Chinese Theology
A Historical Reflection on Sino-Christian Theology
--    LI Qiuling
Professor, Department of Philosophy,
Renmin University of China

Sino-Christian theology has been developing for ten years and has become an eye-catching theological movement in Chinese academia.  On the one hand, it aims at constructing a branch of Christian theology, thus the religious circles have paid attention to it.  On the other hand, it emphasizes its humanistic and academic character, therefore the academic circles also have deep interest in it.  In its ten years of development, Sino-Christian theology has left much food for us to consider.

1.  The Emergence and Development of Sino-Christian Theology
In June 1994, the first issue of Logos & Pneuma was published by the research department of Tao Fong Shan Christian Centre (the predecessor of the Institute of Sino-Christian Studies).  The subtitle of this is journal of "Sino-Christian Theology".  This is the first time the term "Sino-Christian Theology" appears in literature, thus it could be regarded as the birth of Sino-Christian Theology.1  In the "Reopening Words" (復刊辭) the objectives of Sino-Christian Theology were described as follows: 1. to develop Christian theology and culture with Chinese cultural and historical resources; 2. to construct the theological discipline in the Chinese academia, developing dialogical partnership with Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and other modern thought traditions; 3. to develop a common enterprise in the Chinese world including Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, North America and other overseas Chinese communities.2

In the second issue of Logos & Pneuma, Liu Xiaofeng, Guest Research Fellow at that time, published the article "Sino-Christian Theology in the Modern Situation" (later it was developed into the book Sino-Theology and the Philosophy of History).  A while later, He Guanghu, who was visiting scholar at ISCS in 1995, published "The Basis and Meaning of Sino-Christian Theology" (1996:2) and "The Method and Approach of Sino-Christian Theology" (1996:3) in Regent Chinese Journal, giving a comprehensive account of the topic.  Although Liu and He have different emphases in their articles, they share some basic ideas, especially those justifying the emergence of "Sino-Christian Theology".  They both see that Christian theology should be rooted in the divine Word.  Nevertheless the divine Word must be made known through human words.  Therefore language is a necessary vehicle of theology; the revealed Word must be expressed in the human language so as to be accepted by human beings.  Theoretically speaking, all kinds of language may express Christian theology.

On this basis Sino-Christian Theology is in principle a kind of "theology" rather than an "academic discipline" about Christianity.  Nevertheless, the humanistic and academic characters emphasized by Sino-Christian Theology find echoes in the academic study of Christianity in Mainland China.  At that time, the academic study of Christianity had just started.  Besides very few scholars who had training in religious studies, most developed their discourses from the perspectives of philosophy, history, literary studies, etc.  In this way, the two entities have become very close partners and Mainland Chinese academia gave a very helpful hand to Sino-Christian Theology.

After the topic Sino-Christian Theology was announced, the initiators had facilitated it in all the ways they could, and it received very positive responses from the Mainland academic world.  We may say that it now attains fruitful result.  ISCS does not have its own research team, but it has tens of visiting professors.  Nowadays ISCS invites dozens of scholars from Mainland China to Hong Kong every year to do short-term research.  It also invites dozens of research students doing Christian studies in Mainland China to Hong Kong for short-term studies every year.  The number of institutes supported by ISCS now reaches 16 and it provides about 75 scholarships, thus the teamwork of ISCS is expanding day by day.

ISCS hosts and joins different international conferences, e.g. the roundtable symposium on Sino-Christian Theology in 1995, 1997 and 2005.  These events examine the development of Sino-Christian Theology and encourage the cooperation between institutions in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and other places.  ISCS also provides "Tao Fong Literary Prize" (differentiated into "Paul Hsu Prize" and "Reichelt Prize"), which encourages creative writing and high quality translation.

The representative work of ISCS is the Chinese Academic Library of Christian Thought (CALCT).  It is a gigantic work indeed, which aims at translating Christian classics into Chinese, and has published more than a hundred titles to date.  Apart from it, ISCS has also published "Translation Series", "Monograph Series", etc.  Many of these publications have already had Mainland Chinese versions, giving them greater influence.  Logos & Pneuma, moreover, has become an academic platform for all Chinese scholars around the world who are doing Chinese studies.  Its scope is extensive, including biblical studies, thoughts of different theologians, contemporary trends, and anything about Christianity.

To a certain extent, Sino-Christian Theology is on its way towards achieving the objectives it set for itself, i.e. "to develop Christian theology and culture with Chinese cultural and historical resources, in order to construct a Christian theological culture with a stamp of Chinese thought and culture", and "to construct the theological discipline in the Chinese academia".

2. Some Reflections on Sino-Christian Theology

There must be some reasons for attracting so many responses to "Sino-Christian Theology".  Firstly, Sino-Christian Theology accommodates to the contemporary social needs.  Since the 1980s China has entered a period of Reform and Opening up and the policy of religious freedom was established, thus there was a great interest in understanding Christian theology.  Moreover, the openness of China is in fact opening up to the West.  Christianity is one of the cultural bases of western culture, thus people want to learn more from this religion.  Sino-Christian Theology emerged at this time and in Mainland China there has been an appropriate response to the situation.

