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As Henry Luce Professor of World Christianity at Union Theological Seminary, New York in 2002, I gave an open lecture on Naming God in Asia in memory of the late great Professor Samuel Terrien (Lee). Since then, I have been intrigued by the topic and have done some further research extended to different linguistic and ethnic groupings in Asia beyond the coverage of the original paper, which is exclusively Han Chinese. The topic leads me to the area of Bible translation and its reception in Asia vis-à-vis finding an appropriate Asian term to render Elohim and Theos and, failing to locate one, inventing a brand new name. As I went deeper into the socio-political dynamics of naming God in Asia and wider into the geographical extent and ethnic communities, a whole bundle of core and related issues surfaced that have gone much further than linguistic options in translation. They involve, among other things, the complicated problems of the colonial project and local resistance, as well as the missionary enterprise and religious conversion. The crucial issue is the politics of triumphalism or religious pluralism: Do the colonized subjects ever have any knowledge of the divine? Is there any room given to the so-called "pagan religions" within the absolute claim of the revealed Christianity?

Due to limited space, this paper attempts to engage only the case of naming the biblical God in Asia in Chinese. In China, the so-called "term question" has not been resolved even after several waves of heated debates among the missionaries and between them and the native Christians over the past three and a half centuries. The core issue is whether to adopt the name of a native God (Shangdi) or a generic term (Shen) to render God in the vernacular. To some, the objection to the High God Shangdi in China was uncompromising.

Missionaries to China debated on the proper rendering of the biblical God referred to as Elohim and Theos. The transliteration of the Hebrew proper name for God in the Tetragammaton YHWH, as Yehehua, has largely been agreed upon without taking consideration of Hebrew piety and the practice of not pronouncing it. The name has been used by Chinese Christians without difficulties. This "culture-linguistic equivalent" is deemed acceptable (Loewen 402). For the appearances of Adon and Adonai, the Chinese character Zhu, meaning master or lord is adopted. The Catholic translation of Tianzhu (the Lord of Heaven) for Elohim has not been supported by the Protestants[1] due to their fear of being confused with and mistaken for Catholics.

Disagreement between Matteo Ricci and Niccolo Longobardi
Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), who arrived on the Chinese soil in 1583 and who was allowed to reside in the capital of Peking in 1601, asserted that the Chinese had knowledge of the One True God as espoused in the Confucian Classics without the later deterioration in the commentarial tradition, especially that of the Song dynasty scholar Zhu Xi (1130-1200), which has been corrupted by Buddhism (Eber, 200-07). He therefore separated the canon from the commentaries and advocated that the Christian God is Shangdi in the ancient Classics. His successor, Niccolo Longobardi (1565-1655), assumed a different stance by taking the Classics and commentaries as a whole; he argued from Song Confucianism for the accidental formation of heaven and earth from the transformation of the Great Ultimate into the original principle (li) and vital energy (qi). Thus, he rejected Ricci's assumption of the Chinese knowledge of God and creation. The "Term Question" was a tangled part of the Rite Controversy in China. The debates came to an end officially only with the papal decree of 1742, which banned all Chinese rites and rituals and the name Shangdi and all other terms for God except Tianzhu (Eber, 202).

The Protestant Term Question
The Protestants were largely separated into two opposing communities along national lines in the nineteenth century when the debates started. The British supported Shangdi (the Lord on High) as the name for God, and the Americans were in favor of Shen (Spirits or Gods). For the Protestant missionaries, the controversy on rendering God in Chinese was basically ideological in nature. As pointed out by scholars on this issue, those who insisted on the generic term Shen were convinced that the Chinese did not have any knowledge of the Creator God in Christianity and that therefore there was obviously no equivalent term to represent the notion of a monotheistic God. The Shangdi supporters, on the other hand, believed that the revelation of God did come to China in the Shang (1766-1122 BCE) and Zhou dynasties (1122BCE-221 CE). The two positions have theological implications for the missionary strategy in China. Eber sums it up thus:

For, if God had been known at one time, then monotheism was not altogether foreign and the missionaries' task was to reintroduce the Chinese to the idea of God. If, however, God had never been known and the Chinese had always been polytheists, the missionaries' work was entirely different. In this context, the Classics also had a different function for either monotheist or polytheist proponents. If God was known, one would find mention of Him in the ancient writings (Eber, 231).

