Saving God's Face: A Chinese Contextualization of Salvation through Honor and Shame
Jackson Wu, who teaches theology to Chinese pastors, has written an important book that deserves careful consideration by missiologists, those engaged in ministry among Chinese, interpreters of the New Testament, and systematic theologians. He also maintains a lively blog, in which he expands on and clarifies many points in this book.
The initial reviews were mostly laudatory, and with good reason, for Wu makes important observations that challenge several traditional approaches to theology, biblical interpretation, and evangelism of Chinese people. For excellent surveys of his book and its many strong points, see these reviews by Mission Frontiers, Asian American Christian Equippers, Evangelical Missions Quarterly, and Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. Rather than repeating these competent summaries of his argument, in this review I shall only comment upon what I consider to be some of its significant strengths, and then mention what seem to me to be major weaknesses.
In order to bridge the gap between theology and practice, and biblical studies and missiology, Wu undertakes an ambitious interdisciplinary study. He deserves commendation for his courage in seeking to present material from various fields, including missiology, current strategies of contextualization among Chinese, Chinese culture, and biblical theology in an attempt to build a comprehensive, cumulative case for his thesis. His writing reflects a great deal of reading in different areas.
Wu rightly challenges common fallacies in current attempts to construct a truly contextualized theology among people of a different culture. He shows that we must not first assume that we know what the gospel is, and then try to apply it to a particular situation. Our understanding of the gospel is influenced (he would say determined) by our cultural background, so we must humbly try to recognize our cultural lenses and try to see things from another perspective.
Specifically, his survey of prominent “Western” formulations of the gospel highlights what he calls a tendency to overlook some images of salvation (the main focus of his book) and to focus only on the “forensic” nature of justification. In addition, he makes the common observation that some popular “Western” presentations of the gospel highlight only the individual believer, neglecting corporate implications of salvation. He singles out the “Four Spiritual Laws” booklet as an egregious example of a truncated message.
He calls upon missionaries to become competent theologians and generalists, and to listen humbly to the other culture, so that they may rightly interpret and apply Scripture to different contexts. Resisting limited descriptions of salvation, he insists that we use a variety of analogies from the Bible in order to move towards what he calls a “worldview conversion,” not just a superficial acceptance of a “canned” formula. To accomplish, this, “[a] missionary must so identify with local people, personally and academically, that he or she genuinely begins to think their thoughts and feel their desires after them” (57). Amen!
In this chapter, he also presents a complex, nuanced process of contextualization that seeks to take seriously both culture and truly biblical theology. A major aspect of his thesis is that people of different cultures can see things in Scripture that those from another culture cannot. Like Andrew Walls, Wu believes that insights from different cultures can enable the church around the world to understand the full scope of God’s revelation in Scripture better.
As an evangelical, both here and throughout the book, Wu asserts firmly that the Bible must always be the authoritative norm and voice in the contextualization process.
Description of the Chinese Cultural Context
The second chapter describes some distinctive features of Chinese culture: He repeats the well-known facts that Chinese tend to be more relational, concerned with face, and aware of group identity, especially membership in the family, than are Westerners. They value harmony and avoid confrontation. Group identity is expressed also in a strong nationalism and ethnocentrism, posing a challenge for Christianity, which they often perceive as a Western imposition.
He offers an interesting contrast of Western and Chinese legal traditions, showing that Chinese laws are meant to be flexibly applied, emphasize duties more than rights, and see righteousness as appropriate behavior in various contexts. A sense of shame is essential to being righteous. Chinese avoid lawsuits and much prefer to seek reconciliation outside the formal legal process.
Next comes a most helpful survey of six different approaches to contextualizing the gospel among Chinese. This section is, as they say, “worth the price of the whole book,” and is the best such analysis that I personally have seen. From his conviction that the Bible must be the controlling norm for all theology, he sensitively critiques models that put Confucianism, the Dao of Laozi, Chinese identity, the Chinese language, Western theological traditions, Chinese philosophy, the “salvation” of the Chinese nation, Marx, or anything else before the Scriptures.
