Intensify Theological Reconstruction in the Chinese Church
Address at the Jinan Conference
I was very inspired by the speeches given by Bishop Ting and Rev. Su Deci. One of the main themes of this conference is strengthening theological reconstruction in the Chinese church, a theme I find very important and one I would like to address today.
We might consider this second session of the current National Christian Conference here in Jinan a "midterm exam" for this present five-year term of the Conference -a retrospective on achievements and experience in our work during the two years since the present term began in 1997, and a look forward at the direction and tasks we must strive for in the next three years. It is also the last meeting of the lianghui in the present century. Soon we will celebrate the 50 th anniversary of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of Protestant Churches in China. And in 2000, during the third meeting of the Standing Committees, we will be standing with all the people of China on the threshold of the 21st century and that will be the first meeting of the new century. To use seminary language, this "midterm exam" is a preparation for the "final exam" and the start of the new semester (historical period). Thus alluding to the task of strengthening theological reconstruction in the church is of tremendous historical significance.
During these two days, each delegate has received, in their packet of materials at registration, a thick, hardcover copy of Love Never Ends. This is a gift to each member from the lianghui. My foreword to the book has already appeared in Tian Feng and in the Nanjing Theological Review, but the book itself came out only a week ago. We in Nanjing, privileged as those who live near the water are first to see the moon, already have the book. It is extremely topical and pertinent to the subject of this conference.
A year ago, Bishop Ting gathered some of his papers from over the past twenty years, over eighty pieces in all, put them in order and edited them, with a view to publishing them as a selection of his works. He asked me to read them and to write a foreword. I was both anxious and pleased. Anxious because I was afraid I did not completely understand his thinking, that I had not digested the profounder meanings of his essays, and was not up to writing a foreword, and pleased because it gave me the chance to read his selections first. After reading through them all conscientiously, I felt that they could serve as a general summing up of the several decades of experience of the Three-Self Movement of our church. They contained views that were theologically innovative and creative, worth our conscientious consideration and study. I wrote my foreword based on what I understood of my reading, my main purpose being to aid the reader (including intellectual circles outside the church) in understanding the history and present circumstances of the Chinese church, and to serve as background for reading the volume. I asked Bishop Ting to read and edit my draft and circulated it among some friends, both in and outside the church, for their comments. When I had my final draft, at Bishop Ting's suggestion, I first published it in Dan Feng and the NanjingTheological Review. When Love Never Ends was published, I read my foreword as it appeared there and discovered that two sentences I considered important had been edited out. They should appear beginning on line 2 of page 3. I would like to read them now and ask you all to pay particular attention to them:
"Bishop Ting is a man with a strong sense of mission and a great devotion to his work. As a church leader, his whole life has been closely linked to the fate of the church in China and reflects the issues and challenges which the Chinese church has faced in different periods, as well as the church's response. On this level of meaning, his explorations of theological issues Before publication of Love Never Ends, Bishop Ting considered MyExplorations into Theological Issues as a title, were also the church's investigation of and pondering of its limes, future and destiny. The publication of Love Never Ends has great historical and epochal significance for the Chinese church."
This passage is a good general summary, very pertinent and precise. It was not my own (1'm not that good at generalizing), but was added to my draft by Dr. Li Pingye of the Central Religious Affairs Bureau when she read it. She is an old friend of Bishop Ting, well versed in Christianity, who has a great understanding and care for the Chinese church. Her addition of these sentences to my draft is very important and apropos and functioned to "dot the eyes of the dragon." They show that the publication of Love Never Ends raises a challenge to our expressed need to consider theological reconstruction seriously and point out a direction for the future. When the book was published without these two sentences, I asked Bishop Ting about it and found that he had felt the passage placed too much importance on his own role. Out of humility, he asked that they be deleted.
Please permit me, as the author of the foreword and with Dr. Li's permission to beg Bishop 'fine's indulgence for rereading the passage. And I would like to take this opportunity to suggest that this book be made a required text for seminary students and a reference for theological and pastoral workers. The publication of the book can be said to be an important milestone in the history of Chinese theology. Today you each have a copy, a gift from the national Lianghui I would like to take this opportunity to suggest that you read it carefully and make some of the proposals and views therein topics for your discussions. Of course, there will be differing understandings and views. Our essential Christian faith is one, with the Bible as its foundation. Theology is an understanding and elucidation of faith, it can and should develop in diverse and abundant ways according to different social backgrounds and cultural conditions. For two thousand years of theological history, it has never been unchanging or defined by one voice. There must be differences in order for comparison, exchange, discussion, mutual learning, supplementing to take place, in order to have development and progress. This conference encourages the idea that there cannot be one voice in theology and that space for all kinds of theological thinking, mutual respect and learning should be permitted. In this way only can our theology flourish and abound, only then will there be progress. The publication of' Love Never Ends offers us rich topics and views for theology; there may be some which are not v cry similar to some old-fashioned views. I hope that careful reading and consideration of these essays will enliven our theological thinking.
