The Name of Sino-Christian Theology

Not long ago, around autumn 1993, Xiaofeng and I were walking on a footpath on Tao Fong Shan, thinking of the name of the plan to be proposed to the board of directors. I still remember that Xiaofeng intelligently reviewed the names given to those theologies with Chinese characteristics - Chinese people (華人) theology, zhong-hua (中華) theology, theology of China (中國神學), indigenized theology, Chinese (中文) theology, and so on. We thought that all these names have their own inclinations, either clinging to a certain kind of nationalism or some sort of geographical or political culturalism. But we were searching for a name which could be so inclusive that all scholars would feel comfortable to join in  the discussion.

Friends who know Xiaofeng are familiar with his many sudden inspiring ideas. He suggested in an unexpected moment, “Let’s use Hanyu (漢語, Sino) Christian theology!” Immediately I was thinking of some slogans, “reading theology with hanyu, thinking theology with hanyu, writing theology with hanyu.” Is this not genuine Sino-Christian theology? Since that day I took “Sino-Christian theology” as the name for the plan and proposed to the board of directors. The local and foreign members both thought that this was an extraordinary idea, well worth a try. Who could expect at that moment this trial would last for ten years? Nothing can stop it.

When I look back, the name “Sino-Christian theology” is truly a sudden unexpected thought. With this name, we let all participants have their rights and room for expressing their ideas. For me, of course, I know the paradox of Sino-Christian theology: will the scholars without a Christian confession doing Christian studies have a negative influence on ecclesial theology or deconstruct the whole tradition? Nevertheless, in the development of both Eastern and Western Christian traditions, intellectuals outside the church have often played the role of opening a new chapter in history. I was sure of my vocation at that time: be a servant of Sino-Christian theology, responsible for encouraging the theological investigation of humanistic scholars in Mainland China and enhancing the dialogue and cooperation between them and the church. At the same time, although Xiaofeng and I have different understandings and approaches to Sino-Christian theology, one point is very certain for both of us: to make Christian studies a proper constituent of the Chinese academic tradition, and make it parallel to traditional cultures (Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism) and contemporary cultures (Marxism and modern thought).

The plan for Sino-Christian theology was attempted for two years (1993-94) by Tao Fong Shan Christian Centre. In 1995 an evaluation confirmed that the  “Sino-Christian theology” project should be continued over the long run, and a separate institution should be established for its execution. This was the beginning of the Institute of Sino-Christian Studies.

For more than a decade now, scholars have continued to ask,  What is Sino-Christian theology? Where are its rationale and justification situated? What are the themes and content? As one of the initiators, I have been witnessing a group of scholars dealing with this controversial subject. A lot of essays were written on this through the years, and we are editing them for publication. The name of the series is called “Contemporary Academic Trends and Sino-Christian Theology” (4 vols.). This is a little token of what we hope to offer to the Chinese academia in the near future.

Facing another new decade, in view of the experience of the last ten years, I shall try to articulate two principles of Sino-Christian theology for setting the future direction of ISCS.

The General and Special Definitions of Sino-Christian Theology

The general definition of Sino-Christian theology is: regardless of the author’s location, any theology written in the Chinese language belongs to Sino-Christian theology. Within such a definition, the first records of Sino-Christian theology were produced more than 1300 years ago by the Syrian Presbyter ïlopen, inscribed in the Jinjiao (Nestorian) monument.

The special definition of Sino-Christian theology refers particularly to the Christian studies started by a group of humanistic scholars in Mainland China in the late 1980s, when ISCS was established in response to this academic movement. We even made use of the name “Sino-Christian theology” as the subtitle of Logos & Pneuma as early as in 1994. In the following ten years, the path of the development of Sino-Christian theology has been arduous, but the outline is not difficult to articulate. The context is mainly the humanistic environment of Mainland China, but it does not exclude ecclesial theology and other traditions. On the contrary, it is keen to engage in dialogue with ecclesial theology and tradition for the sake of enriching its own understanding of the polyphonic Christian tradition. Since the establishment of ISCS, we have been ceaselessly enhancing mutual understanding between Mainland Chinese scholars and ecclesial theologians, creating opportunities for dialogue and cooperation. We feel deeply the need for tolerance in their encounter and dialogue, and for each party to listen to the other with respect.

When I prepared a further account of Sino-Christian theology, by chance I read Prof. YANG Huilin’s short essay “'The Name’ or 'the Rose’: the Twofold Experience of Sino-Christian Theology”. One passage says, “an assertion of 'the name’ is, in fact, a confession of one’s limitedness to grasp what 'the name’ truly signifies...” I put down my pen and smiled in silence.