Huangshan, China

Christianity in China

Faith of Our Fathers: God in Ancient China

Thong, Chan Kei, with Charlene Fu. Faith of Our Fathers: God in Ancient China. Shanghai: China Publishing Group Orient Publishing Center, 2006. Paper. 237 pages, plus bibliography. ISBN 7-80186-506-5

T
his well-written, beautifully-produced volume represents many years of painstaking study, a firm conviction that the Bible is God’s special revelation, and a profound love for the best in Chinese civilization. As a result, it possesses many strengths and will be convincing to many readers, especially Chinese.

On the other hand, it suffers from a number of nearly-fatal weaknesses which will greatly reduce its value for more critical students of Chinese culture, church history, and the Bible.

Thong states his purpose early: That others may “understand, through the perspective of Chinese culture, the truth of the Bible and the faithfulness of God.” The author, a Singaporean Chinese now living in China, wrote this book as a result of his own search for his spiritual roots. He wants “to bring others along on… the journey” that led him from renunciation of his Chinese past to a belief that to worship the God of the Bible is to “return to the foundations of our ancient cultural heritage.”

He achieves at least the major part of his purpose: The book ably presents the main tenets of the Christian faith, with ample Biblical citations. Any person seeking the truth about the Gospel will find it clearly stated in Faith of Our Fathers.

He acknowledges that others have plowed this same field, but offers in this book “a systematic examination of works by other scholars on this topic, along with new revelations and [his] own insights.” He thinks that God has left “signposts” that point to the conclusion that “the early Chinese forefathers worshipped God in a manner similar to that set forth in the Bible.”

These signposts were seven:

1. “The composition of ancient Chinese characters suggests knowledge of the earliest events of human history as described in the Bible.”

Thong exercises care in explaining this point. He does not claim that Chinese characters “were originally designed to convey a Christian message,” but only that “what is now known as the biblical story of Creation was at one point in ancient history also the Creation story known in Chinese culture. It was so commonly accepted as truth that elements of that story are reflected in the symbols chosen to represent key ideas in the formation of the written Chinese language” (53).

He also refers to the original form of the characters which he adduces as evidence that the early Chinese know a great deal about God and his plan of salvation; this protects him from the criticism that an analysis of modern forms only carries little weight.

2. “The Supreme Being venerated by the ancient Chinese… corresponds to the God revealed in the Bible.”

The name for this being among the early Shang Dynasty was Shang Di. He was believed to be unique; was never represented by an idol or image; an “all-powerful and supreme Deity” (79); “sovereign of surrounding nations as well as the Chinese themselves” (80); governed the forces of nature; he “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 used 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).

Another morpheme, Di, has also been used interchangeably with Shang Di and Tian for the supreme being. Thong notes that “di” or “ti” appears in many languages – perhaps most of them – as a referent for deity – a most interesting point, in my opinion.

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

The attributes of Shang Di as reflected in ancient Chinese classics show him to be “the same Father God of my Christian faith” (106).

“Shang Di and the God of the Bible are one and the same” (174; emphasis mine).

3. The Border Sacrifice ceremony performed by the emperor at the Temple of Heaven… shows startling and meaningful parallels with the sacrificial system prescribed in the Bible.”

In this imposing ceremony, the emperor prostrated himself before Di in acts of homage that expressed a belief in a supreme deity upon whose favor and forgiveness depended the welfare of the empire.

Thong also finds remarkable similarities between the covenants ratified with blood in the Bible and those in Chinese history (as well as other civilizations). “From the very beginning of China’s long history, Shang Di has been revealing the truth of blood covenants to the Chinese people in order to prepare them to receive life’s greatest blessing: salvation through the eternal Tian Zi (Son of Heaven), Son of god, who is Jesus Christ. Rather than being the founder of a Western religion, Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the longing expressed annually through the shedding of blood at the Border Sacrifice for an unbroken, unblemished relationship with Shang Di. The same Creator God that China knew dimly through many millennia can now be known intimately and clearly through His special revelation in Jesus Christ” (180).

4. Eminent sinologists from the 16th to 19th centuries believed that “the ancient Chinese venerated a Deity who bears remarkable resemblance to the God of the Bible.”

