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【Acad-Views】Three Fundamental Perspectives of Building up a Biblical Discipline in Chinese Intellectual Life

To discourse about the Bible and its theological thought world in the public intellectual life in China, where the secular policy of so-called “a separation of religions and education” be practiced strictly, is a delicate and subtle task to fulfill. Presenting the Bible as a cultural carrier would be of help in the public intellectual dialogue, as China used to be proud of its multi-cultural heritage. From the perspective of Christian faith, the Bible is the Word of God spoken in human languages; yet from the perspective of civilization, the Bible has carried Western civilization for thousands of years. The Bible is not only the crystallization of Judeo-Christian cultural tradition, but also determines the basic pattern and direction of it. Up to the present, the Bible, this great work of human civilization has been circulated so widely in China, and therefore its encounter with Chinese civilization, which also possesses a so-called “five-thousand-year history”, has a profound cultural significance. This paper is to investigate the three perspectives to present the Bible to the public intellectual life in China, and in this process, the possibility and methodology of building up the discipline of studying and interpreting the Bible with the language and resources of Chinese culture, namely, Christian Scriptural Studies in China.


1. Reading the Bible in China as an Intercultural Dialogue between the Eastern and Western “two-river” Original Civilizations


The Bible is the sacred scriptures of Christianity, which is generally thought to be a new faith born in Palestine around first century AD. After being conceived on the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea, Christianity entered the Roman Empire to develop, and it became the official religion of the Roman Empire after being persecuted for about three hundred years. At the end of the 4th century, it then became the Roman state religion. With the invasion of the barbarians from northern Europe, Christianity became a backbone of the European civilization by nurturing the barbarians spiritually and culturally. During these centuries, Christianity and Greco-Roman civilization were continuously integrated, thus completing the deep integration of Christianity and European culture, forging a profound, comprehensive and complex medieval civilization. In the age of Great Discovery and the Exploration of the New World, Christianity expands globally as the European cultures had spread worldwide. Since then, Christianity has become a significant world religion. Today, it is the largest religion in the world, and the Bible is the most widely translated and circulated religious scriptures.

This general understanding, however, has not fully grasped the cultural foundation of Christianity. As an institutionalized religion, Christianity has a history of more than two thousand years since Jesus Christ and his disciples established the church. Nevertheless, as a civilizational tradition, we need to trace back to its cultural origin. Only then can the cultural and historical significance of the Bible be better revealed to the public intellectual discourse in China. With this new perspective, the significance of Chinese Biblical discipline1 to the religious dialogue of world civilizations would be fully appreciated.

About two thirds of the Bible is the Old Testament, which is the Hebrew Scriptures before the emergence of Christianity. When Jesus and his disciples preached the gospel, the Bible they praised with their lips and memorized by heart was actually the Hebrew Scriptures. This book, which records the history of the Jewish nation for nearly two thousand years before Christianity, carries the civilization of the Hebrew people and even the essential elements of the Ancient Near East cultures, and it is the cultural foundation and spiritual origin of Christianity.

With the Old Testament as the cultural and spiritual origin of Christianity, Christianity as a cultural system could extend to five thousand years in its historical horizon. According to the general way of dividing history into periods, the civilization in the Old Testament can be compared with Chinese civilization2. According to the basic Biblical chronology, the ancestors of the Israelites: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, etc., lived in the 21st century BC to the 17th century BC. Roughly in this period, Chinese civilization started its first family-state of Xia dynasty, through Qi, Son of Yu who was regarded as the Sage-King and one of the founding fathers of Chinese civilization. It was around the 16th to 13/1th centuries BC when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, established the Sinai covenant, and started to occupy Canaan. In the Chinese side, the Shang dynasty was founded around the 16th century BC, so they could be regarded as being in the same period. In the 11th century BC, the ancient Israelites entered the period of the United Kingdom of David-Solomon as well as into the political, religious and cultural peaks of ancient Israel’s history. At about the end of the same century, Sage-King Wu of Zhou Dynasty gained China’s sovereignty, establishing the Zhou Dynasty, and Chinese civilization entered the foundation period. The Kingdom of Israel, nevertheless, in the middle of the world empires in the Ancient Near East, did not maintain a long-term political independence. In the 8th century BC, the northern Kingdom was conquered by the Assyrian Empire, and the Kingdom of Judah was destroyed by the Babylonian Empire in the 6th century BC. This period was the Spring and Autumn Period in China, a period of turbulence and integration. Although one was located in the east and the other in the west of Asia, during this same period, the prophets of Israel developed a profound monotheistic belief, which established the basic form of Semitic religion; while in China, the philosophers of the Spring and Autumn Period also founded various schools of thoughts, thus entering the golden period of Chinese civilization. Approximately in the 6th and 5th centuries BC, Confucius (551-479 BC) compiled the Six Scriptures, establishing the cultural foundation widely recognized by Confucianism and even most other schools. During the same period in Israel’s history, the scribe Ezra returned to Jerusalem with the support of the Persian dynasty and brought the books of the Mosaic Law with him. Based on the original form of the Pentateuch, the Judaism in the Second Temple was reorganized. Since then the Old Testament gains its basic structure.

