Chinese Theological Review 14

Emphasize Theological Reconstruction and Training

Su Deci

Recently, I have often been inspired by Bishop Ting's remarks about the importance of strengthening the reconstruction of theological thinking. Like my colleagues here, I have done much hard thinking about this.

I'd like to begin by speaking of what I know about the subject. We all talk about the need for such strengthening, but why'? I think there are several reasons at least. which I'll discuss below.

First, people's knowledge of concepts goes through a process, moving from emotion to rationality. Varying degrees of knowledge produce discrepancies in this state of things, one spontaneous, the other conscious. We can borrow these philosophical concepts to describe human beings' knowledge of and relationship to God. "I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you"(Job 42:5). ... "because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen... "(2Cor. 4:18). People always see theology as something of the mind rather than of the spirit. Actually. this is not so. Theology is a kind of knowledge, but it is also something which can be practiced. It is a knowledge of things of the spiritual realm, it is also the practice of the spiritual life: both require inspiration. Theology is both the sum of the church's spiritual experience and the guiding thought and theory for its forward journey. Theological reconstruction and theoretical formation illuminate how people's knowledge of God proceeds from fragmentary, superficial and passive to systematic, internal and sell-directed. We can say that theological activities show the church in the act of thinking and growing and our theological level shows the church's level of maturity. By the grace of God, the Chinese church has accomplished a great deal of work over the past twenty years. But we must not content ourselves with the status quo, fur the grace and life of God are enormously abundant, and God wants us to sail our boats to deep waters to draw even more grace, to enter into an even more abundant level God is perfect, "with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change" (James l:17). Except for God, all else is in flux. In what direction is it changing? To change in accord with the heart of the Lord means to know God more surely and love God more deeply. I his requires of us that we use the intellect, emotion and will we have from God, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to enter into all Truth and grow in the grace and knowledge of God. Therefore, on the foundation of our basic faith, to move toward theological reconstruction is inevitable and necessary.

Second, a look at church history shows that in no society was the church ever in stasis, without forward movement. A vigorous church is a dynamic one. Any society is multilevel. The relative weight of the various levels all depends on development and change in the society. The Chinese church as a whole has never placed particular emphasis on theology. Therefore, the very mention of theology causes misunderstandings, even conflict, for many. And from another angle, because the church lacks theology a substantial portion of society, especially the ever-increasing intellectual circles, never enters the church door, in spite of their interest in Christianity. Should the church shrink the "majority" of believers in the countryside and expand the "minority" of believers in the cities? This touches on the question of what sort of church it is. Theological reconstruction requires us to be more intellectual, more rational, in explaining and propagating our faith. "The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge" (Psalm 19: 1-2). "It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom" (Col. 1:28). "G the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge oh God!"(Rom. 11: 33). Thus, we pray for "the spirit of wisdom and revelation" to guide us into all truth, that we may truly know God. (Eph. 1:17; John 16:13) Faced with a society that is rapidly developing economically, technologically and culturally, we must understand theological reconstruction in high strategic terms of whether or not the church is able to sustain its development deeply and broadly.

Third. the past two thousand years of church history has been a history of churches in different periods continually adapting to the societies in which they are situated. How to adapt itself to a socialist society with Chinese characteristics is the important task facing the Chinese church and it is one which must be well resolved. This is also the task for theological reconstruction. Our theology must be indigenized and contextualized. We know that even when a transplant operation is successful in all aspects, rejection can negate all that came before. Therefore a simple transplant is not enough, fusion and adaptation must occur here, too. Adapting Christianity to our socialist society to ensure its healthy existence is the bounden duty we co-workers in the Chinese church bear, otherwise, we must answer to God. China is at present exploring and building a new society, one which has never existed before in our history, one in which cultural construction must accompany economic and political reform into a newly ordered new era. The slogan, "let the old serve the new and the foreign serve the Chinese," requires that we search the long river of history and the vast ocean of the world to find the essence that can serve to make up our new culture.

