Bike Ride

Christianity in China

The Bible in Hudson Taylor's Life and Mission, Part II

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. (continued)

T
he Bible in Hudson Taylor’s Missionary Teaching and Preaching

Receiving invitations to speak at a variety of meetings on the subject not only of missions but the Christian life, Taylor was “a Bible teacher, a holiness preacher and an evangelist.”(143) Though he was not a great orator, his speaking had consistently powerful effects on his hearers, partly because of the “’precision and sincerity’ with which he delivered his message,” and partly because of “the eloquence of his life of faith in God.” (143) Over time, he “became well known for his biblical understanding and his natural style made him accessible.” (143) In particular, his message of abiding in Christ profoundly moved many, including John Mott and Samuel Zwener.

In China, he was primarily an evangelist, at least in his early years, and evangelism remained the love of his life even after he had become the leader of a large mission.

Here, however, one must take exception to Wigram’s claim that “Taylor prioritized itinerant preaching over more traditional patterns of missionary service.” (146) Yes, Taylor did emphasize the importance of itinerant evangelism, believing that the widespread dissemination of the seed of the gospel would inevitably bear fruit. In this he followed the example of Jesus and Paul, and not just that of his Methodist forebears, as Wigram says.

But the oft-repeated assertion that Taylor downplayed the value of settled, ongoing teaching and preaching to congregations gathered in towns and cities flies in the face of a great deal of evidence that shows that Taylor believed itineration paved the way for the establishment of permanent centers in key towns. He himself spent years in Ningbo and Hangzhou preaching at regular meetings in missionary chapels and medical clinics, and he always made it clear that his strategy consistently aimed at finding some place for the missionary and his Chinese co-worker to dwell and plant a church. It is very baffling that misunderstanding on this point persists even among scholars like Wigram who are very familiar with the sources. Indeed, Wigram accurately describes Taylor’s overall strategy later in the book (216) in a way that contradicts some of his earlier assertions.

As we have seen, Taylor resisted the inroads of German higher criticism when it began to inject skepticism into the study of the Bible. Toward the close of the century, he became “highly aggressive in his defence of conservative theological positions.” (148) Wigram believes that his Taylor’s own very personal and experiential reading of Scripture made him impervious to the liberal attacks on the reliability of the Bible, but we could also describe his approach as an example of a belief in the interior witness of the Spirit to the inscripturated Word of God – a traditional Reformation doctrine.

In his conflict with Timothy Richard, Taylor rejected the idea of trying to find common points between Christianity and other religions, and called instead for preaching that put the Cross of Christ at the center. He noted that “a particularly capable Chinese preacher made little mention of the religious literature of the Chinese,” and chose “to dwell on the salvation given through Christ rather than emphasising local knowledge.” (150)

Turning to the traditional topics (loci) of theology, Wigram examines Taylor’s teaching on all the major doctrines as found in his biblical expositions.

“Taylor was averse to speculation over theology and took little detailed interest in the new developments. His faith emphasized the reality of the living God and was based on the existence of God as depicted in the Bible. . . There was nothing more important than personal knowledge of God.” (151)

For Taylor, the first blessing bestowed on us through prayerful study of the Bible was knowledge of God as Father. Indeed, his “most frequent designation for God was Father.” (152) His implicit faith in a heavenly Father who knew all the needs of his children enabled Taylor to strike out into new territory time and again, always convinced that God would provide.

The second blessing was knowledge of God the Son, Jesus, whose two favorite biblical titles for Taylor were bridegroom and king, “for they showed the ‘tenderness and preciousness’ of this blessing.” (153) Finally, for Taylor, the Holy Spirit was a living presence, a constant source of “living waters” to those who came to Christ in faith.

God not only created a world worth studying, but now also governs it with watchful and loving providence. This implicit belief in God’s particular providence strengthened Taylor during periods of intense trial and loss, such as the deaths of children and of his first wife Maria. “The loving, reverent, observant Christian sees the hand of God in every little event of daily life,” he affirmed. (155) This great God possesses an inherent glory; our duty is to seek his greater glory among men in all that we do, as he often reminded his colleagues.

