11th International Seminar: “The Bible and the Sinicization of Christianity in the New Era of China”

The 11th International Seminar was held at Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences as a hybrid event.


SHANGHAI, China – The indigenisation and contextualisation of Christianity in China has been an area of great interest and importance to the Churches in China as well as to the country at large. As China continues to progress, how is the Christian faith to flourish in Chinese soil and take on Chinese characteristics biblically? To explore these and related questions, the 11th International Seminar under the theme “The Bible and the Sinicization of Christianity in the New Era of China” was held on 16-17 Nov 2022 as a hybrid event because of Covid-19 travel restrictions. 

Organised by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (SASS) and its partners including the Protestant Churches in China, with the support of United Bible Societies (UBS) and the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS), the two half-day event featured 16 distinguished speakers including academicians, researchers and Church leaders from China and overseas. 

A record of more than 270 faculty and students from Nanjing Union Theological Seminary, Huadong (East China) Theological Seminary, Shandong Theological Seminary and Jiangsu Theological Seminary also attended online. Other researchers, scholars and staff from partners of SASS attended the event too, with some acting as moderators and respondents to the papers presented.

Opening Addresses: The Historical, Cultural and Contemporary Importance of This Year’s Theme

In her opening speech, Wang Yumei, Vice President of SASS, drew attention to the relevance of this year’s theme in a fast-changing China, highlighting that “the Bible is the sacred text of Christianity, as well as the foundation of Christian doctrines . . . [The] interpretation and application of Christian doctrines in the new era of China call for meaningful and solid study of the Bible.” 

Gracing this event was Mao Yunqi, Deputy Director of the Shanghai Municipal Bureau of Ethnic and Religious Affairs and Director of the Center for the Studies of the Sinicization of Religions in China. Director Mao highlighted how the seminar has been 11 years in its running and has received increasing support from scholars and researchers who have contributed to the discussion on the sinicization of Christianity. He added that “we are especially grateful to our friends from UBS and BFBS.”

Bishop John Chew, Honorary Consultant of UBS China Partnership highlighted some recent articles by Chinese scholars. Addressing the need to go beyond material pursuits and to look deep into the cultural heritage of ancient Chinese civilization, he remarked that these articles are useful in helping us understand the sinicization of religions from the Chinese perspective. He also recommended some works by non-Chinese scholars who showed that Chrisitianty does not stand stagnant in time but rather has been interacting with several civilisations since ancient times.

Professor Yan Kejia, Director of the Institute of Religious Studies, SASS, the main organizer of the event, warmly welcomed and thanked all the participants from China and overseas, namely, Australia, Macedonia, the United Kingdom and Singapore. 

Oldi Morava, Director of the International Mission of the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS), brought warm greetings on behalf of UBS and BFBS. Paying tribute to Robert Morrison, one of the pioneer missionaries to China, he said BFBS continues to share the same warmth and respect for the people of China and has “always been interested in supporting the discussion on the role of Christianity and the Bible in China.” 

Keynote Addresses: Developing a Christianity That Is Contextualised to Chinese Culture and the Times 

This year’s keynote addresses were delivered by Rev Xu Xiaohong, Chairman of the National Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), and Professor Zhang Zhigang, President of the Institute of Religious Culture Studies, Beijing University. 

Rev Xu Xiaohong

Rev Xu Xiaohong said when China launched its reform and open-door policy in 1978, it approved the printing of Bibles for the churches in China and UBS was among the first international organisations to partner with the China Christian Council/TSPM. The national Chinese Protestant Church leader added that churches in China need to “develop a system of theological thought for the Chinese church,” emphasizing that the “sinicization of Christianity is not about transforming Christianity, not about abandoning the traditions of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church and the principles of the Reformation, but to better adapt to Chinese society, to build it on the fertile soil of Chinese culture.”

Professor Zhang Zhigang

Beginning with “the first popularized Bible” from the great Reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546),  Professor Zhang Zhigang shared his insights on the translation and interpretation of sacred religious texts. By borrowing the idea of “圣必因时” (the sacred should be adapted to the times) from Dao’an (312-385), a Buddhist monk and translator, Professor Zhang posited that the translation and interpretation of sacred Scriptures should be done with respect to the languages used by modernday people.

Perspectives from Speakers: A Christianity with Biblical Roots, Chinese Characteristics and Cultural Relevance

Professor Robert Banks

Theologian and writer Robert Banks, former Director and Dean of the Macquarie Christian Studies Institute, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia, presented a paper on “Biblical Clues to Developing a Church with Stronger Chinese Characteristics.” In it, he explored with the audience a thought-provoking question: “Would a more thorough return to biblical patterns not only deepen church life and witness but also open up more ways for Christianity to display a Chinese character?” Professor Banks argued that an important challenge today is to re-appropriate the original biblical views and practices of Christianity in a way that is relevant for the new era of China. 

Canon Revd Dr. Joshva Raja John

Canon Revd Dr. Joshva Raja John, Head of the International Bible Advocacy Centre of BFBS, spoke on “Using Local Stories in Sermons: Learning Indigenisation from Jesus’ Parables.” Using the parable of the Good Samaritan, he led the audience to think about how “culture provided imageries, metaphors, plots and aesthetic aspects to the story.” He focused on how Jesus used the “existing cultural means, methods and approaches to develop a story and engage with his audience.” 

The Future: A Contextualised Christianity for the New Era of China

Participants appreciated the seminar for providing a platform for dialogue and exchange of ideas. Chen Chen, a student from Jiangsu Theological Seminary, found the seminar enlightening. “Through the discussions and dialogues on the sinicization of Christianity by experts at home and abroad, we realised that there is so much more that we can do to contextualise Christianity in China, based on the Scriptures, to various cultural forms, traditions, languages, and even different media.” 

With much thanksgiving, Dr. Bernard Low, Co-Director (Ministry) of UBS China Partnership, said, “This 11th seminar attests to our longstanding friendship and partnership with Professor Yan and SASS which we deeply value. It was encouraging to see the many papers presented and the fruitful discussions on how religions, especially Christianity, could be indigenized and contextualized. We are committed to come alongside the Churches in China to support them as they work on developing a distinctively Chinese Christianity that is at once rooted in Scripture and two-thousand years of Christian tradition and also relevant to Chinese heritage and culture.”

For photos of the Seminar, speakers and participants, see Seminar Photo Album!


Story: Marcus Xiao and Cynthia Oh
Photo: SASS and UBS CP
2022© UBS China Partnership