Chinese Theological Review 18

From Incarnation to Divine Reconciliation

Wang Aiming

The Background of Theological Reconstruction

Since its all-round revival in 1980, the Chinese Church has seen great development, churches being reclaimed or built on all sides, with a great many churches appearing within a short time, and great numbers of Christians appearing in urban and rural areas. A senior pastor told me that over half the Christians in the Chinese Church now are first generation Christians who have come to Christ since the Cultural Revolution. This has created a worrying state of affairs; though the numbers of Christians have risen dramatically, the number of pastors is very small and the situation has yet to show much improvement. According to statistics in two recent issues of the church monthly Tian Feng, there are about 1800 regularly ordained pastors in the Chinese Church, most of whom are elderly. By comparison, as China becomes more and more modernized, the level of advancement and education in society rises. However, the educational level within the Church has not risen as fast as that of society in general.

Church leaders, especially Bishop K.H. Ting, were aware of this problem a decade ago. In looking through past issues of the Nanjing Theological Review, I discovered that Bishop Ting had raised theological reconstruction as the most important of the many important tasks facing the Chinese Church eighteen years ago. Despite the fact that strengthening theological reconstruction was only formally raised at the Jinan Meeting in 1998, Bishop Ting had already referred to it eighteen years earlier. We cannot content ourselves with the restoration of religious life in the Church, nor with the building of new churches. Rather we must turn our attention to the vast challenges facing theological education.

Theological reconstruction is not only the work of theological education, but theological education holds an important place in theological reconstruction. Adjustment of certain backward and conservative views is a necessity and the burden of such adjustment falls first on pedagogy and research within our seminaries. Thus, the background to the task of theological reconstruction is: a surge in churches and an increase in Christians is offset by a dearth of clergy and a tendency to backward-looking preaching.

During 50th anniversary celebrations for Three-Self, the Chinese Church passed a formal resolution dividing the fifty years of Three-Self Movement history into three periods based on an analysis and summation of that history by Bishop Ting:

1 The Chinese Church adapting to the establishment of new China, resolving a political issue by accepting and recognizing the new Chinese government; that is, the leadership of the Communist Party. This was the first step in the process of adapting to socialism, the first beginning step in merging Christianity into the political life of the Chinese people. This extremely important period Bishop Ting identified as the first phase of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement.

2 In the 1980s, having been through the Cultural Revolution, Chinese Christianity was gained widespread recognition among the people of China. Chinese Christianity revived, benefiting from national reforms and the policy of openness. After nearly twenty years of development, we have built many churches, and many cadres from government departments related to religious bodies, like Chinese society overall, have been helping us to bring Church-State relations into better balance. Through its own actions, the Chinese Church has made it possible for the Chinese people to identify with the justice, progressiveness and rationality of Christianity.

The achievements of these twenty years, from 1980 to 2000, were tremendous. Many problems remain. Many pastors and evangelists in our pulpits still preach with relish on faith healing and casting out demons. There are students in our seminaries who speak in so-called tongues, language they do not understand and others cannot translate. These students avoid difficult studies but make themselves appear extremely spiritual, accusing their classmates who do not speak in tongues of being unspiritual. Yet in actuality their own academic records are poor. With healings falsely done in the name of God, and so-called speaking in tongues, how can we be so complacent as to claim, as some do, that the Chinese Church has greatly matured; that numbers are up; so many Bibles have been printed, so many distributed; that great things have been achieved? Those who espouse such an attitude have not looked clearly at the difficulties and challenges the Chinese Church faces. The question we should be posing in such circumstances is: What should our Chinese Church be doing?

3 At the Jinan Meeting in the fall of 1998, the CCC/ TSPM proposed the strengthening of theological reconstruction at a time when the Chinese Church faced a time of great adjustment. The proposal did not come as a result of complacency or due to a sense of vast achievement.

There are many definitions of theology. There must be over twenty that are very vivid, that go to its very essence. Bishop Ting has given a very vivid definition in saying that "theology is the Church thinking." This emphasizes the role of the Church. What is the role of the Chinese Church in Chinese society? What sort of role should it play? What questions should it be answering? So to say that theology is the Church thinking is quite different from other classic definitions of theology. Classic definitions basically refer to study of the words of God, exploration of God language in the Bible, etc. But to emphasize the Church thinking as the nature of theology, is quite in line with his referntial world. This is an extremely important point, because it responds to a pessimistic, unrealistic view, in China and overseas which says that China has no theology.