Therefore, in the dialogue with Chinese civilization, the five-thousand-year or even longer historical heritage of the Bible will shed a new light on our understanding of its cultural nature. Furthermore, the Old Testament is not only the result of the civilization of the Israelites, it is also a collection of the writings from the entire Ancient Near East. From the history of the Israelites recorded in the Old Testament, we can see that the ancient Israelites were not a nation that was confined to a certain geographic space. Abraham’s hometown Ur is in the lower part of the Mesopotamia. His grandson Jacob led the entire family into Egypt, where Israelites lived for nearly four hundred years according to the Bible. The Canaan area where they later lived was located at the intersection of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and Asia Minor. In the shaping period of the Israelite civilization, the northern Kingdom was annexed by the Assyrian Empire in the upper Mesopotamia while the south Kingdom of Judah was annexed by the Babylonian Empire in the lower Mesopotamia. During the exile in Babylon, the Hebrew canon began to be formulated and organized; under the governance of the Persian Empire, the scribes represented by Ezra established the basic form of Judaism in the Second Temple with the Pentateuch as the core. From the perspective of civilization history, the Israelites have always been moving around in the fertile crescent area, the cradle of ancient civilizations. With the deep learning from other ancient civilizations, the Israelites finally established their own scripture and civilization system.

This unsettled state is a disaster for a nation’s political identity, but it is a blessing for the ancient Israelite civilization. The religion and culture of the Israelites were formed on the basis of the integration of various ancient civilizations in the Mesopotamia. In the Old Testament, many elements of the ancient Mesopotamia civilization have been preserved, and after being integrated by the Israelites, they have become part of the Judeo-Christian culture. Several core contents of the Bible, such as the world originating from God’s creation, flood mythology, the legal system in the form of God’s commandments, the covenant relationship between human being and God, and the ethical wisdom of life and etc., can find their corresponding elements in the recent excavations of Mesopotamia civilization. In this regard, the Old Testament can be called a part of the ancient Mesopotamia civilization, and it is actually the greatest collection and the living cultural tradition as it is believed and practiced by its adherents in the Judeo-Christian religions. Through the institutionalization of Christianity with the Bible as its foundational Scriptures, there is no break in the civilizational line in the West that has passed down from the ancient Mesopotamia and Israelites.

From this perspective, the study and interpretation of the Bible in Chinese cultural context is of great significance in the history of world civilizations. If we classify the world civilizations by river systems, the most original and influential civilizations are the Mesopotamia Civilization, the Nile Civilization, the Indus Civilization and the Yellow River and Yangtze River Civilization3. Among them, both the Egyptian civilization and the Indus civilization were influenced by the Mesopotamia civilization during their formation. Therefore, the world civilization can actually be briefly divided into the Mesopotamia civilization in West Asia and the Yellow-Yangtze River civilization in East Asia. According to the summary of the archaeologist Mr. Yan Wenming (严文明), from the perspective of the entire history of human civilization development, the most important civilizations are these two: Western civilization developed on the basis of the two rivers of Mesopotamia (Western Asia) and Chinese civilization developed on the basis of the two rivers in Eastern Asia4.