Since ancient times, Christian culture has stood at the heart of western culture. Therefore, as we absorb the riches of human civilization from western culture for our own use, do Chinese Christians sense this as a kind of challenge-what will we bring forth from it? Will it play a minor or a leading role? Will it function negatively or positively'? Do Chinese Christians sense this as an opportunity to make some contribution? I hope we can all grasp this opportunity and while maintaining our basic faith, make a conscious effort to dare to ponder, to excel at it, conscientiously studying the truth of the Bible and social knowledge, building a bridge between the eternal word of God and a changing society, and shifting from a passive, unthinking adapting to adapting actively and consciously, both taking the time for self-adjustment and striving to raise our own worth. Flux is an even more significant task of theological reconstruction.

And while we are exploring theological reconstruction and invigorating theological thinking, we should analyze the reasons for stagnation in theological reconstruction in the Chinese church. I believe this will be helpful in creating an atmosphere for invigorating theological reconstruction and accelerate the creation of conditions conducive to it.

I believe there are at least the following reasons for stagnation:

l. The large-scale introduction of Christianity in China took place during a period when the fundamentalist-modernist controversy was at its peak in the western church, especially in the American church. The result of the controversy was to drive each side to its extreme position. The missionaries, who left their own land for the East and a culture and living conditions so vastly different from their own, were for the most part zealous evangelists, fundamentalist and more conservative in their theology. To a greater or lesser extent, consciously or not, they mostly proclaimed a more negative, otherworldly, submissive thought, which made a great impression on Chinese Christians who, in terms of their faith understanding, were more narrow and biased than not. Many even believed that theology was of the mind, secular not spiritual, and therefore more damaging than beneficial to faith.

2. Theology developed rapidly in the ecumenical church after World War II, augmented by many new areas and fields of study, and a great deal of new results were gained through research. But China, closed off for nearly thirty years, knew practically nothing of these new achievements. In the 1980s, when the religious policy was once again implemented, the church put its main strength into reopening churches and similar work of rebuilding, with neither the time nor the strength to put theological reconstruction on its agenda. And so, not much progress was made in theology, to the point that in many aspects the disparity with the rest of the world even increased.

3. From the mid-1950s in China, "leftist' thinking gradually assumed a leading place, and subjectivism became the main method of reasoning, reaching its peak during the Cultural Revolution. Because leftism was not thoroughly critiqued after the Cultural Revolution, this kind of abnormal thinking inevitably influenced understanding of faith and theological reflection. falling into extremes and narrowness, never forming an atmosphere of freedom of theological inquiry.

4. Traditional Chinese theological education did not place much stress on the teaching of literature, history and philosophy. The teaching in seminaries and Bible schools was often limited to practical theology and Bible, the social sciences were not taught. 'Thus students were rather lacking in ability to do theological reflection and comprehensive analysis. In the 1980s, since most students came from the countryside, their educational level was rather low, and they had a one-sided emphasis on spirituality, and in general slighted or were terrified by theology. Another reason theological reconstruction could not be undertaken rapidly was that these newly reopened or renovated seminaries and schools lacked teaching staff.

5. With openness and reform, the intrusive activities of anti-China groups among overseas Christians grew in intensity. Their cry was "We cannot leave 1.2 billion souls to the atheists, we must use the gospel to reform China, we must use the Lord's Second Coming to spread the gospel." For the last ten or more years, they have been illegally disseminating many eschatological works and other books that have long been criticized or repudiated by fundamentalist scholars and pastors overseas. These actions harm believers, blur right and wrong disturb society and put obstacles in the way of theological reconstruction in the Chinese church.

Theological reconstruction is a major agenda item at this meeting and everyone has been discussing the topic with enthusiasm. It is a long-term task, and I hope we can use this meeting as a turning point to open up a new situation. In this regard, I would like to raise a number of points for your consideration.

1. The nature of theological thinking is spiritual: it is also scholarly. Currently, in order to invigorate theological thinking, we are advancing theological research, encouraging the publication of theological views, and building an atmosphere of scholarly freedom. Of course, we should make firmly grasping the larger direction of "love country, love church, go forward in unity," and upholding the three-self principle our prerequisites in this.

