Peoples of China

Theology Or Theologies?

Chinese theology can be a minefield, as is clearly evident from the other articles in this issue of ChinaSource. But sometimes mine-fields must be crossed if we want to win the battle.  One of the minefields we must cross in the battle to make disciples of the peoples of China is the theological complexity that will inevitably develop as diverse people groups come to Christ.

What makes theology complicated is that it is not purely God’s revelation (as we confess that Holy Scripture is), but man’s interpretation of that revelation. Some would argue that Scripture itself is the latter, but the Bible specifically declares that not to be the case (II Peter 1:20-21). However, we have no such statements with regard to theology.

Obviously, if we hold a high view of Scripture, our theology will reflect that, and we will judge others’ theologies by how well they conform to Scripture, as we understand it.  This latter phrase, however, (“as we understand it”) surfaces the problem.  Our understanding of Scripture, and thus our theology, is inevitably conditioned by our culture. That, of course, is also true for Christians in China, and therein lies the complication.

China is made up of a bewildering variety of people groups. These groups may be distinguished from one another by language, culture, religion, social status, and many other factors. God desires to be known by every one of them.  He has instructed us to disciple them, which, among other things, implies theological development. What will their theology—or theologies —look like?

The theology of new believers will usually reflect, to a high degree, the theology of those who bring the gospel to them, especially if these evangelists are faithful to instruct those they introduce to Jesus Christ.  However, there are many variables.  Other teachers of different theological persuasions may come, molding the theology of these young believers in a different direction. Different worldviews may cause young disciples to interpret the Scripture quite differently than their teachers.

We can respond to these realities in several ways.  One approach is to insist that there is only one true set of theological truths (the ones we hold to, of course!); another is to go to the other extreme, adopting the attitude that one theology is as good as another.  Both of these approaches have obvious flaws. Dogmatic theological assertions may well bring people into captivity to the teacher’s own culture.  On the other hand, if we take too tolerant an approach, we may fail to fulfill our responsibility to pass on “the faith once for all entrusted to the saints (Jude 1:3).

A wiser approach would seem to be to seek some middle ground between these two extremes.  If we accept the normative character of biblical revelation, we must insist that theologies that do not conform to the clear teaching of the Scriptures are something other than truly Christian.  On the other hand, in all humility we must also acknowledge the inability of any one individual or group to fully grasp all the truths of the Word of God.

God’s revelation of himself has been compared to a multi-faceted diamond, of which each of us sees only a few facets.  Thus, we ought to acknowledge that members of the body of Christ from the various peoples of China might well see things in Scripture that we have never seen, because our culture has blinded us to them. (The reverse may also be true, of course, but how arrogant it is to assume that it is always other people’s cultures that blind them to truth, and never our own.)

One of the great blessings of cross-cultural ministry is that it has a way of breaking us out of our provincial approaches to theology.  As I reflect on my own pilgrimage, I recall how the group-orientation of my Asian friends challenged my individualistic approach to Christianity.  The first time I heard of a whole Asian village deciding to follow Christ, I was quite put off by the concept.  Yet as I’ve studied Scripture with this in mind, I’ve seen many affirmations of God’s willingness to deal with people as groups, something my “rugged American individualism” previously kept me from seeing.

The necessity of contextualization in the proclamation of the gospel is a well-established missiological principle. If we would lay a solid foundation for the discipling of the peoples of China, we must do our due diligence to understand their cultures and develop evangelistic and discipling strategies appropriate to them.  For example, ancestor worship is a key issue in many Asian cultures.  How do our evangelistic approaches and discipling strategies address this?  Perhaps that is a question best answered by Asian Christians, but anyone who wants to make disciples in Asia needs to consider this issue.

We must encourage the development of indigenous theologies by the church as it takes root among the peoples of China.  It is not the job of outsiders to do theology for them, though some wise and sensitive waiguoren may earn the right to do theology with them. Certainly, exposure to the great works of theology that have gone before can be useful in the process, but we must ever guard against the tendency to present our particular brand of theology as the only right way to view the Scriptures.

The manner in which theology is articulated is also an area in which we should recognize the value of diversity. In some of the minority groups in China, oral traditions are passed on through songs that go on for days. Might such songs, infused with the stories of the biblical narrative, be much more effective expressions of theology for these groups than a set of prepositional statements in a theology textbook?

To this author, the questions seem to be many and the answers few in this area.  The bottom line, however, is: can we—will we—trust the Holy Spirit to guide the church among the various peoples of China to develop theologies that express God’s revelation in meaningful and helpful ways within their own cultures?  This not to say that there is not a role for Westerners who minister in China in this process.  God places upon all of us the responsibility to carefully instruct people in the Scriptures (see, for example, II Tim. 4:2).  But teaching the Scriptures and making dogmatic theological assertions are two different things.

A wise teacher will spend more time helping his students find biblical answers to their questions than expounding on the answers he has found to his own questions.  Different cultures give birth to different questions.  As the peoples of China discover for themselves the answers to their questions in the Word of God, truly biblical yet effectively relevant theologies will be the result.  Helping guide them through this process is surely what making disciples is all about.

Image credit: IMG_2630 by jorcolma via Flickr.
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Jim Nickel

Jim Nickel was vice president of ChinaSource from 2000 to 2004 and was involved in promoting work among the unreached Chinese peoples for many yearsView Full Bio