Every year, the people of Taiwan come together on February 28 in remembrance of an event from 1947 that ended with massive police and military crackdowns. In commemorating “228,” we reflect on our nation’s historic and current struggles against tyranny to establish and protect the rights and freedoms that we presently enjoy.
This year, I called for my fellow Taiwanese to voice support for Ukraine as a way of commemorating 228. For me, being Taiwanese means standing in solidarity with the Ukrainian people in their fight against invasion and tyranny.
A question then arose in friendly theological discussion: Did I post this comment in my capacity as a Taiwanese citizen or as a Christian theologian—or perhaps both? How do I make sense of my Taiwanese identity in relation to my Christian identity?
First, I must state unequivocally: I am not “a Taiwanese Christian,” but rather “a Christian from Taiwan.” The notion of a civil Christianity—a Volksreligion—has no room in the biblical worldview.
The Swiss theologian Karl Barth, who was forced to leave Germany in 1935 because of his opposition to its mystical nationalism, wrote of his native land in Gottes Gnadenwahl (God’s Gracious Election) in 1936: “There is no such thing as Swiss totality of life [Lebenstotalität], no Swiss religion, no Swiss Christianity.” In a similar vein, German theologian Jürgen Moltmann said to my fellow Taiwanese theologian Lin Hong-Hsin and my Chinese colleague Hong Liang in a 2019 interview: “I am not a German Christian, but a Christian in Germany.” As a neo-Calvinist, I heartily agree with these repudiations of civil Christianity.
Of course, it may be argued that civil religion can take on many different forms and that nationalism is not a monolithic phenomenon or ideology. Some have argued that nationalism is simply the idea that a nation is formed and held together by the normative and shared values of a people, and that these values are best described as religious.
Civil religion, in this view, is the religion that gives to a people a certain national identity. Nationalism and civil religion as such, it has been argued, can be innocuous and even biblical, and do not necessarily resemble the form that they took in the Third Reich.
To this argument I can only respond with a resolute Nein!
The neo-Calvinist principle of “sphere sovereignty,” a biblical principle that has found various expressions in other brands of Christian theology, dictates that the spheres of religion, statehood, and nationhood must be kept abidingly distinct. Jesus Christ alone is sovereign over all. Within God’s good creation, every sphere is sovereign in relation to all others. Just as Russia is under an ethical duty to respect Ukraine’s national sovereignty, within the moral order of God’s creation, religion, statehood, and nationhood are forbidden from invading one another.
In neo-Calvinism, the notion of sphere sovereignty is incorporated into what is often called a “Christian worldview.” Some have described it as a “creation-based worldview,” but this description does not encapsulate the whole concept.
Simply put, what the theologians that I like to call the “magisterial neo-Calvinists” (most notably Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck—and I would add Geerhardus Vos) mean by “Christian worldview” is a view of world history as the stage on which redemptive history—the history of creation, fall, and redemption—is enacted. I like to borrow Barth’s rhetoric to describe world history as the “external basis” of redemptive history and redemptive history as the “internal basis” of world history.
If this sounds too abstract, consider Luke 2:1 which documents Jesus’ birth into the Roman Empire under the rule of Caesar Augustus. The first de facto emperor of Rome took the title of Caesar from the assassinated Julius and adopted the name Augustus—a word that was customarily used to describe the gods—to insinuate the divinity of his person. He made Virgil’s Aeneid—a folkloric epic fabricating the story of the divine origin of the Latin race as a people chosen by fate to rule over the nations in the name of justice—the official narrative of Rome’s national identity.
That he who named himself Augustus was indeed God’s chosen ruler is one of the best dramatic ironies written by the author of world and redemptive histories. God chose this man to be known through the ages and throughout the world by a brief yet important mention in Luke’s gospel.
The significance of the mention is to show just how unimportant the self-fashioned emperor divine is to world history when we examine the outcomes of world history in light of its internal basis: namely, the history of God’s covenant with his people in Jesus Christ, grounded in an eternal and unshakable pact between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. (Reformed theologians call this the “covenant of redemption” or pactum salutis.)
A child was born, whose birth continues to be celebrated throughout the world today, while Aeneas is relegated to the category of a legendary or mythical hero of warmongers seeking glory on the battlefield (his apparent virtues of compassion and justice notwithstanding).
Those of us who profess faith in the story of the child born under the reign of Augustus must search our hearts for remaining shadows of Aeneas and cast them out, for Christ was born to fulfill the First and Second Commandments—and all of the 10, for that matter. We who confess Christ as Lord will have no other god beside the God self-revealed in the incarnate Son, and will not divinize anything that is not God. This applies to the nation as well as to the state to which one belongs.
Still, some may argue that nationalism and civil religions, as defined earlier, do not necessarily divinize the nation or the state. But I argue that they necessarily do.
