Calvinism on the Ground in China

In recent years Calvinism has become an increasingly common topic of discussion within Chinese Christian circles.[1] This trend has not gone unnoticed, and many scholars of Christianity in China are working to document and understand the growth of Reformed Christianity within the mainland. 

For most scholars, the focus is on the cultural and political implications of this trend—a fitting focus given that much of this recent growth has been driven by intellectuals within China who are drawn to the transformational potential of the Kuyperian model of cultural engagement for contemporary Chinese society.[2] For a smaller number of scholars, interest in Reformed theology reflects a broader interest in exploring the potential of strengthened denominational identities for enabling the church in China to politically, socially and legally come to terms with the theological variety that is perceived to be at the root of much of the conflict directed towards and growing within the Chinese church today.[3] I have been following developments in both these areas of inquiry for some time, as both trajectories have the potential to help the church in China confront some of its biggest challenges as it moves into the future.

Encountering Reformed Theology in a Northern Chinese City

Just the other day, however, I bumped up against a different aspect of this recent upsurge in interest in Reformed theology within China. Having just returned to China after a sabbatical of several years, I was headed to the local Christian bookstore to pick up some newly available reference works I had seen the previous Sunday. As I looked through the shelves in search of other new titles, I was surprised at the number of new books available that dealt with specifically Reformed issues. Most of these works were translations of well-known western secondary source material by authors such as Timothy George, Robert Godfrey, Alister McGrath, and J. I. Packer. Materials coming from a Reformed perspective have always been available within China to those who knew what to look for; copies of the companion volumes to Jonathan Chao’s well-known “fish” Bible can still be found on many bookshelves.[4] Though initially driven by a number of ministries either based or assisted from outside China (Banner of Truth, Desiring God, and others) that are working to make Reformed titles available in the mainland, Reformed publishing in China is now part of the Christian mainstream, as signaled by the China Christian Council (CCC) publication of a translation of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion in 2005.[5] More recently, a group of university students in my city spent this year’s National Day holiday reading through a Chinese translation of Don Carson’s The God Who is There.

My quick scan of the shelves that morning had yielded a collection of five or six of these titles that I thought might be useful to read with local believers. There was one other young man in the bookstore, and he had been watching my actions closely. After a few moments of hesitation, he came over and asked me in English what books I was reading. When I replied in Chinese that I was just looking at some of the brand new “Reformed” [gaige zong改革宗] publications, he excitedly nodded his assent, and then launched into conversation with me.

After he finished making his plea for me to teach English at his church’s “school” (I declined), I asked him where he worshipped. He proudly informed me that he was part of a fellowship in a different part of town, adding in English that it was a “PCA, RPC” fellowship. We talked in general about Reformed theology, and I pointed out some of the Reformed works available for sale in the bookstore. I was then surprised to discover that this man in his early twenties was aware of many different Reformed authors from the west (he knew their names in English) and was knowledgeable about the various Reformed seminaries in the United States: Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, Covenant Seminary, Westminster….

At this point I couldn’t help but remark that I thought it was a little bit odd that a Chinese Christian would place so much emphasis on his connections to particular American denominations, institutions or authors. He responded by proclaiming that Reformed theology was the one ancient and faithful reception of the biblical faith—I interrupted by pointing out that the PCA was barely 40 years old. He responded by announcing that the Reformed tradition traced its roots back to Augustine and the first century Christians. I responded by saying most Christians—Protestant and Catholic—do likewise, regardless of denomination. Finally, I described the rediscovery of Reformed theology that swept North American churches in the 1990s, the movement’s subsequent devolution into competitions over degrees of “Reformedness,” and the struggle to recover a more welcoming expression of Reformed Christianity. I closed by imploring him to continue exploring the rich treasures of the Reformed theological tradition, while always remembering the relative nature of any denominational affiliation. We parted on good terms, if a bit awkwardly.

My encounter that morning nicely illustrates a point Fredrik Fällman has hinted at in some of his writings: for many of those within this still largely urban and intellectual movement, “the important thing is to be right.”[6] While for elite intellectuals this aggressive confidence often reflects the strength of their passion for social and political transformation, or their attraction to whatever is intellectually new and outré, its expression in the local churches can be destructive.

In the city where I live the primary local network of unregistered churches split over just these issues in the early 2000s. Following a period of theological study in the United States, one of the ten leaders of this church association returned to our city and began to teach from a Reformed perspective. Before long, he began pressuring the other leaders to commit to promoting Reformed teachings in all the fellowships within their network. When his request was rejected, he left the network along with one other leader and a significant number of local fellowships. Despite the best of intentions of all concerned, the initial encounter between Reformed theology and our city’s largest and healthiest independent network of churches was divisive and disruptive.

