THE AUTHORITY OF THE EXPERT: The Secularization of Chinese Christian Scholarship

(“What Traveled from West to East?” Part 6)
( [email protected] ) May 13, 2005 06:52 AM EDT

The most crucial trend which traveled from West to East – most crucial in terms of shaping the future of what Chinese Christians believe – is what I call “the secularization of Chinese Christian scholarship.”

The Chinese church in Asia experienced great transformation in the 1970s. Since the revival days of the 1930s, Chinese churches and Bible colleges were mostly isolated, or insulated, from secular thought and culture. To be holy was to be separated from the world. Theological education often consisted of Bible memorization, prayer, and skills in direct evangelism. Since the 1970s, however, many Chinese Christians preparing for the ministry traveled to the west to receive training – including advanced, doctoral-level training – in the various fields of theology. They studied at evangelical seminaries in North America as well as university-related divinity schools in the British Commonwealth and Europe.

During the 1970s, Chinese churches and Bible colleges also became more indigenous in leadership. Many western denominations and mission agencies turned over the administration of their Bible colleges to Chinese leaders in the 1970s. These schools worked hard to upgrade their curricula, libraries and faculties. New ideas began to travel from the west to the Chinese church. New ministry methods were adopted. New courses were added (communication, counseling, Chinese church history, etc.). In the society at large, the giant known as “Asia” woke up, and began that journey of transformation to where she is today: an economic miracle, the most strategic region in the information-age world.



Something more subtle, and more important, was happening beneath the surface. As educated Chinese assumed leadership of the church, succeeding their traditional, revivalist predecessors or western missionaries, theology took a new turn. Rather than “the church speaking to herself” about her convictions, Chinese theologians became convinced that their task was that of responding to the cultural and intellectual challenges from the contemporary world. Theological agendas were set over against the contemporary context. Whereas this posture of speaking to and in the world was more prevalent among liberal and neo-orthodox theologians in the first half of the 20th century, it became the majority opinion of evangelicals by the 1970s and 1980s.

This contemporary world at large was experiencing an even greater, more profound transformation in the 1970s and 1980s. The twentieth century turned out to be a century of horror, tragedy and catastrophe. Two world wars ended the utopian dream that science and technology was to bring about universal peace, progress and prosperity. Fascism came and went. The modern era (which put great confidence in man’s autonomous reason and science) came to an end. The “Christian” era in the west came to an end. In the 1970s, world leaders woke up to the reality that natural resources are limited, and distributed inequitably. Poverty continues to haunt the global conscience. In the Chinese world, Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek died in the 1970s. China and Taiwan began to change in a profound way. In the late 1980s, Marxism crumbled; capitalism is now on the march. Colonialism finally ended in Asia in the 1990s, with Hong Kong’s return to China (1997) and Macau’s (1999).

Thus Chinese Christians with advanced training faced a multi-faceted task: faced with tremendous diversity and cultural transformation in the world, how should one interpret the Bible? How do we re-interpret the Christian faith as the indigenous Chinese church comes of age? How are we to respond to the intellectual, cultural, political, and other human challenges in the contemporary world? What should be the shape of ministry of the church, embedded in the revivalist tradition? How can she be more effective and more sensitive to contemporary men, women and children? How can the church not only “speak to herself,” but also speak to and in the world? At least, how should the church speak in and to Asia?

Thus, the last twenty-five years of the 20th century have been a time of spiritual renewal and theological innovation in the Chinese church. Bible college teachers in the 1930s and 1940s would not recognize the shape of Chinese theological education today. Much which has happened has served the church well. Some subtle trends, however, especially trends in methodology, threaten to undermine the faithfulness and obedience of the church to her Lord Jesus Christ. These trends comprise what I call “the secularization of Chinese Christian scholarship.”



Theological trends and methodologies have been adopted as “commonplace”, which lead the Chinese church down a slippery path to heterodoxy – away from her historical, biblical roots. Much of this stems from a sincere effort to speak to the contemporary world, to listen and to understand contemporary humanities. However, in this process, experts in various academic fields assumed an autonomous kind of authority in re-interpreting the Christian faith. Evangelicals, in seeking to respond to the contemporary challenges in the world, imbibed a spirit of secular scholarship which was autonomous – theology and the humanities were explored with an increasingly weak link with the historical foundations in biblical doctrine. Let me cite several such trends.

