Volume 48 - Issue 1

Genealogy and Doctrine: Reformed and Confucian Sociologies of Knowledge

By Nathan D. Shannon


This article presents comparative textual analyses toward a basic grammar for understanding the interface between Reformed and Confucian sociologies of knowledge. I first propose a three-part Reformed theology of theological tradition in terms of historically successive communities. I then present relevant material from the Analects of Confucius, focusing on Confucius’s own sociology of learning and instruction. Striking similarities between these two models come to light, as well as significant differences in the areas of unity and truth, ontology and office, and sin and grace.

The value of the Western theological tradition for the global church is a complicated matter touching on historical, cultural, and theological issues. The very notion of tradition, or of intellectual heritage, is itself culturally and theologically complex. One might ask, for example: What happens to historic Christian self-understanding when it is transplanted wholesale to Confucian lands? Motivated by this question, the present study presents comparative textual analyses toward a basic grammar for understanding the interface between Reformed and Confucian sociologies of knowledge.

I first propose a three-part theology of theological tradition in terms of historically successive communities: Scripture, as Spirit-inspired apostolic tradition; historical theology, understood as post-apostolic theological reflection guided (but not inspired) by the Spirit; and, where history and culture signal sociological shift, a third designation is required: the church as heir to culturally foreign theological heritage. I then present relevant material from the Analects of Confucius, focusing on Confucius’s own sociology of learning and instruction in terms of the recovery, exposition, and propagation of an objective body of knowledge historically given but nonetheless of distinct and even transcendent value for moral cultivation.

This analysis invites comparison with Protestant confessionalism specifically in terms of a doctrinal genealogy, in the case of the latter, and a paradigmatic father-son or teacher-student arrangement in the case of the former—comparable sociologies of knowledge, in other words. Striking similarities between these two models come to light, as well as significant differences in the areas of unity and truth; ontology and office; and sin and grace.

Both the Protestant confessionalism and the Confucian sociology of knowledge discussed below are deductive hypotheticals. That is, the interaction I facilitate here is more theoretical than actual. And yet, as readers with relevant experience will recognize, it is striking how clearly the notes struck in written sources, even ancient ones, resonate throughout lived experience even to the present day. And of course this interaction between Confucian and Reformed traditions is not meant to be symmetrical but rather missiological. I echo Herman Bavinck’s claim that “Calvinism is not the only truth,” in the sense that what one ought to hope for is neither Confucianism replaced nor Confucianism retrieved but Confucianism revamped, reshaped, let us say redeemed, by the grace of God in the Son.1 The end goal, the gold standard, is a spirit of semper reformanda within and among the churches which still bear the influence of that towering but humble sage of East Asia.

1. Ecclesiology and Doctrine: A Reformed Sketch

Our interest here is in the relationship between a community and its confession, or between a group of people and the beliefs which signal or even constitute its unity. The Reformed tradition has recorded fairly nuanced reflection on precisely that relationship. We begin with the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF).

1.1. Principles of Revelation and Inscripturation

According to the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Word of God took written form “for the better preserving and propagating of the truth” (1.1). In this sense Scripture serves a rather mundane purpose: it helps us not forget. But Scripture, unlike a grocery list or a to-do list, is a bulwark of truth against the machinations of personal evil: “for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world” (1.1).

That the Word of God was committed to writing implies that the Word preceded its written form, as is indicated by mention of “those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased” (WCF 1.1). Also implied is the fact that the written form is not an end in itself but rather serves the preservation and flourishing of the Word in other forms—preaching, most conspicuously. Scripture is the only rule, a necessary and uniquely authoritative norm, for the faith and life of the church, and is sufficient (WCF 1.6, 9, 10). And yet while Scripture knows itself as the source and norm of gospel ministry and Christian life, the Westminster Confession indicates that Scripture alone is not the sum of these. The gospel of the Christ of the Scriptures is meant to be searched, taught, explained, preached, and defended—confessionalism as such—and to saturate the body of Christ with words and deeds conveying the wisdom and saving power of Christ, the Christ of the Scriptures and none other. Scripture is not merely good for such purposes; it is given precisely for such use.

Reformed biblical theologians have understood word revelation as explanatory accompaniment to objective, divine redemptive deed. And in that sense, Scripture would have been redemptively sufficient for each successive, historico-covenantal moment.2 The completion and closing of the New Testament canon as Spirit-authorized commentary on the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures and the historical accomplishment of the eternal redemptive purposes of God is of course the salient instance of this pattern. Canon is closed because revelatory word always accompanies objective, redemptive deed, and redemption is, at the ascension and enthronement of the risen Son, accomplished.

1.2. The Apostle Paul and the First Generation of the Confessing Community

“Apostle” and “author of inspired NT Scripture” are not identical classes. The apostles were hand-picked, Spirit-authorized witnesses to biblical fulfillment and redemptive accomplishment in Christ. But not all of these wrote inspired Scripture; and not all inspired Scripture was written by apostles. This is at least in part because the apostolic revelatory dispensation was primarily oral.3 This oral testimony was accompanied by supernatural displays of divine authorization (miracles) (Matt 10:8); nonetheless the apostles were witness to, even preachers of, the wisdom and faithfulness of God displayed in the foolishness of the cross and the resurrection of Christ.

And then apostolic witness took written form, for better preserving and propagating. That is, because the gospel is authorized testimony about actual historical accomplishment, the efficacy of subsequent doctrine (WCF 1.5) depends upon the factual accuracy of testimony (1 Cor 15:3–4). Accordingly, having been an eye-witness is a pre-requisite for apostolic office (Acts 1:21–22). Scripture, then, as Spirit-inspired inscripturation (2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet 1:21) of Spirit-authorized eye-witness testimony, constitutes, for the global post-apostolic church, the unimpeachable tradition of a first-generation confessing community.4 In the view of many Reformed writers, “apostolic” is a term designating a socio-historical phenomenon attributable to the one-time redemptive-historical activity of the Holy Spirit through Jesus’s own select witnesses. On such accounts only of this first generation may it be said that “the apostles did not transmit the tradition only after it had been given a fixed form by the faith of the church but because of the authority that they had received from Christ to be the bearers and custodians of this tradition.”5 This apostolic office, therefore, is as much biographical as it is ecclesiological because the apostles deliver revelation they received personally and directly from Christ. The apostles are fallible; they correct each other publicly (Gal 2:11–14). Still, Paul may say both “not I but the Lord” and “I not the Lord” without implying gradation in canonical authority (1 Cor 7:10, 12). “This apostolic gospel,” writes Herman Ridderbos, “one must not ‘receive’ as the word of man but as it really is, as the Word of God (1 Thess. 2:13).”6

If with Ridderbos and Gaffin one thinks of the apostolate as historically defined, the church of the post-apostolic age as a whole may be understood as standing one step, or one generation, removed from its apostolic foundation. In that case, the confession of the church catholic remains under the authority of inscripturated, sealed, and finalized apostolic testimony, a testimony which is to be “translated into the vulgar [local] language of every nation” unto which it comes (WCF 1.8). Whereas apostolic authority was a function of personal qualification and commissioning even by Christ himself, the objectivity of the completed, written text signifies a shift: ministerial office from Timothy onward is not itself canonical but post-canonical and tasked with the preservation and propagation of the faith once and only once delivered. Thus emerges Protestant ecclesiology: one effect of finalized inscripturation is that the entire church might have equal access to an objective, authoritative, apostolic witness. If “‘apostolic succession’ in a personal sense is a contradiction in terms,” no creaturely interpreter but only the Spirit working in and with the canonical Scriptures can bind the conscience (WCF 1.6, 7, 9, 10; 20.1–4; 25.6).7

1.3. My Son in the Faith: Timothy and the Second Generation

This doctrinal second generation takes shape already in Scripture. Paul, an apostle, admonishes Timothy, not once called an apostle, to keep to the pattern of the sound words he had received, and not to teach or allow to be taught any other doctrine. Paul does not thus bind post-apostolic ministry to verbatim recitation. His instructions to his son in the faith include studious preservation of apostolic dispensation and faithful exposition of it in and out of season, labor to be entrusted also to others able to teach. Timothy’s call is custodial, and the faithful preaching it enjoins, wields authority derivative but true.

