CMI received a series of emails from Tony J. who objected that the main thesis of Faith of our Fathers: God in Ancient China that the ancient Chinese believed in a God similar to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, was wrong. Tony quoted certain parts of a review of Faith of our Fathers by Dr Wright Doyle, of Global China Center, to back up his objections. Tony seemed to be motivated by a sense of Chinese nationalism, seeing Christianity as some sort of western cultural imperialism that was ‘anti-Chinese’ (of course Jesus was not ‘western’ at all!). Clearly Tony had not actually read Faith of Our Fathers, which he was urged to do, because the authors are very respectful of Chinese history and culture. We asked Dr Chan Kei Thong, major author of Faith of Our Fathers, to respond. We thank him for his full response to the review by Dr Doyle (not just the matters cited by Tony J.).
Defending Faith of Our Fathers
Dr Chan Kei Thong, major author of Faith of Our Fathers, answers criticisms
Published: 3 March 2013 (GMT+10)
Dr Chan Kei Thong, CEO Leadership Development International, and major author of Faith of our Fathers.
This is a response by the author to Dr. Wright Doyle’s review of the book, Faith of Our Fathers. The author appreciates the thoroughness with which the professional reviewer approaches his analysis. It is the opinion of the author that the many points of disagreement can be attributed to a difference in the choice of intended audience. The author’s intention for this book is that it will reach a general audience rather than technical experts in either Judeo-Christian theology or in the Chinese Classics.
Dr. Walter Kaiser, Colman M. Mockler Distinguished Professor of Old Testament and President Emeritus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, has often said in his class on Hermeneutics that, “A text without a context is a pretext.” The author finds that most of the answers to objections raised in this review can be resolved when the context of the book is in view.
Faith of Our Fathers: God in Ancient China
Review by Dr. G. Wright Doyle, Global China Center
March 20, 2007
This well-written, beautifully-produced volume represents many years of painstaking study, a firm conviction that the Bible is God’s special revelation, and a profound love for the best in Chinese civilization. As a result, it possesses many strengths and will be convincing to many readers, especially Chinese.
Many Chinese and non-Chinese in this post-modern era are responding positively to this work. They are encouraged to seek Jesus when they see that God has been at work in China’s ancient past. Hundreds have come to faith since the publication of the Chinese edition in December 2005. It is the first evangelistic publication legally released in the Peoples’ Republic of China in more than 50 years.
On the other hand, it suffers from a number of nearly-fatal weaknesses which will greatly reduce its value for more critical students of Chinese culture, church history, and the Bible.
As stated in the book and above, this book is intended for a general audience. Therefore, we did not in all instances try to argue exhaustively or comprehensively. This makes us vulnerable to the criticism that we have engaged in faulty scholarship. Where we have sacrificed an attempt at presenting a watertight scholarly argument we have done so for the sake of presenting a readable, cogent and engaging narrative to the ordinary reader.
We recognize that there are differing views on points concerning theology, church history and interpretations of the Bible and Chinese Classics. However, we do not agree that this book contains fatal errors in any of these areas. If the reviewer were to specify what he considers to be “a number of nearly-fatal weaknesses”, we would be happy to offer a response based on the years of careful research that produced this work.
Thong states his purpose early: That others may “understand, through the perspective of Chinese culture, the truth of the Bible and the faithfulness of God.” The author, a Singaporean Chinese now living in China, wrote this book as a result of his own search for his spiritual roots. He wants “to bring others along on … the journey” that led him from renunciation of his Chinese past to a belief that to worship the God of the Bible is to “return to the foundations of our ancient cultural heritage.”
It is a return that calls for a forward movement, not a static return to dwell upon. The Chinese insight is not perfect. It can only be perfected in Jesus Christ. So the goal does not end with a return, but a journey forward.
He achieves at least the major part of his purpose: The book ably presents the main tenets of the Christian faith, with ample Biblical citations. Any person seeking the truth about the Gospel will find it clearly stated in Faith of Our Fathers.
Hundreds have come to faith in Christ as a result of this book. Over the past ten years, many others have found Christ through seminars presented on four continents. Hundreds more have been encouraged to love Yahweh more because of what they have learned.
He acknowledges that others have plowed this same field, but offers in this book “a systematic examination of works by other scholars on this topic, along with new revelations and [his] own insights.” He thinks that God has left “signposts” that point to the conclusion that “the early Chinese forefathers worshipped God in a manner similar to that set forth in the Bible.”
These signposts were seven:
1. “The composition of ancient Chinese characters suggests knowledge of the earliest events of human history as described in the Bible.”
Thong exercises care in explaining this point. He does not claim that Chinese characters “were originally designed to convey a Christian message,” but only that “what is now known as the biblical story of Creation was at one point in ancient history also the Creation story known in Chinese culture. It was so commonly accepted as truth that elements of that story are reflected in the symbols chosen to represent key ideas in the formation of the written Chinese language” (53).
He also refers to the original form of the characters which he adduces as evidence that the early Chinese knew a great deal about God and his plan of salvation; this protects him from the criticism that an analysis of modern forms only carries little weight.
2. “The Supreme Being venerated by the ancient Chinese … corresponds to the God revealed in the Bible.”
The name for this being among the early Shang Dynasty was Shang Di. He was believed to be unique; was never represented by an idol or image; an “all-powerful and supreme Deity” (79); “sovereign of surrounding nations as well” as the Chinese themselves” (80); governed the forces of nature; he “governed the construction of cities, the outcome of wars, and the well-being and misfortune of human beings” (81). Amazingly, he “received no cultic or manipulative worship” (81).
When the Zhou dynasty replaced the Shang, they believed that their supreme deity, called Tian (Heaven), was the same as Shang Di, and used the two names interchangeably for a while. Later, Tian (Heaven) became the standard term. There is no evidence that either of these names referred to a being who had a beginning; Thong opines that he may have been considered eternal (82).
Another morpheme, Di, has also been used interchangeably with Shang Di and Tian for the supreme being. Thong notes that “di” or “ti” appears in many languages – perhaps most of them – as a referent for deity; this is a most interesting point, in my opinion.
Shang Di has become “a personal name for God, while Tian seems to be more of an abstraction” for the Deity (84).
The attributes of Shang Di as reflected in ancient Chinese classics show him to be “the same Father God of my Christian faith” (106).
“Shang Di and the God of the Bible are one and the same” (174).
The entire sentence reads, “Shang Di and the God of the Bible are one and the same, and He will hold every one of us accountable for keeping our word.” The preceding phrase must be understood in light of the latter. The point is that since the God of covenants is One, He will hold us accountable to the oaths we pledge. This phrase must not be taken out of context to prove that we have erred in equating the ancient Chinese knowledge of God as completely similar to that of the entire Bible.
3. The Border Sacrifice ceremony performed by the emperor at the Temple of Heaven … shows startling and meaningful parallels with the sacrificial system prescribed in the Bible.”
In this imposing ceremony, the emperor prostrated himself before Di in acts of homage that expressed a belief in a supreme deity upon whose favor and forgiveness depended the welfare of the empire.
Thong also finds remarkable similarities between the covenants ratified with blood in the Bible and those in Chinese history (as well as other civilizations). “From the very beginning of China’s long history, Shang Di has been revealing the truth of blood covenants to the Chinese people in order to prepare them to receive life’s greatest blessing: salvation through the eternal Tian Zi (Son of Heaven), Son of God, who is Jesus Christ. Rather than being the founder of a Western religion, Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the longing expressed annually through the shedding of blood at the Border Sacrifice for an unbroken, unblemished relationship with Shang Di. The same Creator God that China knew dimly through many millennia can now be known intimately and clearly through His special revelation in Jesus Christ” (180).
4. Eminent sinologists from the 16th to 19th centuries believed that “the ancient Chinese venerated a Deity who bears remarkable resemblance to the God of the Bible.”
