Chinese Theology: Text and Context, Part II


Chloe Starr, Chinese Theology: Text and Context. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016.

Continued from Part 1 —

Chapter 6: The Church and the People’s Republic of China

In this second “big-picture” chapter, Dr. Starr provides another brilliant overview of the dark days of Roman Catholic and Protestant believers in the 1950s through the early 1970s. During this time, the number of believers and of congregations dropped dramatically, until, during the Cultural Revolution, some opined that Christianity in China was dead and gone.

During this period, Starr avers, there are not outstanding theological tomes.” (155) She means, of course, none produced within China itself, for Zhang Lisheng and others wrote much in the United States, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and elsewhere. The period deserves more study than it has hitherto received, however, because “we find some of the most engaged grappling with the relation of church and state and with the nature of an indigenous church, as well as truly pathetic accounts of resistance.” (155)

The histories of Roman Catholics and Protestants vary widely because of their radically different organizational principles. Protestants had always, in theory at least, favored devolution of decision making and an indigenous Chinese church, and so some of them, at least, could sign the Christian Manifesto and join the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), while Roman Catholics face excommunication if they elected to cooperate with the State-run Catholic Patriotic Association. Different decisions made by individuals and their leaders created conflicts and divisions that persist to the present.

Leaders of mainline Protestant denominations, moreover, steeped as they were in the Social Gospel and anti-imperialist convictions discussed above, tended to agree with many of the political and social goals, and even the religious policies, of the new government. Indeed, some of them believed at first that “the Communists, it seemed, had wrought a social liberation – salvation – for the people.” (168) Leaders like Wu Yaozong and Zhao Zichen welcomed the TSPM; even the evangelical Chen Chonggui served as vice-chairman.

The key issue, from start to finish, was the church’s alleged complicity in foreign imperialism. Relentless (and still ongoing) government propaganda painted missionaries as active agents of aggressive foreign powers; any association with them, or failure to renounce their work and legacy, marked one as an unpatriotic traitor to the Chinese nation. 

We should not be surprised that so little academic theology or even sermonic literature came out of this period, but Starr claims that “a theology of the Cultural Revolution does not seem to have emerged subsequently in post-Mao China.” (160) There is “no body of works theologizing on the forces of destruction” comparable to secular literature that wrestled with the issues. “The two streams of writing to emerge on the Protestant side from the 19870s onward, theological reconstruction and Sino-Christian theology, are either in tune with, or tangential to, government narratives.” (160. I find this statement problematic, given the large body of writing about the experience of persecution by “house church” Protestants, with its often explicit biblical, and sometimes theological, interpretations of why people acted as they did. But perhaps I misunderstand the author here.)

The Korean War dramatically intensified the pressure upon Christians to renounce all ties to foreign governments and churches, and to enter fully into the fervent “patriotic” fervor and policies of the government under the slogan, “love country, love church,” which, significantly, still prevails. For theological liberals like Wu Yaozong, however, the formation of a New China under Communist rule itself seemed to be the work of God. He and others b became enthusiastic supporters of the new regime. They sought, therefore, to “order the church’s affairs and foster a good working relationship with the state without compromising [what they considered to be] core beliefs.” (181)

“Other Protestants, whose belief in holiness set Christians apart from the world, found a theological common ground with Roman Catholics as this juncture. Their leaders found genuine common ground in prison and labor camps.” (182) Starr tellingly comments: “Since a high heaven was needed, and ideally, a purgatory and hell too, for a strong climate of martyrdom, Protestant liberals with their Social Gospel theology of a Kingdom of Heaven on earth had much less incentive to die to secure a place in a perfect heaven; the legacy of the martyrs lives on among unregistered congregations.” (184)

She concludes: “The church's strength lay in the proclamation of a variant worldview and in the fortitude demonstrated by its stubborn and unreasonable submission to this alternative ideology – a faith that undermines the proclamation of rational ideology by not acceding to its [atheistic] methodological premise. The ‘reasonable’ faith of liberal Protestants did not offer the opportunity for martyrdom in quite the same way, and their subsequent theologies have yet to deal fully with this period.” (184)

Chapter 7 - Ding Guangxun: Maintaining the Church

“Can the the church only glorify God by placing itself in opposition to the nation and its people? Absolutely not!” Ding Guangxun, 1954

