Strangers in the World of the Old Testament: Orthodoxy, Academia, and the Chinese House Church
Much of my time is spent doing ministry to Chinese graduate students at the universities of Cambridge, MA, but the rest of my time is spent studying the Old Testament and the Ancient Near East. It is not uncommon for me to finish a class at Harvard’s Semitic Museum, then walk down the street and read Scripture together with a Chinese student elsewhere on campus. In the eyes of many, I have found, these two aspects of my life appear unrelated or even at odds with each other. Why am I learning ancient Babylonian when I could be learning Chinese? Any believer with an interest in academic theology or biblical studies knows that the Old Testament is a minefield for debate. The past two centuries of historical-critical academic work have typically sought to push the dating of the Old Testament books forward in history, and have called the historicity of the key events into question. The liberal critical school is balanced by a tradition of conservative scholarship, which has drawn on archaeology and ancient history as well as the text itself to defend traditional orthodoxy. Of course, even within the evangelical camp there is disagreement and debate. So the question stands: does the messy state of Old Testament studies in the have relevance for the growing church in China? Aren’t they better off without our baggage?
But the Chinese church does not, and cannot, exist in a vacuum. If you doubt such a claim, you need look no further than the following article, “Biblical Monotheism and Translating the First Commandment in the Chinese Context.” In it, Haihua Tian considers her time studying at the Albright Institute in Jerusalem and contends that monotheism as Christians and Jews have traditionally understood it only came to exist in the post-exilic era. Furthermore, she contends that Christianity in particular involves a brand of monotheism that is inherently western, and inherently violent towards other beliefs and other cultures. Her conclusions are based on classic, but by no means universally accepted, views on the dating and interpretation of the Old Testament.
Ms. Tian’s education and experience are not unique. The large numbers of Chinese students coming west to study science, business, and other disciplines are increasingly supplemented by Chinese students in religious studies. What many of them are told when they come is that the Bible is unreliable, naturalism is indisputable, and Christianity is a western religion. When they return home, they will be among the first of a new generation of biblical scholars in China. In many cases, they will influence China’s church of tomorrow. Some house church networks will filter out scholars with such views, but even if those scholars do not directly train pastors, but they will certainly teach their children in university and maintain a significant presence and influence among Christians.
One of the unfortunate realities of the legacy of cross-cultural evangelism in China and elsewhere is that for the past two centuries we have often failed to teach the Old Testament well. There is an understandable desire to talk about Jesus as soon as possible. I have taught many such Bible studies myself; we examine Genesis 1-3, maybe look at the promises to Abraham or the prophecies in Isaiah, and then soar onwards to Matthew or John. While such an approach is not wrong per se, it leaves huge swathes of narrative, poetry, and prophecy by the wayside. If significant biblical discipleship does not follow, the Old Testament may forever remain alien, difficult, and undervalued by the new believer.
Underlying the belief that academic approaches to scripture are not relevant to evangelism and the growth of a young church are unhealthy assumptions about culture. In the history of the church, evangelism and rigorous biblical study have gone hand in hand; it is only in the modern era that the two have become divorced. If anything, Chinese culture may lend itself even more than western culture to a rigorous, academic engagement with scripture. America has a long history of praising “simple faith,” by which we have sometimes meant faith that doesn’t ask difficult questions. In China, on the other hand, academic study and mastery have long been a core part of both society and religion. Think of the erudite legacy of Confucian scholars, or the civil service examination structures of imperial China.
China has always respected scholarship. The church continues to grow and root itself in Chinese culture, and it is especially flourishing on university campuses and among educated urban Chinese. Academic engagement with the scriptures will inevitably follow, as it should. We will benefit as Chinese believers read the scriptures with fresh eyes. And it is highly probable, given their deep cultural respect for academically excellent institutions, that many will seek to learn the scriptures in the same way they have studied engineering or physics: at Harvard and Princeton, at UCLA and NYU. Even Peking University now has a Hebrew and Jewish Studies program, headed by a Chinese scholar who doubles as the head of several government commissions on religion in China.
Can the church in China afford to be uninvolved in the burgeoning academic theology? With a culture that reveres academic inquiry, a country that is producing increasingly excellent scholars, and a church that is particularly growing among the educated, the evangelical church in China ought to engage the broader world of academic biblical studies.
Each of Ms. Tian’s assertions about the roots of Christian monotheism are debated and answerable. However they are not best answered in a blog post, nor are they best answered in a discipleship session over coffee (though both of those mediums play a role). They are best answered by a well-trained pastorate, and by well-trained academics in seminaries and universities.
The Chinese students I work with are intelligent, industrious, and deeply curious. When they investigate Christianity they are not contented with deflection or simple answers to hard questions, nor should they be. There exists a wealth of scholarship addressing their concerns. I am always happy to point them to the rigorous orthodoxy of Richard Bauckham, Christopher Wright, or others. But I long for their Chinese equivalents. Scholars at Peking University have written standard textbooks and technical monographs espousing liberal critical positions. The orthodox church in China must also be involved in the conversation at the academic level.
Which brings me back to Ms. Tian’s observations about Christianity’s relationship to China. She challenges the translatability of monotheism to her country and culture, suggesting that Christianity, as western missionaries have presented it, is hopelessly encrusted with western ideas. No doubt, there is a huge need for uniquely Chinese theology. Christians everywhere will benefit as Chinese believers read Scripture for themselves, and interpret what they see outside the boundaries of western culture.
That said, there is a deep-seated irony in Ms. Tian’s claims. The assertion that there is only one God, and that Jesus is the incarnation of that God, is the earliest creedal profession of the church. This creed was affirmed and promoted by councils and churches in Asia, Africa, and Europe: Catholic, Orthodox, and Nestorian. Individuals and churches on every continent have made such creeds their own. In contrast, the proposal that monotheism was a late Jewish development and that Jesus did not intend to be seen as divine are products of the distinctly western enlightenment project. Each of the academic links in the chain of Ms. Tian’s argument is the product of western culture and scholarship.
As the church in China continues to understand and interpret the Old Testament, it will inevitably do so with an eye toward the two thousand years of pre-existing Christian theology, as well as toward the current academic climate. We who hold to historic, orthodox Christianity have a responsibility to continue wrestling with the Old Testament, and submitting ourselves to it, no matter what continent we call home.
We must not remain strangers in the world of the Old Testament, because as followers of Christ, the story of Israel is also our story. Though my biological ancestors may have hailed from obscure corners of the European continent, nonetheless I may truly say that “the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and powerful arm.” My Chinese brothers and sisters in Christ make the same claim. The Old Testament is our shared family heritage. It tells us where we’ve come from.
Trey Nation lives with his wife Hannah in the Boston metro area. He graduated from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with a Masters of Divinity and a Masters of Old Testament. He works fulltime with China Outreach Ministries, serving students and visiting scholars in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He also teaches Akkadian at Gordon-Conwell and hopes to continue pursuing higher education in service of the global church.