The website Chinese Church Voices recently translated and posted an interview with a mainland Chinese Reformed Pastor named “Daniel” that confirms the presence of these tendencies within the mainland Chinese Reformed community.[7] While Pastor Daniel believes that today’s Reformed Chinese believers, thanks to the writings of Tim Keller and other North American Reformed speakers and writers, are learning to be more accepting towards Chinese Christians with different theological presuppositions, he still admits that division frequently occurs when church congregations transition to more Reformed teaching. These divisions, he believes, are primarily due to incorrect methods rather than reflective of serious theological disagreements. As he explains,

The main problem is attitude, not theological differences. A wrong attitude makes people feel that we are “puffed up with arrogance.” “You all are not the true church; we are the true church. You all are not Reformed; we are the most Reformed. You are not really spiritual; we are really spiritual.” These kinds of expressions disgust people.[8]

Hopefully, the kind of “softer” expression of Reformed theology that Pastor Daniel discusses in the rest of his interview will become the norm amongst Chinese believers who seek to share the blessings of the Reformed tradition with their countrymen.[9]

Reflections on Reformed Theology in China

It is interesting to note that in the previous encounters from my city, the United States was somehow involved in the local appropriation of Reformed theology, either as a source of inspiration or as an external authority that validates Reformed theology. While these phenomena are both signs and symptoms of China’s increasing integration into the global Christian community, they also raise a number of issues that are worthy of further reflection.

On the one hand, where exactly has the current Chinese Christian interest in Reformed theology come from? While Chinese diaspora pastors such as Stephen Tong and Jonathan Chao represent some of the earliest influences, nowadays the availability of translated works by John Piper and Tim Keller, or the distance-learning efforts of schools such as Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary seem to be more significant factors. One could also point to the role of Korean theological trainers on the ground in China, as well as a host of web-based Reformed theological initiatives. And this is without considering the significance of the formative discovery of the political implications of Reformed Protestantism by the Chinese intellectual elites who still often serve as the public face of the movement. The best answer to this question is that while Reformed ideas have clearly come into China from many different directions, we still do not fully understand the origins of (nor, hence, the motivations driving) China’s Calvinist “moment.”

These variant influences, as well as some of the details from the Reformed experience in my city, raise a still more troubling question: Would Reformed theology still be so popular in China today without its apparent American connections? One of the distinctives of Reformed theology is its emphasis on recognizing the implications of the Gospel for all aspects of life—including the political, economic and social spheres. As Reformed theology takes root in the Chinese church, precisely which aspects are the ones Chinese Christians find appealing? In any cross-cultural theological encounter, it can be difficult to separate universal theological claims from instances of cultural accommodation. The point of this question is not to raise the specter of an inchoate cultural imperialism that is somehow imposing its Reformed (American) will on the culturally pure Chinese church; rather, this question is a reminder that believers in China and from abroad must carefully and prayerfully discern—as in all cross-cultural encounters—the universal from the particular, the essential from the culturally conditioned.[10] To take one simple example that has bearing on the Chinese context, despite the protests of many North American Christians, Calvin’s Geneva was not especially democratic! For the Chinese church in the 21st century, discernment in these areas is both difficult and of vital importance as she seeks to contribute to China’s efforts to define her newly emerging national identity.

Further complicating this process of theological translation and transformation is the simple fact that the Chinese church is only just beginning to articulate for itself what “theology” means for post-Reform and Opening [gaige kaifang hou 改革开放后] believers today.[11] Asking the question “what is Chinese theology?” results in several answers, none of which adequately captures the contemporary faith experience of actual Chinese. Ding Guangxun’s 丁光训comingling of Marxism and Christianity appeals to very few Chinese Christians.[12] Similarly, the Sino-Christian Theology [hanyu shenxue 汉语神学] of Liu Xiaofeng刘小枫 (at least partly informed by Reformed concerns) and He Guanghu何光沪 has limited purchase at the popular level—and even then tends to reduce to political and social concerns.[13] Apart from this, there continues to flow a steady tide of translated “Christian thinking” from the West, bringing ideas which while appealing are often difficult to apply directly into the Chinese context. This lack of clarity over what is or is not distinctive about Chinese theology is undoubtedly one of the reasons why Reformed theology, known for its thorough and comprehensive nature, appeals to many Chinese believers; this was a significant factor behind its resurgence in North America. But in the absence of a clear theological self-identity—without a strongly defined sense of theological ownership—it may be difficult for some Chinese believers to engage critically with new theological ideas such as those promoted by the growing Chinese Reformed community.[14]