"It is Lamentable that many Christian leaders use the principle of obedience to man’s rules and submission to man’s authority to cover up their cowardice and failure. . . How can such Christian leaders then escape the wrath of God?” Wang Mingdao, 1954

The epigraphs at the head of the chapter again crystallize its main themes. Hardly any modern Chinese Protestant leader has sparked as much controversy as Ding Guangxun, a bishop in the Anglican church and the head of the TSPM for many years. Starr believes that “Ding’s effects as a church leader was arguably greater than as a theolo0gian, but his theology is highly pragmatic in orientation, and the two cannot be readily separated.” (185) Some have hailed him as “the premier church statesman of the PRC era, a figure whose leadership of the authorized Protestant church and its national seminary . . . whose theological thought guided the church through much of that period.” (185)

Ding’s close association with the government can be seen not only in his membership of the National People’s Congress and position as vice chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference for two decades, but his consistent support of most of the government’s religious policies. His active role in the imprisonment of Wang Mingdao added fuel to charges that he was more a tool of the Communists than a servant of God.

This chapter focuses on Ding’s early writings, from the 1940s and 1950s, which Starr sees as foundational to his later positions and as clear examples of the fierce debates over the relationship between church and state that dominated those years and persist to the present. 

The first part of the chapter explores the early writings of Ding, who studied at Union Theological Seminary and worked for a while for the Canadian Student Missions Movement. He emphasizes the importance of witness to Christ, who is “the center of history.” His theology at this time is more christ-centric than that of people like Wu Leiquan, and he places less faith in the ability of Christians to build the kingdom of God on earth.

At the same time, he is already voicing his strong support for the new Communist government and his criticism of the United States.

After his return to China in 1951, his language begins to take on “a much more sino-centric focus,” and he becomes more strident in his condemnation of foreign influence in China and especially in the Chinese church in the previous 100 years. (194) Along with Westerners like David Paton, he lists some of the major offences of foreign missionaries and their organizations. He also identifies the policies of the PRC with the will of God, and asks, rhetorically, “If we cannot love what Jesus loves, how can we claim to love Jesus?” assuming that Jesus “loves” the new government and its programs. “As citizens of China we should love our country and be at one with its people. To be worthy of the trust of the gospel we need to think what they think, love what they love, hate what they hate. Our Lord Jesus acted thus.” (195).

Ding is motivated by his understanding of the Christian faith, “national pride, and Socialist convictions.” (196) He minimizes differences between Christians and the masses of ordinary Chinese who do not believe in Christ. God is at work in and through all people. Christians have no monopoly on truth. The doctrine of justification by faith can exaggerate the distinctions between believers and non-believers, and can cause us to overlook the good deeds that all people can do. “Liberation,” that is, the 1949 revolution, and the New Socialism were not ‘God’s punishment or judgment, but an act of God, showing God’s love for China.” (199)

On the other hand, in 1957 he published an article in which he challenged the Communist charge that religion, including Christianity, was an opiate of the people and proposed Christian revelation as an alternative to dialectical materialism as an epistemological principle.

He saw the TSPM as an opportunity for Chinese Protestants to be liberated from the confusion, competition, and control associated with previous foreign missionary domination and denominations, and as a way to preserve freedom for the church within the Communist state. Of course, as an Anglican, he would have no theological problems with a state-sponsored church, or with a church nominally or even really subservient to the state: Witness the Church of England.

Ding and Wang Mingdao famously debated the role of the church in the world. Starr sees Ding as engaged in a search for “an adequate form of accommodation” with the state (200). She treats Ding lightly and gently criticizes the human rights organization ChinaAid for refusing to realize that “the state cannot continue indefinitely to condone illegal activity,” (201) bypassing the question of why unregistered congregations should be considered illegal in the first place. 

She posits a false dichotomy by saying that Wang called for “a life lived to please God and not other humans, whereas for Ding Christ’s salvation restores relations between humans as well as with God,” as if Wang’s writing did not expound this theme also, and in great detail. (203) She does explain why Wang thought Christians must obey God rather than government if the latter required them to sin, and clearly admires his willingness to suffer for his convictions. She is much less sympathetic with his criticism of those who decided to remain in the state church.

