Call for Translations on the Problem of Justification and Works

As Andrew Brown observed in the Guardian four years ago, Reformed Christianity is advancing in China:

… the place where Calvinism is spreading fastest is the elite universities, fuelled by prodigies of learning and translation. Wang Xiaochao, a philosopher at one of the Beijing universities, has translated the two major works of St Augustine, the Confessions and the City of God, into Chinese directly from Latin. Gradually all the major works of the first centuries of the Christian tradition are being translated directly from the original languages into Chinese. All of this is happening outside the control of the official body which is supposed to monitor and supervise the churches in China. Instead, it is the philosophy departments at the universities, or the language departments and the departments of literature and western civilisation that are the channel.

Among Asian Americans it is well known that one of the greatest spiritual needs is to answer the model minority myth, moralism, and mammon with the word of grace. No doubt it is to useful to have translated into Chinese – and thus to have infused into the Chinese discourse – the works of St Augustine of Hippo, with their emphasis on the grace of God. But many Chinese believers, I think, are also unable to square the message of a gracious salvation with a necessity of works that they can feel in their bones. We know both are true, but often are unable to put those together, except by taking works as the proper and bounden response to the gifts shed upon us by our heavenly Father. Our earthly fathers have fed and clothed us in our helpless years, and so we mourn them for three years when they have died; our heavenly Father has fed us with the flesh of his Son, and so we produce good works in obligation. None of this is false: true worship, in liturgy and out of liturgy, is indeed a bounden duty for us. Yet, given how much many of us have struggled with doing right by our earthly parents, knowing that the filial duty enjoined by our ancestors is to do well, to stay in good health, and to attend to the needs of our ageing parents, works often seem to be the self-made response to the finished work of God: once saved graciously, and even now helped, as by an earthly parent, we expect to serve in symmetrical return.

It does not take away the burden to say that God has no needs, any more than it relieves parents to tell them that their children are mortal. Knowing his child is mortal, the father only redoubles his efforts to ensure the happiness of his child and the honour of the family; knowing God to be transcendent and impassible, the Christian only adds to his efforts to serve a deity to whom his debt of service will never end, and to show himself approved. Especially for the Chinese believer, to say that we are saved once by grace and ever after do good works in response is an inadequate response to our culturally learned impulses. June and her mother in The Joy Luck Club show some of the issues:

J: I’m just sorry that you got stuck with such a loser, that I’ve always been so disappointing.

S: What you mean disappoint? Piano?

J: Everything. My grades, my job, not getting married, everything you expected of me.

S: Not expect anything! Never expect! Only hope! Only hoping best for you. That’s not wrong, to hope.

J: No? Well, it hurts, because every time you hoped for something I couldn’t deliver, it hurt. It hurt me, Mommy. And no matter what you hope for, I’ll never be more than what I am. And you never see that, what I really am.

This is a common experience, no less for Chinese Christians. As far as I can see, the only way to face the problem is to articulate the doctrines of justification and sanctification in a way that integrates the need for a vicarious atonement and the duty of good works. What I am hoping is that important Reformation works that integrate the two will be translated into Chinese, to the aid of both the churches in China and the Asian-American churches. What forms the study of Asian-born Chinese pastors and laymen will inevitably affect the spirituality of their American children. If this means Hooker’s Learned Discourse of Justification, Works, and How the Foundation of Faith Is Overthrown needs to be translated, and no one else will do it, I may just have to ask my dad to do it when he’s retired; and where it means more work for other Asian Americans, yes, I am asking that it be done, with any notes added that would help preachers, teachers, and normal people to obey the holy gospel. Will we find the workers?

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