Because of the significance of the issue, missionaries in China started to engage the Chinese Classics and the various commentaries in order to search for the divine or to negate it altogether. Extended research projects were carried out on both sides, investigating the meaning and usage of Shangdi and Shen. Their hard work has left behind piles of material and numerous publications in both English (Chinese Repository, Chinese Record, and various pamphlets) and Chinese (The Globe Magazine). Both positions—condemning the Chinese and their idolatry and lowliness as well as romanticizing the glimpses of monotheistic faith and calling for revival of the lost tradition as part of the Christian mission to China—are expressed in these materials. Full critical analyses of the debate will be of great interest, especially from the post-colonial framework and critical theory.

The debates were basically among missionaries in China in the beginning; when they failed to arrive at any consensus, there were appeals to the native voice and the forum was opened to the Chinese to take part. The dynamics are quite interesting, and I have summed up the debate in previous writings (Lee, pp. 30-35). Here, it is sufficient to raise two questions by referring to views expressed by an anonymous learned missionary. In his correspondence to the Chinese Repository (XVI/12, 1846, pp. 577-601), he not only objected to the Chinese voice in the choice of God's name, but he also stated his intention to tamper with the Chinese language by educating the Chinese to the new meaning:

It is not common to bring the heathen in as arbiters to decide for Christians by what terms they must worship the true God. We do not admit their authority, especially when we have apostolic authority for our guide. The people can be taught to use the word Shin, and connect with it the idea we wish to teach respecting the true God, far earlier than they can divest their own minds of their heathenish associations with the word Shangti and make that word the representative of the true and living God (Chinese Repository XVI, 600, 601).

Fortunately, not all missionaries were equally imperialistic and triumphalistic. Calvin Mateer (1836-1908), an American Presbyterian missionary to Shangdong and a life-long champion for Shen, saw the word as a "people's word" and Shangdi as historically associated with the civil religion of the Chinese Kingdom, in which Shangdi enjoyed an exclusive worship by the emperor and the higher officials of the government. Mateer became unpopular when he delineated the two rival understandings of the nature of God as part of a conflict between the British imperial and the American democratic political positioning. But his searching question on the notion of God is pertinent to the issue discussed here in this paper:

Was God, that is simply the eternal all-powerful being—which was the idea that Shangti basically conveyed—or was He, as Shen implied to many missionaries, rather the proven true one of a multitude of historical spirits, and perhaps identical with the individual human soul (Hyatt, 231-232)?

According to Hyatt, those in opposition to Mateer did not realize "how imperial their own notion had become since the pre-Civil War years of Calvin's Mateer's memory" (Hyatt, 232). Even those who were in support of Shen did not share Mateer's radical position on the inclusiveness of the notion of God. Perhaps, it must be pointed out from the Chinese context, the rendering of God as Shangdi also represents a subversive act, as the Daoist tradition has done. It shatters the imperial monopoly of an exclusive worship of the Shangdi religion. Either way, the theological-political dimension of the translation process will not escape unnoticed.

To some Chinese, the rendering of Shangdi helps to revive an age-old belief in a single supreme deity referred to by the sages and the Classics with the familiar term Shangdi. This very divinity of the ancient times is also taken as the foundation of ethical and moral living with heavenly rewards and punishments. Shangdi monitors and guarantees a form of divine justice in the framework of religious Confucianism.[2] Christian affirmation of Chinese religion and culture will win some of the Chinese public to acceptance of Christianity. When YHWH is transliterated as Yehehua, which is taken as a proper name of the biblical God, and Elohim rendered by the traditional Chinese deity named Shangdi, the attempted identification of the Hebrew God with the Chinese God is completed. In the ancient Book of Poetry, Shangdi is vast, majestic, and powerful. These attributes of Shangdi go well with YHWH. But it also sets up an historical link of Shangdi with the ancient dynasties, kings and ancestors, the theological implication of which is overwhelming. The monotheistic orientation of the biblical tradition has exerted its influence upon the reading of the Chinese Classics. This has traditionally been shaped by the strong political, philosophical perspective brought to the text by Han Confucianism. Interest in the metaphysical and self-cultivation, which has characterized Neo-Confucianism since Zhu Xi of the Song dynasty, is not shaped with an added religious dimension.

