Chinese Biblical Studies: Issues in understanding and interpretation

A colloquium on Chinese biblical studies sponsored by the Center for the Study of Christianity in China, King’s College, London, was held January 17th-21st.Supported in part by a grant from the Bible Society, and convened by The Very Reverend Dr. Christopher Hancock, this symposium showcased some of the fine scholarship being done by Chinese around the world. One of the largest such gatherings in recent decades, it both marked the progress of biblical studies by Chinese and advanced the conversation in a number of key areas.The scholars who presented papers came from a variety of locations (Mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore, the United Kingdom, the U.S.A., Israel) and represented a wide range of faith perspectives. As a result, discussions of each paper were quite lively, even confrontational, but always amicable. The sometimes-sharp exchanges resulted in greater mutual understanding and occasionally – at least in my case – changed opinions.Though most of the papers were read in English, the discussions took place in Chinese, with interpretation into English. This format enabled native Chinese speakers to express themselves freely; English speakers to participate fully; and everyone to have time to think while the “other” language was being used. The process acknowledged that, while English is the international language of scholarship, we were, after all, talking about Chinese biblical interpretation.Before looking at the contents of the papers, let us note some recurring themes:- The constant Chinese focus on ethics. At least since the time of Confucius, Chinese intellectuals have sought to promote the cultivation of moral character.- The emphasis upon serving the public. Up to the present, the ancient Chinese expectation that private virtue must result in public service has dominated ethical teaching and endeavor.- The assumption that Chinese culture is invaluable, and perhaps even superior, and must be retained at almost all costs. Almost all the papers reflected the conviction that Chinese Christianity must be recognizably Chinese, and that any presentation of the Christian message to Chinese people, especially those with education, must be couched in terms which affirm traditional cultural concepts and values.- The profound humiliation and dis-orientation, leading to confusion and an openness to new ideas, of the period from 1840 to 1949. Only recently have Chinese recovered a sense of pride in their nation; even still, however, the collapse of Confucianism has left a moral vacuum which opens minds to foreign concepts, including “Western” Christianity.- The ongoing, and extensive, interaction between China and the West over the past two hundred years. Despite their veneration of Chinese culture, especially Confucianism, Chinese intellectuals, particularly since the early-1900s, have been wrestling with Western thought and institutions in their search for national salvation and intellectual renewal.- The striking, and often unnoticed, impact of the Bible upon Chinese since its translation by Robert Morrison in 1823. Almost all of us were surprised at the breadth and depth of the Bible’s influence upon Chinese thinkers, including non-Christians, since the early 1900s.- The ever-present danger of reading one’s own ideas into the biblical text. In various ways, we were reminded how hard it is to divest oneself of prejudice and pre-understanding and to go slowly and carefully through the process of observing the text, allowing the text itself to interpret itself, and then only moving to application to our current situation or comparison with other texts. (Several scholars present believe this to be impossible, and advocate jumping immediately into some form of contextualization.)- Not as a theme, but as a noticeable feature of the colloquium, was the almost total lack of interaction with the extensive body of evangelical scholarship, either in English or in Chinese.In his opening remarks, Dr. Choong Chee Pang placed this colloquium into the larger context of Christian studies In China since the mid-1980s. Since the inception of Sino-Christian studies, Chinese scholars, who are more conversant with Western philosophy than with the Bible, have focused on theology rather than on the biblical texts. There has been a tendency, in fact, to relegate biblical studies to a minor branch of Western philosophy. The picture has brightened a bit in recent years, but a great lack of knowledge of the biblical languages among scholars within Mainland China significantly hampers solid research.Dr. Choong challenged Chinese scholars to maintain an open mind, a spirit of humility, and awareness of the danger of reading “things Chinese into the biblical text.” He further urged serious study of the biblical languages as a pre-requisite for full understanding of the Bible, as well as careful consideration of the varieties of Chinese contexts, since Chinese scholars in Hong Kong, Singapore and the diaspora will differ in outlook from those in Mainland China.Dr. Christopher Hancock, likewise, introduced a cautionary note by asking what, in fact, the word “contextualization” might mean, laying out five questions which must be answered before he could accept a proposed “contextualized” interpretation of the Bible, and pointing out ten different types of “contextualized” interpretations currently being undertaken. We need to be careful to understand what we are doing! He concluded with a key question, whether there is a “Word, in or over, the Bible’s words that speaks to our world?”

