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A Chinese Christian Critique of Confucianism

Lit-sen Chang (Zhang Lisheng) was born in Wuxi, China in 1904. For the first fifty years of his life, he rejected Christianity and believed in Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism before finally committing himself to Zen Buddhism. A brilliant legal scholar, he served in the government of the Republic of China during World War II and then founded Jiangnan University in order to "extinguish" Christianity. Then, while living in Indonesia, he was dramatically converted to Christ. Immediately, he began an intensive study of the Bible and commenced teaching comparative religions at various Christian schools. After graduating from Gordon Theological Seminary (now Gordon-Conwell), he was invited to remain as a lecturer in missions. His book, Asia's Religions: Christianity's Momentous Encounter with Paganism, was probably written in the 1960s. It was published by China Horizon through P&R Publishing in 1999.

This substantial volume first discusses differing approaches to world religions and then examines Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, Zen, Hinduism and Islam, all from a Christian point of view. In each case, Chang offers a "Christian understanding" of the religion, then a "Christian critique."1

Christian Understanding of Confucianism

I. The Nature of Confucianism

Is Confucianism a religion? This question has been debated hotly for quite a while. After surveying arguments pro and con, Chang concludes that Confucianism is not a religion, because Confucius himself did not claim to be a prophet or teacher of ultimate truths; he confessed that he did not know about such things, and that he had not measured up to his own standards of ethical perfection.

"Confucius teaches only attainment, but provides no atonement. As he himself confessed, his own attainment was a tragic failure. Not only was he not sure or enlightened about the 'truth' and 'life' but he also did not know about the 'way' (tao) to heaven."2 Chang acknowledges religious elements in Confucianism such as a belief in the necessity of faith; a sense of "Heavenly Mission" (or mandate of heaven); the existence and power of divine beings; the use of sacrifice; prayer; and vows. Nevertheless, "Confucianism exists as a religion not because it has any sound theological argument, but simply because of its practice" (39).

In fact, Chang avers that "there is only one true religionChristianity; all other religions are false . A True religion must have two basic factors: the religio objectiva (God and His revelation), and the religio subjectiva (the fear of the Lord). From these two factors we conclude that Confucianism is not a true religion" (39).

Confucius himself believed not in the biblical Father in heaven, but heaven. His religion was therefore only a "rudimentary primitive monotheism" (40). The later Neo-Confucian shift to belief in the Ultimate (tai ji) or the Ultimateless (wu ji) means that "they have no redeemer, and no way of salvation" (40). Likewise, the subjective aspect of Confucianism focuses not on the fear of a transcendent God but on the ordinances of heaven. One should reverence devils and gods but keep a distance from them. Its ethical teachings center on ren (jen; benevolence to man), not on the fear of God. Confucianism is, therefore, a "system of humanism, rather than a true religion" (40).

II. The Classics of Confucianism

The Five Classics. Chang briefly describes the five canonical classics of Confucianism: Canon of History; Canon of Poetry or Odes; Canon of Changes (I Ching; I Jing); Record of Rites; and Annals of Spring and Autumn. He pays most attention to the I Jing which he believes "underlies almost all Chinese philosophy," and which "denies the existence of God, [and] eternity or the ultimate reality; there is no being, only becoming (change or I). Therefore, there is no absolute and no truth" (41-42). Commenting on the Record of Rites, Chang notes that in his role as a compiler and editor Confucius "winnowed away some materials of high spiritual value" and could thus be classified with the liberal or modernist theologians of our time (42).

The Four Books. These consist of The Book of Great Learning; The Doctrine of the Mean; The Analects of Confucius and The Works of Mencius. The last of these he calls "an exposition of Confucius' teachings with their relevance to social and political issues" (43).

III. The Basic Teachings of Confucius

Chang states that Confucius' "teaching has been the most potent single factor in shaping the life and character of the entire Chinese people and has been accepted by Chinese people as having the stamp of absolute truth and finality. For twenty-five centuries, Confucius has been the life guide of the Chinese [people]; his teachings touched every corner of human activity and permeated all phases of life" (43-44). Before summarizing this worldview, he asserts that it is "centered on man, not on God . Confucianism is a mere system of humanism or a system of personal and social ethics" (44).

The concise outline of Confucian doctrines which follows includes its teachings on man, the family, society and government. I found this most helpful. "Man's original nature is good . All men are educable to be a saint or a sage" (44). Society is built upon the ideal man, who is indispensable for an ideal society and government. Of course, the family, as the basic unit of society, holds preeminence in this ethical system. Love within the family will extend outward to all mankind and thus must hold first place in our hearts.

The ideal man seeks to build the ideal society which is "a kingdom of the righteousness of man, not the kingdom of God" (45). Its moral character will flow from the example of virtuous men, not laws. The five cardinal virtuesren (benevolence), yi (righteousness), li (rules of propriety or decorum), zhi (wisdom) and xin (fidelity or faithfulness)guide the efforts of each person to develop into a mature citizen. This person fulfills his proper role in each of the five key relationships (ruler-subject; father-son; husband-wife; elder brother-younger brother; friend-friend).