Starr points out that for Wang and others in the TSPM “the overriding issue for the Chinese church was the ongoing resolution of its colonial legacy in China and the institution of a ‘Chinese’ church and Chinese theology.” For Wang, however, the issues were faithfulness to the Scriptural teaching that Christ, not the government, was the head of the church and a commitment to traditional orthodox Christian teaching on sin and salvation. He excoriated Ding and others who had espoused the Social Gospel as either heretics or unbelievers, a criticism that Ding (and perhaps also Starr) simply cannot stomach. Still, Starr admits that the theological gap between the two was wide and deep. Wang tried to keep politics separate from religion, and Ding saw them as inextricably entwined. Starr quotes a 1984 speech in Tokyo by Ding that manifestly rejects Wang’s doctrine of original sin, salvation by grace through faith in Jesus alone, and Wang’s call to pursue holiness and not love the “world,” that is, the things of the world like fame, wealth, and popularity.

In a bold move, the author suggests that Karl Barth may provide a way out of the seemingly irreconcilable positions of Wang and Ding. Barth, who refused to condemn Communism, insisted that those living on the outside of the Communist world simply cannot understand the responses of Christians behind the Iron Curtain to the new Communist regimes. Likewise, Starr suggests that outsiders cannot understand, nor should they judge, the different ways in which Chinese Christians chose to relate to the Communist government

She notes that Barth’s anti-Nazi stance in Germany corresponds to Wang’s insistence on the independence of the Christian church, and that Barth’s affirmation of the duty of the church to be present in society shows “the value of working together with the state to keep Christ present in the civil and church communities.’ (210) We might also note that, with Ding, Barth was a lifelong Socialist, had no theological objections to a state church, and repeatedly asserted the lack of any ontological differences between believers and non-believers.

After the Opening and Reform that began in 1978, Ding had access to outside theological resources. The ones he chose to deploy for his own use were liberation theology, process theology, and the work of Pierre de Chardin. His view of the “cosmic Christ” bolstered his opposition to the dichotomies between belief and unbelief maintained by Wang and evangelicals. Starr notes the changing emphases of his theology in response to shifting political and ecclesiastical contexts. She calls for Chinese Protestants to “reevaluate honestly what Ding, Wang, and others actually said and wrote . . . , and then to0 set these aside in the attempt to bring a genuine unification based on the present situation and present concerns in the church.”

Chapter 8 - State Regulation, Church Growth, and Textual Profusion

This chapter “analyzes some of the burgeoning categories of Christian writing and thinking that have emerged in various media since the period of Reform and Opening began in 1978.” (213) Within a variety of types of church organization, Starr discerns three categories of Christian writings: “the essays and expositions of official church theologians, the writings of other Christians and pastors, and the scholarship of academic Christians.” (213) These three have “prospered in separate phases and in different institutional settings, often with quite distinct readerships,” (214). But there is “much more cross-over between church and academic theology than is usually allowed for in discussion: in personnel and in subject area.” (226)

Starr provides another excellent description of the overall political, social, and economic developments that affected religious life. She sees two continuing features: “The first was cycles of repression and relaxation, a component aspect of religious experience since at least the Tang dynasty, and the second were structural adjustments in the economy that caused a creaking of the entire system and tested the limits of political and religious freedom” (218) The government’s obsession with the threat of foreign subversion through religion persisted, as various regulations sought to limit the contact between Chinese and foreign Christians. In addition, the Party-state must guard zealously its legitimacy and authority by restricting religious expression in general and suppressing “bad” religion in particular. That is why outside condemnation of its actions rarely impacts policy.

While people “attending registered churches, small devotional groups, or Bible study groups and living as Christians in their workplaces are now able to integrate their faith and lives in ways unimaginable even as late as the early 1990s, “ “for Christian groups whose presence or actions are not contained within the boundaries of the regulations, a different type of existence and relation to the state pertains.”(222)

Furthermore, the emergence of a class of “Protestant political and legal activists who challenge the basis of the regulator orders itself” continue to press their claims to constitutional rights, and underground Roman Catholics insist upon their obligation to maintain relationships with the Pope. (222) Government regulations and restrictions do not limit numerical growth, but do directly impact the ways they express their faith.

The Internet and the proliferation of home meetings has limited the ability of the government to restrict religious expression, while the mere existence and even growth of religion, especially Christianity, is an ideological “headache” for the Marxist government.

Within this overall context, Starr now turns to “contemporary theological writings.” (224)

Official Church Theologies: Starr traces the publications of both official Roman Catholic and Protestant leaders, especially as seen in their journals.. These speak of the church’s duty to work with the state, internal administration, and – for Protestants especially - “Theology with Chinese characteristics.” (228) Shen Yifan, Wang Weifan and Ding Guangxun are key figures here. Starr once again highlights the complex thought Ding, including his program of “Theological Reconstruction” in the 1990s, which aimed to integrate Christian doctrine and practice with the goals of the Socialist state. Significantly, few outside the Nanjing Seminary leadership have written in support of this campaign.

