Chinese Theological Review 14

Chinese Theology in the Early 1980s

Xiao Yue

Theology is the church thinking. The history of theology is the history of the church's ongoing thinking process.

1979 is a milestone in the history of China. On it is written a glorious turning point in the life of the Chinese people. Written there too is the witness to the resurrection of the life of the Chinese Christian Church. What did the church think after its resurrection? What did the Chinese church, with all the numerous tasks crying out for attention, think of doing? I low were Chinese Christians present, faced with reforms in their nation, their society and the world? What did Chinese church leaders discuss? What new developments were there in Chinese theology?

In 1979, church life had only recently been revived. By looking at and expounding on the important topics in theology for the Chinese church at the time---incarnation, life out of death, the theology of reconciliation, etc. and on the changes and developments in the theology of the Chinese church, this essay will attempt to detect hints of God's revelation and guidance for the church. I will do this through consideration of the special tempering of past decades and an analysis of the new historical period that formed the background to what was happening.


Through their time of testing, the church in China and Chinese Christians discovered that in times of trouble, the Word may be found in many weak bodies of "flesh," like a treasure in a vessel of clay, and frequently show forth strength and power beyond all expectation. The uncommon Word in the common "flesh" of the Chinese church embodied something profoundly uncommon.(1) The theology of the Incarnation expresses the new experience and new understanding of Christ by the Chinese church in its unique context. "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1: 1) had long been etched at the heart of many Chinese Christians' faith. But the emphasis was on "Word" and "God" "Flesh" and "human" were ignored. With regard to the two natures of Christ, the emphasis was on the glory of the divine nature, ignoring the human nature. People believed in that transcendent and ineffable God, doer of divine miracles, ruler of heaven and earth, not in that God who lived among humans, the Christ who was friend to tax collectors and sinners, able to "rejoice with those who rejoice: weep with those who weep" (Rom. 12:15). But in the early 1980s, people were thinking more deeply about the whole message of the Incarnation.

First, the value of the "flesh" was affirmed. In the past, the faith of most Chinese Christians was marked by a rather strong dualism of good vs. evil. They believed that God was purely sacred and that humanity was purely evil; the Church was pure and clean, the world evil and dark. Believers were all good and upright. Unbelievers were all bad and evil. Sonic even dismissed the good deeds of non-Christians. People seldom pondered the value of human beings, or the worth of the whole of God's creation. In fact, the majority of Christians at the time were simply continuing the traditions of others; they were not themselves inheritors of faith and truth.

But in the early 80s, these views underwent something of a change. Many church leaders who were extremely fundamentalist in their faith came to affirm the value of the "flesh" through theological consideration of the Incarnation. Jiang Peifen, for example, in her essay "And the Word Became Flesh," writes: "The Incarnation shows how precious humanity is to God ... humans have the moral attributes of God. They have free will and are able to tell right from wrong. ...Our Lord Jesus never grew tired of human life, rather, he cared for everything about it."(2)

The "flesh" not only makes known the value of God's creation, at the same time, because the Word must become "flesh," it also makes clear the unique and important meaning the flesh bestows on the Word. K. H. Ting holds that "The incarnation of God ... tells us something of how we should regard the flesh and material things. Because they are channels by which God enters into the world, flesh and material things are not to be despised. They are worthy, and can become, indeed ought to become, vessels conveying holy love. We believe that God's love and concern for man is all-embracing. Bodily and material life, intellectual development, the socio-political sphere, ethics and morality are all included within the realm of God's love and concern."(3) And Shen Yifan says "The incarnation affirms all just, honest and self- sacrificing efforts in human life and opens up the way for their acceptance by God."(4)

In fact a correct assessment and positive affirmation of the value of the flesh is an affirmation of the whole of God's creation and of God's- work of creation, as well as of the value of the church and of Christians. To put it another way, this is a re-valuation of the Chinese church and Chinese Christians, which establishes an image of a Chinese church that affirms of the value of the self and of other people. And from the positive valuation of the flesh we can see the true meaning of that part distinguished as sacred. At the same time, the positive affirmation of the value of the flesh was an important turning point in the theological thinking of the early 1980s, a great contribution. It implies greater opening of the self to acceptance of many others who are as weak in the flesh as oneself, an affirmation as well as participation with them. Ibis is another reason why more people came to understand and accept Chinese Christianity and theology in the early 1980s.

