Chinese Theological Review 18

The Contextualized Theology of Bishop Shen Yifan

Ouyang Wenfeng


In the academic world, contextual theology, in the true sense of the term, began in the 1970s. In terms of the mission history of Christianity, however, this was just the tip of the iceberg.

From the first, the work of Christian mission has faced the issue of integrating with and adapting to the social reality and culture of the area in which the Gospel was being preached. Contextual theology in the modern sense has taken the exploration of contextual theology in the historical work of mission from being a necessity to being a conscious and free choice. In this sense, then, there have been at least three periods in the contextualization of Protestant mission work in China: 1) the indigenization movement of the 1920s; 2) the movement for theological reorientation at the grass roots in the 1950s; and 3) the new trend toward contextual theology since the 1980s. For historical reasons, a genuine contextual theology with Chinese characteristics was not produced out of the efforts of the first two periods. Happily, in the third period we welcomed the opportunity to create a new heaven and new earth of contextual theology: circumstances favored us. We found new companions in Chinese academic and intellectual circles involved in the new cultural movement, and the process of modernization was embodied politically in policies of reform and opening.1 Thus, since the 1980s, explorations in contextual theology in the Chinese Church have flourished and continue to do so. A number of Chinese theologians have also made outstanding contributions and become prominent at home and abroad. One of these is Bishop Shen Yifan.

The untimely and early death of a leader in the church like Bishop Shen was a great loss to the church in China.2 But the rich contextual theological thinking he did during his life is a heritage of strong faith for those who come after. In this essay, I will attempt to demonstrate for his successors his pure heart of love for the Lord through a consideration of his thinking on contextual theology.

1 Reflections on the history of Christianity in China show the importance of contextual theology

Reflecting on the historical failures of Christian mission in China, Bishop Shen felt that because the work of mission did not overcome its foreignness, the Gospel could not put down roots in Chinese soil.3 Prior to Liberation Chinese theology was a duplicate of the various denominational theologies of the West.4 Even more alarming, not only did traditional western theology produce in Chinese Christians a kind of ethnic humiliation, but brought a pernicious sense of loss of national identity.5 When Bishop Shen pondered the future of the Chinese Church, he sighed with distress over these things.

However, though this was the case, the dynamics of his thinking in contextual theology carried the developments of the two earlier periods of contextual theology to a deeper dimension. During the indigenization movement of the 1920s, our forebears considered theological questions from a Chinese standpoint; that is, they paid great attention to the ancient philosophers and to traditional culture, but not to their own society or to developments in intellectual circles. They rather distanced themselves from the anti-imperialist and anti-feudal struggles of the people in their times.6 Because of this their efforts were extremely limited and were not even as successful as those of Matteo Ricci.7 Shen Yifan's attitude toward the movement for theological reorientation at the grass roots of the 1950s was one of admiration and a desire for continuing the work. The old traditional theological attitude that whatever in this world is true, good or beautiful is really Satan dressed up as an angel of light, was an impediment to a correct appreciation for new China on the part of Chinese believers.8 The premillenarianism of the fundamentalists even more erroneously led Chinese Christians to be hostile towards new China.9 From the topics considered in his The Chinese Church in the Act of Thinking Theologically, Bishop Shen also saw himself as carrying on the work of this period of the 1950s.10 In sum, Bishop Shen both critiqued and learned from the two earlier periods of contextual theological thinking in the Chinese Church.

2 The challenge and opportunity for theological contextualization posed by the reality of Chinese socialist society

First of all, Shen Yifan was filled with confidence about the future prospects for contextual theology in China. He elucidated three aspects of the opportunity provided for theological contextualization by the reality of Chinese socialist society. First, the tide of the times and the tide of reform in socialist China provided a foothold for contextual theology.11 Second, the new period in Chinese socialist society facilitated the raising of the self-propagation question in a new way in the Chinese Church. It constructed a self-definition for a Chinese Church running church well according to three-self principles. This both provided the greatest guarantee that Chinese Christianity could put down roots and resolved for the Church the issue of the meaning of self in self-propagation.12 Only then, on this foundation, could the Chinese Church redefine what should be propagated in the course of self-propagation.13 Third, the modernization of Chinese society also engendered a turn toward theological contextualization in the Chinese Church.14 The victory of the revolution thirty-five years ago brought about a fundamental transformation of the fate of ordinary people and this had a tremendous effect on our theological thinking.15 At the same time, the new environment of socialist China brought new spiritual experience to the Chinese Church and this new experience is bound to produce new theology.16

Secondly, Shen Yifan did not shrink from the challenges facing theological contextualization. Exploring contextual theology in China implies accepting the double challenges of culture and politics. In culture, though the positive aspects of traditional Chinese culture can link with Christianity, the Gospel also poses a challenge to the culture.17 The Gospel is a challenge to the overly-optimistic view of human nature found in traditional Chinese thinking; a challenge to the lack of seeking the transcendent realm and its values; and a challenge to the idea that one can achieve transcendence through moral cultivation or unity of humankind and heaven through meditation.