1. An uncritical acceptance of contemporary theories of linguistics and deconstructionism in Bible interpretation. Some of the prominent postmodern ideas have now been adopted uncritically in by Chinese “evangelical” Bible scholars (e.g. the meaning of words are aribitrary). We have traveled a long way since the days when the historical-grammatical (even “literal”) interpretation of the Bible was the evangelical consensus. Today, the postmodern consensus in interpretation is: words are arbitrarily assigned to things. There is no text, no author, no reader. There is no text (no stable meaning to any text—including the Bible): all is interpretation. There is no author: the author “died” and lost control of his text once the text is written. There is no reader: there is only the contemporary canons of language usage interpreting the text (the reader also died). Language is everything; texts have no stable, intended meaning. In theological journals published by Chinese seminaries, scholars (both western scholars and Chinese) promote these ideas, often with little or no critique. These views go directly against (and are intended to be a thoroughgoing critique of) the traditional method of historical-grammatical interpretation of the Bible. It undermines the fact that God has sovereignly chosen to use language – words – to reveal himself, and that His revelation is clear and authoritative. Where is hermeneutics going in the Chinese church? Is there no critical voice to respond to, to revise, to re-evaluate these newest trends?

2. A preference for Biblical studies (which sounds noble) which is in fact hostile to the study of systematic theology. Some biblical scholars, in seeking to prevent theological biases to affect (or infect) Biblical interpretation, often sound the cry: “Let the Bible speak for itself”. While this sounds pious (indeed we need to study the Bible seriously on its own terms), it is in fact not so neutral as it seems on the surface. There is no neutral approach to the Bible! What some of them are really saying is: “There is little or no use in the study of systematic theology.” Biblical study is all; doctrines are to be gleaned from biblical studies, not theological formulation. This is a widespread, subtle way of undermining the system of truths taught in Scripture (because it is done in the name of Scripture). In an earlier generation, evangelical theologians would agree that sound Biblical interpretation, and orthodox doctrinal theology serve well to support and reinforce one another. However with the importation of secular scholarship, Chinese evangelical theologians imported the great divide between biblical studies and systematic theology. This is tragic. Two thousand years of doctrinal development are reduced to the level of a museum – with no relevance to biblical studies and pastoral ministry. Pastors are begin trained with little or no doctrinal foundation – they learn Greek and Hebrew, but are not equipped to handle the intellectual challenges in areas such as epistemology, the new vision of a finite God, and contemporary developments in the doctrine of Christ and the doctrine of the Holy Spirit (to name a few).

3. A trend Biblical interpretation among evangelicals which consistently leads the student of Scripture away from more traditional, conservative stance on various issues. There is almost an almost deliberate reaction against the historic stand taken by evangelicals in previous generations. In the past, evangelical scholars (from a variety of persuasions – Baptist, dispensationalist, Wesleyan, Reformed, and others) have sought to study all the viewpoints on an issue, and worked hard to respond to the non-evangelical/secular views. (The works of Donald Guthrie is a good example.) This is no longer the case today. Evangelical scholars are quite appreciative of secular academic schools of thought in Biblical interpretation, and have taken the strategy of assimilating themselves into the wider body of Biblical scholarship. Many are finding employment in non-evangelical seminaries in the west (something which an earlier generation could not even imagine), making contributions to theology as insiders of the academic establishment. Some Chinese evangelical theologians seem to be aiming at becoming known and published in the western (non-evangelical) theological circles. The unique evangelical stand in biblical studies and in theology is becoming more and more blurred. For example, did Genesis chapters 1 and 2 teach that God created the world out of nothing at the beginning of history? Such issues are skirted in the name of newer methodologies in Old Testament scholarship. Result: we can no longer discern clearly the line of demarcation between orthodox, Bible-believing scholarship and secular scholarship.

4. An admiration for the man-centered, experience-oriented, and paradox-filled perspective as one engages in theological formulation. In fact, according to this tradition, one should not try to build a system of doctrine; rather, the task of the theologian is to “reflect on religious experience” (very similar to the approach taken by Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of modern liberal theology). These Chinese evangelical theologians are often hostile to a coherent, reasoned system of doctrine deduced from Scripture. All “systems” are suspect, all efforts at “systemization” are illegitimate. God is an actor rather than one who revealed through words. “Word” and “act” in special revelation are put over against one another. Salvation is encounter rather than justification and propitiation; theology promotes “relationships” rather than “truths.” Result: the church becomes all that much weaker when faced with intellectual challenges from the world.

5. An uncritical adoption of methodology which comes from 19th century sociology of knowledge and 20th century thought, as one seeks to “integrate” theology and culture. Involved in this process is the relativizing of all cultural forms, including theological thought. As one observes the development of Chinese evangelical theology, a critical study of methodological assumptions is urgently needed. One may discover, from such a study, that the methodologies presupposed in current Chinese evangelical scholarship are quite similar to the methodologies presupposed by liberal, non-evangelicals in a previous generation! Where are we going? On what foundation are we building our scholarship in Chinese seminaries?

