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Christianity in China

The Bible in Hudson Taylor’s Life and Mission, Part I

Review of Christopher E.M. Wigram, The Bible and Mission in Faith Perspective: J. Hudson Taylor and the Early China Inland Mission. Zoetermeer, The Netherlands: Uitgeverij Boekencentrum, 2007.

H
udson Taylor is widely recognized as one of the most influential Western missionaries to China in the nineteenth century. The founder of the China Inland Mission (CIM), which became the largest missionary agency in China, Taylor also helped spark a movement, generally called “faith missions,” within the larger Western missionary enterprise. His position as a major figure in the immensely popular foreign missions endeavor gave him a position from which to speak, not only about overseas missions, but also about the Christian life in general. In fact, he exercised wide influence in evangelical circles as a Bible teacher and advocate of a certain type of spirituality - the “Keswick” or “deeper life” approach to the Christian life that emphasized faith, consecration, intimacy with God through Christ, inner peace, and commitment to the Great Commission.

This excellent study examines Taylor’s biblical interpretation and application to personal life and cross-cultural missions, especially in the light of wider currents of teaching on Christian discipleship and effective missionary work. Drawing upon a broad array of primary sources, supplemented by more recent publications about the nineteenth century missionary movement, the author paints a detailed picture of Taylor’s Bible-based spirituality and its impact upon his life as a bearer of the gospel to the Chinese. A few common notions about Hudson Taylor come in for re-evaluation, but the overall portrait closely resembles what almost all previous biographies have drawn of a man filled with zeal for God and his Word, focused on Christ and his redeeming work, trusting in his heavenly Father to supply all needs, depending upon the Holy Spirit for new life and sustaining power and grace, and consumed with a passion to communicate the love of God in Christ to spiritually needy Chinese at any cost. [1]

Because of Hudson Taylor’s significance both as a missionary to the Chinese and as a leader in the growing “faith” mission movement, Wigram’s book deserves careful and detailed examination.

This volume began as a doctoral dissertation, so it naturally opens with an explanation of the author’s methodology, structure of the work, and a description of sources.

Hudson Taylor’s Context

The second chapter places Taylor’s approach to the Bible within its historical context: Roman Catholicism, the Reformation, Puritanism, Pietism, the Moravian Brethren, and early Methodism. Protestants of the early nineteenth century were not reading their Bibles in a vacuum, for they were heirs of the Reformation, with its emphasis upon the Scriptures alone, to be read and received by faith. In particular, “Taylor’s intensely devotional approach to the Bible stands in a tradition that has its roots in Puritanism.” (32) Later, the Pietists, with their intense love for God and Christ nurtured by a Christo-centric, devotional reading of Scripture, longing for the imminent return of Christ, lessened emphasis upon bare mental adherence to orthodox doctrines, and strong commitment to missions, fed into the holiness movement in which Taylor’s faith and practice were nurtured. Their insistence upon both immediate, personal communion with God in Christ and foreign missions was transmitted to the English-speaking world through the Moravians, who had a decisive influence on John Wesley, the father of Methodism, the tradition into which Hudson Taylor was born. Wesley’s stress upon “entire sanctification” followed the Puritan concern for holy living and deeply influenced Hudson Taylor and his colleagues. The gathering of people based on a common religious experience rather than denominational membership was another characteristic that Taylor inherited and transmitted to the CIM.

The author next introduces more specific influences upon Taylor. Following David Bebbington and others, he claims that both the Enlightenment and Romanticism helped to shape the contours of Taylor’s reading and application of the Bible. While not wanting to deny the influence of cultural movements upon the Church in any age, I found this to be the weakest part of Wigram’s thesis; the other traditions which he had already described would seem to be explanation enough for most of Taylor’s principal distinctives in biblical interpretation and practical outworking. I don’t know what to make of the claim that he was “the embodiment of evangelical romanticism,” especially in his broadening of the financial support base of missions beyond churches to individual believers and “his liking for female companionship.” (57) Other explanations seem more likely to me, such as his desire not to compete with denominational missions and his very close relationship to his mother and sister (and distant one with his father).

More plausibly, Wigiram notes the undoubted impact of Methodism, with its use of female evangelists and the priority of evangelism and missions; the holiness movement, with its passion for total consecration, leveling distinctions between clergy and laity, “ceaseless activity,” the hunger for spiritual power for greater effectiveness in service, belief that union with Christ brought all that one needs for life and ministry, and call for a “deeper life” of “rest” in Christ; and the Mildmay conferences, which evolved into the Keswick meetings in which Taylor took a prominent part, with their emphasis on the life of faith, pre-millennial eschatology, high participation of women, and earnest longing for the fullness of the Spirit. Spiritual qualifications trumped everything else as prerequisites for effective missionary service.

