This summer, I attended two academic conferences offering a presentation about a key figure in the development of Protestant Christianity in China since the 1980s: the Reformed missionary, Jonathan Chao 赵天恩 (1938–2004). The focus of my paper was on how his theology and approach has shaped his engagement with the house church movement. The surprising thing is that most of the questions that arose from my presentation was not about Chao himself, but about why there has been a recent rise in the interests in Calvinism in China.1
Of course, as Calvinism (and Christianity) is on the decline in the West, this has caught the attention of a lot of people, reporters and academics.2 Here, let me offer five reasons for these developments:
- First, it must be said that Calvinism is not new to China. For example, the first Protestant missionaries – both the Dutch missionaries to Formosa (or Taiwan) in the 17th century and Robert Morrison in the 19th century – came from Calvinist theological backgrounds. Some of the older Calvinist churches that were closed during the Cultural Revolution would reopen in the 1980s and often affiliated with the TSPM. However, the growing number of Protestants tended to be more influenced by the independent Chinese Christian leaders of the earlier period, such as Wang Mingdao, Watchman Nee, or Wei Enbo – individuals who were not as directly shaped by Calvinism.
After the end of the Cultural Revolution, missionaries would again travel into China. One of the first and most important was Jonathan Chao, who traveled as early as the 1980s bringing with him Chinese translations of many Reformed texts. Many of these texts were translated by the Reformed Translation Fellowship that his father helped to start. In the 1990s, along with missionaries of other theological orientations, an increasing number of other Calvinist missionaries (including diasporic Chinese, South Koreans, and Korean Americans) would begin to work in China.
- In the early-1990s, a growing number of Christianity-inspired ‘evil cults’ 邪教 would form such as the Shouters and Eastern Lightning. Many Christians, wanting to strengthen their theology, show their orthodoxy, and distance themselves from these groups, turned to the Reformed tradition to underscore the importance of theology and reason, above subjective experiences and emotions.
- The 1990s also witnessed an economic prosperity which was partnered with a growth in Christian entrepreneurs. Hence, there would be a growing sense of credibility to Max Weber’s thesis about the close connection between the Calvinist work ethic and the spirit of capitalism.
- Furthermore, many of the students and young intellectuals involved in the events of 1989 had converted to Christianity and still wanted to transform China. Some were drawn to the teachings of covenant theology and saw Calvinism as offering possibilities in underscoring a stronger sense of constitutionalism and rule of law in China. There was also a strong emphasis on ecclesiology, sometimes built on the teachings of Dutch Neo-Calvinism, as a means for the church to actively engage the society and the state.
Observing all these factors, what is quite apparent is that the five-century old theological tradition that traces back to John Calvin has now become a contextual theology in China. Today, there is a growing body of Reformed literature being translated into Chinese. The writings of many Calvinist and New Calvinist thinkers like John Piper, D. A. Carson, and Tim Keller can be found in Christian bookstores throughout China, and a lively discussion about Calvinism can likewise be found online. However, only time will tell if this translation of Reformed theology is merely a phase in the shifting history of Chinese Christianity or if it will become deeply rooted in the Chinese soil.
- This has since been published as Alexander Chow, ‘Jonathan Chao and “Return Mission”: The Case of the Calvinist Revival in China’. Mission Studies 36, no. 3 (Oct 2019): 442–457. DOI: 10.1163/15733831-12341678. ↩
- See my contribution to the chapter ‘Reformed theology in Asia and Oceania’, in The Cambridge Companion to Reformed Theology, eds. Paul T. Nimmo and David A. S. Fergusson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 311–314. DOI: 10.1017/CCO9781139225670.019 and ‘Calvinist Public Theology in Urban China Today’, International Journal of Public Theology 8, no. 2 (May 2014): 158-175. DOI: 10.1163/15697320-12341340. ↩