Academic Theology received a powerful impetus when secular Christian studies programs began to appear in departments of philosophy and history, and then in other departments of elite universities. Investigation into “Christian phlosophy, intellecutal history, literary criticism, and cultural studies, with occasional offering sin the more controversial areas of biblical studies and church history,” enaged the energies of a growing body of scholars.(213) Journals, conferences, edited volumes, ambitious translation projects, E-networks, and monographs hav proliferated since the small beginnings of the late 1990s.

The result: “Secular academics in state universities have been pivotal to the greater acceptance of Christianity in China by politicans and officials as well as in academic, and their teaching of a new generation of scholars of Christianity and academic theologians has provided the foundation for the broader development of Chinese Christianity – and ultimately for the strengthening of academic Christianity in the church too.” (232)

The rise of so-called Sino-Christian theology within this overall development has generated a great deal of interest. Led at first by men like Liu Xiaofeng and He Guanghu, the movement now includes many other distinguished scholars, including Zhou Xinping and Yang Huilin, to whom Starr devotes the next chapter. Key issues have been the relationship of academic and church theology; the relationship of Christianity to other faiths; the very nature and definition of “theology”; the uniqueness of Christianity and its relationship to Chinese culture; and the place of “theology” within the academic curriculum.

House Church Leaders and Writers: “The church sector that has experienced the most dynamic growth over the past few decades has been the independent or unregistered sector of the Protestant church, despite being targeted by legislation.” (234) These Christians may be roughly divided into rural house church believers and their urban offshoots and the new urban churches attended by highly-educated Christians. The former hold to a traditional interpretation of the Bible and a pietistic stance towards the world, while the latter engage boldly with society, including politics, social issues, and intellectual debates. These dare to “articulate theologies of power and patriotism.” (236)

Finally, the author notes two major developments: Church growth has come largely from conversion, so that fewer Christians feel bound by loyalties to earlier debates and divisions, and “it is becoming increasingly acceptable to be both Chinese and Christian. Christianity is at last shedding its reputation, among the populace if not politicians, as an alien religion.” (239)

Chapter 9 - Yang Huilin: An Academic Search For Meaning

“Christian studies in secular universities, especially in the inter-disciplinary studies of humanities and social sciences, have been obviously more influential to the Chinese spirit than those in the church-based theological seminaries, and also more influential to Chinese society from a long-range perspective than religious practice, to be frank. So when it is contested whether academic or collegial Christian studies can be still categorized as ‘theology,’ the true question is rather whether and how to have a ‘non-religious interpretation of Christianity.’” Yang Huiling, 2011 (240)

This chapter demonstrates the breadth of Starr’s definition of “theology” as “talking about God.” Yang Huilin, a prominent figure of the Sino-Christian Theology movement, does not profess faith in Christianity. Indeed, he is a card-carrying member of the Communist Party and professor of comparative literature and religious studies and former Vice-President at Renmin (People’s) University in Beijing, one of China’s premier institutions. He, like others in this movement, are “social insiders” whose impact, as the epigraph above claims, reaches beyond the academy and into society. Indeed, these academic “theologians” will, in time, probably become a force in the new urban intellectual churches, so they deserve the attention of Christians.

Beginning as a scholar of Medieval Christianity, Yang has extended his studies to literary/critical theory, philosophy, and theology, both Medieval and modern. His writings evince wide erudition and subtle thought, and have been quite influential in the Chinese academy. English translations of his works have gained him an international hearing also. “Yang’s work has played an important role in the reinterpretation of China’s disparaged Christian history. His writings traverse various eras and disciplines and a vast range of thinkers, demanding of readers a giddying grasp of intellectual fields.” (241)

He focuses on textual interpretation, especially intercultural interpretation. In keeping with her theme of textual readings and their contexts, Starr focuses on this aspect of Yang’s overal program, especially his views on Scriptural Reasoning. 