Contemporary Christians share with Paul an already-not-yet appropriation of the gospel, but have more in common with Timothy, a post-apostolic teacher entrusted with the preservation and explication of authoritative tradition received. Timothy himself is a kind of sequential first among equals: first because he learned directly and personally from Paul; equal because he belongs to the second confessing generation whose beginning is one determinate step removed from the singular apostolic foundation.

1.4. The Global Church: A Third Generation

What I shall here call a third generation emerges as a distinguishable subset of the second by virtue of significant shifts in the demographics of the global church. This a matter of degree, primarily, not of kind, but some instances are more conspicuous than others. The first gentile church faced, in many ways, a similar set of challenges. Today, the church in non-Western contexts must wrestle with the reality of a faith delivered in culturally strange packaging.

One might ask: is this Western-global paradigm not outdated? In some ways perhaps it is, but only superficially. If a non-Western church is a significant missiological force, as for example the Korean church surely is, still it remains the case that the theological heritage in play is Western. A Korean missionary will identify himself, in the terms of Western theological formulation, as Presbyterian, Baptist, or non-denominational, for example. Surely, at the same time, a Korean missionary takes with him Western theological heritage in Koreanized form. And this is precisely the question: the character and influence of globally transplanted post-canonical tradition. In such cases the Korean missionary exemplifies and perpetuates the theological and ecclesiological self-understanding of this third generation. He is theologically bi-cultural.

The Westminster Confession defines the visible church as “all those throughout the world that profess the true religion” (25.2). And as that “true religion” moves “throughout the world,” a delicate balance must be sought. While the body of Christ in any local instantiation is entitled to the maternal care of the church catholic, she is also accountable to the church’s doctrinal training, authority, and discipline. But as the church undergoes radical and sometimes rapid demographic shifts, and the non-Western and now majority church examines an inheritance of nearly two millennia of extra-biblical theological reflection from Western writers, a relationship otherwise good and pleasant becomes complicated, sometimes even strained, particularly now, when identity is the battleground of our day.

1.5. Dangers of Socio-Traditional Breakdown

Two complementary mishandlings of inherited tradition haunt post-apostolic stewards of the gospel. The first is heavy-handedness (too much post-apostolic tradition), a Protestant magisterialism in which that which should be the derivative authority of theological reflection might assume exaggerated importance and immunize the teaching office against even exegetical scrutiny and the inter-personal mandate of gospel ministry, teaching the truth in love. Michael Allen’s encouragement to add a “socially mediated activity of renewed reason” to classical Reformed theological principia, for example, seems to mistake the practice of theology with its nature, and thus to misconstrue the ministerial role of post-canonical sources.8

Individualism (too little tradition) is a complementary misstep. The individualist is the one who says that because he has the text of Paul he has no need of Timothy, or of historic creeds or the shoulders of giants. Old books and dead white men are simply not relevant.

Stephen Holmes argues that “to attempt to do theology without noticing the tradition … is to deny, or at least to attempt to escape from, our historical locatedness,” which he suggests is simply to resent that which God says is good, creatureliness itself.9 He points out,

The standard editions of the Greek New Testament bear witness on nearly every page to the textual criticism that has come up with this text, and not another, and so we cannot even find a text of Scripture that has not been “handed on” to us by those who came before.10

Herman Bavinck says that because of distaste for dogma or theological system “people make a colossal leap back over eighteen centuries of the Christian Church and land, so they think, on the unadulterated and secure ground of Scripture.”11 But such ventures find “neither with Jesus nor with all the prophets and apostles” that coveted notion of “no system at all.”12 In other words: “Is not Scripture itself one entity, an organism, where one single basic idea animates all its parts? And do not the thoughts of Jesus and of the prophets and apostles … constitute an inner unity and a comprehensive entity that agrees internally and in all its parts?”13 And yet “properly speaking, a dogmatic system can never be obtained from Scripture,” apart from, that is, the systematizing labors of the church as such.14

Again, the Scylla and Charybdis of theological authority, magisterialism and individualism, loom large. I remain unconvinced that neo-colonialism in evangelistic garb—the former error—is entirely outmoded, although its traditional forms evoke near universal revulsion today, at least where a host culture is not also implicated. Unfortunately, a young church complicit in the authoritarian misdoings of her progenitors is not hard to imagine, nor perhaps uncommon. On the other hand, exaggerated post-colonial sensitivities may encourage an unfilial distrust in corporate form. One fears that a church overly concerned with its own culture may become, by defensive overreaction, basically humanistic, preferring a gospel of ‘genuineness’ or ‘authenticity’—a gospel of its own humanity—over that of the Christ of the Scriptures. Unchecked fascination with grassroots theology may lead to culpable neglect of what Kevin Vanhoozer calls “an important opportunity for global theology to display catholic sensibility, which is to say a concern for doing theology in communion with the saints.”15 “Non-Western Christianity does not need to become Western. Yet non-Western Christianity should strive to stay authentically Christian, and one way to do that is to remain in communion with catholic theological tradition.”16

All that is to say that contemporary Christian communities in the majority world are heirs to the extended, post-apostolic, fallible but formidable ministry of a second generation, and thereby represent a third generation in which cultural and sociological challenges bear acutely on the bequeathal of intellectual or confessional heritage. And in the cases of hundreds of millions of Christians in the East, Western theological tradition is received into historically Confucian cultures.

2. Confucian Sociology of Inherited Wisdom

We turn now to examine the truly ancient original sources of Confucianism in order to understand how an altogether different tradition has handled similar questions. As stated above, our interest is ultimately missiological; but first let us incline our ear, and hear the words of the wise (Prov. 22:17).

2.1. Confucius and the Moral Imperative of Cultural Recovery

Kong Fuzi, or Master Kong, known in the West as Confucius, was born in 551 BC in northeast China. He was a kind of Socrates of the East, and despite the modesty of his interests and methods his influence is difficult to overstate. Paul Goldin says that during “imperial times, Confucius’s standing was so great that the few writers who questioned his teachings became notorious for that reason alone.”17 Ann-Ping Chin writes: “Until the mid-twentieth century, China was so inseparable from the idea of Confucius that her scheme of government and society, her concept of the self and human relationships, and her construct of culture and history all seemed to have originated from his mind alone.”18

Following the Way of Confucius meant undertaking sincere and selfless pursuit of an objective body of wisdom with the natural and necessary but nonetheless coveted effect of moral self-improvement. One sought wisdom for its own sake, and enjoyed moral progress as evidence of its natural virtue. In this sense, Confucius commends self-conscious acquisition of an objective body of knowledge, wisdom, and moral insight. The pursuit of this acquisition, and the tireless rehearsal of its practical implementation, is the “Way” or the “Way of Confucius.”

Confucius was a ritual master, meaning that he was an expert preserver and practitioner of the endlessly complex rites, ceremonies, and customs of ancient Chinese life. A traditional body of wisdom from time immemorial had been cherished and well-practiced in an idealized prior age.19 The idealization of this material, coupled with the obscurity surrounding its origins, endues it with a certain allure and authority, comparable perhaps to revelation or to the biblical account of Eden. Confucius viewed that ancestral wisdom as an object of contemporary neglect, abuse, and exploitation, and also as the only real hope for recovery and restoration, and at the same time eminently worthy of study and emulation for its own sake.20 Confucius should thus be considered a kind of reformer, in the sense that his aim was an ad fontes recovery of a dilapidated vision for culture and flourishing (e.g., Analects 7.1, 7.20, 13.20, 17.16). Confucius’s high esteem for traditional learning even led him to careful attention to textual and contextual issues (7.18), and yet Confucius was not an inflexible traditionalist; he allowed for minor modifications that did not strike at the substance of the tradition (9.3).

