Theosis, Sino-Christian Theology and the Second Chinese Enlightenment, Part II


Though Alexander Chow’s book possesses a number of extremely helpful features, it also suffers from several significant weaknesses. These include internal problems, omissions, and questions of fact. The second part of this review will discuss these and conclude with a theological critique.

Internal Problems

To begin with, though his adapted typology of three different types of theologies has some value, its simplicity and brevity necessarily entail over-simplification and even error. The most obvious example would be the characterization of Type B theologians as concerned primarily with “truth.” Would not the same apply to the other two types, especially Type A? Only in the Conclusion, and then only in an aside, does Chow correctly say that a better word would be “philosophy,” not “truth,” since all Type B theologians begin with alien philosophical assumptions, as Chow points out.

Likewise, saying that the major concern of Type A theology is “law” would certainly arouse loud protest from its proponents. Would Augustine, Luther, Calvin, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, Carl F. H. Henry – to name only a few – ever imagine that someone would use “law” to distinguish their understanding of God and his ways with the world?

Confusing categories

Monergy vs. synergy

Perhaps this is because of my lack of understanding, but sometimes Chow seems to speak of divine-human synergy or monergy at the beginning of the process of a person’s salvation; that is, the event/time/process by which one enters into a state of grace. At other times, he clearly means to refer to growth in holiness, the process by which believers become more mature and increasingly like God in their character and conduct.

This lack of clarity results, it seems to me, in frequent attempts to compare “apples and oranges.” He contrasts “Augustinian” monergism (his word) before one begins life with Eastern Orthodoxy’s “synergism” in the long process of Christian maturation.

Pessimistic vs. optimistic views of human nature

Likewise, his characteristic of “Augustinian pessimism” about human nature, as distinct from Chinese and Orthodoxy’s “optimistic” views frequently seems to fail to distinguish clearly and consistently whether we are talking about before or after regeneration, and what this means for the concept of Theosis. All Christian theologians believe that regenerated people can, by the power of the Holy Spirit, grow in grace into greater and greater Christ-likeness, and that they will eventually, when Christ returns, be transformed into the glory that belongs to God.

Problematic presuppositions dilute the force of Chow’s thesis

Sin and the Chinese

The entire argument rests on the assumption that the concept of original sin, as a fundamental defect of human nature that entails guilt, is alien to the Chinese religious and philosophical tradition. Chow admits, nevertheless, that many Chinese Christians, like Watchman Nee, John Sung, and Wang Mingdao, have believed something like the “Western” understanding of sin, and thinkers of the Second Enlightenment are accepting this view of our fallen condition. In the past one hundred years, tens of millions of Chinese of all classes have responded to a message based on the radical need of mankind for salvation from sin, and the substitutionary atonement of Christ as the only way such deliverance can be found.

Danny Hsu has shown that Chow’s fundamental assumption is flawed. In a forthcoming paper (“Contextualising ‘Sin’ in Chinese Theology: A Historian’s Perspective,” Studies in World Christianity, December, 2016), he demonstrates that Chinese intellectuals and religious believers have for centuries evinced a profound awareness of ineradicable sin and consequent guilt. In other words, the dominant narrative about the idea of sin being repugnant to Chinese may apply more to a few academic Confucianists than to the broad populace, across all educational strata.

Augustine’s theology

Equally problematic is his assumption that Augustine’s theology, Chow’s bete noire, closely resembles the portrait adopted by the Orthodox theologians Chow admires, and obviously by Chow himself. If his depiction of Augustine is incorrect, then much of the argument loses force.


Though Chow demonstrates familiarity with the thought of Watchman Nee, T.C. Chao, K.H. Ting, and several ancient and modern theologians in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, he does not appear to be equally knowledgeable of Western theology, including the commentarial tradition. This is a fundamental weakness, since Chow’s thesis rests upon the assumption that Eastern Orthodoxy has things to offer to the Chinese church that are missing in Western theology. In particular, he appears not to have studied Augustine in much depth. A few examples:


Not only the Greeks, but also Western theologians have taught that we participate in God’s life through faith in Christ, the Word, and the sacraments, by the Holy Spirit. A glance at the Index of books on the theology of Augustine will yield numerous references to our participation with God through Christ by the Spirit. It was an essential fact for him. Luther insisted on the “real presence” of Christ, and our communion with him, in the Lord’s Supper; Calvin wrote of our union with Christ. Jonathan Edwards’ works are replete with this theme. As Chow points out, J. Hudson Taylor loved to talk about union with Christ and abiding with him.

