What We Can Learn from the Early Jesuits in China

Reflections on The Visitor: Andrew Palmeiro and the Jesuits in Asia, by Liam Matthew Brockey. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014.

Modern Protestant evangelical Christians who care about the growth of God’s kingdom in China will find much food for thought in the career of Andrew Palmeiro and the early Jesuits in China. (For a review of the book, go to www.globalchinacenter.org; for a short biography of Andrew Palmeiro, visit www.bdcconline.net.)

Here are a few possible lessons:

Preparation pays off.

The Jesuits spent years preparing all their men, including those destined for overseas missionary work. The years of education in grammar, rhetoric, Classical literature, philosophy, the Bible, and theology enabled them to interact with educated pagans as well as to spread their version of the Christian faith.

This rigorous academic curriculum was matched by equally strict training in personal piety. Potential brothers were taught to pray, to participate in regular religious exercises, and to practice self-denial. Later, on the field, they impressed locals with their self-discipline and religious seriousness.

Upon arrival on the mission field, Jesuits spent several more years learning the language, history, culture, and etiquette of their new home. In China, they became famous for their ability to speak, read, and write Chinese, and for their knowledge of the Confucian classics, which formed the basis of Chinese culture. They adopted Chinese dress and conformed to Chinese customs as much as possible, thus winning their way into elite Chinese circles.

Personal piety is essential for missionaries.

As noted above, the Jesuits stressed private devotional life in their educational system. This emphasis persisted overseas. Personal prayer, Bible reading, fasting, and simple living sharpened their focus on God and on their mission, and helped to curb self-indulgence and worldliness.

J. Hudson Taylor and other effective missionaries in China also insisted that without a close walk with God, Christian workers in China could not expect to bear lasting spiritual fruit. How about us?

Hard work, patience under suffering, and perseverance will reap benefits.

Jesuits were expected to labor on for years, endure hardship, privation, and even suffering, and spend their lives in China. Once they arrived in the Middle Kingdom, they never looked back. Decades of such faithful service resulted in solid friendships, well-earned respect, knowledge of the Chinese whom they served, and enduring results.

Our modern penchant for short-term service may hold some value, but there is no substitute for a lifetime of ministry among Chinese.

Mixing the gospel with anything else will result in a weak and compromised church.

With their commitment to the great synthesis of Greek philosophy and Christian theology that Thomas Aquinas achieved, some of the Jesuits preached a message that lacked a clear focus. To Jesus they added science and mathematics. They incorporated Confucian teachings into their gospel presentations and even into their teaching of Christians. Their education in philosophy led to a willingness to merge Confucian and Christian teachings and to blur some of the fundamental differences between biblical and non-biblical thought. They stressed the similarities between Confucianism and Christianity so much that seekers and converts alike were allowed to become, in some ways, as much Confucian as they were Christian.

As Andre Palmeiro observed, the great effort that some Jesuits put into accommodating Chinese culture did not pay off in very many converts, and too many of those converts had one foot in the Church and one foot in the culture.

We can see something similar in the history of Protestant missions in China. Those who preached a biblical message centered on Christ and his cross sowed seeds that led eventually to the conversion of tens of millions of Chinese, including countless intellectuals. We don’t need to compromise in order to convert people to Christ!

A close connection with politics will lead either to a compromised church or to rejection.

As in Europe and around the world, the Jesuits sought to reach the highest authorities in China, even the emperor. They often aligned themselves with political leaders who, when in favor, could do them great service. When these people fell out of power, however, the entire mission was threatened.

Likewise, and even more tragically, the intimate bond between the Jesuits and the Portuguese government aroused the suspicion that they were merely the advance guard, even spies, for European imperialism. Alas, the perceived alliance between Western missionaries, especially Americans, and their governments continues to be used by the rulers of China to discredit the entire Christian movement.

It is true that this old charge has very little validity, but enough Christians, both Western and Chinese, have linked the cause of Christ to American or Western support to sustain the false impression that Christians are agents, or perhaps unwitting tools, of foreign aggression. This may be especially true when Christians draw too close a connection between their faith and a particular form of government, such as democracy.

Roman Catholicism and Protestantism are two distinct religions.

People often ask why Roman Catholics and Protestants are named separately as two of the five state-approved religions of China (along with Daoism, Buddhism, and Islam). After all, Roman Catholics and Protestants share many common beliefs, such as: the Bible is God’s Word to mankind; God exists as an eternity tri-unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit; mankind is fallen into sin and deserves the wrath of God; Jesus Christ, the divine-human Son of God, died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins and to reconcile us to God; Christ rose bodily from the grave, ascended to heaven, poured out the Holy Spirit upon believers, and intercedes now for his people; he will return to judge the living and the dead and to usher in a new world in which righteousness dwells; if we repent of our sins, confess them to God, and trust in Christ, we shall be forgiven and reconciled to God, with the hope of everlasting life, and we shall become members of the Church, the Body of Christ.

With these and many other similar beliefs and practices, such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper, as well as a common theological heritage at least up to the Reformation, why does the Chinese government treat the two faiths separately?

Reading The Visitor will make it clear that profound differences mark Roman Catholicism off from Protestantism. These include: veneration of Mary and other saints and prayer to them; a belief in Purgatory; confession to priests and absolution by them; treating church tradition as authoritative along with the Bible; an expanded canon of the Scriptures; the supremacy of the Pope and the definition of the church in terms of the bishops who lead it; the use of images; the belief in relics and their potency; pilgrimages to shrines of saints; and many more distinctive Roman Catholic tenets and practices.

Of course, much has changed since Vatican II, but the core differences remain and have not been repudiated by Rome, or accepted by most Protestants as in accord with the Bible. We can affirm our common points without blurring important divergences from each other; this will help our Chinese friends to understand why Roman Catholicism and Protestantism are regarded differently by the Chinese government.

Other valuable lessons can be gleaned from this long book, but these seem to me to be some of the most important and relevant ones for us today.

G. Wright Doyle