Academic journal article International Review of Mission

The Tao and the Logos: Lao Tzu and the Gospel of John

Academic journal article International Review of Mission

The Tao and the Logos: Lao Tzu and the Gospel of John

Article excerpt


In the year 635 AD, the first Christian missionary, Bishop Alopen of the Nestorian Church, arrived in China. The arrival of Alopen at the Chinese capital Chang-an during the T'ang dynasty, in the reign of the emperor T'ai Tsung (627-650 AD), was described in this manner:

"The Emperor ordered Fang-li-wen-ling, first minister of the empire, to go with a great train of attendants to the Western suburbs to meet the strangers and bring them to the palace. He had the Holy Scriptures translated in the Imperial Library. The court listened to the doctrine, meditated on it profoundly and understood the great unity of truth."(1)

In that same year, St Aidan came to preach the Gospel in Northumbria in England. If the Gospel had taken root in China in the same way as it did in England, world history would have been quite different. In 1583, a young Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci, accompanying Michele Ruggieri, arrived in Zhaoqing, administrative capital of the provinces of Guandong and Guangxi, to the west of Canton, to begin the modem chapter of Christian missionary work in southern China.(2) Yet these missionaries knew nothing of the existence of that ancient Nestorian church which had been established in China nearly a millennium before them.

Why had the first attempts at Christian missionary work in China not taken root? Many reasons have been put forward. However, failure at the level of interaction between the Gospel and Chinese culture has been considered an important factor.(3)

Let us start examining the interaction of Gospel and culture with John 1:1. The Greek Logos is translated into English as "the Word," and into Chinese as "the Tao." The original concept of Tao comes from Lao Tzu in his treatise Tao Te Ching, which is generally accepted to have been written in the sixth century BC.

Discovery of the ancient texts of Tao Te Ching

The earliest texts extant of Tao Te Ching, dated around the second century BC, were discovered in China between November 1973 and January 1974. Paul Lin gave this description of the discovery of these texts.

"In the Han Tombs on Ma-Wang-Tui (Horse King Heights), Changsha, Hunan, two ancient and previously lost editions of the Tao Te Ching were unearthed. Both were written with brush and ink on silk.

The first of these silk books was found on a piece of wood about 24 cms high, which included four ancient lost books without titles. There were a total of 463 lines and over 13,000 words. The book has been dated between 206 and 195 BC, based on the type of characters used (the small-seal type) and the fact that the name of Liu Pang (247-195 BC) was not avoided... Because the second book was written in clerical style characters and avoided the use of Liu Pang's name - but not the names of Liu-Ying (207-188 BC) and Liu Hung (202-157 BC) - it has been dated between 194 and 180 BC."(4)

The Tao and the Logos

In the opening verse of the first chapter of Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching, we read:

"The Tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao; The Name that can be named is not the eternal Name. The Nameless (non-being) is the origin of heaven and earth; The Nameable (being) is the mother of all things."(5)

In searching for a Chinese equivalent for Logos, L.X. Zhang posed these questions and gave his solution:

"One may begin to wonder, Is it possible that logocentrism or the metaphysical hierarchy with regard to thinking, speaking, and writing also exists in the Eastern tradition? Is there a Chinese word that denotes, as the word logos does, something equivalent or similar to the Western metaphysical hierarchy?

By a most curious coincidence, there is indeed a word in Chinese that exactly captures the duality of thinking and speaking... Stephen Ullmann also observes that logos as a notoriously ambiguous word has a serious effect on philosophical thought because it "has two chief meanings, one corresponding to Latin oratio, "the word or that by which the inward thought is expressed," the other to Latin ratio, "the inward thought" itself. …

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