Understanding the Past, Understanding the Present

History matters.[1] As the Teacher writes in the first chapter of the book of Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Today’s questions and challenges are repetitions or at least variations of things that have happened before. Knowledge of the past is an invaluable tool for understanding the present, enabling informed students of history to avoid some of the pitfalls and stumbling blocks that waylaid previous generations of servants.

In this issue of ChinaSource Quarterly we reflect on the Chinese church’s relationship with its past. For expatriates serving in China, as Brent Whitefield explains, knowledge of the history of the local community brings not just awareness and wisdom but also humility to cross-cultural ministry. Nor should we be naïve about what it takes to understand the history of Christianity in China. As Peregrine de Vigo explains, history is a contested space in China, often with several narratives all vying for acceptance. 

At the same time, Chinese Christians would also benefit greatly from a deeper understanding of their own religious past. On the one hand, as Brother Liu suggests, greater knowledge of the Chinese church’s past can provide guidance, helping Chinese believers to face current struggles with real wisdom. On the other hand, as Brother Li argues, this kind of historical awareness can also serve as a check on current impulses to pride within the church—hopefully limiting the fragmentation that pride so easily produces.

Of course, when new knowledge of the past is acquired, as we find in eL’s account of early Chinese women in ministry or Nan Pin Chee’s exploration of political and theological factors in the early days of the TSPM, expatriates and Chinese Christians alike discover newfound resources to help as they address similar (identical?) issues in the present.

Historical awareness ought to be second nature for Christians. Each time God tells Israel to “remember” he is training them to make a habit of recalling how God has cared for his people in the past in order that their faith in his provision for the present would be strengthened. May all those who serve the Lord in China embrace this habit of historical memory for the sake of God’s present and coming kingdom.

Image credit: Keyboard by Ash Kyd via Flickr.
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Andrew T. Kaiser

Andrew T. Kaiser, author of Voices from the Past: Historical Reflections on Christian Missions in China, The Rushing on of the Purposes of God: Christian Missions in Shanxi since 1876,  and Encountering China: The Evolution of Timothy Richard’s Missionary Thought (1870–1891) has been living and working in Shanxi with his …View Full Bio