One might say that the Way involves two quantifiable aspects: one of the acquisition of information—propositional content as to ritual procedure,21 the texts of the ancient odes, and so on—and another of practical mastery of ritual and other arts by means of focused repetition. One must both understand and acquire discernment and orthodox ritual practice. Zigong quotes an ode to describe all this, hinting at the breakdown of the old self and the cultivation of the new, winning the Master’s approval: “As if cut, as if polished; as if carved, as if ground” (1.15). This two-part pursuit is a kind of catechetical duty toward the matured wisdom of a prior, purer age.

It is worth noting that Confucius could not conceive of entrance to the Way by loveless self-exertion. He says for instance that love for or devotion to the Way is qualitatively greater than catechetical achievement devoid of reverence.22 Accordingly, he notes at several points that one cannot lift one’s self by one’s boot straps as it were into the Way. But Confucius appears unsure how to instill the requisite disposition in his students and is indeed somewhat mystified by this conundrum. The Master appears to believe that by inculcation a heart-borne thirst for the Way may be caught, but it cannot be taught.

In this sense, the Way is of course a “way” rather than an achievement. Meager, unremarkable pursuit, if sincere, is to be esteemed above higher degrees of refinement and accomplishment that are at heart only mimicry. So he says: “Is Goodness really so far away? If I simply desire Goodness, I will find that it is already here” (7.30).23 On the other hand: “Zigong said ‘I despise those who parrot others’ ideas and mistake this for wisdom; those who mistake insubordination for courage; and those who mistake the malicious exposing of other’s private affairs for uprightness’” (17.24).

Confucius himself, accordingly, would on the one hand extol his own zeal for learning but at the same time present himself as a humble disciple. He extols his own love for learning, cultural refinement (chiefly, notice, self-restraint), and tireless effort; but he would not dare claim to have “arrived” or to be without equal as regards dutifulness or trustworthiness (5.28, 7.33, 7.34). And so he enjoins others to “Learn as if you will never catch up, and as if you feared losing what you have already attained” (8.17).

The Way of Confucius is extended, proven, personal devotion to inherited tradition. The source of that tradition is the wisdom of the Zhou dynasty, personified in the Duke of Zhou in particular, but its efficaciousness extends generously through succeeding developments that are faithful to its preservation and its values. This historic material, that which constitutes the object of the devotion of the Way, is unmatched in beauty and insight; and so, while it promises personal cultivation and an inimitable, intangible equanimity, it is not to be pursued as means to a greater end. There is a kind of magical moment in the teaching of the Master in which he commends pursuit of the Way but not pursuit of anything in particular. The Way in this sense is unquantifiable, and its benefits while certain are indirect. Notice also that pursuit of the Way and acknowledgement of its inherent virtue puts one at odds with contemporary culture. The follower of the Way might not be hostile to the world but he will at least be uninterested in its cruder wares.

One biographer makes this striking observation, indicative of the Master’s truly unpretentious manner: “Men like Confucius were not destined to have fame. Their concerns lacked immediate appeal.”24 This is well reflected in the portrayal of Confucius himself within the text of the Analects. His attitude toward the Way combines conviction with humility, and devotion with modesty. He is a punctilious student of the primary sources but carries himself lightly: “Confucius was a humble man.”25 Furthermore, as at once a beneficiary and a purveyor of so great an inheritance, Confucius saw himself not as a lonely scholar or monastic devotee but beholden, by the social impulses of the Way itself, to various overlapping asymmetrical relationships.

2.2. Filial Piety: Duty and Truth

For Confucius, the Way meant incorporation into a school of wisdom and of moral refinement that exceeded the capacity of any single person or lifetime. The Master was glad to represent himself as a humble student: “as for actually becoming a gentleman in practice, this is something I have not yet been able to achieve” (7.33). And so, built naturally into the Way is a particular virtue of loyalty and faithfulness to one’s benefactors, that of filial piety. As Julie Ching observes: “The Confucian regards human society in terms of personal relationships and ethical responsibilities result from such relationships.”26 And so, she says, “for this reason, the Confucian society regards itself as a large family.”27 Ching explains that there are five relationships (ruler-subject, father-son, husband-wife, elder and younger brother, friend and friend) that all exemplify shared principles of reciprocity, characterized by “a basic sense of hierarchy.”28 In terms of filiality: “Sons … are encouraged to protect their parents’ good name, in spite of the knowledge of their wrong-doings.”29 That filial framework characterizes nearly every human relationship. According to Ching, “The only truly horizontal relationship is that between friends, and even here, seniority of age demands a certain respect, as also with brothers.”30

Because of the centrality of the notion of family and of the individual as a refraction of the corporate, “filial piety is the first of all Confucian virtues, that which comes before loyalty to the sovereign, conjugal affection, and everything else.”31 Filial piety functions more as a principle than a rule. “Filial,” in other words, may be taken metaphorically for the role of the subordinate in any asymmetrical relationship—teacher/student no less than parent/child.

Two features of filial piety must be considered. Consider these sayings:

The Master said, “When someone’s father is still alive, observe his intentions; after his father has passed away, observe his conduct. If for three years he does not alter the ways of his father, he may be called a filial son.” (1.11; also 4.20)

Meng Yizi asked about filial piety. The Master replied, “Do not disobey.” … Fan Chi said, “What did you mean by that?” The Master replied, “When your parents are alive, serve them in accordance with the rites; when they pass away, bury them in accordance with the rites; and sacrifice to them in accordance with the rites.” (2.5)

During the parent’s lifetime, a son’s or daughter’s conduct suffers the problem of induction. It cannot establish a principle, essence, or nature, but only records patterns indicative of honor, obedience, and filial piety. The true substance of a child’s character is hidden from view and lies only in what is here called the intentions (1.11). But once the father has passed away, and filial disloyalty no longer faces the threat of direct response, hidden dispositions are free to come to light.

Confucius taught that filial piety required a mourning period of three years for a deceased parent, and that duty was not to be taken lightly.32 Zai Wo attempts at one point to convince Confucius that one year ought to suffice; he hints that the requisite self-restraint for a three-year period is excessive. Confucius suspects that indolence motivates the question and reminds his student of the true impulse of genuine mourning, which appears to be the death of the parent causing a diminution of life, or of the joy of life, in the son:

When the gentleman is in mourning, he gets no pleasure from eating sweet foods, finds no joy in listening to music, and feels no comfort in his place of dwelling. This is why he gives up these things. (17.21)

More importantly, we see in the same passage a matter-of-fact reciprocity, even proportionality, behind Confucius’s filial prescriptions: “A child is completely dependent upon the care of his parents for the first three years of his life—this is why the three-year mourning period is the common practice throughout the world” (17.21). Reducing the mourning period to a single year would be presumption and ingratitude, by precisely a factor of three.

