Results tagged “china” from Reformation21 Blog

Since writing and submitting the series of posts (beginning here) on the pervasive Christological confusion in China, I have received a communication confirming that my caution about attributing to our brother the view suggested by his assertions is well founded. As I muse in the final post of the series,

Perhaps these statements do not accurately represent his views. They are imprecisely stated, somewhat speculative, and not clearly argued from Scripture. There are layers of language involved here and at least two years has passed since these recordings were made--enough time for him to have already changed his mind.

According to this recent communication, this brother declares that he "embraces the totality of the Reformed faith" and made some of the assertions at the root of the present confusion in unguarded extemporaneous moments. He did not intend to confuse anyone on the doctrine of Christ's humanity, does not believe the assertions circulating widely in China are well-understood, and denies that they "adequately represent" his full or final position on this matter.

So far as I can see, this is encouraging news. The confusion itself persists, of course, and deserves whatever attention is necessary to clarify just what the biblical and confessional teaching on Christ's humanity is; going forward, may we concentrate on the doctrinal issue at hand with one heart and mind for the welfare of the church here, there, and everywhere.

This is the final post in a twelve-part series on the current Christological confusion taking root in China's emerging Reformed community (see parts 12345678, and 9 and 10 and 11).


Conclusion

There may be ways to construe the supposed pre-existent humanity of Christ without transgressing Chalcedonian orthodoxy--Klaas Runia certainly thought Barth achieved this.[1] For this reason, among others, Reformed theologians have generally treated this view as objectionable but not, by itself, heretical.[2] Even though some of the statements reviewed in this essay are difficult to square with Chalcedon and obviously incompatible with the Reformed standards cited above, my concern here is not assessing this man's views but addressing the Christological confusion his statements are causing within Reformed circles on the mainland of China (and beyond).

Perhaps these statements do not accurately represent his views. They are imprecisely stated, somewhat speculative, and not clearly argued from Scripture. There are also layers of language involved here and at least two years has passed since these recordings were made--enough time for him to have already changed his mind.

Whatever the case may be, these statements are circulating throughout mainland China, influencing believers who are just discovering the Reformed tradition, and causing enough Christological confusion to warrant our concern. Anyone who develops their Christological views around these "two claims, . . . first, that Christ's human nature and Christ's body are uncreated; and, second, that Christ's human nature has existed from all eternity," seems certain to stray from the Chalcedonian Christology the orthodox Reformed standards consistently maintain. Jesus Christ is not a bodily manifestation of an eternal humanness hidden within God; God-incarnate is not just similar to us with respect to a range of bodily functions but consubstantial with us--just like us in every way except sin; and there is no such thing as an uncreated physical body.

Though the divine and eternal Son assuming a fully human nature, body and soul, created and finite just like ours, is a scandal, it is the glorious scandal of God's saving grace in Jesus Christ, necessary for us and our salvation.

Notes:

[1] Klaas Runia, The Present-Day Christological Debate (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1984), pp. 16-21.

[2] An interesting example of this is Hodge, Systematic Theology, pp. 421-28, who treats the views of Swendenborg and Watts on this point as merely objectionable and describes the latter as undoubtedly "a devout worshiper of our Lord Jesus Christ," p. 423.

This is the eleventh post in a twelve-part series on the current Christological confusion taking root in China's emerging Reformed community (see parts 12345678, and 9 and 10).


Seventh Statement: The "Unknown Humanity of God in Christ"

"Until recent times," Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen observes, "the idea of the pre-existence of the human nature [of Christ] was not only not affirmed but at times considered to be dangerous or even heretical."[1] This did not prevent the ever-provocative Karl Barth from contriving such a Christology, however. First hinted at in his Church Dogmatics, he later argued before the Swiss Reformed Ministers' Association that the humanity of God in Christ must have a central place in evangelical theology. Admitting that he and his cobelligerents had "moved [this perspective on God] from the center to the periphery, from the emphasized principle clause to the less emphasized subordinate clause" in their polemic against theological liberalism, he now considered its recovery an urgent task.[2] Since then a number of other theologians have played suit. Among them are Wilhelm Vischer, Donald Bloesch, Robert Jenson, Thomas Senor, and the already noted Webb.[3] Apparently, our brother in Asia should be added to this list.

