Culture, Contextualization, and Character

Ever since the gospel first entered the Middle Kingdom, its messengers have struggled to make the Christian message relevant within the Chinese cultural context.

Nestorian missionaries in the seventh century, recognizing Buddhism as the dominant cultural influence, dressed in Buddhist robes and borrowed Buddhist and Taoist terms to translate the Bible into Chinese. While their efforts at contextualization resulted in many accepting their message, the uniqueness of that message was ultimately lost, with Christianity being seen as merely another variant of Buddhism.

Centuries later, in the late Ming Dynasty, Matteo Ricci also donned the robes of a Buddhist monk, but quickly discarded them in favor of a scholar’s gown as he turned his attention to the scholar-officials who were the cultural trendsetters of the day. Gospel tracts took the form of scholarly treatises, and homilies gave way to learned conversations as the Jesuits patiently engaged in an ongoing dialogue with China’s Confucian elite. Later, the Jesuits’ tolerance of traditional ancestor practices brought them head-to-head with more conservative factions within the church. When the Pope sided with the conservatives and forbade Chinese converts from partaking in rituals honoring their ancestors, the Emperor responded by outlawing the Catholic faith in China.

Christianity returned under the cloud of the Opium Wars. Despite the efforts of many Protestant missionaries, like Hudson Taylor, to adopt Chinese dress and customs, Christianity was still identified with Western aggression. Only after the missionary presence was removed and the church in China underwent a lengthy and painful process of indigenization was it able to shed the label of “foreign religion.”

More recently, following the failed student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, Christians outside China realized that Chinese intellectuals’ attraction to Western-style democracy could become a bridge for communicating the Gospel. Many did in fact come to faith in Christ in the years following 1989. However, the “China can say ‘no’” fever that swept the intellectual community in the mid-1990s made it clear that associating Christianity too closely with foreign democracy could ultimately prove detrimental.

As the viewpoints represented in this issue of ChinaSource suggest, the debate over how to present Christianity within the cultural context of China is alive and well. Harking back to unanswered questions in the classics and in Chinese folk legends, some would seek to find a foothold for the Gospel in China’s ancient history. Others contend that scripture alone must be the starting point for any attempt to introduce the Gospel.

While we continue to work out these difficult questions of contextualization, mindful of the mistakes of the past and trusting the Holy Spirit to lead us into the future, we must not lose sight of how the life of the messenger affects receptivity to the Gospel. In this regard we would do well to take a lesson from Matteo Ricci, whose brilliant mind and intimate knowledge of Chinese culture opened many doors in China, but whose exceptional character enabled him to walk through those doors and be received as a “friend of China.”

Image credit: Journal Entry (Joel Montes de Oca) by Chris Lott, on Flickr
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Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio