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Making Theology Compatible With Socialism

Friday, August 24, 2001 | Tag Cloud Tags:

by Paul Davenport

Under the cover of "theological construction," or making theology compatible with socialist society, liberal leaders of the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) and the China Christian Council (CCC) have launched a wide-ranging attack against evangelical theology in China.

The attack has reached its highest level this fall, although preparations for the campaign began at the joint TSPM/CCC conference held in Jinan, Shandong province, from November 19-23, 1998.

"The revelation of God in the Bible is a process, not once for all, and human beings' knowledge and understanding of God's revelation is also not once for all but a process, gradually improving," stated Bishop Ting, the honorary president of the TSPM and honorary chair of the CCC.

His statement clearly denies the classical evangelical view that God's unique revelation has been encapsulated once and for all in Scripture.

At the conference, CCC general secretary Rev. Su Deci presented a lengthy analysis of why Chinese theological thought was backward, reminding delegates that conservative, fundamentalist Western missionaries had largely spread Christianity in China. Su said that the Chinese church must adapt itself to a society that is following "socialism with Chinese characteristics."

In September 1999, Professor Chen Zemin of Nanjing Union Theological Seminary stated in an interview that one of the reasons why Chinese theology is still backward is because of the strength of evangelical and fundamentalist thinking in China resulting from its missionary heritage. He outlined a long-term program for "theological renewal" that centered on China's theological seminaries and spoke of the need to create a "new generation of church workers schooled in the new political theology."


Chen's admission that "changing the convictions of believers at the grassroots level is a matter of generations" was grudging tribute to the strength of Biblical faith and conviction among the vast majority of China's rapidly growing number of believers, who have no sympathy for the liberal theology emanating from Nanjing.

In fact, as Compass reported last year, Nanjing Seminary had already in May 1999 experienced a head-on collision between Bishop Ting and Prof. Chen, both politically motivated, and the seminary's evangelical students and graduates. Three students were effectively expelled for refusing to sing Communist Party songs at a school ceremony in the chapel. Later, three top graduates resigned in protest.

Since then, the seminary faculty has been purged of evangelical influences. The most recent victim was a young teacher named Qi Tai, reportedly dismissed because he kept in contact with house churches.

Bishop Ting's "Select Works" was published in September 1998 and went into its second printing in June 1999. Ting's book has become the textbook for the theological onslaught against Chinese evangelicalism. His emphases on the "cosmic Christ" and on the denial of the importance of the distinction between belief and unbelief create a moralistic and political theology that merges imperceptibly with the ideology of the Communist Party.

"I do not think that He (God) minds terribly much that there are those who for some reason or other cannot acknowledge but have to deny His name," Ting writes, ("Love Never Ends," p. 30).

The bishop talks much of "original grace," downplays original sin and speaks of a "seed of the Word" in every man, clearly denying the depths of human sin and the absolute necessity for regeneration. Ting's theological universalism meshes perfectly with the Party's post-Mao stress on "unity and stability" at all costs, downplaying all ethnic and religious differences.

Indeed, Ting declares that "human collectives, even those which do not bear the name Christian, can be vehicles of the grace of God." Many of his essays praise the heroic deeds of Communist Party members and gloss over the Biblical emphasis on the necessity for repentance and faith in Christ as the only way of salvation.

During the last year, large numbers of TSPM pastors and theological students in Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang and other provinces have been coerced into attending conferences to study Ting's "Select Works." This has caused immense resentment and opposition.

Hardly surprisingly in this tense atmosphere, the TSPM has been forced to admit that some in the church "do not greatly understand theological construction, regarding it as going against the teaching of the Bible and being similar to a political campaign," reported "Tianfeng," the official TSPM magazine.


This year, the denial of basic biblical truth has become ever more blatant.

In September, a "scholarly forum" was held in Qingdao, Shandong province, to discuss Chinese Christian views of the Bible. In his preface to the published collection of talks given on this occasion, Bishop Ting openly attacked the orthodox view of the Bible as the inspired Word of God.

"Many of our colleagues believe that the Bible contains both the words of God and the words of man .... Even the most excellent of men cannot transmit God's words without any bias," Ting wrote. "Some men's level is very high, but their reception (of God's word) is not necessarily right. Thus in the process of transmission, there is the possibility of qualitative change. The aim of those of us who are preachers is to help people with what are truly the words of God, and at the same time to distinguish those words which are not of God."