Although he does not cite any sources for his statements (other than a few dubiously translated or interpreted places in Scripture), his language sometimes seems lifted right out of Barth's several discussions, including his claim that the eternal humanness of Christ is the uncreated "prototype" of humanity and "could be called the 'Un-known humanity of God in Christ'."[4] Here, for example, is Barth's discussing the creation of humans:
There is a real pre-existence of man... namely, a pre-existence in the counsel of God, and to that extent, in God Himself, i.e., in the Son of God, in so far as the Son is the uncreated prototype of the humanity which is to be linked with God... As God Himself is mirrored in this image, He creates man [5]
On the humanity of God, Barth declares "it is precisely God's deity which, rightly understood, includes his humanity" and that "His deity encloses humanity in itself." Humanity, he argues, is hidden within the divine being but revealed through Jesus Christ: "In Him the fact is once for all established that God does not exist without man." Again, "in the mirror of this humanity of Jesus Christ the humanity of God enclosed in His deity reveals itself." [6]

Barth understands that "the statement regarding God's humanity, the Immanuel, to which we have advanced... from the Christological center, cannot but have the most far-reaching consequences."[7] But the consequences are determined by the details of the particular view one advances. Despite the similarity of language, Barth and our brother in Asia arrive at their respective views on the pre-existence of Christ's humanity from distinct starting points and, in the end, hold distinct positions--the latter's even more exotic than the former's.

This is not the place to enter into a comparative study of Barth's view of Christ's pre-existent humanity and the variety of this species taking root in China today. But, as Barth correctly notes, any statement regarding the humanity of God in Christ will have profound consequences, some of which, as Kärkkäinen observes, have long been considered dangerous to the understanding of Scripture captured in the Chalcedonian definition set down in 451.

Notes:

[1] Kärkkäinen, Christ and Reconciliation: A Constructive Christian Theology for the Pluralistic World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), pp. 184-85.

[2] His 1956 address to the Swiss Reformed Ministers' Association was entitled "The Humanity of God" and subsequently translated into English and published in Karl Barth, The Humanity of God (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1960), pp. 37-65. See also Barth's Christocentric discussion of election in Church Dogmatics II/2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957), pp. 95-194 (especially p. 145), and of the creation of "real man" in Church Dogmatics III/2 (1960), p. 155.

[3] See, for example, Wilhelm Vischer, The Witness of the Old Testament to Christ, trans. A. B. Crabtree (London: Lutterworth, 1949); Donald G. Bloesch, Jesus Christ: Savior & Lord (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997), pp. 132-43; Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), especially pp. 125-45; and Thomas D. Senor, "Incarnation and Trinity" in Reason for the Hope Within, ed. by Michael Murray (Grad Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), pp. 238-59, especially 241-52. Bloesch also names Klaas Runia and Ray Anderson as proponents, p. 137. Like Matt Slick, President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, who states "Jesus is uncreated" several times in his article on "Jesus" available at https://carm.org/cut-jesus, it is difficult to know Runia and Anderson intended to assert the uncreated humanity of Christ or were just speaking loosely about his pre-existence as the Son. After Barth, Jenson's views have attracted the most attention, including sharp critiques by Simon Gathercole, "Pre-existence and the Freedom of the Son in Creation and Redemption: An Exposition in Dialogue with Robert Jenson," International Journal of Systematic Theology, 7.1 (January 2005), pp. 38-51, and Oliver D. Crisp, "Robert Jensen on the Pre-existence of Christ," Modern Theology 23:1 (January 2007), pp. 27-45, the latter concluding Jenson's view is "simply incoherent," p. 42.

[4] Second Recording.

[5] Church Dogmatics III/2, p. 155.

[6] Barth, Humanity of God, pp. 46, 49, 50,  and 51, respectively (emphasis original). It is worth noting that the Barth's language regarding the humanity of God has spread far beyond just those who affirm Christ's humanity is pre-existent. Take, for example, the title to James Torrance's festschrift, Christ in our Place: The Humanity of God in Christ for the Reconciliation of the World: Essays presented to James Torrance (Eugene: Pickwick, 1989) or the language of Jürgen Moltmann in many passages of The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993).