His balanced analyses of the strengths and weaknesses of the positions of people like Ding Guangxun, K.K. Yeo, proponents of Sino-theology, Lai Pan-chiu, C.K. Thong, Yuan Zhiming, and Enoch Wan display careful reading and discrimination. He also evaluates such popular methods as “T2T,” the “Four Spiritual Laws,” and others, which he generally faults for being individualistic and focused too much on law.
Very importantly, he agrees with Enoch Wan’s warning that “a high emphasis on individual decisions and immediate response may convey pressure that is simply counterproductive” (135). By the way, this applies to much of current Chinese Christian evangelistic methods as well.
Chapter Four explores the meaning of honor/shame (HS) in Chinese society, comparing and contrasting it to the concept of guilt. He states that the group orientation of Chinese society means that “the concept of shame permeates every aspect of Chinese life” (153). “For the average Chinese person, one’s honor or reputation is ‘more important than life itself’” (154). Especially for Westerners, this extensive analysis of the role of shame and face/honor among Chinese is “worth the price of the whole book,” for it will illumine much that is otherwise mysterious to us.
Likewise, Wu’s treatment of honor and shame in Scripture alerts us to the prominence of this way of looking at God and our relationship to him, as well as the similarities between Chinese and biblical cultures. One conclusion is that “[s]in is not merely the breaking of law. At its heart, sin is publicaly shaming God” (182). To regain his own honor, God saves his people through the work of Christ. Wu then surveys various attempts, mostly by Westerners, to construct a message that recognizes both the biblical stress on honor and shame and its relevance for HS cultures, including Islamic and African societies.
Chapter Five seeks to build a “soteriology of honor and shame.”
Wu stresses that the Bible contains many metaphors, and argues that we must not begin our interpretation of Scripture by choosing one metaphor – such as law-guilt – over another, such as HS. He explains in greater detail why he thinks that the atonement “saves God’s face” by freeing him from the charge that he was unfaithful to his promises to Abraham and indeed to his purpose for creating human beings. Through his work, Christ defeated God’s enemies and began to establish his kingdom on earth. This highlights the royal nature of God and of the gospel.
The atonement also brings believers into union with Christ and thus into union with God’s people, who are the family of God. They gain a new group identity in Christ, through faith, and this is a matter of great honor for them, reversing their shameful status as enemies of God. Our expression of faith in God is a public act that also implies our pledge to be loyal to our heavenly King and to live for his honor and glory. We are thus freed from the fear of losing “face” before men. Righteousness is, therefore, primarily relational, as we act out our fealty to our savior. Since sin is basically a violation of God’s honor, righteousness becomes bringing honor (glory) to him through trust and obedience. A changed life is possible, by God’s power, which satisfies the stress Chinese put upon the practical effects of religion.
There follows a helpful discussion of the biblical meaning of righteousness, with particular focus on its relationship to HS.
The heart of Wu’s biblical argument is contained in this chapter, which features a very sophisticated analysis of Pauline texts, especially Romans and (to some degree) Galatians. Wu shows himself to be adept at handling the biblical languages; aware of a wide range of scholarly material from different perspectives; and proficient in applying the rules of logical inference to buttress his case or expose the weaknesses of others’ opinions. It is by far the strongest part of the book. He tries to steer a middle course between both the traditional view of St. Paul and some aspects of the New Perspective on Paul, especially N.T. Wright’s emphasis upon the “royal” nature of the gospel.
Wu’s lengthy exposition contains many helpful insights.
Throughout the book, he tries to qualify his approach by affirming the value of traditional theology; he does not want to throw what he persistently labels as “Western” theology out completely. He agrees that guilt as violation of God’s law is an important category in the Scriptures and should not be omitted from a balanced treatment of the gospel.
Despite all these strengths, and many more which space does not allow me to mention, I believe that Wu’s book possesses significant weaknesses, which I will discuss in Part II of this review.