Believing that all men and women were fallen, Taylor did not share the optimism about “progress” that prevailed in some circles in the second half of the nineteenth century. On an individual level, he thought that we could only be freed from sin by the work of the Holy Spirit. Even believers, though they can count on God’s help to gain substantial victory over indwelling sin, must await the resurrection before they are granted sinless perfection. In our struggle with our corrupt nature, Taylor’s solution was to meditate on “Christ for us, Christ with us and Christ in us.” (158)

Our fallen condition makes conversion necessary for salvation. Taylor tried to ensure the “genuine nature of that conversion before baptism” for Chinese who professed faith in Christ. (158) “Regenerative re-creation was foundational for Taylor. This viewpoint relativised the legitimacy of other ministries,” such as medicine and education. Though valuable, they were “auxiliary to the preaching of the gospel. They were helpful but not necessary.” (159)

Only the message of God’s grace in Christ would meet the spiritual needs of the Chinese, and only missionaries who were themselves constantly depending on God to give grace in response to prayer would be able to communicate this message with power. Thus, he saw “the hard heart of the missionary as the main hindrance to the spread of the gospel.” (159) God’s grace could be experienced daily, and it must be shared with others in both word and deed.

Contrary to some critics of Taylor, Wigram writes that “Taylor struck a balance between the preaching of the gospel and what might be termed social needs.” (160) He had always sought to provide for needy Chinese from his own meager personal resources, and of course through his medical ministry. Still, they were secondary to preaching that alone would produce true conversions.

As for Christology, aside from holding orthodox views, Taylor applied the doctrine of the Incarnation to missionary life by urging his colleagues to imitate the self-emptying of the Son of God in order to save sinners. He appealed to the risen Christ’s status as Lord and King to call for entire consecration and submission, and to the life of Jesus as a man as our example of sacrificial service. Living simply among the Chinese - wearing their dress, eating their food, and following their rules of etiquette - was just the outward manifestation of what was for Taylor an essential inward attitude. “This included understanding as far as possible the thoughts and feelings of the Chinese, and not just dressing up like them. Taylor’s main concern was the relationship between the missionary and the Chinese.” (168)

“These insights aided Taylor in forging a new method for mission based on faith. It also enabled the CIM to endure suffering and persecution, for the principle of self-emptying and self-denial was a condition for personal spiritual blessing and for the advance of the gospel.” (167)

Hudson Taylor saw the work of Christ on the Cross as “foundational to understanding the kenotic work of Christ.” (169) As an evangelical, he believed that the death of Jesus was substitutionary and effective for all people who repent and trust in him. This faith in Christ brought reconciliation with God and imputed righteousness, resulted in “union with Christ and issued in freedom and power.” (169)

Furthermore, in contrast to the early Jesuits and to Timothy Richard, “'Christ crucified' was a topic that eschewed intellectual approaches to ministry among the Chinese.” (170) It also called for a life of daily dying with Christ, of constant self-denial in the service of the gospel. That implied, for Taylor, a refusal to claim rights under the treaties imposed by imperialistic governments, and relying on God alone for protection, choosing to suffer if necessary.

The resurrection of Christ applied the power of his death and the energy for new living to all who trusted in him. United with Christ, the believer has authority over Satan and sin and can live victoriously.

Of course, such new life depends upon the indwelling Holy Spirit. “The work of the Holy Spirit in Taylor’s life was one quality highlighted by those who knew him well,” and he often called on others to turn to God for constant fillings of the Spirit. (171) Only the Spirit can enable Christians to grow daily in holiness, a prime desire for Taylor. Such holiness “was always connected with obedience and the likelihood of suffering in pursuing mission in China.” (173) Jesus’ teaching on living water in John 4 appeared often in Taylor’s preaching on the unceasing availability of the Spirit to trusting Christians.

Missiology and ecclesiology occupied uneven positions in Taylor’s biblical exposition. For him, the church existed to obey the Great Commission, out of love for God the Father and God the Son, following the example of Christ, and relying on the Holy Spirit. He avoided detailed discussion of the distinctives of church organization and practice that divided evangelicals into different denominations. Broad-minded and genuinely ecumenical, he welcomed people from all church backgrounds into the CIM, and even eventually assigned workers with similar convictions to the same area, so that they could have freedom to plant churches on principles they deemed scriptural.