Sin as self-love

The author rightly examines different perspectives on sin, including sin as infraction of divine law, as in –he claims – the West, and sin as selfishness, or self-love. But Augustine, in the Confessions and many other places, speaks of sin as self-love rather than love of God. Protestant theologians define sin more broadly than simply law-breaking. Calvin, for instance saw sin as turning from God and his gracious covenant.

God as uncreated light

Augustine often refers to God as light. So does Jonathan Edwards.God as Father: Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, and modern evangelicals such as Carl Henry, Millard Erickson, and Wayne Grudem, all emphasize God as Father to all believers, who have become children of God through regeneration and adoption.Theology as worship: Augustine and Calvin are clear on worship as the goal of theology, as are, for example, Jonathan Edwards and Carl Henry. Wayne Grudem ends each chapter in his Systematic Theology with a hymn.

The necessity of both love and knowledge

No major Western Protestant theologian would countenance the idea that simple knowledge of, or even assent to, theological truths is sufficient; all would say that true knowledge leads to love for God. In fact, this was a major locus of controversy with Roman Catholics in the dispute over the nature of saving faith.


“Theosis” is known in Western theology as the possibility of growth unto holiness and of eventual glorification in heaven. All seminary students are taught about Irenaeus’ striking statement about “deification,” but the word has not been used widely because of the possibility of misunderstanding.

Beginning with Augustine, Western theologians have taught that believers can and should grow in Christ-likeness and that they will, at the return of Christ, be glorified. Chow emphasizes Augustine’s depiction of unregenerate, post-lapsarian people as “not able not to sin (non posse non peccare),” but fails to do justice to the other two stages in the growth of the recipient of God’s grace: “able not to sin” – and thus to increase in faith, hope, and love in this life – and, “not able to sin” – the state of resurrected and eternal glory.

Of course, Western thinkers have disagreed about the degree to which a believer can reflect God’s glory in this life, but none has held that we can become “glorified” before we are resurrected from the dead at Christ’s return (or the soul’s departure from this life, according to some). Nevertheless, the necessity and potential for significant moral and spiritual advance in this life have never been absent from Western theology, though some have emphasized it more than others.

Christ as federal head of all mankind

Augustine taught this, as did Calvin and his successors. In fact, that is the point of his highly-criticized (and misunderstood) exegesis of Romans 5: Adam represented all human beings when he disobeyed God. Likewise, Christ as federal head of his people has been a standard, and central, concept in Western theology, from Augustinian to modern thinkers such as Carl Henry. “Federal theology” has been a controlling theme in some branches of Reformed thought.

Unity of heaven and earth

Western theologians and Bible scholars have spoken of Jesus Christ as the one who reconciles God and mankind, and in whom God will unite “all things in heaven and earth” (Ephesians 1:10). Usually, they have taken this to mean all believers, who are united in one body, the body of which Christ is head, along with God and the angels. (See Ephesians 2:13-22).

Western exegesis of Romans 5-8, Philippians 3:21, 1 John 3:2, and Revelation 21-22

By ignoring these well-known features of Western, and especially Protestant and “Augustinian” theologies, Chow has set up a straw man which he proceeds to topple with the supposed unique riches of Eastern Orthodoxy.

Questions of Fact

Chow’s volume contains some statements which may not be accurate, most of them connected with his descriptions of “Augustinian” theology.


Chow consistently applies the label “Determinism” to Augustinian soteriology. Augustine never teaches determinism; he always speaks of men choosing freely, as they are empowered by God’s grace. The same goes for Calvin, Edwards, and other Reformed theologians.

“Mechanical” views of causality

There is nothing in Augustine, Luther, Calvin, or later Protestants such as Owens, Edwards, and Carl Henry, that remotely approaches a mechanical view of causation. This is a caricature, and overlooks the sophisticated and biblically-based arguments for God’s sovereignty which “Augustinian” theologians employ.

“Rational” basis of predestination

This old canard ignores the actual writings of Augustine on predestination and salvation, which are almost entirely expositions of Scripture; nowhere does he appeal to logic or philosophy. The same goes for Luther, Calvin, Owen, Edwards, Henry, and others in this tradition.

