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The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and Chinese Christianity

The following is an excerpt from Ren Xiaopeng’s translator’s preface for the Chinese version of Mark A. Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. ReFrame Ministries will be publishing their Chinese translation of the book soon, so stay tuned.

Christian scholar Mark A. Noll’s seminal work, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind is still as relevant today as it was thirty years ago. As Chinese Christians, the book posits a question for us: if American evangelicalism is in such an intellectually vacant state, where would Chinese Christianity, deeply influenced by American evangelicalism and fundamentalism, go next? I believe that there are two questions that Chinese Christians cannot avoid. First, Chinese Christianity is deeply influenced by American fundamentalism. How then, should we understand this spiritual history? Second, given the significant influence of American evangelicalism on the development of contemporary Chinese Christianity, how should Chinese Christians critically study and integrate evangelical theology into our practices?

In today’s Chinese Christian world, fundamentalism is a rather ambiguous term. Many consider figures like Wang Mingdao, Song Shangjie (John Sung), and Watchman Nee (Nee T’o-sheng) as key representatives of Chinese Christianity fundamentalism. This view is true to a certain extent. Wang, Song, and Nee are generally conservative in their lines of biblical interpretation and viewpoints on the relationship between Christianity and society. However, we cannot limit our scope to only these figures within the conservative faction of Chinese Christianity. According to Christian historian George M. Marsden, fundamentalism is not only a theological phenomenon but also a social and cultural one. Across cultures, different religions have exhibited similar patterns of responses upon the dawn and prosperity of modernism. Fundamentalism exists across late nineteenth-century Islam, Confucianism, and Hinduism. At its core, fundamentalism arises as a reactionary response when traditional religions are unable to lead societies that are changed by modernism.1 Seeing the changes as negative, religious groups fixate on aspects of faith that directly respond to perceived societal problems as a way to cope, inadvertently overlooking the complexity and multiplicity of faith. Specifically in Chinese Christianity, fundamentalism influenced church leaders and believers to emphasize fixed, formulaic, and concrete aspects of faith, while stressing the negative tension between Christianity and the world. This trait is not only present in conservative figures like Wang, Song, and Nee but also prevalent in the mainstream belief traditions within Chinese Christianity. Historically, Chinese Christianity tends to have a fundamentalist undertone.

However, it should be noted that figures like Wang, Song, and Nee can only be classified as theological conservatives, bearing more resemblance to the piety-secularity divide that arose from the nineteenth century, rather than American fundamentalism.2 American fundamentalism shares similar features with fundamentalism in other religions since the nineteenth century, notably its combative and militaristic mentality and a salvific attitude aimed at rescuing the Christian (or Islamic) world from a disastrously fallen world. This savior mentality often leads to the perception of fundamentalists as aggressive figures. Furthermore, as fundamentalists are increasingly marginalized in secular societies, the social opposition intensifies their sense of struggle, enmity, and militant attitude. Fundamentalists withdrew from mainstream society and retreated into their closed communities. Despite their subcultural position distanced from the mainstream, fundamentalists have not abandoned their grand salvation plans. In their eyes, when the conditions are right, they will retake their position in history’s center stage once more.

Today, Chinese church leaders and believers often identify themselves as evangelicals, not fundamentalists. Compared to the spiritual predecessors of house churches, these churches pay more attention to societal concerns and value faith’s response to the here and now. However, suppose we place this stance within a broader theological spectrum, I believe that the Chinese urban house churches, developed since the 1990s, and influenced by conservative theology and biblical orthodoxy, resemble strands of American fundamentalists within today’s American evangelicals instead of the more progressive ones. On the one hand, since the 1990s, many works of American fundamentalist theology have been translated into Chinese, which helped nurture a large group of theologically deficient Chinese house churches (and thus Chinese churches worldwide). On the other hand, the most tenacious branch of American fundamentalist theology is conservative Reformed fundamentalist theology. Influenced by the “American as the brightest beacon” framework and political rhetoric, the theology is guided by a simplistic Christian civilization narrative. Its rise also coincided with the repressive politics of post-1989, which made some Chinese intellectuals especially psychologically susceptible to directing their attention to Christianity in the West.

In recent years, the number of American evangelicals has been declining, resulting in a relative surplus of theological resources. At the same time, driven by missionary zeal, there have been increased efforts to export these surplus theological resources to other parts of the world. On one hand, these missionary exports alleviated the scarcity of theological resources in many regions and blessed local churches, but it has also brought about a series of dilemmas. Theological trends with strong reactionary and combative characteristics may worsen the existing theological and faith “ecology” in local contexts. For example, since the 1980s, women have played an important role in Chinese Christianity; they have not only been significant constituents of the church but have also taken important roles like female ministers and workers. However, in recent decades, under the influence of American fundamentalist theology, some Chinese churches have not only vehemently opposed the ordination of women but also prevented women from preaching and serving in significant positions within the church. This heavily patriarchal church culture, while gradually shrinking in the American market, has gained significant traction in Chinese churches, especially given that Chinese Christians wish to “align” with the United States in Christianity.

Today, the main theological resources of Chinese Christianity come from American evangelicalism. However, frankly speaking, there has not yet been a comprehensive understanding and critical integration of its theology. American evangelicalism will still be an important theological source for Chinese Christianity in the foreseeable future. However, without a thorough understanding of American evangelicalism and how it was conceived within a specific historical context, Chinese Christianity could be prone to “imitating blindly,” which could lead to “maladjustment” and “malnutrition,” hindering its healthy growth and development in the future.

Christians often fall into a misconception of mistaking theological and faith concepts shaped by the era as the truth of faith itself. We fail to realize that the truth of faith comes from recognizing God’s transcendent care and humanity’s limitations. Instead, we erroneously elevate our personal experiences and simplistic thinking to the height of truth. Truly insightful theology is a window that allows people to perceive and be in awe of the vastness of the sky outside, rather than pointing at the window-framed sky and proclaiming the partial picture to be the entire world. American evangelicalism is a strand of American Christianity that emerged as a response to modernism in the mid-twentieth century. While it carries an admirable vitality, it is also temporal and circumstantial, and thus, limited. Therefore, as Chinese Christians, we need to understand its strengths and weaknesses to critically integrate its theology.

If we desire a deeper understanding of the theology and faith of American evangelicalism, and to be wise and prudent in assimilating evangelical theology, Noll’s remarkable work can serve as one entry point to this process.

Editor’s note: This article was originally written in Chinese and was translated by the ChinaSource team.


  1. Please see “Chapter 1: The changing Religious Composition of the U.S.,” in America’s Changing Religious Landscape, Pew Research Center, May 12, 2015, accessed April 12, 2024, The following study further explains the formation of American Evangelicalism: Religious Landscape Study, 2014, Pew Research Center, accessed April 12, 2024,
  2. Although Watchman Nee was influenced by the British Brethren, the British Brethren are significantly different from British fundamentalism in the twentieth century. Please see:  Tim Grass, “How Fundamentalist were British Brethren During the 1920s?,” in Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism in the United Kingdom during the Twentieth Century, eds. David W. Bebbington and David Ceri Jones, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
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Image credit: Joann Pittman.

Ren Xiaopeng

Ren Xiaopeng holds a PhD in Philosophy from Renmin University of China (中国人民大学)and a Master of Theological Studies (MTS) from Calvin Theological Seminary in the United States. His main areas of research are on the history and intellectual history of Christianity. Co-authored with Bai Yucheng, A Brief History of American …View Full Bio

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