Secondly, Sino-Christian Theology does not take faith as a presupposition, but emphasizes a humanistic and academic discussion.  It not only encourages intra-religious (between Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and other traditions) dialogue, but also inter-religious dialogue.  This open-minded attitude dissolves the tensions inside and outside the church, and is the key for gathering so many participants from different attitudes.

Thirdly, Sino-Christian Theology suggests making use of the historical and cultural resources of Chinese language, interpreting Christian theology from the Chinese existential experience.  This process helps breaking the wall between Christian and Chinese cultures.  In light of this, Sino-Christian Theology could be regarded as a kind of "indigenized" theology.  However, this claim is not made from the perspectives of a church organization, liturgy, language, etc., but of cultural thought, existential experience and so on.

Fourthly, Sino-Christian Theology aims at participating in the mainstream of Chinese culture, in order to make Christian theology a constituent of Chinese thought and culture and a part of the humanities.  This coincides with the open mind of contemporary Chinese society.  The accommodation of a foreign culture is a way of reviving Chinese culture.  The spreading of Buddhism in China has already set up a good example.  Whether Christian thought, values and theology can be aids to reconstruct the spiritual status of contemporary Chinese society is a noteworthy question.

The development and achievement of Sino-Christian Theology should be affirmed. However, we should also consider some of its implicit problems.  Firstly, let us turn to the relationship between Sino-Christian Theology and the tradition of Christian theology.  It appears that both Liu Xiaofeng and He Guanghu had tried to avoid the issue of 'tradition' in their formulation of the problem.3  If we want to encounter the Christ event today, we must examine it through the New Testament, which was formed in a particular historical and cultural environment.  Undoubtedly the Bible is the basic literature of the Christian tradition, but it is also a product of tradition.  From that time onwards, Christianity has developed into a rich tradition.  This is a fact that we cannot avoid today.

The relationship between Sino-Christian Theology and Chinese traditional culture should be the second issue.  If we emphasize that Sino-Christian Theology is "Chinese", then Chinese should not be merely regarded as a system of linguistic symbols but its cultural resources and existential experiences must also be involved.  In light of this, Sino-Christian Theology must hold Chinese traditional culture in high regard.  Its vitality also depends on its 'nationality'.  On this basis, Chinese scholars should encounter the Christ event with both their own cultural tradition and Christian tradition through their existential experience.  It may be a hindrance of Sino-Christian Theology, but it could also be an advantage.

The third issue concerns the relation between Sino-Christian Theology and the ecumenicity of Christianity.  Christianity emphasizes that it is a universal religion.  From the very beginning its mission is to preach the Gospel to all people.  In the process of evangelization, Christian theology in most circumstances could successfully unite with local cultures and produce new forms of Christian theology.  But at the same time it also shows its universality.  The vitality of Christianity can be seen from this perspective.  Under the situation of globalization, the world has become one "global village".  Sino-Christian Theology as a kind of Christian theology should also concern those issues related to the whole of humankind and produces its voice in order to serve the world.

The last issue concerns the relationship between Sino-Christian Theology and the institutional church.  Sino-Christian Theology is a kind of research rather than religion; it is a basic principle of Sino-Christian Theology.  Nevertheless, the object of investigation of Sino-Christian Theology is Christian theology, and the massive Christian community is one of the most important readers.  Therefore Sino-Christian Theology should listen to the voices of Chinese churches and Christians and consider their problems, in order to gain their acceptance.  This is important for the development of Sino-Christian Theology.

Sino-Christian Theology is a unique phenomenon in the history of Christian theology. The preaching of Sino-Christian Theology is not located in the church or seminary but university and research institute.  The audience of Sino-Christian Theology does not only include Christians but also all who are interested in Christianity.  Regardless of how people evaluate this phenomenon, it is undoubtedly highly developed and has gained a certain degree of achievement.■

1. If we interpret 'Sino-Christian Theology" literally, it should refer to all kinds of Christian theology expressed in Chinese.  In this sense, literature starting from Nestorianism in the Tang dynasty should be included.  However, most literature in the past does not have a sense of "Chinese" identity.  This is what the initiators of Sino-Christian Theology want to emphasize.  Cf. Liu Xiaofeng, Sino-Christian Theology and the Philosophy of History (HK: ISCS, 2000), 3-4, 7-8.
2. Logos & Pneuma 1 (1994),  8-9.  The Chinese subtitle of Logos & Pneuma was changed to "a Cultural Review of Christianity" (基督教文化評論) in 2000, but it does not violate its original objective: "to encourage Sino-Christian Studies with Sino-Christian Theology as its core, to have mutual enrichment and encouragement between ecclesial and humanistic religious studies." (cf. "Preface for the New Millennium" (新世紀獻辭), Logos & Pneuma 12 (2000).
3. This "avoid" is only seen from their theoretical discussions.  In their practice, they are both editors of large series of Christian classics and have profound investigation into Christian theological tradition.