In politics, though the explorations of the Chinese Church in contextual theology can be considered as a demonstration of the adaptation of religion to socialist society, still, people do not want to create a Christian socialism or a socialist Christianity.18

3 Themes in the contextual theology of Shen Yifan

1 Sacramental theology

Bishop Shen felt not only that the Incarnation was an important Christian doctrine, but also that it was of real significance for the affirmation of the real world in the context of socialist China, for entering into reality, for non- separation between the sacred and the secular. Through his investigation of the Confucian emphasis on practicality, on reason and on real human relationships, as well as its positive assessment of the world and absence of escapist thinking, he found points of contact and confluence between Christianity and Confucianism.19 And he went further, citing the Bible to demonstrate (Eph. 4: 6; 1 Jn. 1: 14) that the view of God, both transcendent and immanent, demands that believers judge reality rightly and enter into it. In the doctrine of the Incarnation he saw that God was manifesting the glory of God and sanctifying the life of this world. Thus everything of this world, if done to the glory of God, is all holy.20 In this sense, the Incarnation breaks open traditional views of the separation of the sacred and the secular and of God, humanity and the world as being in opposition to one another. Even better, the Incarnation affirms all actions in human life that are righteous, honest and done in a spirit of self-sacrifice, and makes all this pleasing in the sight of God.21

2 Theological reflection on human nature

In Confucian humanism with the concept of ren (jen) or human-heartedness at its center, Bishop Shen found a mutual point of contact between Confucianism and Christianity. Confucianism affirms human nature and affections, adopting an attitude of positive affirmation to human life. It has no concept of human life as vanity, as base, useless, or worse, despicable.22

At the same time, considering the Christian view of human nature, Bishop Shen saw that Christian knowledge of human nature is more profound than that of Confucianism. The overly-optimistic Confucian cannot see the dark side of human nature. Human sinfulness is not, as Confucianism has it, a matter to be eliminated through education.23 On the one hand, Bishop Shen identified the point of contact between the Christian affirmation of human nature and the optimistic affirmation found in Confucianism. On the other hand, from within the profundity of the Christian understanding of human nature, he revealed to Chinese Christians the blindness of the Confucian optimism.

3 Theological reflection on the relationship between God and humans

Starting from the importance of the God-human relationship, Bishop Shen first explored points of contact in this area between Christianity and Confucianism. The Confucian relationship between heaven and humankind is harmonious; the two form a unity. In Christianity, though human sinfulness obstructs the unity of heaven and human beings, salvation that comes from God reconciles humankind with God.24 Thus in Christianity it is through salvation that humans seek harmony and communion with God. Then Bishop Shen proceeded to point out that although humans are sinful, they can still be in communion with God, they can pray and communicate spiritually with God. All that a person does, if it is in line with the will of God, is of great value, a reflection of the glory of God.25 Bishop Shen quotes the Bible (Mt. 5: 48) to show the hope God has for humankind. Humans have great potential in the eyes of God.26 Theology which believes there is an insurmountable abyss between God and humanity, that there is no point of contact or common ground between the two, that everything human is resistance against God, rejected by God, that humanity is helpless before God, or that all efforts are unavailing: all such views are, for Bishop Shen, in conflict with the will of God, which created humanity and redeemed it. These views are also completely out of step with the Confucian optimism toward human life and with traditional Chinese cultural thinking.27

Investigation into these three points gives us a rough sketch of the thinking of Bishop Shen on contextual theology. It is not difficult to see that, beginning from the reality of socialist China, Shen Yifan grasped the idea that any theological thinking is contextualized thinking,28 in undertaking his own reflections on contextual theology. I believe that in the new period of theological reconstruction, the contextual theological wisdom of Shen Yifan will be of inestimable significance for the Chinese Church, now and far into the future.


Nanjing Theological Review, 2(2003): 116-122.
Ouyang Wenfeng is an instructor at the Hunan Christian Bible School.

1 China has entered a period of social transition; in the opinion of most Chinese and foreign scholars, traditional Chinese culture may block a moral slide. People's Daily (overseas ed.) May 11 1995.

2 Foreword, Collected Writings of Bishop Shen Yifan (1) .

3 Shen Yifan, "The Ministry of Evangelization in the Chinese Church" East China Seminary Journal 2(1995): 1.

4 "How can new China encourage Christians to undertake a new theology" Ching Feng 68 (December 1981): 36.

5 "Theological Reflections in Chinese Christianity" Nanjing Theological Review (New Series) 3: 29.

6 Ibid., 30.

7 "Confucian Thought and Chinese Theological Thinking Today" Nanjing Theological Review (New Series) 9(1988): 77.

8 "Theological Reflections in Chinese Christianity" Nanjing Theological Review (New Series): 31.

9 "How can new China encourage Christians to undertake a new theol ogy" Ching Feng 68 (December 1981): 4.

10 Ye Qinghua, On Chinese Theology and the State-Church Context. 1997, 96.

11 "Confucian Thought and Chinese Theological Thinking Today" :77,81.

12 Shen Yifan, "The Ministry of Evangelization in the Chinese Church" 3.

13 "Thoroughly implement the Three-Self spirit in the grassroots churches" Tian Feng (New Series) 14 (February 1983): 26.

14 "The Task of the Church in the Chinese Modernization Process" Tian Feng 7(2001): 41.

15 "Theological Tides in the Chinese Church" Bridge 10 (Mar-Apr 1985): 11.

16 "How can new China encourage Christians to undertake a new theology" .

17 Shen Yifan, "The Ministry of Evangelization in the Chinese Church" 4.

18 "Theological Reflections on doing pastoral work at the grassroots in new China" Nanjing Theological Review (New Series) 6-7(September 1987) :89.

19 "Confucian Thought and Chinese Theological Thinking Today" 79.

20 "The Chinese Church in the act of thinking theologically" Nanjing Theological Review (new Series) 9 (November 1988): 20.

21 "Theological Reflections in Chinese Christianity" 33.

22 "Confucian Thought and Chinese Theological Thinking Today" 80.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid., 81.

25 Ibid.

26 Ibid.

27 Ibid.

28 "The Chinese Church in the act of thinking theologically" 18.