Chinatown in NYC

Christianity in China

Names for “God”: Shen

W
e have seen that the name Shang Di has grave limitations as a direct translation of either Hebrew Elohim or Greek Theos. In particular, (1) it refers to a particular deity, and not to a kind of being (“god”); and (2) it cannot express or contain the possibility of any sort of plurality, which is an essential feature of Elohim (a plural noun).

Is there any other Chinese word which could better convey the meaning of the Biblical words for God?

The most commonly-used alternative is Shen.

Problems with Shen

Many have objected to Shen as a translation of either Elohim or Theos, because shen can also refer to lesser beings who are not transcendent. First of all, the Chinese have not traditionally believed in one truly transcendent “God.” Shang Di and Tian (Heaven) have more similarities to the sovereign, transcendent God of the Bible. But, as we have seen, both these terms fall short as translations of Biblical words for God.

Shen, on the other hand, rarely expresses the idea of a single ruler of the universe.
Most often, shen is used to describe exalted beings who rule the affairs of men, and who can benefit those who worship them properly. In this sense, these “gods” closely approximate the gods of Greece, Rome, and the Ancient Near East.

As elsewhere, these gods are usually personified, and represent great men and women upon whom has been conferred divine status, sometimes by the Emperor himself. Sometimes, natural forces, such as wind and water, can be called “gods.”

Furthermore, the Chinese word shen, when used with guei (spirit, ghost) can refer to a less-than-divine being, especially an evil and malevolent one. Why would anyone want to use Shen, therefore, to denote the God of the Bible?

Advantages of Shen

First, shen is a generic word, which refers to a class of beings whose special characteristic is superior power. They are also seen to be mostly spiritual and not of this world. Shen does not name a particular deity, as Shang Di does. In this way, it greatly resembles both the Hebrew el (singular of Elohim) and the Greek theos. It can thus be used to convey the idea of kind, or nature, or essential being, which theos does in certain key passages of the New Testament (such as John 1:1). More on this later.

Second, shen is almost always distinguished from guei (spirit, ghost, demon) by the addition of another word to show that “good” “gods” are not being referenced. Thus, by itself, shen does not carry the meaning of a lesser, evil, spirit being. Again, shen thus matches the use of theos in non-Biblical Greek literature, where the gods can either help you or hurt you, but are superior to the lower, malevolent spirit beings called “demons.”

Third, since Chinese nouns do not carry endings to indicate singular or plural, shen can be either singular or plural – a necessary condition for accurate translation of either Elohim or of Theos when it refers to the entire Godhead in the Bible.

Fourth, in at least one key place in Chinese literature, Shen is used, with another character, to refer to the Supreme Being. This fact demonstrates that the meaning of shen does not have to be limited to lesser beings. (See C.K. Thong, Faith of Our Fathers, 136, 144, and elsewhere. Though I appreciate the work down by Mr. Thong, and freely acknowledge the many similarities between some aspects of traditional Chinese beliefs and some aspects of the Old Testament faith, I believe he has over-stated the case for these two faiths being identical in their conception of God.)

That shen can also denote the false gods of the pagans is no objection, since the same is true of theos, as we have seen.

The Importance of this question

Some have ridiculed those who in the past debated so fiercely this question of the proper term for God. They say either that Shang Di is the obvious choice, or that both terms may be used interchangeably, as we find modern Chinese Christians doing.

From one standpoint, this is true. Chinese, being un-dogmatic and eclectic by nature, employ both terms for God without any sense of contradiction.

On the other hand, if God is the foundational “term” in the Christian faith, and if the Bible is the Word of God and our only standard for faith and practice, then finding the best Chinese word to translate Elohim or Theos is essential for fidelity to God’s revelation and even to the glory of his name among the Chinese.

The doctrine of the Trinity stands at the heart of the Christian faith as it is revealed in the Bible. Any translation that either obscures or distorts this complex truth about God must be rejected. As we have seen Shang Di hopelessly fails to communicate the plurality that somehow characterizes the very essence and being of God.

First, it must refer to one single being, and cannot express the idea of plurality. Second, its reference is restricted to a particular deity, and thus cannot express the idea of deity, or that fundamental nature of the Triune God as found in the Bible, and especially in the New Testament.

This becomes crucial in passages like John 1:1, which says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In that last phrase, “the Word was God,” “God” is a translation of theos without the article, whereas, in the middle clause, “God” has the article in Greek. Simply put, this means that “The Word was with God” expresses the idea of two distinct “persons” – the Word and God. We know that the Word is the eternal Son of God, who became the God-man Jesus (John 1:14). “And the Word was God,” on the other hand, means that the Word possessed from all eternity an essence, a fundamental nature, that was the same as that of God the Father. John is not saying here, who the word was, but what he was.

You may ask why this matters, but a simple survey of church history, down to the present time, will provide ample evidence that confusion about the true nature of Jesus and thus of the Trinity lies at the center of most heresies.

Looking forward

The Chinese church has moved beyond the initial stages of pioneer evangelism in many parts of the world, including China itself. No longer does it need to accommodate unnecessarily to traditional Chinese culture (though we must always do our best to communicate in terms that people understand). Chinese Christianity now possesses a 200-year tradition of Protestant witness and theology; Chinese Christian scholars now rank with the world’s best.

To meet the demands of competing world views and build a strong theological foundation for its future, Chinese Christianity must have at its disposable the finest possible vocabulary, and must adhere to the best possible translation and exegesis of the Scriptures.

Thus, I propose the following compromise to the vexing Term Question: In ordinary conversation, and in some preaching, the word name Shang Di may be used some of the time, as long as it is adequately explained according to the full Biblical revelation.

But, in most preaching and teaching, and in all translations of the Bible, Shen should be employed, as being the most accurate rendering of Elohim and of Theos.