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In Search of the Chinese Christian Mind

Anti-Intellectualism in the Chinese Church (What Traveled from West to East? Part 3)
( [email protected] ) Mar 04, 2005 07:13 AM EST

Two things come to mind when we discuss the trend in the church known as “anti-intellectualism.” We either feel as if we are describing the very air we breathe, the way we understand the Christian life which is “second nature” to us; or we find it so distant, so far into the past, so remote that we hardly recognize it. Such is the anamoly of anti-intellectualism. Nevertheless, we must recognize that an anti-intellectual, anti-theological, and anti-cultural stance is very much a part of the Chinese evangelical heritage which has been transmitted from West to East. Whether we applaud it or fear its negative consequences, Christians ministering in the Chinese church in the 21st century need to recognize it for what it is, and know how to respond to this deeply-rooted thought pattern among Chinese pastors and believers.

Forms of Anti-Intellectualism: Toward a Definition

What, exactly, is “anti-intellectualism,” and how did it travel from the West to the East? Before we try to give shape to anti-intellectualism, let us point out what it is not.

First, anti-intellectualism is not the same thing as disdain for higher education. Most Chinese Christians, especially parents, adore education. They push their children to achieve, so much so that one might say that many “worship” higher education. However, the same people who place a high premium on going to the university and graduate school, can be totally anti-intellectual when it comes to their understanding of the Christian life.

Second, anti-intellectualism does not mean that one does not use the mind. In fact, some of the masters of anti-intellectual theology and spirituality are highly intelligent, and have developed sophisticated theologies, both in the West and in 20th century China. In the contemporary Chinese church, there is a strand of Confucian-Christian, or Taoist-Christian mysticism developed by Christian philosophers who are highly articulate, using books, magazines, mass rallies and lectures and mass media (videos and tapes) to promote their anti-intellectualism. These people have adopted Western techniques to debunk what they consider to be western, “Greek-Roman” baggage.

Third, anti-intellectualism can be seen in people who, for the practical problems in life, think just like an engineer does. They search for the “optimal solution” to every problem. You find them going through a problem-solving process, and adopting a management-by-objectives approach to church leadership. Yet they also learn and live an anti-intellectual form of Christianity in the core of their souls. The difficulty lies in determining when a person uses the engineer-management approach to church life, and when he/she defers to the traditional anti-intellectual way of life. Sometimes a person himself/herself even does not know! Such is the air we breathe, the way we do things in many Chinese churches!

Fourth, the use of the emotions is not automatically anti-intellectual. There is a proper place for the emotions in the Christian life (the Puritans assign it a subordinate place, following the lead of the Holy Spirit illuminating the mind and capturing the will). There is great need today for the Word of God and the Spirit of God to minister to the hearts of hurting people. However there is an anti-intellectual way to minister, and there is a more balanced alternative.

What, then, is “Christian anti-intellectualism?” We find it expressed in various forms in the Chinese church.

First, anti-intellectualism can be seen when the mind is deprecated in favor of the “spirit,” or “intuition,” in the doctrine of man. The mind is not good, the spirit is. In the well-known trichotomous theology of the Assembly Hall tradition, man is understood to be body, soul, and spirit. The soul is defined as mind, emotions and will. The spirit, however, is the proper faculty (function) for men and women to commune with God. Thus one should give up the “soulish” way, and seek the “spiritual” approach. In this paradigm, both the mind and the emotions are submerged, and the intuition is the way to experience the Holy Spirit.

Second, the same emphasis on “intuition” in the doctrine of man can be seen among mainland Chinese Christians in North America today. Some define original sin as reason. Reason is the content of Adam’s original sin. We are sinners because we use our reason. Salvation, then, consists of emancipation from reason. The proper way to know God is through faith and intuition. This kind of “direct,” intuitive approach to fellowship with God rejects any appeal to the wisdom of two thousand years of church history. The slogan is: Let us directly knock at the door of Jesus. Overseas Chinese intellectuals today are evangelized, and thus influenced, by Chinese preachers using this intuitive approach.

