By Shane Scott

For most Americans knowledge of Confucius is limited to the quotations found on slips of paper inside fortune cookies. However, it is not an exaggeration to state that Confucius’ impact on China was and is as powerful as the influence of Jesus Christ on the Western world. Though the World Almanac lists only 5,914,00 followers of Confucianism in the world (only 0.1 percent of the world’s population), that statistic is deceptive. As the Encyclopedia Britannia observes: “East Asians may profess themselves to be Shintoists, Taoists, Buddhists, Muslims, or Christians, but, by announcing their religious affiliations, seldom do they cease to be Confucians.”(1) Consequently, the number of Confucians in China is more likely 300 million.(2)Whatever the actual number of adherents to Confucianism is, no one can deny the powerful bearing Confucianism has on the world’s most populous nation.

Historical Background

An understanding of the world in which Confucius lived is essential in order to appreciate what Confucius taught. The country into which Confucius was born was gripped by civil war. The well ordered feudal system of China had disintegrated. The struggle for power by various feudal lords resulted in terrible bloodshed. Mass slaughters of incredible barbarism occurred. One reported bloodbath took 400,000 lives.

But the world of Confucius was also a religious world. To the Chinese, all of life had a pattern, a pattern which consisted of the eternal relationship between the Yang (the active, the positive) and the Yin (the receptive, the negatives). Indeed, all of life was contingent; that is, the meaning love depended on comparing it with hate, life with death, and so on.(3) The key to successful living, then, was to find the balance between yang and yin. The focus of Chinese religious thinking was on this world, not on “God.”

The Life of Confucius

Little is known about Confucius. The main source for information concerning him personally is a work called The Analects, a collection of his sayings accumulated by his followers. Chiu King (Confucius’ real name) was born in 551 B.C. This places Confucius contemporary with Buddha and just prior to Socrates. Confucius was raised by his mother, having lost his father at the age of three. Poverty marked his early life, and he was forced into manual labor to provide for the family. Confucius went into civil service and held various small posts, but his real calling in life was as a tutor and teacher. In fact, his fame as a teacher grew so much that he began to be called Kung-Fu-tzu, “Kung the Master” (our English word “Confucius” is the Anglicized form of Kung-Fu-tzu).

As a teacher, Confucius was deeply interested in teaching and preserving the classic ancient traditions of China. Confucius believed that the only way to restore order and balance to war torn China was to implement the ancient way of doing things. Confucius summarized this way in five principle terms.

The Tenets of Confucianism

The first of these terms, and the foundation of all the others is jen, the quality of humaneness. Jen is the basic respect for human dignity, for others as well as yourself. Others were to be afforded the same honor and kindness that you wanted for yourself. This principle is often called the “silver rule” since it resembles the “golden rule” of Jesus in Matthew 7:12.

The second tenet is chun-tzu, that is, being the ideal person. This term takes the quality of jen and puts it into habitual practice. Chun-tzu includes qualities like etiquette and politeness, but more importantly, it is attitude that was to pervade all circumstances. Li, the third principle, was the right pattern. Li means to do things the right way (e.g. using the right name for the right things, devotion to family, respect for age, etc.) and to use the correct ritual while doing them. Government by moral power, or Te, is the fourth concept. Confucius believed that feudal lords should demonstrate a high level of behavior in order to motivate their countrymen to live peaceably. The final term is wen, practicing the peaceful arts. Confucius felt that if the minds of the people were busily engaged in the finer things of life they would not be so easily inclined to butcher one another.

In formulating these principle Confucius did not consider himself an innovator, but rather a transmitter of the ancient into the modern. Most of his life was spent in attempting to implement these reforms. For a short time Confucius was a high official in the Lu province, and his policies were immediately successful. However, some sort of political intrigue forced him out of office. The next thirteen years Confucius traveled throughout China in search of more opportunities to share his ideas.(4)

The last few years of his life were spent editing the classical literature he loved. Confucius died in the year 479 B.C., at the age of 73. He certainly did not realize that his work would have such a far-reaching influence on China.

The Spread of Confucianism

The philosophy of Confucius spread in his own time through his tutoring and editing. But, the impact of Confucianism was also furthered by his later disciples, most notably Mencius (Meng-tzu), a follower of one of Confucius’ grandsons. The principle work of Mencius (born in 371 B.C.) was to crystalize the Confucian view of man, which we will examine more closely later.

Like most religious movements, Confucianism has had its peaks and valleys. A major revival in Confucianism began in the 12th century A.D., known as “Neo-Confucianism.”(5) The two major reformers in this era were Chu Hsi (1130-1200) and Wang Yang-ming (1472-1529). Chu Hsi emphasized observing the Li, the right pattern, in human and natural relationships. The thrust of Wang Yang-ming’s efforts centered on achieving enlightenment through meditation and moral action.

As time passed, the degree of reverence for Confucius grew, so that by 1906 Confucius was declared a deity on equal footing with heaven and earth.(6) For centuries Confucius’ teachings were the basis of education in China and were even used for civil service exams. Though the Marxist revolution originally condemned Confucianism, government opposition ended in 1977, and it is not likely that the position of the government ever seriously altered the faith of the Chinese people in Confucianism. And, in Taiwan, Confucianism is still the rule.

