The Church in China, Part II

The Church in China: Articles, Continued

In “Lit-sen Chang (Zhang Lisheng—1904–1996) and the Critique of Indigenous Theology,” Christopher Hancock describes how a great Chinese theologian handled the issues of contextualized theology. After having distinguished himself as a professor of law, government, and economics at an early age, Chang served as an advisor to Chiang Kai-shek during World War II. Disillusioned with the inability of politics to solve the deep problems of China and deeply immersed in Chinese traditional religions, he founded Jiangnan University in 1947.

Chang had imbibed Buddhism and Confucianism from his parents as a child, studied Daoism as an adult, and become a Zen Buddhist master. Convinced that only Eastern religions could save China from the disastrous impact of Christianity, he intended to “exterminate” the Christian faith in China. Later, while in Indonesia, he was suddenly converted to Christ. Immediately, his entire intellectual, moral, and religious world was radically transformed, and he became an ardent Christian and tireless advocate and apologist for the Christian faith. Eventually, after graduating from Gordon Theological Seminary (now Gordon-Conwell), he was invited to join the faculty, teaching Missions and Comparative Religions.

He wrote prolifically on systematic theology, missiology, and apologetics. His Critique of Indigenous Theology acutely analyzed efforts by theologically liberal Chinese Christian thinkers to accommodate the faith to traditional Chinese religions and philosophy. He shows the “emptiness” of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism and rejects any attempt to integrate Christianity with alien worldviews. Arguing for fidelity to the Bible and to Christian orthodoxy, he tried to demonstrate the weakness of what would now be called “contextual theology,” claiming that it inevitably distorts and even denies the fundamental tenets of Christianity.

The great value of Chang’s writing is that he possesses an insider’s familiarity and experience of Chinese philosophy and religion, a knowledge of church history, a firm grasp of theology, and a profound understanding of the Bible.

A brief biography of Chang can be found at the Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity website. For a translation of two of his works, see Wise Man from the East: Lit-sen Chang (Zhang Lisheng): Critique of Indigenous Theology; Critique of Humanism. Edited by G. Wright Doyle. Pickwick Publications.

In “Reformed Theology in China: some theological and cultural reflections,” Paul Wang sheds light upon a new and very influential trend in Chinese Christianity. The author focuses on five major challenges facing Reformed theology in China today:

  1. An autocratic view of power. The imperial leadership style still prevails, not only in Chinese government but also in the Chinese Church. “Some today who take the name ‘Presbyterian’ in reality exercise an ‘Episcopal’ authority. . . . We may have become Christians, but tyrannical behavior in myriad forms persists.”

  2. The prevalence of idolatry. “Idolatry, [it] could be argued, found fullest expression in China in the Emperor cult.” Absolute subservience to emperors denies the Christian teachings that we are all created in the image of God, and that we have all sinned and fall short of God’s glory. No one is perfect. Too often today, people who were celebrities in the world (such as athletes, dissidents, and sufferers for the faith) are now idolized as celebrities in the church. They often seek only their own personal fame and profit and “are puffed up by public praise in the process.”

  3. The frailty of celebrity. Too many church leaders who have become famous as workers of miracles or as powerful evangelists have little theological education. Even worse, too many are corrupt.

  4. Confusion about the structure of the church. Too many churches and their leaders have lost their power as witnesses to Christ through close connections with the government (as in the Three-Self churches in China and the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan). “There is a lack of coherence, consistency, and godly character in many of China’s churches.”

  5. Superficial spirituality. Many Chinese Christians are influenced by a charismatic spirituality that values miracles more than solid spiritual character. Others are led into a “super-spiritual” mysticism and isolation from society by the teachings of Watchman Nee (Ni Tuosheng). Likewise, many who call themselves “Reformed” are intolerant of Christians from other streams of Christianity. They are also unfamiliar with the deep spiritual legacy of the Puritans.

Book Reviews

Lida V. Nedilsky.Converts to Civil Society: Christianity and Political Culture in Contemporary Hong Kong. Reviewed by Phil Entwistle.

This book studies several Christians in Hong Kong who became politically active. The reviewer notes some strengths of this study but points out that it never questions whether Christians should take a contrarian stance towards the government of Hong Kong and the PRC.

Gerda Wielander. Christian Values in Communist China. Reviewed by Thomas Harvey.

This book “introduces the reader to key drivers that make Christianity a significant religious force in China:…the rapid growth of Christian believers, the ongoing implications of Christianity’s foreign origins, the conflicted theological landscape, the ‘Cultural Christian’ intellectuals (who commend Christianity as a culture rather than a religious option for China), and the vagaries of Church, State, and Communist Party relations.” The reviewer believes that the author “offers a refreshing and balanced commentary on the wide array of Christian identities and values in China,” at least at the time of its publication (2013).

Paulos Huang, ed. Yearbook of Chinese Theology 2015. Reviewed by David Jasper.

