Looking Back, Looking Ahead: Chinese Theology in the 20th Century
Humankind has come to the end of a century almost unawares and perhaps the beginning of the next century will slip past us in the same way. For those of us who find ourselves betwixt centuries, our place is a gift of God's grace. It is also a challenge and an opportunity. Following on the liberation and independence of our people, Chinese Christianity has undergone earthshaking changes in the past hundred years. In this century we have known suffering and we have known joy. This was the century in which Chinese intellectuals truly began to do their own theology. As we stand at the advent of the third millennium, it is necessary for us to look back at the course of our church's history, and to look back at the labors of the theological pioneers of our church. Although I am one of the younger generation, I will venture, within the larger framework of global theological developments in this century, to map the course of Chinese theology and attempt to assess where we have been.
The reconstruction and development of Christian theology has never been separate from the development of the church and the times in which it exists. On the contrary, it is a response in the theological realm to the development of the church. Good theological thinking is helpful to the development and reconstruction of the church, just as bad theology is an obstacle to it. Nor can the development of theology in this century be separated from the concrete context in which the church exists. Thus a simple description of the overall context and trends in the development of the church in the 20 th century is necessary. According to the American church historian Justo L. Gonzales, three areas have had profound and far-reaching impact on the development of the church in the 20 th century.
The first is the rise of the movement for church unity. In the 1920s and 30s, denominational unification had become a fundamental task of indigenization for Chinese theology: in 1924, the China Continuation Committee was formed; in 1927, Presbyterians, Congregationalists and others joined together in the Church of Christ in China; in 1958, basic union was achieved, ushering in the post-denominational era. The China Christian Council was formed in 1980, completing organizational restructuring in the post-denominational era. Me move for unification among worldwide Protestant churches began with a flourish in the World Council of Churches (WCC), with about 100 member churches from various nations and regions.(1) Since Vatican II in the 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church has also entered into conversation with various churches and denominations. In the last twenty years, a kind of trans-denominational, even trans-religious ecumenical movement has been growing, and the ecumenical theology corresponding to it has become more and more compelling. Ecumenical theology emphasizes that humanity is one body, that the cosmos is a whole, and that God's creation and care extends to the whole cosmos.
The second aspect is the church's separation from political power (not from politics). The situation in which church power existed on a level with, or even surpassed, the secular power of the state changed with the Reformation. But the true conclusion of this task of separation only came with the 20" century. The separation of church power from stale power enabled the church to be a religious organization that cares for people and is focused on social reality. It also ensured that Christianity no longer lorded it over other religions, making equal dialogue between religions a possibility.
The third aspect is the rise of churches from the developing nations of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Especially since the Second World War, independent churches have been flourishing in the wake of peoples' independence movements. Me theology that has emerged from these movements has also been developing rapidly. In today's world, indigenous and contextual theologies that do not follow the Euro-American model flourish: liberation theology from Latin America, Black theology from Africa, Minjung theology from Korea, the theology of the suffering God from Japan and Taiwan wisdom theology.
Theological Developments in the 20th Century
With his injunction to "know thyself", the Greek philosophy Socrates made philosophy a branch of knowledge concerned will human life. The Renaissance raised the banner of rationality, again focusing humankind's gaze on itself. In theology, the Renaissance brought two major changes: the first was a suspicion toward tradition; the second was a rethinking of traditional ontology. The impact of these developments carried over into this century with the development of science and technology and the calamitous effects of two world wars on humanity.