2. In general, there are three restraints on theological thinking: biblical evidence, upholding the doctrinal orthodoxy of the church, and adapting to the nature and direction of a given society. Therefore, although something may be an individual view, it may gradually receive the approbation of' the whole church. There are doctrinal types of views believed and maintained by believers which have general recognition in the church and which the church treats as supplementary to church doctrine. This is frequently seen in church history and shows the development of church theology. Therefore in the garden of theological thinking, we should promote the "hundred schools'' (1), not the domination of one school. To do this, we must request of every researcher and thinker a broad vision and a great toleration. Individuals should be humble of heart, seeing others as stronger than themselves; they should also have sell' respect and not put themselves down. They should be bold to publish their own views, good at absorbing others' strengths, brave enough to correct their own failings. l believe that the Holy Spirit will be at work among such groups, and give them abundant knowledge and great revelation

3. Theological reconstruction is a long-term task requiring planning and orderly progression. The national lianghui should formulate plans for the short-term, medium-term and long-term. I hope the church self-strengthening planning group can gel speedily to work.

4. Theological reconstruction is one aspect of the work of self-propagation. To highlight this work, I suggest that the Self-Propagation Study Group be upgraded to a Research Committee. With this committee leading the way or serving as liaison, we can use the transmission and implementation of the spirit of this meeting as an opportunity to promote the organization of pluralistic discussion at all levels so that the whole church comes to know the importance of theological reconstruction

5. The crux of theological reconstruction in the Chinese church lies in the training of theological personnel. We must expend a great deal of effort in this regard. The church exists in a multilevel society, so it is also multilevel. Thus it must train various levels of personnel. Let me explain.

(1) Churches and meeting points below the county level lack clergy with theological training, yet the majority of believers are found at this level. At present, the most urgent method is also the most effective-the training of large numbers of lay workers: lengthening their training, strengthening the content and pace of their training. The Rural Work Committee has done a great deal of effective work in this area. Last year, the national Lianghui received news of a teaching team formed with support of a provincial level lianghui: this is one means of intensifying the pace. The key training given at this level should be in basic doctrine, preaching and pastoral work.

(2) The clergy in city churches has for the most part had theological training. The focus for fostering at this level should be the younger generation who graduated in the 1980s. Intellectuals are concentrated in cities, and at the same time, the challenges to be faced there are more conspicuous. For the reasons I mentioned in the second part of this presentation, we should provide the younger generation with further opportunities for study. I hope they can progress to a higher stage in their profession, in the study of biblical theology and practical theology as well as in peripheral fields of knowledge.

(3) Seminaries and Bible schools are bases for educating personnel and we should continue to raise their standards and strengthen them. Teachers who are B.D. graduates should within a specified time be raise to the level of M.Div. Through assessment, they must adapt to the needs of the developing circumstances, revising teaching plans at all levels and enriching courses in theology. Each institution must strictly distinguish each level and rank, to ensure the quality and effectiveness of education. Recruitment of students must also be improved, emphasizing the students' cultural and educational foundation. When necessary, we should consider holding preparatory courses with the main purpose of raising the educational and cultural level.

(4) There is an urgent need to train high level personnel capable of conversing with international theological circles and Chinese intellectual circles and taking positions as leaders in the church's program of theological reconstruction.

(5) Next year we must re-start our work of sending students overseas to study. I hope every provincial lianghui will undertake a conscientious selection process and promote outstanding individuals. The national lianghui must draft education and training regulations, including those for overseas study, to avoid going ahead blindly or arbitrarily.

Emphasis on theological reconstruction means accelerating training and education, and this requires accelerating theological reconstruction. This will be a long historical stage. There is an ancient saying, "Great oaks from little acorns grow, a nine-story terrace is built from the first story up, and a journey of a thousand Ii begins with the first step." We have already begun, let us move steadily forward.

Nanjing Theological Review, No. 2 (1999), p. 5.

Rev. Su is a Vice-President and General Secretary of the China Christian Council.

1 As the famous phrase has it, "Let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend"-a description of intellectual diversity.