Wigram claims that Taylor’s preference for the Markan version of the Great Commission over Matthew’s made it “inevitable that Taylor would diminish the importance of making disciples which might have led to a policy of consolidation.” (177) Again, one must reply that Taylor’s whole life, and especially his strategy of planting churches that would nurture mature Christians and the establishment of schools to train believers and their children, refutes this common misconception, the source of which remains a mystery. (Wigram corrects this error later in the book (220).)

Despite his earlier statements that Taylor prioritized itinerant evangelism to the neglect of church planting, the author now says, correctly, that “The CIM existed to see the gospel preached all over China and for the individuals who were converted to be formed into churches. . . The CIM shared the policy of all Protestant missions to create self-supporting, self-governing and self-extending churches in which opportunity was to be given for the manifestation of spiritual gifts and in the grace of giving.” (179) Probably following the example of Paul, he made a distinction between the local pastor, who should be supported by his own church, and the evangelist, who could be financed by either the mission or those who sent him.

Although he did encourage missionaries to teach their converts to cease from ordinary work on the Lord’s Day, Taylor was otherwise very unattached to traditional ecclesiastical polity and practices. Instead, for him “personal relationships often overrode denominational labels. . .” In his view, “the church was made up of individual converts rather than any already existing corporate organization.” (181) He did require careful recording of those being baptized, however, and on “being sure of the professions of faith,” probably influenced by the New Testament teaching that true faith will produce visible fruit. His focus on evangelism, in keeping with current patterns among “holiness” and Keswick teachers, led him to emphasize “facilitating the mission work of the individual rather than … administering the mission work of a corporate body,” such as a denomination. (181) This was, Wigram claims, a “new ecclesiology.”

Like others in the evangelical movement, Taylor believed in the imminent return of Jesus Christ. Believers were to long for this blessed event, and treat all worldly attachments as of relatively inferior worth. Wigram attributes this to the influence of Romanticism, but one could find dozens of passages on the New Testament which would produce a similar conviction and consecration. In particular, like others in these circles, Taylor was “pessimistic about the state of the world,” even as he was “comforted to know that a just and perfect rule was coming” with the visible return of Christ. (183) He did not adhere to dispensational teaching, however, and was “’very guarded’ when he spoke from the prophetic scriptures.” (184) Over time, he began to think that sincere believers could differ on such subjects, and that fellowship and cooperation did not depend on full agreement on eschatology.

Taylor’s eschatology influenced him personally (he regularly rid himself of excess possessions); in his teaching (he urged others to set their hopes fully on the return of Christ); and in his missiology (which rejected “culturally adaptive approaches which took time and depended on educational institutions.” 185) Believers could derive joy from the promised return, despite all earthly trials.

Unlike a growing body of evangelicals, Taylor held that those who finally rejected Christ would suffer eternal punishment in hell. He saw no “wider hope” in the pages of the New Testament. Those who have not heard the gospel of Christ are still responsible for worshiping the God who is revealed through the created order and in conscience, as Paul taught in Romans chapter 1. For that very reason, the church had the responsibility of taking the saving word to the world, regardless of cost. He saw the great potential of Chinese as a race and hoped that one day Chinese Christians would take the gospel to the rest of the world – an expectation that has finally begun to be realized.

The Bible in the activities of the China Inland Mission until 1905

In general, we can say that Taylor’s own use of the Bible for his life and work was institutionalized in the entire structure and ethos of the CIM. Wigram accurately observes that “Taylor intended to personally lead and train the missionaries,” but then repeats the familiar charge that he assumed “an autocratic leadership style.” (193) He reiterates this criticism in the conclusion, ascribing Taylor’s view of leadership to what others have termed the Romantic “great man” view (254). Again, one wonders where this criticism comes from, when the narrative of his life shows that Taylor led by example, teaching, prayer, and patient dealings with those who refused to abide by the agreements they had made when they first joined the CIM. True, the CIM in China was to be led by the Director on the field, and all new recruits pledged to submit. On the other hand, there was nothing “autocratic” about Taylor’s manner of exercising the authority his workers had agreed to follow. A careful reading of last five volumes A.J. Broomhall’s Hudson Taylor and China’s Open Century [1] ought to put this canard to rest. (See, for example, Survivors’ Pact, 106-08, 278; Refiner’s Fire, 146-147,276; Assault on the Nine, 297-98, 383,429, in addition to many other places.)