The 20"' century is truly a great century. Unprecedented growth has taken place in world culture, science and technology. Advances in science and technology are beyond anything our forebears could have dreamed of. For the first time in history, humans are able to transform on a large scale the environment in which they exist. And yet, the interchange among peoples that scientific and technical developments have brought about has also brought unprecedented suffering. Especially since the 1960s, this century of daily increasing pluralism of peoples, cultures and politics has also seen an endless stream of theologies representing every opinion and interest. Over all, we can say that theological development in this century is characterized by pluralism and complexity. Within this general framework, we can identify six trends and characteristics.(2)
Focus on the human environment
Theologians' concerns and objectives have changed throughout the ages, and we can trace the channel of theological development through these changes. In general, in the first 500 years of church history, theologians were concerned with the reconstruction and regulation of doctrine. Two large-scale theological disputes broke out: the argument over the Trinity and the Christological dispute. These disputes shaped the basic faith and doctrine of Christianity during its first 500 years. For the following thousand years, theological reflection proceeded within this framework. During the Middle Ages, which extended for nearly a thousand years, theological enquiry underwent two stages. During the first stage, theology mainly served to build up the church and increase its authority. It was claimed that "there is no salvation outside the church," and "whoever does not take the church as his mother, cannot have God as his father." These efforts enabled the church to concentrate both secular worldly power and "heavenly" power in itself. In the mid-and later Middle Ages, theology was mainly concerned with demonstrating the transcendence of God, in order thereby to attain its objective of a humanity in absolute obedience to God. In sum, theology in the Middle Ages was concerned with the building up of divine and ecclesiastical power, a situation that held until the Reformation
Martin Iuther's justification by faith was an attack on the authority of the church. From then on Protestant theology was mainly concerned with humanity and the relationship between God and human beings, recovering for this relationship independence from the church (bishop) as intermediary. Returning to a concern with humans themselves, theology focused on the question of personal salvation.
In the 20th century, theologians have begun to break out of this exclusive concern with personal salvation and have broadened their field of vision to society as a whole. These theologians were not content with a faith that was selfish or concerned only with the individual. They sensed that God was not merely a God of the individual. God is the God of humanity. The social gospel is representative of this type of theology.
In the 1960s, theologians discovered that focusing only on societies made up of individuals was still too narrow, the purview of theology must be broadened to include the whole world, the whole cosmos and the environment in which both humankind and nature exist. We can see in the Bible that the ideal human society is not world of people only, but a great harmony in which all creation dwell together.
Indigenous theologies are Third World theologies that differ from the Euro-American tradition: Christians in Asia, Africa and Latin America who explain Christian truth through the culture of their own peoples. For 500 years, western missionaries spread western culture along with the gospel in Third World countries, such that people in those countries could not help accepting western culture when they accepted the gospel. In the course of the establishment of nation and churches in these countries, Christians discovered that the gospel in western garb often irritated or angered their compatriots. This was not helpful for the spread of the gospel or for the church's self-understanding of the gospel. Thus, Christians in the Third World (along with some western theologians) began to think about issues in the gospel using ways of thinking from their own ethnic cultures, peeling away western culture from the Christian message and explaining the gospel in terms of their own culture. Such theological reflection were more than scattered, individual actions-their reach is global throughout the Christian world.
The significance of indigenous theology is not limited to the theological sphere, it is in fact a response to the ideological impact of the church's throwing off of western mission board control. Church independence movements and the reconstruction of indigenous theology complemented each other and depended upon each other. Under the impulse of church independence and indigenous theology, Third World Christians fought to gain a position on an equal footing with the western church, making it possible to enter into dialogue with them. In fact, for the past thirty years, the situation in the world church has been changing in the direction beneficial to Third World churches. We have reason to believe that in the next century we will grow even stronger vis-a-vis western churches.
Two forces appearing in the church
At present the majority of world theology is liberal in form, but this theology does not present itself as the only correct theology. It does not reject other theologies. Dialogue has replaced hostility: unity has replaced separation. But there is another, more traditional, tendency. This is the evangelical movement, represented by the new evangelicals. They criticize non-evangelical churches, promote traditional doctrine, and keep a distance from non-evangelicals. In other words, the historical distinction between a Christian theology centered on creation and one centered on salvation, is even more obvious today and the contradictions between the two more intense.
A greater focus on reality
Sacred and secular, belief and unbelief: these contradictions no longer occupy prominent positions in theology today, and no longer exacerbate the contradictions between the church and a secular society. After all, the world God has created is one. The Bible does not tell us that God created two different worlds. A Christian's role in the church vs. his or her role in society is no longer the main issue that concerns us. In this century, the church is more concerned with society and emphasizes Christianity serving society, caring about social justice and peace, and calling for a reshaped Christian social ethics and human value system adapted to developments in the world situation. Thus Christianity is no longer an independent kingdom far removed from the rest of humanity and Christians no longer a group removed from their fellows, a group that detests the world and its ways.