Secondly, God with us. The Incarnation makes clear that God moves to be with people. God is not only the God of Christians, but the God of all humankind. Therefore the Incarnation shows that God identifies with all humanity, to bring all humanity back to God. How was the Chinese church able to discern this about the Incarnation event and take the initiative in identifying with and trusting in even more people in the early 1980s?

It had to begin by breaking through the thinking and attitudes of many Chinese Christians who over-emphasized the other world and despised this world. Jiang Peifen pointed out: "The Incarnation is the union of the body of flesh and blood with that of the Word ... Our faith is a living faith ... soul and body, eternal life and everyday life, faith and action, are all inseparable, and should be one." And again, "the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ comes into this material world. He does not transcend the world and humanity, but brings humanity the fullness of grace and truth. He brings eternal life. "'A spiritual person is not one cut off from reality. The spiritual person lives in the world, works among people ... the Incarnation links God and human, heaven and the world."(5) In her view, the other world and this world become one with the Incarnation, and the normal life of a Christian is the linking of the transcendent with this world. Overemphasis on the transcendent easily leads to the feeling that righteousness is far removed from people, and this goes against the Incarnation.

Then we turn to the reality of the Incarnation, which lies in its direct and profound entry into humankind, showing every consideration for all of life. Some Christians think that Christianity is spiritual and Christians are spiritual citizens of the kingdom of heaven. As such, they should not have any contact with those of the flesh. This is idealism cut off from reality. In the early 1980s, many Christians realized that the Chinese church should begin from reality, because in the Incarnation God is no longer an invisible, untouchable concept of abstract existence, but the real Son of Man living among us. The late Bishop Shen Yifan's interpretation is representative of Chinese theologians: "The experience of Chinese Christians can also be summed up as a process of identification with the Chinese people. In these years we have been sharing weal and woe with our people, we understand that we are inseparable. When the new social system changed the fate of the working people, our spiritual vision was greatly expanded, we felt how greatly the vastness of God's love surpassed what we had imagined it to be."(6)

Next. God's identification with humans implies God taking the initiative in opening himself up to receive humanity and at the same time, to be received by people. Whether the Chinese church will adopt an attitude of openness to its own people will determine its development and future. And the Incarnation brings another revelation to a Chinese church in an open China: the sealed room and complacent thinking are not the revelation. They are not what Christ requires of us. There is no longer an impassable gap between spiritual formation and an enthusiasm for life, between serving and loving the Lord and serving and loving others. This is because the bridge between God and humans, the church and the world, belief and unbelief, Christian and non-Christian is found in the body of the incarnate Christ. As Wang Weifan says, "For more than thirty years Chinese Christians have experienced suffering and joy, distress and comfort, perplexity and hope, weakness and strength, together with our own people. No longer choosing to set ourselves apart but standing firmly within the ranks of our people, Chinese Christians face God anew with deep familial affection for our compatriots and a sense of identity with our nation."(7)

Finally, the body of flesh witnesses to the Word. Me Incarnation is to make the flesh become Word. But in the process, there is also a constant process of "flesh witnessing to the Word." The flesh witnessing to the Word calls us to honor God's will in the world, to be salt and light, to glorify God and help people. At the same time, the flesh witnessing to the Word offers our limitations to God and brings God's grace to humanity, witnessing to the might of the gospel in real life. Wonderfully, the Chinese church has worked hard to make the flesh witness to the Word. As Jiang Peifen pointed out, "In the light and revelation of the Holy Spirit, the Chinese church has turned aside from the mistaken path of isolating itself from the world and from its people. ... We observe the biblical teaching that demands that the church witness to God's truth on earth that all humankind may gain God's saving grace."(8) Truly, the Chinese church in the early 1980s witnessed not only in China, but had a beautiful and faithful witness to the whole world.