In this chapter, Thong relates the careers and missionary strategies of Roman Catholic Jesuits Ricci, Schall, and Verbiest and the Protestant James Legge, whom he describes as “known for their scholarship, exactitude, and integrity” (217). Out of their love for China and respect for Chinese culture, they had mastered the Chinese classics and believed – as Legge wrote - that the “Chinese do know the true God, and have a word in their language answering to our word God, to the Hebrew Elohim, and to the Greek Theos” (217).

Their Christian opponents, however – both Roman Catholic and Protestant – are portrayed as unattractive, petty characters with “little or no scholarship” to support their point of view (216).

Thong uses this supposed contrast to confirm his own conclusion that “Shang Di…was clearly recognizable as the Christian God” (215).

5. “Striking similarities exist between the Hebrew and the Chinese approach to moral truth.”

Thong finds in ancient Chinese documents a high regard for public and private morality that resembles some of the commandments given by God in the Old Testament.

6. “The ancient rulers of China understood and set forth a godly way of ruling the people.”

Drawing upon early documents, Thong describes the first rulers of China as humble worshipers of Shang Di who saw themselves merely as stewards of the authority bestowed on them by God, and who sought the welfare of their people.

By contrast, later rulers, beginning with the First Emperor (died 221 B.C.), forsook the worship of Shang Di and committed themselves to following the dragon as a symbol of self-seeking lust for raw power – a tradition that Thong implies has persisted to modern times.

The chapter “Enter the Dragon” explains how the dragon became a prominent symbol in Chinese culture, and how it has been a part of the long decline from the proper worship of Shang Di. His analysis of “dragon power” and of why Chinese tend to submit to authoritarian rule is quite compelling.

7. “Chinese historical records appear to confirm some key astral events spoken of in the Bible.”

In a chapter entitled, “All Truth Is God’s Truth,” Thong discusses what he considers to be major and fundamental correspondences between the Biblical and ancient Chinese views of truth, particularly similarities between the Dao of Laozi’s Dao De Jing and the Logos of the Bible.

The “key astral events” to which Thong refers are two comets around the time of Jesus’ birth and a solar/lunar eclipse around the time of his crucifixion, which were noted by Chinese astronomers and interpreted by the reigning emperor as having cosmic significance.

The conclusion: The early Chinese had “an amazingly accurate knowledge of that one true God, whom the Chinese reverentially referred to as Shang Di.”

I have quoted the author, because he is quite careful to state his thesis in terms that seek to avoid the misunderstanding and excessive claims of some other writers with this point of view. For example, he is careful to state that “the Chinese were not a [c]hosen nation” in the same sense as Israel.” In his attempt to show the historical reliability of the Chinese classics, he says that “we do not intend to give more weight to the Chinese Classic than to Scripture. In fact, we firmly believe that the Bible is God’s special revelation to the world and that it is completely true” (20). He only wishes to use the Chinese writings as complementary sources on ancient history.

Thong begins by showing that the Hebrew Bible and Chinese historical writings can be considered accurate. He adduces much evidence especially for the reliability of the Chinese documents. He argues for an original monotheism held by all mankind before the Flood, which was then carried to the four corners of the globe by peoples dispersed after the Tower of Babel.

This knowledge was augmented by General Revelation – through nature, history, and conscience. General revelation “is meant to let us know that a sovereign, creator God truly does exist. Its purpose is to lead us to seek God and to discover His special revelation,” (37) which “takes precedence over general revelation” (39).

Although the earliest Chinese practiced a “pure” worship of Shang Di, over time elements of this were changed (such as not having the emperor himself slay the sacrificial animal) and later even the border sacrifice was debased with the worship of other spirits.

This all-important ritual was restored to its pristine purity by the first Ming emperor in the early 14th century.

Thong states his purpose early: That others may “understand, through the perspective of Chinese culture, the truth of the Bible and the faithfulness of God. In particular… that my fellow Chinese will see that the God spoken of in the Bible and now worshipped throughout the world is the same God that our ancient forefathers revered” (Introduction).

In particular, he wishes to dispel for Chinese the notion that to become a Christian is to submit to a Western religion; rather, it is to return to the true religion of one’s ancestors. Indeed, “there is no conflict between their {i.e., the Chinese] cultural heritage and the Bible” (327).