But even then, this reciprocal exchange is to be thought of only as an indication of what truly matters. It is more fundamentally a probationary period for the child, a testing of the genuineness of his filial devotion:

The Master said, “One who makes no changes to the ways of his father for three years after his father has passed away may be called a filial son.” (1.11; 4.20)

Analects 2.5 enriches the picture somewhat. Honoring parents according to ritual is the basic structure of filial piety. In that sense the Master’s comment here is true to form and unsurprising. But as commentators have noted, and in light of Confucius’s context and stated mission, this saying is likely a veiled rebuke of contemporary ritual excess and abuse signaling a deliberate break in the social structure, a break which is, in a word, one of reform.33 In case one’s parents have neglected ritual or are guilty of corrupting it, honoring them according to ritual after their passing serves to rebuke corrupt parental instruction without incurring the guilt of filial dishonor. The wayward parent is honored lawfully, as it were, and so his guilt is his own. This is a model for justifiable disunity, a cunning form of civil disobedience.34

Certainly for Confucius, disunity for the sake of restoration and ritual purity represents not an unholy rupture within body but purification of it. Analects 2.5 does not illustrate the son separating himself from society nor even from his family but rather filial adherence to ritual propriety that in effect disinvites the wayward parent from corporate communion, for the sake of truth and unity. This much is implied in the fact that filial piety is not essentially ad hominem, as the subtle subversion of 2.5 indicates. So even the profound personal affection that it requires (2.7, 2.8) yields at the end of the day to ritual correctness. This description of Confucius himself captures all this:

The Master was entirely free of four faults: arbitrariness, inflexibility, rigidity, and selfishness. (9.4)

Confucius was esteemed for balancing propriety and loyal guardianship of wisdom exceeding his own person and capacity, with genuine spontaneity and grace. He could be severely critical and unyielding as a teacher, but these were reasoned, calculated strategies; he is never pictured as harsh or impulsive.

2.3. Parallel Potential for Breakdown

There is little threat of unwieldy individualism at the expense of tradition in Confucius’s teaching, though the individualistic tenor of one’s accountability to the Way is apparent, and Confucius is said to have had a doctrine of martyrdom.35 He himself, against the grain of his context, was wholly committed to the Way. And since the corruptions he faced seem to have unfolded on a broad scale and often took the form of ritual exaggeration and insincerity rather than brazen disregard, individualism is not a major theme in the Analects. Still, unmistakably, “those who try to innovate without first acquiring knowledge” (7.28) do bear the Master’s critical attention, and the gravity of the offense of filial demurral warns against hasty division. For Confucius, one first of all and ultimately belongs to the social organism. Here ontology and social function blend.

The greater liability in Confucius’s teaching is found in the rules of reciprocity coupled with the disproportionality of the parent/child relationship, noting as well that this arrangement is to be read onto student/teacher and ruler/subject relationships. A natural, personal reciprocity permeates both Christian ecclesiology (respect for ordained officers, bearing with one another’s burdens, and so on) as well as Confucius’s view of human nature and community. But there is a kind of barb in Confucius’s view in the fact that the giving of life, from parents to children, renders the reciprocity of the parent/child relationship permanently disproportionate. A child is perpetually, indefinitely indebted to his parents. This non-quantifiable debt constrains him to obedience and deference even if parents fail in their duties of care and protection, even if parents renounce these responsibilities, even after parents have passed away—so long as one is a child of one’s parents, there is an outstanding balance.

Feminist scholars have noted other challenges issuing from the Confucian construal of relationships. “Because of its significant emphasis on filiality, ancestor worship is the oldest and most basic Confucian tradition,” but “one should note that ‘ancestor’ primarily means, ‘male ancestor of the husband.’”36 The harmony envisioned by traditional notions of filiality is not indiscriminate:

Korean women retain their maiden name even after marriage, which might seem to imply equality until one comes to understand that they do so not because their independence is respected but because they cannot be accepted as a full member of their husband’s household. Since the married women do not have a direct blood connection with the husband’s family, women after marriage become outsiders both in their natal family and husband’s family: they are in-between. It is only when women give birth to a male child that they are able to claim their status as family member in their husband’s family.37

Filial piety appears to harbor a social essentialism hostile even to the very possibility of parting ways with one’s parent or teacher for the sake of truer unity. Renowned missionary to Korea William Blair noted, “The essence of Confucianism is reverence for established authority and order, above all that the son should honour the father. To the literal-minded Korean this meant that he should not dishonour the past by attempting to improve upon it.”38

The nature of the relationship and the attendant filial duty is such that visible displays of unqualified loyalty—rituals of self-abasement, in other words—embody the goodness toward which a person aspires. But that goodness is not only behavioral; it must be dispositional. And since the requisite inner disposition cannot be taught, the hope is that it is gradually engendered by ritual practices featuring deference and honor, as though the disposition were already there. Acquisition of coveted self-renunciation comes by tireless repetition. Pursuit of the Way therefore requires intentional, self-conscious subjugation of every trace of internal dissonance with ritual expressions of filial piety. One’s inner monologue must be silenced, and an idealized human relationship, impervious to the disappointments of actual human abuses, binds the conscience. Following the Way, in this sense, means to pursue increase in conformity to the image of perfect, uncritical obedience—self-abasement, in fact—wielding at best a severely restrained critical faculty. This arrangement is conducive to two things: from the bottom, ad hominem fidelity: whatever the teacher says is taken as unimpeachable dogma because he has said it, the demise of the self; from the top, authoritarianism, orthodoxy personified, impunity.

Still, this is only a partial reading; perhaps we judge too soon. As noted above, this Confucian model is an idealization. It therefore carries the same deontological weight for the teacher as it does for the student. Despotism, in other words, may not be native to the system.39 The good teacher in the Analects is one who, like the Master himself, humbly assumes an office more noble than his own person. As master he is humble servant.

Nonetheless, the student must understand himself to be honored by the self-exaltation of the teacher and the student’s own complementary self-abasement. The student’s honor is in re-enforcing the hierarchy that constrains him. If the teacher does in fact presume on the humility of the student, still the student must honor himself by calling good that which is evil. His only hope for vindication is again the moral incoherence of unqualified deference. If despotism is not native to the system, still the system has no defense against it.

The tremendous potential of Confucius’s sociology for humble discipleship may be too easily redirected toward subjugation; and the teacher’s office is so well preserved by disproportionate reciprocity that it may lead easily to self-importance and self-interest. Relational asymmetry undermines the distinction between the wisdom offered by one’s teacher (or pastor perhaps), and the teacher (or pastor) himself. Office and asymmetrical relation eclipse the person both of the father and the son, the inferior and the superior.

3. Comparison

Now with the raw materials in place, we are in a position to attempt select points of comparison between these two traditions on issues relevant to the broader question of community and confession.

3.1. The Ideal Teacher

Between the Protestant confessionalism sketched above and a Confucian sociology of knowledge one discovers remarkable similarities, and Confucius himself appears to be a rare storehouse of common grace insight. With tenderness and simplicity of expression, he offers wisdom at several points consonant with a Reformed theology.

Confucius expects teachers to be qualified—they must know their subject matter. But knowledge is never of itself sufficient; good character is essential, so that teachers may serve not merely as sources of information but even more as beacons of faithful pursuit of the Way. The apostle Paul expects accuracy of doctrine and faithful teaching (1 Tim 1, 6; 2 Tim 4; Titus 2), but his emphasis on character—trustworthiness, integrity, and so on—is unmistakable. Jesus himself, of course, led a close circle not of students but of disciples. He not only lectured—if he did that at all—but lived with his disciples.

One easily detects a similar sensitivity to the relational character of knowledge and growth in knowledge in Reformed theology. In what may be regarded as the first Reformed prolegomena, Franciscus Junius’s Treatise on True Theology codified the principle that “the Reformed conception of Christian theology is fundamentally a relational enterprise, determined by and determinative of the divine-human relationship.”40 Geerhardus Vos, discussing the relationship between history and revelation, argued that God “has caused His revelation to take place in the milieu of the historical life of a people,” so that the “circle of revelation is not a school, but a ‘covenant,’”41 the goal of which is that we would “walk in newness of life,” “walk in the Spirit,” and to “abide” in Christ, His Word, and His love (Rom 6:4; Gal 5:16; John 15:7, 9).

