Book Review

"China's Reforming Churches" Edited by Bruce P. Baugus

Rev. David Chen
Bruce Baugus
Wednesday, December 31st 2014
Jan/Feb 2015

This book is the product of a recent theological conference that sought to understand the Chinese church. The conference featured church leaders from China who shared and participated in dialogue for a better understanding of Reformed theology and its traditions on a global scale. As a Chinese Reformed Christian from the West who has ministered to the church in China for over a decade, I have been waiting for a book like this for a very long time. This book seeks to help believers in the West understand the church in China: Are their theological preferences identifiable, and how can the Reformed church of the West be a partner in their journey to give glory to God and enjoy him forever?

This book has many strengths, although there are some areas I wish had been done differently. Regarding strengths, many Reformed believers will be shocked at how much common ground we have with Christians in China. The first two chapters provide an excellent historical survey, where the author writes, "That there was a substantial Presbyterian and Reformed mission to China in the pre-Mao era and that most nineteenth-century missionaries to China might be broadly described as Reformed may surprise some readers" (27).

This is spot-on in understanding why many House Churches in China fall in love with Reformed theology at first sight (whether that love persists is another story). Many churches in China trace their roots back to Reformed-minded missionaries and their disciples, and as a result, most modern churches in China hold to these basic beliefs without compromise: the Bible is the highest authority and is inerrant; grace is God-centered; man has no merits of his own; and a Christian's main mission in life is to serve God and spread the gospel. This is why I am puzzled by Dr. Lu's comments in chapter 3 when he claims, "Generally speaking, Chinese Christians have been strongly influenced by Arminian synergism….Perhaps that is why there are more Reformed Baptists than Reformed Presbyterians in Chinese Churches" (120). If he is talking about the "Chinese Church" in North America, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, I would be in agreement. But as this book's opening chapters argued, this is not the case: the church in China is Calvinistic in spirit because of the early influence of Reformed missionaries.

Another strength of the book is its attempt to help readers get to know the "real China" and the "real Chinese Church." The editor's interviews and conversations (chapters 4 and 6) with prominent Chinese pastors in their own words provide firsthand insights into the state of affairs in some churches in China, along with Dr. Doyle's in-depth survey and analysis (chapter 7) of the social conditions in China, and finally Dr. Fulton's wonderful discussion of the history and development of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM, chapter 8), which is commonly known as China's "Government Protestant Church."

In terms of substantive critique, I wish a book like this would have more contributions from Chinese pastors who were born, grew up, converted, and struggled in China (in the two chapters by Chinese pastors, one has most, if not all, of his ministerial experiences serving the "Chinese Church" in America). I appreciate that the book makes every attempt to let the Chinese pastors (from China) shine through the interviews and dialogue chapters, and that it has other contributors who have experiences serving in China. But after reading the book, I am left with the impression that the majority of the book is written by Western outsiders looking in, and not Chinese Christian insiders informing us of who they are and sharing with us the rich history of their own sojourn with Christ through persecutions and trials, their struggles and accomplishments in evangelism, church-planting, kingdom-building, and theological formation.

My experience with churches in China is that they are always seeking to learn, that they recognize the West has much to offer, and that they want us to show them biblically how our Reformed doctrines are summaries of the teachings of the Bible. As long as we are willing to go through the labors of biblical exegesis and interpretation, it may take weeks or months for the light of the Bible to shine into their hearts, but they will accept Reformed doctrine, including infant baptism.

There is no question that we want to help our brothers and sisters in China, and we are especially excited to hear how Reformed-minded they already are. But how will we come alongside these brothers and sisters to partner with them in their journey to be biblical, to be Reformed? Can we recognize a Reforming church that is different from our own Reformed journey and be willing to help them on their terms, no matter how different and sometimes even strange their style of worship and submission to the whole counsel of God may be?

As such, I strongly recommend this book as an introduction to the Reforming church in China. The research is first rate, the discussions are informative, and it is a great initial step into the world of China's Reforming churches.

Wednesday, December 31st 2014

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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