Confucius for Christians: What an Ancient Chinese Worldview Can Teach Us about Life in Christ

Written by Gregg A. Ten Elshof Reviewed By Baiyu Andrew Song

“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Such was my first impression when I read Gregg Ten Elshof’s recent book. With the secularization of Western society, while many churches in Europe and North America experience decline, eastern religions such as Buddhism have gained extreme popularity in Western culture. Ironically, in East Asia, where religions like Buddhism originated, the church is experiencing growth and revivals, as people flood into the church and seek the God whom once they thought was a foreign deity. Scholars in the West are gradually recognizing the significance of global Christianity, and learning to place the Western church into the mosaic of the catholic church. However, the vital question that needs to be asked is how do we regard the church, culture, and foreign religions in a foreign country like China? Richard Madsen (China and the American Dream [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995]) and Daniel Bays (A New History of Christianity in China [Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011]) point out that one of the major reasons why many North Americans are passionate about the Chinese church is their hope that Communist China will adopt the “American Dream,” and eventually become a “Christian nation.” But if we really want to understand Chinese culture and religion, and thus the way the future of China might unfold, it is vital to understand its framework and context.

Ten Elshof begins by explaining how he as a Western Christian was exposed to Confucianism while on a trip to China and held a conversation with a Chinese churchman who claimed to be both Confucian and Christian. As his interest in Confucianism increased, and after reading Confucian texts like the Analects, Ten Elshof concluded that Confucianism is more “a deep and influential wisdom tradition” (p. 6) than a religion. For Ten Elshof, this book thus “seeks to experiment with reflection on perennial questions of human interest with the teachings of Jesus and Confucius in mind” (p. 6). In other words, this book is about how to live a good life with the ideas of Confucian tradition in the “Way of Jesus”––Christianity, Confucian-style. In the chapters that follow, Ten Elshof explained how Christians can learn from Confucian wisdom in the areas of family, learning, ethics, and ritual. As one who grew up in China and later became a Christian in Canada, I found Ten Elshof’s definition of Confucianism unpersuasive.

Though Ten Elshof has elegantly presented Chinese Confucianism and its texts to his Western readers, his understanding of Confucianism as a wisdom tradition is confusing, problematic, and misleading. For example, sociologist Anna Sun (Confucianism as a World Religion: Contested Histories and Contemporary Realities [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013]) has argued that Confucianism is much more similar to Greek and Roman religions prior to Constantine. In other words, Confucianism is less institutionalized as Christianity or Judaism, as there is no membership or sacraments required for Confucians. Furthermore, Confucianism is neither monotheistic nor monolatrous. Sun observes that it is common for a Confucian to worship Taoist Caishen (“god of wealth”) and Buddha together. Thus, it is syncretic for Ten Elshof to propose the identity of “Confucian Christian.”

Ten Elshof’s view of wisdom and revelation is also problematic. As wisdom relates to dealing with daily human experiences in the world, wisdom necessarily focuses on particular images of human flourishing, and thus expresses certain worldviews. Christians believe all wisdom comes from God, as he reveals his will and himself in two ways: general and special revelation (i.e., through Jesus Christ and the Scripture). Confucian wisdom has to be placed under the former category. It is true that in the Western Protestant tradition, many have neglected the importance of general revelation. The Confucian tradition is one from which people may draw practical application to live an excellent life in this world. However, this does not mean Christians should place general revelation on the same level of special revelation. In Ten Elshof’s book, by valuing Confucian Analects and the Scripture as equal, he fails to distinguish properly general and special revelation.

In chapter two, Ten Elshof’s anthropology also raises questions. Radically different from biblical Christian teaching, the disciples of Confucius (551–479 BC) did not agree on the fundamental nature of humanity; some believed in the innocent nature of humanity, which others rejected. It appears that Confucians later adopted Mencius’ (372–289 BC) view of the innate goodness of the individual. It seems that Ten Elshof has adopted an optimistic anthropology, and such a view affects his view of the family and filial piety. He explains that as for Confucians, “a human person just is a being in-relationship” (p. 12, emphasis original). Family becomes then “the primary venue for growth into the full expression of being human” (p. 13). Such is the reason why filial pity is vital for Confucian worldview. As Ten Elshof states, “God is not your father. Your dad is your father” (p. 26). Thus he urges Christians ought to practice filial submission, since it “will make you a better Christian” (p. 28). Elshof’s view prioritizes the horizontal relationship over the vertical relationship, which exacerbates the problem of hyper-individualism in churches today. On the other hand, many East Asians who have been converted in North America are deeply committed to the church. The reason is not because they have abandoned their cultural view of individual families; rather, they understand that they are sojourners, and the church is their family, and community.

Ten Elshof’s Confucian anthropology runs through later chapters as well. As he argues on issues relating to learning, ethics, and ritual, Ten Elshof’s own view has radically left behind an orthodox biblical view on humanity, salvation, and even virtue. For instance, in his chapter on learning, after presenting a Confucian perspective on this, Ten Elshof expounds on the biblical narrative of creation and fall. He asserts that Adam was “designed to be relatively impotent, submissive, dependent, unknowing––to be the follower” (p. 34). But after the fall “our obsession with knowledge has blinded us to the beauty of unknowing, impotence, submission, and dependence” (p. 34). And yet for Ten Elshof, it is possible to “find our way back” by simply “reflecting on the Confucian emphasis on the love of learning” (p. 35). Although Ten Elshof does not discuss imago Dei, readers might misunderstand him to imply that learning can restore imago Dei.

With regard to ethics, Ten Elshof’s Jesus is also quite different from the biblical portrait. Ten Elshof portrays Jesus as merely a man whose work was to make people follow his way to distinguish justice and love. Furthermore, Ten Elshof praises Confucian ethics as it “might help us out of the attempt to extract a collection of moral principles or rules for governing behavior in any and all circumstances from the teachings of Jesus” (pp. 63–64). “It frees us,” he adds.

Although I disagree with Ten Elshof’s optimistic view of Confucianism, I deeply appreciated his brief introduction of an Eastern tradition to this reader. The Apostle Paul wrote that believers are to remember “all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Cor 1:2). It is helpful for the Western churches to know more about the political, cultural, and religious contexts of the East, that we may understand and bear our brothers’ and sisters’ burdens in the East. We must be contended “for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

Baiyu Andrew Song

Baiyu Andrew Song
The Andrew Fuller Centre for Baptist Studies
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

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