Some at this conference have said that current Chinese theology is backward. How should we view such an assessment? Others say that in comparison with mainstream foreign Christian denominations' theology, we are backward. And others say that friendly evangelicals overseas, after coming into contact with us, say we (our theology) are fifty years behind them. Some people think that the theology expressed in our pulpits does not get beyond the negative world-weary theology the western missionaries preached in the late 19th century or the 30s and 40s of the 20th century. Many spread fundamentalismpremillenarianism-dispensationalism (these three were nearly identical in American usage; they belong to the same trend). Al the time. China was variously caught up in the battles among warlords, the war of resistance against Japan, the war of liberation. The people were frequently subjected to the disasters of war, uprooted and suffering, pessimistic and without hope in their feelings toward their reality. This made them very receptive to this type of negative, otherworldly thinking-characterized by waiting for the end of the world, the Second Coming, the "rapture," and by pious thinking focused on personal salvation. This type of theology was mainly brought by English and American "fundamentalist" missionaries in the early part of this century, and through elaboration and agitation by some "revivalists' and "evangelists" (like John Song, Ji Zhiwen and Zhao Shiguang) had a broad and deep impact among Chinese clergy and believers. It came to be thought of as "orthodox" Christian theology and became the "mainstream."
There were also some "modernist" missionaries, whose theology was more open, mostly teaching at seminaries and universities, scorned as "liberals" and "social gospellers" by the fundamentalists, who thought them too concerned with reason, social responsibility and moral behavior, Their impact was limited to some intellectuals. Most of those who initiated and took part in the Three-Self Movement at the beginning were from this group. The fundamentalists thought their faith insufficiently "pure" or "spiritual." ho strengthen unity, the Three-Self leaders promoted mutual respect in matters of theology, on a political basis of patriotism, unity and cooperation. In the early Liberation period (the first hall of the 1950s) there was a period of -mass theological movement'. Some rather obvious errors in political thinking and speech were criticized through these discussions, but since the principle of mutual respect was maintained, the theological thinking and speech of fundamentalists and premillenarian-dispensationalists was basically unmoved. From the latter 1950s to the late 1970s, China was basically cut of from the outside world. Due to many political movements and the influence of ultra-leftism, church life ceased and theology was stagnant. In the last twenty years, religious policy has been implemented, church life has been resumed, and the church has developed rapidly. During this time, the theology of fifty years ago, almost unchanged, began to flood the Chinese church. This could facetiously be termed "no change for fifty years."(1) But Chinese society in these fifty years has undergone reform and openness, has undergone an unprecedented transformation, entering the initial stage of socialism. There are many concepts and thinking in the church which are not compatible with socialism and cannot adapt to it. When theology lags behind social reality, we can say that compared with the consciousness of the Chinese people today, we are indeed backward. During this fifty years, world Christianity has undergone many changes as well. There have been many new and important developments in theology, among them some which deserve to be drawn on and studied. It is only in the last decade and more of reform and openness that we have learned a bit about these. In this sense, we are indeed several decades behind compared to Christian theology beyond our borders. Furthermore, knowledge of Christianity among Chinese intellectuals has also undergone an important change in the last twenty years. Many academics have studied Christianity and have a deep understanding of it, surpassing us in terms of theological thinking. They have written many books on Christian doctrine and theology which are much deeper and more advanced than our own. In this sense, compared with intellectuals sympathetic to Christianity, we are tremendously backward.
Whether or not we recognize our church's backwardness in theology (whether or not backward in the senses outlined above), it is an important issue for strengthening theological reconstruction in the church. In August of this year, Bishop Ting spoke on the backwardness of Chinese Christian theological thinking today at a meeting of the CPPCC in Xi'an (2), and called for a revisioning and striving for adaptation to and compatibility with socialism. 'this speech's (published in the CPPCC News and Religion) appearance generated a great deal of discussion. This shows that some people are very unwilling to admit their thinking is backward and cannot tolerate different voices. The publication of Bishop Ting's book may represent another voice, a kind of challenge for some people. I hope that careful reading of this book will act as a catalyst to our theological reconstruction and enliven our theology.
We stand on the threshold of a new century. What will Chinese Christianity look like as it enters the 21" century'? Will we be able to adapt to socialism'? To a great extent, this will determine our theology. I believe that the publication of Love Never Ends can aid us in conscientiously dealing with the issue of theological reconstruction. I would like to suggest here that careful reading and study of this book will not be unworthy of the kind intentions of the national lianghui in giving each of us here this gift.
Chen Zemin is Vice-Principal of Nanjing Union Theological Seminary.
NanjingTheological Review. No. I (1999), p. 5.
1 A play on the phrase, wushinian bubian (no change for fifty years), used to describe Chinese policy in maintaining the status quo in Hong Kong.