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Christians and Confucians on Human Nature: A Reader Responds

I’Ching Thomas, ChinaSource friend and contributor recently wrote in response to Gregg Ten Elshof’s article, “Might Christians and Confucians Actually Agree about Human Nature?” which appeared in the spring issue of ChinaSource Quarterly on contextualization and the Chinese church.

I appreciated Gregg Ten Elshof’s discussion in the spring issue of ChinaSource Quarterly on the possibility of the biblical faith and Confucianism (at least orthodox Confucianism) to agree somewhat on the condition of human nature. This observation is helpful for us as we seek to contextualize the biblical faith in the Chinese culture. Unfortunately, I was disappointed that it did not further explore how this agreement can help us communicate the gospel to the Chinese in an acceptable and relevant manner.   

As discussed in Ten Elshof’s article, like most world religions and philosophical systems, both Confucianism and the biblical faith recognize that something has gone awfully wrong and we need a solution to our existential problem. Confucius was profoundly moved by the state of the world in which he lived and vowed to dedicate his life to bringing reformation to his world. He concluded that the sociopolitical chaos of his days resulted from the failure of the rulers to fulfil their duties as caretakers of their citizens—they were more preoccupied with their self-interests and employed immoral ways to achieve them. Under the rule of such ruthless men, the common man suffers. These relentless afflictions upon the common man in turn suppress their potential to flourish.

Hence, Confucius put forth the solution of self-cultivation: the only way for a society to experience peace and to flourish was one that consists of Noble Men. Put simply, this is the virtuous cycle of the Confucian utopia where self-cultivating Noble Men govern virtuously (political responsibility) so that the community can live out their social roles according to the prescribed Confucian virtues which in turn create a harmonious and peaceful society that is conducive for the progress, flourishing as well as continual self-cultivation, of men and women towards becoming Noble Men (and women).

Unfortunately, the success of the Confucian project seems to have been thwarted by the weakness of its very driving force—humanity itself. As Confucianism believes the orientation towards good is inherent in everyone, it assumes that humanity in general has a common aspiration for self-cultivation. The success of Confucian ethics presumes moral prescripts and actions as the autonomous realization of human nature that is inherently good. Any effort in moral self-cultivation is based on the autonomous will of an individual and not swayed by external imperatives or duty.[1] In other words, we strive towards benevolence and other moral ideals because we instinctively want to.

However, because Confucian ethics is commonly believed to be based on the goodness of human nature rather than grounded in a divine personal being, the tension between ethical demand/duty and human limitation/weakness is understated. Our a priori assumptions about human nature, as well as where we ground morality, are crucial if we are to succeed in our self-cultivation.

Confucius suggests that we can actualize the good of our human nature by self-cultivation because we are inherently good. However, this is like pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and will remain an impossible task unless we are offered a helping hand.

Sinologist James Legge points out that Mencius’ doctrine of human nature was defective because a person’s moral duty or obligation is only unto himself or herself and the society.[2] When our moral obligation is perceived this way, even though autonomous, it will never bring us any closer to the Confucian ideals because unless there is divine intervention, our sinful condition will always taint our good intentions no matter how noble.[3]

On the other hand, the biblical faith recognizes that sin has corrupted humanity and contends that any form of self-cultivation must begin with solving the problem of sin and halting its pervasiveness. For that we will need divine intervention. And we know that that has come in the person of Christ. And what is insufficiently alluded to in Confucius’ teachings about the divine is clearly revealed in the New Testament:

What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “In him we live and move and have our being” . . . (Acts 17:23-28)

In short, a strong parallel is evident in the many aspects of Confucius’ teachings and the redemptive gospel in addressing the inadequacy of the human condition. However, what has fallen short in Confucius’ solution was his optimism in the very nature of humanity that needs restoration. If the root cause of the human dilemma lies within humanity itself, then we will need external non-human intervention to help us root out the source of our plight. And this is where the good news for the Chinese comes in. The aspiration of human flourishing and becoming a Noble Man may be unattainable on our own, but we do not have to do it on our own. The path towards that hope is open to us in Christ:

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

Editor's Note: For further discussion, read Jesus: The Path to Human Flourishing: The Gospel for the Cultural Chinese, in which I’Ching Thomas seeks to present the gospel in a way that seamlessly corresponds with Confucius’ ideals for humanity but with a realistic solution.

Also, see the “Confucius and Christ: Conflict, Compromise or Communication,” the 2014 spring issue of ChinaSource Quarterly.


  1. ^ Miikka Ruokanen and Paulos Huang, eds., Christianity and Chinese Culture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdsmans, 2010), 8.
  2. ^ James Legge, Chinese Classics, Vol.2 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1895), 26.
  3. ^ Ruokanen and Huang, 9.
Image credit: Confucius by Troy Kasper Photography via Flickr. 
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I’Ching Thomas

I’Ching Thomas

I’Ching Thomas is a Malaysian Chinese whose present sojourn is in Singapore. She’s an aspiring Sinologist who wears three hats: Operation Mobilisation’s International Director of Leadership Development, wife to a New Testament professor, and mom to a middle-schooler. She moonlights as an apologist and a writer in all things related. …View Full Bio

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