3.2. Familial Virtue and Wisdom

Confucius’s emphasis on a familial conception of the confessing community also bears notable similarities to biblical ecclesiology in Reformed understanding. The Baptist was sent “turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers” (Mal 4:6/Luke 1:17). Calvin writes, “What Malachi says about John the Baptist, applies to all the ministers of Christ. They are sent for this purpose to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to the fathers.42 Jesus speaks of adoption in terms of familial reconstitution; those who do the will of the Father are truly his mother, sister, and brother (Matt 12:50). Paul’s familial ecclesiology is in terms of “the household [οἰκεῖος] of faith” or “of God,” a sociological re-knitting that cuts across ethnic lines (Gal 6:10; Eph 2:19, 3:1–13; Col 1:27; 1 Tim 3:15). Confucian filial piety likewise extends the domestic metaphor across the social sphere and thus encourages the generational accountability highlighted in such passages as Deuteronomy 6 but often neglected in (Western) cultural contexts dominated by a fixation on youth, self-determination, and individuality.

Reformed theologians have recognized that salvation is a corporate and even familial affair. As Augustine did before him, Calvin suggests we think of the church as the mother of the faithful.43 He writes,

there is no other means of entering into life unless she conceive us in the womb and give us birth, unless she nourish us at her breasts, and, in short, keep us under her charge and government, until, divested of mortal flesh, we become like the angels (Mt. 22:30).44

He associates grace and the body so closely as to say that “beyond the pale of the Church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation, can be hoped for.”45 For Confucius, the follower of the Way is a son or daughter of the tradition, entrusted wide-eyed to the care and instruction of living keepers of ancient wisdom. Arguably the salient commonality in view is a corporate or specifically familial understanding of knowledge, wisdom, and virtue.

And yet there are significant differences between a Confucian sociology of knowledge and the Protestant confessionalism sketched above.

3.3. Unity True and False

That the body is the body of Christ entails the right of disunity for the sake of unity. Paul’s emphasis on the unity of the “household of God” (Eph 2:19) is unmistakable (1 Cor 3; 12:12–27; Eph 4:14–16), but certainly the apostle sees a role for disunity (1 Cor 11:19). In fact, his emphasis on unity is at the same time an emphasis on disunity; for Paul, unity is a refraction of soteriology, covenant theology, and even the doctrine of God. The unity of the body is a consequence of the unity of gospel accomplishment and truth, and so the unity of the body is also a consequence of separation from religious error and from the world (e.g., Rom 12:2).

Since new birth by the Spirit is provided for by the redemptive accomplishment proclaimed in the gospel, the health of familial ties depends upon faithfulness to the gospel and upon the obedience enjoined upon the followers of Jesus (Matt 28:19–20; John 14:15–31). In that sense, critical engagement with the tradition and the teaching of the church—not self-effacing subjugation to it—is not only proper but a matter of duty to the family itself and to the personal principle of its unity: the singular mediator present and active by the Spirit. Christian new birth is forged in the atoning death of the Messiah and the Spirit’s application of the Son’s victory to those upon whom the love of the Father rests. Regeneration sets the sinner at enmity with his old self, with the flesh under condemnation, and with the world. And so, the unity of the church is wrought in gospel truth, and its primary form, its inaugural moment, is disunity with the world and with falsehood (John 3:19; 12:25; 15:19; 1 Cor 2; 1 John 2–4). Antithesis is gracious.

To be a Christian, therefore, means to have exercised one’s right to lawful disunity. But unity via disunity is not only a starting gesture; it is the church’s perpetual duty, its essential and abiding character, even relative to its own tradition. While issuing unmistakable emphasis on unity, Paul warns the Ephesians that subversive wolves with deceitful schemes would arise even from within their own ranks (Acts 20:29; Eph 4:14), and that at times “there must be factions among you,” among the church, “in order that those who are genuine … may be recognized” (1 Cor 11:19). “It is, after all,” writes Stephen Holmes, “a proper way to relate to a tradition to stand against particular developments and suggest that they are improper and should be done away with.”46 The point being: “Theology needs always to be in dialogue—conversation—with its tradition, but that dialogue may well be sharply critical.”47

Confucius seems to have preserved such a right of disunity. He exercised it when he saw the wisdom of ages past fall into disrepair. However, in Confucius’s case, that same wisdom for which he labored enjoins a brand of filiality which virtually annuls the right of disunity. This can be seen in two ways: the reciprocity of asymmetrical relationships means that one’s filial duties are perpetually unfulfilled, and second, relational asymmetry appears to constitute the whole of a person’s social life. “Let your actions be governed by dutifulness and trustworthiness, and do not accept as a friend one who is not your equal,” says the Master (1.8, 9.25). But who is one’s equal?48 This means that there are few relationships within which individuals may exercise a right to disunity on the basis of conscience for the sake of truth. As noted above, the elimination of the dissenting voice of conscience is, in the sociology of the Way, a crowning virtue. It is the gold standard of Confucian sanctification. This subjective aspect of filial cultivation renders lawful disunity elusive.

On Confucius’s model of the sociology of knowledge, therefore, social unity does not naturally stand securely on doctrinal truth but rather on the truth of socio-structural re-enforcement. It may therefore partner clumsily with a confession-borne sociology, or at worst truth may come under the influence of the more quantifiable asymmetries of inter-personal relation. Truth in this latter case will be a matter of social expediency. That which affirms relational asymmetry is true; whatever undermines hierarchy is false. And this pragmatistic redefinition of “truth” indicates an ontological vulnerability in Confucius’s social vision.

3.4. Creator/Creature Ontology

Neo-Calvinists have spoken of the church in terms of organism and institution.49 The organism is the church catholic, the living body of Christ into which sinners are brought or incorporated by the regenerating work of the Spirit of the risen savior. This is all against the background of the inability of the sinner, apart from the regenerating work of the Spirit working by and with Scripture, to confess Christ truly or to do any good at all. The organism of the church is the regenerate people, who apart from regeneration are dead in sin.

The body of Christ is set apart from the fallen race by an act of grace; it is a gift, so that no man can boast (Eph 2:8, 9). The distinction in view is among human beings, relative to the creature’s relation to God. The formation of the body is constituted by a gracious change in status before God (Eph 2:1–10). The point is that this ecclesiology assumes a Creator/creature ontology. The movement from unregenerate to regenerate, or from in Adam to in Christ, is a change in status before God. Without a Creator/creature ontology these categories lose their meaning.

The church institution, on the other hand, is the visible formalization of the organism. Ecclesiastical offices represent distinction in the institution only, not in the organism. There are no degrees of participation in the organism, as to participation in saving grace. The grace of gifting and church leadership is given variously (Rom 12:3–8; 1 Cor 3:1–15; 12; Eph 3:1–8), but these are institutional distinctions which effect no change in status before God. The emphasis here must fall on relationships within the body, wherein teacher and student, parent and child, shepherd and sheep, are equally undeserving but nonetheless belong—fully and equally—by grace to the organism of the body.

One ecclesiological implication of Creator/creature ontology, therefore, is that office entails no exemption from accountability, neither to God nor to fellow image-bearers before God. Elders are protected from slander, but also held to a higher standard of holiness (1 Tim 5:19–20). In terms of organism, all members have equal access to the throne of grace and to the objective authority of God in Scripture. Organism in this sense, because in it there is no distinction before God, has an equalizing effect on the institution. All holders of church office are accountable to God, to whom any member can appeal, and to the Spirit-principle of unity and incorporation, for the handling of their offices. The fact that charges against an elder must have the support of multiple witnesses (1 Tim 5:19) signals the corporate context of the abuse of authority and the corrective ecclesiastical mechanisms. This requirement protects elders from slander and members under their care from intimidation. All in all, Creator/creature ontology prevents abuse of office and, in a word, keeps the church civil.

