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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

Why You Should Not Buy into Confucianism

Published Sunday, November 1, 2020 By John Warwick Montgomery

Interestingly enough, as liberal theologians reach the end of their careers, they often plunge into a study of Eastern religiosity. Examples include John Hick, D. Z. Phillips, Ninian Smart (some years ago, in 1993, Phillips, Smart, and I were featured speakers on the same university religion panel at the California State University at Fullerton), (1) and—to be sure—Paul Tillich. (2)

The motivation for such interest surely stems in large part from the common belief among liberal religious thinkers that if we penetrate deeply enough into their mind-set, all religions are really saying the same thing and salvation is available in those contexts, not just in Christianity. As Ninian Smart said, “I often say that I’m a Buddhist-Episcopalian.” (3)

Now, mirabile dictu, I am myself swimming in the infinite ocean of Eastern religiosity. This, however, is not something new since:
(1) my book Giant in Chains: China Today and Tomorrow was published in German and in English decades ago; (4) and (2) I have become convinced that the more carefully one studies the primary sources of the Eastern religions, the less they can be reconciled with historic Christianity—and the less they show compatibility with biblical teaching on salvation. If this is indeed the case, then the implications could not be more serious, for Christianity is an exclusive faith, claiming unique truth-value. (5) In this brief essay, I shall illustrate the gulf separating Confucianism and biblical religion by way of several Chinese word studies.

The Confucian Moral Landscape and Its Consequences

Confucius himself was little interested in the next world; his teachings focus on the proper ethic for personal and societal life in this world. He was a strong advocate of authoritarianism in the home and in the state: ancestors were to receive the highest respect, parents were to be revered by their children, and the masses were to accept the final authority of rulers.

Such a belief-system fits nicely into the totalitarian philosophy of today’s People’s Republic of China, with its thoroughgoing Marxist orientation (I have argued elsewhere that there never really was a “Last Emperor,” for the imperial mind-set continues in authoritarian Chinese Marxism). This may be at least one explanation for the party’s lauding of Confucianism and its careful control of Christian religious organizations in the country, as well as the party-led persecution of Christian believers who do not follow, or who have the temerity to criticize, state policies.

A study of key terms representing Confucian values offers a clear picture of what salvation has meant for centuries in the Chinese context. Particularly helpful in this regard—in spite of its limitations—is Barbara Aria’s little book The Spirit of the Chinese Character. The quotations that follow can be located there under the particular characters discussed. (6)


The concept of Tao was far more important to Taoism than to Confucianism. For Lao-Tze, the “Way” designated the universal Absolute, approachable through mystical negation: wu wei, “non-striving/deedlessness.” Confucius, who engaged in personal discussion with the founder of Taoism, found his path essentially incomprehensible. His was a more earthly, practical route. “To Confucius tao became the ‘way’ of moral rectitude—the way we do what we do.” It seems unarguable that Confucius regarded the Tao humanistically, not metaphysically, which fits with the etymology of the term: the character combines the notions of “head/chief/first” and “movement” (pictograph of a foot)—suggesting forward progress and perhaps the following of a leader (a plumed authority figure). But progress directed where, following what authority or leader?

Translators of the New Testament into Chinese have invariably (for want of something better) employed dào to represent the “Word made flesh” of John’s Gospel, but it is plain that no Chinese ideology uses the concept to declare that the transcendent personally enters history.

In accord with Confucius’s stress on the values vital to a good society, early Confucian tradition focused on a number of ethical “Constants.” Some of the most fundamental of these warrant our attention here.


This central Confucian virtue generally translates as “benevolence.”

Considered by Confucius as innate in humans, [it] can also be translated as “kindness” or “humanity.” The ideas are inseparable. . . . This ideogram combines the radical for “human being” (also pronounced jên [sic]), showing the legs and trunk of a person, with the pair of horizontal strokes that denotes “two.” Benevolence: the essential kindness that one person shows to another.

To be sure, the “innateness” of kindness and benevolence is denied by the overwhelming testimony of human history—and should have been evident to Confucius himself by observing the cruelty of Chinese authorities to those who opposed them and their continual efforts to capture and rule the lands of others (cf. the period of the “Warring States” that began just a few years before Confucius’s death).

義 ()

This character, representing “righteousness,” displays a sheep above the sign for “I/me/myself.” (7) The idea is that one must act in the manner of a docile and selfless sheep. “Confucianism insists on righteousness, one of the . . . inborn virtues which, if cultivated, can purify our spiritual energy.” Confucius’s disciple Mencius defined righteousness as “doing what we should as ‘citizens of the universe,’ while Confucius stressed doing what we should purely for its own sake, without desire for material or spiritual gain.”

