Problems in Translating the Bible into Chinese: The name(s) for God

There exist in Chinese several names used to refer to “supernatural” beings whom they have worshiped. For Protestants especially, two of these are Shang Di and Shen, though the word for “Heaven” (Tian) is also sometimes employed. For several centuries, ever since Matteo Ricci proposed the use of Tian Zhu (Heavenly Lord) as the proper name for God, a great controversy has raged around which Chinese term is most accurate rendering of Hebrew Elohim[1] and Greek Theos[2]. At the risk of generating more strife, but in the hope of introducing a new factor into this discussion, I offer the following analysis.

Let me say at the outset that what follows does not represent an exhaustive study of the immense literature on this controversy. I shall only cite a few recent works which are both representative and which contain excellent bibliographies for further research. As a Protestant, I shall only discuss the two candidates, Shang Di and Shen. Yahweh, the personal name of God, has been roughly transliterated as Yehehua, and has not generated as much debate.

Shang Di

The name for the supreme being among the rulers of the early Shang Dynasty was Shang Di.[3] He was believed to be unique; was never represented by an idol or image; was an “all-powerful and supreme Deity”; “sovereign of surrounding nations as well as the Chinese themselves”; ruled the forces of nature; “governed the construction of cities, the outcome of wars, and the well-being and misfortune of human beings.”[4] Amazingly, he “received no cultic or manipulative worship,”[5] except for the annual border sacrifices at the Temple of Heaven, which bear remarkable resemblance to the actions of the Jewish High Priest on the Day of Atonement.

Most important of all, perhaps, is the Emperor Kang Xi’s declaration that Shang Di is “the Lord and Creator of all things.”[6]

In his recent dissertation for Fuller, which seems to be a pretty thorough review of the literature, Raymond P. Petzholt adds that Shang Di did not accept anything but blood sacrifice and that he possessed all the major attributes of the God of the Bible, including personality. He believes, also, that the morpheme Ti (Di), being strikingly similar to the similar morphemes for God in Indo-European languages, indicates a common origin of primal religion and China’s ancient connection with earliest mankind.[7]

When the Zhou dynasty replaced the Shang, they believed that their supreme deity, called Tian (Heaven), was the same as Shang Di, and employed the two names interchangeably for a while. Later, Tian (Heaven) became the standard term. There is no evidence that either of these names referred to a being who had a beginning; he thus may have been considered eternal.[8] Petzholt offers evidence that Di was “the personal name of Heaven.”[9]

In later years, Shang Di became “a personal name for God, while Di seems to be more of an abstraction” for the Deity.[10]

As you can see, Shang Di and Tian, but especially Shang Di, possess many qualities similar to those of the God of the Bible. In addition, most Chinese know what these words mean, though they may have only a faint idea of their history.[11]

Thus, many Protestant Christians believe that Shang Di is the best – and indeed only proper – translation for the two major names for God in the Bible: Elohim (Hebrew) and Theos (Greek). Not only does it accurately render the meaning of the biblical terms, they say, but it also enables Chinese to connect immediately with the God of the Bible.

The most commonly-used alternative is Shen.

Problems with Shen

Many have objected to Shen as a translation of either Elohim or Theos, because shen can also refer to lesser beings who are not transcendent. First of all, though the Chinese have not traditionally believed in one truly transcendent “God,” Shang Di and Tian (Heaven) have more similarities to the sovereign, transcendent God of the Bible than does shen.

Shen, on the other hand, rarely expresses the idea of a single ruler of the universe. Most often, shen is used to describe exalted beings who rule the affairs of men, and who can benefit those who worship them properly. In this sense, these “gods” closely approximate the gods of Greece, Rome, and the Ancient Near East.

As elsewhere, these gods are usually personified, and represent great men and women upon whom has been conferred divine status, sometimes by the Emperor himself.

Natural forces, such as wind and water, can also be called “gods.”[12]

Furthermore, the Chinese word shen, when used with gui (spirit, ghost) can refer to a less-than-divine being, especially an evil and malevolent one. Why would anyone want to use shen, therefore, to denote the God of the Bible?[13]

Problems with Shang Di

One reason is that there are some problems with the use of Shang Di, with the result that many other Chinese (and foreign) Protestants have resisted it as the translation of the name(s) for God.