Among all earthly communities, Scripture only knows of one that God has chosen for the communion of the faithful to be a means of grace by the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. That community is the church, which took the form of Israel in Old Testament times.
Israel, not as a political state but as a spiritual community of faith in God’s covenant with Abraham, was God’s “chosen people,” now manifested through the church across the earthly nations. The apostle Peter tells us that the church alone constitutes “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession” (1 Pet. 2:9). Before we were called and gathered from the nations, we “were not a people, but now [we] are the people of God” (v. 10).
The church, in other words, is the only community in which unity in diversity is founded upon one Lord, one faith, and one baptism (Eph. 4:5). The earthly nation may be held together by some common values that are ultimately religious in some sense. And by all means, Christians ought to do their best to inform these values—because Athens is the external basis of Jerusalem. However, the attempt to unify an earthly nation with one Christian faith would be to divinize Athens and to give to it the status of a heavenly Jerusalem.
This immanentization of the heavenly Jerusalem (by some explicit or implicit secularization of the doctrines of election, providence, the church, and the last things) was precisely what the philosophies of Hegel and Marx were all about, as documented by Nazi-era Christian thinkers like Karl Löwith as well as contemporary writers like Charles Taylor and Michael E. Rosen. Immanentizing the heavenly Jerusalem and divinizing the earthly Athens are two sides of the same coin.
The church alone is chosen by God to be a present foretaste of the heavenly kingdom that has yet to come. Yet we do pray “Your kingdom come.” Our Lord did not teach us to pray to be taken to heaven. We are taught to pray for his will to be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” That is because the earthly history of Caesar Augustus was the external basis of the history of God the Son who came to earth, and the history of Jesus Christ was the internal basis of the history of Rome. By the same token, the church is the internal basis of the nations, and nationhood is one external basis of the coming of God’s kingdom.
Now, herein lies precisely the rationale with which I call for Christians in and from Taiwan to stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine: a) Taiwan has a church in her midst to serve as her internal basis; and b) this church is in—but not of—the world to reenact in the here and now the history of the incarnation that was accomplished once and for all, there and then.
In the history of Taiwan’s quest for rights, freedoms, and the rule of law, the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan (PCT) has played a decisive role. When George Leslie Mackay and other Presbyterian missionaries first came to Taiwan in the late 19th century, they introduced to the island—then under Chinese rule and later occupied by Japan—modern medicine, agriculture, and education. They provided education for women and advocated for women’s rights. They studied and helped to preserve the cultures and languages of the indigenous peoples, and to this day ministers trained in PCT seminaries are required to learn to preach in the native tongues of their respective parishes.
These missionaries did not try to assimilate the Taiwanese First Nations or the Hokkien communities to a supposedly “Christian” civilization from the West. Nor did they attempt to convert local rulers and government officials in the pattern of Jesuit missionaries to China in the 16th and 17th centuries. Constantinian Christianity was not on their agenda. They envisioned a Christianity that would, in historical actuality, become the internal basis of Taiwanese history.
A church that exists as the internal basis of a nation has a prophetic duty to call society to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly” (Micah 6:8). Presbyterians in Taiwan have historically stood at the frontlines to resist tyranny on behalf of their non-Christian neighbors. Many of our Presbyterian leaders were in fact people of high social status with overseas connections. But they partook of the “mind of Christ” who “emptied himself” (Phil. 2:5–7), and so they were willing to be murdered and jailed for the sake of their neighbors.
They understood one thing: Jesus came to be crucified by Pontius Pilate. God did not merely tell us to act justly and to love mercy; God accomplished justice and mercy at Golgotha. Golgotha is the external basis of God’s immutable justice and mercy. It is thus ill-becoming for those who pride themselves as bearers of the cross to take up an attitude of indifference towards the tyrannies, injustices, lies, and sufferings of this world.
“The Word became flesh” (John 1:14). If we truly believe in this central truth of the gospel, then we are forbidden to remain spectators and outsiders of world history.
Mackay the Canadian, who came to Taiwan exactly 150 years ago, became a part of the island’s history. The whole of Taiwan—and not just Christians—has come together to celebrate his arrival this year. The PCT after Mackay and his colleagues has profoundly informed Taiwanese culture to this day.
To be sure, Taiwan remains a religiously plural society, and aside from certain charismatic churches and movements Christians in Taiwan have no intention of turning the country into Christendom. The church remains the internal basis of our nation, and the nation the external basis of our church. The church in Taiwan as such shall continue to inform the nation with the values of justice, mercy, and humility by God’s common grace.
And because Taiwan has a church in its midst to serve as the internal basis of the nation, the church will continue to remind society, Christian or not, that being Taiwanese means participating in world history (common grace) through which the history of God’s own justice, mercy, and humility—that is, the history of the incarnation and the Second Coming (special grace)—unfolds.
Alex Tseng is a neo-Calvinist theologian from Taiwan specializing in studies on Karl Barth.