The reviewer says that the 2015 Yearbook “contains 11 essays that illustrate well the complex challenges facing the development of Christian theology in China today: they also anticipate its growth, character and global significance in the future.” He singles out several chapters for special commendation, but observes that Sino-Christian Theology is given little attention in this volume. He concludes, nevertheless, that “the volume as a whole provides a very useful, broad-based continuation of a highly creative development of Christian thinking . . . in our time,” and warmly recommends it.

(I have contributed a review of the book to the International Journal of Sino-Western Studies.)

Alexander Chow. Theosis, Sino-Christian Theology and the Second Chinese Enlightenment. Reviewed by Jason Lam.

Chow deploys the tri-partite typology of Justo Gonzalez to study three 20th-century Chinese theologians: Watchman Nee (Ni Tuosheng); T.C. Chao (Zao Zichen); and K.H. Ting (Ding Guangwun). He finds that they share some similarities to the “Theosis” concept in Orthodox Christianity, which assumes a much more “positive” and “optimistic” anthropology than that of Augustine and much of Western Christianity. The reviewer believes the book to be insightful, but would have liked to see more recent thinkers from “the Second Chinese ‘Enlightenment’” included, as well as some attention paid to “one of the most pressing issues faced by contemporary Chinese theologians . . . [namely] the blind patriotism that has developed since the rise of the PRC as a leading global superpower.”

(For my own assessment of this important book, see my review: Part I and Part II.)

Wang Yi. Revolution in the Depths of the Soul [Linghun shenchu nao ziyou]. Reviewed by Chloe Starr.

Wang Yi, a leading urban “house church” pastor and thinker, publishes widely on a variety of topics and in several media, including his sermons and a blog. This volume “sits firmly in a Chinese tradition of eclectic anthology writing.” Two common themes in this collection are “the relation of church to state, and social ethical questions.” He has explored the connections between what I call “political” (as distinguished from theological) Calvinism and social order, both in the West and, potentially, in China. Dr. Starr comments, “This volume offers not just a Christian vision of contemporary China, but also a good sense of prevailing intellectual trends and areas of political friction.”

Anthony Clark, ed. A Voluntary Exile: Chinese Christianity and Cultural Confluence since 1552. Reviewed by Paul Woods.

The first two chapters of this book “contain an excellent foundation for the theory and practice of ‘accommodation,’” which the reviewer says “stresses the need to understand the thought and heritage of both our own culture and the one we are trying to reach with the gospel, while remaining obedient and devoted to the ‘Great Commission.’” The remaining chapters consist of case studies of particular encounters between Roman Catholic and Protestant missionaries, as well as the Taiping Rebellion, with Chinese culture and the ruling authorities. It seems, however, that “the promising trajectory laid out at the beginning of the book is not followed all the way though” since “accommodation” does not seem to feature prominently in most chapters. Still, the inclusion of both Roman Catholics and Protestants and the “sheer scope” of the volume earn commendation.

Yang Huilin. China, Christianity and the Question of Culture. Reviewed by Xiaoli Yang.

Yang, Professor of Philosophy and Comparative Literature at People’s University, Beijing, “represents a vigorous and sophisticated cross-cultural discourse against the background of history, philosophy, religion, theology and hermeneutics.” This collection of previously-published essays in Chinese and English contains “useful material to appreciate more fully the Western academic and missionary legacy in the thought of an indigenous, contemporary Chinese scholar.” At the same time, however, the reviewer finds that “Yang’s presuppositions are more philosophical than theological or biblical . . . [and] his portrayal and analysis of Chinese Christian movements . . . is not always accurate.”

(My own assessment of Yang’s book was published in Church History and Religious Culture, Volume 95, Number 4, 2015, 560–61. You may write to me for a digital copy.)


Events have overtaken some of the observations and opinions expressed in this collection of essays since the accession of Xi Jinping to power and the ensuing comprehensive campaign to bring all facets of society under government control. Scholars are less inclined to voice interest in, much less support for, Christian ideas and values in the academy. Churches and non-profit organizations will be restricted by the new laws governing the activities of NGOs. Certainly, the space for the church’s public statements about social issues, especially politics, has been sharply narrowed. One wonders how much “Christian values” will be promulgated in “Communist China” in coming days.

Nevertheless, the fundamentals have not changed. More and more common people and intellectuals are still turning to Christianity and taking part in congregations that fill a huge void in today’s soulless Chinese society. No matter what the government may do, it cannot exterminate Christianity, nor can it fully control what Christians will think, say and do, or prevent them from quietly serving as “salt and light” in the world. These trends, though they may slow in pace and decrease in intensity, do not seem to be in danger of stopping; if anything, they will continue to grow and to permeate more and more corners of Chinese culture and society.

That is why the articles in this journal, though perhaps needing some modifications, will continue to be relevant.

For some possible implications of these articles and reviews for those engaged in ministry among the Chinese, see my response on the China Institute website.

ReviewsG. Wright Doyle