In this chapter, Thong (mostly through his co-author) relates the careers and missionary strategies of Roman Catholic Jesuits Ricci, Schall, and Verbiest and the Protestant James Legge, whom he describes as “known for their scholarship, exactitude, and integrity” (217). Out of their love for China and respect for Chinese culture, they had mastered the Chinese classics and believed-as Legge wrote-that the “Chinese do know the true God, and have a word in their language answering to our word God, to the Hebrew Elohim, and to the Greek Theos” (217).
Their Christian opponents, however – both Roman Catholic and Protestant – are portrayed as unattractive, petty characters with “little or no scholarship” to support their point of view (216).
We do not want to portray those who held a different view as unattractive and petty, nor have we done so. Our exact words in page 216 are, “Those who chose to use the new term ‘tianzhu’ or the term ‘shen’ had a theological predisposition that excluded the Chinese of ages past from being counted among those who knew and worshipped the same God as the one acknowledged in the Christian Bible. This view, however, is supported by little or no scholarship.” Our critical opinion is specifically directed at this view, not the character of those who held this view. The brief description of those who held an opposing view in this historic argument was taken from historical accounts and does not reflect our assessment of their character.
In our extensive research, we discovered that on one hand we have men like the Jesuits, Xu Kuangqi, Li Zhizao, as well as James Legge, Walter Henry Medhurst, John Ross, Wang Tao, etc. who concluded that the ancient Chinese held a view of the Creator God that was consistent with the teachings of the Bible. Xu was the Chancellor of the National Institute, as well as tutor and guardian of the sons of the Imperial House. To earn that role, he must be qualified as the foremost expert on Chinese Classics in the early 17th century. Similarly, Wang was considered a preeminent Chinese expert on Chinese Classics in the 19th Century. His support for Legge’s interpretation of the Chinese Classics is well documented. Wang’s conclusion that the Chinese Classics had been misinterpreted in the few centuries before his time was influential in the lives of Kang Youwei and Sun Zhongshan. In turn, Kang influenced Liang Qichao. These three men were the most influential reformers of China in the late 19th and early 20th Century.
On the other hand, the author had great difficulty gathering scholarly works representing the opposite opinion. Generally, the view presented in Faith of Our Fathers is summarily dismissed as having theological errors or weaknesses but no convincing evidence is presented by those who hold the opposite view. The opponents to Matteo Ricci and Legge’s view usually referenced only a few minor points without bringing in a wealth of support from the Classics or Chinese history.
The author has found only two scholarly names that hold this opposing view. They are Dr. William Boone and Dr. Kenneth S. Latourette. Legge’s The Notions of the Chinese Concerning God and Spirits dealt a coup de grâce to Boone’s position. Latourette in his work, A History of Christian Missions in China recounted the 19th century controversy on the choice of “Shen” versus “Shangdi” for the translation of the Chinese Bible. He casually dismissed the choice of “Shangdi” without arguing his case. While the author holds him in the highest regard when it comes to his discipline of History, the author cannot accept Latourette’s conclusion. Latourette lacks both supporting evidence and knowledge of the Chinese language and the Chinese Classics.
If those who hold the popular view that the Chinese could not have known the Creator God in ways similar to the Old Testament and prefer the use of “Shen” can refer us to scholarly documents that stand up to the works produced by Ricci, Legge and the above mentioned scholars, we are open to research the matter further.
Thong uses this supposed contrast to confirm his own conclusion that “Shang Di … was clearly recognizable as the Christian God” (215).
The complete sentence reads, “Like the Jesuits nearly 300 years earlier, Legge’s study of the Chinese Classics led him to the conclusion that the Chinese had worshipped a monotheistic Deity called Shang Di, who was clearly recognizable as the Christian God.” The recognition is of the attributes of the Creator God, not that the Chinese had a knowledge that could only come from Special Revelation.
5. “Striking similarities exist between the Hebrew and the Chinese approach to moral truth.”
Thong finds in ancient Chinese documents a high regard for public and private morality that resembles some of the commandments given by God in the Old Testament.
6. “The ancient rulers of China understood and set forth a godly way of ruling the people.”
Drawing upon early documents, Thong describes the first rulers of China as humble worshipers of Shang Di who saw themselves merely as stewards of the authority bestowed on them by God, and who sought the welfare of their people.
By contrast, later rulers, beginning with the First Emperor, forsook the worship of Shang Di and committed themselves to following the dragon as a symbol of self-seeking lust for raw power – a tradition that Thong implies has persisted to modern times.
The chapter “Enter the Dragon” explains how the dragon became a prominent symbol in Chinese culture, and how it has been a part of the long decline from the proper worship of Shang Di. His analysis of “dragon power” and of why Chinese tend to submit to authoritarian rule is quite compelling.
7. “Chinese historical records appear to confirm some key astral events spoken of in the Bible.”
In a chapter entitled, “All Truth Is God’s Truth,” Thong discusses what he considers to be major and fundamental correspondences between the Biblical and ancient Chinese views of truth, particularly similarities between the Dao of Laozi’s Dao De Jing and the Logos of the Bible.
The “key astral events” to which Thong refers are two comets around the time of Jesus’ birth and a solar/lunar eclipse around the time of his crucifixion, which were noted by Chinese astronomers and interpreted by the reigning emperor as having cosmic significance.
The conclusion: The early Chinese had “an amazingly accurate knowledge of that one true God, whom the Chinese reverentially referred to as Shang Di.”
I have quoted the author, because he is quite careful to state his thesis in terms that seek to avoid the misunderstanding and excessive claims of some other writers with this point of view. For example, he is careful to state that “the Chinese were not a [c]hosen nation” in the same sense as Israel.” In his attempt to show the historical reliability of the Chinese classics, he says that “we do not intend to give more weight to the Chinese Classic than to Scripture. In fact, we firmly believe that the Bible is God’s special revelation to the world and that it is completely true” (20). He only wishes to use the Chinese writings as complementary sources on ancient history.
Thong begins by showing that the Hebrew Bible and Chinese historical writings can be considered accurate. He adduces much evidence especially for the reliability of the Chinese documents. He argues for an original monotheism held by all mankind before the Flood, which was then carried to the four corners of the globe by peoples dispersed after the Tower of Babel.
This knowledge was augmented by General Revelation – through nature, history, and conscience. General revelation “is meant to let us know that a sovereign, creator God truly does exist. Its purpose is to lead us to seek God and to discover His special revelation,” (37) which “takes precedence over general revelation” (39).
Although the earliest Chinese practiced a “pure” worship of Shang Di, over time elements of this were changed (such as not having the emperor himself slay the sacrificial animal) and later even the border sacrifice was debased with the worship of other spirits.
The author recognizes that the choice of the word “pure” may not be easily understood. It is not pure in the sense that it is exactly like the worship of Yahweh in the Bible. Rather, it parallels it in many ways. It is pure in the earliest period of Chinese civilization in contrast to the corruption of Chinese worship over a few thousand years. It is pure in that, initially, no idol was made the Object of their worship. This is contrary to those who hold the view that religion has evolved from idolatry or animism to monotheism.
The ancient Chinese religion was about as pure a worship of the Creator God as possible without special revelation. Our research did not reveal any other ancient people with a written record of the worship of the Creator God that comes as close to Biblical revelation as this well documented written record of the ancient Chinese. It is an Old Testament form of worship not a New Testament form of worship. But its ceremonies clearly contain many analogies that can be used to powerfully point people to salvation in Jesus Christ and His “one sacrifice for all sin for all time.”
This all-important ritual was restored to its pristine purity by the first Ming emperor in the early 14th century.
The author wishes to dispel for Chinese the notion that to become a Christian is to submit to a Western religion; rather, it is to return to the true religion of one’s ancestors. Indeed, “there is no conflict between their [i.e., the Chinese] cultural heritage and the Bible” (327).