[7] Barth, Humanity of God, p. 52.

This is the ninth post in a twelve-part series on the current Christological confusion taking root in China's emerging Reformed community (see parts 123456, 7 and 8)


Fifth Statement: Merely Functional Likeness

Ironically, holding a univocal view of God's image (see part 8) leads our speaker to insist that Christ's human nature "is fundamentally different from us who have been created."[1] This is a startling departure from the Chalcedonian tradition's confession that the incarnate Son is "consubstantial with us according to the manhood [and] in all things like unto us, without sin" (see part 3)

If there is only one kind of divine image and that image is the eternal Son and is also the essence of humanity then it follows that the eternal Son must be eternally human in some sense--the sense of his eternal humanness. As he puts it,
Jesus Christ possesses God's image, [while] we were created after God's image. Therefore, Christ himself is the image, which is the gene of human nature. Well, within Christ is the original form of human nature, or original human nature. This is something that is not created. This is what I mean. So, I believe that Christ's human nature is uncreated and pre-existent within God.[2]
And again,
Since humankind was created in this image, humankind is said to have been created in the image of God, that is, created in Christ's likeness. Now, since humankind was created in Christ's likeness, Christ must have pre-existed before the creation of all human beings. The "humanness in Christ" has always pre-existed within Christ. This is what I mean to express.[3]
So, Christ is the original human, we are the copies created in the likeness of his humanness: "we reflect Him, he is the prototype."[4]

Because his human nature is uncreated and pre-existent we cannot say he is like us in every way except sin--or conversely, that we are just like him. We must instead conclude that his "humanness is not very similar to what is traditionally referred to as humanity or human nature" and that, even as incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, he is only "like unto us in many things."[5] Even "his body is entirely different from ours."[6]

Directly addressing the Chalcedonian claim Christ is like us in every way except sin, he asks,
Is he like unto us in all these things? He is a human being, so, just like us, he could grow hungry, thirsty, and physically weary; he would sleep; he experienced many of the things that we experience.[7]
But the many ways he is like us may relate only to a range of bodily functions and corresponding experiences:
His body is entirely different from ours, because our bodies have been created. . . . Jesus Christ's body was neither created from dust, nor from the union of a man and a woman, . . . so his body is certainly different from ours. Different, yet, he truly became human, and he had to possess all the functions of the kind of bodies that we have, so he would sleep, he would be tired, he would grow hungry, he would be thirsty, etc. The functions of his body were "like unto us in all things."[8]
Although Jesus is necessarily like us in his bodily functions, embodied experience alone falls short of being consubstantial with the rest of humanity. Functional somatic similarity, if you will, is not enough to secure the kind of identification with humanity the Chalcedonian tradition, not to mention author of Hebrews, maintains is necessary "for our salvation." As the maxim laid down by Gregory of Nazianzus declares, "that which was not assumed is not healed."[9]

Notes:

[1] First Recording

[2] Third Recording

[3] First Recording

[4] First Recording

[5] First Recording

[6] Third Recording

[7] Second Recording

[8] Third Recording

[9] Letter to Cledonius (Ep. 101), p. 5

This is the eighth post in a twelve-part series on the current Christological confusion taking root in China's emerging Reformed community (see part 123456, and 7)


Fourth Statement: The Recast Image of God

Recast by the concept of Christ's eternal humanness (see part 5), the image of God is no longer just about the way humans were originally created in God's likeness but now also about how humanity's original form eternally exists "within God's being." He reasons that "the image of God is Christ and therefore Christ in eternity is the original form of human nature."[1]  Turning the imago Dei on its head, he proceeds from the claim that "humanness is the essence of Christ and . . . Christ is the image of God" to the conclusion that "this image contains within it the original form of the essence of human nature. Perhaps," he proposes, "this could be called the 'Un-known humanity of God in Christ'."[2]

Orthodox Reformed theologians sometimes speak of Christ as the essential image of God (imago essentialis) in the sense that, as the Son, he is co-essential with the Father. When they do, however, they carefully distinguish this sense of the divine image from the sense in which humans are created in God's image (imago accidentalis), and deny that humans possess the essential image of God.[3]

As the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ in some sense makes the invisible God visible. Hence he is "the image of the invisible God" (Col 1:15) and "the exact imprint of his nature" (Heb 1:3) in a way that surpasses anything that could be said of mere humans. Only the incarnate Son bears the essential image and it cannot be transmitted, lost, or damaged anymore than he could be duplicated or fail to be the second person of the Trinity.

