Christianity in China

Names for "God": Shang Di

here exist in Chinese several names used to refer to "supernatural" beings whom they have worshiped. For Protestants especially, two of these are Shang Di and Shen, though the word for "Heaven" (Tian) is also sometimes employed. For several centuries, ever since Matteo Ricci proposed the use of Tian Zhu (Heavenly Lord) as the proper name for God, a great controversy has raged around which Chinese term is most accurate rendering of Hebrew Elohim and Greek Theos. At the risk of generating more strife, but in the hope of introducing a new factor into this discussion, I offer the following analysis.

Shang Di

The name for the supreme being among the early Shang Dynasty was Shang Di. According to C.K. Thong in Faith of Our Fathers, he was believed to be unique; was never represented by an idol or image; was an "all-powerful and supreme Deity" (79); “sovereign of surrounding nations as well” as the Chinese themselves” (80); ruled the forces of nature; “governed the construction of cities, the outcome of wars, and the well-being and misfortune of human beings” (81). Amazingly, he “received no cultic or manipulative worship” (81).

When the Zhou dynasty replaced the Shang, they believed that their supreme deity, called Tian (Heaven), was the same as Shang Di, and employed the two names interchangeably for a while. Later, Tian (Heaven) became the standard term. There is no evidence that either of these names referred to a being who had a beginning; Thong opines that he may have been considered eternal (82).

Shang Di has become “a personal name for God, while Tian seems to be more of an abstraction” for the Deity. (84). That is an important point.

As you can see, Shang Di and Tian have some qualities similar to those of the God of the Bible. In addition, most Chinese know what these words mean, though they may have only a faint idea of their history.

Thus, many Protestant Christians believe that Shang Di is the best – and indeed only proper – translation for the two major names for God in the Bible: Elohim (Hebrew) and Theos (Greek).

Not only does it accurately render the meaning of the biblical terms, they say, but it also enables Chinese to connect immediately with the God of the Bible.

Problems with Shang Di

On the other hand, many other Chinese (and foreign) Protestants have resisted the use of Shang Di.

Shang Di and the Trinity

Most importantly, Shang Di contains no element of plurality. It is the name of a particular, individual “deity.” But beginning with the first verse of Genesis, the Old Testament contains many indications that there is some kind of plurality in God.

“In the beginning God (Elohim) created the heaven and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). The word Elohim is the plural for el, the generic term for “god.” Later, we read, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in Our image’” (Genesis 1:26).

The New Testament is much clearer, pointing to the existence of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. In John 1:1-3, the word for “God” must allow for a “generic” reference to different entities (“persons,” in theological language) of the same “sort” or “type.”

Thus, where a passage in the Bible must refer to the entire Godhead and allow for plurality, or indicates distinctions within the Trinity, Shang Di simply will not do.

In places like John 1:1-3 (to name only one of many), therefore, the use of Shang Di hopelessly muddles the concept of the Trinity, causing confusion as to the nature of the relationship between the Father and the Son.

Since the Trinity is a fundamental concept in the Scriptures (though the word is not used), this seems to be a fatal objection to Shang Di as a translation of either Elohim or Theos.

Shang Di and the meanings of the biblical names

There are other reasons for not using Shang Di as a direct translation for these biblical names for God. For example, it is the name of a particular deity, as we have seen. Theos, on the other hand, is the generic name for any sort of “divine” being in Greek. El – the singular of Elohim - serves the same purpose in Hebrew. Thus, there is a difference in kind between these biblical words and the Chinese name Shang Di.

True, Shang Di means something like “Supreme Sovereign,” and is thus more of a title than a personal name, as distinct from Yahweh, which is God’s personal name in the Old Testament. Thus, one could argue that Shang Di approximates the meanings of Elohim and Theos as used in the Bible.

On the other hand, a title is not the same thing as a generic term for “deity.” Even though Shang Di does possess many of the attributes of the God of the Bible, should we take the name/title of a particular being worshiped by Chinese in former times and transfer that to the unique God of Israel and Father of Jesus? At best, we might use Shang Di as a rough translation for El Elyom – God Most High – one of the Old Testament names for God. But to identify a specific pagan god with the God of Scriptures seems unwise, no matter how close the resemblances may be. Is this not the very sort of thing that the Israelites were explicitly commanded not to do? (Exodus 23:13)

Shen – An alternative name?

In the next installment, we shall consider the strengths and weaknesses of the word Shen as a translation for “God.”