Rev. Kortering is a Protestant Reformed minister-on-loan to Singapore.
During our Good Friday service this past April, our seminarian, Brother Paul Goh, reminded his audience that Christianity has deep roots in Chinese history.
Since Good Friday is a public holiday in Singapore, the service takes place in the morning and gives excellent opportunity to invite non-Christian parents and friends to attend. Mr. Goh had in his audience a number of aged non-Christian Chinese.
Among other things, the older generation stumbles over two issues regarding Christianity.
The first is that Christianity is viewed as a Western religion and therefore foreign to easterners, especially Chinese. There is a degree of antipathy between east and west, much of it rooted of course in political systems and expressed in historical conflicts. This affects religion as well. In the view of easterners, Christianity is contaminated. It is western and contributes to the undesirable characteristics of western behavior. In contrast, eastern religion enhances their virtues both in thinking and behavior.
The second is that the Chinese like to emphasize that they have their own religion, which by tradition has been handed down to them, and that they ought to be committed to preserving this religion for future generations through their children. By contrast, Christianity is viewed as a “recent” and new religion introduced by western culture.
The traditional Chinese religion is made up of three parts: Buddhism (with its emphasis on karma), Taoism (from which it gets its Animistic elements), and the philosophy of Confucianism (especially filial loyalty and meritocracy). This religion is very old and has deep roots in their history and culture. Loyalty to their traditions requires them to reject Christianity in favor of their own.
Since these obstacles affect especially the older generation, the main point of the message which was brought to them was that Christianity is not western and is not recent. Besides, if one examines carefully the beginnings of the Chinese people and their language, it can be demonstrated that Christianity had a large influence on their language itself. If tradition does weigh in the balance of decision, then they ought to be aware of the evidences of Christianity in the characters of their own language.
This is both intriguing and useful in ministering to the old generation of Chinese.
The Bugaboo of Contextualization
That big word refers simply to the attempt on the part of missionaries to adapt the gospel to foreign religions and cultures, to make use of heathen religious practices, and to find similarities between Christianity and that religion — all in order to build bridges to communicate the gospel.
Paul’s activity at Mars’ Hill in Athens, Acts 17, is held forth as the great motif for this practice. There he identified the local altar to “THE UNKNOWN GOD” as a reference to Jehovah, the true God of whom he preached. He used that as a take-off point to preach to them the Creator and also the Father of Jesus, whom He raised from the dead. We do not reject that effort, or deny its place in the inspired Scripture and legitimacy as a mission method. In summary there is quite a difference between identifying Jehovah with an “unknown,” and identifying Him with a heathen deity, which is so often done in contextualization.
I use the term “bugaboo” because the concept of contextualization as usually practiced is fraught with so many dangers. Just to put this article into perspective, I mention two. First, it is rooted in bad theology. It is the old heresy of Rome and Protestant Liberalism that natural man is reaching up toward God and trying to find God even through heathen religions. This is dashed to pieces by God Himself in Romans 1:22,23, where we are told that heathen idolatry is not man trying to find God but man rejecting the God who has revealed Himself to them. There is a horrible chasm between heathen religion and the gospel truth. Secondly, it is also bad methodology. It allows the hearers of the gospel to maintain their wrong perception of “god.” We only give him a new name and set him forth as part of a new religious system. Christianity is a radical religion and salvation means rooting out all the old, including all heathen idols and practices, in order to receive by free grace the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ.
Now, having said this, we can clear the air and try to focus on the issue at hand.
Mysteries Confucius Couldn’t Solve
This caption is the title of a book written in 1986 by Ethel Nelson and Richard Broadberry. Its subtitle is Analyses of Ancient Characters (Chinese) Reveal Intriguing Facts Shared with Hebrew Scriptures.
What the book does is to demonstrate that there are evidences of Christianity in both Chinese practices of religion and in the language itself. This goes back a long time. Briefly, the story goes this way. From the Shun Dynasty (around 2205 BC) until as recently as AD 1911, the Chinese people, including the emperor, had the practice of a yearly sacrifice to the King of Heaven. Prior to 1420 it was held at the “eastern border,” but after that date the emperor began to build the Temple to the God of Heaven in Peking and finished it in 1539. The annual sacrifice was then offered there. The name of the god of heaven was ShangTi.
Confucius (who lived 551-479 BC) was asked why the Chinese practice this annual sacrifice. He had no answer, but he did insist as quoted in the book, “He who understands the ceremonies of the sacrifices to Heaven and Earth… would find the government of a kingdom as easy as to look into his palm!”
What is suggested in the book is that this practice began soon after the confusion of the tongues at Babel (around 2200 BC). Chinese history goes all the way back to this period of time. It could well be that some of the people who migrated to China took with them a true concept of God and continued to worship in this manner. The point is that it did not take long before the understanding of this sacrifice was lost, and very soon the people were doing things for which they had no idea why they did it.
With care, the point can be made that there are evidences of Christianity in the very early days of the Chinese history. We cannot say that this ShangTi is the same God as Jehovah or the God of the Bible. I was reading awhile back of a similar account in the Ancient Vedas (Hindu Scriptures), that one of the gods took on humanity and became man (something done quite often in heathen traditions). The author suggested that this Purusa is a reference to Jesus Christ, and that he could conclude that Christ is in those Ancient Vedas because it includes a man-sacrifice. Admittedly, my knowledge of that ancient language is nothing, yet the twisting and assuming that goes on is very scary if we are to conclude that there are such evidences of Jesus in heathen Hinduism. Such contextualization is dangerous.