Therefore, the translation and spread of Chinese Bible, and the Chinese indigenization of Christianity as a result, could be presented, in the public intellectual life, as a dialogue between the two most important and ancient poles in the history of human civilization, or it can be called a dialogue between the Eastern and Western “two-river” Civilizations, with each “five-thousand-year” or even longer histories of them. The translation, dissemination, and interpretation of Chinese Bible are not only important contents of the indigenization of Christianity, but also have important fundamental significance in promoting mutual learning and dialogue among civilizations in the world, and even in building a community with a shared future for mankind.


2. Building Chinese Biblical Discipline by Drawing Resources from Chinese Scriptural Traditions


To strengthen the interaction between theological study and the Biblical discipline, as well as to enhance the ability of Christianity to respond to the intellectual problems in Chinese context, a unique advantage of Chinese Biblical discipline lies in its access to the rich resources from Chinese scriptural traditions. In other words, by absorbing the nourishment of traditional Chinese understanding of Scripture and its reading strategy, the ability of Chinese Christianity to face the challenges from various modern trends of thought and other religions in the public intellectual life could be improved. In this way, Chinese Biblical discipline have two resources of intellectual inspirations, namely, one is from Christian tradition itself, and the other is from Chinese culture.

To illustrate this view in more detail, we can take Zhu Xi’s scriptural thoughts as an example to look at the construction of Chinese Biblical discipline with double intellectual resources. In other words, the Confucian scriptural understanding represented by Zhu Xi (1130-1200), who was the representative figure of Neo-Confucianism in reviving Confucian values when being challenged by Daoism and Buddhism, especially the principles he explained in the book Method of Reading Confucian Scriptures5, including the definition of the scriptures (or Sacred Texts), the purpose of reading the scriptures, the methods of reading the scriptures, etc., can help contemporary Chinese Christians to build a scripture-respecting, virtue-forming, and sincerely-listening Biblical discipline6.

When defining the nature of scripture (jing or shu), Zhu Xi had a strong awareness of “the sacredness” of the scriptural books. He said, “The Six Scriptures are books older than Zhou Dynasty. They were written by sages and full of the heavenly principles.” He added, “The sages had thousands of words, but they just said one principle. They were afraid that others would not know it, so then they wrote it down.” (Reading Method volume II) In the view of Confucianism, the authors of the scriptures are collectively called sages (representatives of the ideal personality of Confucianism), and the scriptures are the results of their experience with the heavenly principle. Following this line, Zhu Xi argued for the sacredness of the Confucian books from two aspects: first, it was written by sages; second, the content of the book is a collection of the heavenly principle or Dao. 

First, the Confucian understanding of “scripture” can enrich Chinese Christians’ view of the Bible and deepen their understanding of the relationship between texts, authors (either prophets or apostles) and the Holy Spirit, thereby developing a “hermeneutics of reverence” in the post-critical era in Biblical discipline. For Christianity, the Bible is regarded as “Word of God”. However, through literary, historical and sociological research, modern critical studies believe that the text of the Bible is actually the work of different groups or individuals, and it is their response and expression of their cultural and social experience. However, acknowledging that the authors of the Bible are people in specific circumstances does not entitle contemporary interpreters to lose their respect for the Bible, according to Zhu Xi. He upheld that the sages, the ideal persons, were the authors and the books were the manifestation of heavenly principle, in order to ensure that people treat the scriptures with the respect the texts deserve, which may help Chinese Christians to hold on to the “hermeneutics of reverence” when reading the Scriptures, even after going through biblical criticism that reverts the biblical authors from prophets or apostles to people in real social and cultural situations.

