Chinese Theological Review 18

De-emphasizing Justification by Faith:
Theological Reflections

Ouyang Wenfeng

Ever since the closing talk by Bishop Ting at the Fifth Lay Training Class in Theological Reconstruction of the Nanjing Churches in July 2000, the proposal to de-emphasize justification by faith has had a great impact in the Church. Conservatives think that this is an extremist statement of Bishop Ting, while liberals see it as part of the new theological departures Bishop Ting advocates. But this writer thinks both sides'understandings are a misreading of the de-emphasis on justification by faith proposed by Bishop Ting. Actually a de-emphasis on justification by faith is no extremist view, nor is it a new departure in theology; rather, it is a logical development of theological views Bishop Ting has always held. I would like to explain my view on this under four points below.

1 A historical look at the doctrine of justification by faith

At the mention of justification by faith, two great Christians come immediately to mind: the apostle Paul and Martin Luther. In Romans and Galatians, the formulation of justification by faith given by Paul was based in part on considerations of his context. It was also, however, a theological breakthrough for the future path of Christianity. As Bishop Ting has said, for Paul, the doctrine of justification by faith was meant to "free people from the fetters (of Judaism), to liberate human nature,"enabling the Gospel to "break out of Jewish restrictions,"and move from being a small sect of Judaism to a world religion. A thousand years later during the Reformation, because of the practice of selling indulgences in the Catholic Church, Martin Luther raised the idea of justification by faith again. To resist the practice, which oppressed the people, Martin Luther stated in his 95 theses that salvation comes from faith, not from the sale of indulgences. Historically speaking then, the advocacy of justification by faith by these two great religious progressives, Paul and Luther, was for the purpose of upholding justice, resisting the dark forces of the religious authorities of the day, purifying and simplifying religion and gaining liberation for the people. We can see that justification by faith originally had a progressive meaning; it was a banner of liberation. Its goal was by no means to send people to hell.

At the height of the western missionary movement in the nineteenth century, foreign missionaries, eager to convert Chinese, linked justification by faith to heaven and hell, using the threat of hell as a means to scare the Chinese and compel them to convert to the faith. This, with the impact of fundamentalist theology on ordinary Chinese Christians, naturally led to justification by faith becoming orthodox belief in the Chinese Church.

2 A close analysis of the danger of emphasizing justification by faith

However, justification by faith, which once brought Christianity to the Chinese people, has, in the context of new China, become a stumbling block to the continued development of Christianity. An excessive emphasis on this doctrine has done quite a lot of damage. As evidence of this, Bishop Ting has pointed out four types of serious harm which excessive emphasis on justification by faith might bring about. The first is a distorted view of God. Some persons have used this doctrine to say that God defines unbelievers as sinners out of anger, as if God views the work of human hands, including the good work humans do, with enmity. The claim is that the love of God is only for those who believe. God has abandoned this world, and all the beauty we enjoy comes from Satan, who only pretends to be an angel of light, and so on. The result of spreading this view of God and such a worldview is to make Christians view those outside the church in the same way Jonah looked at Nineveh.

The second harm is that it leads easily to inaction by faith and the idea that morality is useless. The message of justification by faith has undergone a change in this view: God no longer asks whether you have done humane and virtuous deeds, nor whether you have lived a selfish life or one of self-sacrifice and devotion to the welfare of others. God asks only whether you believe or not. This will certainly lead to inaction by faith. And even more seriously, "this denies the ethical and moral content of the gospel,"and leads down the slippery slope to the idea that morality is useless. Superficially, Christians who place excessive emphasis on justification by faith are interested only in personal salvation; their fervor is concentrated on the spiritual quest. Actually, their thinking is not essentially different from that of those on the ultra-left during the Cultural Revolution. They separate religious doctrine from its moral and ethical aspects. This is ludicrous.

The third harm is that it easily sets up a barrier between the morality of believers and unbelievers. Bishop Ting feels that against the current background in China, this doctrine creates an unnecessary distance between the moral actions of believers and those of nonbelievers. And it in fact runs counter to genuine Christian humanism. It is in this sense that Bishop Ting raises his reservations about justification by faith as definitive of Protestant Christianity.

The fourth harm is that in China, belief and unbelief take on a serious political ideological content. The question of belief and unbelief seems on the surface like a question of faith, but because it has been linked to heaven and threats of hell, it extends to becoming a political question.

Through this penetrating analysis, the harm excessive emphasis on justification by faith may do no longer seems like scare tactics. Rather, we deeply believe that Bishop Ting is giving us a serious and well-intentioned philosophical warning.

3 An appropriate adjustment of justification by faith

Based on consideration of the factors discussed above, Bishop Ting has boldly undertaken an appropriate adjustment of this doctrine of justification by faith. First of all, he affirms, in an extremely objective way, this undeniable fact: There is a difference between belief and unbelief, and it is not a negligible one. Every person in this world was created by the Father in heaven, but not everyone is a friend of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ thirsts for friendship, but those he can call friends are in the minority. … But we cannot say that those who do not believe in God are therefore not sons and daughters of God, even less can we claim that they are all enemies of God.

Bishop Ting then borrows from Teilhard de Chardin the concept of the Cosmic Christ to effect a change of theological angle of vision. How abundant is Christian faith; we need not close circles around belief and unbelief, or saved and unsaved. He calls on us to undertake theological thinking from a new angle of vision, looking to God and not looking to humans, and setting aside the issue of belief and unbelief.

Finally, Bishop Ting clearly brings up the proposal to de-emphasize the doctrine of justification by faith. "It would be better if Chinese Christianity could …de-emphasize the doctrine of justification by faith a little, and not tie heaven and hell, belief and unbelief so tightly together."This reveals purity of heart in one who has dearly loved the Lord, and even more, a hope directed at fundamentalist Christians in the Chinese churches. Bishop Ting has given Chinese Christianity a theological vision of great openness, and a new definition of justification by faith.

4 A de-emphasis on justification by faith is an inevitable product of the theology of Bishop Ting

We know that God as Love and the Cosmic Christ are prominent in the theology of Bishop Ting. The proposal to de-emphasize justification by faith is a logical development of this thinking. It is not a new departure from his theological system. In explicating this point, Bishop Ting has, through refutation of excessive emphasis on justification by faith, opened up his own theological reflection.

First of all, he has opposed God as Love to justification by faith. If God has made only those who believe in him his sons and daughters, if God has given eternal life only to them, yet continues to create crowds of people, most of who will become residents of hell because they do not believe—is this a God in whose love we can believe? This does not make sense.

Secondly, he opposes the concept of the Cosmic Christ to justification by faith. There is nothing vague about this position. "It is not that God created the world but ceded its control to the successful rebellion of Satan, and Christ came to rescue certain individuals out of it to be returned to God. As creativity is inexhaustible and creation a long process, Christ has everything to do with Creation thus far and with Creation as it goes on now. His concern is to bring Creation to its fruition when love, justice and peace become the rule. Redemption, like education and sanctification, does not stand against Creation but is one process with Creation. Not only communities of Christians here and there, but humankind as a whole and, indeed the whole cosmos are within the realm of Christ's redemptive work."

And so we see that the de-emphasis on justification by faith that Bishop Ting proposes is not something insincere or frivolous, but is rather of epochal significance in keeping the Church in step with changing times as theological reconstruction continues to develop.

Nanjing Theological Review 1(2003): 128-132.
The author teaches in the Hunan Provincial Bible School.
Exact references were not given in the text.