Shao Kai Tseng (曾劭愷)September 2022 Hangzhou

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Neo-Calvinism, a theological movement with cultural repercussions that originated in the Netherlands in the latter half of the nineteenth century, boasts of a respectable pedigree in Sinophone Christianity. It began to shape the churches across the Sinophone world in significant ways in the 1970s. The late Jonathan Chao (趙天恩, 1938–2004) popularized an indigenized, ecumenical, and missional form of Reformed theology rooted in his learnings at Westminster Theological Seminar in Philadelphia. He contributed to the founding of a number of institutions and organizations that proved to be highly influential, including China Graduate School of Theology in Hong Kong, China Evangelical Seminary in Taiwan, as well as China Missions International that reshaped the faith of underground churches in China in fundamental ways.

It was also Chao who travelled to Sumatra, Indonesia, to convince Stephen Tong (唐崇榮, b. 1940) to begin offering theological courses for the laity throughout Asia. Eventually, Tong, an autodidact in theology, initiated the Reformed Evangelical Movement that gave rise to a highly creative and evangelistic form of the Reformed faith that began to exert immense influence among churches in mainland China in the 1990s. While his teachings do not always conform to confessional orthodoxy, he and Chao were at any rate the first to popularize a number of key neo-Calvinist ideas, including the cultural mandate, among Sinophone Christians.

The introduction of Reformed theology in general and of neo-Calvinism in particular to Sinophone Christianity was furthered by younger contemporaries of Chao and Tong, including Peter Chow (周功和), Samuel Ling (林慈信), Ken Ang Lee (李健安), Stephen Chan (陳佐人), and the late Wing-Hong Wong (黃穎航), among others. Some of them propagated a narrower version of neo- Calvinism passed down from Cornelius Van Til (1895–1987). Others began to introduce broader and more eclectic forms of neo-Calvinism to Sinophone Christianity.

Neo-Calvinism took root in Protestant house churches in mainland China in the 2000s. A number of intellectual elites in Chengdu converted to Christianity when they became convinced that neo-Calvinism promised to provide the remedies needed to resolve social and cultural crises in the nation. The Rev. Peng Qiang (彭强), for instance, reportedly converted to Christianity upon reading a Chinese translation of Abraham Kuyper’s (1837–1920) Lectures on Calvinism.1 The Rev. Yi Wang (王怡) is most well-known among this group of Christian leaders. Their influence remains in large part at a popular level among Protestant churches in China. The version of neo-Calvinism which they advocate has been for the most part pragmatically tailored to the needs of Chinese churches and society, and their presentations of neo-Calvinist ideas have not always reflected ad fontes endeavors on their part.

Academic interests in neo-Calvinism among mainland Chinese scholars began with the rise of Christian studies as a discipline officially recognized by China’s Ministry of Education following the Open and Reform program. Part and parcel of academic Christian studies in China is the Sino-Christian Theological Movement (漢語神學運動) that began in the 1990s. One major factor that exposed scholars associated with this discipline and movement to neo-Calvinism was the Chinese Studies Program at Regent College, Vancouver. Many leading scholars in the field today studied at Regent as visiting students during their doctoral studies in the 2000s. The impact of neo-Calvinism on these scholars through Regent has been documented in Alexander Chow’s (曹榮錦) fine 2018 study on Chinese public theology.2

The aforementioned influences have all, to various extents and in diverse manners, contributed to the present prominence of academic neo-Calvinism in Sinophone theology. In recent years, there has been an increasing number, though perhaps not yet a plethora, of monographs and academic articles on or related to neo-Calvinism published in Chinese.3 Currently, there is a large cohort of ethnically Chinese doctoral candidates specializing in neo-Calvinism studies across the globe at institutions like Aberdeen, Calvin Seminary, Edinburgh, Oxford, the Free University of Amsterdam, and Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

The present issue of the Journal of Chinese Theology is intended as a sample of the ongoing developments of neo-Calvinism in Sinophone Christianity. The first article is by Leonard Sidharta (戴永富), an American-trained Chinese- Indonesian theologian and philosopher currently teaching at Singapore Bible College. Steeped in analytic philosophy, Sidharta probes into the relationship between theology and philosophy by appealing to the quintessential dogmatician of the neo-Calvinist tradition, Herman Bavinck (1854–1921).