The complete sentence reads, “To those who want to know the truth, however, the Bible can actually be very attractive, if they are guided step-by-step to an understanding that there is no conflict between their cultural heritage and the Bible and if they accept the sprinkling of evidence God has left in an ancient culture.”
How convincing will be his assertion of the identity of ancient Chinese views of God and the God of the Bible will depend upon the degree to which one accepts his interpretation of various aspects of ancient Chinese language and culture, and his correspondence of these with Christian beliefs. In my opinion, as I said, he has avoided some of the extreme claims of earlier attempts to “reconcile” Chinese culture with the Bible.
On the other hand, he has fallen victim to his own assumptions at numerous points, leading him to find things that may not be in the original text; to make sweeping claims about the identity of the Shang Di of the Chinese classics and the God of the Bible; to call Christian faith the “faith of [his] fathers”; to give us an idealized version of Chinese history since the Shang era; to present a disputed interpretation of the Dao De Jing – one that has been questioned by a large number of Chinese scholars, both Christian and non-Christian-and to engage in really unnecessary and almost slanderous criticism of those who disagree with his missionary heroes and, by implication, with him.
The author confesses that he is a floundering exegete of the Chinese Classics. However, he is not without help. As stated above, he has carefully researched the scholarly works of others, particularly that of James Legge. Legge’s translations of the Chinese Classics are meticulously annotated with scholarly commentaries on why he chose a certain translation over others. As this paragraph contains a number of serious charges, the author will address each point:
he has fallen victim to his own assumptions at numerous points,
As stated in the introduction to the book, the author is a “convert” to this unpopular view rather than one who had preconceived assumptions about ancient Chinese notions concerning the Creator God. The author’s 1985 Master’s Thesis, “The House-Church Movement In China–A Biblical Model For Church Growth” is evidence that he once held a completely different view from that of the Jesuits, having dismissed their efforts as syncretistic in one short paragraph.
leading him to find things that may not be in the original text;
We have to ask, “What is not in the original text?” In all citations, the author carefully researched the Chinese texts and conversed with experts in this field. His Chinese editor, well versed in classical Chinese, was a very helpful critic. The government publishing house required reviews by two non-believing mainland Chinese experts. Both of these reviews were positive, resulting in the approval of the publication. (One of these reviews was sent to Dr Doyle for his perusal.) As far as we could, we tried not to let our zeal take over our commitment to discovering the truth. We sought to apply good hermeneutics to both the Chinese Classics and the Bible.
to make sweeping claims about the identity of the Shang Di of the Chinese classics and the God of the Bible;
These claims are answered when they are identified at the end of the review. The book does not present the ancient Chinese as having complete knowledge of the God of the Bible, especially that of the New Testament. The book aims to present the conclusion that the indigenous Chinese view which stretches back four thousand years is consistent (not exhaustive) with the God of the Bible. Though the vision is not clear, we maintain that He is still the same God behind the clouds. The sun seen over a clear sky in Montana is still the same sun seen in a polluted Beijing.
to call Christian faith the “faith of [his] fathers”;
In no place in the book did the author call the “Christian faith the ‘faith of [his] fathers’”. The title of the book is Faith of Our Fathers – God in Ancient China. What the author is saying through this work is that the faith of the ancient Chinese is consistent with the Christian faith and that the Chinese need to go beyond this faith to discover the complete revelation that is in Jesus Christ. It is like saying that simple arithmetic is consistent with calculus and a good preparation for it. But it is not right to say that calculus is simple arithmetic.
to give us an idealized version of Chinese history since the Shang era;
It is true that this book gives an idealized version of Chinese history. The reason is that this is not a critical review of Chinese history in its entirety. Secondly, Confucius compiled the Classics and presented ancient history in an idealized fashion. We must not forget that history in ancient China was recorded with the purpose of teaching morality, which is different from the modern discipline of recording history. Confucius clearly compiled the Classics to express his longing for a return to that ideal period of China. However, the Chinese Classics also expose the sins of many historical figures and give the reason as to why Shang Di judged them and ended their dynasties. We believe our interpretation is accurately based on the preserved written record. We cannot say, “This Chinese history is too idealized, therefore we can’t use it in making a case for China’s own ancient religious beliefs.” When the Chinese speak for themselves, it becomes evident they did have a monotheistic faith at the beginning of their recorded history.
to present a disputed interpretation of the Dao De Jing – one that has been questioned by a large number of Chinese scholars, both Christian and non-Christian
There is no way to avoid controversy concerning our interpretation of the Dao De Jing (DDJ). As stated in the extended footnote on page 301, there are numerous interpretations of the Dao De Jing. If we avoid a re-interpretation of this work, we are letting this treasure go to waste by the myriad convoluted translations available. We stated our hermeneutics in this footnote, particularly the single meaning of the text and Lao Zi’s intention to elucidate Dao, and did not confound it. Therefore, we believe that Dao De Jing can be understood literally. For example, we found that “道可道, 非常道. 名可名, 非常名” could simply be interpreted as “Dao, when expressed, is no ordinary Dao, when given a name, it is no ordinary name.” It is to the point and carries internal evidence of Lao Zi’s desire to provide a succinct and fast paced document to “dao” (express) Dao.
This is true of all the Chinese Classics. There is no universal agreement on the interpretation of the Chinese Classics. Any interpretation will be questioned by “a large number of Chinese scholars”. Most recently, during a revival of the Classics, CCTV produced a highly popular DVD series for the public. Ten PhD’s (十博士) immediately provided a scalding criticism. We do have a voice in the midst of many differing interpretations. Moreover, the reviewer did not cite any specific authority that opposes our interpretation of DDJ and why. In addition to the official review conducted by the government publisher, we offer the likes of Dr. Thomas Leung (梁燕城) and Samuel Wang (王敬之) who support our interpretation of DDJ as well as the Chinese Classics.
and to engage in really unnecessary and almost slanderous criticism of those who disagree with his missionary heroes and, by implication, with him.
Slanderous is a very strong word. Such a charge cannot be brought against the author because he has only cited remarks made by historical figures, particularly that of Emperor Kang Xi. We have not written anything false about those who held a view opposite that of the Jesuits and Legge. Kang Xi did use the word “petty” (p 207). The citation shows his utter frustration over the Westerners’ refusal to understand his explanation for the rites (p 206). In context, we have to remember that no one crosses a Chinese emperor, especially a foreigner trying to correct an emperor who happened to be one of China’s most learned. If Kang Xi had been less kind, he could have executed the Vatican envoy.
The author has no intention or desire to libel anyone but rather to present the fervor of these arguments that spanned several centuries and to capture the mood of the time. This was not an inconsequential theological debate. Millions of Chinese souls were and are at stake. Likewise, the Vatican’s decision on November 13, 1704 altered the course of world history. East-West relations were greatly strained. We can argue that had the Jesuit’s position prevailed, we would be living in a very different world today. Recall the Chinese reformers alluded to earlier. These men (Kang, Liang and Sun) rose above millions of their countrymen because they were released from the bondage of the stifling traditional interpretation of the ancient Classics. Might we imagine a more creative and energized China had this interpretation been made more accessible to the masses? Might we imagine the wars and sufferings that could have been avoided in the last 150 years?
Chapter 6, on the Magi from the West (written mostly by Fu, according to Thong), is the low point of the book, and reveals a theological and historical naiveté – not to mention either ignorance of, or an unwillingness to pay attention to, the considered opinions of those who held – or hold – a different opinion. Did (do) they not also “love China” and respect Chinese culture? Is his interpretation the only one to which honorable Christians who care for the progress of the Gospel in China can assent?
The author takes full responsibility for every word in the book, including chapters six and seven. The scholarship, the conclusions, the interpretations in these chapters, as in the rest of the book, all originated with the author and reflected his thoughts and ideas.
