On China — By Tremper Longman III
In the past year I had the incredible privilege of teaching a course on Torah and Wisdom at the University of Peking in Beijing and then to travel a few months later to Hong Kong to speak at an International Theological Consultation sponsored by Evangel Seminary (Hong Kong), China Evangelical Seminary (Taipei), and Trinity Evangelical Seminary (Chicago). In the process, I also had the opportunity to speak to a number of house church leaders as well as pastors in the Three-Self Church in the mainland.
Needless to say, two trips don’t make anyone an expert on the Chinese church, but I did have my understanding expanded, so I thought I would share some of my observations that are subject to change through discussion and further experience.
One impression is the tremendous work and influence that a number of U.S. and British seminaries have had on many of Chinese theologians, biblical scholars, and church leaders. I had the wonderful opportunity of reconnecting with some of my doctoral students from my Westminster days and to see how much they have grown in their thinking and ministry. Of course, many other seminaries have trained Chinese scholars and my colleagues from Fuller, Dallas, Trinity, Denver, Gordon-Conwell would have had a similar experience as mine.
On the other hand, Western theological institutions have to be extremely careful not to stifle Chinese theological development by forcing the church there to think the way we do and deal with the same questions we do. I was deeply impressed with the quality of the theological education in Hong Kong and Taipei (and other parts of the Chinese world). I think it is still a very good thing that Western books (including my own!) are translated into Chinese, but my hope is that the future will see more works by Chinese theologians translated into English to get us to consider new categories and ideas and to help us from being blinded by our own cultural myopia. For instance, I have worked for many years on the theme of the divine warrior, the subject about which I was asked to speak. If I am honest, I probably haven’t learned more on this subject in the past few years. However, I was paired with David Pao who gave a wonderful talk on the subject that expanded my horizon on the concept in the book of Acts. He also provided an insightful perspective on the insidious misuse of this theme in the Western colonization of China (without being bitter). Gregory Wong of Evangel Seminary in Hong Kong responded to both of our papers with important criticism. These types of scholarly dialogues are crucial to the growth of both Western and Eastern Christian theologians.
Connected to the above, I also came away from China with the fear that if mainland China ever opens up to more public Western church influence, there will be a rush (as we saw in Russia twenty years ago) to simply build our denominational and para-ecclesiastical structures over in China without a proper regard for a contextualized Chinese theology and church. Fortunately the mature Chinese seminaries in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and elsewhere are aware of the problem and will take what steps they can to prevent that.
I look forward to my next trips to China in the winter and summer of 2009. In the meantime, the questions I am asking myself and now ask you include:
1. How can western churches best come to the side of our Chinese Christian brothers and sisters?
2. Do we think it would be a good thing if in the future there were a Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist…church of China?
3. How can we learn from our Chinese counterparts?
4. How would a Chinese orthodox Christianity differ from a western orthodox theology?
5. Kierkegaard stated that the church thrives much better during periods of persecution than in times of cultural acceptance. The church in China strikes me as incredibly vibrant, while the church in the west is anemic. How should that affect our prayers for the relationship between the government and the church in China?
Tremper Longman III (PhD, Yale University) is the Robert H. Gundry Professor of Biblical Studies and the chair of the religious studies department at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California where he lives with his wife, Alice. He is the Old Testament editor for the revised Expositor's Bible Commentary, An Introduction to the Old Testament, and numerous other articles, books, commentaries, and Bible Studies.
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