Sidharta demonstrates how Bavinck envisions special and general revelation as two dimensions of one unabridged unity. Special revelation builds itself up on the foundation of general revelation, while general revelation finds the source of its meaning, purposiveness, and progressive character in special revelation. Theology is the study of God as self-disclosed in special revelation, while philosophy is the study of the idea underlying the totality of reality disclosed through general revelation. More simply put, if theology is “the study of God in relation to everything that is not God,” as the late J. I. Packer would have it, then philosophy would be the study of everything that is not God in relation to God. On this view, genuinely Christian philosophy must not disregard special revelation, and yet it should also carefully refrain from transgressing into the realm of theology. The study of special revelation is properly the task of theology, without which philosophy would be meaningless. Meanwhile, theology must be developed on the basis of philosophy, without which all its claims would be unintelligible.

Sidharta’s article lays down prolegomenal principles of foundational import for the subsequent pieces included in the present issue. It lends itself to, inter alia, discussions on the possibility of the developments of Christian theology and Christian philosophy in cultural-linguistic contexts traditionally uninformed by the Christian faith, such as that of China.

The possibility of developing, in contemporary Chinese culture, a Reformed theology that is at once authentically Reformed yet carefully tailored to the Chinese context is precisely the topic that the second article tackles. In this article, internationally acclaimed Bavinck scholar Ximian Xu (徐西面) draws on Kuyper’s insights to explore this possibility.

An erstwhile doctoral student of James Eglinton at Edinburgh, Xu has been instrumental in promoting, in Sinophone Christianity, an ad fontes approach to neo-Calvinist masters like Kuyper and Bavinck, whose images tend to have been distorted by the pragmatic concerns of ethnically Chinese church leaders in the last few decades. Xu’s interesting combination of faithful historical-analytical exegeses of the neo-Calvinist classics with his attempts to contextualize and indigenize the theological and philosophical program in the very spirit of neo-Calvinism is significantly reflected through the work of Latreia Press, which he founded in Edinburgh in 2019. Xu’s dedicated team at Latreia includes budding neo-Calvinist scholars such as Henry Chiong (蔣亨利) and Terence Chu (朱雋皞), doctoral candidates at New College, Edinburgh, under Eglinton’s supervision, as well as Alex Pengxiang Li (李鹏翔), doctoral candidate at Regent’s Park, Oxford. Xu’s article in the present issue of our journal gives the reader a taste of his important and multi-faceted contributions to the ongoing developments of neo-Calvinism in Sinophone Christianity.

The third article, by Ryan McIlhenny, also seeks to establish the relevance of neo-Calvinism in a Chinese context, albeit focusing on the possibility of developing a Christian philosophy in this context. A historian by trade, McIlhenny is well-acknowledged as an author in the fields of theology, philosophy, and education among so-called “Reformational” neo-Calvinists in the Anglophone world. He currently resides and teaches in Shanghai, China, as a pioneer in contemporary liberal arts education.

McIlhenny’s erudition as a philosopher is evident in this article, in which he brings the Reformational philosophy of Herman Dooyeweerd (1894–1977) into dialogue with classical Chinese philosophy. As a note of explanation, the adjective “Reformational” refers to a brand of neo-Calvinism that subscribes to a certain view of philosophy in relation to theology initially advanced by Dooyeweerd and D. H. Th. Vollenhoven (1892–1978). In this sense, neo-Calvinists like, say, Van Til and Alvin Plantinga (b. 1932) are described as “non-Reformational.” One leading Reformational thinker of our day is Albert Wolters, whose proposal of a creation-fall-redemption triad as the backbone of the Christian worldview has exerted significant influence on, say, proponents of non-Reformational apologists like William Edgar, John Frame, and Scott Oliphint.

Well-versed in classical Chinese philosophical texts, McIlhenny demonstrates that according to classical Chinese worldviews, the source and meaning of reality resides within reality itself, rather than in a supreme being qualitatively transcendent to reality. This use of the word “reality” is not to say that God is “unreal,” but rather to stress that the way the totality of creaturely existence is said to be “real” is only analogous to and not univocal with the way God is ultimately real. McIlhenny clarifies that according to the Reformational view, creaturely existence is real only in relation to God, while God remains abidingly real in an immutable way both in himself and in relation to creatures. Despite the fundamental difference between classical Chinese and Reformational philosophies, McIlhenny still points to common grounds for dialogue between them, arguing for the possibility of developing a genuinely Christian philosophy on the external ground of Chinese thought and culture.