I myself come from the Reformed tradition, having studied in its schools and worshipped in its churches. It still colors my understanding of God and salvation, even as that understanding is also colored by my identity as an American. While I certainly want to share these central truths with my Chinese brothers and sisters, I need to remember that my grasp of those truths is necessarily limited and imperfect (this is the fundamental epistemological humility that comes from acknowledging the noetic effects of sin). I must always be careful to avoid presenting as essential what is in fact only my personal preference. None of us can or should escape the awesome responsibility we share as outsiders to pass on truth without passing on our errors.

I believe that the Reformed tradition can make a helpful contribution to the emerging theological identity of the 21st century Chinese church. But regardless of one’s attitude towards Reformed theology in China or elsewhere, all of us who are desirous of benefiting the church in China must pray for wisdom, and recommit ourselves to serving the local Chinese church on their terms, rather than perpetuating the interests and preferences of our own contexts. At the same time, we need to pray for wisdom and discernment for our Chinese brothers and sisters, and for the Holy Spirit to guide their theological reflections as they seek to clarify their own identity as specifically Chinese followers of Jesus.

 

[1] http://www.chsource.org/en/blog/item/549-calvinism-in-china

[2] See, for example, Alexander Chow, “Calvinist Public Theology in Urban China Today,” International Journal of Public Theology 8, no. 2 (2014): 158-75; Fredrik Fällman, “Calvin, Culture and Christ? Developments of Faith among Chinese Intellectuals” in Christianity in Contemporary China: Socio-cultural Perspectives, ed. Francis Khek Gee Lim (Abingdon, Oxon; New York: Routledge, 2013), 152-68.

[3] See, for instance, Wang Aiming 王爱明, Church in China: Faith, Ethics, Structure: The Heritage of the Reformation for the Future of the Church in China (Peter Lang International Academic Publishers, 2009).

[4] Fifteen years ago I stumbled across an internal publication [neibu ziliao 内部资料]of some of Spurgeon’s sermons in translation. Other similar works of negotiable legality (many from Jonathan Chao and his colleagues) could also be found if one was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time. Current publication efforts, in contrast, are focused on legal publication and are meeting with some success—often using university presses. This is all in addition to the large volume of Reformed materials available in Chinese online.

[5] Jidujiao yaoyi 基督教要义 [Institutes of the Christian Religion] (Shanghai: Zhongguo Jidujiao sanzi aiguo yundong weiyuanhui ji Zhongguo Jidujiao xiehui, 2005).

[6] Fällman, “Calvin, Culture and Christ?,” 165. Joann Pittman highlighted this observation of Fällman’s in her blog post http://www.chsource.org/en/blog/item/549-calvinism-in-china.

[7] The first part of the three-part translated interview (with links to the original Chinese-language post) can be found at http://chinesechurchvoices.com/2014/09/10/interview-with-a-reformed-church-pastor-1/.

[8] http://chinesechurchvoices.com/2014/09/24/interview-with-a-reformed-church-pastor-2/.

[9] http://chinesechurchvoices.com/2014/10/01/interview-with-a-reformed-church-pastor-3/.

[10] Ryan Dunch, “Beyond Cultural Imperialism: Cultural Theory, Christian Missions, and Global Modernity,” History & Theory 41, no. 3 (2002): 301-325.

[11] Andrew F. Walls, “The Translation Principle in Christian History” in The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1996), 26-42.

[12] For a recent critical analysis of Ding’s theology, see chapter four in Alexander Chow, Theosis, Sino-Christian Theology and the Second Chinese Enlightenment: Heaven and Humanity in Unity (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

[13] Liu and He have authored many Chinese-language books and articles on topics related to religion and politics. For more on Sino-Christian Theology, see Pan-Chiu Lai and Jason Lam, Sino-Christian Theology: A Theological Qua Cultural Movement in Contemporary China (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2010) and Fredrik Fällman, Salvation and Modernity: Intellectuals and Faith in Contemporary China (University Press of America, 2008).

[14] For more on contemporary Chinese Christian self-identity and the growing interest in denominations, see http://www.chinapartnership.org/2014/10/new-wine-and-old-skin-part-i-current-context-of-the-chinese-church/.