Book Reviews

Chinese Theology for English-Language Readers

A Reader in Chinese Theology edited by Chloë Starr. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2022, 524 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1481312103, ISBN 10: 1481312103, paperback. Available from Baylor University Press and Amazon.

Edited and translated by Chloë Starr, Professor of Asian Christianity and Theology at Yale Divinity School, A Reader in Chinese Theology is the best reader in Chinese theology available in English and is based on the first volume of Sino-Christian Theology Reader, edited by He Guanghu and Daniel H. N. Yeung that covers mainland China. He, Yeung, and Liu Xiaofeng were instrumental in coining the term Sino-Christian theology and have used it to promote the academic study of Christianity in China. Starr prefers Chinese theology over Sino-Christian theology due to the “more expansive and inclusive” (p. xiv) nature of the former and the controversial nature of the latter (p. xiii-xiv). Starr’s previous book, Chinese Theology: Text and Context, reflects her consistent and delicate choice of terminology.

The 35 chapters were chosen from the 45 essays of its Chinese version,1 which echoes He’s broader definition of Sino-Christian theology, namely, “ecumenical Christian faith and messages expressed in the Chinese language” (Chinese version, p. 9). Starr reorganizes the 35 authors into three categories: 1) traditional China, from Jingjing (or Adam) of the eighth century to Hong Xiuquan of the nineteenth century; 2) revolutionary and nationalist China of the early twentieth century, including Ma Xiangbo, Jia Yuming, Zhao Zichen, Wang Mingdao, Ni Tuosheng (Watchman Nee), Xu Zongze, Wu Leichuan, Wu Yaozong, Wu Jingxiong, Luo Zhenfang, Ding Guangxun (K. H. Ting), Chen Zemin, and Wang Weifan; and 3) contemporary theologians and academics, including Chen Cunfu, Gao Shining, Zhang Qingxiong, Liang Gong, Yang Huilin, Zhao Lin, Zhuo Xinping, Liu Xiaofeng, Li Qiuling, Li Tiangang, Sun Shangyang, Cao Shengjie, Gao Ying, and He Guanghu.

Starr excludes certain authors included in the Chinse version, such as Michele Ruggieri, the brief summary of Eastern Orthodox, You Xilin, Zhang Qingxiong, Wang, Xiaochao, and others, and adds Ma Xiangbo, Xu Zongze from part II. Her goal is to offer “a slightly different balance of texts, with fewer essays by contemporary academic scholars and an increase—albeit marginal—in the representation of women theologians and Roman Catholic thinkers” (p. xv). As an editor, she has to weigh different factors in choosing what authors will present the best “snapshot” of Chinese theology to English-speaking readers as comprehensively as possible.

This volume offers a multi-dimensional overview of the theological treatises written in Chinese. It traverses approximately 1400 years of history from the seventh century, when the Church of the East sent missionaries to China, to the present time. All four periods of theological flourishing are represented: 1) the eighth century, when Jingjiao (or Nestorian Christianity, the Luminous Religion) flourished during the Tang dynasty; 2) the 1620s and 1630s, when the Jesuits sent their missionaries during the Ming dynasty; 3) the 1920s and 1930s (the Republican era), when the indigenous Christian movement began to take shape; 4) and the 1990s and 2000s, after China began its economic open-door policy. Starr is correct in observing that “theology thrives in peacetime, in eras of church growth and educational provision, and often only when foreign missionaries withdraw from active leadership” (p. xi). The authors include the Syriac (Jingjing), the Italian (Matteo Ricci), and the Chinese. It features major branches of world Christianity, including the Church of the East (chapter 1), the Catholic Church (chapters 2-6, 9, 14, 17), the Protestants (chapter 7), the Little Flock (or the Christian Assembly, the local churches, chapter 13),and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement churches (chapters 16, 18-22, 33). The authors come from all walks of life: Christian monk (chapter 1), Catholic priest (chapters 2, 14), statesman and scholar (chapters 3-5, 9, 16, 19), pastor (chapters 7, 12), revolutionary (chapter 8), theologian and educator (chapters 10, 11, 15, 18, 20, 21, 33, 34), church leader and teacher (chapter 13), jurist (chapter 17), professor (chapters 22, 24-31, 35), and researcher (chapter 23).

In her introduction, Starr reviews the selected authors in chronological order. Most importantly, she highlights the contextual nature of Chinese theology, like all theology (p. ix). She summarizes common theological concerns found in each era. For example, late Ming scholar-officials debated the nature of the soul as they engaged in cross-cultural metaphysics and questioned Roman Catholic ethical strictures, such as why a man had to dismiss his concubines before he could be baptized. Starr distinguishes between the historical-social context and the textual context of any particular theological writing. Again, this is consistent with the central thesis in her Chinese Theology: Text and Context, in which she argues that the literary form of theology is itself a way of contextualization, and that the text is the defining aspect of Chinese theology. Anticipating the question of selectivity, Starr explains convincingly that the volume includes “a rich selection of writings that together give insight into the breadth of Chinese theology over the centuries, and to the central questions that animate it” (p. x).

For Starr, Chinese theology bears a two-fold responsibility. First, it “addresses the topics discussed by systematic theology everywhere” (p. x). Second, it “also addresses topics of more particular interest, such as the nature of the human through contrast with Confucian ethics or Daoist understanding of being and action, or the kingdom of God in light of Marxist economic theories” (p. x). Here, one may question if Starr’s distinction between “systematic theology everywhere” and comparative theology is needed, as theologians in the West and East are increasingly aware of the need for systematic theology to engage in interfaith dialogue in a pluralistic world.

Another area this book (and the original Chinese version) has missed is theology and science dialogue; Xie Honglai (1873–1916) could serve as an excellent example. His booklet had a positive impact on Wang Mingdao. For Sino-Christian theology in particular, and Chinese theology in general, the need is urgent for theologians and academics to engage with the challenge of the natural sciences. China has progressed rapidly in these areas, and Christian faith has been undermined by the scientism prevalent in Chinese society since the May Fourth movement.

In order to help English readers familiarize themselves with the context and background of the authors, Starr provides biographies or introductions, especially for the authors of the first two categories. Some of these authors are among the most well-known in the English-speaking academic world, such as Matteo Ricci, Xu Guangqi, Wang Mingdao, and Watchman Nee. On the contrary, many, if not most, of those in the third category are least known; therefore, they deserve more space than a simple footnote. However, since many of these scholars are still alive, the editor might consider it unsuitable to provide scholarly biographies or introductions, which is understandable.

Even with these caveats, I highly recommend this book to laypeople and students. Readers will gain firsthand experience by diving into a primary source in diverse literary forms of Chinese theology.

Our thanks to Baylor University Press for providing a copy of A Reader in Chinese Theology edited by Chloë Starr for this review.


  1. Han Xu Shen Xue Du Ben 漢語神學讀本 [Sino-Christian Theology Reader], 2 vols. Edited by He Guanghu [何光滬] and Daniel H. N. Yeung [楊熙楠]. Hong Kong: Logos and Pneuma Press [道風書社], 2009 at 漢語神學讀本 (豆瓣) (
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Jacob Chengwei Feng

Jacob Chengwei Feng holds a Ph.D. degree in Theological Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the Leader of Theology Interest Group at the Society for Pentecostal Studies and a Fellow at Oxford Interfaith Forum. He is a recipient of the 2024 ARTFinc prize offered by the journal Christian Perspective of …View Full Bio