How convincing will be his assertion of the identity of ancient Chinese views of God and the God of the Bible will depend upon the degree to which one accepts his interpretation of various aspects of ancient Chinese language and culture, and his correspondence of these with Christian beliefs. In my opinion, he has avoided some of the extreme claims of earlier attempts to “reconcile” Chinese culture with the Bible.

On the other hand, he has fallen victim to his own assumptions at numerous points, leading him to find things that may not be in the original text; to make sweeping claims about the identity of the Shang Di of the Chinese classics and the God of the Bible; to call Christian faith the “faith of [his] fathers”; to give us an idealized version of Chinese history since the Shang era; to present a disputed interpretation of the Dao De Jing – one that has been questioned by a large number of Chinese scholars, both Christian and non-Christian - and to engage in really unnecessary and almost slanderous criticism of those who disagree with his missionary heroes and, by implication, with him.

Chapter 6, on the Magi from the West, is the low point of the book, and reveals a theological and historical naiveté – not to mention either ignorance of, or an unwillingness to pay attention to, the considered opinions of those who held – or hold – a different opinion. Did (do) they not also “love China” and respect Chinese culture? Is his interpretation the only one to which honorable Christians who care for the progress of the Gospel in China can assent?

Thong shows the relevance of the controversy today by noting that some Chinese Bibles use Shang Di to translate Elohim and Theos and others use Shen. He has already tried to demonstrate that only Shang Di will do, of course, but some Protestant scholars have taken another view, and they are not all as ignorant, as disrespectful of Chinese culture, and as lacking in integrity as Thong very strongly asserts. In fact, there are very valid theological and linguistic reasons for preferring Shen to Shang Di, but Thong does not seem to be aware of these. (See below.)

As one who highly appreciates both the Four Books of the Confucian canon and Laozi’s Dao De Jing, and who also thinks that Shen is a more apt translation of Elohim and Theos, I find Thong’s attitude difficult to take. [1]

Faith of Our Fathers will appeal to Chinese who are seeking the truth and who will be glad to know that their ancestors believed in a supreme being who had many of the characteristics of the God described in the Old Testament.

It may receive a less enthusiastic welcome from those who value a critical handling of historical sources and a balanced view of Chinese history since the Zhou era; expect fair treatment of differing opinions and those who hold them; or have training in theology, church history, or the Biblical languages.

Some questions and critical observations:

Did Confucius write the commentary on the Classic of Changes? (20)

Did Confucius believe that God was Creator? (21)

He repeatedly appears to equate the reliability of the Bible and ancient Chinese documents (e.g., 23).

Thong intersperses biblical and Chinese classical texts to illustrate what he sees as correspondences; some of these fit, and some seem a bit far-fetched and strained. It appears that Thong will sometimes be willing make the evidence fit his thesis even when it does not manifestly match.

Was Sima Qian “Interested in presenting history because it gives insights into man’s relationship with the Creator God”? 29. The letter quoted does not say so.

Can we credit a story that the written language of China was created in 2700 B.C.?

Was “God’s good intention [for Adam and Eve to] become more like Him, through a practical knowledge of good and evil…”? Is it true that “God wanted them to gain experiential knowledge of good or happiness and evil or misery”? (60)

Did the early Chinese really understand “that righteousness comes with a price, and that price is the life of the sacrificial lamb because a person on his own cannot attain or achieve righteousness” (68)?

Does the flower radical in the word “di” really point to the meaning Creator God?

Does the argument from silence prove that Shang Di was considered eternal? The texts cited do not. (89-90) Likewise for immutability. (90) And all-knowing. (92) Infinite (93-94) Loving (95)

There is no notion of plurality in the concept of Shang Di or Di or Heaven, as there is in the Hebrew concept of God, even in the opening verses of Genesis, where the word for God is plural Elohim; the Spirit of God is referred to as distinct from God; and God says, “Let us make man in our own image.” This is not to mention other hints at some sort of plurality God in other places of the Old Testament, not to speak of the New Testament.

Is it true that “the good news of God’s provision to reconcile mankind to Himself is not solely a Christian concept” (104)?