Basic Religious Beliefs

Confucius believed in heaven, and in fact he felt although his teachings had the sanction of heaven.(7) However, the primary focus of Confucianism, as in all Chinese religions, is on this life, not heaven. Knowledge about God or heaven is just not that important. Certainly, Confucianism was “a religion without any great speculation on the nature and function of God.”(8) In fact, some scholars debate whether Confucianism can be viewed as a religious system at all. For our purposes though, such a debate is unnecessary. While Confucianism may not primarily be considered a “religion,” there is certainly some religious teaching in its overall ethical framework.

God and heaven are prominent concepts in Confucianism, but the problem is that those terms are very vaguely defined in Confucian thought. In Confucius’ day, “God” was a supreme being. However, “God” later was used to describe the moral force of the universe, and eventually “God” became the universe itself.

Man is very highly regarded in Confucianism. In fact, several scholars describe Confucianism as “optimistic humanism.” This is especially evident in the work of Mencius. According to Mencius, man’s good nature was as the natural downward flow of water. Though it could be perverted into flowing in another direction by an external force, water naturally flowed downward. Likewise, man’s nature was fundamentally good, though it also could be misdirected.(9)

Sin is not really spoken of in Confucianism, in part because the Confucian concept of God is so fuzzy. The only actions that could qualify as “sin” in Confucianism would be the violation of the five great principles outlined earlier. This kind of blurred vision of sin makes it extremely difficult to convert the Chinese. If a concrete view of sin does not exist, how can people be convinced of the damning impact sin entails, not to mention the need for a Savior?

Hence, salvation is a nebulous notion in Confucianism. Although Confucius believed in a realm of departed spirits, it is not clear what he believed about the status of those spirits. And the attention of the Neo-Confucians was centered on the moment when “the mind of man, precarious in its tendencies to good and evil, would be transformed into the mind of Heaven, the state of perfected excellence.”(10)

Confucianism and Christ

As far as its ethics are concerned, Confucianism has much to be commended. However, Confucianism is marred by one very fundamental flaw: it is but another attempt by natural man to provide all the direction he needs in life. Confucius did not see the need for special, divine revelation. To the contrary, “whatever seemed contrary to common sense in popular tradition, and whatever did not serve any discoverable social purpose, he regarded coldly.”(11) This is the Achilles heel of all philosophies that do not account for God. Without the support of divine revelation, Confucius’ teachings were no more authoritative than anyone else’s, regardless of the commendable quality of the morals he espoused (see Jet. 10:23).

Even Confucius’ highly touted “Silver Rule” falls short of the biblical standard. While he taught that he should treat others as we desired to be treated, Confucius stumbled at what our response should be in the event we were abused. When asked, “What do you think of repaying evil with kindness?” Confucius replied, “Then what are you going to repay kindness with?”(12) On this matter the doctrine of Christ clearly supersedes Confucius, for Jesus taught that evil should be repaid with kindness (Matt. 5:38-48; also Rom. 12:17-21).

Finally, the Confucian concept of man and his need for God is completely antagonistic to the Scriptures. While the Bible does not teach that man is hereditarily, totally depraved, it does teach that men commit evil (Eccl. 7:29). And, once man has sinned there is nothing he can do within himself to remove those sins. It is only through the death of Jesus and the trusting, obedient, and complete devotion to Christ that man can be saved (Tit. 3:5; Eph. 2:8-10; Acts 2:38).

From this study let’s learn the following lessons: (1) Be thankful that even though God is far above us (Isa. 55:8-9), he graciously revealed for us all that we need to be complete (2 Tim. 3:16-17). We do not have to blindly grope for him (Acts 17:27). (2) Appreciate the death of Jesus, for that act did what none of us could do. And, (3) strive to live your life as ethically pure as Jesus taught. Do not merely treat others as yourself, but openly love those who abuse you. This is our “upward calling” (Phil. 3:14).


1. Confucius and Confucianism. ” The New Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th edition, volume 16, p. 653.

2. Wilkins, Ronald J. Religions of the World (Dubuque, IA: William C. Brown Co., 1974), p. 202.

3. In fact, it was this view that life’s meaning is dependent on the meaning of death that led the Chinese to revere their dead ancestors. See Wilkins, p. 202.

4. McDowell, Josh and Don Stewart. Handbook of Today’s Religions (San Bernadino, CA: Here’s Life Publishers, 1983), pp. 325-326.

5. Savin, N. “Confucianism.” World Book Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, p. 756.

6. Berry, Gerald L. Religions of the World (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1947).

7. Berthrong, John. “Sages and Immortals: Chinese Religions,” Eerdman’s Handbook to the World’s Religions (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), p. 248.

8. Berthrong, p. 247.

9. McDowell and Stewart, p. 327,336. It is crucial to remember that these authors are Calvinists, and they disagree with Mencius because of their belief in original sin. Be advised of this as you read their criticisms. In fact, all of these sources are either evangelical (thus Calvinistic for the most part) or liberal, so be careful!

10. Berthrong, p. 251.

11. Noss, John B. Man’s Religions (New York: Macmillan, 1956), p. 361

12. Noss, p. 351.

Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 10, pp. 309-311
May 17, 1990