Secondly, as to the question why we should read the Bible, Chinese Biblical discipline can also be inspired by Confucianism. Zhu Xi believed that the purpose of reading the scriptures was to “encounter all the truth”. He said, “The first way to learn is to encounter all the truth, the key of which lies in reading. The most valuable method of reading is to read in order and to achieve excellence. The basic attitude to achieve excellence is being respectful and aspiring. This is an unchangeable principle.” According to this view on Confucian scriptures, to read the texts as the embodiments of heavenly principle far surpasses to study them as historical literature. Reading the scriptures is to meet the “heavenly principle” contained in the books. It is not to “read in” but to “read out”; it is a desire to encounter heavenly principle in the books. For example, what is the significance for the readers in reading the scriptures? Zhu Xi said, “You must know the purpose of studying, reading, getting knowledge, and all the practices of rituals and music, filial piety for parents and obedience to brothers, which is to find the lost heart. It is also what Sage Mencius meant. Those who are studying are all trying to recover the lost heart.” (A Collection of Conversations of Master Zhu, Volume 59) In his view, the purpose of reading the scriptures is to “recover the lost heart”. Reading the scriptures is a kind of mental and physical therapy to heal and to govern sick heart by “heavenly principle”, namely, it is also for the shaping of an ideal personality. It can be seen that the Confucian tradition made use of the medical metaphor, in which the reader is the patient and the book is the medicine. Just as in traditional Christianity, the readers are called sinners, and they experience the redemption and healing of the Holy Spirit through reading the Scriptures. Therefore, in the Confucian tradition, the purpose of reading the scriptures is neither to increase knowledge, nor to read the opinions or interests of a certain group into the texts, but to “settle down the life” (安身立命) and “change the temperament” (变化气质) of the readers. Rooted in such a cultural soil, Chinese Christianity can develop Christian Scripture reading activities aimed at changing temperament and renewing life. Bible reading is not only an intellectual activity, but also a life cultivation, moral improvement and spiritual practice.

Finally, as to the question “how to read the scriptures”, Confucianism can also provide direct cultural resources for Biblical discipline in China. Zhu Xi proposed three principles for reading the scriptures. The first principle is “humility”. Zhu Xi believed that the readers should not first establish their own reading subjectivity, but should first seek the meaning of the text itself. He said, “Anyone who reads a book must be a humble reader. Don’t make your opinion first. Read a section till its end, and then read another section. You must be like a jury, first listen to all the presentations, and then you can make a decision.” (Reading Method volume II) He claims: “Reading a book a hundred times, then its meaning comes out naturally”; in modern hermeneutic term, this is “the hermeneutics of suspension”. To integrate the Confucian scriptural reading strategy into Chinese Biblical interpretation, the Chinese readers are required to maintain a basic attitude of humility and emptying themselves and waiting for the meaning of the texts to appear when they read the Bible. In other words, it is to recognize the textual reality of the Scriptures.

The second principle is “to practice unto yourself”, that is, applying the meaning of Confucian scriptures to the reader. To make the text really work on the readers, humility and practice are two inseparable aspects of reading. Zhu said: “Reading must be done with humility and be practiced unto yourself. Only by humility can you gain the meaning of the Sages, and only by practicing can you know the words of the sages are not false.” (Reading Method volume II) One should apply the gains from reading to one’s own life cultivation; and true knowing is the truth in practice. As Zhu Xi said, “If you have always paid attention to the books without ever practicing in your own life and unto yourself, it is not helpful at all. For example, there are benevolence, righteousness, proper rite and wisdom. But how do you recognize your own benevolence, righteousness, proper rite and wisdom? It must be recognized by your own practice unto yourself.” (Reading Method volume II)

The third principle is “union between the human and the text”. The readers’ mind should be in harmony with that of the Sages’, and practice the heavenly principle unto themselves. Zhu Xi once said, “Reading is to experience the mind of sages with the mind of one’s own. If you are familiar with it, then your mind will turn out to be the mind of sages.’ (A Collection of Conversations of Master Zhu, Volume 120) In his metaphorical exposition of scriptural reading, Zhu Xi even used “burial” as a metaphor for the union between the reader and the Scripture. He said, “Readers should bury themselves in the Scripture, focusing on it while walking, stopping, sitting and sleeping, and vow to know it thoroughly. He doesn’t care about what’s going on outside, but just concentrate on the book, then you can say he is good at reading.” (A Collection of Conversations of Master Zhu, Volume 116)

In short, taking Zhu Xi’s theory and practice of scripture reading as an example, we can see the particular inspiration of Chinese indigenous scriptural traditions to Chinese Biblical discipline, especially in the public intellectual life of intercultural learning. The three basic questions of “What is the scripture”, “why to read the scripture”, and “how to read the scripture” are always issues people would face when reading the scriptures, and they will also challenge Chinese Christians when they are to read the Bible. The Confucianists represented by Zhu Xi have developed a set of rich and profound responses to these questions, which could be of great benefit to the development of Chinese Biblical discipline. The scriptural reading principles of humility, practicing, and union put forward by Confucianism represented by Zhu Xi, should be an important cultural resource for Chinese Christianity to draw upon in building a Chinese Biblical discipline, especially in the public area of Chinese and Western dialogue.