Others who left their mark on Taylor, especially early in his career, included George Muller, whose orphanages were supported by unsolicited gifts in response to prayer alone and who urged Christians to be “truly at rest and happy in God” and whose habit of consecutive reading of the Bible became Taylor’s own; Edward Irving and his teaching on faith; Anthony N. Groves, especially his simple lifestyle and radical dependence upon God for material provision; and the Open Brethren, in their “fostering expectations of higher attainments in practical holiness.” (70) Andrew Jukes, who used allegory and typology in his interpretation of Scripture and who held strongly to pre-millennial eschatology, affected Taylor for a time when he was young.

Two men whose lives as missionaries in China profoundly shaped Taylor’s missionary strategy and practice were Karl F. A. Gutzlaff and William C. Burns. Taylor called Gutzlaff “the grandfather of the CIM” (73) through his impact on the Chinese Evangelization Society, Taylor’s first sending agency. Gutzlaff engaged in extensive preaching, distribution of literature, and training of Chinese Christians to replicate his ministry where foreigners could not go. Anticipating Taylor, he called for female missionaries to reach the women of China. His failure to supervise the Chinese workers whom he employed led Taylor to stress the need for foreign missionary oversight of local evangelists and pastors until their worth had been determined (and until the new missionary had been trained by them!). The German missionary sought to spread the gospel as widely as possible, with the plan of starting Chinese-run churches when a group of believers had been gathered. His powerful advocacy of mission work among the Chinese through letters and personal visits back to Europe provided a model for Taylor’s equally effective promotional efforts.

Not long after arriving in Shanghai and gaining facility in two Chinese dialects, Taylor met and began to itinerate with William C. Burns of Scotland. From Burns he learned the value of starting on the outskirts of a city, in order to enable the people to gain familiarity with the foreigner, and then gradually moving towards the center, in the hope of establishing residency. From Burns he also saw the imperative of living among the people, the value of enduring hardship and failure, the place of the “lay evangelist,” the need for women missionaries, and the necessity of a resident missionary to follow up recent converts.

The Bible in Hudson Taylor’s Spirituality

Having thus carefully described the various streams which fed into the river of Taylor’s use of the Bible in his personal and missionary life, Wigram plunges into the heart of the book, which consists of three substantial chapters on the Bible in Taylor’s personal spirituality, his missionary teaching and preaching, and the activities of the CIM until 1905 (the year that Taylor died). Only some highlights from these dense and very valuable chapters can be given here.

Despite his debt to many others, Taylor was also quite unconventional in some respects. He took the Bible as a fully reliable, completely sufficient, source of guidance for faith and practice. From his reading of the Scriptures, he imbibed a zeal for radical self-denial, which was a fruit of union with Christ, itself fed by daily and prayerful reading of the Word of God coupled with an attempt fully to obey whatever the Spirit seemed to be saying to him from the sacred writings. Though convinced that God could speak directly to him, Taylor was protected from extreme idiosyncratic subjectivism because he “had a thorough and methodical approach to scripture with disciplined habits that aided his overall grasp of the Bible.” (80)

“For Taylor, knowing God was a ‘glorious reality,’ for He was ‘the great Father, the source of all fatherhood, of all protection, of all that is blessed here and true, and noble and good, and of all the glories to which we look forward in the future.’ It was the task of the Christian to give glory to God in all that was done. Taylor was dismissive of a merely intellectual knowledge of God. For him the practical application of the Christian life was a daily reality.” (81) In other words, ready obedience formed an indispensable aspect of knowing God through the Bible. Without acting upon a clear promise or obeying a clear command, one’s study of the Scriptures was in vain.

Some key themes in the Bible feature prominently in his own life and in his teaching. The Love of God the Father probably comes first. Taylor believed implicitly in the goodness of God and therefore the necessity of acquiescing in all manifestations of God’s providence, including those that brought intense pain and sorrow. He spoke much of the majesty and glory of God: “It is clear that doxology was a fundamental feature of his life and worship.” (83)

Other key themes included prayer, the efficacy of which Taylor never doubted; indeed, his confidence in God as a prayer-answering Father stood at the heart of his life and work. The CIM, he would have said, provided clear evidence of the Lord’s willingness to respond to pleas for workers, spiritual fruit, strength, and financial resources. Taylor’s understanding of Christian spirituality also highlighted the centrality of self-denial in the service of God and of others, and his own example of humility, “intense love and sympathy,” compassion, “great self-denial,” and “indefatigable perseverance” exerted immense influence upon all who met him. (90)

Taylor found the quest for complete holiness in the very fibre of Scripture, and fully exemplified by the kenotic (self-emptying) example of Christ; other terms for this were “entire consecration” and life on a “higher plane.” What Wigram calls Taylor’s “immediate hermeneutic” – that is, his belief that God could speak directly to him through the words of the Bible - found comfort in the lives of biblical characters whose sufferings and consolations could be ours as well. Repeated exhortations in the Scriptures, especially the Psalms, to praise God led Taylor and others like him to fill their lives with singing hymns, either privately or corporately.

