Huangshan, China

Christianity in China

Confronting Confucian Understandings of the Christian Doctrine of Salvation

Paulos Huang, Confronting Confucian Understandings of the Christian Doctrine of Salvation—A Systematic Theological Analysis of the Basic Problems in the Confucian-Christian dialogue. Helsinki, Finland: Printed by Edita Prima Oy, 2006. ISBN 952-92-0895-2. 352 pages. (The revised English version will be republished by E.J. Brill and the Chinese version is to be published this year in Beijing by Zongjiao wenhua chubanshe.)

C
onfronting Confucian Understandings of the Christian Doctrine of Salvation will now be required reading for anyone seeking to understand why Chinese intellectuals have accepted, rejected, or modified the Christian message since the time of Matteo Ricci. Paulos Huang has given us a fine, clearly-organized study with a great deal of thought-provoking findings and suggestions.

As the author points out at the very beginning, Confucian-Christian dialogue is crucial in today’s China, where personal and national regeneration are being sought with increasing intensity by intellectuals, who still greatly value the Confucian tradition in Chinese culture.

This book possesses a number of excellent features:

Scope: Ranging from Shang Dynasty religious beliefs and practices to current Chinese political realities; including both Roman Catholic and Protestant perspectives as well as no less than five different “schools” of Confucianism; and discussing not only the doctrine of salvation but also ontology, epistemology, and ethics – this volume enlarges our horizons of the issues involved in Confucian - Christian dialogue.

Sophistication and subtlety: At each point, Huang defines his terms carefully; clarifies distinctions between Christianity and Confucianism and differences among various Confucian thinkers; and highlights important areas of convergence and divergence.

Standpoint and stance: Huang writes as a committed Lutheran Protestant Christian, but assumes an irenic posture towards non-Christians. He does not pretend to be neutral, but he strives to be fair – and succeeds, in my opinion.

Scholarship: A cursory glance at the bibliography of works in English, Chinese, Finnish, and Latin gives the impression that the author has done his homework, and this initial reaction is confirmed by a careful reading of his book. Paulos Huang shows himself to be an accomplished theologian and a careful Sinologist, with a knowledge of Confucianism that seems to be both broad and deep.

Huang’s aim is to explain how different types of Confucianists have understood, and responded to, the Christian doctrine of salvation. He chose to focus on this one doctrine both because it is the main “bone of contention” between Christianity and Confucianism. “The notion of a God who saves and, indeed, the entire soteriology of Christianity, is one of the main differences between Christianity and Confucianism. The whole idea of "salvation" is unknown in Confucianism but is essential in Christianity.” This doctrine also impinges upon other major concepts, such as the nature of God and of man (ontology), the way(s) of knowing truth (epistemology), the role of virtuous conduct (ethics), and our final destiny (eschatology).

After explaining the main features of Christian soteriology, Huang moves into the heart of the book, which is a careful analysis of four aspects of the doctrine of salvation – the nature of the Savior (God, Christ); the nature and status of humanity; and the means of salvation - and his nuanced presentation of five different Confucian responses to each aspect of the Christian doctrine: Ancient Confucianism (Confucius, Mencius); Neo-Confucianism; Cultural-Nationalist Confucianism; Modern (including “Boston”) Confucianism; and Modern Christian Confucianism.

The first group to be studied are those Neo-Confucianists who responded to Jesuit Christianity in the 16th and 17th centuries. Both Christians, such as Xu Guangqi and Yang Tingyun , and non-Christians, including Xu Dashou, Yang Guangxian, are quoted.

The “Cultural Nationalist Confucian response to Christianity is represented by Liang Shuming ,Ma Yifu, Xiong Shili , Zhang Junmai , Feng Youlan , He Lin, Qian Mu , Fang Dongmei, Tang Junyi, Mou Zongsan , and Xu Fuguan.

The third group, modern Confucianists, consists of (1) the Mencian tradition of modern Confucian comments about Christianity, represented here by Du and Liu Shuxian; (2) the Xun Zi ttradition, with Robert Neville's “Boston Confucianism” in the spotlight; (3) Christian Confucianists, such as Liang Yancheng, He Shiming, Wang Cisheng, Xu Songshi, and Yuan Zhiming .

He finds a wide gap between Ancient Confucianism and most later Confucianism, though there is a persistent core throughout. Since Neo-Confucianism, the influence of Buddhism and Daoism has produced an impersonal ontology and a pervasive monism that cannot accept fundamental tenets of Christianity, such as the Creator-creature distinction and the fallenness of human nature.

Huang agrees with Matteo Ricci and many modern Christians that ancient Chinese believed in a supreme being – called Shang Di and, later, Heaven (Tian) – who bears many resemblances to, and perhaps can even be assimiliated to – the God of the Bible. Fairly quickly, however, this personal deity was replaced, as we have seen, by an impersonal Heaven and then by Principle (li). From that point on, Confucian and Christian beliefs clash at several key points and dialogue has been difficult.

At the end of his study, Huang observes that there are still substantial problems in any dialogue between Confucianism and Christianity. At root, there is a “hidden difference” between the two. “The difference between the Chinese and the Christian moralities is radical, not only because Christianity holds human nature to be corrupted but also because China is unfamiliar with the idea of a sovereign God.”

The four related obstacles are: (1) “Theological perspective: the monistic unity between Heaven and humanity” that Confucianists believe in cannot be reconciled with the Christian Creator-creature distinction. Huang thinks that a proper understanding of the image of God in man as relational, rather than substantial, may help to bridge this gap.

(2) “Spiritual perspective: Christianity as spiritual opium,” based on an Enlightenment skepticism that considers belief in God to be unreasonable, even irrational. Huang sees a growing willingness among Chinese intellectuals to realize that this type of rationalism is based on weak premises and does not produce individual or cultural regeneration.

(3) “The Political perspective: Christianity as an element of political turmoil.
Cultural Nationalists have asserted that Christianity is the tool of Western imperialism to invade China.” If Chinese intellectuals can be convinced that Christians believe in obeying earthly rulers and do not aim to subvert the state, this objection may be dropped.

(4) “The Ethical perspective: the Christian concept of God as conflicting with Confucian ethics. Christians take God as central to their faith, and secular things are meaningful only in the sense that they are related to the divine. Confucians, however, lay much emphasis on this-worldliness and human ethics.” Here Huang is quite hopeful, for Christian ethical norms are in some ways quite similar to Confucian standards, and do not suffer from some of the oppressive tendencies of traditional Confucian morality.

Finally, the author finds that there are five good reasons why Chinese intellectuals have accepted Christianity: The enthusiasm of Chinese Christian believers; the attractive personalities of many Western missionaries; the respect for, and use of, Confucian classics by many missionaries in their presentation of the Christian message; the dialogical approach that has replaced a more confrontational stance of earlier years; and the employment of natural reasoning by missionaries and Chinese converts, which appeals to the rationalistic bent of Confucianism.

This reviewer had only a few questions about Huang’s argument, such as whether Shang Di is really to be “assimilated” to the God of the Bible; whether the Thomistic “proofs” for the existence of God are that useful; and some fine points in his analysis of the relationship between justification and sanctification.

The English is generally excellent, though portions of the book, especially towards the end, would benefit from more careful editing. The marks of a dissertation, such as enumeration of points to the third level, were not too distracting, and the discussion of methodology was appropriate. Eight appendices, extensive footnotes, copious quotations, a full bibliography, and a detailed index enhance the usefulness of the volume.

G. Wright Doyle, M.Div., Ph.D.
Director, Global China Center