The image of God in mere humans, however, is a natural gift originally given to Adam at creation. From him, it has been passed on to the whole race and, in the fall, was also severely damaged and partly lost. The damage was done to the intrinsic aspect of the divine image, which is how humans are, like God, spiritual beings with intellect, will, and affections. Though damaged, these faculties survive the fall and in this sense humans continue to bear the divine image. The extrinsic aspect of the divine image, which is how Adam and Eve, also like God, were originally righteous, holy, and pure, was lost in the fall.

To confuse the Son's essential image with the image of God given humanity is to confuse the divine and human natures. Our speaker is aware of the danger:
Here, I do not intend to confuse Christ's human and divine natures. What I mean is that Christ's human nature [or humanness], which is the original form by which human nature is created, is within him.[4]
The statements on the image of God above, however, fail to maintain any distinction between the essential image of God in Christ as the divine Son and the divine image given to humanity as a gift. Consequently, they fail to prevent this kind of confusion between the divine and human natures. On the contrary, by tracing the imago Dei in humans back through "the ontological being of Christ" to "God's being," this sort of confusion seems unavoidable.

Notes:

[1] First Recording

[2] Second Recording. The phrase "Unknown humanity of God in Christ" is originally given in English by the speaker and thus not translated, and for that reason offset here in quotation marks

[3] This sense of the imago essentialis should not be confused with, for example, G. C. Berkouwer's use of that term in Man the Image of God: Studies in Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), pp. 38-41, to refer to the constitutive aspect of the image of God in humanity. Note also that Lutheran theologians draw a similar distinction between the substantial image of God (imago substantialis) uniquely in Christ as the divine Son and the accidental image (imago accidentalis) originally in Adam.

[4] Second Recording
This is the seventh post in a twelve-part series on the current Christological confusion taking root in China's emerging Reformed community  (see part 1234 and 5 and 6).

Third Statement: Incarnation as the Assumption of a Body (Alone?)

Despite his apparent anthropological dualism, our brother does not actually affirm a two-stage incarnation (or refer to humanness as his soul). Origen believed Christ's human soul was un-fallen and pre-existent but also created and assumed by the Son at the beginning of creation. But here, Christ's humanness is said to be uncreated and eternal, not something assumed but "something within God's being."

So, there is only one incarnational moment, which involves the assumption of a physical human body by the one who is already human without the incarnation. Thus, in explaining the meaning of "Logos ensarkos, Word-in-flesh," he declares this:
About this "flesh", the Bible has made three important statements: (1) "the Father has prepared a body for me"; (2) the Son Himself took the form of a slave, thus inheriting a physical body from Mary; (3) the Virgin conceived and gave birth by the Holy Spirit, so God came to dwell among us--Immanuel.
He proceeds to explain from these three points why he is unwilling to call Christ's body (or flesh) created, which we will return to in part 10. The point here is to observe the apparent reduction of the incarnation to just the assumption of a physical human body. Again, in his words, "Christ was already in possession of an original and eternal form of human nature, and then after he came into the world, he came to possess an incarnate human nature, the nature of a human body."[1]

This statement could be read as reducing not just the incarnation, but created human nature to possessing a human body or some property we acquire "by virtue of having a body." He denies this, however, and prefers to say "a human being is human because there is human nature [in the sense of humanness] within him or her."[2] As already observed (see part 5), "humanness is the essence within human beings, the essence by virtue of which human beings are human."[3] But, according to him, the Son already possessed this from eternity and thus was a human being in precisely this sense. So, the Son did not assume human nature in the sense of humanness or become fully human when conceived in Mary's womb, but acquired just "the nature of a human body."