The papers

- Professor You Xilin’s “Supra-familial Ethic and Its Origin, From Old Testament to New Testament” explained how Jesus’ creation of a new family which transcended blood and clan, and even nation, likewise forged a new ethic, in which members of other families and races are now brothers and sisters, with a claim of love upon each other. This new ethic, in turn, makes possible modern society, in which the traditional family is replaced by membership in a large, mobile group of relative strangers, to whom we must act in a loving way. You believes that only this sort of thing can inform “modern universal citizenship.”- Haihua Tian presented her research proposal for “Biblical Interpretation in a Chinese Perspective.” She believes that “the core of the issue for Christian studies in China is… the neglect of the contributions of both the Chinese cultural affirmation of humanistic value and the high academic studies of the biblical texts.” The thrust of her paper was contained in her question, “How can resources in the Chinese context be utilized to interpret the Bible and to reflect upon Sino-Christian Theology?” The traditional sola Scriptura approach is “not meaningful for Chinese, who are seeking a national and cultural identity. With their own cultural tradition and life experience, the Chinese should have their own way of reading and interpreting the Bible.” A single-meaning approach, she holds, should give way to pluralistic understandings and cross-textual readings in the context of Chinese classics and other cultural expressions. Such a reading should aim at transformation of both texts, each of which is incomplete without the other.- In “Chinese Cross-Cultural Biblical Interpretation,” K.K. Yeo expressed his opinion that “in order for Chinese Biblical interpretation to contribute to global Christian scholarship and the church, … Chinese biblical scholars [must] have a better understanding of : (1) the nature of the Biblical text in relation to culture, (2) the significance of cross –cultural interpretation, and (3) the need to engage the Bible interscripturally with the Chinese classics.” Yeo believes that cross-cultural interpretation is already seen in the Bible itself, and certainly in the Early Church, and that Chinese and biblical texts should be read together, so that the characteristic emphases of each might enrich our understanding of both textual traditions. His paper featured a brief outline of ways in which Confucian and Daoist scriptures might be read in parallel with the Christian Bible.- John Y.H. Yieh brought to our attention the obvious, but often-neglected, fact that the Bible has had enormous impact on different readers and societies, sometimes with destructive consequences. “Interpretation and Consequence: Assessing the Impact of the Christian Bible in Chinese Contexts” opened with a brief introduction to three recent hermeneutical efforts: Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s feminist-liberation-theological critique; Ulrich Luz’s “History of effects/impact” perspective; and Fernando Segovia and R.S. Sugirtharajah’s postcolonial criticism. After that, he examined ways in which different readings of the Bible affected Hong Xiuquan (1814-1864), Wu Leichuan (1869-1944), and Ni Tuosheng [Watchman Nee] (1903-1972). The bond among all six approaches consisted in “the strong sense of social responsibility… All of them have tried to make the Bible meaningful, relevant and beneficial to their times.”- G. Wright Doyle surveyed the reasons given for and against the use of either Shangdi or Shen to translate the biblical words for God (elohim, el, theos) in “Problems in Translating the Bible into Chinese: The names(s) for God.” He concluded that although Shang Di shares many of the attributes of the biblical God, Shen is a better approximation of the meaning of the biblical terms, not only because of a similar semantic range, but in order to express the concept of the Trinity which is found in a number of biblical texts.- Liang Gong’s “Re-portrayal of Jesus’ Image by Chinese Modern Writers” demonstrated the vast and varied impact of the Bible upon early 20th-century Chinese writers. Regardless of whether they believed its message, many leading Chinese authors adopted themes from it – especially the central image of the suffering of Christ – to introduce “new cultural elements in the construction of new Chinese literature.” Though not “the object of worship,” he nevertheless was admired as “an outstanding personality, a kind of ‘noble, sacrificial spirit,’ a ‘great forgiving spirit,’” one who gave himself for the common good.- Shi Wenhua: “Context and Text in Paul’s Message of the Cross” was a clear and powerful description of Paul’s “inversion” of contemporary values by deliberately preaching a message of social humiliation (the Cross); doing so without the elegant language and polished gestures expected of “manly” rhetoricians; and boasting in his humiliating sufferings. This paper struck me very powerfully, as a challenge to re-consider the ways in which Christians today try to gain power and prestige.- Choong Chee Pang questioned the accuracy and wisdom of most Chinese translations of the Bible in “Re-considering Some of the Problems in Robert Morrison’s Long [drakOn in Greek].” Pointing out the inconsistencies of the ways in which words such as Leviathan, Rahab, beast, monster, and drakOn (English “dragon”) in the Old and New Testament are rendered in both Chinese and English translations, he argued for a transliteration of such terms, especially long, rather than an attempt at translation. For cultural, political, and linguistic reasons, Choong believes that such a move is imperative in today’s situation. When questioned whether even the positive connotations of long among the Chinese are perhaps part of the deceptive power of the “serpent” referred to in the Bible, he agreed that we must warn everyone not to worship the god of this world, but held to his conviction that a different handling of long is necessary for now.