Supporting Article

“Spiritual Pollution” in the Chinese Church?


A crisis threatens the Chinese church worldwide.  We have heard of the dangers of materialism and the seductions of cults such as Lightning from the East, but this wolf has crept into the sheep-fold almost undetected. I refer to the “spiritual pollution” of alien ideas from the West. To deal with this threat, we need to understand it. That requires an awareness of two often-neglected realities: (1) “philosophical” ideas permeate culture, usually without being recognized; and (2) these concepts also penetrate the church. History abounds with examples of both these facts.

What is “Philosophy”?

What is philosophy? The answers include definitions such as, “speculative inquiry concerning the source and nature of human knowledge; any system of ideas based on such thinking.”[1] Traditionally, philosophers have tried to answer three basic questions: “How do we know?” (epistemology); “What is real?”—that is, “What do we know?” (ontology); and “What is good?”—that is, “Based on what we know, what should we do?” (ethics).

Philosophy is different from religion, ideology, and worldview. However, in developed societies, religions, ideologies, and worldviews reflect ideas which are really “philosophical.” So, regardless of whether we realize this fact, our lives are shaped by “philosophical” ideas of various sorts.

“Philosophy” Penetrates the Church

What about Christians? Don’t they take their ideas mostly from the Bible? Aren’t they immune to the “pagan” notions of non-believing neighbors? To some degree, yes. As they learn the “truth as it is in Jesus” by having their minds transformed by the Word of God, followers of Christ gain substantial liberation from the worship of the idols of their society—whether physical images or mental concepts.

On the other hand, we are all creatures of our own time and culture. Furthermore, until the Lord returns, we will struggle against indwelling sin. Each day, we need to identify and renounce the “futile ways inherited from our forefathers” (1 Peter 1:18) and “be renewed in the spirit of [our] mind” (Ephesians 4:23). That process includes understanding the non-biblical ideas which have shaped our values and assumptions and replacing them with truths found in the Scriptures. Should not the Bible and the Holy Spirit be enough to guard our minds from pollution? Again, to some degree, yes. On the other hand, the history of the church is filled with examples of failures by very learned theologians to avoid the “spiritual pollution” of alien ideas.

A Sad Story

Origen and Clement in the early church, along with the monastic movement that followed, were heavily influenced by Platonic thinking. Ambrose’s treatise on the duties of Christian ministers was based on Stoic ethical categories. Theologians in the Middle Ages, attempting to integrate Aristotelian concepts and logical analysis into Christian doctrine, created the massive synthesis that became the authoritative theological statement of the Roman Catholic Church.

While Luther and Calvin strove mightily at the start of the Reformation to “expel Aristotle from the universities,” where theology was taught and learned, both Lutheran and Calvinistic thinkers after them produced treatises on Christian doctrine which, though clearly Protestant and biblical, resembled some of the Medieval scholastic works. Meanwhile, newly-discovered works from ancient Greece and Rome that flooded Europe during the Renaissance fueled the “Enlightenment,” a movement which increasingly repudiated Christian categories.

As the modern era dawned, skeptical philosophers like Hume rejected the possibility of knowing absolute truth, especially truth about God. A new rationalism treated all “supernatural” ideas as superstitious. The church immediately felt the impact of these ideas, in the form of a denial of the deity of Christ followed closely by a wholesale rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity.

This devastating process picked up speed in the 19th century. Darwin spun a web of scientific speculation that led to the abandonment of the first nine chapters of Genesis by many Christians. Marx asserted that religion represents the will to power of the oppressing classes, and Freud claimed that faith in God flows from our own feelings about our earthly fathers. German biblical scholars who had drunk deeply from the wells of Enlightenment skepticism “discovered” contradictions in the Bible and then proceeded to question all Scriptural accounts of miracles. Soren Kierkegaard called for a leap of faith. Twentieth century existentialism sprouted from this root.

The Low Point of “Christian” Theology

The 20th century witnessed one of the greatest declensions in the history of Christian theology as various philosophical strands produced Liberalism, with its belief in the goodness of mankind and its denial of key doctrines, such as the virgin birth, miracles and the resurrection and deity of Jesus Christ. Process Theology reflected the spirit of the age by asserting that God, like the world, was constantly developing, and that he somehow lives in dependence on human history.

In the Roman Catholic Church, traditional beliefs were steadily eroded by the new critical views of the Bible and by the evolutionary speculations of Teilhard de Chardin and Karl Rahner.

Among “conservative” and “evangelical” Christians as well—partly because they too are creatures of their time, and partly through the influence of seminary professors who received their training under non-evangelicals—formerly “conservative” seminaries, publishing houses and pulpits now bend before the prevailing “winds of doctrine” that have blown westward across the Atlantic.