Starr believes that the Sino-Christian Theology movement is a form of “contextual theology for the global, post-Marxist setting of Chinese academia, providing. . . a critique of methodological assumptions in the humanities from the vantage point of theological studies.” (243) These scholars, like their forebears, seek to benefit their nation. Like the rest of the country, they are still dealing with the scars and wreckage of the Cultural Revolution – an extremely pertinent, point which I believe needs further exploration. These people remember the confession sessions, reading Mao’s Little Red Book, and reporting one’s thought daily to the Great Helmsman, and they recoil at any resemblance to these practices in Christian gatherings. 

Deeper still, they remember the ways in which language was distorted and manipulated to justify violence and treachery, so they are seeking “a theoretical means of codifying how meaning functions,” as a contribution to society as a while. (245) In short, they are engaged in a search for meaning, and even a search for the meaning of meaning. Yang conducts his search mindful of “the constant imperative to dialogue and to understanding.” (245)

With admirable clarity, Starr highlights some of Yang’s recurring themes: Humanities scholars in the West has been constantly probing the question of meaning, too; this is now the central problem for Christianity; the question of language lies at the root of the quest for meaning; humans cannot know or properly speak about the Ultimate (here he invokes Barth’s insistence upon the finitude of human language); the continuing uncertainty about the legitimacy of Christianity among religious beliefs in China; the need for Christianity to define its own core beliefs; the impossibility of assimilating Christianity with any indigenous Chinese belief system; the critical role of translation, and especially of the 1919 Union Version of the Chinese Bible, in understanding and communicating Christianity in China.

Yang proposes a kind of “Scriptural Reasoning” that combines literature and scripture in a process of respectful “deep listening” to texts from other belief systems than our own. The goal is to “improve the quality of disagreement.” (249) It employs the “’interrogative mood,’ an open-ended hypothesizing beyond the common strictures of and interpretation of the Chinese classics into English and for a non-Chinese audience was itself an act of Scriptural Reasoning,” (253) for Legge looked to the Chinese commentators themselves for insight into the meaning of their own texts. At the same time, he remained true to his own Christian convictions and did not shrink from criticizing what he considered to be shortcomings in Confucian teaching. Yang appreciate’s Legge’s “deep familiarity with the Chinese heritage” and the fact that his interpretations and translations remain superior to modern attempts. (257)

Questions about Yang’s approach remain, of course, and Starr poses some very penetrating ones about Chinese Scriptural Reasoning that deserve attention. She affirms, nevertheless, the value of this approach for Chinese Christians, who can learn from the historical and literary studies, as well as from the challenges, of Sino-Christian Theology.

In a review of Yang’s China, Christianity, and the Question of Culture I note that Chinese, European , and North American academies seem lamentably unaware of evangelical American theology, and especially the monumental achievement of Carl F. H. Henry’s six-volume God, Revelation and Authority, which addresses almost all the issues that concern Yang and his peers.

Chapter 10 - Visible and Voluble: Protestant House Church Writings in the Twenty-First Century

“The growth of unregistered churches, which now surpass state churches in number by some margin, is one of the remarkable stories of modern China. This brief final chapter expands on the discussion in Chapter 8 by presenting an initial survey of the writings of three Christians – Lu Xiaomin, Wang Yi, and Yu Jie – who are committed to the house churches out of theological allegiance or who like Jin [Mingri], see the state church as irrelevant to the future of Chinese Christianity.” (263)

In keeping with the social and political emphasis of most writers she has examined so far, Starr singles out Protestant urban public intellectuals with a strong bent towards social and even political action. “One striking fact of the new urban house-church movement is the interconnectedness of its leaders: with each other, with overseas Chinese and overseas Chinese churches, and with the wider society.” (264)

She begins the chapter, however, with a brief study of an illiterate female hymn writer, Lu Xiaomin. Probably millions of Christians are singing her songs in both registered and unregistered churches within China and in Chinese churches throughout the world.

Lu’s lyrics represent “a type of enduring acceptance of state persecution, a ‘suffering servant’ model of Christian living. . . This theology places a high premium on personal holiness and testimony.” (264) Recordings and remixes of her songs have spread around the globe; the documentary about her, The Canaan Hymns, has made her testimony well known among Chinese Protestants everywhere. She voices the struggles of the unregistered churches, as well as their sense of mission to take the gospel to the entire world. “These are genuinely inculturated hymns, with a folk lilt, Chinese harmonies, and an imagery that blends rural China with biblical themes.” (265)

Importantly for Starr’s focus on the social and political context and national orientation of Christian writings, Lu expresses “yearning for the Chinese as a nation.” Some songs call for revival to spread across the land; others “call on the church to make China God’s home. In both cases, the revival of China as a nation and of China as a Christian nation are intertwined.” (267) God and country are intermixed.

