Translation and Adoption: Ecumenical Theology and Sino-Christian Theology

Recently, I met with several founding scholars of Sino-Christian theology in Beijing. We talked about the grand conference on “Translation and Adoption: Encounter of Christianity and Chinese Culture”, which was jointly organized by the Institute of Sino-Christian Studies and the China Center (China-Zentrum e.V.) 17 years ago.1 That event was indeed a unique one:

1. The conference gathered more than 70 scholars. They came from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Germany, Switzerland, United States, United Kingdom, Slovakia, South Korea, and other countries. There were scholars in Christian studies, Christian theologians—Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox—, and sinologists.

2. Several renowned German theologians also attended the conference as observers, including Jürgen Moltmann, Heinrich Ott, and Hans Waldenfels.

3. In the conference, Chinese and foreign scholars had lots of profound dialogues with one another on the theme of translation and adoption. During the discussion of translation, scholars from different backgrounds all agreed that the essence of academic translation is to be faithful to the original texts. “Flexible translation” should only be taken when there is really no other choice. Translators should have a double identity of a translator and a reader. The identity as a translator should be prioritized, which means being faithful to the original texts. When translators put readers in the first place, they would inevitably fall into an awkward situation of “over-interpretation”.

4. A scholar from Hong Kong profoundly pointed out that Sino-Christian theology should avoid the pitfall of emphasizing translation while ignoring adoption, which often results in “being trapped in Western theology”, forgetting the subjectivity of Sino-Christian theology as a Chinese discipline, and failing to make good contribution to ecumenical theology as theologia catholica.2

5. The scholars present at this conference were from academia and church community both of China and the West. Unprecedentedly, the scholars from church community were from all three major traditions, Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox. During the conference, Prof. Peter Neuner put forward his vision of ecumenical theology as theologia catholica, and expressed his hope that different churches might find a third way beyond “relativism” and “fundamentalism”. That is to say, we can recognize and understand ourselves anew through the encounter and translation of the “Other”.

6.  When Chinese and German scholars spoke with one another, most Chinese scholars could use German to converse with German scholars about theology and philosophy, while there were not many German scholars who could speak Chinese. A German scholar told me that this imbalance had in fact created some tension, which could be an incentive for them to learn both Chinese language and Chinese philosophy.


Seventeen years has passed since the conclusion of the conference in Berlin. As I recalled this conference in the winter of 2001 and reviewed the conference papers published in 2004, I could not help but reflect on how this conference has in fact influenced Sino-Christian theology in the subsequent decade.

1. Many participants were then graduate students from China, who had just started their graduate studies in Germany. They assisted in the Chinese translation of the papers presented in the conference. Now they have become well-established scholars in Mainland Chinese universities and seminaries. At that time, I was planning for the restructuring of ISCS. During the conference, I personally discussed with many famous Chinese and overseas scholars about the possibility of joining our Institute. A lot of them responded in a very positive way and agreed to cooperate. From the year of 2002 onwards, ISCS has thus become a more representative public academic platform, serving both Chinese and overseas academia. 3

2. In the conference, it was proposed that “translation is only possible through cooperation”. This is indeed also the motto of our Institute. The multilateral cooperation between the academy and church communities—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestantism—through our Institute has always been expanding. In the past decade, as our Institute has also become engaged in Nestorian studies and exploring the significance of Nestorianism to Sino-Christian theology, a similar kind of multilateral cooperation has been established with the Assyrian Church of the East.

3. ISCS was established in 1995. We embarked on the enterprise of Chinese Academic Library of Christian Thought (CALCT), which aims at translating Western classics in Christian theology and other related disciplines into Chinese. In 1997, we started the Institute of Sino-Christian Studies Monographs Series, with the objective of promoting theological works written by Chinese scholars. As of now, 48 works have been published in the Monographs Series.

4. Since the translation and other research projects of ISCS have always been conducted in an interdisciplinary and interconfessional spirit, our accomplishments over more than 20 years have been well recognized and being included for use in both Chinese and foreign universities, churches and seminaries (from all three major traditions, Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox). A Chinese ecumenical theology is now in the process of being formed in different faith communities in a subtle way.

5. In the past, some scholars have posed a challenge for Sino-Christian theology: “Do not just ask what Western theology can do for us, but ask what we can do for Western theology?” My answer is that an increasing number of foreign monographs or Ph.D. dissertations on “Sino-Christian theology” are now being produced in many different languages, including English, German, Swedish, Italian, Japanese and Korean.

6. Since 2001, the Guest Professors Program of ISCS has provided Chinese and German scholars with frequent opportunities for interaction and dialogue.4 A number of hardworking and promising students from our Tao Fong partner universities in Mainland China have spent many years—in some cases, even over ten years!—in Germany in writing their dissertations. We are glad to see that most of them have already completed their studies and returned to China to teach at different universities and seminaries.


A breeze comes at this moment, and a sentence just occurred to me: “The kingdom of heaven […] is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”


1. The collection of conference papers was published in 2004 as Translation and Adoption: Ecumenical Theology and Christian Theology in Chinese (Daniel H. N. YEUNG & Paul Rabbe eds.; ISCS Monographs Series, No. 14; Hong Kong: Logos & Pneuma Press, 2004). Details of the conference can be found in the Appendix in this book, which includes reports from both Chinese and German perspectives, pp. 307-330.

2. The word “catholica” is from the phrase “sancta ecclesia catholica” in the Apostles’ Creed. According to Bishop Theodore of Mopsuestia, the Church is called “catholic”, as it refers to “all those who believed in all countries and at all times” (The Commentary of Theodore of Mopsuestia on the Nicene Creed, ed. by A. Mingana, Cambridge: W. Heffer & Sons, 1932, p. 114). His Catechetical Homilies was translated into Chinese by ZHU Donghua and published by the ISCS in 2015. The equivalent word for catholica in Chinese is 大公, which actually comes from “The Conveyance of Rites” in the Book of Rites (《禮記.禮運篇》): 大道之行,天下為公 (“When the Great Way prevails, the world community is equally shared by all”).

3. See “Message from the Director”, ISCS Newsletter, Spring 2002 and Fall 2002.

4. The Berlin Conference in 2001 in fact led to Prof. Jürgen Moltmann and Prof. Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel’s visit to Tsinghua University in October 2004. See “Prof. Dr. Jürgen Moltmann and Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel’s Lecture Trip in China”, ISCS Newsletter, Spring 2015.