Post-modernism, which repeats the Marxist claim that all thought-systems merely reflect the views of a powerful elite, has entered the professedly evangelical classroom, book stores and evangelical pulpits. As a result, the belief that we can know any absolute truth has lost favor among more and more professing Christians.

One does not have to look far to see the results of the cumulative impact of non-biblical ideas upon ordinary Christians. While some still hold to the Deist idea that miracles no longer take place, others display the influence of the Romantic Movement and 20th century existentialism in their search for religious feelings and extraordinary emotional experiences. Secular humanism manifests itself when Christians live as if this world is all there is, and “personal peace and affluence” is all that matters.

Philosophy and the Chinese Church

What has all this to do with the Chinese church? Along with Coca Cola and McDonald’s, the winds of European speculation have blown westward across the Pacific, dropping the acid-rain of alien ideas onto the East Asian coast. Seminaries in Taiwan and Hong Kong, staffed with teachers educated in the West, inculcate future pastors with all the latest trends (and many outdated ones, too!). You can find the views of Barth, Liberation Theology, Moltmann, Pannenberg and “Openness” theologians on the lips and in the books of Chinese Christian leaders along with the routine denial of the entire trustworthiness of the Bible.

In China itself, the Three-Self Movement is committed to a theology heavily indebted to Marx, Process philosophy and the evolutionary ideas of Teilhard de Chardin, and Karl Rahner.[2] As more and more Western and overseas Chinese theologians lecture in the TSPM seminaries, we shall doubtless see an increase in the influence of Western philosophical concepts.

In an effort to speak to their own culture, key Chinese Christian leaders now seek to integrate biblical doctrine with the writings of Laozi, Confucius and Neo-Confucianist thinkers. Like their Western counterparts, they assume that key concepts from their own culture can be used to understand, illuminate and organize theology.

The huge rural house church movement is known for its fierce loyalty to a literal interpretation of the Bible, and few of its leaders have received formal theological training. Surely we can assume that Chinese Christians have nothing to fear from Western philosophy!

To some degree, that is true, though even the independent house churches are not exempt from alien ideas. To choose just one example from the 20th century, the sermons of Wang Ming Dao reflect as much Confucianism as they do biblical categories and concepts. This great man resolutely refused to read theology and confined himself to the study of the Scriptures, but he could not escape the philosophical milieu in which he grew up.

Among ordinary Chinese Christians, should we be surprised to find vestiges of ancient culture, such as a belief in yin and yang, Qi (ch’i), the primacy of ethics in religion, or the necessity of “doing what is natural?” As more and more house church leaders receive instruction from overseas teachers, or even from educated Christians from within China, we can expect Western errors to creep into this relatively “pure” movement.

So What Do We Do?

Faced with the failure of previous generations to avoid the “spiritual pollution” of alien philosophical ideas, those seeking to communicate the gospel among Chinese should keep in mind the following facts:

  • An ignorance of the history of philosophy and of theology almost always leads to a repetition of previous mistakes.
  • An awareness of the trends of our own culture will help us discern what “winds of doctrine” might be blowing through the windows of the church.
  • Any time we begin with non-biblical categories or assumptions, we open ourselves up to alien influences. For example, if we assume that science, or psychology, or any particular philosophy or culture is a good starting point, we have already lost the battle for fidelity to the Bible as the sole authority for Christian truth.
    “Contextualization,” for example, can mean the necessary requirement that we communicate the gospel in terms understandable to our hearers and relevant to their situation. On the other hand, it could refer to the age-old attempt to allow some non-biblical “context” to set the agenda for Christian teaching — whether that “context” is religious, social, political or theological.
  • When Christians have tried to “integrate” Christianity with some other set of ideas, the resulting mix has contained much that diverges from biblical truth.
  • When we seek to be accepted and respected by non-Christian thinkers, we make ourselves vulnerable to their ideas. Thus, sending people to study in “prestigious” universities often produces seminary professors who are not fully committed to the authority of the Scriptures.
  • Christian theologians have succeeded best when they have allowed the Scriptures to pose the questions and establish the categories, while being attentive to what non-Christians are saying. We who call ourselves Christians would do well to remember daily the necessity to present ourselves to God as a living sacrifice and to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, lest we be conformed to the world (Romans 12:1-2). After all, we desire to communicate the life-giving truth of a gracious God to a world in search of hope!

Note: For further reading on the relationships between the gospel, philosophy and Chinese culture, see the book review in this issue which represents a huge body of literature on these topics.

Notes

  1. ^ American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.
  2. ^ I am indebted to scholars of the Chinese Church Research Center for this insight and for the one on Wang Ming Dao which follows.
Image credit: Morning Haze (Tianjin, China) by Shubert Ciencia

John Peace

John Peace, Ph.D., is a pen name for a scholar who has worked among Chinese in Asia and America for 25 years. View Full Bio