China has a Church, a Church established with Christ as its head and the thinking of the Chinese Church is Chinese theology. Thus, in reiterating the definition of theology in the early days of promoting the task of theological reconstruction, Bishop Ting was giving the younger generation a timely reminder: that in developing our own theology, whatever issues the Chinese Church is thinking about, are all part of its theological reflection. If the Chinese Church is able to resolve some actual issues it meets with in the process of the communication of God's word, including issues around ecclesiology, this will be the contribution of the Chinese Church to the theology of the Church ecumenical. Chen Zemin, vice-principal of Nanjing Union Theological Seminary, has said that with our proposal of theological reconstruction, others cannot say that the Chinese Church has no theology. And at the forum on Love Never Ends: Papers by K.H. Ting held in the Qingpu district of Shanghai in 1999, Chen Zemin pointed to the publication of this volume as another proof that it could no longer be claimed that the Chinese Church had no theology.

Since 1998, many articles on aspects of theological reconstruction have been published and many issues have been discussed, all of which, in practical terms, are all linked to the three facets of background discussed here. Many churches have been built, but the Church remains weak, because the Church has not truly formed its own responses to the difficulties and challenges it faces; that is, thus far it has not done enough thinking. We must begin with each church, each co-worker, all the way up to the persons in charge in the Chinese Church. All must think theologically together: only then can our theology be put in motion.

The senior generation of clergy has pointed out that theological reconstruction is a long and difficult process which will require twenty to fifty years. Some issues will not be clarified in our lifetimes, perhaps not for generations. As the primary task of all the tasks facing the Chinese Church, theological reconstruction will need a lot of hard work and it may be that a high price must be paid.

Intellectual Origins of Theological Reconstruction

1 The Three-Self Movement resolves a political issue (early 1950s)

In the early 1950s we formulated a political standpoint, stating that "A Christian is a Chinese citizen too." What the TSPM actually accomplished by doing this was to form a political standpoint for Chinese Christians: as Chinese Christians, did we dare to be citizens of new China, or was it true, as used to be said, that one more Christian meant one less Chinese? The facts prove that this negative claim has no force in new China. From the 1950s on, the idea that a Christian should be a good citizen has been an unchanging principle of Three-Self. This issue was dealt with in the early 1950s, but the theological issue and some religious views, were not.

In the early 1950s, Tian Feng carried many theological debates. These progressed to the point where some backward and conservative theological views were already being addressed and revised. Later the Cultural Revolution brought this very significant task to a temporary halt. The true beginning of this work has only come about in the present, in the theological reconstruction of the last few years, in the third period mentioned above. Only now has the Chinese Church dared to address these theological issues and boldly declared that these backward and conservative views must be revised. And if, for the time being, explanations are unclear or revision is not possible, as least such views can be de-emphasized.

De-emphasis is not the same as elimination. Bishop Ting has given us a very vivid example of the connotations of de-emphasis here: It is as if we have a cup of tea, and when we have drunk half, we add water. The tea leaves are still in the cup; they have not been thrown out. De-emphasis is like adding a little water when we find the flavor of the leaves is too strong; the taste becomes milder, but it is still tea. When theological reconstruction calls for de-emphasizing some basic doctrines, no one should think that basic faith is affected. We are not getting rid of basic faith.

Rather, in special historical conditions, we are asking: What should receive more emphasis and what less? What doctrines should be put to the fore, which de-emphasized? Take justification by faith, for example. Why did Martin Luther emphasize this doctrine, rather than any other, during the Reformation? Christian systematic theology comprises so many doctrines—creation, resurrection and so on— why did Luther give particular emphasis to justification by faith? Was he getting rid of the others? No. He was putting less emphasis on them. Then what was his goal in emphasizing justification by faith?

We know that the issue of authority was the central issue of the Reformation. Did the Pope have greater authority? Or was the authority of the Bible greater? Luther discovered that the authority of the Bible could be used to control that of the Pope. The Pope was not God, and even though he called himself the heir of St. Peter, Peter was not God either. The Pope might be the successor of Peter, but he was still human. So for Luther, the goal in emphasizing justification by faith was to solve the political issue of the Reformation, the issue of authority. This was not the same as emphasizing justification by faith in order to do away with other doctrines. Luther did not get rid of any doctrines, such as those of the love of God or the grace of God, and we can find evidence of this throughout his theological writings.

