humanity. In Romans, Paul points out an important doctrine-justification by faith. Many New Testament scholars have pointed out that justification here emphasizes a kind of relationship. Justification by faith means that a person depends on her own faith in God to attain a right relationship between God and human beings.
It is not only in theory that Bishop Ting proposes that the theme of theology is the reconciliation between God and humankind. In the practice of his theology, faith, and life, he very much emphasizes the message of reconciliation: the unity of the Chinese church is the fruit of the practice of this message. "What I need to say is that it is exactly the orientation to the historic heritage of the church that enables the church I come from, a minority of less than one per cent of the population, to keep its unity and survive, and to have something unique and at the same time appealing to present before our fellow Chinese."
Today, we have just taken the first steps in theological reconstruction in the Chinese church and we cannot presume to foresee the future image of theology in China. I think that at present the work we can do is to firmly seek the correct direction for theological reflection, and follow this with long-term labor by the mass of our pastoral workers. This is the way to set a firm foundation for theological thinking in the church in China.
Yanjing Journal of Theology 1 (2001): 76-85.
The author is an instructor at Sichuan seminary.
1. We can assess the development and progress of the church in terms of quantity and quality. Quantity has changed tremendously, but except for satisfying our pride a bit in statistical terms, what real issue does quantity illustrate? The Bible asks us to "present everyone mature in Christ' (Col. 1: 28). Can we really say that we have done this for the majority of our current believers? Looked at in this way, except for adding names to the church register, we haven't achieved qualitative development.
2. K.H. Ting, "The Development and Enrichment of the Three-Self Movement," Tian Feng 1 (2000):5.
3. Kan Baoping, "On Theological Education," Yanjing Journal of Theology 1 (2000): 2
4. Ting, "Development and Enrichment," 5.
5. K.H. Ting , "Adjustment of Theological Thinking is Unavoidable and Inevitable," Tian Feng 4 (2000): 4.
6. John Macquarrie, God Talk-an examination of the language and logic of theology, trans. An Guoqing (Sichuan People's Press, 1997), 1.
7. H.Ott, "What is Theology?" trans. Yang Rensheng and Huang Yanping, Christian Culture Review, no. 4 (1994): 20.
8. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, trans. Hong Shusen and You Longwen, vol. I. (Tainan: Taiwan section of the Association of Southeast Asian Graduate Schools of Theology, 1993), 4. See also, Chen Zemin, "Theological Construction in the Chinese Church," Nanjing Theological Review, 14/15 (1992): 50-51.
9. K.H. Ting, "Foreword to Theological Writings from Nanjing Seminary," in Love Never Ends: Papers by K.H Ting (Nanjing: Jiangsu Translation Press, 2000), 421. See also Chen Zemin, "Theological Construction in the Chinese Church," (note 8); and John Macquarrie, Principles o/Christian Theology (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1966),2.
10. Macquarrie, Principles o/Christian Theology, 1. See also Ott, 32.
11. See Lu Jiaying, "What Is Philosophy?" Dushu I (2000): 92-97.
12. Chen Zemin, "Theological Construction in the Chinese Church," Nanjing Theological Review 14/15 (1992): 7. Reproduction, with added material, of an essay originally published in Nanjing Theological Review 5/6 (1957). Translated in Chinese Theological Review (1991): 53-76.
13. Chen Zemin, "Foreword: Faith's Journey," in Love Never Ends, I.
14. K.H. Ting, "The Cosmic Christ," in Love Never Ends, 90-99.
15. Wang Weifan, "The Word Was Here Made Flesh," Nanjing Theological Review (1992): 146. Translated in Chinese Theological Review 8 (1993): 92-99.
16. K.H. Ting, "Preface to Chinese Theology and its Cultural Sources," in Love Never Ends, 511.
17. Williston Walker, A History o/the Christian Church, trans. Sun Shanling et al. (Beijing: CASS Press, 1991), 311.
18. Tillich, Systematic Theology, 4-9.
19. In the 1980s, at the beginning of the period of reform and openness in China, a great number of new disciplines flooded into Chinese academia. These differed from traditional single-subject disciplines, with each of the new ones crossing several traditional disciplines.
20. Ting, "Theological Mass Movement in China," in Love, 146.
21. Ting, "Chinese Christians' Approach to the Bible," in Love, 390.