Additional Evidences in Chinese Characters
There is something else in the book Mysteries… which is far more significant for our purposes here. A simple reference to the yearly sacrifice of a bullock on the eastern border by itself may be too speculative, but if we add to it the evidences of Christianity which are in the language itself, it becomes a bit more convincing.
The date of Babel and the origin of the Chinese language almost coincide, again according to sources given. Evidently some of the children of Shem went into China because God confused the tongues at Babel and some of them spoke Chinese. Their close proximity to Noah and the flood allowed them to know the promise of God and take with them some semblance of Christianity. The point is that they must have had that personally for a time, but eventually it died out and the meaning of those religious roots became a mystery.
It is also significant that the kind of Chinese writing was somewhat similar to other writings of this period of time. It was picture-writing, sort of like using stick figures (pictograms). In other contexts it is called hieroglyphics. Chinese writing to this day is made up of pictures, or little segments of pictures, layered on top of each other, which are then read. Obviously the written form of any language changes over the years. It is quite amazing that the sources for the characters mentioned here were taken from bronzeware (dating back to the Shang dynasty around 1711-1122 BC) and oracle bones (which were written from early 2000 BC). The oldest complete dictionary of the Chinese language goes back to 86 BC. It was composed by Hsu Shen and was published as Shuo Wen in AD 120. He analyzed the characters and inserted the false ideas which were already rampant in his day.
I hesitated writing this article because I cannot say that I know this written language. Brother Paul, on the other hand, could demonstrate the point during the service by using a white board and writing out the characters. We could see the old people nodding their heads as they understood what he was doing. I asked him if he would write this article, but since the publication of the Standard Bearer does not support Chinese fonts, it was difficult for him. So you will have to rely on my descriptions rather than on the actual writing of the characters themselves. What we will do is insert in place of a Chinese character an “X” and next to it give the meaning of that figure in English in parentheses and use “+” to indicate that the next character is added to the preceding one, and use “=” to introduce the finished figure and its meaning. Since we are working under this handicap, we don’t want to make it tedious but use only representative words to illustrate a point and then move on. If this interests you, read the Book. The author gives so many illustrations from the characters that we have to be selective.
First illustration is the word to create. In Chinese it is made up of these layers or combinations: X (dust) + X (breath of mouth) + X (alive) = X (to talk or speak) + X (walking) = to create. From the Chinese character itself, which is translated to create, we have this concept: dust is the material, and breath and speech are the energy, to make alive. We think of the passage, “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth” (Ps. 33:6). Or if we relate it to the creation of man, “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living soul” (Gen. 2:7). The point is, where did this idea come from which is expressed in these Chinese characters that go back to the time of Babel? There must have been some Christian influence.
Closely connected with this is the Chinese character for flesh. It is made up this way, X (man) + X (hand) + X (wife) = X (flesh). In this character is a picture of a man with a wife attached to him brought forth by the hand of God reaching inside of him. Quite a description of the creation of Eve, who was called “one flesh” with Adam, or bone of his bone. Again, how could they describe flesh this way unless they had knowledge of the creation of Eve?
Is there any evidence for the fall of man into sin? The Chinese word for devil or Satan has these elements in it. X (garden) = X (man) + X (mouth or secret) = X (devil). Satan here is pictured as the one who spoke or whispered in the garden. The Chinese word for desire is pictured this way, X (trees) + X (woman) = X (desire). Interesting, that the word desire is pictured as a woman looking at a tree. Just to add another interesting one, the word naked. It includes these parts X (garden) + x (tree) = X (fruit) + X (clothes) = x (naked). We can summarize it this way, by eating from the fruit of a tree in the garden man would see the need for clothes. That is what naked means. To this day, the Chinese character for naked has this root meaning, which can be discerned only if one is acquainted with biblical history.
What about salvation? Is there any indication in the Chinese characters about this? The word sacrifice has these pictograms: X (vessel, which also means flesh) + X (hand) + X (God) = X (sacrifice). The meaning is that humans by their hand offer to God. More specific is the word righteousness, which we as Reformed believers have come to appreciate through the Reformation. The Chinese word for righteousness is pictured this way: X (hand) + X (lance or sword) = X (me) + X (sheep) = X (righteousness). The meaning of this is that I must be below the lamb, kneeling and worshiping Him, and that by my hand I have killed Him with my sins (in the picture my hand holds the lance) and only in Him am I covered (joined to Him). That one word tells almost the entire message of salvation — that righteousness with God is essential and that I cannot obtain it, but only Christ has done that.
A devotional word like prayer includes much the same imagery. X (couple) + X (garden) + X (God) + X (mountain) + X (river) = X (to seek or pray). The root idea is that, outside the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve (the couple) are seeking God, who is on the holy mountain where the river of life flows. This imagery could very well have lived in that early point of history.
Such evidences must be viewed with great caution, and the use of them is very limited. We must not get carried away as if it proves something of the Bible. We don’t need that kind of proof. Nor does it even serve that purpose for us. Rather, such evidence can be used to demonstrate to Chinese people, who have strong convictions about their traditions, that those traditions are not, as they think, exclusive of Christianity. It shows, too, that Christianity is not “western” but universal, both for all nations and all ages. Such evidence will not save anyone, it can only make them curious, if the Spirit is pleased to work in them to guide them to the Word of God and the gospel preached, for that alone is able to save.
Do pray for our Chinese neighbors throughout the world, that God may open their eyes to such wonderful salvation which must have influenced their forefathers long ago.
God’s Word is both wonderful and true.