That Confucius makes no distinction between organism and institution suggests a monistic ontology. In Confucius’s sociology of knowledge, in other words, there is only the human and the human other. The distinctions of status and office among humans are therefore ultimate distinctions, since there is no equalizing accountability to a Creator God, no higher court of appeal. It is difficult therefore to circumscribe and restrain the personal authority of the father-teacher.

Where the father-teacher is doctrinally wayward, the way to the office of appeals is guarded by filiality; and since there is no ontologically higher court, and thus no spiritual essence of corporate unity, there is no other way and no other office. Of course, the objectivity of that body of knowledge held in such high regard by Confucius appears to check the authority of the father-teacher; but it is a weak match for the insurmountable disproportionality of relational asymmetry. Truth has been swallowed up in social function.

Only the gravest paternal transgression could justify a child-student’s appeal to the tradition against his father-teacher. But even in such cases, asymmetry implies that the child-student’s rising against his father-teacher is quite simply a violation of natural order. He cannot win. Should the child-student bring a charge against his father-teacher and fail, he may at the eleventh hour preserve his servant-honor but only through celebrating his own dishonor and publicizing his remorse; he himself must restore the father-teacher’s honor at the price of his own dignity. Notice also that private remorse is a social non-entity and therefore irrelevant. Public self-abasement is all that matters. On the other hand, should he succeed in demonstrating his teacher’s error, the damage will be irreversible. He will have succeeded only in proving himself unworthy because ungrateful, a threat to the ethos of filiality that is essential to social harmony and progress. He is a liability for all. Truth-over-teacher has no currency in Confucius’s sociology of knowledge. Accordingly:

Even though there is the fifth commandment … Christians are commanded to obey parents “in the Lord” … and if the biological parents instigate Christians to any transgression of God’s law, such Christians may justly consider their biological parents not as parents, but as strangers who are attempting to seduce them from obedience to God. In Confucianism, however, this is not possible for the parents, especially the biological father, who cannot be disobeyed in any circumstance.50

Monistic ontology, in other words, may allow the authority of the holder of office to usurp the authority of the teaching itself—in the church, even the Word of God. And if so, Confucius’s sociology of knowledge is likely to prove resistant to the ecclesiological implications of the qualitative authority of a perspicuous and objective Holy Scripture—in particular the ecclesiological equalization of a universal right of appeal and the freedom of every member’s conscience before all but God. Unmistakably, Confucius lays heavy emphasis on study and critical thinking; but sociologically, ecclesiologically, he leans toward unqualified magisterialism, even authoritarianism.

Such effects have been documented. Dong-Choul Kim writes of the Korean church that “Neo-Confucianism” tends to “over-emphasize the authority of the preacher,” leading to “a misunderstanding of authority as a social and not a theological concept.”51 “Authority of the authoritarian type,” in the pulpit in particular, “has its origins rooted deeply in the influence of Neo-Confucianism,” he explains.52 In sum:

As the symbolic head of the religious community the preacher has unlimited power. Those who uphold authoritarianism may exercise authority in a hierarchical, top-down fashion that keeps the congregation dependent and submissive. The authority of a preacher as considered in the hierarchy of Korean society is characterized as patriarchal. In such a situation the challenge is in avoiding becoming authoritarian.53

3.5. Calvin and Confucius on Sin

Finally, Confucius’s doctrine of sin is deficient. The result is that he encounters no need for grace and therefore what he envisions for moral improvement is at important points inadequate.

Calvin described Adamic inheritance in terms of both guilt and corruption.54 He found that Scripture taught a salvation which responded to this state with what he called a duplex gratia Dei, a double grace of God, including both forensic and renovative benefits: God both reckons the sinner righteous and works internal renewal.55 The relevant Pauline language in particular comes across as paradoxical, not only in terms of one’s current status—is one righteous or not?—but also in terms of the justified sinner’s ability either to sin or to do good. We have peace with God, and there is now no condemnation; but not even the apostle Paul himself dares presume that he has already attained it (Rom 5:1; 8:1; Phil 3:12). The same person who has been raised with Christ, and whose life is hidden with Christ in God, Paul commands to seek the things that are above. Richard Gaffin has called this the “‘mysterious math’ of God’s covenant.”56

The Master’s saying that “only the very wise and the very stupid do not change” (Analects 17.3) captures well the complexity of his view of human nature and natural capacity (cf. 16.9, 16.11). His strong denials of innate ability never meet anything like acknowledgement of the need for the grace of subjective restoration and objective reconciliation to the Father administered by the Spirit of the risen Son—a righteousness from God, from without (Rom 3:21–22). Anyone can agree that “by nature people are similar,” and that “they diverge as the result of practice” (17.2). But whatever truth this may convey, it conveys no grace; and this is because it understates the predicament to which grace responds. The Spirit makes sinners, unwilling and unable, both willing and able to obey and glorify God. Confucius appears at times to have grasped the darker secrets of the human condition, but the hope of his program hangs precariously on ambiguity between practiced decorum and the inner state of the image-bearer before God. Confucius’s doctrine of sin stumbles in the darkness; for this reason, his soteriology falls to convey real help. For all the value we find in his social vision, he can offer no lasting hope.

3.6. The Westminster Standards

Chapter 20 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, entitled “Of Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience,” includes a number of relevant insights. Section 1 addresses first of all liberty from guilt, divine wrath, curse, and the dominion of sin and Satan. Section 1 also names that unto which believers are saved, which is “obedience unto him, not out of slavish fear, but a childlike love and willing mind.” The obedience of the child—let us say the son, the student, the citizen, the subordinate—is childlike in its affective mode and motivation. Obedience is not merely willing but loving. And there is a corrective note here as well, distinguishing the obedience of Christian deliverance and regeneration from a worldly subjugation. The former is “not out of slavish fear.” A hint is thus dropped to the effect that obedience out of fear is not loving obedience but self-centered in a particularly pitiable fashion. Even as the subordinate obeys he provokes disdain, since he is a behavioral malformation of himself. It is also worth noting that slavish obedience creates a false notion of liberation. The subjugated son longs not for loving obedience but for no obedience at all. By the self-stifling bitterness of his position he is prevented from imagining a liberation of his soul unto another form of obedience but he longs instead for deliverance unto autonomy. The obedience of slavish fear nourishes sinful pride—and this is precisely the pairing we see in the serpent’s ploy in Genesis 3:1–6. The serpent positions Eve to transgress the authority of God and reject her own filial position by leading her to believe that she was an unwitting slave to a self-interested manipulator.

Section 2 discusses the relationship between conscience and obedience, drawing out implications of the redemptive liberation addressed in section 1. Section 2 provides, in other words, a brief psychology of obedience and the regenerate condition.

“God alone is Lord of the conscience” means that no person sits in judgment over the conscience of another, or that for a person’s sense of himself, in the relational fabric of his self-understanding, he owes an account only to God. So, while the first clause of WCF 20.2 is positive, affirming that God is Lord of the conscience, it also disallows even hidden attitudes of self-importance, in which one person thinks of himself as judge of another. There is a clear boundary of jurisdiction drawn here. No person wields authority over the hidden thoughts, over the self-understanding, of another. I can counsel, teach, encourage, debate, dispute, lead or lead by example, but I cannot govern or judge the conscience of another. This is impossible, but also wrong.

The lordship of God over the conscience is represented by Scripture, so that men and women can hold each other accountable to God’s word, and thus administer divine authority indirectly, but thus far and no further—“not to any doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word.”

