Jianshe Theology: Reflections about the Process of Theological Reconstruction in China

By Brandner, Tobias | International Review of Mission, April 2004 | Go to article overview

Jianshe Theology: Reflections about the Process of Theological Reconstruction in China


Brandner, Tobias, International Review of Mission


Abstract

The article introduces the process of theological reconstruction (jianshe) which has been at the centre of the theological reflection of the Chinese church in the past five years, and continues to be so. The article also describes the historical context of an extraordinary church growth in which this reflection has taken and is taking place. The author analyses how this process links ecumenical and hermeneutical interests: theological reconstruction in China today tries to overcome traditional theology which was shaped by Western missionaries, and to find a framework for a genuinely contextual theology that is relevant to society.

The goal of the process of theological reconstruction is to identify a contextual theology which builds bridges between Christian faith and the world. Accordingly, those elements of Christian faith are emphasized which facilitate an openness to the world. Contextual theology as encountered in the process of theological reconstruction reflects the importance that harmony has in the context and historical experience of China. The introduction of hermeneutical categories in the theological reflection makes it possible to overcome a narrow biblicism as well as a non-historical application of one's own principles of biblical interpretation.

The article contains a discussion about the possible misunderstandings that the term "theological reconstruction" can evoke, and suggests leaving the term untranslated. It also critically examines the challenges that the enormous speed of modernization in China poses.

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On several recent overseas visits the leadership of the Chinese Christian Council and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (CCC/TSPM) (1) presented a project of theological reconstruction. (2) Since 1998 this project has been at the centre of the theological reflection of the Chinese church. On different occasions in China and through the recent visits abroad by the CCC/TSPM representatives, I had the privilege of learning about this project. In this article I will try to describe the historical situation to which this reflection responds. In part two I will present some of the guiding principles and main interests of this process. In the third section I will discuss some hermeneutical and theological questions.

I. Historical location

The history of Christianity in China can he divided into four periods. The first period is the Nestorian mission, which after its break with Orthodoxy spread to the east and built some scattered communities. (3) The Nestorian church did not, however, make any historical impact. The second period of Christianity in China is the Roman Catholic mission. This period begins in the 16th century with Jesuits coming to China. In a simplified way this mission can be regarded as a mission from above. The goal was to win over the emperor and the high bureaucracy to the Christian faith. The assumption was that the rest of the country would then automatically fall into the lap of the Christian church. This missionary strategy did not only fail because the emperor, who saw himself as the son of heaven, did not want to bow to any foreign authority, in this case the pope, but also because of conflicts within the church, particularly those which came to light in the "rites controversy". The Roman Catholic mission thereafter entered a period of stagnation.

A third period began with the entry of the Protestant missions in the middle of the 19th century. The ground for their activities was essentially laid by the colonial powers, who opened up China economically through the opium war (1839-1842) and through a series of unequal treaties thereafter. In the shadow of these colonial and economical expansions missionary agencies of different origins became active in China. After the victory of the communist revolution in 1949 and the establishment of the People's Republic of China, all foreign missionaries had to leave China. …

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