By insisting on the pre-existence of Christ's humanness, he arrests this view from collapsing into a Word-flesh or Apollinarian Christology. Although these statements suggest a broadly Apollinarian view of what the Son assumed in the incarnation, the speaker insists that the incarnate Son "has a [human] body, a soul, affection, reason, and a will just like us."[4] It is unclear whether his human soul is identical with his humanness prior to the incarnation (asarkos) or only as embodied (ensarkos), but humanness seems to refer to the spiritual (intellectual and volitional) aspect of Christ's human nature, and thus his humanity includes both body and soul, including the intellectual aspect denied by Apollinarians.[5]

Avoiding Apollinarianism, however, is little consolation.

Notes:

[1] Third Recording. Also worth noting, the speaker identifies flesh with body and contrasts it to both the soul and what Jesus possessed prior to the incarnation.

[2] First Recording

[3] First Recording

[4] Second Recording

[5]  Hodge, Systematic Theology, pp. 421-23, interprets Emanuel Swedenborg's extensive but scattered comments on the incarnation as positing an eternal humanness in God that becomes materially manifest in time by the God's assumption of a physical body. Hodge is followed by Donald G. Bloesch, Jesus Christ: Savior & Lord (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997), p. 137.

This post is the second in a twelve-part series on the current Christological confusion taking root in China's emerging Reformed Community (see part 1 here).

Context & Cause of the Current Confusion

In one of the most fascinating developments in global Christianity today, many pastors and other believers in China are embracing Reformed theology and reforming their beliefs and practices. Though a few observers challenge the claim, a Reformed community in China (as opposed to isolated individuals and congregations) does exist, and not just online. The tendrils of this community often twine around the ministries of a relatively few widely recognized ministers. As such, these individuals, whose ministries are often based outside of China, exercise remarkable influence on theological opinion within the still relatively secluded world of Reformed Christianity on the mainland.

For many years now, and at least as recently as 2013, one such influence with an international ministry and reputation has been saying some very confusing things about the human nature of Jesus Christ. [1]  At times, he has attempted to clarify and defend his comments. One such attempt is found in a series of three recordings he made in 2012, which were subsequently transcribed and translated by others. Though these three recordings and a booklet he published in 1991 are the sources cited below, the primary source of the confusion in China's Reformed community has been his oral statements to the same effect in sermons, lectures, and especially question and answer sessions.

Though this man's public statements are the source of the current confusion, as one Reformed observer explains, "the belief that Christ's humanity is uncreated actually has had a longstanding tradition among Chinese Christian leaders associated with Reformed theology, including Jia Yuming." [2]  This tradition appears to be reflected in the widely used Chinese translation of the Belgic Confession, which curiously drops the original's explicit affirmation that the human nature of Christ is created. [3]  All of this predates the current proponent of this view, whose statements may represent what he sees as an established, albeit eccentric, Eastern Christological tradition--a tradition that seemed certain to fade away without his advocacy.

A Cautious Critique

Some of the church's greatest fathers have occasionally said some odd things about Jesus Christ, things later generations viewed as ill-advised or just plain wrong. Take Athanasius of contra mundum fame for his stand against ascendant Arians. Once, while trying to show how his adversaries mangled Hebrews 3:2 about Jesus' becoming or being made or appointed high priest, he drew this analogy of the incarnation:

What the Savior did on His coming, this Aaron shadowed out according to the Law. As then Aaron was the same and did not change by putting on the high-priestly dress, but remaining the same was only robed, . . . in the same way it is possible in the Lord's instance also to understand aright, that He did not become other than Himself on taking the flesh, but, being the same as before, He was robed in it; and the expressions 'He became' and 'He was made,' must not be understood as if the Word, considered as the Word, were made, but that the Word, being Framer of all, afterwards was made High Priest, by putting on a body which was originate and made, and such as He can offer for us; wherefore He is said to be made. [4]

Comments like these continue to fuel sometimes uncharitable suspicions that Athanasius operated with a deficient view of Christ's humanity--that the Son assumed something less than a fully human nature complete with intellect and will. [5] Even if Athanasius was not confused about the humanity of Christ, this analogy and some of his other remarks confuse readers and obscure his orthodoxy as much as they disclose it.

Elsewhere, Athanasius affirms the union of the divine Word with a fully human nature, body and soul. [6] So, we should not conclude too much from an odd analogy here or argument there. Whether the one above is helpful or confusing is a different question than any we might ask about Athanasius's Christology. We may conclude, that is, that this analogy is very confusing or that argument not at all helpful while taking no position on or even defending the source's overall view of Christ's humanity.