Yu’s hymns pulsate with a strong eschatological fervor as well as a powerful missional call to take the gospel back to Jerusalem. Starr properly notes that the theology of these songs “is rooted in the praxis of worship and prayers,” and reflects the formative power of these songs, reminding us of the role of Chinese literary texts in the formation of moral character.

Next, Starr turns to the voluminous and wide-ranging writings of Wang Yi, “preacher, pastor, blogger.” (268) Before his conversion in 2005, Wang already stood among the most influential public intellectuals n China, and his fame and impact have only spread since then. His followers on the Chinese blog Weibo number over ten thousand. He writes on a plethora of topics, from constitutional law to the imperative for Christians to try to have children, in a variety of genres, including film reviews, biographical interviews, essays on the house churches, and book-length collections of his essays on both personal salvation and the kingdom of God.

Like most Chinese writers, he views writing as “a means of perpetuating the self.” After conversion to Christianity, he “saw his individual life as a writer and his corporate ideals now linked in Jesus.” (271) He now employs the written word in “the mission of renewing culture through our faith, and pastoring the earth with the gospel.” (271) He constantly has to ask about his motives: “Am I writing for Christ?” (271)

Wang identifies “four themes in his own writing that chime with Chinese intellectual concern: ‘the theme of exiles and the making of wilderness; … from Buddhism or pantheism to Christianity and monotheism, the theme of freedom; the theme of salvation; ‘from death to resurrection,’ the theme of life.” (272)

Yu Jie, a political dissident and pastor, has undertaken a three-part publishing program: three volumes of biographies of Chinese Christians (two with Wang Yi), and two other series on “Christ and the World” and “Christ and China.” “The project as a whole intends to envision, and play its part in realizing, a transformation from ‘humanity as the root’ to God as the root within Chinese culture.” (272) He and Wang believe that as multitudes of individuals come to life-changing faith in Christ, that will lead to the “reconstruction of society, when develops into social transformation.” (272) 

Starr states the obvious: “The social activism and interest in moral regeneration of these Protestant intellectual leaders, and the parallels with the ideas of progressive reformers of the the early twentieth century, have not escaped notice.” (273) Wang and Yu chose as subjects for their biographical interviews men who had “committed to an open ministry, rooted in the church while facing out toward society, and . . . possessing such quality of action that their lives would change public understandings of Christianity.” (273) Many had been involved in the Tiananmen demonstrations, the utter despair and disillusionment that followed the government crackdown, and the realization of new hope and life through faith in Christ.

All those whom Starr mentions believe that the church should not withdraw from society, but maintain a public witness, even to the point of seeking registration as legal entities, though outside the confines of the TSPM, which they consider to be irrelevant and dying. The state-sponsored body’s “attachment to power’ has robbed it of spiritual vitality. They believe that for “house” churches, on the other hand, “the current battle is no longer a spiritual one over faith but a struggle with the government over civil society and the place of the church in that future society.” (277) Starr affirms the “role of the church in political struggle and democracy advocacy,” but express concern that “the views of [these Christian intellectuals] do not seem to allow for any future for the (former) registered church in the broader church economy.” (277)

Despite the recent repressive moves under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, the author believes that Chinese Christians will continue to be a public voice for civil society and that they will continue to express themselves in writing. She is glad, however, that “a healthy disinclination persists to mimic anything that even remotely resembles a tome of Western systematic theology.” (278)


With characteristic clarity and conciseness, Starr wraps up this very dense monograph in a brief Afterward that highlights the major themes:

“The relation of church to state, and the locus and nature of authority, has been one of the central issues of modern Chinese theology.” (279)

A “second prominent aspect of twentieth-century Chinese Christian thought [is] nationalism,” which has often include a strong anti-foreign element. (279)

“Chinese theology is not ‘theology’ at all,” in the usual “Western” sense. (280)

“The Chinese theology explored in this volume comprises elements of biblical theology, constructive theology, contextual theology, and liberation theology,” especially liberation theology. (280)

This volume has highlighted “the text as a defining aspect of Chinese theology and textual context as an important base in reading any Chinese theology.” Three drivers have been “an interest in language, translation, and transmission;” “the writers use of classical Chinese texts, or their dialogue with canonical tradition,” well into the middle of the twentieth century; and “the use of specific Chinese writing genres in which Christian texts are composed.” (281)