Augustine’s supposed Neo-Platonism

Again, this is a common charge against Augustine, one which can be largely refuted from within his own works, notably the Confessions and the City of God, where he admits the truths he finds in the Platonists and their errors when compared with the Bible. Of course, Augustine shares some concepts with the Neo-Platonists, such as the relative insignificance of the body in comparison to the soul, but this idea can be found in the teachings of Jesus and of Paul as well. Of critical difficulty for Chow’s thesis is that Augustine’s soteriology owes nothing to Neo-Platonism, as his works on sin and grace, which are based solely in Scriptural exegesis, demonstrate beyond doubt.

Analysis of Nee’s thought

Though I found Chow’s exposition of Watchman Nee’s theology quite helpful, his assertion that Nee adopts a synergistic understanding of the relationship of God and humans in the process of salvation at any stage seems to conflict with Nee’s repeated insistence that we cannot do anything without God’s grace working upon us first.

Theological critique

Since Chow clearly appreciates certain features of Eastern Orthodox theology, brief comments on a few controversial topics may be in order.

Unknowability and ineffability of God

Both Eastern and Western theologians have stated that God is unknowable as to his essence, or fundamental being, and that we cannot say anything really accurate about anything except his attributes and activities (or “energies” in Palamas’ thought). We can only say what God is not, not what he is. This is called apophatic or negative theology, in that it proceeds only by negation. The notion of the unknowability and consequent ineffability of God really confuses the distinction, often made by recent evangelical theologians, that though we can never know God exhaustively, we can know him truly, because he has disclosed much about himself in the Scriptures. Since God has revealed himself truly in the Bible, we can speak truly of him on the basis of that self-revelation.

No one claims that the Bible contains all that there is to know about God, or that we can ever say all that there is to know about God, but evangelicals such as Carl Henry, Millard Erickson, Wayne Grudem, and Bruce Demarest and Gordon Lewis (authors of Integrative Theology) argue from Scripture itself that we are not left in the dark about God’s fundamental character, and that we can speak meaningfully and accurately about God, as long as we are faithful to Scripture.

Furthermore, apophatic (negative) theology is self-refuting. It claims modesty and humility by asserting that we cannot speak about God’s essence except by way of denial; we can only say what God is not, not what he is, but this position assumes two things: First, that God has an “essence” that is different from his “attributes,” or “energies.” But if God’s essence cannot be known, how do we know that it exists? Second, if God’s essence is unknown to us and therefore ineffable, how can we say anything about it, including that it exists and that it is unknowable and ineffable?

For more on this question, see Keith Yandell, “On Not Confusing Incomprehensibility and Ineffability: Carl Henry on Literal Propositional Revelation,” Trinity Journal, Volume 35 NS, No. 1, Spring, 2014, 61-74; and Carl Henry, God Revelation, and Authority, Volume 5, chapters 18-20.Separation of God’s essence from his energies, or attributes: Carl Henry has argued (God, Revelation, & Authority, Volume Five, chapters 5-6), that this distinction is both unnecessary and dangerous. If we speak of him as, say, holy, loving, just, righteous, and wise (“attributes”), how do we know that in his inner being, his essence, he is not defiled, malevolent, unjust, unrighteous, and foolish? When John says that “God is light” and “God is love” does he speak only of his energies/attributes, or of his fundamental nature?

Romans 5:12

Like many before him, Chow charges Augustine with faulty exegesis of Romans 5:12, which, it is claimed, is based on a bad translation of the Greek. Instead of “in that all sinned,” they say the text should be rendered, “in whom [i.e., Adam] all sinned.” There are problems with this dismissal of Augustine’s interpretation.

First, both in Greek and in Latin, the relative pronoun could be masculine or neuter, and can thus be rendered either “whom” or “that”; this question does not depend on a false translation, but a different interpretation. In many places, Augustine demonstrates enough understanding of Greek to have been aware of this distinction.

Second, his interpretation makes good sense in context. A relative pronoun refers to the immediately preceding words, but “Adam” is not mentioned in this verse. The “one man” is separated by twenty words from the relative pronoun in the Greek text, and is thus almost certainly not the antecedent. Rather, the immediately preceding clause, “and thus death came upon [lit., entered into] all,” has a closer connection to the disputed phrase, en ho. Further, the exact same construction, en ho, is used in Romans 8:3, and is rightly translated, as “because,” or “in that.”