3. Constructing Chinese Biblical Discipline within An Overall Framework of Chinese Theology


In the overall background of Chinese culture, it is necessary to develop the Biblical studies into “a Christian Scriptural discipline” in the multi-cultural context of China. In Chinese context, the term “scriptural studies” has profound ideological and cultural connotations. In ancient China, the scriptural studies, including the exegesis or commentary of the scriptures, was the main body of intellectual activities. In pre-Qin period (221-207 BC), scriptural studies originally referred to the various schools, but with the rejection of other schools of thought and the commendation of “Six Confucian Scriptures” in Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD), along with the formation of the unified structure in China, scriptural studies almost became the dominating ideology of whole Chinese intellectuals. Along with the changes in China’s political and cultural system, the Confucian scriptural studies and the ideology derived from the Confucian scriptures played the role of intellectual authority on the one hand, while on the other hand, scriptural studies had played a great role in cultural integration and was the cultural source for ancient Chinese thoughts, liturgy and ethics.

The fundamental significance of Confucianism in Chinese intellectual system has inspired other Chinese religions, whether native Taoism, or foreign Buddhism and Islam, to use the word “jing” (scripture) to refer to their sacred texts and developed their own systems of scriptural studies. The most notable example is Chinese Buddhist “Thirteen Scriptures of Buddhism” compiled according to the number of Confucian scriptures in the Qing Dynasty (17-20th century). Interestingly, the term of “Holy Scripture” applies only to Christian Bible in the modern Bible translations, while Confucian scriptures are named only as “scripture”, Buddhist and Daoist scriptures are named with their particular religious titles as “Buddhist Scripture” or “Daoist Scripture”. In this sense, to name “Biblical discipline” in international academia as “圣经学” (Sheng Jing Xue, literally, the Studies of Holy Scripture), namely, the discipline of the Holy Scripture, would imply that Christian Scripture could be studied in parallel with Chinese Confucian scriptures and other religious scriptures in the context of indigenization of Christianity.

Therefore, in order to develop Chinese Biblical discipline, one should focus on the internal relationship between the Bible and Judeo-Christian traditions. Although the specific texts are the starting point of biblical studies, Chinese Biblical discipline should pay more attention to the close and internal connection between these texts and faith groups (the Israelites in the Old Testament and the Church in the New Testament). These texts are inseparable from the traditions shaped by these faith groups in their beliefs and lives. The meaning of the Biblical texts cannot be obtained through textual and literary research in isolation. Its meaning is accumulated and enriched by the faith groups during thousands of years. To be more precise, Biblical studies in the Chinese multi-religious context should study not only texts, but also the “texts in tradition” and “texts in faith community”.

From the perspective of inter-religious dialogue, in order to uphold Christian particularism in the multi-religious context, Chinese Biblical discipline need to emphasize the Scripture and its foundational significance for the general theology. The theology here does not refer to merely an intellectual system of reflecting the faith, but a holistic life of knowing and doing, theological argument and spiritual formation. Unlike other literary works, the Bible, as the Christian Scripture, constitutes the foundation of a cultural system, which permeates in various aspects of the spirituality and social life of faith groups. In other words, the meaning of the biblical texts is formed in their interaction with Christian dogmatics, liturgy, ethics and spirituality of the faith community. Biblical texts often constitute the foundation or summary of the theological thoughts of the faith community, as Scriptural interpretation and theological reasoning shed light upon each other. As a matter of fact, the history of Christian thought shows that the emergence of a theological school or trend can often be attributed to the creative interpretation of one or more key verses, or to the reinterpretation of some key books in the Bible. The Bible is not the work of one person or several people, nor was it written on the desk, but it is read and explained in the worship and liturgical life of the faith community. The meaning of these scriptures is revealed in the time and space constructed by the worship community. Biblical studies, therefore, need to pay attention to the dimension of liturgy as it is impossible to establish a comprehensive discipline of Christian Scriptural Studies without the worship practice of faith groups. Biblical discipline in the public intellectual life in China could then build up its three-dimensional Christian Scriptural identity, and in this sense, it could fit in the saying that “Scripture, the soul of theology” (ideoque Sacrae Paginae studium sit veluti anima Sacrae Theologiae, the study of the sacred passage is, as it were, the soul of sacred theology.)