New direction for ontology
Among intellectuals in the church, ontology continues to develop, and it has drawn even closer to modem philosophy. Its main expression is found in theological aesthetics, theological linguistics a theological semiotics. A two-thousand year tradition in Christianity, ontology has enabled theology to maintain a close relationship with academic circles in society. Christian theology has always been helped in its development by forward trends of thought in every age.
We should note that this type of theology is always somewhat distanced from faith. This is perhaps one reason for the appearance in China today of culture Christians. We see that in these culture Christians the content of the traditional faith appears in a new form. I will have more to say on this issue below.
The return of devotional theology
From this writer's viewpoint, the goal of Christian theology (primarily expressed in systematic theology) can be roughly divided into three types:
1) the apologetic;
2) the speculative, which is doctrinal in form, the very image of a religious philosophy, and in the main a response to philosophic views of Christianity. This type responds to the issues raised by the life of faith in the church, and is strongly practical;
3) what may be called hermeneutical, a kind of systematized biblical theology.
After the Second World War, people felt overwhelmed by the changing theological tides, and there was a feeling that a thorough-going overhaul was needed. There was a call for a return to the traditional origins of the faith, a return to the Bible. Theology is no substitute for faith and reading theological works cannot supplant reading of the Bible, nor can theological reflection take the place of devotion. Devotional theology arose to respond to this call; however what meant by devotional here is not devotion in the traditional sense.
Chinese Theological Thinking in the 20th Century
World developments in theology inevitably have an impact on the Chinese church. After one hundred years of the gospel in China (beginning in 1807), the Chinese church is beginning to develop its own intellectuals, and it is these intellectuals who are beginning to reflect on Chinese theology. The anti-Christian movement, in the 1920s especially, spurred Chinese Christian intellectuals to make use of Chinese culture and ways of thinking to reflect conscientiously upon theological issues. Thus, they took the first step in constructing a genuinely Chinese theology. Looking at the situation as a whole, for all sorts of reasons, some achievements have been made in Chinese theology in the 20th century, but no breakthroughs. Below, we will take a brief look at the history of Chinese theological reflection in the last hundred years.
Two Trends of the 1920s and 1930s
The issues facing the first generation of Chinese theologians in the 1920s and 1930s were entirely different from those of today. The majority of intellectuals at the time were anti-Christian, so church theologians had to respond to issues on two fronts:
1) the contradictions between Christian faith and scientific reason;
2) the relationship of Christianity to the Chinese people, in the midst of national peril.
Church intellectuals could respond to these issues only through conscientious theological reflection. Two intellectuals in the church may be taken as typical: T.C. Chao (Zhao Zichen) and N.Z. Zia (Xie Fuya) They approached interpretation of Christian faith from a basically rationalist and modernist standpoint, in their early theology tending to reject the biblical supernatural revelation and miracles. Christianity as they understood it was basically a religion of ethics. As T.C. Chao put it, "Christianity is a kind of ideology, one that comes out of an affirmation of the existence of the individual and society, a kind of new life, that Christ is already a reality."(3) Of course, Chao and Zia differ dramatically in their theological thinking, the latter having an intensely mystical hue. But this is not to our point here.
Other intellectuals were more concerned with traditional Christian faith and the inner life of the individual in their responses to Chinese intellectual circles. They did not really promote interaction with society, but emphasized personal devotion and Bible study, producing the earliest devotional theology joined to Chinese culture. The main proponents of this type of theology are Jia Yuming and Robin Chen (Chen Chonggui). Jia Yuming also wrote many devotional hymns.
These two trends were born in China of the debate between creation theology and salvation theology.