Third, it really doesn’t matter, for even if we should translate “in him [i.e., Adam]” the result is the same:

a) Sin is the cause of death (5:12); they are inseparable.

b) Paul implies that all sinned, even if they did not sin as Adam did, in violation of a command, but in Adam, their federal head.

c) Judgment and condemnation came to all mankind through Adam’s sin (5:16, 18). This means that we inherit guilt, which deserves judgment, and thus death.

d) Adam’s disobedience somehow made all men sinners. We are accounted as sinners because of our union with Adam (5:19).

Fourth, the Eastern claim that death leads to sin does not reflect Paul’s argument that sin leads to death. Without denying the truth of Hebrews 2:15, we must admit that the sequence in Paul’s argument in Romans 5-8 is always, first sin, then death, both in Adam and in our own life.

Penal substitutionary doctrine of the atonement

Chow does not say that this view needs to be abandoned, but seems to favor the “Christus Victor” position held by Eastern Orthodoxy and some modern interpreters such as Gustaf Aulen and perhaps N.T. Wright. Though the Scriptures definitely see the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ as a decisive victory over sin, Satan, and demons, they also portray his sacrifice as a substitutionary sacrifice that frees us from the deserved wrath of God. Decades ago, Leon Morris, in The Cross of Christ, and more recently, John Stott, in The Cross, have marshaled overwhelming biblical support for this understanding of Christ’s atoning work.

Glorification/deification in this life

There is little if anything in the Bible to support the idea that we can be morally “glorified” or “deified” in this life, as some Eastern theologians seem to have believed, or at least held open as a possibility. Not even John Wesley believed that.

Man as mediator

This concept is not found in the Bible, where only Christ is assigned this title and role.

“Rooted in culture”

In my opinion, Chow’s most problematic assumption, which animates the entire volume, is that he seems to affirm the desire of Chinese Christians “to find a rootedness . . . in the dual identities of ‘Chinese’ and ‘Christian’” (166). If he only means that Chinese Christians must learn how to communicate the Christian faith in a way that speaks to Chinese cultural concepts and conditions, then there can be no objection. On the other hand, the Bible makes clear that our fundamental identity is only found in Christ, in whom alone believers are to be “rooted and built up” (Colossians 2:7). Chows seems to oscillate between these two very different approaches, leaving himself open to misunderstanding, and to the charge that he leans a bit too far in the direction of the kind of humanism with which, in many places, he clearly disagrees.


Alexander Chow is to be congratulated for making a bold, stimulating, and very helpful contribution to the necessary project of formulating a truly indigenous Chinese theology. Much of his analysis of different theologians is fair, balanced, nuanced, and extremely insightful. Operating from a basically “evangelical” and traditional framework, he tries hard to avoid the errors of those whom he critiques.

He is right to remind us that Eastern Orthodox theology and spirituality have insights that other Christians would do well to ponder. In fact, Thomas Torrance in Scotland and Douglas Kelly in the United States have made dialogue with the Eastern branch of Christianity a major priority. The first volume of Kelly’s Systematic Theology contains a very sympathetic treatment of the Orthodox distinction between the essence and energies of God, for example.

A second edition of this work would benefit from more interaction with the Western theologians mentioned above, major Western commentaries on the relevant biblical passages, and Chinese Christians such as Lit-sen Chang (Zhang Lisheng, 1904-1996), who penned substantial works on systematic theology and contextual theology, and Daniel Wu (Wu Daozong), who has written both scholarly commentaries on the New Testament and books on apologetics and systematic theology.

For some possible implications of Chow’s book, see “Resources for Constructing a Truly Indigenous Chinese Theology."

About the Author

G. Wright Doyle was formerly Associate Professor of Greek and New Testament at China Evangelical Seminary (CES), Taipei, and Visiting Professor of New Testament and Systematic Theology at CES, North American Campus. His PhD dissertation was on St. Augustine. His books include Carl Henry: Theology for All Seasons and Wise Man from the East: Lit-sen Chang (Zhang Lisheng): Critique of Indigenous Theology.

ReviewsG. Wright Doyle