Is God “the Father of all”? (104)

Does the word (li) translated as “made” in “made the heavens” actually mean that? (130)

Were the “instructions God gave to the Hebrew people about their sacrifices to Him … the same” as those given for the great border sacrifices? (135)

Thong repeatedly emphasizes that Shang Di or Di is qualitatively superior to other spirits (shen), which are lower. But the word shen is used in the compound translated as “Sovereign Spirit” (Huang Shen) in the “Song of Comforting Peace” and elsewhere in texts in this book (136, 144). Similarly, in the imprecation against potential covenant breakers, “the intelligent spirits” (ming shen) were invoked as punishing agents.

Then, in the chapter called “God’s Country ” – Shen Zhou - he clearly identifies “God” with Shen. This is a glaring and stunning contradiction to his earlier insistence that Shang Di and Shen (usually considered plural) are not in the same category of being. It greatly weakens his harsh criticism of those who think that Shen is a more appropriate translation of the Greek Theos.

After sacrificing to Di, the emperor also offered sacrifices of wine to “the secondary tablets to the east and west” of that tablet to Di (140). How does this compare with the commandment in Exodus to worship only God and not to anyone else?

And how do we handle the fact – not mentioned by the author - that the Shang emperors practiced human sacrifice along with their supposedly “pure” worship of Shang Di?

Does the word translated “everlasting” (jiu chang) in the “Song of Pure Peace” really mean eternal, or merely “very long” (144)?

Change of names often went with covenants. The Chinese examples given have nothing to do with covenants. Another strained parallel? (165)

Does the song that Thong quotes on 273-274 say that God “brought light to the world”? That word “light” does not appear, nor does the idea of light.

Is it true, as Legge believed, that “the Chinese had worshipped a monotheistic Deity called Shang Di, who was clearly recognizable as the Christian God”? (215). Should we make a distinction between the notion of a single supreme being which both the Old Testament and the Chinese classics contain and the Triune God revealed in the distinctively Christian Scriptures – that is, the New Testament, and the Old Testament interpreted in the light of the apostolic revelation?

What does it mean to say – as Thong approvingly quotes Legge - that the Chinese “do know God”? Or as he himself states, “Like the nation of Israel, the ancient Chinese knew this One True God” (273).

The Apostle Paul says that the Gentiles “knew God” from observing “the things that are made,” but “did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:21). Indeed, they “suppressed the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18).

In 1 Corinthians, he wrote, “in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God” (1:21) – and this was in reference to Hellenistic Greeks, who had by then developed a sort of monotheism similar to that Thong ascribes to the ancient Chinese. In Ephesians, he exhorted the believers not to walk “as the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart” (4:17-18).

Jesus himself, in his prayer to the Father, declared, “O Righteous Father, the world has not known You” (John 17:25).

Throughout the book, Thong seems to confuse several possible meanings of “know” and “worship.” In what sense did the ancient Chinese “know” and “worship” the one true and living God? Yes, they did “know about” a being with some attributes similar to those of the God revealed in the Bible. But did they “know” him? The Scriptures say No. Yes, they did “worship” Shang Di, but was this true worship of God that the Bible enjoins?

If they did truly “know and worship” God, then they were saved. But how do we square this conclusion with their practice of human sacrifice and their worship of other, lesser, “gods”?

Is Thong aware of the fundamental Roman Catholic (and thus Jesuit) approach to other religions, based on the theology of Thomas Aquinas – an approach that differs considerably from that of the Protestant Reformers?

When the author criticizes anti-Jesuit popes and emissaries who “condemned all the Chinese emperors to burning in hell” (205), does he do so on the grounds of their ineffective evangelism, or from a belief that the emperors, with their supposed knowledge of the true God, were not in danger of God’s eternal judgment? It makes a difference.

Does he realize that the Dominicans and Franciscans were opposing rituals in honor of ancestors from the standpoint of those who worked almost exclusively among the masses, whose view of these rites differed drastically from those of the emperor and the educated elite among whom the Jesuits worked?

Indeed, despite the higher rating for accuracy accorded ancient Chinese documents now, can we consider them as reliable as Thong does throughout Faith of Our Fathers? A great part of his historical reconstruction depends upon the assumption that accounts of the earliest rulers, and even of later history, are untainted by error or bias.