In sum, this consideration of the intellectual origins of theological reconstruction shows that in the early 1950s, the intent was to solve the issue of the political standpoint of Christians. Only the first steps were taken during this period; genuine revision of theological views has been undertaken only in recent years with theological reconstruction.

2 The reality of heresies in China since reform and openness

In recent years, the government has banned heresies like Annointed Kings, Eastern Lightning and the Ling Ling Church that claim to be Christian. Sociologists have found that in a Christian environment, especially in rural areas, many self-proclaimed evangelists wave the Bible as they preach heresy. Why is the rural church so weak in these areas in its ability to resist heresies? One important reason is the uncertain theological level of clergy there. Christianity has developed quickly in many provinces; many areas have thousands of Christians, but not one pastor. I did a quick survey at Nanjing Union Theological Seminary and found that in certain areas of Anhui, there were tens of thousands of believers, but no pastor. Without a pastor where do believers go for pastoral care? There are many lay volunteers who have had several months to a year of training, some only by correspondence course, who serve as preachers. Some of them, because they have a certificate from the training course or the correspondence course, feel they have some authority vis à vis other Christians and think that their interpretation of the Bible is the correct one. Yet it is in these places that resistance to heresy is weak.

This reality is one that shapes the reflection on theological reconstruction. What can be done when resistance to heresy is weak? I teach systematic theology at Nanjing Seminary, so it is natural for me to begin the discussion with systematic theology.

Systematic theology comprises the precious experience of the church over two thousand years, especially knowledge formed in the process of resisting heresy and heterodoxy. It tells us which interpretations of our basic faith are correct and which are heresy. For example, following our proposal that in the present context of the Chinese Church justification by faith should be de-emphasized, a lot of debate arose among our co-workers and in different places there remain those who cannot, for various reasons, accept certain aspects of it. They take it too literally. Is it that people are justified, or is it God who makes them so? I have put this to many people and many Christians say that since they have confessed their faith publicly, then of course they are without sin. Many people have this understanding. But according to dogmatics, it is God who judges whether or not a person is without sin.

The Chinese formulation of justification by faith is a classical formulation without an expressed subject, meaning because x, then y. Many people in the Chinese Church have assumed the subject of this formulation to be human beings rather than God. In fact, the subject is God. It is God who enables us human beings to establish right relations with God. Humans are judged righteous or not by God. The subject of the equation is God, not humans. If we had this interpretation of justification by faith, then our Christians would not think that once they are baptized, they will go to heaven even if they do something bad, while good people who have not been baptized are going to hell no matter how much good they do. That our Christians come to a conclusion like this illustrates that there is something wrong with our understanding of justification by faith. For authority rests with God, not with human beings; we know that the final judgment comes from God. Humans must not judge each other. I am a teacher, but I cannot pronounce that if a person has not been baptized, they will go to hell despite all their good works, because the final judgment comes from God, not humans.

The de-emphasis on justification by faith proposed by Bishop Ting has allowed us to reconsider justification from the viewpoint of systematic theology, reminding us that the subject here is God and not humans. This is very important.

This is the second point of reflection on the sources of theological reconstruction: How shall we deal with the exhaustion and weakness in the church that resistance to heresy entails? The fundamental issue is that the theological quality of our clergy must be raised. This is the theological direction that theological reconstruction stresses. I believe that to sum up reflection on the sources of theological reconstruction as theological orientation is a crucial step in moving forward theological reconstruction.

A few colleagues feel that stress on an orientation is a modernist or liberal approach, while a lack of such stress is fundamentalist. In fact, this is an emotionalized language. Actually every church emphasizes a certain orientation; western churches even more so, otherwise there would not be so many denominations. Each denomination has its own orientation. Our Chinese Church is post-denominational, a post-denominational union, so of course it should have its own clearly-defined orientation. This grasp of theological orientation is concretely arrived at through course requirements in correct views of the Bible and church history. Theological reconstruction has brought the issue of orientation to the fore once again, so that we may find a correct resolution. What is pure faith? How do we preach pure faith?

3 Theological Reconstruction and Basic Faith

When theological reconstruction was first mooted, some more senior colleagues influenced seminarians by the tenor of some of their language. They wondered whether theological reconstruction was aimed at changing our basic faith, feared that it would affect basic faith somehow. Bishop Ting made it very clear that an appropriate distance would be kept between theological reconstruction and matters of basic faith.