We do not attack the character, motives or the love for the Chinese people, of those who hold the opposing view. We introduced James Legge as “A Man Who Loved the Chinese” (p 211) without any notion that those who do not hold Legge’s view do not have the same love. The book presents a sober and intense narrative of what happened in both centuries. We are merely trying to expose faulty scholarship and the consequences of their opinion. It is a weighty debate that demands a decision. These two opposing views cannot be both right. If one is right, then the other is wrong.
As with many thorny theological discussions, one’s decision in this matter does not make one more honorable or more caring. To stand on one side of the position and to argue for it does not necessarily mean that one holds negative views of those on the other side. The author honors all who give their lives for the progress of the Gospel in any nation and in any era. However, all our decisions carry consequences, some small and some significant. The author believes that this is a very significant decision.
Thong shows the relevance of the controversy today by noting that some Chinese Bibles use Shang Di to translate Elohim and Theos and others use Shen. He has already tried to demonstrate that only Shang Di will do, of course, some but Protestant scholars have taken another view, and they are not all as ignorant, as disrespectful of Chinese culture, and as lacking in integrity as Thong and Fu very strongly assert. In fact, there are very valid theological and linguistic reasons for preferring Shen to Shang Di, but Thong does not seem to be aware of these. (See below.)
We do not agree with this statement because we have not asserted strongly that those who hold a different view are “disrespectful of Chinese culture and as lacking in integrity.”
As one who highly appreciates both the Four Books of the Confucian canon and Laozi’s Dao De Jing, and who also thinks that Shen is a more apt translation of Elohim and Theos, I find Thong’s attitude difficult to take.
The thesis of our book is not to give people an “appreciation” for the Four Books of Confucius and the Dao De Jing. It is written to educate people on how to use the Chinese Classics themselves as an aid to evangelizing the Chinese in a Chinese context.
We know there are many seemingly valid arguments for using “Shen”. However, a significant point in this work is that we believe the overwhelming preponderance of the evidence supports the term “Shang Di.” No one has ever written a reply to Legge’s Notions.
In fact, the author uses both terms himself. Therefore he affirms the reviewer and agrees that both terms are being used today in Bibles and by Christians who love the LORD. For example, Xiao Min used both terms in her song “主啊, 我赞美袮 O Lord, I Praise You”. But that is not the point. At Legge’s memorial service, Dr. A. M. Fairbairn, Principal of Mansfield College, Oxford, clearly pointed out the crux of this debate by saying, “Nominally, it related to the question, whether they had any word that could be used to translate the idea of God; really and substantially, it concerned whether they had any idea of God at all.” (p 215)
Secondly, the term Shang Di will have a much more powerful impact on the Chinese soul and make it easier for a Chinese person to come to saving faith in Jesus Christ. Most Chinese know who the one “Shang Di” is. But just about every unbeliever would have to ask, “Who is Shen? Which Shen are you talking about?” For example, Esquire magazine interviewed the author for an article on applying biblical principles when doing business in China. After the second interview, the reporter, a non-Christian asked, “Could you summarize your guiding principles in one short phrase?” The author responded with “上帝是我的董事长” (Shang Di is My Chairman). That was enough for the reporter and for all his Chinese readers. It became the title of his 12-page article which was published in the January 2006 edition of Chinese-language Esquire. Had the author said, “神是我的董事长” (Shen is My Chairman), the reporter would have followed up with many more clarifying questions and his readers would have been confused. But as it is, every Chinese reader understands the meaning of this declaration and can infer the substance of this particular article simply from the title alone. They know that Shang Di is the Supreme Creator of the universe. Most modern Chinese will immediately equate Shang Di with the Christian God. They won’t do the same for Shen. For anyone who doubts, please look up the definition of Shang Di and Shen in several Chinese dictionaries!!
Faith of Our Fathers will appeal to Chinese who are seeking the truth about Christianity and who will be glad to know that their ancestors believed in a supreme being who had many of the characteristics of the God describe in the Old Testament.
It may receive a less enthusiastic welcome among some those who value a critical handling of historical sources and a balanced view of Chinese history since the Zhou era; expect fair treatment of differing opinions and those who hold them; or have training in theology, church history, or the Biblical languages.
The author wishes to be given a fair audience. As stated above, we labored to handle all our sources critically with the help of past and present scholars, and by using proper tools of various disciplines. The nature of our research could not allow for presenting all the arguments for the opposing view when both Legge and Ricci have already dealt with them adequately. From our extensive research, we are well aware of most of the arguments against “Shang Di” and for “Shen”. Most of the arguments do not merit repeating again simply to disprove them.
The author prayed and pondered over how best to present this work. In the end he chose to present a serious work for the masses rather than a scholarly work that is good only for the elite. For those who have “training in theology, church history or Biblical languages”, the author is willing and available to enter a friendly and productive dialogue on finer points of Theology Proper, Biblical Theology, Hermeneutics as applied to the Bible as well as Chinese Classics, Christian Apologetics, Missions Strategies, Chinese History and Church History.
Some questions and critical observations:
In the following section, the reviewer asks a series of questions without providing evidence to prove that the arguments of the book are wrong. We are not saying there are no other possible interpretations of some of the facts we present. However, pointing out that there might be other possible interpretations does not decrease the force or value of our arguments which are supported documented evidences.
Did Confucius write the commentary on the Classic of Changes? (20)
Page 20 states, “Confucius said in his introductory commentary on Yi Jing”. Yes, many have attributed it to Confucius.
Did Confucius believe that god was Creator? (21)
Page 21 says, “These five strands together weave a social pattern or fabric which Confucius hoped would foster harmony between man and his Creator.” This work defends the statement that Confucius believed Shang Di or Tian was Creator. We do not believe that god (small g) was Creator.
Are the Analects “a most reliable compilation of the teachings of Confucius”? (22)
Yes, this is a generally accepted position in the scholarly world as well as in public education in China for two thousand years.
He repeatedly appears to equate the reliability of the Bible and ancient Chinese documents (e.g., 23).
The author uses the term “reliability” in the sense that ancient biblical and Chinese documents can be relied upon to give an accurate recounting of actual events and views of the historical past. The reviewer seems to be mixing reliability with the doctrines of inspiration, inerrancy and infallibility. The author does not hold Chinese Classics as inspired, inerrant, or infallible. The author recognizes that there are those who disagree that the Chinese Classics are reliable. However, his research led him to the work done by K.C. Wu who aptly defended the reliability of ancient Chinese documents.
Thong intersperses biblical and Chinese classical texts to illustrate what he sees as correspondences; some of these fit, and some seem a bit far-fetched and strained. It appears that Thong will sometimes be willing make the evidence fit his thesis even when it does not manifestly match.
When we are making an argument and have many clear examples that prove the thesis, then it is legitimate to take some seemingly “far-fetched” passages and show that they also would fit into the thesis if the thesis is proven correct. We are not basing the majority of the arguments on far-fetched and strained correspondences! We establish the argument with solid facts and then show how other passages (less clear) can also fit into the thesis. This is the same approach many New Testament writers employ in their use of the Old Testament. We refer to the famous ‘Christmas’ passage in Matthew 1:22–23 as an example. Matthew’s interpretation and use of Isaiah 7:14 will be considered far-fetched and strained using the reviewer’s criteria. Isa 7:14 might be understood on one level as an event at the time of king Ahaz, but the New Testament makes it clear that it refers prophetically to the coming Messiah. So the New Testament makes clear what might not have been clear in Isaiah. In summary, we build doctrine on those scriptures that are clear and then can show how our interpretation also fits into the scriptures that are not so clear. Likewise, Stephen, in Acts 7, and Paul, throughout his Epistles and in Acts, had re-interpreted Jewish history by the new revelation that came through Jesus.
Was Sima Qian “Interested in presenting history because it gives insights into man’s relationship with the Creator God”? 29. The letter quoted does not say so.
