Reconstructing Christianity in China: K. H. Ting and the Chinese Church

by Philip L. Wickeri

Wickeri’s biography of Bishop K.H. Ting combines research in Chinese and English, close reading of Ting’s extensive writing, and several personal interviews with Bishop Ting.

Orbis Books, P.O. Box 302, Maryknoll, NY 10545, 2007, 516 pages, $50.00.

Review by Richard R. Cook, associate professor of mission history and global Christianity, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois.

Evangelical readers will find Philip Wickeri’s outstanding study of Bishop K. H. Ting frustrating and rewarding. On the one hand, Wickeri provides groundbreaking insight into the thinking and actions of Bishop Ting (b.1915)—the paramount leader of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) in China for decades. At the same time, for evangelicals, Ting seems to still be an enigma. For instance, while Wickeri resolutely defends Ting as the best possible defender of Christianity, creating “space” for the churches during an impossible era in Chinese history, evangelicals may still suspect that Ting was above all a crafty critic and occasional persecutor of conservative and evangelical Christians. In any case, Wickeri provocatively asserts that Ting was the most significant figure in twentieth-century Chinese church history (p. xxiii).

Wickeri’s biography effectively combines exhaustive research in Chinese and English, close reading of Ting’s extensive writing, and several personal interviews with Bishop Ting. Unfortunately, as Wickeri acknowledges, the government archives are still not fully open and may contain crucial information on Ting and the TSPM. As overseas coordinator of the Amity Foundation in the mid-1980s, Wickeri (currently a professor at San Francisco Theological Seminary) was a colleague of Ting and still is a personal friend.

The book is helpfully divided into three parts, each corresponding to divisions in modern Chinese history and major sections of Ting’s life and ministry. Part One, the “Formation of China, 1915-1951,” discusses Ting’s formative years and early rejection of fundamentalism. Part Two, “Deconstructing Christianity in China, 1951-1976,” covers Ting’s enthusiastic involvement in the founding of the TSPM and in the ultra-leftist political movements of the late 1950s and 1960s. Part Three, “Reconstruction and Renewal of Church and Society, 1977-2006, ” chronicles Ting’s rise to the top leadership of the government-sanctioned TSPM in the late 1970s, his vehement denunciation of his own involvement in earlier ultra-leftist political movements, and moves through his retirement in the 1990s and his continued involvement in church affairs through 2006. For readers who are not specialists in China, Wickeri provides valuable background of each era of modern Chinese history, such as the Cultural Revolution, the political reforms under Deng Xiaoping, and the changes in politics and churches after the Tiananmen Square event in 1989.

Wickeri argues Ting remained faithful, despite the epochal changes rocking China, to a handful of central tenets of his faith and teaching. Wickeri concludes that Ting’s theology was written in response to contemporary issues of church and society and developed around several themes, including: the love of God in Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit inside and outside the Church, the importance of Christian ethics, and human beings as “works in progress” (ban chengpin) who cooperate with God in historical movements for change and renewal (pp. 342-343). His primary commitment throughout his life, according to Wickeri, was not political, but to “run the church well” (p. 306).

Ting was, Wickeri repeats many times, committed to bringing unity to the churches. Yet the language sometimes used by both Ting and Wickeri might lead evangelicals to question Ting’s respect for conservatives and his genuine desire to cooperate with them. For instance, Wickeri seems to define any “fundamentalist” who would not unite with the TSPM as “belligerent” with his scathing comment, “Fissiparous sectarian groups as well as belligerent fundamentalists rejected Ting’s calls for unity” (p. 228).

Bishop Ting was at the center of many of the most pivotal and controversial events involving the Church in China the last several decades, and Wickeri skillfully provides Ting’s insider perspective. For instance, there is discussion of the protest against Ting’s participation at the 1993 installation service of Richard Mouw as president of Fuller Theological Seminary and the well-publicized dismissal in 1999 of the more conservative faculty at Nanjing Union Theological Seminary. The book contains fresh material and tremendous insight into Ting and the churches, but K. H. Ting himself will remain a controversial figure among evangelicals.

Check these titles:
Aikman, David. 2006. Jesus in Beijing. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc. (first paperback edition).

Bays, Daniel H., ed. 1996. Christianity in China: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Kindopp, Jason and Carol Lee Hamrin, eds. 2004. God and Caesar in China: Policy Implications of Church-State Tensions. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.

Lambert, Tony. 2006. China’s Christian Millions: The Costly Revival. London: Monarch Books, (new edition, fully revised and updated).

Lozada, Eriberto P. Jr. 2001. God Aboveground: Catholic Church, Postsocialist State, and Transnational Processes in a Chinese Village. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

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