“Faith is one of the qualities that Taylor is most noted for and was a foundation for his spirituality.”(100) In particular, he taught that God could be trusted to raise up workers for the harvest and to supply for all their material and spiritual needs. He mined all of Scripture for his emphasis on faith, in particular the passages which dealt with God’s fatherly care for his children and various promises of provision. Mark 11:22 played a central role in his understanding of God as a faithful provider. After 1869, he claimed that he had found “the rest of faith” that enabled him to enjoy almost constant peace.

Such “rest” “was to be found in following Jesus and labouring for Him . . . For Taylor the rest of faith was encountered in mission.” (104-105) Believing prayer brought rest as Christians relied on God for all their needs in all circumstances. For Taylor, such passages as 1 Peter 5:7 and Philippians 4:6-7 were crucial, as they assured him that we can have peace – and thus mental rest – regardless of pressures and problems. For us to enjoy this rest, however, we must consecrate ourselves fully to God and to his service. “This central doctrine of holiness teaching enabled Taylor to experience rest from the trials of leading the CIM and was the basis of his extraordinary spiritual equanimity.” (107)

Only by abiding in Christ can we enjoy this rest. But Taylor read John 15:5 as a statement of fact: We are already in Christ; all we now have to do is to remain in him by trusting his promises and obeying his commands. In other words, we do not have to attain Christ, but to enjoy what he already is – divine Lord and Savior – by remaining in his love. Likewise, John 6: 35 assured him that we now have unlimited supplies of spiritual nourishment merely by “coming” to Christ constantly through faith in his promises. By doing this, we bear fruit, which means that we become more and more like Christ, and thus glorify God. Union with Christ through faith in his Word brings the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in our lives that leads to even closer intimacy and even more growth in holiness, though of course not to the point of sinlessness in this life.

These realities exerted a pervasive influence on the CIM in coming decades, as “Taylor’s own experience became important teaching for others in the Christian community, as he not only taught but demonstrated the reality of what he was teaching . . .” (113)

The Bible in J. Hudson Taylor’s Worldview

Though Taylor was nurtured in the Reformation tradition of full confidence in the Scriptures, the author claims that he read the Bible in a way that was distinctive, and a bit different from the Reformers’ practice. For him, the Scriptures were, of course, the very Word of God in the words of God, and thus completely trustworthy and authoritative. He strongly rejected the skeptical approach of modern German higher criticism that was beginning to affect some churches and missionaries.

More than that, however, the Bible was “the very atmosphere in which he lived.” It was “the main source for transformation and specifically connected to inspiring others about mission to China.” (117) In his many editorials in China’s Millions and other writings, he referred to almost all the books of the Bible, though of course some were particular favorites, such as Genesis, the Psalms, Isaiah, and the Gospels, and the rest of the New Testament rather “evenly.” (117) In his selection of texts, Taylor mirrored the usage of evangelicals of the time.

Taylor’s daily consecutive reading of the Bible used a version with English, Greek, and Hebrew interleaved. He knew the biblical languages and used this knowledge in his exegesis, as well as in the revision of the Ningbo phonetic New Testament. He favored the use of Shen to translate Elohim and Theos, even though most British missionaries favored the translation Shang Di. Wigram notes that his “preference for ‘Shen’ was indicative of a conviction that Christianity stood in clear discontinuity from Chinese religious tradition,” in stark contrast to the accommodating approach of men like James Legge, W.A.P. Martin, and Timothy Richard. (126)

Taylor used both allegory and typology in interpreting and expounding the Scriptures. His exposition of The Song of Songs furnishes the best example of his allegorical exegesis, and is thoroughly in line with the most common treatments of this Old Testament book, from the third century to the nineteenth century. For him, such an allegorical reading found support from clear Old and New Testament references to Yahweh/Christ as the husband or bridegroom of his people, but Taylor also found spiritual meaning in many details of the Song of Songs, rather like his contemporary Charles Spurgeon in his preaching. He also used typology, finding adumbrations of Christ in Solomon and Boaz, for example.