Out of Death, Life

The message most often preached from the pulpits of the Chinese church in the early 1980s was the message of resurrection. This was because at that time the Chinese church itself embodied this message of life out of death. The Chinese church had been as one dead during the Cultural Revolution. But when the disaster had passed, the Church flourished, springing up everywhere like bamboo shoots after rain. As the Book of Psalms has it, "Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil" (Psalms 23:4). Thus the church at the time had a dual nature: it was a church that had known death; it was also a witness to resurrection. Chinese Christians remembered the suffering they had been through and felt both blessed by the present vitality and blessing of the church and yet sorrowful remembering the suffering they had been through. They looked forward to the future full of hope, yet it seemed their confidence was inadequate to the tasks ahead. But in spite of all this, Christians perceived abundant theological meaning, the meaning of the resurrection, in the very fact that the Chinese church had regained its freedom.

First, the Chinese church is a church that has been through death. Many of God's servants looked at these ten years of chaos as God's tempering and testing of the Chinese church, a time of burning and purification, whose goal was to make the Chinese church stronger, more vital, able to bear more fruit. Wang Weifan writes: "Christ feeds and waters his church not with the Holy Spirit only; he also sends down fire to burn it. I le sends not only grace and pity, but a sword. Always Christ is the refining fire which seeks to purge the dross and bring out pure gold. Like bleach he removes the stains from the cloth, returning it to its original cleanliness. He winnows without rest, separating the chaff and gathering in the wheat. Christ never finishes pruning his trees, cutting of the barren branches so as to bring forth good fruit."(9) As he sees it, the experience of death allowed Chinese Christians to experience the cross. It was a lesson from God for the Chinese church in the theology of the cross. The Chinese church was like a charred log pulled from the fire by God, though burnt, it was not destroyed by the fire. Jiang Peifen spoke from the heart when she said, "Thanks be to God, for thirty odd years, the Chinese church has lived and died with God and has gained new life."(10)

Second, the Chinese church is a witness to the resurrection. If the Cultural Revolution is suffering and death, then the restoration after the Cultural Revolution is resurrection and joy. The Chinese church embodies resurrection, and also witnesses to it. Having experienced resurrection, Chinese Christians are more able to cherish the grace of the cross. The people believed that "the power of the resurrection not only moved in the apostolic age, in the same way, it lingers on in the church in China today."(11) As a witness to the resurrection, the Chinese church pays even more attention to the message of Christ's resurrection from the dead, because the message of the resurrection and the theology of the cross are equally precious. "If we ignore the Lord's resurrection, we are not preaching the whole gospel, we are leaving something out."(12)

Resurrection implies new life, and the Chinese church is a witness to the possession of new life. The new experiences, new light, new meaning and new future of the Chinese church in the 1980s were like those of the Lord after the resurrection.