Similarly, the following critique centers on the cause of the current Christological confusion within China's emerging Reformed community. The immediate cause is found in certain public statements. I take no position on whether these statements are being understood correctly or if they accurately represent this brother's views; I only conclude that his statements are the cause of some confusion that deserves at least this much attention.

Notes:

1. For several good reasons I need not explain here, I am not going to name the current source of this apparently confused and certainly confusing teaching. Those most likely to benefit from me doing so will already know who it is; those who do not know probably do not need to know.

2. Jia (1880-1964, formerly known as Chia Yu-ming) had strong ties to prewar Presbyterian mission work in China, teaching at both Nanjing Jinling Seminary and North China Theological Seminary. He gained an international reputation and became vice-chairman of the Committee of the Chinese Church Three-Self Patriotic Movement in 1954. Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity, (http://www.bdcconline.net/en/stories/j/jia-yuming.php; accessed July 22, 2015)

3. This edition of the Belgic Confession was translated by Charles Chao, published by Reformation Translation Fellowship, and is now available online at https://www.ccel.org/contrib/cn/creeds/belgic.html.

4. Athanasius, Against the Arians, 2.8.

5. See, for example, Christopher Beeley, The Unity of Christ: Continuity and Conflict in Patristic Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 165. Beeley's harsh interpretation of Athanasius includes accusations that he invented the Arian controversy and died a bitter controversialist defending his narrow Word-flesh Christology.

6. In Letter to Epictetus, 7, he writes this: "But truly our salvation . . . does not extend to the body only, but the whole man, body and soul alike, has truly obtained salvation in the Word Himself. That then which was born of Mary was according to the divine Scriptures human by nature."
ChinaSource is, in my estimation, the premier resource for anyone interested in Chinese Christianity. The dedicated crew observes closely, researches thoroughly, documents meticulously, and consistently publishes high-quality reports and essays written by Chinese church leaders and others with years of experience living and working in this ancient, complicated, and rapidly changing culture.

Why bring all this up now? The just-released summer 2015 issue of ChinaSource Quarterly is titled "Theological Reflections on Urban Churches in China" and is devoted to current trends in Chinese theology. As the opening editorial by Brent Fulton and Ji Lin puts it, "with the rise of civil society has come a new theological stream that seeks to position the church constructively within society, yet with a prophetic voice toward social and political institutions." This stream is quite braided in its course but one significant strand, made clear by the lead article  written (originally in Chinese) by a notable reformed church leader, is Reformed Theology.

Short, programatic, and pastoral, it's worth the few minutes it takes to open a new tab and read it. It's an encouraging insight into the kinds of discussions and concerns at play among our Reformed Chinese brothers and sisters. (The issue also includes a review of my China's Reforming Churches and interesting discussions of liberalism, eschatology, pentecostalism, and public theology in China today. The full issue, in pdf, is available here.)

China may be emerging as another global center of Reformed faith and practice. If so, East Asia would seem to be well on its way to becoming the heartland of the Reformed tradition in this century. True, outside South Korea, the Reformed tradition in East Asia lacks the long and relatively unbroken history of institutional development and cultural influence it enjoys in parts of Europe and the Anglosphere (including South Africa in this case), but that is changing rapidly. There are remarkable developments taking place in Indonesia, Singapore, and China. Two major Chinese cities--China's Geneva and Edinburgh, if you will--particularly stand out. Only God knows how all this will turn out, but present appearances our very encouraging despite some glaring issues.

Evidence of the advance of the Reformed tradition in China is not hard to find. (At the risk of indecent self-promotion, I happily point you to China's Reforming Churches, which attempts to tell the backstory, set present developments in proper context, and assess opportunities, needs, and challenges going forward.) Just this week, ZGBriefs, a digest of news of interest on China, highlighted a piece by Brent Fulton entitled "In Search of Structure: The Pull of Denominations in China." 