The exact quote is “亦欲以究天人之际，通古今之变，成一家之言。” (I wished to examine into all that concerns Heaven and man, to penetrate the changes of the past and present, completing all the work of one family.) The letter used the term “Heaven” instead of “Creator”. Once again the question is whether “Heaven” was a general term for the Creator God. The author believes he has given overwhelming evidence throughout this book to prove that this is a legitimate understanding of the term Heaven.
Can we credit a story that the written language of China was created in 2700 BC?
There is evidence that written Chinese was formed sometime around 2500-2700 BC. The exact time frame is not known but the evidence is close enough to support the thesis.
[CMI editorial comment: These dates, and those in some other writings of this historical period too, are likely inflated by some hundreds of years compared to the Masoretic chronology, because of course such cannot pre-date the Flood and dispersal from Babel.]
Was “God’s good intention [for Adam and Eve to] become more like Him, through a practical knowledge of good and evil … ”? Is it true that “God wanted them to gain experiential knowledge of good or happiness and evil or misery”? (60)
The author acknowledges that the phrases quoted by the reviewer are problematic. The unquoted portion of the sentence is the main point he wants to make: “that they would gain this knowledge through duty and obedience.” The problematic phrases will be changed in future editions of the book.
Did the early Chinese really understand “that righteousness comes with a price, and that price is the life of the sacrificial lamb because a person on his own cannot attain or achieve righteousness” (68)?
The author has made this inference based on a study of the complex characters血 (blood), 盟 (covenant), 义 (simplified form of righteousness), 義 (classic form for righteousness), 犧 (ancient meaning perfect, present meaning sacrifice) and well-preserved records of the Chinese sacrificial system.
Does the flower radical in the word “di” really point to the meaning” Creator God”?
The book presents this as a possibility and Dr. Thomas Leung cited that this is a view held by experts such as 郭沫若 (Guo Mo Ruo), 王国维 (Wang Wei Guo), etc. And it is not crucial to the overall arguments that were set forth.
Does the argument from silence prove that Shang Di was considered eternal? The texts cited do not. (89-90). Likewise for immutability (90); all-knowing (92); infinite (93-94); loving (95).
The quote from History is misplaced by the layout artist. It should be the last quote for the sovereignty of God in the previous section. This will be corrected in future printings.
We agree that silence proves nothing. But we did document that the other attributes of the one true God were clearly known to the ancient Chinese. No man-made idol can have these natural attributes of the true God, only the Supreme Creator. The fact that Shang Di is considered alive throughout Chinese history, and never grows old like men, is a fairly strong argument that they believed He was eternal. They always expected him to be there! That is a legitimate inference but that one attribute does not weaken the argument presented by the documentation of the other attributes of Shang Di. The well-documented attributes are a strong argument for accepting those that don’t make as clear a statement but nevertheless can be understood to support that particular attribute. Moreover, 金文 (inscriptions on ancient bronze objects) has this “克奔走上下，帝无终，令於周，追孝” inscription. 帝无终 (Di has no end) certainly speaks to the eternity of Shang Di.
There is no notion of plurality in the concept of Shang Di or Di or Heaven, as there is in the Hebrew concept of God, even in the opening verses of Genesis, where the word for God is plural Elohim; the Spirit of God is referred to as distinct from God; and God says, “Let us make man in our own image.” This is not to mention other hints at some sort of plurality God in other places of the Old Testament, not to speak of the New Testament.
The Trinity was not clearly revealed in the Old Testament, although there were, as you say, indications of a plurality of the Godhead. The ancient Chinese did not need to have a concept of plurality in the being of Shang Di for it to be a legitimate name for the one true God. But now they do need to understand the plurality in the Godhead. That is why we emphasize the need for God’s special revelation to truly know God through Jesus Christ. Incidentally, unlike the Hebrew language, Chinese words do not have plural forms, such as Elohim.
Is it true that “the good news of God’s provision to reconcile mankind to Himself is not solely a Christian concept” (104)?
The author believes this to be true. This belief is based on two sources. The first is biblical evidence such as Cain and Job. God must have informed Cain and Abel about the proper sacrifice for Abel’s sacrifice to be acceptable and Cain’s not. Job knew of a Redeemer (Job 19:25, 33:28). Then there was Noah. All these men were before Abraham, so their knowledge would be considered general revelation, or pre-Christian.
The second are extra-biblical records of peoples of the world who have an innate desire or longing for reconciliation to the Creator God. See the works of Don Richardson and Samuel Zwemer for examples around the world.
Is God “the Father of all”? (104)
Well, the Bible itself says so: Eph. 4:6 says, “one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.” God is the Father of all in the sense that He created everything. We are not insinuating a Universalism here. In other words, we are not saying that all men are saved automatically.
Does the word (li) translated as “made” in “made the heavens” actually mean that? (130)
Yes, the author believes that this is an accurate translation of 立 based on its context. This use of 立 is similar to its use in 立法, i.e. to legislate or to create laws and it can carry the sense of ex nihilo.
Were the “instructions God gave to the Hebrew people about their sacrifices to Him … the same” as those given for the great border sacrifices? (135)
The complete sentence reads, “The instructions God gave to the Hebrew people about their sacrifices to Him were the same; they also had to meet these three specific requirements: to be simple, unblemished, and aromatic.” It does not say Hebrew and Chinese sacrifices were same in all aspects. They were the same in that they were “simple, unblemished, and aromatic”. In the context of the entire chapter it should be obvious that we mean they were the same in the sense of paralleling each other to such a degree that it is strong evidence their source is in the same God and for the purpose of worshiping the same God.
Thong repeatedly emphasizes that Shang Di or Di is qualitatively superior to other spirits (shen), which are lower. But the word shen is used in the compound translated as “Sovereign Spirit” (Huang Shen) in the “Song of Comforting Peace” and elsewhere in texts in this book (136, 144). Similarly, in the imprecation against potential covenant breakers, “the intelligent spirits” (ming shen) were invoked as punishing agents.
“Shen” is a generic word used usually for “spirit” in the Chinese Classics. Thus it can refer to God if it is modified by an attribute that belongs only to God. Here the “Sovereign Spirit” is obviously referring to Shang Di because 皇 means supreme and it is the first word in the full title of Shang Di, i.e. 皇天上帝.
Shang Di is a spirit when “shen” is translated as “spirit.” But Shang Di is never a god [little g] when shen is being translated or understood as a “god”. It is important to remember that the term “shen” has a different meaning in its common usage today in China than it had in the ancient Chinese Classics. In the Classics, the term referred to “spirits” but today the term is used mostly of “gods”. Shang Di would be one of the “intelligent spirits” but would never be included in a group of “intelligent gods”. Legge shows this important understanding of the use of “shen” in his book, Notions.
Then, in the chapter called “God’s Country ” – Shen Zhou-he clearly identifies “God” with Shen. This is a glaring and stunning contradiction to his earlier insistence that Shang Di and shen (usually considered plural) are not in the same category of being. It greatly weakens his harsh criticism of those who think that Shen is a more appropriate translation of the Greek Theos.
The book does not say that “Shen” cannot be used to translate God. But it is definitely not the clearest or best term to use to translate the creator God. “Shen” can be translated as “God” on occasion [i.e. the Shen Bibles] but that doesn’t make it the best term for God. It will not be clear to an unbeliever what God we are talking about unless we explain it. The term “Shen Zhou” has been around a long time. But which God would the Chinese understand the term to refer to? We make the application to the God “Shang Di.” No other “god” could explain the saying “Shen Zhou”.
A corollary in the English language is the word “ghost” as used in the King James Bible. When used alone, no modern day English speaker will think that it refers to a member of the Trinity. But when the word is modified with the word “Holy”, it is obvious that it refers to the third Person of the Godhead.
After sacrificing to Di, the emperor also offered sacrifices of wine to “the secondary tablets to the east and west” of that tablet to Di (140). How does this compare with the commandment in Exodus to worship only God and not to anyone else?