The original meaning of Shang Di

Shang Di was the name of the supreme being of the Shang Dynasty, as we have seen. He was unique, and ruled the universe. In this and other ways he resembles the God of the Bible.

On the other hand, there are important differences:

Shang Di was to be worshiped only by the emperor; indeed, he was the ultimate ancestor of the emperor.[14] Unlike Elohim, Shang Di could not be invoked by the ordinary people; that was the prerogative of the king alone.[15] True, the Israelites needed the mediation of the priests for their sacrifices, but these were offered by the people to Yahweh. Even more, in the New Testament, Theos can and should be worshiped by all believers.[16]

Nor was Shang Di the only “deity,” though he was the greatest. Other, lesser, spirits were worshiped by people lower down the social scale, in descending order. Unlike Elohim or Theos, Shang Di was not the only “god” to be worshiped.[17] In direct contradiction to the Mosaic Law and to the New Testament, ancient Chinese who believed in Shang Di were expected to worship other gods and to offer sacrifices to them.[18]

Furthermore, the worship of Shang Di was deemed compatible with divination and with human sacrifice – both of which were forbidden by the God of Israel.[19]

In these two important ways – limited uniqueness and allowance for practices considered abominable by the God of the Old Testament – the religion of Shang Di differs very substantially from the biblical conception of God.

Shang Di and the meanings of the biblical names

There are some other reasons why many Chinese Christians do not want to use Shang Di as a direct translation for the biblical names for God. For example, it is the name of a particular deity, as we have seen. Teos, on the other hand, is the generic name for any sort of “divine” being in Greek. El – the singular of Elohim - serves the same purpose in Hebrew. Thus, there is a difference in kind between these biblical words and the Chinese name Shang Di.[20]

True, Shang Di means something like “Supreme Sovereign,” and is thus more of a title than a personal name, as distinct from Yahweh, which is God’s personal name in the Old Testament. Thus, one could argue that Shang Di approximates the meanings of Elohim and Theos as used in the Bible.

On the other hand, a title is not the same thing as a generic term for “deity.” Even though Shang Di does possess many of the attributes of the God of the Bible, should we take the name or title of a particular being worshiped by Chinese in former times and transfer that to the unique God of Israel and Father of Jesus? At best, we might use Shang Di as a rough translation for El Elyom – God Most High – one of the Old Testament names for God. But to identify a specific pagan god with the God of Scriptures seems risky, no matter how close the resemblances may be. Is this not the very sort of thing that the Israelites were explicitly commanded not to do? (Exodus 23:13) Thus the anti-Shang Di argument runs.

Shang Di and the Trinity

Most importantly, however, Shang Di contains no element of plurality. It is the name of a particular, individual “deity.” But beginning with the first verse of Genesis, the Old Testament provides many indications that there is some kind of plurality in God.

“In the beginning God (Elohim) created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). The word Elohim is the plural for el, the generic term for “god.” Later, we read, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in Our image’” (Genesis 1:26).

The New Testament is much clearer, pointing to the existence of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. In John 1:1-3, the word for “God” must allow for a “generic” reference to different entities (“persons,” in theological language) of the same “sort” or “type.” Especially in the last clause of John 1:1, “and the Word was God,” theos without the article expresses not who the Word was (and is) but what sort of being he is. If John had meant to say that the full deity of God was exhausted in the Word, he would have employed the definite article (ho) to indicate that the Word and God are one and the same entity; in other words, he would have been telling us who the word was. “Word” and “God” would have overlapped completely, with no room for any other “person” to be called “God.”

But since the apostle omits the definite article before theos, and also because he places theos at the beginning of the sentence, Christian interpreters from the earliest times have rightly understood that he was emphasizing the full deity of the Word. It is not just that the Word possesses some divine attributes (John could then have used the Greek word for “divine”), but that he contains the fullness of deity in himself, just as does the Father.

In the preceding clause, “and the Word was with God,” we see that the Word and God are two distinct entities (subsistences, persons, hypostyses), though they enjoy the closest possible intimacy and union with each other. The last clause of the sentence, however, further tells us that this Word is fully equal with “God”– a truth that other passages in the Gospel of John stress in various ways.