It would be interesting to know how many sheep-like people Confucius met, particularly among the Chinese aristocracy. In the Confucian context, one is at a loss to find the biblical notion of “lost sheep”—and therefore there appears to be no need for a Good Shepherd who gives himself for the little lambs and the wandering sheep he loves.


“Tranquillity/peace” [sic] is an important Confucian virtue.

The character for “tranquillity” [sic] is rooted in the ancient Chinese tradition of male dominance. A “woman” under a man’s “roof” indicates that all is as it should be. But ān has a richer meaning, reflecting the parallel between microcosm and macrocosm. Just as a harmonious relationship between man and woman brings tranquility to the heart, peace comes when universal energies are in harmony—the forceful, creative energy of heaven above, and the gentle, receptive energy of the earth below. Tranquility: when our world is in order.

Fine. But how do we put the world, above or below, in order? Not just feminists would question the male/female dichotomy here. For the human microcosm to get right with the cosmic macrocosm, a bit of self-awareness of our egocentrism might be the appropriate starting point. That, however, would require a serious look at sin and human depravity—not a subject in the Confucian philosophical/religious curriculum.


Young, tender grass is pictured above the human heart, suggesting a softening of the spirit and the resulting presence of compassion, benevolence, kindness, and charity.

It is natural for us to want to help those in need, especially the young and helpless. This is why many Confucians believed in the essential goodness of human nature. If we see a child fall into a well, for instance, we automatically try to save the child.

Do we? In continental French law, it is indeed a criminal offense if a capable person sees another in peril and does nothing to help. But in Anglo-American law (except where statute has replaced the common-law tradition), one is culpable only if one commences to render help and then ceases to assist. (8) In fact, kindness is hardly an inherent, universal human quality. Being nasty to your neighbor has been practiced far more across the geographical and historical landscape than charitable benevolence.


Loyalty had a position of great importance in the Confucian hierarchy of values. The Hanzi character representing it displays at the top an arrow penetrating a target at its very center; beneath is the human heart. “This shows that loyalty—whether it is to country, person, or principle—means having a centered heart. A heart that is in the center is a heart in the right place.”

One can hardly argue against the virtue of loyalty as such. The problem is to determine what authority, institution, or person is worthy of becoming the object of the loyalty. There was unreflective loyalty to Adolf Hitler and his ideology by an entire generation of young Germans (the Hitlerjugend and its equivalents), and the results were appalling and damnable. But nowhere in Confucianism do we find the absolute moral criteria for deciding where our loyalties should be placed.

The Xunzi: “Human Nature Is Bad”

To be sure, not all Confucian masters followed Confucius and his most famous disciple Mencius in their belief in the inherent goodness of human nature. The most important of the Confucian “revisionists” was certainly the third-century BC author (or authors) of the Xunzi, a work of considerable intellectual strength that was long neglected owing to the popularity of Mencius. (9) Chapter 23, titled “Human Nature Is Bad,” argues:

People’s nature is bad. Their goodness is a matter of deliberate effort. Now people’s nature is such that they are born with a fondness for profit in them. If they follow along with this, then struggle and contention will arise, and yielding and deference will perish therein. They are born with feelings of hate and dislike in them. If they follow along with these, then cruelty and villainy will arise, and loyalty and trustworthiness will perish therein. They are born with desires of the eyes and ears, a fondness for beautiful sights and sounds. If they follow along with these, then lasciviousness and chaos will arise, and ritual (10) and yi, proper form and order, will perish therein. Thus, if people follow along with their inborn dispositions and obey their nature, they are sure to come to struggle and contention, turn to disrupting social divisions and order, and end up becoming violent. So, it is necessary to await the transforming influence of teachers and models and the guidance of ritual and yi, and only then will they come to yielding and deference, turn to proper form and order, and end up becoming controlled. Looking at it in this way, it is clear that people’s nature is bad, and their goodness is a matter of deliberate effort. (11)

The Xunzi, though a vast improvement on the classical Confucian view of man’s “inherently good nature,” is still not at all compatible with biblical Christianity. Note that for the Xunzi, the evil nature of man is capable of correction by the example of good “teachers and models.” The insoluble difficulty here is that if, as is surely the case, human beings are self-centered, then where can one find the “good teacher and model”? And, if found, how did that teacher or model acquire his/her goodness, since all “human nature is bad”?