What, then, do we mean by basic faith? This is spelled out very clearly in the Constitution of the Chinese Church. On a visit to the U.S., some church colleagues in California asked me whether we had basic faith in the Chinese Church. I replied that we had and brought out my copy of the devotional diary published by the CCC/TSPM and opened to the first page following the Table of Contents, on which The Lord's Prayer is found. On the very next page were the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. They were amazed. It was the first they had heard of these two creeds being included in the devotional diary published by the Chinese Church. They asked me for a few copies so they could be reminded that the Chinese Church placed these two creeds first. Later I thought how strange it was that they looked at the Chinese Church through colored glasses. Quite a few of them had visited Nanjing Union Theological Seminary where The Lord's Prayer and the Apostles Creed are said in every chapel service and where the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed are included in explaining our basic faith.

These American friends later said this was the first they had heard of this and admitted that perhaps they had listened too much to attacks on the Chinese Church and too little to positive introductions of theological thinking in the Chinese Church. Having spoken with me, they were more interested in theological reconstruction. I presented them with copies of the English edition of the writings of Bishop Ting, Love Never Ends. I asked them not to open the books until I read several paragraphs to them, to see if these accorded to the impressions they had been given of the Chinese Church.

For the benefit of friends overseas, I had summarized some of the themes from Love Never Ends as "Fifteen Basic Propositions Related to the Work of Theological Reconstruction." In these fifteen propositions, I expounded on the writings and thinking of Bishop Ting, making frequent use of his own words. For example, he stresses that human beings are semi-finished products of the ongoing process of creation. When theologians at Fuller Seminary heard this, they found it very profound. It was the first time they had heard it. I also mentioned that Bishop Ting, in speaking of original blessing and original sin, said that original blessing was greater than original sin. Moreover, he felt that love is the highest attribute of God. These ideas and others are included in my Fifteen Propositions and were all topics for discussion at the forum in Qingpu to discuss the writings of Bishop Ting.

In our reflections, we believe that basic faith does not change, but that theological thinking can be revised, and this revision of theological thinking is linked to our great commission to preach the word of God. Think for a moment of what it would be like if we, today, had to adapt to Jesus'time, if we were only able to preach the Gospel within the Jewish social environment: our Church would have died out long ago. The Church is always developing and the environment in which the Church has been preaching the Gospel for two thousand years has always been changing; the social environment, the everyday life has changed continually throughout two thousand years.

Today, when we say that the Church should adapt to socialist society, we mean that it should keep abreast of the times. If society is developing, the responsibility of the great commission is increasing. And this responsibility demands that we adapt to our changing environment, our changing age. Our proposal that the Chinese Church adapt to socialist society means we need to adapt to our nation as it changes in the midst of the modernization process.

Four years ago when I returned to China from Switzerland, I spent a whole spring reading and studying Tian Feng, Nanjing Theological Review and Love Never Ends. A piece by Bishop Ting that has stayed with me appeared in the first number of the reissue of Nanjing Theological Review (1984). In this essay, he wrote of three basic issues in theological education, primary and important issues facing the Chinese Church in this area: 1) How to be faithful to the Bible; 2) How to be faithful to the teachings of the historical Church; and 3) How to match the new face of China. The first and second are extremely important theological questions and issues for our view of the Bible; the third is the question of keeping up with the times, for our nation changes daily. In that essay of eighteen years ago, Bishop Ting raised the question of how we might match the new face of China. Seen from my vantage point today, this is the issue theological reconstruction must solve. Religious concepts must be adjusted; they must keep up with the times.

Questions for Discussion

1) How can we match and adapt to the face of our nation? How do we understand God's continuing act of creation?

Some co-workers explain this using Genesis 2: 1-3. They think God has rested from the act of creation, that creation is finished, and only salvation remains. This is a mistaken understanding. To think that God's work of creation came to an end in seven days is a literal interpretation of Scripture. In fact, throughout the Bible we can see that the work of creation continues. In the 1980s, Bishop Ting lectured every Wednesday afternoon at the Seminary, introducing many streams of theological thought. One of these lectures was on creation theology and dealt with the fact that God's work of creation is ongoing.

2) How shall we treat the higher unity of creation and salvation?

