Saving God's Face: A Chinese Contextualization of Salvation through Honor and Shame, Part II
Despite all the strengths of Jackson Wu's book, discussed in Part I of this book review, I believe that Wu’s book also possesses significant weaknesses.
In general, Wu makes too many overstatements; he indulges in too many sharp dichotomies, despite his aversion to either-or thinking. (For a rather nuanced review that anticipated some of my concerns, see Themelios.) He sometimes even sets up “straw man” arguments.
As he said in one of his blogs, “When someone is seeking to correct certain views, they will not be as balanced as one would like. This is only natural.”
To begin with Wu’s overall methodology: As an evangelical, he stands within the larger Protestant tradition, which historically insisted upon the principle of sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). In Roman Catholicism, the Reformers rejected the use of any extra-biblical category or frameworks as a lens or paradigm for interpreting the Bible. They were thinking particularly of Thomas Aquinas’ use of Aristotelian philosophical categories and the church’s high reliance on tradition, but church history as a whole has confirmed the danger of beginning one’s interpretation of Scripture with a previous personal, cultural, philosophical, or religious set of assumptions.
Some examples of the resulting distortions in church history beginning with Plato (Clement, Arius, asceticism); Stoicism (ethics, “”four cardinal virtues,”); Aristotle (Aquinas, later Protestant Scholastics); Existentialism (Kierkegaard, Barth, Tillich, many evangelicals today); process philosophy (Process theology, Openness Theology); 18th-century rationalism + Aristotle (“proofs” for the existence of God, purely rational apologetics); Hegelianism (Dialectical theology); rationalism, naturalism, Darwinism (classic Liberal theology); Romanticism (Schleiermacher, Ritschl, Coleridge, Charles Williams); Marxism (Liberation theology); Marxism + feminism (feminist theology); Marxism + racism (Black theology); etc., etc., etc.
(For a Chinese critique of twentieth-century liberal attempts to integrate theology with various forms of Chinese thought in China, see Lit-sen Chang, Critique of Indigenous Theology, in G. Wright Doyle, editor and translator, Wise Man from the East: Lit-sen Chang (Zhang Lisheng).)
Common experience also reveals the same trend and danger: Men read the Bible like men, and women like women; the oppressed identify with Israel in Egypt, while the rich think about Abraham. Leaders look for leadership principles; moralists for ethical norms; philosophers find profound assumptions and careful logic; etc., etc.
In other words, Wu turns an insight – we are influenced by our background – into a doctrine: we can’t read the Bible outside our cultural lenses.
Though he elsewhere says that anyone can discern the correct meaning of a biblical passage by careful reading (what the Reformers called the “perspicuity of Scripture”), the way he states his methodology assumes what Carl Henry called “hermeneutical nihilism” (God, Revelation, and Authority, Volume IV, chapter 14). In Chapter Five, however, he practices exegesis based on a close reading of the text according to accepted rules of interpretation. In other words, he speaks as if we were determined, rather than influenced, by our perspective, but he actually engages in close biblical interpretation as if one could determine the meaning of the Bible through disciplined study.
In a way, his thesis is self-refuting, for his biblical and theological argument employs Western scholarship almost exclusively to establish his point!
Western culture and law
Wu constantly characterizes a focus upon law in the Bible as a “Western” over-emphasis. Here his argument loses some credibility, for two reasons.
First, he does not explain how “law” came to be so important in Western civilization. It is true that Europeans have been greatly influenced by Roman law, especially after the Enlightenment. On the other hand, Western law shows almost everywhere the imprint of biblical law. Canon law formed an essential element of the great code of Justinian. The Ten Commandments were repeated and expounded in the code promulgated by Alfred the Great.
We must also distinguish between Continental law, based on the code of Napoleon, and British/American law, which has a much stronger foundation in the Bible. Blackstone’s Commentaries on British common law exercised pervasive influence on American law for at least one hundred years. (For more, see the discussion on American law and the Constitution in G. Wright Doyle, Christianity in America: Triumph and Tragedy). In the Bible, divine origin of the law is stressed.
Second, and more importantly, Wu does not, in my opinion, give adequate attention to the notion of law in the Bible. Contrary to his assertion that “law” is impersonal, the Scriptures see it as a revelation of God’s will. (Wu acknowledges this later, when he speaks of God as King.)
There are over 700 appearances of the word “law” in the English Bible. Nomos and related words are used two hundred times in the New Testament. He admits in a footnote that 1 John 4:3 says that “sin is lawlessness,” but insists that this is only one perspective (which is of course true, but perhaps not in the way that he asserts). Without going into detail, I will just register my opinion that Wu’s treatment of sin as relational, which is basically correct, does not do sufficient justice to the entire legal matrix of guilt-punishment, obedience-righteousness in Scripture, including Paul.
He seems also to ignore “traditional” Western theological works that show awareness of God as king and lawgiver. (E.g., Guthrie, New Testament Theology, 1981; Thomas Shreiner, The King in His Beauty, 2013.)
Wu’s thesis depends upon the assumption that Chinese people simply cannot “hear” or receive a gospel presentation that focuses on sin as violation of law resulting in guilt and needing God’s forgiveness.
Here he seems not to show awareness of some aspects of the history of Christianity in China. The nineteenth-century missionaries almost all preached such a message, and they gained converts almost everywhere. True, they met with opposition, and they had to explain the meaning of “sin” (zui) with reference to a holy and righteous God, who was universal Lord and King. Their letters and records are filled with instances of Chinese people of all classes who accepted this message as “good news” of forgiveness. In the twentieth century, foreigners like Jonathan Goforth, and Chinese like Wang Mingdao, Watchman Nee (Ni Tuosheng), and especially John Sung (Song Shangjie) saw hundreds of thousands of people express repentance for sin and faith in a Christ who suffered on their behalf.