Third, the theology of life out of death. Bishop K.H. Ting wrote in the late 80s, "Out of their own experience, Chinese Christians have gained a greater understanding of Christ's resurrection."(13) This shows how the Chinese church had already begun to experience resurrection in the early 80s. Resurrection from death proves the eternity of God and the eternal life of the church. The resurrection from death of the Chinese church proves that God did not abandon his church, that the church possesses the vitality of God's eternal life. No human hand can destroy her. Resurrection from death also proves that God's work of creation continues unceasing. K.H. Ting says, "To have had some experience of dying and rising up again in our individual life, in our national life and in the life of our Church conditions many of us to see that resurrection from the dead is actually the law by which God carries on his work of the world's creation, redemption and sanctification, the principle by which the whole universe in sustained and governed."(14) At that time, the Chinese church was in urgent need of establishing a church order in line with Chinese conditions, national characteristics and cultural context. The resurrection was able to give the Chinese church new revelation. Shen Yifan writes, "... We abide by all that the Bible reveals, but the resurrected Lord also enables us never to rigidly adhere to the interpretations that have come down to us through the ages, but to strive to find the new light and guidance God has for us in the present age." And he went further, "We are heirs to all the precious tradition that has come down to us from ancient times, but the resurrection of the Lord enables us to abandon systems and forms which are corrupt or unsuitable, to strive in our new age to establish a church in line with our national conditions and pleasing to our people."(15) Dying and rising up again is a collective experience of the Chinese church. In the 1980s, people became even more aware that "... We are linked to Christ because of his death and resurrection, this is not only a type of human experience ... this is also the collective experience of the Chinese church ..."(16) From Christ as savior of the individual and savior of the Church, to Christ as savior of a people and even savior of the whole world; from Jesus as personal lord to Lord of the Church, to Lord of the world and lord of the entire cosmos, is not an easy spiritual leap. But we are happy to discover that the Chinese church of the 1980s actually began to move from narrow ideas to a broader spiritual picture, however slow and difficult progress may be.

The Message of Reconciliation

The message of reconciliation was an extremely important theological consideration of the Chinese church in the early 1980s. It set down a very good theoretical foundation for the existence and development of the church in a more open Chinese society.

First, the Chinese church had weathered over thirty years of storms and many Christians had intimate knowledge of the importance and urgency of reconciliation for Chinese Christians and lit the Chinese church itself. Bishop Ting points out: "Theology in the Chinese church has already gone beyond the liberation stage. Our urgent task is to set about rebuilding the temple of the Lord."(17)

In the early 1980s, the leadership and many Christians in the Chinese church were striving to find a new theological path, one that would enable the Chinese church to become in a genuine and real way, in a socialist nation, a church that stands with the people. They wanted to discover the meaning of Christian faith in the social life of new China. At the same time, they recognized that the Church had to involve itself directly, if cautiously, in studying the establishment, management, order, ministry and liturgy of the church, trying all sorts of things, especially in theology, in order to invest these with new meanings suitable to the Chinese situation, the culture and the practical realities of the church. In these trials and explorations, many in the church leadership came to a deeper level of understanding of the message of reconciliation, and a theology of reconciliation grew up in response. Its most representative example was the paper given at the international dialogue with the Chinese church held in Montreal, Canada in October, 1981, by the Vice principal of' Nanjing Union Theological Seminary, Chen Zemin. The paper was well received by the theologians and church leaders from all over the world who were at the conference.

He writes. "God does not take a neutral stand. He sides and struggles with the people. ...Our point of departure is to opt for the people, to opt for the welfare of our country, and to opt for a social system that is more just and humane than anything the Chinese people have seen in our history of over four thousand years. ... Chinese Christians, while working shoulder to shoulder with our compatriots, are sincerely trying to relate the Christian faith and commitment to the great experience the Chinese people are going through."(18) Thinking such as this was representative of the aspirations and hopes of the majority of Chinese Christians at the time. The theology of reconciliation played a guiding role at the practical level in the Church.

