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“Theological Reflections on Urban Churches in China”

A Reformed Theologian Responds

Christianity, or some version of it, was introduced to China nearly 1,400 years ago—just after Augustine of Canterbury’s papal mission to England in 597. That historical nugget, recently noted by Promise Hsu here, never ceases to amaze me. Neither does the role Christianity has played in China’s modern history or the fecundity of evangelical faith in the Middle Kingdom today. All of this is on display in this summer’s edition of ChinaSource Quarterly. It’s a fascinating collection of several articles and a couple book reviews—including a review of a book I edited—on the theological life of China’s contemporary urban churches.

As a Reformed believer, it’s remarkable to see the theology I confess putting down deep roots in China’s fertile soil. This has been documented elsewhere on this website (here and here, for example), but this issue of the Quarterly is further evidence that Reformed theology is becoming thoroughly indigenized as a Chinese church tradition. Chinese Reformed theology, by whatever name it comes to be known, now seems destined to take its place alongside other species of this diverse genre such as the Huguenot, Dutch Reformed, Puritan, and Korean Presbyterian strands (among many others).

Not to be missed, the current issue doesn’t just document the growing influence of Reformed theology within China’s urban churches but exhibits the fact. Exhibit A: Paul Peng, a Reformed church leader in Chengdu, wrote the lead article “Reformed Theology.”  The pastoral wisdom and churchly sensibilities of his contribution show the tradition is in capable hands. Exhibits B and C: the scholarly reflections of Li Jin on Chinese eschatology and Hsu on public theology—both authors are currently studying at a Reformed institution in America.

Prospects for further indigenization also appear to be very strong; Reformed theology seems made to answer many of the questions raised in this edition of the Quarterly. Consider Wei Zhou’s article on the popularity of classical liberalism among the educated classes. This, he argues, represents a serious challenge to urban house churches. Some “use theology to justify classical liberalism, replacing the gospel message with social and political concerns.” Others, he suggests, retreat from difficult issues into pious passivity. But some churches hold true to their gospel-centered mission while “seeking answers for social and political ills in an in-depth theology.” These, he argues, are ideally situated to gather in and effectively disciple China’s young liberal-minded urbanites.

Although the Reformed tradition has no monopoly on offering in-depth theological answers to worldly questions, it is well positioned to do so. Indeed, many of those who now embrace Reformed theology first discovered this tradition trying to answer these and other more churchly kinds of questions that life and ministry in China raises.

Reformed theology also offers an alternative to the eschatological views of dispensationalists, cultists, communists, and secularists Li explores in these pages. Our eschatology, Li argues, “not only concerns our future but also determines how we live today.” While permitting a diversity of eschatological opinions within a relatively narrow range, the prevailing view in contemporary Reformed circles is amillennialism, which, in addition to enjoying strong biblical support, may prove a rich vein for China’s Reformed thinkers to mine.

Hsu’s article on public theology in China raises yet another set of questions on which the Reformed tradition has much to offer—I dare say more to offer than any other branch of Protestantism. The profound theological insight the Reformed tradition provides into, for example, the respective natures and ministries of church and state, the spiritual and ministerial authority of the former, and the distinction between God’s sovereignty as creator and the mediatorial kingship of Jesus Christ as head of the church, are highly relevant to any public theology in contemporary China.

For all its wealth, the Reformed tradition does not offer final answers to many of the questions Chinese believers (and many other Christians throughout the world) are asking today—and is certainly not beyond learning from other Christian traditions. What many Chinese believers are finding in it are compelling theological principles argued with exegetical and philosophical care. These principles expound the content of Reformed orthodoxy and mark out its boundaries. As China’s Reformed church leaders and scholars discover “in-depth” theological resources for answering their most pressing questions, they make the Reformed tradition their own and begin to shape its future—a future that belongs as much to them as anyone else in the world.

The result now seems unavoidable, and is already arriving: a confessional Reformed tradition with Chinese characteristics. The pages of this summer’s edition of ChinaSource Quarterly more than hints at this tantalizing prospect; within its pages are the latest exhibits of the fact itself.

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Bruce P. Baugus

Bruce P. Baugus is associate professor of philosophy and theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, editor of China’s Reforming Churches: Mission, Polity, and Ministry in the Next Christendom (Reformation Heritage Books, 2014) and author of The Roots of Reformed Moral Theology: The Historical Background of an Ecclesial Tradition …View Full Bio

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