Confession 20.2 addresses two relevant aspects of transgression. First, “to believe such doctrines,” those which are contrary to the Word of God, “or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience.” The Confession, in other words, insists upon the integrity of the person in moral conduct and self-understanding. The Confession claims that the breakdown of the person that occurs when conscience is transgressed by will constitutes a transgression of freedom. In other words, freedom is personal wholeness, the integrity of the person, released unto loving obedience to God. To exercise the will against the grain of one’s heart is to act in violation of the regenerative deliverance of Confession 20.1, and so it is to act against the redemptive accomplishment and reign of Christ. Christ has set me free; so when I act against my conscience, I defame the accomplishment of grace.

The Confession goes one step further. In addition to liberty of conscience, “reason also” is defied by “the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute blind obedience.” Sadly, this is precisely the demand that emerges from a Confucian sociological ontology, in which the silencing of the conscience through deferential behavioral conditioning serves as a beacon of moral striving.

Informative for present purposes is also the Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC), questions 123–33, on the fifth commandment. The Larger Catechism in fact devotes more questions to the fifth commandment than to another commandment of the decalogue—ten questions, compared to seven on the fourth commandment.

The scope of the fifth commandment, according to WLC 126, is “the performance of those duties which we mutually owe in our several relations, as inferiors, superiors, or equals.” Two questions, 124 and 125, reflect upon the Scripture’s styling these relations in familial terms. In other words, the Westminster divines took it for granted that Exodus 20:12 was interested in social relationships as such—all of them—and that the Lord saw fit to cast his instruction, with regard to human relationships, in familial terms. The divines understand Scripture to teach that the family is the seed of social, political, and professional life, and that by divine design we ought to extrapolate family relationships for understanding how human society ought to function. The familial character of student-teacher relationships, sovereign-subject relationships, and friendships—to name only a few—is divinely acknowledged, perhaps divinely sanctioned, even designed thus by God. This relational organicism, to put some terminology to it, is also apparent in various places in the New Testament. Paul addresses familial, social, and political conduct together in Ephesians 4–6 and again in Colossians 3. Peter as well, in 1 Peter 2–3, refers to various human institutions (πάσῃ ἀνθρωπίνῃ κτίσει, 2:13), speaking collectively and then sequentially of familial, social, and political life. And indeed, historically speaking, humanity began as a family, and then developed socially and politically. How right the Master was!

This connection between family life and public or social life is explicit in WLC questions 124 and 125. “Father and mother,” reads 124, means “all superiors in age and gifts,” and “especially” those who “by God’s ordinance, are over us in place of authority, whether in family, church, or commonwealth.” “By father and mother are meant,” or ‘intentionally designated,’ in other words, all superiors in human relationships, including, evidently, elder siblings. It is a rich, even ambitious, reading of the fifth commandment to see it not as suggesting the inclusion of various non-familial relationships, nor even as implicating such relationships, but intending by the language of “father and mother” to designate all superiors in all superior-inferior relationships. And the fifth commandment, according to the Westminster divines, wants to say that all superiors are to be as parents to inferiors. Specifically, this means that all superiors are expected, “like natural parents, to express love and tenderness” to inferiors. Reciprocally, the familial language of the fifth commandment is given in order “to work inferiors to greater willingness and cheerfulness in performing their duties to their superiors, as to their parents.”

Questions 127 and 128 address the duties and sins, respectively, of inferiors relative to superiors, and questions 129 and 130 address the duties and sins of superiors relative to inferiors. Relationship dynamics—even honor and shame—are exposited in detail. And for the most part, the words of WLC 127–130 could be ascribed to Confucius himself. He could say the very same things, even believing that his words had the same meaning. But there are, to be sure, indications of deeper differences between the outlook of the divines and that of the ancient Eastern sage.

Inferiors ought, according to question 127, to pray and offer thanksgiving for their superiors, and they ought to bear “with their infirmities … covering them in love.” There is, conspicuously, a deference to God in gratitude for his provision of superiors, even of superiors whose infirmities are apparent. Ideally considered, a good superior, or good parental care and guidance, is a provision from God which enriches the life and labors of the inferior. Again, we hear echoes of New Testament teachings on family and political life. But this mode of gratitude is not tethered exclusively to the ideal superior, to the superior perfectly virtuous and gracious, issuing only lawful, agreeable commands. Rather, the inferior is encouraged to bear with the infirmities of his superior, and that in a specific manner: by covering him in love.

Now, Confucius cannot say that “love covers a multitude of sins,” but only that love can momentarily suppress or briefly ameliorate the guilt, shame, and hurt that sin causes—or even that love simply is a momentary and naively wishful suppression of sin and its ill-effects. What Confucius cannot do is enjoin his disciples to bear with their superiors’ imperfections and cover them with love on the basis of the love of John 3:16 that not poetically but covenantally covered once and for all the sins of the saints. The counsel of the master can only pretend to bear the genuine healing power of the love of the Godman for his friends.

Most theologically conspicuous in the Larger Catechism’s exposition of the mutual duties and offenses of superior and inferior is question 129, on the duties of superiors towards their inferiors—a telling fact in and of itself, where, by contrast, Confucius’s attention is overwhelmingly given to duties of the subordinate. But most conspicuous here is the divine curatorial hand and the implication of religious accountability that runs through every space of the superior-inferior relationship.

Specifically, superiors should carry out their duties “according to that power they receive from God.” This pregnant designation is noteworthy on two counts. First, a superior is a superior by divine appointment. This is of course not exclusive of the normal human paths to leadership or institutional influence—training, experience, networking, and so on. And the fact that divine appointment is not an alternative to these normal circumstances means that Christians may strive and perhaps accomplish but never boast. Conversely, should things not go well—and how rarely they do for most people—likewise those circumstances less encouraging to our limited understanding are also best deferred to divine wisdom and goodness. We neither boast, therefore, nor despair, because the power we wield is granted by God, or not.

Second, the power which superiors wield is that power which is granted by God; that is, the superior’s superiority is circumscribed by divine endorsement. The superior might exercise all kinds of power, but not all of his power enjoys divine approval. God grants to the father the power to guide, build up, encourage, and discipline his children; but not to provoke or exasperate them. But the father is capable of both. A father does have the power, or the capacity, to make the lives of his children miserable, but he does not have the authority to do so because his power is granted by God. If God is the bestowing authority of the power of the superior, than that authority bears the character of God, and legitimate exercise of that authority is restricted to that which pleases or glorifies God.

This is made explicit in the final clauses of 129 in which superiors are enjoined “to procure glory to God” and thereby to procure “honor to themselves.” In the social organism envisioned here, the God of comfort, love, order, and justice is glorified when the superior is duly honored and the inferior duly led. To put it the other way around: the superior is duly honored, and the inferior rightly led, when and only when God is glorified. God being God, when God is glorified, all things for the creature are set rightly in their places. The keeping of the fifth commandment includes “an express promise of long life and prosperity, as far as it shall serve for God’s glory and their own good, to all such as keep this commandment.”

4. Conclusion

Striking similarities between Reformed ecclesiology, Reformed views of tradition and teaching, and Confucius’s own take on knowledge, learning, and relevant personal-corporate dynamics are undeniable, as are resources for mutual edification.

For example, recognition of biblical precedent for Confucian familialism aids discernment. By acknowledging a creation-corruption sequence in the familial sphere, the observer may avoid both contrarian over-reaction, on the one hand, and reactionary tribalism on the other. Such a balance stands to set a healthy tone for efforts in culturally directed theologies.

Reflecting on the foregoing comparison also brings to light differences with regard to tradition as such. The fact that tradition may serve as either a scapegoat or a refuge for improprieties of one kind or another is clear enough; but the ways in which ambiguous deployments of the notion of tradition may take hold vary as cultural valuations of tradition vary. We view learning differently; we view teaching differently; and we have different attitudes toward that which is taught and the people who teach. Awareness of cultural instincts on this count would help us to utilize theological tradition with greater wisdom in a cross-cultural context.