The last article of the present issue demonstrates two contrasting receptions of neo-Calvinist dogmatics in relation to modern theology. It recognizes German idealism as Bavinck’s intellectual-historical background, and brings his thought into dialogue with twentieth-century theology of the German-language tradition. Written by Jin Li (李晋) of Calvin Seminary, an influential intellectual figure representing a somewhat dissenting voice among Chinese Reformed Christians, offers this article a comparative analysis of Bavinck and Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928–2014) on the all-important topic of history and revelation. Li relies on the older paradigm of Bavinck interpretation advanced by Jan Veenhof and rejects the newer model developed by Eglinton and Brian Mattson. Positing a “modern” impulse in Bavinck that stands almost at odds with Bavinck’s confessional self, Li arrives at a critical reading of Bavinck’s view of revelation and history. According to this reading, Bavinck, in a manner reminiscent of Hegel, drives too great a wedge between the “spiritual” and “concrete” aspects of the history of revelation. Criticisms from a post-colonial perspective ensue from this reading of Bavinck.

With an overall appreciation of Bavinck’s theology of history, Li suggests that some of Pannenberg’s insights – also problematic as a system – may be critically and eclectically combined with Bavinck’s view to overcome the shortcomings that Li sees in Bavinck. Among these are Pannenberg’s openness to the futurity of God’s activity in history.

Readers like myself might quarrel with Li’s reliance on Veenhof by pointing out that the model initially advanced by Eglinton and Mattson has been significantly developed by younger scholars like Cory Brock, Nathaniel Gray Sutanto, and Ximian Xu to pay due attention to the “modern” dimension of Bavinck’s thought. These recent developments in the literature, I believe, would serve to challenge Li’s criticisms of Bavinck.

Still, this does not diminish the value of Li’s article, which is included in the present issue as the concluding piece, not least because of how it demonstrates a spirit of critical reflection on our theological inheritance in the ongoing developments of Sinophone neo-Calvinism. Many of Li’s concerns in fact resonate with twentieth-century Dutch neo-Calvinists who wrestled with the question of the meaning of history. This was a question that Dooyeweerd began to tackle quite late in his career, but it features prominently in, say, the writings of G. C. Berkouwer (1903–1996). This question was, after all, one central concern that held together the unlikely friendship between Berkouwer and the heterodox Barthian, Hendrikus Berkhof (1914–1995).

Due to its scope, the present issue includes only articles on three of the most influential neo-Calvinist thinkers, namely, Kuyper, Bavinck, and Dooyeweerd. I have to admit that the absence of Van Til is a regrettable lacuna, given the ways he has been so perseveringly followed by so many in ethnically Chinese Christian communities throughout the world. The purpose of the present issue, however, is to give the reader a glimpse of the ongoing developments of academic neo-Calvinism in Sinophone theology, including both studies on neo-Calvinism and neo-Calvinistic scholarship in other areas. These developments are characterized by both diversity and a sense of unity. I can confirm that the authors whose articles appear in the present issue, myself included, are at one accord in the conviction that our commitment to or critical appreciation of neo-Calvinism is not for the sake of neo-Calvinism per se, but for service to Christian theology as a whole in its catholicity, and to the cultural context in which our theology is concretely situated.


Li MA (马丽), Religious Entrepreneurism in China’s Urban House Churches (London: Routledge, 2020), 38. For names and publications in Chinese, I use either simplified or traditional characters depending on factors such as the author’s stated preference, geographical origin, etc.


Alexander CHOW, Chinese Public Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).


Two major manographs from 2022 are Kai YAO [ 姚凯], Denotation and Expression: A Study on Herman Dooyeweerd’s Theory of Sphere Sovereignty [ 指涉与表达:赫尔曼·杜伊维尔领域主权理论研究] (Hong Kong: China Trinity Press, 2022); Zhibin XIE [ 謝志斌], ed., Jincheng LI [ 李錦程] and Yiyang MEI [ 梅意颺], trans., Protestantism and Modernity: Kuyper, Weber, and Troeltsch [ 新教與現代性凱珀、韋伯與特洛爾奇] (Hong Kong: Logos and Pneuma Press, 2022).

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