One Pillar to Five Solas: A Brief History of Christianity in China

Ryan Zhang moved to the United States from Guangzhou, China at the age of twelve, and has lived in three U.S. cities and two different continents since then.  Ryan received his Master of Divinity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is currently serving as a church planting resident at New City Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, OH, his US hometown. Before moving to Boston for seminary, Ryan lived in Washington D.C. for seven years, first as a student at Georgetown University and later working for a law firm.  It was during his time in D.C. that Ryan met his wife, Abigail, who shares his love for history and classical music.  In his free time, Ryan likes to watch Chinese dramas, cook, swim, and listen to Beethoven.

There are many ways to explore the significance of the Protestant Reformation in China. Many more capable writers and pastors will reflect on this topic in the coming months, but I would like to tell the story of Christianity in China – more specifically of Protestantism in China – through places I have visited and experiences I have had.

Christianity entered China almost a millennium before Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg in 1517. Near the beginning of the Tang Dynasty, a group of Nestorian missionaries arrived at the capital Chang'an (modern day Xi'an). Nestorians were followers of Nestorius, a bishop who was condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. for believing that the human and divine natures of Christ were not united in one person. Many of his followers traveled east and settled in Persia, from which a number of them traveled to China in 635 A.D. Although they were condemned as heretics by the church, the Nestorians are credited as the first Christian missionaries to reach China, a fact recorded in detail on a 7th century stone pillar just outside of Xi'an. A replica of this stone pillar can be found in the Bunn Intercultural Center at Georgetown University, my alma mater. That is how I learned about the beginning of Christianity in China. 

Georgetown University was the first Roman Catholic University in the United States, founded in 1789 by the Bishop John Carroll, a member of the Society of Jesus (also known as the Jesuits). Ironically, it was due to work of the Jesuits that the Protestant Reformation was first able to impact the history of China. In 1540, Ignatius of Loyola founded the Society of Jesus in part as a response to the Reformation. The Jesuits not only took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, they also promised, “…a special obedience to the sovereign pontiff in regard to the missions.” It was this zeal for missions that sparked a renewed European effort to bring Christianity to China.

One of Ignatius' protégés was Francis Xavier, a highly educated priest who spent the latter part of his life traveling, preaching, baptizing, and evangelizing in India, Malaysia, and Japan. In 1552, he died on the island of Shangchuan off the coast of modern Guangzhou, waiting in vain for permission to enter China. However, his ardent desire to bring the gospel to China was taken up by other Jesuits. In 1582, another gifted Jesuit priest by the name of Matteo Ricci was granted access to China and eventually found his way to the imperial court in 1601. Following Ricci, other educated Jesuit priests arrived in China, bringing with them not only the gospel, but also knowledge in math, astronomy, and clock-making. My earliest memories about missionaries in China were television dramas depicting how the Jesuit priests Adam Schall and Ferdinand Verbiest served as officials under the Qing Emperor Kangxi. (Now half a millennium later, in God's providential full circle, I find that I, a Chinese immigrant from Guangzhou, a graduate of a Jesuit university, am working as a reformed Protestant pastor less than half a mile from Xavier University, a Jesuit university named after Francis Xavier, the priest who died off the coast of Guangzhou.) 

Protestantism did not arrive in China until 1807, almost three centuries after the Protestant Reformation and the Jesuits' missions to China. On September 4, 1807, a twenty-five year old British man named Robert Morrison stepped off an American steamer in the port of Guangzhou. Although Morrison only baptized ten Chinese converts before his death in 1834 – conversion to Christianity was outlawed at the time – he translated the entire Bible into Chinese and his translation is still widely used by Chinese Christians today.

For the rest of the 19th century and beginning of 20th century, Protestant missionaries from Europe and America poured into China, sometimes arriving on the same ships that carried opium from India and Afghanistan. Similar to their Jesuit counter-parts, many of these Protestant missionaries learned Chinese, dressed as Chinese citizens, and spread the gospel of Jesus Christ to commoners in cities and villages. Like their Lord Jesus, they came and died. Some, like Hudson Taylor, died in remote villages. Others, like Olympic champion Eric Liddell – the same Eric Liddell from Chariots of Fire – died in prison camps during World War II.

More than the Nestorian and Jesuit missionaries before them, these Protestant missionaries planted the seeds that grew into house churches all across China. Even after the expulsion of foreign missionaries and during the heavy persecution between 1949-1980, these house churches grew and multiplied. It is difficult to estimate the number of Christians in China, but many surveys indicate that the number of Protestants in China today lies somewhere between 30 to 80 million, while the number of Chinese Catholics has remained steady at 12 million through the last three decades.

How did the number of Protestant Christians grow so quickly in China, while the number of Catholics remained steady despite a three-century head start? We may trace the reasons according to the five solas of the Protestant Reformation:

· The doctrine of sola scriptura teaches that the Bible alone has the highest authority; it places the utmost importance upon the word of God as missionaries spread the gospel of Jesus. With this conviction, is not surprising that Robert Morrison was able to learn and translate the Bible into Chinese fewer than 20 years after arriving in China, a feat neither the Nestorians or the Jesuits had accomplished.

· The doctrine of sola fide teaches that we are saved through faith alone in Jesus Christ, releasing the Chinese people from the burden of earning their path to heaven through good works or enlightenment as taught in Daoism and Buddhism. It also freed believers from the institutional bonds of the Catholic church. Christianity survived the darkness of Communism precisely because believers were able to gather in groups of 10-50 for private Bible studies and worship. Christ taught his disciples, “For where two or three of you are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

· In Christ alone (solus christus), we have one Lord, one faith, one baptism. We are not saved by rituals or acts of righteousness, but faith in Christ alone. All who have heard the gospel and believe in Christ will be saved.

· This salvation through faith is entirely by the grace of God alone (sola gratia). Contrary to traditional Chinese teachings, we are not born innocent and good, and we are not saved by cultivating our innate goodness. No one can be saved except by God's grace; yet this also means anyone can be saved. Not only the learned, but the unlearned; not only the powerful, but also the powerless. It is not surprising that the majority of Chinese believers have come from rural areas. It is only in the last decade that Christianity has begun to impact Chinese urban centers.

· Lastly, soli deo gloria teaches that we live for the glory of God alone, not for the emperor, or our family, or our country. In a culture which celebrates those who bring glory to their nation and family, family expectations and academic pressure can crush even the brightest and hardest-working people. But in the gospel, our glory comes from God and returns to God. To the praise of his glory, Christianity continues to grow exponentially in China due to the sacrifices of millions of believers, who are giving up their ambitions, wealth, and sometimes even family ties, for the sake of bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ to their neighbors.