Critique of Indigenous Chinese Theology

Beginning with the “Nestorian” (Church of the East) missionaries in the Tang dynasty, both foreign and Chinese Christians have sought to find ways of expressing the Christian faith in ways that communicate its truth in genuinely Chinese forms. The search continues, and different approaches vie for acceptance. Previous articles and reviews in these pages have chronicled some aspects of this ongoing project.Substantial portions of my recent book, Reaching Chinese Worldwide, feature some preliminary thoughts on this complex subject.Wise Man from the East: Lit-sen Chang (Zhang Lisheng) contains translations of two shorter works by this once-influential but now largely forgotten theologian: Critique of Indigenous Theology and Critique of Humanism. Chang (1904-1996) was once an ardent believer in China’s “Three Teachings” – Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, especially Zen Buddhism. Converted to Christ at the age of fifty after a distinguished career in the academy and in the government, he re-examined his former convictions in the light of the Scriptures and then wrote extensively to show how the Bible offers what other religions could not.His Critique of Indigenous Theology attempts to counter the efforts of Chinese theologians in the twentieth century who ventured to make Christianity more acceptable to Chinese intellectuals by combining it with one or more of the traditional belief systems of China. In the process, he subjects them and others like them to a scathing critique, one which has relevance for today, when learned scholars and ardent evangelists still try to find fundamental points of contact between Christianity and Chinese thought, and even to claim that essential similarities can be found and emphasized.As co-editor (with Dr. Carol Lee Hamrin) of the Wipf and Stock series, "Studies in Chinese Christianity," to which this volume belongs, I supplied an introduction which sets Chang’s writing in the context of the Indigenous Theology movement and a translation of the Critique of Indigenous Theology. (The Critique of Humanism was translated by Dr. Samuel Ling, editor and translator of two other books by Lit-sen Chang, What Is Apologetics? and Asia’s Religions: Christianity’s Momentous Encounter with the East).


Chang beings by noting that the search for an “indigenous” theology begins in the Old Testament, when the Hebrews at various times in their history tried to amalgamate the faith they received from Yahweh with the religions of their pagan neighbors. He briefly notes that the proponents of Indigenous Theology in the first part of the twentieth century were deficient in their understanding of God, heaven, Christ, the Holy Spirit, religion, and salvation. He then tells his own story of deliverance from what he calls bondage and blindness into the light and liberty of faith in Christ.

Historical Review

Almost from the beginning, Christians have been tempted to mingle biblical truth with non-biblical philosophical concepts and assumptions. In two chapters, Chang traces first the history of “indigenizing” efforts in the Western church, and then the same endeavor in Chinese Christian history. The “Nestorians” (Church of the East) tried to express Christian truth in Buddhist terms, and produced an enervating confusion. Roman Catholic missionaries did the same with Confucianism, with similar results. Liberal theology surrendered to Western humanism and naïve faith in science. Under its influence many modern Chinese theologians have sought to integrate Western humanist philosophy with traditional Chinese beliefs, concocting a hybrid faith that departs significantly from the Scripture.

Philosophy, Culture, Religion

The next three chapters show how advocates of Indigenous Theology compromised with non-biblical philosophy, culture, and religion. In each case, they failed to distinguish between general revelation and special revelation. The former does, indeed, offer us some truth, but is always incomplete at best and vitiated by errors at worst. Only special revelation can show us the way to God through faith in Christ. Its fundamental premises differ essentially from those of non-Christian world views, and so the two can’t really be welded into a coherent system.


Chang sees all non-biblical thought and belief systems as basically humanistic. In that sense, both East and West have been guilty of the same error, namely, of starting with human understanding and reason, and making man the center of the universe. The Bible alone gives us the accurate perspective on reality, which is God-centered. Humanism in all forms is a dead end, for it cannot give us life and true blessedness; these come to us through the saving work of Jesus Christ for us, received by faith.

Indigenous Theology and Indigenous Church

Chang fully supports the goal of building a truly “Chinese” church, with its own unique way of expressing biblical truth. At the same time, he disagrees with the movement to build such an indigenous church on a rejection of the rich heritage of Christian theology which has come through the West. A really indigenous church will not be founded on Chinese culture, but on Christian revelation.

Christian Doctrine and the Substance –Use [Essence-Application] Principle

Christian truth, as revealed in the Bible comes from heaven, and does not change with time or place. Indeed, even many theological formulations which we have inherited from our spiritual forebears have a similar, though of course derived and therefore secondary, value as abiding truth. The ecumenical creeds would also fall into this category, along with some of the major confessions of faith.On the other hand, these ancient, unchanging truths must and can be fleshed out in uniquely “Chinese” words and ways. By misunderstanding this basic distinction, supporters of Indigenous Theology have introduced unnecessary, and debilitating, errors into the church.


Chang ends with the example of Paul, who applied his understanding of the Bible and of Greek and Roman religion and philosophy to build a solid theological foundation for the church, as well as to “tear down strongholds” of pagan thought. Chang sees himself as a warrior in the same assault on soul-killing falsehood, and urges other educated Chinese Christians to join in the campaign to apply Christian truth to all domains of human thought and activity.


As editor and translator of part of the volume, I cannot comment on the merit of this book as a whole, but I can say with assurance that, even in a very inadequate translation, Chang comes across as an original, penetrating Christian thinker and as a powerful, even elegant, writer. This short summary cannot do justice to the comprehensive scope of his analysis of “indigenous theology” throughout the ages and in modern China, or to the relevance of his brilliance and zeal for us today.

ReviewsJason Truell