THEOSIS, SINO-CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY AND THE SECOND CHINESE ENLIGHTENMENT: HEAVEN AND HUMANITY IN UNITY reviewed by Michael Reardon

Although Alexander Chow’s book is four years old, we are pleased to publish this review to bring his work on theosis to the attention of as widespread an Orthodox theological and scholarly audience as possible. This serves as a prelude to Michael Reardon’s own upcoming article on Orthodoxy in Dialogue, “The Orthodox Invasion: Theosis as the Telos of Protestant Soteriology.” 

Theosis, Sino-Christian Theology and the Second Chinese Enlightenment: Heaven and Humanity in Unity
Alexander Chow
New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2013

chow (2)Alexander Chow’s Theosis, Sino-Christian Theology and the Second Chinese Enlightenment is an innovative and compelling attempt at utilizing an Eastern Orthodox framework to construct a contextual Chinese Christian theology. Largely successful in his endeavor, Chow’s much-needed inquiry into the potential for a Sino-Christian theosis-centered theology has him playing the role of Pandora opening a box with which Sino-Christian scholars will be forced to engage in the coming years. 

His project is comprised of three sections. In the first section (introduction and chapter 1), he details the two “Enlightenments” through which China has passed: the first at the turn of the 20th century, and the second in the 1980s. This latter Enlightenment provides the historical context for his constructive endeavor (pp. 21-40).

Chow also introduces the theological typology that will be employed in his study. He eschews two common representations of Sino-theology—fundamentalist/modernist and Confucian Activist/Daoist Pietistic dichotomies—in favor of the trichotomistic typology promulgated by Justo Gonzales (pp. 3-10). “Type A” theologies are defined as “law-based” theologies, which are generally counter-cultural or transformative in nature and have negative anthropologies (p. 9). “Type B” theologies prioritize the synthesis of philosophy with religion (i.e., philosophy as the “handmaiden of theology”), are favorable toward cultural assimilation, and possess positive anthropologies (p. 10). “Type C” theologies are concerned with history as unfolding God’s purpose, favor cultural engagement, and have mixed anthropologies (p. 10). Of these three, Chow posits that Type C theologies are both the most ideal in creating a contextual Chinese theology and the theological typology of Orthodox thought. 

The second section, comprised of chapters 2-4, introduces and analyzes the theologies of Chow’s three interlocutors—Watchman Nee (1903-1972, pp. 41-63), T.C. Chao (1889-1979, pp. 65-87), and Bishop K.H. Ting (1915-2012, pp. 89-111)—who are respectively “prototypical” Type A, B, and C theologians. Although punctilious in his analysis, Chow’s main purpose in this section is to tease out their doctrinal commonalities: sin, synergy, and union. 

The final section (chapters 5-6 and conclusion) forms the crux of Chow’s project. Chapter 5 delineates the framework of each theological typology’s utilization of these commonalities within the context of their anthropological implications. For Nee, sin is explicated within a penal substitution paradigm, whereas for Chao sin is altogether replaced with the concept of “selfishness.” Ting similarly redefines the concept of sin by shifting his focus from the “sinner” to those who are “sinned against” (pp. 116-120). 

The notion of synergy is similarly varied. For Nee, the Christian life is one that is lived according to the synergy of the divine will with the human will (p. 121). Chao’s theology assigns greater primacy to the human will; Chow explicates that this is due to Chao’s rendering of Jesus as a moral exemplar stripped of divine characteristics (p. 122). Ting diverges from both Nee and Chao, opting to focus on the collective aspect of humanity cooperating with God for the betterment of society (pp. 122-123). 

Concerning the final commonality—union—Nee asserts that salvation is consummated once an individual is in union with God (p. 126), while Chao argues that man and God can be united only in activities (namely love). Here, Ting argues that all of humanity moves toward an Omega point located in Christ, where they will be found in union both with Christ and with one another (pp. 126-127).

These commonalities are then utilized in chapter 6, the crux of this project. First, Chow locates each of these doctrines in Orthodox thought, primarily relying on St. Maximus the Confessor (580-662) and St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359) for this comparative exercise. However, he does reference other Orthodox theologians, spanning from St. John Chrysostom (349-407) to Georges Florovsky (1893-1979). Next, Chow asserts similarities between his three theological typologies and Byzantine Christian thought. 

In the final pages of the conclusion, the multitude of Chow’s exploits coalesce to crystalize as one claim and one hope. First, Chow asserts that a case has been made for Orthodoxy to be utilized as a “complement or supplement for certain areas of today’s academic discourse in Sino-Christian theology” (p. 155).  Second, he hopes that a contextual Chinese theology which utilizes Orthodoxy could be recognized as the fourth great teaching of China, alongside Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism.

As stated at the outset of this review, Chow’s project is truly an invaluable addition to the field of Sino-Christian theological engagement. The commonalities across varied Chinese theologies, their hidden relatedness to Orthodox theology, their dual role in truly indigenizing Christianity in China while simultaneously positively affecting nation-building—in brief, it is likely not an overstatement to say that this project will serve as a “starter pack” for burgeoning Sino-Christian scholars in the coming years and decades.