Therefore, placing the Christian scriptural studies within the overall framework of Christian theology may be helpful for the developing of an in-depth, challenging inter-religious dialogue with other religions in the public life, as well as contributing to the creative transformation and an innovative development of a Chinese Christian theology. When facing the complexity and profoundness of other Chinese religions or cultures, Christian Biblical scholarship should not be confined to only a corner, or piecemeal of its intellectual truth, but rather be presented as a comprehensive theological and cultural system that integrates Christian knowing and practicing, theology and spirituality, the individual and the communal. This holistic system, according to the long-standing Christian tradition, includes four branches of believing (dogmatics), celebrating (liturgy), living (ethics), and praying (spirituality). Correspondingly, we can also find similar disciplines in Chinese traditional intellectual system, that is the Study of Principles (理学), the Study of Liturgy (礼学), the Study of Ethics (伦理学), and the Study of Spirituality (心学). When they are combined with the Christian tradition, they would become Christian Study of Principles (基督教教理学), Christian Study of Liturgy (基督教礼仪学), Christian Study of Ethics (基督教伦理学), and Christian Study of Spirituality (基督教心性学). Being integrated together, a Chinese indigenous as well as ecumenically oriented system of theology could be developed. When Chinese Biblical Studies is oriented towards the construction of these disciplines, it could be integrated with them. That is to say, when the translation, research and commentary of the Bible in China could be integrated with theological construction, liturgical renewal, ethical engagement, and spiritual formation of the Christian faith community, then the meaning of the Bible as the Word of God could truly be revealed and extended into the public intellectual life. With this perspective of being engaged in the public life and being integrated holistically within such an intellectual framework of Chinese theology, Chinese Biblical discipline (中国圣经学) could be established and truly articulate its particularity in the context of multi-religions and the pluralistic scriptural traditions in contemporary China.


1. The author prefers the term of Biblical discipline to the Biblical studies, though the former certainly overlaps with the latter, for the reason, see You Bin, “Building a Discipline of the Bible with a Chinese Contextual Awareness”, in Yearbook of Chinese Theology, eds. Paulos Huang and Bin You, Brill, 2021. pp. 33-46.

2. The Biblical chronology is full of controversy and the same as the Chinese ancient chronology is. The comparison here is not for the historical accuracy, but just provide a parallel framework for both the Chinese and Biblical history. For the Chinese chronology, see Wang Yuzhe (王玉哲), China’s Ancient History(《中华远古史》), Shanghai: Shanghai People’s Press, 2019.

3. See Hans Kung and Julia Ching, Christianity and Chinese Religions, London: SCM Press, 1993, p. 10.

4. Yan Wenming, Selections on the Origin of Cultures (Beijing: Capital Normal University, 2017), See also Xu Hong, The Earliest China (《最早的中国》), Beijing, Science Press, 2009, pp. 20-29.

5. Qian Mu (钱穆, 1895-1990), had collected the Sage Zhu’s comments on scripture reading in Sayings of Sage Zhu and Collection of Sage Zhu’s Writings, and edited them into a three-volume book of Sage Zhu on Scripture Reading Strategy in Xue Yue (《学龠》), Beijing, Jiuzhou Press (九州出版社), 2010.

6. See You Bin, “Comparative Scriptural Studies as an Approach of Doing Biblical Studies in China: Taking Zhu Xi’s Scripture Reading Strategy as a Case Study”, Gregorianum (Rome, Italy), 92, 4 (2011), pp. 665-686.

This article was written by You Bin, professor of Christianity, Academy of Religions, Minzu University of China, and translated by Mrs. Wang Biyan from Guangdong Union Theological Seminary.


The views presented are that of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the website.