Brent, founder and director of ChinaSource, is a keen observer of Christianity on the mainland. He notes a significant change among house church leaders in their views on denominations. For decades China's house churches tended to despise denominations but that has been changing rapidly as they face the need for institutional structure and better church practices in order to support the work of the ministry--defending the faith, practicing discipline, training up the children, ordaining ministers, sending out missionaries, and so on. Interestingly, their quest for structure is driving many church leaders to the resources of Reformed theology and biblical presbyterianism, broadly construed. Brent is clearly right to view these two trends--the embrace of structure and Reformed theology--as thoroughly entangled. And, despite certain dangers, this is very encouraging since the embrace of Reformed theology in China is a church-centered affair.

For evidence of this, and further evidence of the indigenization of the Reformed tradition in China, consider this recent interview with a house church pastor from a midsize eastern city (not one of the two noted above it is worth noting). The interview, translated and divided into three parts for our benefit by the good folks at Chinese Church Voices, first appeared on Christian Times, a leading Christian website in the People's Republic. Does it surprise you there is such a thing as a leading Christian website in China? Read the interview, there are far better surprises than this in store.
Offline eighteen days and Trueman vanishes from the site, Turk takes on Jones's and Levy's presbyterianism, and I miss "Deviant Calvinism week." Conspiracy theorists (and perhaps certain biblical theology practitioners) might discern a theme, but enough about what everyone else is discussing.

I thought the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong were going to fade before I was back online, but they continue. In mainland China the headlines are mostly on other issues or about how these pesky youths are frustrating commuters in the once orderly colony. (Such party-supporting spin is exactly the sort of thing Hong Kongers are trying to resist.) Meanwhile, WSJ online ran Ned Levin's piece under this headline: "Hong Kong Democracy Protests Carry a Christian Mission for Some."

Levin reports that many of the protest organizers self-identify as Christian, "including the 17-year-old leader of a student group and two of the three heads of Occupy Central." One of the latter two is a baptist minister, the other a professor. Also, one of the most outspoken supporters of the Occupy Central protest group is the city's former Roman Catholic bishop. Reports from other quarters indicate that both evangelical and more liberal protestants are participating in disproportionate numbers relative to their share of the general population, and the whole affair has a clear, but not exclusive, Christian cast to it with Jesus-themed signs, barricades doubling as chapels, public Christian prayers, and the like.

Yet, one of the leading critics of the movement is the Anglican Archbishop, who seems to cast the organizers as uninformed and misguided in a heavily-criticized sermon; and Joshua Wong, the 17-year-old student organizer, has reportedly been frustrated over the refusal of church leaders to take a more activist stance. But there are very good reasons for church leaders, however sympathetic their personal political convictions may be, to hold back:

First, democracy is not the church's message or her mission. The church, as the only institution on earth entrusted with God's word, has things to say to civil magistrates and she must be willing to say those things even when it will cost her dearly (in worldly terms). Democracy, however, is neither her message nor her mission. Confusion on this point will undermine her ability to care for God's people and maintain the purity and potency of her witness; it will also do real harm to the wider society. The world needs the church to be the church, not some sort of political action committee. Besides, she will mangle whatever political activism she does attempt because she was not designed and ordered for that work; her work is to glorify God by proclaiming the gospel to all people in all places and to gather in and perfect the elect as worshipers through the ministry of word and sacrament.

Second, politicizing the church seems unlikely to do any good for the cause of Christ in China or the world. To closely associate the church with disruptive democratic protests in defiance of the rulers in Beijing, especially in the wake of recent disputes over church property in some locations, seems likely to undermine those voices within the party that lobby for a more moderate stance toward the tens of thousands of unregistered churches that fill the mainland. In recent decades, an unofficial but clearly evident (and very welcome) tolerance has emerged. It remains as fragile as the party is paranoid, and any unnecessary politicization of the church or Christian identity in China could do serious and perhaps permanent harm to millions of Christians who love their country, strive to live peaceably under its rulers, and seek the welfare of their neighbors. 

I do not judge our brothers and sisters who have made the decision to join the protests in Hong Kong--on the contrary--but I hope they are clear that they do so as citizens of Hong Kong and China and not as a matter of Christian mission. More to the the point of this post, I hope this helps you pray well for the church in China, in both Hong Kong and the mainland, not only in light of recent headlines but also in view of the continuing integration of Hong Kong and her churches into mainland China.