The first and the second kind of “intuition spirituality” can easily converge. It is no accident, therefore, that followers of the first kind of spirituality easily welcome the proponents of the second type.

Third, we find anti-intellectualism in some pastors’ approach to Scripture and preaching. This is “spilled over” to how Christians do Bible study. An effective sermon or Bible study consists of “insights” into how to “apply” the Bible to our lives, without careful investigation into the context of a passage, the main points and their relationship with each other, and the relationship of the passage to Scripture as a whole. In other words, Bible study becomes “sharing” about whatever one feels about the passage. A sermon is simply a series of exhortations to live godly lives – the structure of the message has very little relationship with the structure of the Bible passage read.

Fourth, anti-intellectualism is seen in the approach taken in some quarters to lip Chinese theological education. Most seminaries can pay lip service to the ideal of balancing “spirituality, knowledge, and ministry (ling ming, zhi shi, shi feng). However, in reality either the private devotional life of the seminary student takes precedence over study and ministry; or ministry skills (such as understanding one’s audience, the ability to get along with coworkers, leading worship in the contemporary “praise and worship” style, familiarity with the church through weekend and summer ministry, taking the lion’s share of the students’ time) becomes a substitute for the rigorous, careful study of Bible and Bible doctrine.

Anti-Intellectualism’s Journey from West to East

How did this anti-intellectualism travel from West to East? Several movements in intellectual history and church history contributed to its development.

First, a number of revivalist movements in Europe and America were begun in reaction to a lifeless Christianity in the established churches. Pietism in 18th century Germany, Methodism in England and America during the same period, the Keswick movement and other Holiness movements in the 19th century, all sought to re-capture the fire of God’s love in one’s soul. Some unwittingly adopted an anti-intellectual approach to spirituality; others deliberately deprecated the mind as they developed guidelines for the believer to sustain intimacy with God.

Revival does not have to be anti-intellectual. The Reformation in the 16th century, the Puritan movement in the 17th century, and the Great Awakening were three outstanding examples where the place of the mind, regenerated and controlled by the Holy Spirit, had a proper place in a Christian’s search for the knowledge of God. The Chinese church, however, is the child of the later, anti-intellectual type of revivalism; she is only a remote great-grandchild of the Reformation and the Puritan vision of the Christian life. There is currently a revival of Puritan studies, an encouraging trend to the careful observer.

Second, anti-intellectualism may travel a very indirect route, from existentialism through neo-orthodoxy (or directly) to the spiritual pilgrimage of a number of outstanding contemporary Chinese Christian thinkers. Existentialism is a rejection of Hegel’s grand scheme of the universe; Soren Kierkegaard’s concern is the here and the now. Existentialism has been extremely popular among Chinese university students since the 1960s, first on Taiwan and in Hong Kong, then on mainland China and overseas. Within this worldwide context of searching for authentic humanity, some university students turned to both western existentialism and Chinese philosophy (Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism). Some eventually were converted to Jesus Christ. However their temperament as literati (wen ren) is deeply rooted; they have a very hard time allowing the light of God’s Word to shine on, and evaluate, their Chinese/existentialist mode of thought. They also have a hard time taking a critical look at their philosophical ethnocentrism. Thus they take pride that Chinese can write better commentaries on Ecclesiastes and James, while westerners could only do exposition on doctrinal works such as Romans. One finds here the use of western intellectual concepts and tools to bolster one’s Chinese/existentialist presuppositions, both before and after conversion to Christ.

Third, Protestant missionaries to China were largely products of the Christian college or the Bible school in Europe and America. The latter, in turn, were products of revivalist movements. Revivalists criticized the established church-run seminaries for their lifeless formalism and liberal, secularized theology. The cry was “the evangelization of the world in this our generation” in the 1890s. The Bible school was an answer to, an alternative to the seminary. However, as revivalistic missions movements developed (the Christian and Missionary Alliance is an outstanding example), Bible schools (such as “The Missionary Institute”) were transformed to Christian liberal arts colleges (Nyack College); then a graduate school of mission was added (the Alliance School of Theology and Mission), finally transforming itself into a full-fledged seminary (Alliance Theological Seminary). We can find many other examples.