(For more on these men and other similar figures, see the online Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity and G. Wright Doyle, editor, Builders of the Chinese Church.)
My own experience over the past twenty-five years of working with Chinese intellectuals in America confirms the undeniable fact that many Chinese can be shown their guilt before a righteous God, their need for pardon, and the necessity of trusting in Christ as a substitutionary atoning sacrifice.
Though Wu mentions the Legalist tradition in China, he does not seem to give it adequate emphasis. Chinese law has a long, rich history, as the Tang code and the Great Qing Code testify. Furthermore, in a forthcoming paper, Danny Hsu shows that Chinese, even “Confucian” elites, have always evinced an awareness of sin as moral transgression and guilt as violation of legal and moral standards.
The Wikipedia article on Chinese law says, “One element of the traditional Chinese criminal justice system is the notion that criminal law has a moral purpose, one of which is to get the convicted to repent and see the error of his ways. In the traditional Chinese legal system, a person could not be convicted of a crime unless he has confessed. More recent studies have demonstrated that most of the magistrates' legal work was in civil disputes, and that there was an elaborate system of civil law which used the criminal code to establish torts.”
The Buddhist teaching on heaven and hell, with punishment and rewards for ethical disobedience or obedience, is another indication of the power of this “legal” framework within Chinese society.
“Straw man” arguments
His “straw man” arguments include characterizing traditional Western theology as having an “obsession” with forgiveness, as if forgiveness of sins were not a matter of major concern in the entire Scripture, and as if Western theologies did not treat other aspects of salvation as well (e.g.. adoption, regeneration, reconciliation, purification, union with Christ, new life, etc.).
Another example would be his assertion that for Chinese, salvation must have practical effects, and that we must always include inward transformation as part of the subjective component of salvation. The necessity of personal transformation has been consistently stressed in Protestant theology. One thinks of the Reformers’ insistence of works as attesting true faith; the Pietists; the Puritans; Jonathan Edwards; and most modern discussions of salvation.
Individual vs. group identity
Though Wu does acknowledge that we do not have to choose between either group or individual identity, in the course of making the very important point that salvation has corporate aspects (believers are members of the Body of Christ; children in God’s family; citizens of the New Israel, etc.), he often sounds as if he thinks that group identity is ontologically prior to individual identity. His apparent proposal in some places of the group as the primary aspect of individual identity does not appear to me to be biblical. The Scriptures often speak of individuals as responsible moral agents before God. (E.g., Ezekiel 18:4, “The soul that sins shall die”; Ezekiel 33:1-19; Ps 62:12; Rom. 2:16; 3:10, 22; 4:4, 8; 2 Cor. 5:10.)
He claims that “[e]ven repentance is inherently social, for it entails a changing of value standards and thus group identity” (249). That is true, but Paul speaks of “repentance towards God” (Acts 20:21).
Caricatures of “Western” theology
At more than one point, Wu’s description of “Western” theology borders on caricature. For example, I think he overrates the tendency of Western theologians to overlook corporate dimensions of salvation: (E.g., Ray Stedman’s Body Life; John Stott’s God’s New Society title for his commentary on Ephesians in the Message of the New Testament series.)
Likewise, even as he quotes John Piper and others like Jonathan Edwards on the glory of God as on over-arching theological category, he seems to underplay traditional Western theology’s awareness of this central theme.
A famous quote from St. Augustine is a propos here: “Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. For the one seeks glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God, the witness of conscience. The one lifts up its head in its own glory; the other says to its God, ‘Thou art my glory, and the lifter up of mine head’” (City of God, Book XIV, Chapter 28).
John Calvin is well known for his stress upon God’s glory in all aspects of his theology, so much so that two recent books on him bear these titles: Living for God’s Glory: An Introduction to Calvinism, by Joel R. Beeke; Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever, by Michael Horton.
And of course we must not forget the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s first statement: “Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.”
Clearly, the West has not been unaware of the centrality of God’s glory in the entire history of salvation.
Ethnicity and law-keeping
In his interpretation of Romans, Wu emphasizes the social and group aspects of keeping the “law,” placing ethnicity before obedience. Once again, it sometimes appears to me that he overstates this, and does not give sufficient place to the role of obedience to the law as a fundamental criterion. It is true that reconciliation of Jew and Gentile is key in Romans, but it seems to me that he does not sufficiently clarify the role of law-keeping in the definition of Jewish ethnicity. I realize that he has dealt with this issue in great detail, and hesitate to criticize his exegesis. I must leave to others more expert than I to evaluate his argument; I am merely stating my opinion.
He says, for example, that “[j]ustification is by faith because God’s promise is for all nations” (272). Would it not be more accurate to say that justification is by faith because all have sinned and cannot be justified by performance of works of the law – any law, including the Mosaic Law? This puts Jews and Gentiles into the same category of sinners who cannot save themselves by their own efforts.
I can anticipate ways in which Jackson Wu would respond to all these criticisms, but I present them as, at the very least, ways in which his complicated book could be misunderstood by a sympathetic reader from a similar theological background and with some familiarity with Chinese culture and ministry among Chinese.
Despite these apparent weaknesses (and my assessment could be incorrect), Saving God’s Face deserves careful attention by anyone wanting to think more clearly about how to express the biblical gospel effectively among Chinese.For another, but very brief, view on how shame and face could be addressed by the gospel, see Chapter Seven, “Points of Contact,” in G. Wright Doyle, Reaching Chinese Worldwide.
For a response to Jackson Wu, see Reaching Chinese Worldwide.
Wright Doyle was formerly Associate Professor of Greek and New Testament at China Evangelical Seminary, Taipei; he has also taught Soteriology (the central focus of Wu’s dissertation) for the North American Campus of China Evangelical Seminary.