Thong seems to think that a strong centralized powers, in which the leader is able to mobilize the entire nation at will, is a good form of government. Though the Bible does not criticize monarchy outright, it does contain both examples and principles that would make one doubt the wisdom of the sort of total power that Thong seems to approve of – at least when wielded by the “good” emperors of China’s golden age. Can we believe that these kings were really as good as they are made out to be?

Thong follows Yuan Zhiming’s reading of later Chinese history, which has been widely criticized as naïve and simplistic, and not accurate.

In “All Truth Is God’s Truth,” Thong invokes the authority of renowned scientist, philosopher, and essayist, Francis Bacon, and quotes his memorable statement that “there are two books before us to study…; first, the volume of Scriptures…; then the volume of the Creatures.”

This “two books” theory has exercised great influence, but lacks biblical warrant, and must be used with care. Thong largely shows discernment in his treatment of “all truth is God’s truth,” but – at least in my opinion – goes too far at a number of points to try to show exact correspondence between traditional Chinese and Christians concepts of truth.

Some of the quotations from the Bible and from the Dao De Jing do not seem to me to match as closely as Thong seems to think. For example: His equation of “antiquity” (gu) with “eternity” (305); the translation of “sheng ren” (holy man) as “the Holy One” (306); finding “grace and gentleness” in Dao De Jing 55:1-2 (306); putting Dao De Jing 35:3 under the category of “Truth is Revealed” (309).

Here he also accepts Yuan’s interpretation of the Dao De Jing, which has been rejected by almost all Chinese scholars, both Christian and non-Christian. I have made a preliminary study of the Laozi’s concept of the Dao as it relates to the Logos of the Bible. Though there are many similarities, there are even more differences. I am not qualified to pronounce on this matter, but the opinions of all the Chinese experts in this field whom I consulted would seem to make Yuan’s interpretation doubtful, at least.

While I found his explanation of the astral phenomena around the time of the birth of Christ really fascinating, I wonder how he knows that when the Magi reached Jerusalem “the star was no longer visible” to them. It is an inference with some possibility, but this assumption is at the heart of his understanding of two different appearances in the heavens.

Shen and Shang Di

Thong presents the case for Shang Di as the proper translation of Elohim and Theos, but there are weaknesses in this position, and reasons why Shen might be more appropriate. This is a complex matter, but here is a brief summary:

As noted above, Shang Di contains no hint of plurality in the Godhead. Thus, in passages of the Bible where Theos must refer to the entire Godhead and thus allow for plurality, Shang Di simply will not do. Furthermore, in places like John 1:1-3, to name only one of many, the use of Shang Di hopelessly muddles the concept of the Trinity and causes confusion as to the nature of the relationship between the Father and the Son. Since the Trinity is a fundamental concept (though the word is not used) in the Scriptures, this is no small matter.

Shang Di is a personal name; it designates one particular being; it is not a generic term for deity. But at least Greek theos, and perhaps also Hebrew Elohim (which is the plural of el) are generic terms, which can refer to any and all sorts of “gods.” Both Greek philosophy, the Greek translation of the hold Testament, and the Greek New Testament, use Theos almost exclusively to refer to the one true and living God, the Creator, Sustainer, and Savior of the world. That is, the Bible takes a word that –like shen – has a number of possible meanings, and pours new significance into that word.

The fact that Shang Di is a particular name for a particular deity – albeit the supreme one – among the Chinese is a fatal objection to its being superior as a translation of theos (and probably also Elohim), despite its strong attraction for Chinese who want to link the Christian faith with their cultural heritage.

Conclusion

In short, though I really enjoyed reading Faith of Our Fathers, believe that it will lead many Chinese to faith in Christ, and learned a great deal from it, I cannot recommend it wholeheartedly, because of the number and nature of its weaknesses.

That is not to say that many will not benefit from Thong’s years of hard work, clear presentation of the Christian message, and evident love for his people and his culture.

Notes

[1] The author supervised the translation of the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament into Chinese, and has published a book comparing Confucius and Christ, which is available in Chinese.