As long as the great mission of the Church continues, we must take up the responsibility we have received from God. This implies that we have a responsibility to be good helpers to God in the work of creation, to continue the work of creation. This is the view put forth in Love Never Ends and I hope my listeners will think of writing on this topic for the Nanjing Theological Review.

3) On the question of "semi-finished products."

At present, the essays submitted to the Nanjing Theological Review on this topic have not dealt with it on the deeper level of understanding the implications of seeing human beings as semi-finished products in the process of creation. But this emphasis on human beings as semi-finished products is one of the contributions China has made to ecumenical theology. The theory of semi-finished products is extremely important, for we either see humans as comparable to angels, perfect and without flaws—this is the error of Chinese culture—or we see them as the lowest of the low, worms, completely sunk in sin, thus denying the creation of God and the grace of Christ.

Semi-finished products is a seek-truth-from-facts way of explaining humans'relationship to God. Relying on God's grace, we humans can attain salvation, we can be reborn, and in the final judgment we can stand before God and be among the chosen. Only at the final judgment can we affirm that creation has come to a full stop. Only then can it be said that one is a finished product, chosen by God or set on a new path. The theory of semi-finished products is a contribution, a theological topic, that the Chinese Church, through theological reconstruction, has given to churches in the West, in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.

4) Original Sin and Original Blessing

Since the time of Augustine, many ideas and theories of the Church have been established on the doctrine of original sin. Indeed, ecclesiology, our theory of the Church itself, has been affected by this doctrine. But from another perspective, Bishop Ting has drawn from the relevant verses of Romans 5, a confident conclusion: Because of Jesus Christ, original blessing has won out over original sin. We have to date not found in the submissions to the Nanjing Theological Review, any with a very good understanding of this idea of original blessing. American theologians I have spoken with stressed that they felt original blessing was a profound expression of God as love. It lifts the grace of God to a very high level; in fact, it is raising up Christ. It is an important principle of the Reformation: only Christ. If the sin of Adam falls on all humanity, if all are thrown into the abyss of evil, where is Christ? Is the cross needed? The Chinese Church, especially preachers at the grass roots, always speak of sin, always paint humankind as pathetic. Where is the glory of God? The honor of the cross? What is the meaning of the cross that hangs in our churches?

A Swiss visitor was very moved by his visit to the churches of China—so many churches, so many Christians. But as a good friend, he told me that he had felt depressed to see the congregation crying while the pastor preached. If they had not been praying at the time, he would have thought something terrible had happened. He inferred that the sermon message was a painful one. This made me wonder why pastors do not preach on the love of God. On the glory of God? Why aren't people filled with joy? Our brothers and sisters do not rest on Sundays, rather they come to church, where they should feel uplifted by their worship of God, filled with confidence in life—but not sad and unhappy.

On a visit to the U.S. I said that Chinese theologians'stress on original blessing was a way to de-emphasize original sin in the Chinese Church, but that to de-emphasize is not the same as to discard. Seminary classes in systematic theology still teach original sin , but if they teach only original sin without original blessing, we will know only Adam, and not Christ. This is what Paul tells us in Romans 5.

5) Incarnation and Reconciliation

Since the reopening of churches in China in the 1980s, when Chinese church leaders go abroad, the doctrine they speak of most often is the Incarnation. The Incarnation is also an important theme of theological reconstruction. Bishop Ting and other pastors in their preaching and witness in the U.K., U.S. and Europe, as they introduce Chinese theological thinking, have raised two issues most often. The first is that the Incarnation shows that Chinese theology must be done in the mother tongue of Chinese culture and must be in relationship to Chinese culture and Chinese present reality; it must develop and grow within the context of Chinese socialist society. This is in fact an enrichment and development of the doctrine of Incarnation. The second is that the Incarnation speaks of reconciliation, reconciliation of people. In the beginning they spoke rather more about the reconciliation with the Chinese revolution, reconciliation with the Chinese people and reconciliation with social modernization in China.

These three reconciliations express three great steps for the Chinese Church. To reconcile with the Chinese revolution is a recognition of the rightness and legality of the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. To reconcile with the Chinese people is to cast off the label of foreign religion so that three-self may be well done. To reconcile with Chinese modernization is theological reconstruction— to respond to the challenges of modernization. The Chinese Church is in many of its views too backward, too negative and too conservative. Chinese modernization makes one demand of the church: that it be in step with the times.

Nanjing Theological Review 2(2003): 19-30.
Wang Aiming is editor of the Nanjing Theological Review.