The ideal government will be presided over by a ruler who embodies these virtues. An evil sovereign is answerable to the people and may be overthrown if they decide that the Mandate of Heaven has been withdrawn from him. The final goal of such government will be a return to the Golden Age in which true righteousness and peace prevail.

Christian Criticism of Confucianism

Now Chang turns to an evaluation of Confucianism from the standpoint of the Bible. He frames most of his critique within classical theological categories.

God (theology proper)

Confucius, as Chang has noted, downplayed or disregarded previous "spiritual" elements in Chinese thought, and turned the focus from a Supreme Ruler (Shangdi) to Heaven, which was mostly conceived of as an "abstract concept, not a person" (50). "As a result, there came spiritual degeneration" (50). Gradually, people began to worship their ancestors so that "the tide of ancestor worship began to grow into an overpowering swell" (50).

In the Song and Ming dynasties, Neo-Confucianism developed the earlier idea of the unity of heaven and man into a sophisticated pantheism in which "One is All, All is One," and every man possesses the Supreme Ultimate. "They deify themselves and, in fact, deny the personal God, and became naturalists or 'practical atheists'" (50).


Confucius would not discuss the question of ultimate origins. Zhu Xi, the great twelfth-century Neo-Confucian thinker, "advanced the view that the universe and all things were composed of two principles, li and ch'i [qi]. These two are co-eternal, infinite, distinct, and formed the groundwork of creation" (51). Consequently, Chinese intellectuals turned toward "naturalism, materialism, or agnosticism, and the living and almighty God was expelled and had no relation with the lives of the Chinese people, though they are not aware of this serious fact!" (51).

Man (anthropology)

Orthodox Confucianism teaches that man's nature was originally good but becomes degenerate because of ignorance and a "clouded" mind which it tries to "clear" by self-cultivation, which Chang classifies as "self-righteousness." According to the Bible, however, no one is righteous, and all are born in sin which no amount of self-discipline can overcome. True manhood can only be restored by turning back to God and becoming "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4) through regeneration.

Sin and salvation

"Like other non-Christian religions, Confucianism teaches nothing about original sin, redemption, forgiveness, atonement, and sanctification." That is because, throughout Chinese history, "the great 'sages' taught the Chinese people that there is no original sin and that only acts of conscious volition are considered to be sin. Man is as able to desist from sin as to commit sin, so it was urged that man can stamp it out by sincerity (ch'eng) or devotion to do good" (53).

Chang tells us that he used to be a follower of Wang Yangming, who believed in the "unity of knowledge and practice of righteousness," but found that he could not attain to this unity by self-effort. As a Christian, he accepted the biblical teaching that we are saved by God's grace alone, through the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross in our place which we receive through faith, not works.

Ancestor worship

Turning now to a key component of traditional Confucianism, Chang discusses ancestor worship. Chang acknowledges the dilemma this has posed for missionaries and Chinese Christians, for "the Bible teaches filial piety but condemns idol worshipincluding ancestor worship" (54). To solve this problem, he goes to great lengths to demonstrate from Confucian writings that "the true meaning of filial piety is not ancestor worship" (55).3 He concludes that "there is no necessary logical relation between filial piety and ancestor worship "Filial piety only commences with the respect of parents. It should be culminated in the fear of the Lord, our Father in heaven. Therefore, faith in God is not in contradiction with but is rather the ultimate fulfillment of true filial piety in its fullest sense" (55).

Last things (eschatology)

As most people know, "Confucius was concerned primarily with man's earthly career here and now ; the whole system of his teachings was centered in the realm of the things temporal and not of the things eternal" (2 Corinthians 4:18). Confucianism, therefore, lacks any teaching on individual resurrection, judgment, eternal life, a new heaven and a new earth. There is no hope beyond the grave.

Chang concludes that "in the end, Confucianism is a form of humanism. Consequently, 'Salvation belongs unto the Lord' (Psalm 3:8), not to Confucius . The Chinese people's efforts for national regeneration will be futile, unless they repent and go back to God, the fountain of living waters and our hope of glory" (57).


1 For more on Lit-sen Chang, see Wise Man from the East: Lit-sen Chang (Zhang Lisheng), edited by G. Wright Doyle.

2 Lit-sen Chang, Asia's Religions: Christianity's Momentous Encounter with Paganism, p. 38. All quotations will be from this book and are referred to hereafter in the text only by page number in parentheses.

3 His son has told me that Chang ceased all ancestor worship activity the day after he became a Christian. Chang has written a separate book on this subject.

G. Wright Doyle, PhD., is the founder and director of China Institute and director of Global China Center. He is author of Reaching Chinese Worldwide, co-author of China: Ancient Culture, Modern Society, editor/translator of Wise Man from the East: Lit-sen Chang (Zhang Lisheng), and English editor of the Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity.

Image Credit: The watercolor portrait of Lit-Sen Chang was painted by his daughter-in-law Jean Anne Chang.

G. Wright Doyle

G. Wright Doyle

G. Wright Doyle is the director of China Institute ( and Global China Center (, the editor of Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity (, and co-editor of Studies in Chinese Christianity, published by Wipf and Stock. For more on effective ministry among Chinese, see Reaching Chinese Worldwide,... View Full Bio