In other words, at this point, John is talking about quality, not identity. The Word has the quality – what later theologians would call the “essence,” or “substance” – of God. This becomes crucial in passages like John 1:1, which says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In that last phrase, “the Word was God,” “God” is a translation of theos without the article, whereas, in the middle clause, “God” has the article in Greek. Simply put, this means that “The Word was with God” expresses the idea of two distinct “persons” – the Word and God. We know that the Word is the eternal Son of God, who became the God-man Jesus (John 1:14). “And the Word was God,” on the other hand, means that the Word possessed from all eternity an essence, a fundamental nature, that was the same as that of God the Father. John is not saying here who the word was, but what he was.

To translate “God” (Theos) here as Shang Di not only obscures that crucial point, but also opens one up to the heresy of Sabellianism, the idea that the Godhead appears as, alternately, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but only serially, not at the same time being all three. For Shang Di is the name, or title, of an individual deity; it is not a name of a “class” of beings. At this point, however, John wants a word that will highlight the essential quality of the Word as a member of a “class” called “God” – a class which we later learn includes the Holy Spirit as well as the Father.

Because of the flexibility, and specifically the polytheistic background, of the word theos, it serves the purposes of the biblical authors, who want to convey the truth that the one true and living God is also somehow, and quite mysteriously to us, plural without losing his unique singularity – the truth that we now call the doctrine of the Trinity.

Thus, where a passage in the Bible must refer to the entire Godhead and allow for plurality, or indicates distinctions within the Trinity, Shang Di faces huge obstacles, perhaps even insurmountable ones.In places like John 1:1-3 (to name only one of many), therefore, the use of Shang Di unnecessarily muddles the concept of the Trinity, causing confusion as to the nature of the relationship between the Father and the Son.

Since the Trinity is a fundamental concept in the Scriptures (though the word is not used), this seems to be a serious, and perhaps fatal, objection to Shang Di as a translation of either Elohim or Theos.

Shen – An Alternative Name?

We have seen that the name Shang Di has grave limitations as a direct translation of either Hebrew Elohim or Greek Theos. In particular, (1) it refers to a particular deity, and not to a kind of being (“god”); and (2) it cannot express or contain the possibility of any sort of plurality, which is an essential feature of Elohim (a plural noun) and which the Greek generic word theos permits.

Is there any other Chinese word which could better convey the meaning of the Biblical words for God?

Advantages of Shen

First, shen is a generic word, which refers to a class of beings whose special characteristic is superior power. They are also seen to be mostly spiritual and not of this world. Shen does not name a particular deity, as Shang Di does. In this way, it greatly resembles both the Hebrew el (singular of elohim) and the Greek theos. It can thus be used to convey the idea of kind, or nature, or essential being, which theos does in certain key passages of the New Testament (such as John 1:1). More on this later.

Second, shen does not always refer to ghosts, evil spirits, or even lesser deities. As Paulos Huang demonstrates, with much documentation:

The term “Shen” has many meanings. At least three of them can be summarized as they are found in the Chinese religions as follows. 1) Shen originally refers to the Heavenly God. He is the Creator and Ruler of Heaven, Earth and of all things. 2) Shen may mean Heaven in contrast to Earth. He represents a sort of god. 3) Shen also means ghosts and the spirits of dead people.[21]

Huang shows that in ancient Chinese writings, Shen is called, “Heavenly God,” “Lord of heaven,” and the one who “rules all things.”[22] In a number of places in Chinese literature, shen is used, with another character, to refer to the Supreme Being.[23] This fact demonstrates that the meaning of shen does not have to be limited to lesser beings.[24] The popular name for China, Shen Zhou (“God’s Country”), also negates the idea that shen must refer only to lower, and even evil, spirits.

In fact, shen is almost always distinguished from gui (spirit, ghost, demon) by the addition of another word to show that “good” “gods” are not being referenced. Furthermore, shen sometimes refers to the spirits of sages, whereas gui denotes ghosts of ordinary people. Thus, by itself, shen does not carry the meaning of a lesser, evil, spirit being. Again, shen thus matches the use of theos in non-Biblical Greek literature, where the gods can either help you or hurt you, but are superior to the lower, malevolent spirit beings called “demons.”