The Chinese church is a generation behind this transformation. In the chaotic period of the 1930s and 1940s, the Bible school was the primary form of ministerial training. These schools admitted junior high graduates as well as senior high graduates. Many Chinese pastors, reivalists and missionaries were trained in these schools, where a rigorous regimen of prayer, evangelism, meditative Bible reading, virtuous living, sacrifice, menial tasks and sacrifice was instilled in students throughout the curriculum. This type of theological education proved to be effective preparation for a life of suffering and sacrifice after the Communist revolution of 1949. Three elements were often lacking: training in western languages; liberal arts; and systematic theology. These deficiencies lie in the background of the inability of some pastors to adjust to a modern context, especially in the contemporary western world. Many pastors made the adjustment by continuing their education beyond the Bible school, first by attending a Christian liberal arts college (Azusa Pacific University was a popular choice), then seeking a M.A.-level degree in ministry.


Graduate education in theology is not a cure-all for effective ministry. I do not want to suggest this at all; being a product of the classical western kind of training (B.A.

History, M.Div., Th.M., then Ph.D. in church history), I am keenly aware of the deficiencies of a highly academic, cognitive kind of training for pastors. I have learned the hard way about life, about ministry, about relationships. However the traditional anti-intellectual model of Bible school training need to be re-evaluated. In fact, we find that there is a worldwide movement of re-thinking theological education, and this iuncludes leaders among the Bible schools around the world. Praise God! May we find the best of the seminary and the Bible school model, and create something workable for the 21st century!

Fourth, anti-intellectualism stemmed from a pessimistic attitude toward the world widespread in 19th century America. After the Civil War (1861-65), as liberal theology and evolutionary ideas spread from Europe to America, conservative Christians began to see doomsday drawing near. The world is falling away. Satan is working hard. Let us snatch individual souls out of Satan’s territory, and not worry about earthly needs (such as the transformation of thought, culture and society with the power of the Gospel). The result: churches are highly insulated from their surrounding society and culture. The Christian’s mandate to be salt and light, transforming culture and society, is relegated to the background. Church leaders are fearful that Christians thinking about cultural transformation may become liberal in their doctrine; such fears are not unfounded! The overall result is an avoidance of secular culture, and an inability to respond to the challenges which come from the world of thought and popular media.

The Search for the Chinese Christian Mind

As the 21st century dawns, the Chinese church needs a biblical, balanced, and comprehensive vision of man’s soul before God. The Puritans taught that when a person is born again, the Holy Spirit illumines the soul, so that the gospel truth is bear on the person. Then the Holy Spirit enables the soul to surrender before God; repentance and faith are gifts of the Holy Spirit. In other words, the will surrenders. Finally the heart follows the mind and the will, and receives the grace and love of Jesus Christ, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

When a person is born again, the Holy Spirit will discipline his/her whole being to love God. The mind is brought under control of the Holy Spirit, through the Word of God. The heart is taught to love the things of God, and to hate the things of the flesh and the world. The will is challenged to surrender, constantly, to the will of God. The mind, the heart, and the will – not one aspect is deprecated. All are indispensable “functions” of the human soul in obedience to God the Savior.

The human heart is fragile, sick and injured. It needs healing. The human mind is in desperate of re-education, especially in the postmodern world where truth and meaning are often absent. The human will is in search of godly, virtuous, righteous role models – Jesus Christ, the author and finisher of our faith, is our supreme role model. He is our teacher; he is our high priest; he is our master and lord.

May the Chinese church teach her believers to properly use the mind to investigate, to study, to understand, and to cling on to the precious truths taught in Scripture – and thus to set the heart on fire in love for God. The fire will burn on – it will burn on if the Word continues to be imprinted in our souls and minds.

Dr. Samuel Ling is president of China Horizon

(www.chinahorizon.org), and associate professor

of systematic theology at International Theological Seminary in Los Angeles.