On the surface, they had broken the commandment. This is one of the corruptions in the Chinese worship that lasted a few thousand years. The Chinese did not have a perfect form of worship. That is why we argue in the book that our purpose is not to return to a system like ancient China had at the Altar of Heaven. Our purpose is to learn from the parts of the Ceremony that do teach biblical lessons and point the worshiper to the One True God. Observing the parallels between the Sacrifice and the Bible enables the reader to move on to the only perfect form of worship available to mankind now: worshipping Shang Di through Jesus Christ. Our argument is that of all other ancient peoples, China did have a form of worship at the Altar that came closest to the Old Testament worship of the Bible. We acknowledge that it was not perfect. But many times in Israel’s history they also corrupted the “ceremonies” of worshiping Yahweh. Those corruptions did not negate the powerful lessons revealed in those parts of the worship that had not been corrupted. Even when Israel and Judah were backslidden, the ceremonies at the Temple in Jerusalem still taught powerful truths about the one true God and the kind of worship He desired. Nor did the Jews fully understand the meaning of the sacrifice at the Temple. That is why the Book of Hebrews was written to make the connection.
At the same time, we need to let the Chinese speak for themselves. Kang Xi explained his attitude as follows (p 206):
Souls of ancestors are not held to reside in the tablets; these are only symbols, which serve to express gratitude and keep the dead in memory, as though they were actually present.
Records of Shun’s sacrifice indicated that the sacrifice was offered only to Shang Di. (See John Ross, The Original Religion of China). These 配位 (pei wei, secondary tablets) were added sometime later in history, probably during the Zhou Dynasty. The first pei wei was that of Shun. Shun’s virtue was considered good enough for him to be regularly in the presence of Shang Di. These pei wei were added to support the emperor in his worship, not as the object of his worship. We need to be more charitable to these souls who do not have the confidence that comes from Christ’s finished work on the Cross. Though an emperor, he was a sinner haunted by his own iniquities; it must be a terrible thing to contemplate standing before the Almighty God! Thus he felt it necessary to have a supporting cast.
Even after a few thousand years of corruption, the Ming and Qing statutes show that the emperors clearly delineated differences in authority by their choice of personal pronouns. When the emperor addressed the spiritual world to inform and to invite them to the Sacrifice, he referred to himself using the superior 朕. When he addressed Shang Di throughout the Ceremony, he would use the inferior pronoun 臣. Despite the corrupted practices, there are elements of truth that can be extracted from this Ceremony to help people come to faith in Christ.
And how do we handle the fact – not mentioned by the author-that the Shang emperors practiced human sacrifice along with their supposedly “pure” worship of Shang Di?
We have found no evidence that Shang emperors ever offered human sacrifice to Shang Di at the Altar of Heaven. We did recall the first Shang emperor’s proposed sacrifice of himself at the height of the seven-year famine (p 155-156), but that act of humility was interrupted by rainfall.
Currently, archaeologists are assuming some form of human sacrifice based on archaeological remains. What they are calling human sacrifice could be nothing more than the putting to death of enemies after their defeat. We do know that some emperors did have many of their servants buried with them when they died. But this had absolutely nothing to do with the worship of Shang Di at the Altar. And such human sacrifice is never mentioned as part of any form of worship of Shang Di in the ancient Chinese Classics.
Does the word translated “everlasting” (jiu chang) in the “Song of Pure Peace” really mean eternal, or merely “very long” (144)?
The context of this song supports this translation. 久 means long in time, while 常 means unchanging or even everlasting in this context. When used together, 久常 is much more than very long in time. After all, by the time of the Ming emperors, they knew they had sacrificed to Shang Di for a few thousand years!
Change of names often went with covenants. The Chinese examples given have nothing to do with covenants. Another strained parallel? (165)
Our point here is that new names are given when the nature of a person is changed (as when they entered a covenant). In future editions, we will change these examples to connect the progression of thought here. Moreover, the last two examples are the conferring of reign titles to new emperors and awarding of posthumous names of deceased emperors. These proclamations were made during the Sacrifice at the Altar, which was an act of affirming a covenant with Shang Di.
Does the song that Thong quotes on 273-274 say that God “brought light to the world”? That word “light” does not appear, nor does the idea of light.
The classical Chinese says, “两曜未明” which is an obvious reference to the sun and the moon before they were made or lit up. We translated them literally as “two lights” to be faithful to the original text. Thus Shang Di did bring light to the world when he created the sun and the moon, which is implied in the song.
Is it true, as Legge believed, that “the Chinese had worshipped a monotheistic Deity called Shang Di, who was clearly recognizable as the Christian God” (215)? Should we make a distinction between the notion of a single supreme being which both the Old Testament and the Chinese classics contain and the Triune God revealed in the distinctively Christian Scriptures – that is, the New Testament, and the Old Testament interpreted in the light of the apostolic revelation?
James Legge’s book The Notions of the Chinese Concerning God and Spirits has settled this fact beyond argument. The author has a soft copy of this masterpiece and is willing to show it to those who would like to come and examine it.
We agree that there is a difference in degree of understanding between the Old and New Testament concept of God. Our argument is that ancient China had an Old Testament concept of God. And that is not enough. Otherwise the author would not have labored so long to publish this book to encourage people to go beyond the ancient beliefs to pursue the final revelation in Jesus Christ.
What does it mean to say – as Thong approvingly quotes Legge-that the Chinese “do know God”? Or as he himself states, “Like the nation of Israel, the ancient Chinese knew this One True God” (273).
A four year-old and an eighty year-old can sing “Jesus loves me, this I know” in a duet. They both “know” God but we know that there is a distinct difference in their knowledge of God. Assuming that the elder has been pursuing God all his life, we can infer that his knowledge is much more substantive than the child’s. The elder has experiential knowledge of God, he has applied his matured faculty to the pursuit of God and he has made consistent choices for the will of God. The child can only claim a simple emotional acknowledgement of the presence and unsubstantiated goodness of God. Rudimentary it may be, but we do not sneer at this child’s simple faith or we will incur the wrath of Jesus who said, “Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these. (Mat 19:14)
The author believes that some ancient Chinese responded to their rudimentary knowledge of God in a positive way. Though they were still lost in their sins like the rest of the world, they responded to the light provided by general revelation to seek for more light.
The Apostle Paul says that the Gentiles “knew God” from observing “the things that are made,” but “did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:21). Indeed, they “suppressed the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18).
This is a good point. Though ancient China “knew God” as Paul described in Romans, they had “suppressed the truth in unrighteousness” and wandered further and further away from God. Note that in Romans 2 Paul also indicted the Jews for not responding to the special revelation given to them! This book was written with the same desire Paul had to bring people back to God.
In 1 Corinthians, he wrote, “in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God” (1:21) – and this was in reference to Hellenistic Greeks, who had by then developed a sort of monotheism similar to that Thong ascribes to the ancient Chinese. In Ephesians, he exhorted the believers not to walk “as the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart” (4:17-18).
If we follow this form of logic, we would have to conclude that Paul is also indicting all Gentiles of homosexuality in the last part of Romans 1. That would include all of us before we became believers in Christ! The author believes Paul’s teaching in Romans, Corinthians and Ephesians is meant to show man’s utter depravity. If left alone, man has no way of returning to God or knowing God in a personal way; their sins would not be forgiven. But God has not left mankind alone. Therefore, Paul is calling for repentance, and to move on from the little knowledge that man had through general revelation to a complete and full reconciliation with God. Once again, this is the purpose of the book. It is presented not to justify the Chinese in their ignorance, but to highlight it.
Peter in his first epistle to the mostly Gentile believers spread across Asia Minor said, “If you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay on earth;” (1 Peter 1:17) God is impartial in His offer of salvation.
Jesus himself, in his prayer to the Father, declared, “O Righteous Father, the world has not known You” (John 17:25).