The Names of God from Old Testament Perspective
The Old Testament names for God are not unambiguous and there are many different names of God (Mettinger). A plurality of names in the translation of the text was an option that did not appeal to the missionary translators, except Schereschewsky. His Genesis translation adopts Tianzhu for Elohim and Zhu for the Tetragammaton. In the case of YHWH going together with Elohim or other descriptive appellations like El Olam, El Elyon, or El Shaddai, he used the transliteration Yehehua to render YHWH (Eber, 174). When Adonai YHWH come together in the text the translation is Zhu Yehehua (e.g. Gen 15:2, 8). Flexibility was adopted by him in other places. The rendering of Dan 1:2 is an example. In the case of Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king puts the temple vessels he captured from the Beit Elohim (House of God) into the Beit Elohav (house of his god). A problem in Chinese occurs as the language does not distinguish the two deities by upper and lower case. The English version makes the distinction by using the capital "G" for the biblical God and a small letter "g" with the plural form "gods" for the other gods. Schereschewsky translated Beit Elohim as Tianzhu dian (Lord of Heaven's Temple) and Beit Elohav as Shendi miao (his god's shrine), which in Chinese connotes a place of worship with statues of gods. However, such a translation shows a derogative attitude towards the local form of worship.

Robert Carroll wrote his last paper before he died (on May 10, 2000) on ideology and Bible translation. He tried to wrestle with translation and interpretation, focusing on the rendering of the Tetragammaton and the pre-interpretation of Exodus 3:14-15. His call for the translator's recognition of our impossible task and the admission of failure in some cases is also worth pondering. On the issue of naming God in Asia, a plurality of names has been put forward by some. This has not been accepted by the missionaries because of a limited ideology. The mission field did not allow the divine to be presented in multiple names. Given the elimination of the notion of the mission field, the plurality of religious traditions in Asia, and the multiplicity of translated divine names, the option is once again open. Carroll's admission of the reality of God's names in our biblical text should remind us not to domesticate God in any one name. He helps us to see the ideological-cultural shift of Bible translators who assume the monotheistic faith of the biblical text that comes from a cultural background of "polytheism." Carroll succinctly raises the fundamental question in translating the name(s) of God(s) in the Bible:

Should translators be translating the world of the text or the world of the translators? Or should they be seeking to fuse these two different and distinct horizons of differing cultures into the one translation (Carroll 2002, 61)?


Words have histories. Deep within the story of any given term lies an image, a picture, a root metaphor. Even though we may have forgotten the picture resident in the words' idea when we "use" language, it is there, nonetheless, using us as much as we it (David L. Miller).[3]

Given the multiplicity and diversity of the religious reality of Asia, the question of naming the biblical God is very instructive to the hermeneutical issues of reading the Bible in a religio-cultural milieu. The history of the debates on God's Asian name illustrates the process of how the Bible transfers across social and geographical boundaries, permeating different conceptual worlds as well as interacting with religious texts and identities. It provides us with a glimpse into the Asian ways of negotiating a meaningful understanding of the Divine in terms of Asian religiosity and in the socio-political context of the missionary-colonial project (Young, 76-87, 219-31).

In view of multi-religious and multi-textual traditions where there are long literary histories of God and orally transmitted articulations of the divine, naming the biblical God in indigenous languages is far more profound than just a linguistic-translational issue. It entails the notion of translatability and is understood as "the transposition of a concept from one language and cultural context into another. This involves the question whether the concept should remain the same in the receptor language or whether it changes and if so, how" (Eber, 199)? Existing terms for God involve the cultural milieu and thus the complicated, tangled web of local religious belief systems.

There are a host of questions about whether the Asian conception of the divine in its polytheistic and pantheistic religious orientation is capable of expressing the monotheistic faith brought by the missionaries. There are ideological and political issues about who should decide on which existing name of God/Gods is to be adopted. There is also the question of whether a neologism, a totally new term for the divine, is preferred. In the colonial setting, it is of no surprise that the natives' view will not be given any weight. Self-representation does not merit a respectable space. The missionaries automatically assumed a superior role when it came to "their religion." The pagan worshippers will not be given a voice in the choice of the name for the divine, even though the name is to be used by them to address God.