“The theology surveyed here has deliberately engaged with China’s cultural heritage(s) and indigenous philosophical and religious traditions as a central element in its own construction... [The volume] has concentrated precisely on those texts that actively reflect not just on God, but on God as explored through a range of Chinese social, philosophical, or literary frames of perception.” (282)

Such “an approach has inevitably left unexplored, and undertheorized, alternative channels of Chinese theology, including more influential ones in numeric or ecclesial terms. . . [T]hese texts that engage with broader (non-Christian) traditions of Chinese thought or ritual have, in the post-imperial period at least, tended to come from elite, liberal-leaning writers in the historic denominations.” (282)

Starr hopes that her focus on this stream of Chinese Christian thinking will “open up new conversations and comparisons with other Chinese theologies.” She does not claim that the title of the book means that it has been comprehensive, but “is merely a preference for the more succinct abstract noun.” (282)

“Nationalist sentiments notably cut across church boundaries, as examples from Lu Xiaomin’s hymns and elements within the academic Sino-Christian theology movement show. If the cause of China has been central to a spectrum of recent Chinese theologies, the notion that China could, if it wished, created a theology that eschewed its common Christian heritage or be formed without foreign influence has been debunked through the volume by the emphasis on the foreign links and interactions of the writers considered.” (285)


The positive comments at the opening of this review indicate the high rgard in which I regard both Dr. Starr and her book; the survey of its contents should convince the reader of the depth and scope of Chinese Theology. In what follows, I shall register some concerns I have, but with no intention of minimizing the importance and ground-breaking nature of her contribution.

Selective definition of “Western” theology

On the one hand, many observers have noted the relative lack of “systematic” theology written by Chinese. Starr’s understanding of China’s literary tradition provides helpful insight here, though another major factor must be the incredible social pressures put upon seminary professors and pastors, who simply do not have the time to write as Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, and many others did.

On the other hand, Starr’s characterization of “Western” theology as “systematic” seems to ignore books that did not take the form of a systematic and comprehensive treatment of the usual topics of theology, but that have, nevertheless, shaped Western Christianity. One thinks of almost all of Augustine’s enormous output (except the very brief Enchiridion); Luther’s works (except the Larger Catechism and his biblical expositions; Jonathan Edwards’ discussions of free will, original sin, the religious affections, etc. None of these men wrote a “systematic theology,” and yet all stand as among the premier theologians of the Western church.

In personal correspondence, the author has told me that the question of whether Chinese theology will ever be “systematic” was never the central theme of her book. That is true, because she set out to talk about “texts and contexts,” not systematic theology. On the other hand, by seeming not to take into account this huge corpus of works by Western Christians, Starr limits her sample in a way that enables her to support her claim that “a healthy disinclination persists to mimic anything that even remotely resembles a tome of Western systematic theology.” (278) She is right, of course, but perhaps the statement needs some qualification.

Selective treatment of Chinese theology

As she candidly states in both the Introduction and the Afterward, Starr intentionally passes over large tracts of “speaking about God” by Chinese Christians. She is aware of this wider literature, but wants to focus on a particular stream of “theology,” broadly defined: that which is produced by men who have been leaders or spokesmen in mainline denominations and the academy and who have used their Chinese social and political context, along with their literary and culture heritage, as starting points, and even paradigms, for talking about God. Almost all of these have been either theologically liberal or, if evangelical, very concerned about the central issue of the relationship of the church to the state.

In other words, this does not purport to be a comprehensive treatment of Chinese theology.

From that standpoint, my criticism, stated in a shorter review published by ChinaSource, that the book neglected evangelical writers, including those outside of mainland China, was both irrelevant and unfair. Dr. Starr has graciously accepted my apology for this unfounded charge.

In the next few paragraphs, therefore, I am not criticizing her book as she meant to write it, but simply noting that the result of her treatment could be, for many readers, a skewed and very incomplete picture of indigenous Chinese theology. Commendatory comments on the back cover may confirm the impression that this book adequately discusses Chinese theology as a whole, rather than only a thin slice of it.

In the first place, readers should know about the existence of the truly “systematic” biblical and theological works of Jia Yuming, Zhang Lisheng (Lit-sen Chang), Wang Weifan, Zhou Lianhua in Taiwan, and more recent writers like Wu Daozong, and Guo Wenchi. Zhang, in particular, wrote in a style that was thoroughly “Chinese, and as one who had until his conversion hated Christianity and had been deeply committed to traditional Chinese religions.

