I Was Wrong

A Retraction of My Criticism of Chloë Starr’s Chinese Theology

Mea Culpa

In a review posted in From the West Courtyard, I made three unfair and inaccurate criticisms of Dr.Starr’s book. After re-reading both my review and relevant portions of Chinese Theology, I wish to retract those charges.

Neglect of Evangelical Theology

First, I said that “Chinese Theology includes almost no detailed study of evangelical theology produced in China.”

Though that statement is true, it is unfair and irrelevant, because Dr. Starr clearly stated at the outset that she was going to focus on writers from mainstream denominations who were liberal in their theology. She frankly admitted that there are “serious omissions,” including discussion of important figures like Watchman Nee and Jia Yuming (12).

In short, I was faulting her for not writing a book she never intended to produce!

Furthermore, she does devote a chapter to contemporary evangelical writers.

Second, I said that she “ignores a half-dozen writers from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Southeast Asia, and North America. . . That means that she entirely overlooks the massive six-volume Systematic Theology  and eight-volume Comprehensive Apologetics of Zhang Lisheng (Lit-sen Chang).”

Again, though the statement is mostly true, it ignores her stated interest in dealing with major figures within either denominations or the academy in China.

Finally, I claimed that “Starr believes that really ‘Chinese’ theology will never look like its ‘Western’ counterpart, because authentic Chinese Christianity will reflect China’s unique literary, cultural, social, and political contexts. . .  She has allowed her thesis—that Chinese Christians must use native literary forms and thus will never write anything that resembles ‘Western’ systematic theology—to exclude anything that does not fit her framework.”

This criticism has a kernel of truth, since Starr does say that “a healthy disinclination persists to mimic anything that even remotely resembles a tome of Western systematic theology.” (278) My interpretation of this and similar comments throughout the book makes Starr’s position look much more absolute than it is, however. She has highlighted a fact: Chinese do not tend to write systematic theology as much as their Western counterparts.

For these unfair and incorrect statements, I have apologized to Dr. Starr, and she has responded most graciously.

Text and Context

Now, without in any way minimizing or excusing my fault in making an unfair evaluation of Chinese Theology, I would like to borrow Dr. Starr’s concept of “Text and Context” to provide some background to my review. In other words, there was a “context” to my “text.”

In the 1960s, I attended a prestigious Episcopal seminary. Though a few of my teachers held to orthodox Christian beliefs, most of them were theologically liberal. That is, they denied that the Bible was God’s Word; the miracles of the Old and New Testaments, including the virgin birth and the resurrection of Jesus Christ; the need to be born again in order to enter the kingdom of God; the absolute authority of the Bible in areas of ethics; and the second coming of Christ. In other words, they shared the beliefs of most of the Protestant Chinese thinkers whom Starr treats in her book.

I do not deny anyone the right to believe as he thinks best, but what bothered me most was that not once in three years did I hear any of my liberal professors even mention the work of an evangelical or conservative scholar. No books written by evangelicals or theological conservatives appeared in the reading list. It was as if such people did not exist.

Fast-forward to 2015, when I attended two academic conferences on Christianity held at premier universities in China. Those who gave papers came from all over the country, so I assume that they represented their institutions more or less accurately. I listened to more than sixty papers delivered in Chinese. Not one paper referred to any scholar or theologian who might be considered evangelical or even orthodox in their theology or stance on the Bible.

That is not all.

For about ten years, I have followed with interest the proceedings of the Institute of Sino-Christian Studies in Hong Kong, of which Dr. Starr is a guest research fellow. This is a premier research institute, and attracts the finest Chinese and Western scholars to conferences. Their journal, which I have regularly perused, presents a virtual “Who’s Who” of contemporary Chinese Christian academics and their Western partners.

Now, I don’t want to commit the same mistake I did with Dr. Starr’s book by making an absolute statement. I can safely say, however, that the papers, articles, books, and scholars that are mentioned in their journal, the Institute of Sino-Christian Studies News, almost never (if ever) include any reference to evangelical or theologically conservative scholarship or scholars.

In particular, evangelical or theologically conservative American scholars make virtually no appearance.

I see a trend here: Evangelical and theologically conservative thinkers, especially Americans but including Chinese, receive little or no attention in the European, North American, or Chinese academies. Again, it’s as if they didn’t exist.

To be sure, if there were no good evangelical or theologically conservative theologians or scholars, such neglect would not be a problem. The trouble arises when I attend the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society or open the pages of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society; read a page in Carl Henry’s massive God, Revelation, & Authority; or take even a brief glance at any of the works of Lit-sen Chang (Zhang Lisheng).[1]

Thousands—yes, thousands—of highly educated and very competent biblical scholars and theologians believe that the Bible is God’s Word written, and even that it is inerrant. Hundreds of them have published books and articles that match, and often greatly exceed, the scholarly standards of works produced by “mainline” writers.

Sometimes, to be sure, American evangelical writers do receive mention in surveys of modern theology. Carl Henry, especially, was so prominent for so long that one really can’t ignore him. Universally, however, the assessment given him reflects what appears to be almost total ignorance of his works. I have documented some of this in my book, Carl Henry: Theologian for All Seasons, but many more examples of what I call “Christian slander” continue to appear in print. Indeed, one reason I was so ashamed of my unfair evaluation of Dr. Starr’s book is that I don’t want to be guilty of what I lament in others.

Within this context, I should commend Dr. Starr, for she not only mentions evangelical writers, but refers to them respectfully. Where she does discuss them in her book, she does so fairly (with one exception, which I mention in the second part of my longer review of her book. See below.).

Going Forward

Where do we go from here?

First, I can recommend Chinese Theology as an excellent introduction to several Chinese Roman Catholic and Protestant thinkers whose writings deserve to be known and understood within their contexts, which she paints vividly and accurately.

Second, I sincerely hope that someone will acknowledge the contributions of twentieth-century Chinese evangelicals, like Lit-sen Chang (Zhang Lisheng) and Jia Yuming. Contemporary scholars like Wu Daozong, the new president of Singapore Baptist Theological Seminary, whose biblical commentaries meet the highest standards of scholarship and who has written introductory works on theology and apologetics, also deserve attention.

Finally, I have finished the second part of a very long review of Chinese Theology, which you can find at Global China Center. An earlier draft of it was revised in light of what I’ve said in this article, but at the end of the review, I express some criticisms that I still have of Dr. Starr’s book. Hopefully, I have been fairer this time.