Why Chinese don’t contextualize theology

Why Chinese don’t contextualize theology January 8, 2015

I often hear people say that missionaries are not the people who should be doing the contextualization for the Chinese church. Instead, they should let nationals do the contextualization. They are the ones who can contextualize best.

That sounds right. Unfortunately, however, it’s merely an ideal and a half-truth at best.ChineseJesus

The truth is this––Chinese do not naturally contextualize theology for a Chinese context.

This observation is evident to anyone who has spent significant time among Chinese Christians across the country and has visited their training centers. At least among evangelical churches, one will not find a distinctly Chinese pattern of thinking about the Bible and theology. Rather, the typical theology found among Chinese Christians varies little, if any, from conservative, Western churches. In particular, I refer to emphases and expressions.

I’m not suggesting that a genuinely contextualize theology would contradict traditional, Western theology. Nor am I saying there isn’t a diversity of theological perspectives. That’s obviously false.

What would we expect….?

What would we expect from a distinctly Chinese theology? A genuinely contextualized theology would at least supplement (if not correct) Western theology. We would expect that non-Western theologies would expose blind spots and bring balance to traditionally neglected themes.

For example, we would expect a Chinese theology to address a number of critical ideas, which are concerns shared by both Chinese people as well as the Bible. Most obvious among these themes are honor-shame and collective identity.

Instead, other than the language, it is difficult to identify any meaningful differences between theology in the Western church and that found in the vast number of Chinese fellowships.

Why do Chinese not contextualize?

Here are a few factors that stifle contextualization within the Chinese church.

1. Chinese Union Version (CUV, 和合本)

The Chinese Bible hinders Chinese self-theologizing. One of the most well known problems in the CUV is its translation of sin as “crime” (罪). First of all, the word does not inherently mean “crime.” If we restrict ourselves to a sheerly legal metaphor, then of course “crime” expresses the idea of sin.

However, the Bible is far more diverse in its way of expressing the problem that we call sin. For example, Rom 1:18–23 describes unrighteousness as the dishonoring of God. The Old Testament routinely depicts Israel’s sin as that of adultery.

Unfortunately, the CUV’s narrow translation automatically forces the Chinese Christian to assume a legal framework when talking about sin and thus salvation. Consequently, other metaphors and themes will be marginalized and regarded as analogies at best.

2. Chinese respect authority and tradition

Chinese people respect authority and honor tradition. Therefore, when Western missionaries uncritically present theological ideas in a very traditionally Western way, then the Chinese believer will naturally accept this framework as “gospel”. Accordingly, they will emphasize doctrines and texts that speak most clearly to a Western context. All the while, these basic doctrinal categories and questions do not cohere easily with normal Chinese patterns of thinking.

Missionaries can confuse the theology commonly found in churches with a genuinely contextualized Chinese theology. The believers’ acceptance of Western theology however does not confirm that Western theology is essentially the same as Eastern theology. The Chinese people’s humility to honor tradition and authority becomes a pathway whereby they are subtly “judiazed” by Western teaching.

3. Lack of theological training

There is very little standardized theological training being done in the Chinese house church. I specifically refer to accredited theological education. The point of highlighting “accreditation” is not to say that higher level degrees are important to spiritual maturity. Instead, accredited theological training provides some measure of quality control.

There is a far amount of training that comes from “theology from a box” type programs. These 3–4 day sessions have value but they have definite limitations. For instance, they are not normally contextualized for a Chinese context in particular. Also, those course are often taught through translators.

Furthermore, those programs offer a pretty restricted scope of classes. This is because they are often pre-written to cover 8–10 basic and broad subjects. Then they are translated into Chinese and perhaps 10 other languages.

As a result of these things, those course teach doctrine but not necessarily the additional critical thinking skills that Chinese Christians need to address the problems they face in China.

4. Lack of exegetical skill

Those who have been heavily influenced by the Western church tend to emphasize systematic theology. Most missionaries are more conversant in theological doctrines than they are in how to do exegesis. (As illustration, let’s not forget how few missionaries received rigorous training in the original languages, not to mention the application of that knowledge in the task of exegesis).

