Book Review: China's Reforming Churches (editor Bruce Baugus)
Editor: Bruce P. Baugus
Publisher: Reformation Heritage Books
Reading Level: Moderate
“China is now home to more evangelical believers than any other nation, and the church continues to grow and make inroads in every level of Chinese society” (1).
China is both a bustling nation and mystery to the western world; the church in China is no less. In China’s Reforming Churches (henceforth CRC), editor Bruce P. Baugus has compiled a wealth of information and insight for the church in the west. Even more explicitly, CRC is an introduction to the history, present condition and future needs of the Reformed tradition in China.
CRC, a compilation of 11 authors, is presented in four parts: “history” (chapters 1-3), “today” (chapters 4-6), “challenges and opportunities” (chapters 7-10) and “appropriating tradition” (chapters 11-13). Though CRC presents a sweeping and often challenging history of the church in China, the authors retain their Reformed convictions. Those with non-Reformed convictions may find these convictions overwhelming (e.g. elements of chapters 5, 6, 10 & 12).
The early chapters are a torrid of potentially overwhelming information. Starting with Robert Morrison, the first Presbyterian missionary to China, (30) chapter one brings to light many of the early mission movements of the PCUSA and the eventual effects of liberal theology (38-54). The history of Watson Hayes (1857-1944), founder of North China Theological Seminary is a challenging testimony to faithfulness. Hayes died in a concentration camp a faithful servant to God and the Chinese people (71).
In dealing with China today, CRC certainly presents to the western church things that “challenge your preconceived ideas about the church in China on several levels” (96). Quite practically this addresses the four insufficient “narratives” (personifications) westerns typically have of the Chinese church (99-103). Of particular value to the missionary focused west is the reality that the church is neither actively persecuted nor financially needy (99-101). The section ends with two chapters that promote Biblical Presbyterianism as the best option for Chinese house churches (chapters 5 & 6). A valuable discussion with Chinese pastors (chapter 6) exemplifies this in a disjointed form. Luke P. Y. Lu (chapter 5) presents a more clear argument.
The section dealing with the challenges of China is in fact the least valuable in the book. Both the chapter by VanDrunen (chapter 9) and Waters (chapter 10) push the limits of what is directly applicable to the Chinese church. Though VanDrunen makes an effort to practice applicability, neither chapter comes remotely close to deserving a place in CRC. Instead, both chapters dilute the impact of chapters covering the social climate of China (chapter 7) and the perilous relationship of the state church and house-church movement (chapter 8).
In the final section the areas most relevant to China’s future are covered (chapters 11-13). Concerning the publishing of Christian material the history/story is both one of exciting prospects (245) and opportunities disappointingly missed (246-249). The final element is a telling discussion on indigenization and contextualization of the Reformed faith (chapter 13). It is here that the propriety of the Reformed faith in China is challenged as it impresses and occasionally enforces itself upon the Chinese people. These valuable questions of confession and creed are applicable to the Reformed church in China that must be addressed faithfully in accordance with Orthodox Christianity. In some ways CRC does not address this issue while addressing the Westminster Confession’s impact upon Chinese church leaders. At the same time some of these concerns are addressed in a direct manner by the catechism within Appendix A (309-327). At all times the authors maintain that Christianity must be “transcendental and universal” (292), even our cultural norms must be evaluated. Success in this endeavor for the church of China remains to be seen.
In conclusion, CRC is a comprehensive and occasionally overwhelming introduction to the Reformed and Presbyterian churches in China. It communicates the challenges of the Reformed faith in China and the faithfulness God has shown throughout the church’s history. CRC does not adequately address the other strands of Christianity that are also prevailing in China. This is a minor oversight that does not distract significantly from the purpose and intent of CRC or its many authors.
CRC is a refined and helpful volume that is best suited for the classroom, pastors and interested laymen. Those seeking a specialized look at the church of China and the past, present and future roles of the Presbyterian church should look no further than China’s Reforming Churches.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”