Prayer Hall for Good Harvest, Altar of Heaven complex, Beijing, where Shang Di, the supreme creator-God of heaven, was honoured
The context of John 17:25 is the “world taken as a whole.” Obviously the majority of the people in the world did not know the Father. This ‘knowledge’ is an intimate and accepting embrace as in “Adam knew his wife”, not just an intellectual knowledge. We are showing that there were some people in China that did know something about the one true God (albeit incomplete) in their ancient beginnings shortly after the flood of Noah. In Romans 1:21 Paul said, “For though they knew God, they did not honor Him.” Paul’s point is that people of the world do have a knowledge of God but most do not honor Him. Paul did not mean to say no one honored Him or the “scarlet thread” of God’s redemption would not reach any one of us.
At the same time, the reviewer is confused about the term “world” as used in different contexts in the Bible. The “world” in John 17:25 as in 1 John 2:15 “do not love the world” refers to the ungodly worldly people presently controlled by Satan. Whereas in John 3:16, the “world” refers to people of the world, “For God so loved the world.”
Throughout the book, Thong seems to confuse several possible meanings of “know” and “worship.” In what sense did the ancient Chinese “know” and “worship” the one true and living God? Yes, they did “know about” a being with some attributes similar to those of the God revealed in the Bible. But did they “know” him? The Scriptures say No. Yes, they did “worship” Shang Di, but was this true worship of God that the Bible enjoins?
If they did truly “know and worship” God, then they were saved. But how do we square this conclusion with their practice of human sacrifice and their worship of other, lesser, “gods”?
This is answered partly in the analogy of the child and the elder given above. The ancient Chinese knew God and worshipped God based on the little knowledge they had of God at that time. This knowledge was not saving knowledge, but a knowledge that could lead them to saving knowledge. Their worship was not complete because they had not accepted the Special Revelation, which is the Bible and Jesus Christ. Nonetheless they gave God the adoration corresponding to the worth they ascribed to Him.
The Book of Hebrews was written to enjoin the Jews to stop the Temple worship because Jesus had arrived and offered up the ultimate Sacrifice. Hebrews 4 enjoins us to “Draw near with confidence to the throne of grace”, and that’s what this book is all about. Hebrews did not say that the Temple worship should be stopped because it was all wrong. It simply says that the time had come to move on. We are not equating the Chinese Sacrifice with the Temple Sacrifice, but allowing that it has some credible redemptive analogies to guide people to faith in Christ.
It would indeed be dangerous to misguide readers into believing that the Chinese Classics and Sacrifice are good enough for their salvation. However, after almost seven years in the market, we have not found a hint of that. Instead, hundreds have come to faith in Christ and many more are encouraged to “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace”.
Is Thong aware of the fundamental Roman Catholic (and thus Jesuit) approach to other religions, based on the theology of Thomas Aquinas – an approach that differs considerably from that of the Protestant Reformers?
The author has not endorsed all that the Jesuits represented. He has only drawn on their scholarship in the specific discipline of the Chinese Classics. He has also proven their personal integrity without accepting their corpus of theological understanding. Is the reviewer aware that Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises is doctrinally more fundamental than modern day American theology?
When the author criticizes anti-Jesuit popes and emissaries who “condemned all the Chinese emperors to burning in hell” (205), does he do so on the grounds of their ineffective evangelism, or from a belief that the emperors, with their supposed knowledge of the true God, were not in danger of God’s eternal judgment? It makes a difference.
Nowhere in the book did we say or suggest that the emperors were not in danger of God’s eternal judgment. The author is simply trying to capture the sentiment of the day–that there was a careless attitude towards the Chinese in general and the emperors in particular. So the meaning is the first: their attitude resulted in ineffective evangelism.
Does he realize that the Dominicans and Franciscans were opposing rituals in honor of ancestors from the standpoint of those who worked almost exclusively among the masses, whose view of these rites differed drastically from those of the emperor and the educated elite among whom the Jesuits worked?
Yes, the author is much aware of this. But the debate was specifically over the rites practiced by emperors and the complaints to Rome were brought against the Jesuits who worked with the intelligentsia.
Indeed, despite the higher rating for accuracy accorded ancient Chinese documents now, can we consider them as reliable as Thong does throughout Faith of Our Fathers? A great part of his historical reconstruction depends upon the assumption that accounts of the earliest rulers, and even of later history, are untainted by error or bias.
This concern is adequately dealt with by K. C. Wu in The Chinese Heritage, listed in the bibliography. The author is satisfied with Wu’s evidences and conclusion that the Classics are reliable. This does not mean that the Classics are without errors or bias. There is sufficient reliable information in the Classics that make them usable for our discussion. Likewise, our daily news reports are tainted with errors and bias but we go on listening to them because they are the sources available to us. We use discernment to safeguard ourselves. The safeguard the author employs is the Bible. All the information in the book is filtered through the Bible.
Thong seems to think that a strong centralized powers, in which the leader is able to mobilize the entire nation at will, is a good form of government. Though the Bible does not criticize monarchy outright, it does contain both examples and principles that would make one doubt the wisdom of the sort of total power that Thong seems to approve of – at least when wielded by the “good” emperors of China’s golden age. Can we believe that these kings were really as good as they are made out to be?
No, the author has no leaning towards autocratic government. The argument of Chapter Eight, which the reviewer deems compelling, is against totalitarian government and the concentration of power!
The main point concerning the “good” emperors was that they were not autocratic! Yao consulted with his ministers before making decisions. He co-reigned with Shun. Yao and Shun abdicated their power, choosing qualified successors over their own sons. This is what we consider good form of government.
Thong follows Yuan Zhiming’s reading of later Chinese history, which has been widely criticized as naïve and simplistic, and not accurate.
The author has been an ardent student of Chinese history for more than 45 years. Yuan’s works have only surfaced in the last nine. So Yuan’s influence on the author’s understanding of Chinese history is minimal. Moreover there are credible scholars who do not reject Yuan’s interpretation entirely.
For this criticism to be meaningful, we have to know which parts are “naïve and simplistic, and not accurate”. This book deals only with ancient Chinese history and the late Ming to early Qing history so this criticism is missing its mark by referring to “later Chinese history”.
In “All Truth Is God’s Truth,” Thong invokes the authority of renowned scientist, philosopher, and essayist, Francis Bacon, and quotes his memorable statement that “there are two books before us to study … ; first, the volume of Scriptures … ; then the volume of the Creatures.”
This “two books” theory has exercised great influence, but lacks biblical warrant, and must be used with care. Thong largely shows discernment in his treatment of “all truth is God’s truth,” but – at least in my opinion – goes too far at a number of points to try to show exact correspondence between traditional Chinese and Christians concepts of truth.
Bacon’s two-book theory does have biblical support in that we can learn from both general and special revelation. For example, Psalm 19, where nature and the Scripture are paralleled in the journey of the knowledge of God. Another example is Paul’s opening statements in Romans where he said, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” Since general revelation is tainted by fallen human nature, we can learn from it when guided by the Word of God which is inerrant.
The author believes that this dialogue between “Chinese and Christians concepts of truth” is a healthy one. One must remember that Scripture or “Christian concepts of truth” were written entirely by Easterners but mostly interpreted by Westerners for the rest of the world since Paul responded to the Macedonian call. The Church at large will benefit greatly from a renewed Eastern view of the Scripture complementing the dominant Western view like the stereo effect of a speaker system or the stereo effect of the four gospels. For example, a Chinese reading John 1:1 would have an immediately rich understanding because of the cultural concept of Dao. The word Word cannot give that same effect to an English reader. Another example would be the Psalms which use parallelisms similar to Chinese poetry.
Some of the quotations from the Bible and from the Dao De Jing do not seem to me to match as closely as Thong seems to think. For example: His equation of “antiquity” (gu) with “eternity” (305); the translation of “sheng ren” (holy man) as “the Holy One” (306); finding “grace and gentleness” in Dao De Jing 55:1-2 (306); putting Dao De Jing 35:3 under the category of “Truth is Revealed” (309).