In biblical Christianity, that problem is solved by the coming to earth of God’s own Son—the Good Master—who could say, “Which of you can convict me of sin?” (John 8:46). And if one’s “goodness is a matter of deliberate effort,” then one can save oneself—which is in diametric opposition to the biblical teaching that salvation is a gift of God, the result of grace received by faith in the Savior, “not by works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph. 2:8–9).

Of course, in fairness to the Xunzi, its author (or authors) had no contact with the biblical Heilsgeschichte: the promise and ultimate appearance of the messianic savior. At least, though there is no realistic solution offered, the Xunzi shows far greater awareness of humanity’s fundamental moral problem than can be found in Confucius or in Mencius.

Concluding Reflection

One of the cardinal rules in the study of comparative religions deals with the relationship between sin and salvation: errors as to the nature or effects of sin will inevitably corrupt one’s doctrine of redemption. This is painfully evident in cults such as Christian Science and Scientology, where the absence of any serious view of the human sinful condition totally cancels out Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross as the answer to and the remedy for the sins of the world. The same is surely the case with Confucianism. Human nature is far from “intrinsically good.” And the Confucian moral principles, as attractive as they appear linguistically, have no more force in a sinful world than the Boy Scout Oath and Law. (12)

There is, of course, an inherent, built-in morality within every human person. God’s will in creation ensured that, and the fall did not destroy the humanity of human beings (Rom. 1). But the original knowledge of what is right and what is wrong has been so corrupted by human sinfulness that it cannot be relied upon. A special revelation from God almighty is the sine qua non for distinguishing genuine morality and social values from sheer self-centeredness. The Bible is the essential guide to what is “natural law” and what is mere human egoism passing itself off as morality and ethics.

In sum, don’t go Confucian, go biblical! In Holy Scripture, you will receive all the moral benefits offered by Eastern wisdom—together with an infinitely more realistic view of human nature. Beyond this, you will find that salvation is indeed available—to you personally—at an infinite cost to God, but given to you as a free gift when you accept his Son as your Savior. “If anyone be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Cor. 5:17). 

John Warwick Montgomery (PhD, DThéol, LLD) is professor-at-large for the 1517 Legacy Project; professor emeritus of law and humanities, University of Bedfordshire, England; and director, International Academy of Apologetics, Evangelism and Human Rights, Strasbourg, France.

  • John Warwick Montgomery

1. My presentation on that occasion (having nothing to do with Eastern religions but with Sherlock Holmesian apologetics) is included in Montgomery, The Transcendent Holmes (Ashcroft, BC: Calabash Press, 2000).
2. Cf. Ka-fu Keith Chan and Yau-nang William Ng, eds., Paul Tillich and Asian Religions (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017).
3. Scott London, “The Future of Religion: An Interview with Ninian Smart,” https://scott.london/interviews/smart.html.
4. Montgomery, Wohin marschiert China? (Neuhausen-Stuttgart: Haenssler, 1991); Giant in Chains: Today and Tomorrow (Milton Keynes, UK: Nelson Word, 1994). I suggest that the reader go to this work for a more detailed discussion of Confucian and Taoist ideologies and the Chinese religious situation in general.
5. John 14:6: “I [Jesus] am the way, the truth, and the life: no one comes unto the Father but by me.” Acts 4:12 (the original apostolic preaching): “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name [than that of Jesus] under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.”
6. Barbara Aria, The Spirit of the Chinese Character (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1992). Sadly, the book does not employ the now standard Pinyin transcriptions of Hanzi characters, and traditional and simplified characters are interspersed without identification as to which are being employed.
7. Note the difference in tonality as compared with “ritual” (lî)—or note 10, infra.
8. 8 Cf. Montgomery, “Evangelical Chauvinism,” in Defending the Gospel in Legal Style (Bonn: Verlag für Kultur und Wissenschaft, 2017).
9. See esp., Xunzi: The Complete Text, trans. and ed. Eric L. Hutton (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).
10. The concept of ritual (literary character禮, ) is nowhere carefully defined; it refers in the Confucian philosophical tradition to products of the scholarly/sage thinking and practice across the Chinese centuries. For a Western parallel, think of the Roman Catholic employment of the notion of “tradition” (with or without capitalization). The problem, in all such cases, is to discover what is the true tradition or ritual, as compared to what is offered by false teachers or by accretions inconsistent with the fundamental truths of the given value system.
11. Xunzi, 248.
12. As a youthful Scout (NB: an Eagle Scout with silver palms!), I reverently recited both. The last few years have seen devastating lawsuits against the Boy Scouts of America for condoning the sexual corruption and maltreatment of a not inconsiderable number of their young members.
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