We should also be aware of the works of extremely influential figures like Wang Mingdao, Watchman Nee, and a host of contemporary evangelicals, many of whom write in a way that resembles Western sermons, articles, and books. Starr makes it clear that she knows about theologians other than those she has chosen to analyze, of course. They are simply not the focus of her study.

Aside from Yu Jie, who lives in the United States, there are the writings and video productions of Yuan Zhimin, also a very public intellectual (whose theology, to be sure, has come under some criticism), and of Li Changshou, whose extensive publications have had an impact on the house churches in China from which hymn writer Lu Xiaomin comes (and whose theology has also been sharply criticized)?

More importantly, thousands of urban intellectual house church leaders, even those of Reformed persuasion, have little or no desire to contest the religious policies of the state. They consider worldliness, materialism, broken marriages, hedonism, and similar forces to be a far greater threat to the church. Perhaps a study of their sermons, articles, and blogs would yield fruit.

For a twentieth-century Chinese critique of the views of Zhao Zichen and Wu Leichuan, we can consult the Critique of Indigenous Theology by Zhang Lisheng. (See G. Wright Doyle, editor, and translator, Wise Man from the East: Zhang Lisheng (Lit-sen Chang). Critique of Indigenous Theology. Pickwick Publications, 2013).

A few other comments

Though she tries to be scrupulously fair in describing actions and ideas of people like Wang and Ding, and mostly succeeds, it seems to me that Starr evinces a bias toward mainstream denominations and approval for a state church, perhaps reflecting her British background. Could the same background also perhaps be seen in her preference for Legge’s choice of Shangdi as the proper translation of the name for God? Legge was a vastly learned man, to be sure, but were those who disagreed with him such poor Sinologists and biblical scholars (which Legge was not) that they could not make a strong case for using the term Shen?

The chapter on Chao’s Life of Jesus can only be described as beautiful, and made me want to read the book. On the other hand, many will probably not agree that his Life of Jesus “provides a model for a constructive cultural engagement.” (97) Ever since the Reformation, evangelical Protestants have maintained that we must see culture through the lens of Scripture, and not Scripture through the lens of culture.

Is it really fair to characterize Xu’s Zongze’s traditional view on the roles of husbands and wives in marriage as misogynistic and grounded not in the Bible but natural law and common sense? (107)

Though her call for reconciliation between likeminded Christians in unregistered churches and the TSPM is absolutely correct, the real theological gap between Wang, Ding, and their successors must be acknowledged as a standing obstacle. As Thomas Harvey has shown in Acquainted with Grief: Wang Mingdao’s Stand for the Persecuted Church in China, Wang’s imprisonment and torture did not stem from a merely personal spat, but from the murderous hostility of Ding and others who held to a fundamentally different vision not just of the relationship of church and state, but of the nature of the gospel itself. In the 1950s, Ding slandered Wang as a counter-revolutionary and failed to respond to his biblical reasoning, including its clear distinction between believers and unbelievers, in direct opposition to the universalism of Ding and the TSPM. 

Even after the Opening and Reform of 1979, and into the 2000s, Ding and other TSPM leaders actively abetted, and often instigated, government persecution of those who met as unregistered churches. In other words, it wasn’t just an honest difference of opinion as to whether Christians should cooperate with the state church, but of relentless harassment of those who would not join. Ding’s Theological Reconstruction campaign, likewise, led to the expulsion of evangelicals from the seminary in Nanjing. In light of these realities, many readers will think that Starr is letting Ding off too easily in her well-intentioned effort to respect those who chose to work with the TSPM.

The deepest issue addressed by the book is whether, as Harvey writes, “the church should construe modern existence and gain its distinctive insight by which to engage secular society through the Word of God,” or whether, as with the main Protestant figures discussed by Starr, including the critics of Wang Mingdao, “secular reason, culture, conscience, and national progress form the critical lens.” (Harvey, Acquainted with Grief, 132) In other words, is the whole project of starting with Chinese culture and contexts a good one?

Despite the foregoing questions and comments, in the end, I re-iterate my earlier praise for Chinese Theology, which elegantly introduces an important strand of Chinese theology within the highly illuminating paradigm that recognizes the central role of texts and their contexts.

ReviewsG. Wright Doyle