Mass theological movement of the 1950s
Bishop K. H. Ting has said, "1949 was a special year for China. From one standpoint the United States 'lost' China in that year and, from another, in that same year the Chinese people won our liberation."(4) Bishop Zing has pointed out that "There were two things which greatly jolted us Chinese Christians upon liberation. First, through direct contacts with revolutionaries, we found them on the whole very different from Chiang Kai-shek's KMT officials, and far fir the caricature made by some missionaries and Chinese church leaders. They were certainly not the monsters and rascals they were said to be, but quite normal human beings with idealism, serious theoretical interests and high ethical commitment."(5) Second, while Christians found themselves surrounded by contradictions of belief vs. unbelief and good vs. evil, foreign missionaries had taught them that God punishes, not on the basis of good vs. evil, but of belief vs. unbelief. But what the Christians were seeing and experiencing the time was utterly confusing to them: there were people in the church who were thoroughly evil, while in society at large (primarily among the Communists) many people behaved in an exemplary way. Could it be that God would really punish these people (unbelievers')? These two situations compelled the Chinese church to reflect, but the reflection began among ordinary Christians: "Participants in this movement of theological rethinking were at first mostly rank-and-file Christians and clergy at the grass roots."(6) This reflection had a profound impact on the development of Chinese Christian theology. "The mass of believers in the church were themselves raising many theological issues and even today these still have great practical significance:"(7)
Three trends of the 1980s
In the early 1980s the church experienced restoration and rebuilding. Beginning in the mid-80s, the Chinese church began a new round of theological reflection. Generally speaking, this reflection took place along the lines of that of the 1950s, but was unable to shake off the model of the 20s and 30s: it was locked in the framework of western missionary theology. With the 1990s, three notable trends appeared:
First, there is an emphasis on theology compatible with socialist society. The thinking underlying this type of theology was shaped in the 1950s, but has experienced some breakthroughs in terms of theory and theological reconstruction. On the one hand, theology is not distanced from the church's concrete environment; on the other hand, it emphasizes the relationship between church and society, opposing theology that would place church and society at odds with each other. We see this type of thinking expressed especially in Christology and most prominently in Bishop Ting's "cosmic Christ."" which emphasizes Christ as Lover of the cosmos and God's love permeating the whole of the universe, in no way limited to the church. This is a theology founded on the larger human spirit, breaking through the church's traditional wall of belief vs. unbelief, providing a theological foundation for blending church and society.
Second, there is an effort to bring Christian theology and Chinese traditional culture together in an indigenous theology with an emphasis on seeking theological inspiration in traditional Chinese culture and using traditional Chinese culture to interpret Christian theology. Western theology in reality uses western culture to interpret Christian theology. It is the theology produced when western peoples, in the course of accepting the gospel, reflected on the Christian message through their own culture and thinking. Because the spread of the gospel around the globe began from Europe, western (including many non-Euro-American Christians) believed that western-style theology was the only correct theology. When we eastern people accepted the gospel, we had to accept western culture at the same time. We had to use the western model to understand the gospel. This is of course a principle of inequality, as well as being against the teachings of the Bible. Indigenous theology is a reaction against western chauvinism. Chinese culture is ancient and well established. That theology should draw nourishment from Chinese Culture is not only beneficial for the reconstruction of Chinese theology but also for the enrichment of the treasures of global Christian theology. The important issue in undertaking such theological reflection is how to grasp the essence of Chinese culture and absorb the scholarly research on traditional culture that will impart to Chinese theology the spirit of the times.
Third, efforts are being made to connect the church and intellectuals in the larger society. As everyone knows, for over ten years there has been a 'religion fever' among Chinese scholars, which has produced a group of scholars who study Christian theology. The efforts have served to fill in, to a degree, some blanks in church theology, such as research into western theology since the Enlightenment, and the introduction of modern western theological trends and works. However, from another angle, they present a challenge to theology in the church because their theological research is, to a larger degree, separate from Christian faith. To some extent their research has created confusion in church theological thinking. The church must have persons within it who can respond to this situation. To make comparison that is not entirely accurate, this type of theology is kind of apologetic, and strongly speculative in nature. On the one hand it responds to the challenge, on the other it draws nourishment form these scholars' research, emphasizing the blending of Christ and culture and promoting cultural adaptation.