- “The Bible in the 20th Century China: Biblical Interpretation of Li Rongfang in the Socio-Intellectual Context of China,” by Prof. Archie Lee showed how Li Rongfang used the Bible in his “quest for answers to the pressing issues of the Chinese context,” seeking a way of “saving the nation by launching an ethics/moral revolution that replaces the traditional moral teaching with a new ethical configuration.” Unusually learned, he was well trained in critical biblical scholarship, but allowed himself to “adapt the text to the contextual demand for the nurturing of an independent selfhood for the salvation of the nation.” In this project, Li rejected both what he considered the “unscientific” and “superstitious” elements he thought he found in the Bible, though he still considered it a primary text with special authority. The core of his ethical system was monotheism and the concept of the autonomous or “independent” personality (duli renge). In building a new ethical system, however, he did not ignore the essential role of religion, with its practices of sacrifice and worship, as did contemporary liberal Christians.- Sze-kar Wan opened his paper on “Grace as Ethical Power: T.C. Chao Reading the Apostle Paul” with the assertion that “the tension between grace and ethics has been the defining problematic for Chinese Protestant intellectuals.” He goes on, “How can a Protestant project that detaches ethics from soteriology and insists on an acceptance of free grace from God square with a Confucianism that insists on perfection through self cultivation?” T.C. Chao tried to bridge this gulf by constructing a Confucian interpretation of Christianity which effectively merged salvation and sanctification, re-interpreting Paul to exhibit him as a “Chinese sage whose writings embody the Great Dao,” a kind of Christian Plato, as it were. Like so many others, Chao sought, “first of all, the survival of Chinese civilization…, secondly the maintenance of a church that formed an insignificant minority in the sea change of China… He read Scripture… to… create out of the biblical text resources and tools for the church to participate in the arduous task of nation building.” This very rich paper included such stimulating thoughts as Paul’s excellent moral character, the requirement of virtue in order to understand the Bible, and the mysticism of Paul (though Chao’s interpretation of Paul differs substantially from that of Reformation and evangelical scholars).- Zha Changping challenged us to develop a comprehensive understanding of time in order to appreciate what is going on in the Gospel of Mark, and indeed in all of the Bible and of life. In “The Concept of Time in the Gospel According to Mark,” he showed, among other things, how crucial in his Gospel is the idea of time in its various aspects. For example: Since the one to whom we give our time becomes, in some sense, our master, Jesus’ dedication of his time to God, and then to his enemies, expressed his utter submission to the will of the Father. Again: The rapidly intensification of pace as Mark progresses, with units of time becoming shorter and shorter, heighten the effect of the narrative, moving as it does, inexorably, to that final climactic even, the Cross.- Cathy Zhang Jing’s “Metis, Logos, Jizhi and Women – The Hermeneutical Significance of Mark 7:24-31” featured a fascinating overview of various ways to understand the meaning of the encounter between Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman. She first pointed out several possible contexts for this periscope, then explained how the Greek idea of metis – a clever saying which a person of inferior status could use to reverse the balance of power – resembles the Chinese tradition of jizhi. Finally, she connected these two with the situation of women in biblical times and in Chinese society, employing a feminist approach to draw out implications for women and men today.- Xu Tao shared his research into a significant movement in his “Inquiring into the Unbiblical Doctrines of the Chinese Mentuhui (Society of Disciples).” Founded by an uneducated farmer (Ji Sanbao 1937-1997), this group claims to be the only true expression of Christianity, while at the same time holding teachings which diverge widely from historic Christian doctrine; considering Ji as the “Christ for the Third Salvation”; practicing divine healing to the exclusion of the use of medicine; predicting a date for the Last Judgment; and attempting to establish a new dynasty. This movement is only one of many like it among the estimated 60-130 million people claiming some sort of “Christian” identity in China and, like the others, poses major challenges to both the church and to the government. A basic question is, How does one determine “orthodoxy”? Even more vexing, Who has the right to make such a judgment? In the past “heresy” has been a tag affixed to movements that either the organized church or governments have wanted to eliminate.- Liang Qichao (1873-1929) is a prime example of a non-Christian Chinese scholar whose thought was deeply influenced by the Bible, especially the Old Testament, as Cao Jian informed us in his “Men and Ideas of the Old Testament as Discussed by Liang Qichao.” Along with Darwinian theory, idealistic nationalism, and Confucian classics, the Old Testament hero Moses and the history of the Jews provided Liang with images for much of his early- and middle-period thought. Later, however, he decided that the impersonal Heaven (Tian) of Confucianism provided a better foundation for a modern state than the personal God of the Bible. In this way, he sought to “justify a place for China in the world of civilization,” and to show that “Confucius is now more admirable than Moses.” How fitting that the colloquium should conclude with this reminder of the intense desire for many Chinese intellectuals to validate their culture, while also taking the Bible seriously!Most of the meetings were held in the historic River Room at The Strand campus of King’s College. Those in attendance were treated to excellent food, a visit to the beautiful chapel at King’s (where a marvelous choir happened to be practicing!), and a warm welcome from the Dean, Dr. Richard Burridge. Everyone agreed that this meeting had been a huge success, partly because ample time for discussion of each paper made true cross-cultural dialogue possible.

Briefing NotesJason Truell