Honor/Shame Cultures and Atonement: The Need to Integrate Images of Human Salvation

Jackson Wu has argued that when theologians recognize that many cultures prefer metaphors of honor and shame over those of guilt and innocence, this ought to motivate them to re-examine the images used in a theology of salvation (Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes, 2019). Insights on honor/shame cultures today may help bring out aspects of the New Testament that western cultural assumptions miss. His most recent book, The Cross in Context (2022), uses this cultural insight and then goes further to present “the underlying fundamental logic of atonement” centered on a repayment of God’s honor through Christ’s substitutionary but not penal death. Wu’s work and the complimentary work of Georges and Baker (Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures, 2016) treat missiological contexts as one of the sources for atonement models.

This paper suggests that the missiological questions raised by the honor/shame paradigm could benefit from methodological clarity concerning how best to order biblical images of atonement.

Wu, for example, argues that western theology has settled on a static list of atonement models from which one must choose (satisfaction, penal, moral influence, christus victor). Theologians then “create a hierarchy of atonement theories founded on the logic of countless hidden assumptions.” Such cultural assumptions lead many westerners to prioritize penal substitution and thus miss important emphases in Scripture. I propose that Wu’s own theory sets up a similar “hierarchy” of atonement theories that attempts to relate the various images in Scripture to each other. This is, however, entirely proper given how Scripture combines images of atonement and describes their relationships (e.g., Col. 2:13-15). A theology of atonement will attempt to relate all of what Scripture says about Christ’s work in a comprehensible form.

I offer an appreciative critique of The Cross in Context and challenge Wu to relate atonement images more carefully—including the connection between debt and covenant sanctions as punishment. Wu separates debt and punishment so as to insist that when Christ pays our debt, he is not liable to undergo a form of our punishment.
I suggest that a criterion of “comprehensiveness” helps to evaluate atonement models by asking, which model is able to incorporate and explain the other models without minimizing their biblical witness? Whereas Wu’s approach rightly highlights honor/shame dynamics in the atonement, he unnecessarily minimizes and reinterprets texts that indicate penal aspects to Christ’s work. A unified theology of atonement ought to be judged by how well it integrates the various biblical images within an ordered whole.

As a result, a contextualized atonement theology in an “honor/shame” culture may emphasize the results of Christ’s death as the restoration of God’s honor, but will do so in the wider frame that recognizes Christ’s crucial sin-bearing in our place.

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