Book Review

The Gospel, Philosophy, and Chinese Culture

Some Helpful Resources


In this issue ChinaSource has deviated from its usual book review format to provide the reader with a selection of books that provide an in-depth look at the relationships between the gospel, philosophy and Chinese culture.

Non-Chinese Philosophy and Theology

Philosophy and the Christian Faith, by Colin Brown. Inter-Varsity Press, 1968, 320 pages. ISBN 0-87784-712-6, paper.

Dr. Brown begins his study with the Middle Ages and ends it with various thinkers in the mid-1960s. In his book, one recurring theme is the tendency of theologians to start from a non-biblical assumption.

Throughout the history of Christianity, many outstanding writers have chosen a philosophical principle or idea and used that to interpret—and usually to distort—what the Bible says. Always, these men desire to be “modern” and “relevant” and to present the Christian faith in a way that non-Christians will accept it. Almost always, they end up presenting something other than the Christian faith.

However, does that mean that Christians should ignore or avoid philosophy? No, because we are, inevitably, influenced by the underlying ideas of our culture. Brown suggests that knowledge of the history of ideas can help us to recognize as “old” what claims to be “new”; to see where ideas that seem harmless can end up; to notice the contrasts between biblical faith and secular speculation; and to realize ways in which presentations of the Christian faith can be either weak and unpersuasive, or strong and persuasive.

We are to measure all our theologies against the standard of the Bible and realize that the main goal is to know God—not to speculate about Him.

God, Revelation, and Authority, by Carl Henry. Word Books, 1976-1983, reprinted by Crossway books, six volumes of 3054 pp. ISBN 1-58134067.

Henry’s magnum opus will put off most potential readers by both its length and complexity, but those who take time to finish it will reap a rich reward. Chinese readers have the advantage of an abridgment of the first four volumes with the last two in preparation. Henry’s major contribution is to restate biblical Christianity in the face of a multitude of competing and conflicting views. In the process, he answers virtually all the questions raised by Chinese intellectuals today. Examples include: Can human language communicate divine truth? Is the Bible true? If so, in what sense? Has science disproved the Bible? Is the Bible filled with myths and legends? What is the meaning of history? Most importantly of all, he deals with the question: Is there an essential core of beliefs which transcend culture and can be considered normative for all peoples at all times? Henry makes a good case for an affirmative answer.

Henry discusses Kant, Spinoza, Hegel, Fuerbach, Marx, Whitehead and a host of others. He evaluates the theological views of Augustine, Aquinas, the Reformers, Liberalism, Neo-orthodoxy, Radical theology, Neo-Thomism, the more recent Roman Catholic thinkers, Liberation Theology, Feminist Theology and much more. He refuses to give simple answers but does not claim to know everything or to understand God fully. Throughout, he insists upon taking the Scriptures as the sole authority for Christian truth.

Integrative Theology, by Gordon R. Lewis & Bruce A. Demarest. Zondervan Publishing House, 1996, three volumes in one: 394, 574 & 576 pp. ISBN 0-310- 20915-3.

Though intended primarily as a textbook for seminary- level courses in systematic theology, this work may also be the best treatment of different theologies throughout the centuries including recent attempts to restate the Christian faith.

In addition to the usual systematic (that is, topical) discussion of the key doctrines of Christianity, Demarest and Lewis also present various points of view from the early church to the present and then interact with both Christian and non-Christian positions different from their own.

Since they take the Bible as their standard, they include thorough and nuanced Biblical exegesis of key texts pertaining to the subject under investigation. In this well-rounded process, they show how philosophical presuppositions have influenced different thinkers and how competing systems compare with Biblical teaching.

Like Carl Henry, the authors believe this method can result in a transcultural theology that can be communicated intelligibly in all societies. They also insist that true faith must issue in personal piety and works of love in community.

Twentieth-Century Theology, by Stanley J. Grenz & Roger Olson. Inter-Varsity Press, 1992, 392 pp. ISBN 0-8308-1761-1, paper.

Olsen and Grenz provide us with detailed but understandable explanations of the musings of the past century’s well known “Christian” writers. (“Christian” is in quotation marks because most of the theologians surveyed rejected basic tenets of orthodox Christian faith.) In the process, they show how most of the thinkers they examine started with non-biblical philosophical assumptions.

This helpful volume has several weaknesses, one being that evangelical theology receives very little consideration and much of that is derogatory. Nevertheless, the survey provides much useful background information for this new generation of Chinese scholars.

Indigenization of the Gospel among Chinese

Asia’s Religions: Christianity’s Momentous Encounter with Paganism, by Lit-Sen Chang (Zhang Lisheng). China Horizon and P&R Press, 1999, 306 pp. ISBN 1- 892-6323-09.

Professor Chang writes with an authority based upon broad scholarship and profound reflection. His views on world religions are especially relevant because he became a Christian as a mature man after he had been a humanist, materialist, relativist and an ardent Buddhist.

After a brief chapter on different approaches to world religions, Chang examines, in turn, Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Zen,   Hinduism, and Islam from a Christian viewpoint. As professor Chang discusses each religion, he includes a critique of the philosophy connected with the faith. After each analysis, he offers a “Christian criticism,” in which he points out the significant differences between each faith and orthodox Christianity. Because of the irreconcilable nature of these disagreements, Chang would probably not advocate evangelism that begins by calling Chinese back to their own heritage.

Confucius, the Buddha, and Christ: AHistory of the Gospel in Chinese, by Ralph R. Covell. Orbis Books, 1986, 285 pp.ISBN 0-88344-267-1, paper.

Ever since the Nestorians, both foreigners and Chinese have wrestled with the relationship between the Gospel and Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and other facets of Chinese culture. Some have tried to  adapt the Gospel to China; others have taken the reverse tack. Still others have tried to point out similarities while clarifying the differences.

Covell traces this complex story with a wealth of information and incisive analysis. His book should be required reading for all who would understand both the necessity and the difficulty of indigenization. Sometimes his comments seem to underplay the essentially “confrontational” (to use his word) relationship between the gospel and any other system of thought—a major weakness of his treatment. Nevertheless, though he firmly believes that the gospel must be communicated in dialogue with Chinese traditions and with a profound awareness of the suffering of her people, his study also shows the pitfalls of starting with non-Biblical categories or of trying to express the biblical message in non-Christian terms. It strikes me that Chang, a former Buddhist and a Chinese, takes a less accommodating stance towards traditional Chinese thought than does Covell, an American Christian.

Chinese Intellectuals and the Gospel, by Samuel Ling and Stacey Bieler, Editors. China Horizon and P&R Press, 1999, 254 pp. ISBN 1-892-63204-7.

This excellent work is divided into two parts: Understanding Chinese Intellectuals and Reaching Chinese Intellectuals with the Gospel. The first part traces the history of the gospel in Chinese culture; the vicissitudes of Chinese intellectuals since under the Communists; and the intellectual searching of these brilliant minds today. These chapters contain valuable insights into their openness to Western thinking. Led by scholars like Liu Xiao-feng, Chinese are studying and publishing translations of theorists like Heidegger, Weber, Durkheim, and Berger; Protestant theologians such as Tillich, Barth, Bultmann, Rienhold Niebuhr; and Roman Catholics such as Teilhard, Rahner and Kung.

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