El and Elohim are “general designations of God… El is a word common to all Semitic languages. It occurs as a common noun (the god, god) and also as the proper name for a particular god.”[25]

In pre-biblical Greek, theos referred to one of a group of “personal beings who exercised a determining influence on the world and fate of men, but who themselves were dependent on a superior fate. As they were not creator-gods, they were not thought of as outside the universe and transcendent….The influence of the gods was not universal, but was limited by their natures and attributes. They were not righteous in the Old Testament sense. The Greek gods had form. Consequently, the statement ‘God is spirit’ (John 4:24) could not be applied to them.”[26] Both the Olympian gods and deified heroes were usually portrayed in human form, though later “intellectuals challenged anthropomorphism in favour of more abstract views of deity,”[27] which allowed for the use of theos as a title for the supreme deity.

Like the Hebrew el, theos began as a term for a number of deities, and could be used as a singular or plural. Living dignitaries could be called “gods,” as could Caesar.[28]

When the Jews undertook to translate the Old Testament into Greek, they chose Theos as the proper rendering of both el and its plural, Elohim, the name of the one true God. Significantly, they retained the singular core meaning of Elohim as a name of God by expressing it with the singular Theos, rather than the plural theoi, which would have had a polytheistic denotation.

In the New Testament, theos is used for pagan deities in more than a dozen places[29], indicating that the authors knew of the polytheistic origin of the word, as well as of its popular application to the multitude of major and minor deities currently worshiped by pagans. Paul makes it clear that the pagans were worshiping demons when they participated in meals in honor of their gods.[30] Even Satan could be called the “god” of this world.[31] Clearly, the apostles – like the translators of the Septuagint – thought that the overall context of the Bible would re-define the word, investing it with a new significance.[32]

Clearly, el, elohim, and theos are generic terms referring to various sorts of what we might call “supernatural” beings. They are thus almost exactly equivalent to the Chinese word shen. The writers and translators of the Greek and Hebrew Bible, therefore, took these words over and applied them to the one true and living God, Yahweh, always being careful to distinguish this new use of an old word in a variety of ways.

Thus, the non-Christian use of shen to refer to deities other than the Supreme Being of the Bible, or even the highest-ranking being in a large pantheon, is no barrier to its application as the name or title for the Christian God. This is a point of the utmost significance for our subject.

Third, since Chinese nouns do not carry endings to indicate singular or plural, shen can be either singular or plural – a necessary condition for accurate translation of either Elohim or of Theos when it refers to the entire Godhead in the Bible.

Fourth, that shen can also denote the false gods of the pagans is no objection, since the same is true of theos, as we have seen.

Finally, we should note that shen is a perfectly good Chinese word. It is not a foreign invention or neologism. The question is not whether we should select a Chinese term or a foreign one, but which fully Chinese word most accurately translates the underlying biblical terms.[33]

The Importance of this Question

The doctrine of the Trinity stands at the heart of the Christian faith as it is revealed in the Bible. Any translation that either obscures or distorts this complex truth about God must be rejected. As we have seen, Shang Di fails to communicate the plurality that somehow characterizes the very essence and being of God.

First, Shang Di must refer to one single being, and cannot express the idea of plurality. Second, its reference is restricted to a particular deity, and thus cannot express the idea of deity, or that fundamental nature of the Triune God, as found in the Bible, and especially in the New Testament.

A simple survey of church history, down to the present time, will provide ample evidence that confusion about the true nature of Jesus and thus of the Trinity lies at the center of most heresies. Thus, this stresses the importance of a term that allows for fine distinctions to be made.

Looking Forward

The Chinese church has moved beyond the initial stages of pioneer evangelism in many parts of the world, including China itself. No longer does it need to accommodate unnecessarily to traditional Chinese culture (though we must always do our best to communicate in terms that people understand). Chinese Christianity now possesses 400 years of Roman Catholic reflection, and a 200-year tradition of Protestant witness and theology; Chinese Christian scholars now rank with the world’s best.

To meet the demands of competing world views and to build a strong theological foundation for its future, Chinese Christianity must have at its disposable the finest possible vocabulary, and must adhere to the best possible translation and exegesis of the Scriptures.

Thus, I propose the following compromise to the vexing “Term Question”: In ordinary conversation, and in some preaching, the name Shang Di may be used some of the time, as long as it is adequately explained according to the full Biblical revelation.

But, in translations of the Bible, Shen should be employed, as it is the most accurate rendering of Elohim and of Theos.