Notwithstanding, there are some critiques that can be offered as correctives to this ambitious endeavor. 

First, the inclusion of Chow’s interlocutors is somewhat puzzling, particularly regarding Watchman Nee and K.H. Ting. Concerning Nee, I have two critiques, one minor and one that is more concerning. The tertiary item is that Chow asserts the presence of Chinese philosophy in Nee’s theology, despite Nee’s stance against any cultural or philosophical synthesis with theology. Chow’s single reason for asserting this claim is based on Nee’s ostensible lack of knowledge of patristic theology (p. 53); yet, in writings not examined in Chow’s project (e.g., Messages for Building up New Believers), Nee cites both the church fathers and the early church councils. It seems that this claim may be more in line with the framework of the study (as well as the theological typology), yet not entirely accurate concerning theologian Nee himself. 

However, there is a far more fundamental issue that needs to be addressed. Throughout Chow’s study, Type A theology (and Nee as the ostensibly “prototypical” Type A theologian) is portrayed as the theological strand most “resistant” or “at odds” with Orthodox theology, and more specifically, with the doctrine of theosis. 

Yet, of the three theologians analyzed, Nee’s theological framework is the only one that has been used to incorporate theosis as the telos of salvation. Witness Lee (1905-1997)—a co-worker of Nee mentioned four times in Chow’s study (pp. 16, 57, 61, 126)—devoted the final years of his ministry to the dissemination of theosis to Protestant audiences, asserting that the statement “God became man in order that man might become God in life and nature, but not in the Godhead” is the “high peak of the divine revelation.” To further corroborate this point, Hank Hanegraaff (CRI Institute, “Bible Answer Man”) attributes his recent high profile conversion to Orthodoxy to his extensive research of Nee’s theology and theosis.  

To be clear, this does not undermine the claims that Chow makes concerning Type A theologians at large. Rather, it raises the question as to whether Watchman Nee should have been considered as a “prototypical” Type A theologian in the first place. Someone like Wang Ming-Dao (1900-1991) would likely have been a more appropriate choice. 

To be entirely fair regarding the inclusion of K.H. Ting, Chow mentions that Ting was the only prominent Type C theologian in Chinese Christianity (p. 89).  Notwithstanding, Ting’s doctrine of the “cosmic Christ,” while superficially similar to Orthodox thought, is in fact entirely different. Ting’s understanding of the universality of Christ is undergirded by process theology and asserts that God is not immutable. Furthermore, Ting argues that a). salvation can occur not only through Christ, but also through Communism (p. 108); and b). while liberation theology is useful, it is not necessary in China, as they have already been liberated by the Communist Party (p. 91). 

As I am not Orthodox, I can only speak in uncertain terms, but I believe that the inclusion of Ting as “prototypical” of the theological typology most likened to Byzantine Christian thought exhibits a theological and sociocultural deafness to Orthodoxy: a theological insensitivity, since the true doctrine of theosis cannot exist in a paradigm that posits God as mutable; and a sociocultural insensitivity, as Orthodox Christians are probably the single group that suffered most under Communist regimes in the 20th century, both spiritually and existentially. Again, this does not undermine the final conclusions of Chow’s study, but simply underscores an item that may affect its reception by Orthodox readers.

There are three other items that raised questions as I read this book. First, there is the purported monolithic Chinese philosophy that Chow asserts possesses a ubiquitous positive anthropology. In fact, there is far more equivocality in Chinese thought concerning the goodness (or evil, or neutrality) of humankind. Secondly, I question the usefulness of the chosen typology, as Chow is often forced to insert caveats pertaining to significant infighting (i.e., not mere doctrinal differences, but rather, charges of heresy) amongst “like-minded” theologians. Lastly, this study aims to create a contextual “Type C” theology, when most Chinese Christians (by Chow’s own assessment) are rooted in “Type A” traditions; hence, I wonder if there exists a disconnect between this academic endeavor and the practical realities of grassroots Chinese Christianity.

Notwithstanding, these critiques again are merely offered as correctives to a meritorious and worthwhile project. Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen claims this work is a “must-read for both theologians and missiologists,” and Brian Stanley states that “no serious student of Chinese Christianity will be able to ignore it.”  I fully agree with these statements, and as one far lesser than either of these modern theological luminaries, I offer my humble and sincere accolades to Alexander Chow and expect to see continued positive contributions from him in the coming years and decades.

Michael Reardon is an MTS student at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto. His research interests include the intersection of Christian ethics and jurisprudential theory, Sino-Christian theology, phenomenological hermeneutics, and pneumatology.  He currently has several papers under peer review. He will be presenting one entitled “Rivers of Living Water: The Divergent Pneumatological Streams of Luther and Melanchton” at the Reformation 500 Conference being held at Regent University this November.