A third benefit is what we might call a point of contact, or evident openness to the gospel. Cultures differ but share both a common origin and impulse, and the suppressive instinct of the sinful condition. When we point out these common principles on a cultural level, it becomes evident that the tension between openness to the gospel and the suppressive instinct is not resolved in full at the point of conversion. Growth in truth and holiness (Eph 4:15) will continue to face not only individual but corporate and cultural resistance. Cross-cultural ministry—and all ministry is cross-cultural, at the end of the day—that is aided by such comparative insights is better equipped for such challenges.

[1] George Harinck, “Calvinism Isn’t the Only Truth: Herman Bavinck’s Impressions of the USA,” in Proceedings of the 11th Biennial Conference of the Association for the Advancement of Dutch American Studies, ed. Larry J. Wagenaar and Robert P. Swierenga (Holland, MI: Joint Archives of Holland, 1998), 156. Not “the only truth,” says Bavinck, but “the only consistent theological view of the world and of humanity.”

[2] See, for example, Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1975), 3–26; and Richard B. Gaffin Jr., Perspectives on Pentecost (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1979), 89–102.

[3] See Herman Ridderbos, Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures, trans. H. de Jongste, ed. Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1988), 15.

[4] Ridderbos, Redemptive History, 15–24.

[5] Ridderbos, Redemptive History, 18.

[6] Ridderbos, Redemptive History, 18.

[7] Gaffin, Perspectives on Pentecost, 90.

[8] Michael Allen, “Reformed Retrieval,” in Theologies of Retrieval: An Exploration and Appraisal, ed. Darren Sarisky (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017), 74.

[9] Stephen R. Holmes, Listening to the Past: The Place of Tradition in Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 6.

[10] Holmes, Listening to the Past, 6–7.

[11] Herman Bavinck, “The Pros and Cons of a Dogmatic System,” trans. Nelson D. Kloosterman, The Bavinck Review 5 (2014): 98.

[12] Bavinck, “The Pros and Cons,” 98.

[13] Bavinck, “The Pros and Cons,” 98, as in WCF 7.5–6.

[14] Bavinck, “The Pros and Cons,” 98.

[15] Kevin Vanhoozer, “Christology in the West: Conversations in Europe and North America,” in Jesus without Borders: Christology in the Majority World, ed. Gene L. Green, Stephen T. Pardue, and K. K. Yeo (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 32.

[16] Vanhoozer, “Christology in the West,” 33.

[17] Paul R. Goldin, Confucianism (Berkeley: University of California, 2011), 1.

[18] Ann-Ping Chin, The Authentic Confucius: A Life of Thought and Politics (New York: Scribner, 2007), 2.

[19] Namely, the Zhou dynasty (1045–771 BC), which represented for Confucius a golden age.

[20] I use Edward Slingerland’s translation of the Analects, in which each of the Master’s sayings is accompanied by Slingerland’s own analysis and selections from traditional commentary. Slingerland says that the primary text of the Analects is basically impenetrable without the aid of this interpretive tradition; acquaintance with the primary text requires incorporation into an interpretive lineage. See “Preface,” in Confucius: Analects: With Selections from Traditional Commentaries, trans. Edward Slingerland (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2003), vii–viii.

[21] A compelling but not undisputed account of ritual in Confucian thought is Herbert Fingarette, Confucius: The Secular as Sacred (Long Grove, IL: Waveland, 1972), ch. 1.

[22] He says, for example, that “the Good person is sparing of speech” (12.3), “reticence is close to Goodness” (13.27), and “people in ancient times were not eager to speak, because they would be ashamed if their actions did not measure up to their words” (4.22), while “a clever tongue and fine appearance are rarely signs of Goodness” (17.17).

[23] Slingerland explains: “The student cannot learn from the teacher unless he is passionately committed to learning, and this requires possessing a genuine love for the Confucian Way. The problem is that it is hard to see how the teacher can engender this sort of love in a student who lacks it.” Analects, 74, commentary on 7.30.

[24] Chin, The Authentic Confucius, 1.

[25] Ching, Confucianism and Christianity, 85.

[26] Ching, Confucianism and Christianity, 96.

[27] Ching, Confucianism and Christianity, 96.

[28] Ching, Confucianism and Christianity, 97.

[29] Ching, Confucianism and Christianity, 97.

[30] Ching, Confucianism and Christianity, 97. Even in contemporary contexts, an age difference of only a few months—all other things being equal (and they rarely are)—is enough to establish a hierarchical relationship. It is worth noting that there is, effectively, no notion of friendship in the Analects.

[31] Ching, Confucianism and Christianity, 97.

[32] Slingerland says that three years is “usually understood as into the third year, or twenty-five months.” Analects, 5, commentary on 1.11.

[33] See Slingerland’s commentary on Analects 2.5.

[34] Analects 13.18, in which Confucius says that filial piety would require a son to hide his father’s illegal conduct from the authorities, would need to be considered as well. The distinguishing factor may be that in this case the father is still living or that the issue here is one of balancing the two relationships of ruler/subject and father/son rather than that of one’s own ritual propriety and pursuit of the Way. Note also Analects 15.36: “The Master said, ‘When it comes to being Good, defer to no one, not even your teacher.’”

[35] Ching, Confucianism and Christianity, 87–89.

[36] Kang, “Confucian Familism,” 174.

[37] Kang, “Confucian Familism,” 182.

[38] William N. Blair and Bruce F. Hunt, The Korean Pentecost and the Sufferings which Followed (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1977), 17–18.

[39] Whether Confucianism is sexist, for example, is a complex question which one dare not oversimplify. Goldin’s view is balanced: “To conclude, then … is Confucianism sexist? If it is, it does not have to be.” Confucianism, 120.

[40] Willem J. Van Asselt, “The Fundamental Meaning of Theology: Archetypal and Ectypal Theology in Seventeenth-Century Reformed Thought,” WTJ 64 (2002): 323.

[41] Vos, Biblical Theology, 8.

[42] Calvin, Commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke—Volume 1, trans. William Pringle, reprint ed. (Grand Rapids: CCEL, 1999), 344, italics original.

[43] See Augustine, Confessions 7.1; and On the Morals of the Catholic Church 62. More often quoted in this regard is Cyprian of Carthage: “He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.” Treatise 1: On the Unity of the Church 6 (ANF 5:423). This is preceded of course by 1 Thessalonians, in which Paul characterizes apostolic ministry as the gentle and affectionate care of a nursing mother for her own children (1 Thess 2:7–8).

[44] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 4.1.4.

[45] Calvin, Institutes 4.1.4.

[46] Holmes, Listening to the Past, 13. Holmes notes that “Calvin relates to Augustine … with charity and respect.” Calvin, says Holmes, usually names Augustine when quoting him approvingly, but often withholds Augustine’s identity when critiquing his views.

[47] Holmes, Listening to the Past, 13.

[48] Confucius’s sayings regarding friendship tend to be pragmatic. He has more a concept of ally than of friend. See for example Analects 12.24, 15.10, 16.4, 16.5.

[49] E.g., Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003–2008), 4:329–32.

[50] Kang, “Confucian Familism,” 178.

[51] Dong-Choul Kim, “‘Authority’ in Korean Presbyterian Preaching: A Practical Theological Investigation,” (PhD diss.; Stellenbosch University, 2014), 24.

[52] Kim, “‘Authority’ in Korean Presbyterian Preaching,” 25.

[53] Kim, “‘Authority’ in Korean Presbyterian Preaching,” 26.

[54] Calvin, Institutes 2.1.5–11. Similarly WCF 6.3.

[55] Calvin, Institutes 3.11.1. Also WCF 11 and 13.

[56] Richard B. Gaffin Jr., By Faith, Not by Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 2006), 73.

Nathan D. Shannon

Nathan Shannon is associate director of global curriculum and assessment as well as adjunct professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, Pennsylvania.

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