6. An uncritical appreciation and respect for Chinese thought and culture (especially Daoism, Confucianism and New Confucianism) which is in fact a deliberate reaction against the sanctified use of the mind. In promoting the Dao De Jing, for example, a form of “Christian” anti-rationalism, irrationalism or mysticism is presented in the form of “theology for the Chinese people.” God is said to have revealed to the Chinese people through the Dao De Jing (the Taoist classic text). God’s general revelation is equated with philosophy (fallen man’s response to God’s general revelation). Or in efforts to promote dialogue with the philosophers of New Confucianism, one is prone to dilute the historical stand on the uniqueness of Christ and the absolute claims of Scripture. Studies on spirituality put Confucian self-cultivation and Christian prayer/meditation on the same level for comparison and contrast (something which liberal western missionaries did in the 1890s, and liberal Chinese theologians did in the 1920s). In exploring issues in epistemology, a more “circular,” non-linear method of thinking is preferred. The process of discovering knowledge is part of that knowledge – is knowledge then clear, certain and authoritative any more? Evangelicals are losing their “cutting edge” as they become more familiar with Chinese philosophy.



It is time for the Chinese church to recognize that our theologians have traveled a long way toward secularizing our theology. It is time for us to do some serious reflection, and return to the historic, orthodox roots of our faith.

1. The Chinese church need to renew the vision of the pastor-scholar. Pastors must not simply learn skills and import methods for church growth. Pastors must be trained, encouraged, and given the time and tools to study doctrine – biblical, sound doctrine. Pastors must be encouraged, by seminaries as well as laypeople, to develop doctrinal preaching alongside expository preaching. The historic beliefs of the church concerning the sovereignty of God and His attributes, the deity of Christ as well as his humanity, the image of God and the fall of man, sin and repentance, etc. must be “allowed” to directly impact the content and structure of sermons. Only in this way will Chinese pastors build a strong foundation for their laity; the laity is demanding a biblical relevance from their pastors, and trendy scholarship will not meet the hunger and thirst in their hearts and minds.

2. Leaders from different denominations, mission agencies and seminaries must sit down and review what is happening to the doctrinal foundation of the Chinese church. While we well know that historic debates in theology – predestination vs. free will, the mode of baptism, the meaning of the millennium, etc. – will not be settled in the immediate future, there are many areas in which evangelicals and fundamentalists have historically agreed on. Let us re-capture that “evangelical-fundamentalist consensus” which was current in the 1940s – only let us do so with sensitivity, and reasoned response to, newer issues in theology (genetic engineering, multiple gender identities, information technology, ecology, nuclear warfare, feminism, miracles and the supernatural, etc.).

3. As we review contemporary Chinese theology, let us not “drown” in the cacophony of divergent theological schools of thought. Rather, let us study to expose the methodology (a more traditional word would be “epistemology”) of various contemporary schools. Let us return to the history of western thought, and critically review these methodologies, setting them over against their historical context. Then let us critique these methodologies, and see if these amount to versions of humanism – man asserting the autonomy of his reason, science or religious experience. Do these methodologies espouse a thorough relativism? Deism or pantheism? Methodologies are not neutral in their view of God.

4. We must “allow” the Bible – and the system of doctrine taught in the Bible – to inform and to guide our critique of the methodologies which lie at the foundation of contemporary schools of thought. The historic biblical stance of doctrine and apologetics need to be recovered.

5. As we engage in the apologetic task of exposing and evaluating the methodological foundations of contemporary thought, let us do so in a “self-conscious” and “sensitive” way. Let us be self-conscious, recognizing that we are finite, and are members of the historic church, as all seek to approach an understanding of what God has said in Scripture. Let us be sensitive, recognizing that many issues cannot be resolved, agreement cannot be achieved in the immediate future. However there is common ground which we should affirm, and there are dangers which we must be aware of.

6. Finally, church leaders must recover the vision of the church as a confessing church: the church publicly professes what she believes to her members, and to the watching world. We need to be bold and allow our biblical, historic and evangelical convictions to be understood by our “cultured despisers.” They will respect us more for it. Rather than hiding behind the canons of contemporary secular scholarship, evangelical theologians and church leaders need to publicly take a stand on what we truly believe – and pay the cost of opposition and ridicule. The church will be stronger; our laity will ultimately more effective as salt and light.

The Chinese church is going down a slippery slope toward heterodoxy. The church is allowing the world to teach her what to believe. This trend need to be reversed. While this trend came from the secular, academic west, the solution does not lie in a reaffirmation of Asian philosophy and religion. A truly indigenous church must look to the doctrine of system taught in Scripture for the ultimate authority, and to two thousand years of church history (the Holy Spirit did not lack his witnesses throughout history) for guidance, as she builds and communicates her doctrinal convictions. May God be gracious to the Chinese church to stand on the truth “once delivered to the saints.”