Taylor based his appeals for new workers on broad general principles and trusted the Spirit to move individuals to respond, even as he followed Jesus’ command to pray for the Lord to thrust forth workers into the harvest field (Matthew 9:37-38). Likewise, he expected CIM members to immerse themselves in the Bible, including its promises of God’s provision, and not to trust in man or in any appeals for giving. Such spiritual qualifications trumped education and social standing in the evaluation of applicants, and guided his instructions to new workers before and after they arrived in China.

Very interestingly, Wigram demonstrates that Taylor’s use of women as missionaries derived not from a close study of the Bible but upon his Methodist background and urgent pragmatic considerations. (212-13) Later, Taylor justified the new strategy by what he considered to be its evident success, though one could question whether it led to gender imbalances in the Chinese church and ignored clear biblical patterns and teaching on pioneer evangelism (e.g., Jesus’ sending of the Twelve and the Seventy, and Paul’s all-male evangelistic band). At the same time, he held to traditional views of the role of women in church leadership and ministry, such as speaking in church meetings or holding positions of leadership over men. (214)

Taylor’s missionary strategy was more clearly grounded in his reading of Scripture, especially the records of Paul’s evangelism in the book of Acts. The groundbreaking role of itineration was taken from Matthew 9:35, Mark 1:38, and Mark 16:15, to cite only the most prominent relevant texts. “Itinerant work should be seen as an important preliminary to localized work.” (219) As for the widespread employment of colporteurs to distribute Scriptures and other Christian literature as widely as possible, Taylor believed that the Bible prioritized preaching over the unexplained literary text, which could be terribly misunderstood (as the case of Hong Xiuquan, leader of the Taipings, demonstrated). Following the biblical example, the believed that men were more suitable for constant iteration.

For effective church planting, missionaries must “teach [Chinese Christians] a love for God’s word and a deepening knowledge of it so they can stand alone as soon as possible. This would be achieved through ‘spiritual fatherhood’ of the Chinese” and through “church nurture, discipling and the . . . training of the new converts for leadership” – another correction to earlier misstatements in the book. (220-21)

Further study of the Bible convinced Taylor that he had erred in his earlier focus on establishing mission stations. “There is no command to open mission stations, in the Word of God, and there is no precedent to be found there.” (226) Planting churches, he began to see, was God’s ordained method for effective evangelism and church growth. He especially approved of starting churches in the homes of Chinese (224)

As for finance, Taylor put Matthew 6:33 at the center of his “fund-raising” policy, stressing the call for prayer over an appeal for donations. He took Psalm 84:11 at face value. With his belief in the imminent return of Christ, he rejected the use of investments and the practice of going into debt to finance new work.

Conclusion and evaluation

Wigram sums up the volume in a succinct conclusion that needs little comment here, except for one criticisms of Taylor’s use of Scripture. At many points, the author observed that Taylor rarely referred to the historical context of a passage which he was expounding; nor did he usually explain the place of that particular verse or passage within the entire book in which it was found. He is right, but the question seems rather to be, Did Taylor twist the meaning of passages by his silence on their context? Wigram points out only one flagrant error, which would indicate that Taylor’s method, though different from what we expect today, did not lead to distortion or abuse of the Bible.

Despite my disagreements with the author’s conclusions about some matters, I whole-heartedly recommend this important study of an important man. I personally found the book immensely informative and edifying, and wish for it a very wide reading.

Throughout this volume, Wigram displays an impressive familiarity with Taylor’s preaching and teaching corpus, and a wonderful ability to synthesize and systematize material that had to be mined from a plethora of sources. His industry, careful scholarship, and clarity deserve our admiration and emulation.

For possible implications of Taylor's use of Scripture today, please go to www.chinainst.org.

G. Wright Doyle

Notes

[1] Now available in two volumes under the title, The Shaping of Modern China.