Chinese Theology in the 21 st Century
No one can predict what Chinese theology will be like in the 21 st century, but this writer will make the attempt and present what he feels should be future concerns of Chinese theology. It is unlikely that there will be any one dominant Chinese theology in the next century, but in general, the three trends mentioned above cannot be fundamentally reversed. Below I will discuss my personal view of issues that must be taken into account in the process of theological reconstruction.
Attention must be given to the real context
Theological reflection can never take place outside a particular context. Those involved in theological reflection must strive to grasp the Chinese national essence and become very familiar with our context. They must consider not only our domestic context, but the international context as well. For theology, context is not only material that must be absorbed during reflection, it is also a prerequisite for the existence and development of theology. For example, if Chinese theology since the 1950s had left behind the essence of the Chinese reality, not only would it have been unable to bring forth any theology, it would have been very difficult for it to genuinely serve China's own theological reflection. Therefore my point that theology must be attentive to reality. Proposals and actions to set the church and theology apart from society are completely unacceptable.
Strive to raise the quality of believers' faith
The goal of theology is to serve the church. The greater part of inspiration for theology also comes from the church, from the masses of believers. Thus the level of faith of believers to a certain extent decides the direction and success of theology. This is indeed a worry at present with the quality of believers' faith rather low across the board. Believers in rural churches tend to be old ladies whose educational level is rather low. Though there are rather better educated believers in urban churches, in general, the quality of education and faith the Chinese church is in urgent need of a general uplift, to enable mass of believers to have a solid and realistic grasp of the central meaning of Christian faith.
A holistic understanding of the Bible is needed.
The Bible is the source of Christian faith, and the wellspring standard of theology. Thus study of the biblical text is of the highest importance. The Bible is God's revelation to humanity and so we must have a well-rounded understanding of it. We must be able witness to the Bible, not that the Bible witnesses to us. In traditional Chinese culture, there are many methods of textual study which be used as guides, methods that have been developed over the centuries in the study of Chinese classical texts. If we want to constitute our own Chinese indigenous theology, the creation of a Chinese hermeneutics is an absolute necessity and the traditional Chinese methods of textual study should be a place of nourishment for us.
Emphasize the building- up of ecclesiology
The Chinese church has its own context, with its own specific traits unlike those of the contexts of other churches in other countries, and it goes without saying that we must have our own ecclesiology. At present ecclesiology is very weak in China. While absorbing the strong points of western ecclesiology, we should at same time be using these, by every sort of method, to create our own Chinese ecclesiology.
Unearth Chinese traditional culture
The Chinese people have five thousand years of civilization, thus the useful things that can be uncovered in traditional Chinese culture are essential to the study of Chinese theology. But in this writer's view, this not a matter of applying traditional Chinese concepts willingly. It is the essence of the culture that must be grasped, a full understanding of how Chinese patterns of thought differ from western ones. We especially need to become familiar with our national cultural essence to the point that contention ceases.
Though this writer has been following theological reflection in China since the 1980s, partly due to a paucity of materials and my own limitations, what I have said here is hardly exhaustive. Nevertheless my goal is to show that Chinese theological reconstruction has already achieved a level from which there is no turning back.
NanjingTheological Review , No. 2 (1999), 68.
Tang Tu gained his M.Div. at Nanjing Seminary and now teaches al Sichuan Seminary.
1 Chen Zemin, ""the Chinese Church and the Church Ecumenical," Nanjing Theological Review No. 2 (1998): 42
2 See Zhuo Xinping, Modern Western Protestant Theology [in Chinese] (Shanghai Joint Publishing, 1998), 395-399.
3 From Shao Yuming, "The Attitude of Chinese Intellectuals 'toward Christianity in the 20'h Century," [in Chinese] in Liu Xiaofeng, ed., Logos and Pneuma The En- counter of Chinese Diasporan Culture and Christian Culture (Shanghai: Joint Publishing, 1995), 283.
4 K.H. Ting, "'theological Mass Movement in China," Love Never Ends [Chinese edition] (Nanjing: Yilin Press, 1999), 137.
5 Ibid. 137
6 Ibid. 139
7 See Chen Zemin, Foreword to Ting, 22-31.
8 See K.H. Ding, "The Cosmic Christ," Love, 408. 29