In terms of ecclesiology, reconciliation suggests that the church should be humble, not seeing itself as righteous. According to Chen Zemin. "The church is primarily a koinonia, a sharing fellowship, and secondarily an ecclesia, the called out."(19) Understanding the primary nature of the church as a fellowship in the spirit of mutual caring and rather than in the traditional sense of a body called out was undoubtedly a great gain in understanding for the church in its special context in China at that time. Such an understanding came in response to the needs of reconciliation. Chen goes on, "The ideal church should make sisters and brothers of the whole ecumenical conuntmity."(20) Of course, the Chinese church had no reason to place itself outside its own people. If it did, it would not conform to the ideal of a church. "Traditional emphasis of evangelism on making converts and increasing the quantity of church membership is shifting to improving the quality of the church's relations with the people. Compassion and service take the place of a self-righteous Jonah Mentality. Mutual respect and a healthy spirit of latitudinarianism have submerged and allayed age-long denominational disputes."(21) The turning point in this thinking was in fact brought about by reconciliation theology. To put it another way, God reveals the church through itself, but also through the non-church, or through secular thinking. Thus the church must both humble itself and affirm others. Chen says, "Aside from historical praxis. We are drawing on what I may call Chinese contemporary secular thinking among academic circles as reflected in the mass media as sources of theological thinking. Discussions on the value of philosophical idealism, on the meaning of life, stress on the "beauty of mind and spirit." controversy on the nature and social functions of religion, and many others, have been very thought-provoking."(22) This does not mean that in order to promote reconciliation the Chinese church would abandon the strictness and uniqueness of faith, doctrine and Christian morals, and become mixed in with other theories, but to show that the meaning of reconciliation theology is not only a matter of identifying with the people in terms of practical experience, but also in terms of theoretical theology, in the mutual search for knowledge that will help and perfect each other.

Second, from liberation theology to a theology of reconciliation. The Chinese church, like so many churches in Asia, Africa and Latin America, has experienced a period of colonial or semi-colonial social history. Consequently, in terms of theology, there are many points where they are close or even nearly the same. But the liberation theology of Latin America is a weapon gained in the social and political struggle by the Latin American churches, and this is entirely different from the experience of the Chinese church. Latin American theology has liberation as its goal, while Chinese theology has already entered upon a post-liberation period of building up the church; its main task is reconciliation. As Chen Zemin says, "Chinese people. Christians included, have been liberated thirty years since, in the sense that political power and ownership of means of production have been transferred from the hands of a minority of oppressors to the people. Our theological task is not liberation as such, in the Latin American sense, but reconciliation to be reconciled to and identified with the Chinese people as a whole, from whom we had been alienated, for the carrying on of our task of liberation for the further betterment of our society; and at the same time to be reconciled to God, from whom the human race has been alienated and with whom we all yearn to be united through the mediating mystery of the incarnate Christ in the endless course of human history-"(23)

We might say this shows how Chinese theology has progressed. In the midst of upbuilding and praxis. reconciliation theology has gradually become more widely known and accepted. And in spite of the fact that "reconciliation" theology is in the midst of this process of upbuilding and praxis, and is not by any means perfect, people could sense that Chinese theology, with its goal of harmony, was much further along than Latin American theology, and possessed the special Chinese cultural characteristic of fullness.(24)

Third, love seeks reconciliation. Reconciliation, at some level, develops out of Incarnation theology and love is the origin of Incarnation. That love seeks reconciliation was another topic of theological inquiry in the early 1980s. Bishop Ting has a unique understanding of love. He holds that "love is the true meaning of human life, love is the most important truth, love is the most basic attribute of God, love is the essence of the cosmos."(25) In his view, "What makes the gospel lies in its proclamation that God is love, that this God will overcome sin and the power of sin, enabling people to reconcile with God and with each other. To this end, this Word become flesh brought humanity's redemption to completion upon the cross. God opened the door to reconciliation ... God is the fountainhead of reconciliation, he scatters the seeds of reconciliation throughout the world. Though Christ, humankind is reconciled with God and bears witness to reconciliation in the world."(26)

Fourth, reconciliation implies opening up of the self. Gods nature and creation are all part of an open system the Incarnation directly reveals to humankind-God does not desire to close himself oil. So his demand to the church is that it also continually opens itself up. During the 1980s, the Chinese church strove to attempt to open itself. On April 21, 1988, Bishop Ting remarked to a reporter: "One of the most important changes is that China is eager to open to the outside world."(27)