No doubt, the issue of authority is basic to any translation project.[4] There is also the question of identity. In what ways does a name promote sectarianism, and in what ways does it instigate national consciousness or tribal inspiration? This paper has touched on the cultural intrusion of the missionaries in exploiting the local cultures and subverting the conventional linguistic usage and on whether these are warranted in the translation of the Bible. In some cases, the impact of naming the biblical God in an Asian language results in the gradual Christianizing of the name, causing it to lose its original religious content. The proper name Shangdi in Chinese Classics and popular religions and the genetic name Shen, referring to deity in general, are now mostly monopolized by Christians to refer to the biblical God. The same applies to the use of Kami in the Japanese Christian community. Finally, there is the important question of hierarchical structure and dichotomy between "revelation" and "nature." Theo Witvliet, in his response to Lamin Sanneh's positive appraisal of Bible translation in Africa, raises the need for a critical appropriation of the common position of "a hierarchical universe in which 'the truth' was very unequally divided among people and continents" (Witvliet, 88). In light of all the well- known binary opposites of monotheism-polytheism, civilized-savage, enlightenment-opacity, development-primitive, and culture-nature, he warns against the underlying attitude translators usually hold in viewing native religions and cultures:

Theologically more subtle is the way the opposition of the concept of "revelation" to that of "nature" has been operational in reserving full knowledge of God for Western Christianity, whereas Africans only had "natural" religion, if any religion at all (Witvliet, 88).

There is an unwarranted skepticism towards the heathens' possession, if at all, of a very limited and low knowledge of the divine from the so-called "natural/native religion." The adoption of a local name for the universal God will facilitate mutual transformation of both Christianity and the native religion and culture.

Archie C. C. Lee, Department of Cultural and Religious Studies; The Chinese University of Hong Kong

1. An exception to the avoiding of the Catholic Tianzhu is the advocacy of the Peking Committee of 1890 promoted by Samuel Schereschewsky (1831-1906).
2. Erik Zürcher, "'In the Beginning': 17th Century Chinese Reactions to Christian Creationism," in Time and Space in Chinese Culture, ed. Chun-Chich Huang and Erik Zürcher (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1995), 132.
3. David L. Miller, "The Question of the Book Religion as Texture," Semeia, 40, 1987, 54.
4. Stephen K. Batalden, "The Politics of Modern Russian Biblical Translation," Bible Translation and the Spread of the Church in the last 200 Years, ed. Philip C. Stine (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1990), 68-80.

Carroll, Robert. 2002. "Between Lying and Blasphemy or On Translating a Four-Letter Word in the Hebrew Bible: Critical Reflections on Bible Translation.". A. Brenner and J W.van Henten (ed.) Bible Translation on the Threshold of the Twenty-First Century, Authority, Reception, Culture and Religion. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 53-64.

Hyatt, Irwin T. Jr. 1976. Our Ordered Lives Confess: Three Nineteenth-Century American Missionaries in East Shantung. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Lee, Archie C. C. 2004. "Naming God in Asia: Cross-Textual Reading in Multi-Cultural Context". Quest: An Interdisciplinary Joural for Asian Christian Scholars. 3 (1), pp.21-42.

Loewen, Jacob A. 1985. "Translating the Names of God: How European Languages have Translated Them". The Bible Translator. 36 (4), 1985, pp.401-09.

Mettinger, Tryggve N.D. 1988. In Search of God: the Meaning and Message of the Everlasting Names. Trans. Frederick H. Cryer. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Sanneh, Lamin. 2002. "Domesticating the Transcendent. The African Transformation of Christianity: Comparative Reflections of Ethnicity and Religious Mobilization in Africa.". A. Brenner and J W.van Henten (ed.) Bible Translation on the Threshold of the Twenty-First Century, Authority, Reception, Culture and Religion. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 71- 85.

Spelman, Douglas G. 1969. "Christianity in China: The Protestant Term Question." Papers on China, 22A. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University East Asian Center, 25-52.

Young, Marilyn Blatt. 1968. The Rhetoric of Empire: American China Policy, 1895-1901. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Witvliet, Theo. 2002. "Responding to Lamin Sanneh, 'Domesticating the Transcendent, The African Transformation of Christianity.". A. Brenner and J W.van Henten (ed.) Bible Translation on the Threshold of the Twenty-First Century, Authority, Reception, Culture and Religion. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 86-93.

Citation: Archie C. C. Lee, " God's Asian Names: Rendering the Biblical God in Chinese," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Oct 2005]. Online:


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