Not surprisingly, a lot of training stresses the doctrines of systematic theology. These can be learned, memorized, and dogmatically defended. However, that does not guarantee that people will know to interpret the original meaning of a text within its own context. More typical is the instance where a pastor presupposes an answer and then goes to the Bible to confirm what they already heard from a prior teacher.

Contextualization however requires both exegetical skills as well as a grasp for the grand biblical narrative. These are two spheres of training that are not usually emphasized by missionaries and thus the Chinese believers whom they taught.

The above factors are just a few of the major reasons Chinese do not naturally do contextualization. Until these problems are addressed, it will be difficult for Chinese Christians to develop Chinese theologies.

Photo Credit: CC 2.0/commons.wikimedia

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  • Reblogged this on Werner Mischke and commented:
    A great blog post from my friend Jackson Wu.

  • Dr. Wu … This is an excellent post. Thank you. I believe this predicament is found all over the world, where Western innocence/guilt theology dominates in the indigenous church, despite the fact that the the cultural context (of both Scripture and the local community) is primarily honor/shame.

  • Derek

    I’d love to hear more about why you believe the Chinese don’t contextualize?

    I do agree that there are aspects where they have a hard time applying scripture to their personal lives. Possibly because of the educational system, there seems to be a difficulty in applying theory into practice, in general, within the country.

    I do believe there are gaps, but I do believe there are areas where they are developing their own theology very nicely.

    I have witnessed a highly developed contextualized theology of persecution in the Chinese church (I would say there is little developed contextualized theology of persecution in the American church). The American side of this coin looks much more like victim theology than the Chinese ‘suffer and overcome’ perspective.

    I also believe the Chinese have a contextualized ecclesiology, highly contextualized to their own situation (and very different from city to countryside). Some of there’s is healthier than what we have in the US. Other aspects still need to be developed. Some places take on much more of a US feel, especially those areas with more access to foreigners.

    One thing we can never forget is, that the Chinese church is still in its infancy. It was highly persecuted, and much of it’s past was wiped out. Since then, on the unregistered side, two very different churches have emerged, the countryside church and the city church. Each of these branches have very different theologies and practices. This takes a great deal of time. The African American church took a long time to develop it’s own missiology, after the Civil Rights Movement — It took a while for the church to figure itself out, and to figure out what it believed, and how it wanted to engage. Now, the African American church is doing amazing things in world mission, but it took a while.

    Similarly, since the end of cultural revolution, and the slow opening of freedom, neither the Chinese countryside church and city churches have not had enough time to truly develop their own theologies. Yes, there are more seminaries, but because of the lack of flow of information, there has not been rigorous discussion on these topics. More importantly, there hasn’t been enough time to figure it out in practice. It takes time, and I believe it is happening.

    The Chinese church is developing it’s own missiology. This is happening through theology, and practice. It looks very different from city to countryside church — both branches are engaging this issue in a very different manner. Yet, I do believe it is driven from a unique missiology, and a different missiology from America/Europe.

    I do agree with you that there are gaps… Where specifically do believe these gaps exist? How does it differ from places with high degrees of contact with foreigners and those with low degrees?

  • Mitch

    JacksonWu, is it in the works or future plans to get any of your blog posts translated? I printed out the 3D Theology guide in Chinese to give to some of our nationals here and has been very helpful. I feel like a lot of the blog posts I read on here would be extremely beneficial to them as well.

    • Mitch, thanks for the suggestion. I would certainly love to post in Chinese but time/resources limit me. If I knew of trustworthy and capable people who were willing to do the translation, I would support it fully. Right now, I have too many projects going on to do it myself. On the positive side, we are nearing the end of finishing the translation of Saving God’s Face. The next step will be finding a way to publish the Chinese version; that will take thought and/or money.

      • Mitch

        I assumed time and resources were the reason why blog posts haven’t been posted yet. I will talk to my supervisor and see if we might be able to offer you a brother or sister who would be capable and trustworthy. Very very thankful thankful for the possibility of the book to be published. I’ve been hoping for that for a long time.

        • That’s very kind of you. Thank you for your prayer and support.

  • Mitch

    Do you think it’s necessary for nationals to be on a VPN when accessing this blog?

    • Typically no. I’ve never seen it blocked before.