Here he clearly maintains that the Bible is partially in error, and that the writers of Scripture were only partially inspired. This is a denial of the classical orthodox and evangelical doctrine of the plenary inspiration of Scripture and of the work of the Holy Spirit in superintending the prophets and apostles.

In the same preface, Ting openly attacked the doctrine of justification by faith and, for the first time, publicly called for it to be "watered down."

Only backward, Third World churches that are still mouthpieces for 19th century Western missionaries believe such things, "using hell-fire to threaten people into the church," Ting wrote. Biblical views of the omnipotence of God, original sin, and the necessity of faith were also dismissed and evangelicalism was derided as narrow and out-dated.

It was in this preface that Ting also revealed the agenda behind the innocent term of "theological construction," openly equating it with "making theology compatible with socialist society."

In October, the chairman of the Jiangsu Provincial TSPM spelled this out even more bluntly. "Many believers ... have learned through personal experience that loving God and loving man, loving God and loving country, loving socialism and loving the Communist Party are all identical. And these are the source materials for our undertaking theological research," he said. ("Tianfeng," October 2000)

Western evangelicals, who in some cases have uncritically accepted the TSPM leadership at face value, need to be aware of these attacks on basic biblical truths and re-evaluate their relationship and cooperation with the organization.


The campaign has high-level backing in the Communist Party. President Jiang Zemin appears to be the source for the idea that religion in China should be "compatible with socialism."

In 1998, Ye Xiaowen, head of the Religious Affairs Bureau, restated President Jiang's "three directives" concerning religious affairs: "One, fully implement the Party's policies concerning religion; two, strengthen management of religious affairs in accordance with the law; three, positively lead religion to become compatible with socialist society." (Zongjiao, 1998/1-2)

However, far from rallying the majority of Christians behind Party policies, the Party is in danger of alienating the vast majority from the TSPM and pushing them into the arms of the unofficial house churches. Over the last few years, the number of students and graduates who have been through Party-controlled TSPM theological education, but have ended up ministering in independent house churches, seems to be on the increase.

One evangelical TSPM pastor stated in October that he believed that 90 percent of the pastors in TSPM churches were against the new drive to impose a politicized, liberal theology. However, he said that many of the younger pastors were afraid to speak out, fearing for their families and the loss of their livelihood.


At this stage, it is difficult to assess the impact on the churches at large. Clearly in Nanjing and in Shanghai (the national headquarters of the TSPM), the purge has already successfully removed some pastors, students and graduates of evangelical persuasion from positions of influence or potential influence.

One pastor who was removed from the pastorate of a large church because of his strong evangelical convictions wrote that Christians overseas should "pray that Bishop Ting and other political TSPM leaders would repent, and that God would undo their handiwork."

However, pastors in more distant provinces seem so intent on preaching and pastoring their growing flocks that they are only vaguely aware of what is going on in Nanjing and Shanghai. They and their congregations are loyal to Scripture and largely inoculated against the new theology emanating from Nanjing.

The battle now is in the seminaries. The TSPM's politicized leadership is fully aware that, by indoctrinating a new generation of students and pastors in Ting's political theology, they can eventually control the church and steer it further and further from its evangelical moorings.

For the moment, the new theology has triumphed in Nanjing and in perhaps some of the 18 officially permitted Bible schools. But several of the TSPM seminaries are evangelical. Leaders of at least two of them have expressed strong opposition to the new theology. They have acknowledged the need for true, biblical theological renewal in China. They view this theology as different from both the thinly-disguised Marxism of Bishop Ting and the rather narrow fundamentalism of many believers in the TSPM churches and the house churches.

One of these leaders said he would like to see more of the works of John Stott translated into Chinese so that his seminary students could begin to wrestle with important social issues from a fully biblical basis.

The TSPM seminaries have reached a crossroads. They can reject the evangelical heritage that has nourished several generations of believers for half a century under communism -- and has multiplied the church many times over -- for the broken cistern of a politicized theological liberalism. Or they can build upon that heritage and develop a mature, biblical theology that will communicate the gospel meaningfully to intellectuals and young people in the modern China of the 21st century.

Copyright © 2000 Compass Direct News Service.
Used with permission.

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