Mark Noll writes,“coming to know Christ provides the most basic possible motive for pursuing the tasks of human learning”.1 His critique of evangelicals and their lack of desire to pursue deep thinking and constant questioning of concepts that should make us hunger for truth has encouraged me to seek how those outside the Western world would view ideas like atonement. Understanding how Western and Eastern theologians understand sin and atonement helps us deepen our own understanding of scripture.
Western theology tends to orient toward individual identity, individual merit, individual rights, and individual salvation. Therefore, it tends to emphasize the guilt and law motifs in Scripture. Sometimes Eastern views are not seen or understood to Western eyes. For example, God’s glory is an important focus in the Bible. Wu states,
“The glory of God is a major theme throughout the Bible. “All have sinned and come short of the glory (honor) of God” (Rom 3:23) is a central diagnosis of the human condition, calling for salvation. Humans have dishonored God and themselves and this condition needs redemption. Yet, Western theology tends to treat Honor Shame as primarily a social-science issue, not a theological problem on the same level as law.”2.
Crossing cultures and not adjusting our perceptions have created much confusion. John Griffith in 1859, claimed, “Sin, however, in the Scriptural sense, is not recognized by their system. The contrast of good and evil, according to their view, resolves itself into a difference in degree.”3 James Legge said “Confucianism nor Daoism knew anything about the propitiation of sin…The knowledge of God in Confucianism, which has become a heritage of the Chinese people, is very precious; but the restriction of the worship of Him to the sovereign has prevented the growth and wide development among them of a sense of sin.”4 When viewed through the lens of Western theological concepts, Chinese seem to have no view or understanding of the atonement or sin.
Clearly understanding the contrast of a Western (legal/individualistic) and Eastern (honor/shame, relational harmony) understanding of the gospel helps us to see how confusion can arise. This is especially true when evangelicals do not take the time to develop their intellectual depth. For example, taking the “Four Spiritual Laws” and simply translating them into Mandarin, for the purpose of sharing the Gospel, makes an incorrect assumption about the audience it will be used with. The problem is that the “Four Spiritual Laws” formulate the gospel in a Western way. So, translating this Western worldview in the Mandarin language brings confusion and incorporates cultural barriers. These concepts do not speak to the hearts of Chinese. In fact there are many times that when we focus only on bridges that relate to us and our worldview, we create converts that only accept our way as right and their own culture as wrong. Those that strive to contextualize by “limit[ing] the relationship between Scripture and culture to a few select points, their bridges may in fact act as a wedge between the gospel and the local culture.” 5 This kind of contextualization is then superficial.
Enoch Wan writes, “Christianity should not be transplanted to China in a Western pot; it should be transplanted and rooted in Chinese soil …Chinese values of family, honor, and harmony should produce a gospel message that corrects the overemphasis on the forensic nature of the Gospel…”. 6 Chinese desire to understand the gospel, atonement, reconciliation and ultimately a relationship with Jesus in ways that are not western, but rather speak to the roots of their own narratives and traditions.
Understanding the atonement of Christ through Chinese hearts is key to true inculturation. The atonement is seen through the relationships of honor and shame. We shamed God with our sin and according to scriptures the only way to restore that honor is through the death of Christ. If Christ did not die, God would lack honor and is shameful.
Wu puts it like this,
“The cross saves God’s ‘face…Jesus died for God. As he was about to go to the cross, Jesus said to God, “Father, glorify (honor) Your Name!” (John 12:28-29), showing that God honored Himself by Jesus dying on the cross. As the prayer in Psalm 79:9 says, “Help us, Oh God of our salvation for the glory of your name: deliver us, and atone for our sins for your name’s sake!”. Christ’s atonement centrally concerns the honor of God and the shame of man. …God’s worth is so great, that the only object or entity that could satisfy, vindicate, and validate God’s vitiated honor is Christ’s death.”7
Christ’s atoning death restores people to a right relationship with Christ. Those who are are in sin are like Adam. But those who are in Christ…belong to Christ…are righteous, and share his glory” (honor) . This concept makes complete sense to those from a communal society whether that is a Chinese or Hebrew world view. John 17:22 says, “I have given them the glory (honor) that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—“8
If culture leads the conversation about Christ then a relationship is built, rather than a speech given. We must use culture to interpret the Bible. There is a saying attributed to the Talmud that says, “We see the Bible not as it is, but as we are.” People will see the Bible and understand Christ first in what is most relevant to them in terms of their own cultural experience. May we be deep thinkers in how we share the story of Salvation.
1 Noll, Mark A. Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2011. ix-x
2 Wu, Jackson. Saving God’s Face: A Chinese Contextualization of Salvation Through Honor and Shame. William Carey Library Publishers. April 22nd 2013. 7
3 Griffith, John (1859). “The Ethics of the Chinese, with special reference to the Doctrines of Human Nature and Sin”. Journal of the North-China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. 2 (1): 20–81
5 Wan, Enoch. “Christianity in the Eye of Traditional Chinese.” Global Missiology 1, no. 1 (October 2003). No Pages. Cited 17 May, 2019. Online: http://ojs.globalmissiology.org/index.php/english/issue/view/27.
7 Wu, Jackson. Saving God’s Face: A Chinese Contextualization of Salvation Through Honor and Shame. William Carey Library Publishers. April 22nd 2013.