He often distinguished between the literal and spiritual meanings of Scripture, and usually focused on the latter, because for Taylor the purpose of the Bible was to bring the believer into a deeper common with God in Christ and then into more faithful obedience, including going into the world to preach the gospel. To gain insight into the spiritual significance of a passage, Taylor consciously relied on the Holy Spirit to guide his understanding as he both studied the text and prayed for true spiritual understanding.

In his exegesis, Taylor assumed, with his evangelical contemporaries and in keeping with their Reformation, Puritan and Pietist heritage, that “the scriptures are for all people, not just for scholars and clergy," and that “submission to the scriptures is more than just intellectual assent.” He also assumed that “the situation of the contemporary reader is closely aligned with the original situation as represented by the text.” (134) This approach has been criticized as naïve by modern missiologists who assume that cultural, social, and economic situations condition and even determine our reading of the Bible, but it is completely consistent with the Reformation doctrine of the perspicuity of the Bible – that is, that the Scriptures are clear enough to readers of all sorts if they employ ordinary principles of interpretation within the community of faith.

“The focus on the spiritual meaning of the text gave Taylor a very immediate and highly personal approach to the interpretation of Scripture.” (135) He applied this method not only to himself but to his colleagues. He viewed the kingdom of God as “a present reality, not something for a future dispensation,” and thus saw Jesus as present King whose commands must be obeyed. (136)

That brings us to Taylor’s Christological interpretation of the Scriptures. The “incarnate Word is the true key to the written Word,” he said at the outset of his book on the Songs of Songs, which he considered to be a picture of the relationship between the risen Christ and the true disciple in this age. Likewise, Jesus is now the true Vine for all who believe and obey. Faith and obedience were for him key to proper continued understanding of the Bible.

With this “immediate” and Christological hermeneutic, Taylor applied the Bible directly to his current situation. For him, the Scriptures were written primarily for our personal and corporate edification, despite the contextual distance between us and the original readers. His own spiritual experience also colored his handling of biblical texts, such as when he spoke of finding teachings on the power of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in passages that might not have originally referred to that truth.

He “oscillated between preaching on whole chapters of scripture and using just a few verses.” (138) Though he often seemed to ignore the original setting, at other times he could weld the biblical occasion to the current situation of his hearers. He sometimes noted the genre of a passage, and sought to interpret the text accordingly. “Close attention to the text was not unusual,” including careful consideration of the original languages. (139)

Wigram concludes this chapter by claiming again that Taylor’s use of the Bible “differed markedly from other Protestant mission leaders before him,” despite their shared evangelical worldview. (139) The author also states that Taylor’s commitment to a “biblical position” on matters of the application of the Bible to matters of custom and culture kept him from “considering the values present in the Chinese context in order to facilitate communication in understandable, local terminology.” (140) This particular point does not seem to follow from Wigram’s previous description of Taylor’s use of the Bible to construct his worldview, and seems at odds with the way in which he was able to hold the attention of dozens and even hundreds of Chinese listeners throughout his career of preaching in China.

Wigram also says that though Taylor “looked askance at the new trends in biblical studies,” he “ironically shared common ground with Protestant Liberals in honouring experience over a rational defence of biblical authority.” (141) This seems a bit far-fetched, for Taylor always believed in the historicity of narrative passages and assumed that acceptance of inerrancy was a reasonable position as well as one borne out in personal experience. The author curiously states that for “Taylor the biblical text did not so much justify mission, that was assumed, rather it provided spiritual sustenance within mission for the consecrated disciple.” (141) While the latter part of that sentence is surely accurate, the former flies in the face of his own analysis of the ways in which Taylor found imperatives and motives for mission in not only classic texts but others (such as Proverbs 24:11-12) as well.

Another questionable criticism of Taylor is that his focus on personal edification made it unnecessary to “study the local context in light of the mission.” (141) We know from many directions that Hudson Taylor paid close attention to the situation of his hearers, including their cultural setting. More evidence is needed to substantiate this charge, especially since, only a few pages later (144) Wigram himself gives examples of Taylor quoting a Chinese proverb and alluding to an event in Chinese history to make contact with his audience. He also notes that “Taylor encouraged his colleagues to familarise themselves with the religious thought of the Chinese in order to contextualise their teaching.” (150)

(To be continued)

Notes

[1] Standard biographies include A.J. Broomhall, Hudson Taylor and China’s Open Century in seven volumes; the earlier two-volume biography by Taylor’s son and daughter-in-law, Howard and Geraldine Taylor; and Roger Steer’s shorter but very fine Hudson Taylor: A Man in Christ. Alvyn Austin, China’s Millions, though containing much useful information, is so negatively biased as to be fundamentally flawed and highly unreliable (for a review of this work see http://www.globalchinacenter.org/analysis/christianity-in-china/chinas-millions.php).