No, “From antiquity till now” is compared with “And His truth endures to all generations”, and not with “eternity”. The author accepts that this is a controversial interpretation of 圣人. It is most often translated as “the Sage”‘. But even Confucius denied that he is the Sage, implying that 圣人 is not mere man. The entire chapter of DDJ 55 compares Dao to the grace and gentleness of an infant. Dao is the implied subject of verses 1-2. Our translation is consistent with that of Legge’s.
The contrast that Laozi is making with DDJ 35:2 & 3 is that music and fragrant food will make a passerby stop, but Dao when it is spoken (revealed), will be missed by most people though Dao has so much more value than music. So the author thinks it is appropriate to categorize DDJ 35:3 under “Truth is Revealed”.
Here he also accepts Yuan’s interpretation of the Dao De Jing, which has been rejected by almost all Chinese scholars, both Christian and non-Christian. I have made a preliminary study of the Laozi’s concept of the Dao as it relates to the Logos of the Bible. Though there are many similarities, there are even more differences. I am not qualified to pronounce on this matter, but the opinions of all the Chinese experts in this field whom I consulted would seem to make Yuan’s interpretation doubtful, at least.
Though Yuan’s interpretation of the Dao De Jing is rejected by some (not all) scholars, it is nonetheless very refreshing and worth our consideration. In the process of translating this and other Chinese Classics, the author has also consulted the interpretative works of credible Chinese experts such as 周振甫 (Zhou Zhenfu), 陈襄民 (Chen Xiangmin), 刘大祥 (Liu Daxiang), 梁燕城 (Thomas Leung)，and 王敬之 (Samuel Wang) as well as Legge’s authoritative translations.
While I found his explanation of the astral phenomena around the time of the birth of Christ really fascinating, I wonder how he knows that when the Magi reached Jerusalem “the star was no longer visible” to them. It is an inference with some possibility, but this assumption is at the heart of his understanding of two different appearances in the heavens.
It is an inference but based on good biblical evidence. Firstly, when the Magi arrived in Jerusalem, they had to enquire the whereabouts of the Child. Then Herod asked them for the exact time of the star, which implied that the star was no longer visible. Finally, when they saw the star upon their arrival in Bethlehem, they rejoiced greatly. If the star had been visible to them throughout the journey, why would they rejoice greatly?
Shen and Shang Di
Thong presents the case for Shang Di as the proper translation of Elohim and Theos, but there are weaknesses in this position, and reasons why Shen might be more appropriate. This is a complex matter, but here is a brief summary:
As noted above, Shang Di contains no hint of plurality in the Godhead. Thus, in passages of the Bible where theos must refer to the entire Godhead and thus allow for plurality, Shang Di simply will not do. Furthermore, in places like John 1:1–3, to name only one of many, the use of Shang Di hopelessly muddles the concept of the Trinity and causes confusion as to the nature of the relationship between the Father and the Son. Since the Trinity is a fundamental concept (though the word is not used) in the Scriptures, this is no small matter.
“In the beginning was Dao and Dao was with Shang Di and Dao was Shang Di. The same was in the beginning with Shang Di”. This is how the Chinese translation using “Shang Di” for “God” will be.
How does that hopelessly muddle the concept of the Trinity? The Doctrine of the Trinity is taught by verses that clearly reveal it. The Doctrine of the Trinity does not depend on “words” that contain a “hint” of plurality. There is no concept of plurality in the names Yahweh or Jesus. From our studies of the Greek use of “theos”, it appears the term was usually understood to refer to “the God” even when “the” (o) was not actually written but only implied. The transliteration of John 1:1 above is the same. We did not have to use the definite article for Dao and Shang Di because it is implied in both terms.
Shang Di is a personal name; it designates one particular being; it is not a generic term for deity. But at least Greek theos, and perhaps also Hebrew Elohim (which is the plural of el) are generic terms, which can refer to any and all sorts of “gods.” Hellenistic Greek philosophy often used theos to refer to a single supreme deity. Both the Greek translation of the Old Testament, and the Greek New Testament, use theos almost exclusively to refer to the one true and living God, the Creator, Sustainer, and Savior of the world. That is, the Bible takes a word that –like shen – has a number of possible meanings, and pours new significance into that word.
The fact that Shang Di is a particular name for a particular deity – albeit the supreme one – among the Chinese is a fatal objection to its being superior as a translation of theos (and probably also Elohim), despite its strong attraction for Chinese who want to link the Christian faith with their cultural heritage.
We have already conceded that Shang Di contains no hint of plurality in the Godhead. As stated earlier, this plurality in the Old Testament can only be revealed fully through the lens of the New Testament. Lexically, “shen” carries no plurality as Chinese nouns do not have plural forms. The plurality of “shen” is only in the imagination of the Chinese polytheists. This is a reason against the indiscriminate use of “shen”.
We do not agree that Elohim and Theos are generic terms. We refer the readers to Chapter 2 of Legge’s Notions in which he masterfully argued that these two terms and God (capital G) are relative, not generic i.e. belonging to a class or species. On the other hand, god (small g) is generic, which is one god out of many gods. This part of Legge’s argument requires no knowledge of Chinese, because he is arguing from grammar and logic. Therefore, we reject the use of a generic term for the Supreme God.
In short, though I really enjoyed reading Faith of Our Fathers, believe that it will lead many Chinese to faith in Christ, and learned a great deal from it, I cannot recommend it wholeheartedly, because of the number and nature of its weaknesses.
That is not to say that many will not benefit from Thong’s years of hard work, clear presentation of the Christian message, and evident love for his people and his culture.
I would hope that this response to the claimed ‘weaknesses’ of the book has addressed the concerns of the reviewer—that he might more positively say indeed that many will benefit from the “clear presentation of the Christian message” in Faith of our Fathers.
CMI thanks Dr Chan Kei Thong for his detailed response. It seems clear to us that the major thesis of Faith of our Fathers stands and that the objections of Tony J., who had not even read Faith of our Fathers, have little basis. Dr Doyle’s main objection seems to be motivated by a defence of the widespread use of Shen in translating God in Christian literature today.
Thanks Don! Good job it wasn't a black snake eh! [Editor: referring to Roger's earlier question about where he could buy Faith of Our Fathers when it was advertised in the top right corner of the article---so, if it were a snake it could have bitten him, is the allusion for readers who might not get it. I have added further links to the store item to make it easier to find. :-) ]
I see that Don Richardson gets a mention in the article. His research shows that there are many civilisations that have their own name for the Supreme Diety that we call God. His stories about the "black book" are fascinating to say the least.
God meets people where they are and speaks in the language that they can understand.
How great is our God?
Blessings to CMI and the ministry.
It's a great book and I endorse the author's defence completely, having read it many times. It is the kind of work that can only be criticized by people who have never actually read it, because it is so well done.
Many thanks to Dr Thong for his gracious and irenic response to Dr Doyle's review.
I wonder if the reviewer is aware that Loyola's Spiritual Exercises is more fundamental than much modern American Theology (e.g.The Shack) which passes as protestant apparently.
It is difficult to read literature taking it as the author intended and bracketing our contemporary concerns.
This is particularly true with the Scriptures. May
C.M.I. long continue their support for those who bring exegesis,not eisegesis ,of the Bible.
The spellchecker on my kindle had to be repeatedly overruled to even recognise the word 'eisegesis'!.
An extremely interesting article!
Where can I get the book?
Dr. Don Richardson's book "Eternity in their hearts" also mentions examples of Shang Di in examples of the Chinese and their prior knowledge of the Creator God.
Authors like Dr Chan Kei Thong clearly demonstrate that salvation is not the sole property of a degenerate western civilisation.
Every nation, tribe and tongue will be represented on the sea of glass before the Eternal Throne.
Praise God for the everlasting gospel.
"Where can I get the book?" See the top of the right column!