Thought on Historiography of Chinese Christianity

I feel there will continue to be tension in the study of Chinese Christian history. The scholars of Chinese Christianity have been very generous towards the Three Self Patriot Movement. Like many in the studies of global Christianity, there is a healthy concern for the history of indigenous Christianity. I also sense a slight bias against the contributions of missionaries. I don’t want to create to great a division here, however it appears that the old dialectic posited the missionary as the synthesis between Christianity and Chinese culture. Now, the missionary paradigm seems to be the antithesis, with a new synthesis being sought in studies on global Christianity. The missionary paradigm has valued certain Christian movements among others, and in the case of China, has continued to value the independent, unregistered churches over the official church of the People’s Republic. Daniel Bays states this important point in the final pages of his A New History of Christianity in China (pp. 202-5).

The heroes of a sinological approach to Christian history seem to be those that both tossed off the imperialism of the missionary movement as well as embraced the official state church. Those that opposed the TSPM seem to be cast as either cantankerous or subversive. Those Chinese Christians who embraced a theological stance akin to the missionary are seen as the dogs of imperialism. Perhaps these accusations are not fair, hence, I use the language of appearance. Perhaps I am reading my expectations into history. Still, I think there should be room for extolling the universality of Christian experience, even if the medium for that initially in China was the missionary.

Is there a way forward that transcends a dialectical approach to Christian history? Is balance possible? Would expressing the universality of Christian history be unfair to local particularities? Does narrowing the scope to focus only on the particular distort the true universality of Christianity? In either approach, is there a danger of missing something important about a particular situation? In the case of China, does the history of the unregistered churches, more in line with the continued missionary engagement of the country necessarily conflict with the history of registered churches? How can both be combined into a single history? Can the historian reach the proper horizon for telling such story?

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