The appearance of this- type of thinking was largely a response to the impact of two facts: (1) after 1979, China's door was open to the outside world; and (2) the Chinese church was undertaking an inquiry into a theology of reconciliation. Since reconciliation implies opening oneself up this experience also comes out of the theological thinking and praxis of the church in China over the past thirty years. Philip L. Wickeri says that his deepest impression of this theological rethinking is that it enabled Chinese theologians to gradually understand that Christianity, which is grounded upon faith in the Trinitarian God, should maintain an open approach to the positive reforms taking place in the broader society."(28) This open approach is not only with regard to social change, but vis-a-vis the Chinese reality and the Chinese people. Wickeri says that in a context dominated by nonbelievers, Chinese theologians have not attempted to define their faith over against the masses of the people, thus isolating themselves from the people. Rather they go among the people, and sacrifice themselves for the people to continue their witness to the omnipotent God. Lord of all. In the process, Christianity has become more acceptable in society and welcomed by Chinese people at every level of society.(29) In his view, this approach furthers the deepening of reconciled relationships and can enable the Chinese church to establish itself in society, to establish a 'human presence' for and through society, strengthening its sense of interdependence with its compatriots.(30)

The open approach of the early 1980s, along with reconciliation thinking, can be said to have directly influenced theological inquiry and self-strengthening in the latter 1980s and 1990s, and was also helpful to furthering the development of theological education in the Chinese church.

Nanjing Theological Review, No. 3 (1997), p. 66.

1 K.H. Ting, "How to Read the Bible," Tian Feng, Inaugural issue, New Series (1980): 47

2 J iang Peifen, "And the Word Became Flesh," Tian Feng. No. 5 (1982): 1.

3 K.H. Ting. "Another Look al three Self," Tian Feng, No. 2 (1983): 4

4 Shen Yifan "Theology in the Chinese Church." Nanjing Theological Review, No. 3 (1985): 33.

5 'Jiang Peifen, "And the Word was Made Flesh." Tian Feng, No. 5 (1982): 1-3.

6 Shen Yifan, "Theology in Pastoral Care at the Grass Roots in New China." Nanjing Theological Review, No. 6&7: 88.

7 Wang Wei fan. "Changes in Theological Thinking in the Church in China." Nanjing Theological Review. No. 2: 9.

8 Jiang Peifen, 4

9 Wang Weifan, "Lilies of the Field (4)" Tian Feng. Inaugural Issue, New Series (1980): 29

10 Jiang Peifen. "God's measuring rod-common tasks," Nanjing Theological Review, No. I: 65.

11 Zhao Zhi'en, "Witness to Resurrection," Tian Feng, No. 2 (1982): 24

12 Shen Yifan, "Witness to the Lord who Rose from Death to Life," Tian Feng. No. 3 (1986): 2.

13 "Bishop K.H. Ting on the Church in China Today:' Tripod, No. 47: 11 From an interview with Elizabeth Larson. April 20, 1988.

14 K. H. Ting. "The froth of the Resurrection." Tian Feng. No. 4 (1983): 37. A sermon preached in Lambeth Chapel. October I, 1982.

15 Shen Yifan, "Witness," 3.

16 Shen Yifan, "Theology in Pastoral Care," 88.

17 K. H. Ti ng, in Chen Zemin, "Some Point of Christian Theology," Tripod, No. 6 (1981): 12-14.

18 Chen Zemin, "Some Points of Chinese Theology;" Tripod, No. 6 (1981): 12-14. "'

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid.

23 Liu Saimei, "A Reflection on 'Some Points of Chinese Theology';' Tripod, No. 6 (1981):11

24 K.H. Ting, "Love that Loves to the End," Nanjing Theological Review, No. 9: 61

25 Ting, "The Message of Reconciliation," Nanjing Theological Review, No. 5: 5.

26 Ting, "Bishop K.H. Ting on the Church in China Today;' Tripod No. 47 (Oct, 1988): 8.

27 Philip L. Wickeri, "Human Presence and Christian Participation." I in Chinese Nanjing Theological Review. Nos. 6&7:27-30.

28 Ibid.

29 Ibid.

30 Ibid.