Read Part 1 here.
Having (1) looked at the honor-shame movement’s understanding of the gospel as a message that changes based on the target audience’s predominant cultural outlook and also (2) gained a better, if not brief, understanding of how the movement views appropriation of that message, we now turn to the New Testament to see if the apostles operated within the honor-shame framework when proclaiming the gospel to unbelievers. 1
Do the Apostles “Spin the Diamond”?
In the end, other than highlighting concerns that some of us have with the theology held by at least some segments of the honor-shame movement, tracking its theological family tree matters little. What matters most, and should be defining for us, is whether the New Testament records the apostles proclaiming an honor focused “gospel” to their honor-shame oriented, unbelieving audiences. 2
Most of the gospel proclamation events that occur in the New Testament are recorded in the book of Acts. 3 The question that arises when analyzing these events is why the apostles didn’t proclaim a gospel that said, “God values you and wants to honor you as His child. God created us with glory and honor, to live with harmony in his family,” 4 or “Jesus Christ bore all your shame and restores honor. Jesus’ disgraceful death removes our shame and restores honor. By honoring God, Jesus allows you to rejoin God’s family.” 5 Obviously we aren’t looking for those exact words. But, those were not the core themes that the apostles proclaimed as the good news in the book of Acts. Nor was it the message that they were commissioned by Messiah to tell the nations (Luke 24:47).
There are only really two options: 6 Either their audience wasn’t an honor-shame society or else the apostles felt compelled to preach a message of forgiveness of sins in order to escape future judgment in spite of their audience’s honor-shame perspective.
Regarding the first option, David deSilva, Jackson Wu and others have convincingly demonstrated the prominent role of honor and shame in the Greco-Roman world. So, we can be sure that the apostles were addressing a culture saturated in honor-shame presuppositions and values. The only option we are left with is that the apostles understood their audience yet chose to stick to a message that was “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.” 7 They didn’t feel free to “spin the atonement diamond” until they came to a facet of the atonement that their audience felt was relevant for them. The diamond was already set in place. Their job was to walk their audience to a certain section of the atonement diamond, namely the forgiveness of sins. That was their commission by Messiah (Luke 24:47). Man needs forgiveness because this same Messiah will one day return and judge the world.
Peter’s proclamation of the gospel to Cornelius in Acts 10 included these two recurring facets of the atonement diamond. Peter, after testifying to Messiah’s death, burial and resurrection, said to Cornelius, “[Jesus the Messiah] commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” 8 Those two facets of the diamond show up again and again throughout Acts when the gospel is being proclaimed to unbelievers (Acts 2:38, 3:19, 5:31, 10:43, 13:38, 17:30, 26:18, 31). 9 In 1 Thessalonians where reference is made to when the gospel message was proclaimed to them as unbelievers (what we might call a retrospective gospel proclamation event), we discover the same theme of Jesus being the one “who delivers us from the wrath to come.” 10
Paul reminds them of how he and others had been hindered “from speaking to the Gentiles [the gospel] that they might be saved,” 11 which the context would tell us means, saved from the coming judgment/wrath. This salvation can only occur if man’s sins have been forgiven. This was the message the apostles were commissioned to proclaim by Messiah himself. They didn’t hide that truth in a spiritual treasure chest to be discovered later by post-Anselm western reformers while, in the meantime, proclaiming a more relevant and pressing honor-shame gospel to the pan-Mediterranean Greco-Roman world. To the contrary, we find that the New Testament records just the opposite. The apostles doggedly stuck to their commission by Messiah while it is the honor-shame gospel that is the recent “discovery.” 12
No one would argue with the idea that cultures can be classified according to their dominant orientation whether it be honor-shame, power-fear, purity-pollution or innocence-guilt. But this perception of division as a way of classifying cultures may do us more harm than good. This is especially true when we see that classifying cultures as “different” carries with it the assumption that the gospel content itself must change depending on a culture’s dominant orientation or outlook.
Since the gospel proclamation events recorded in the New Testament revolve around the themes of “forgiveness of sins” and “rescue from coming judgment,” even though the apostles were speaking to audiences that we would consider to be honor-shame audiences (with a large dose of power-fear thrown in for good measure), wouldn’t it seem like a good idea to ask ourselves, “What cultural orientation do the gospel themes proclaimed by the apostles speak to?” 13, 14 I would like to throw out the possibility that more foundational than the classifying distinctions of innocence-guilt, honor-shame, power-fear and purity-pollution, is the debt-repayment orientation shared by all four of the above-mentioned cultural outlooks. 15
An Animistic Context
My own personal experience of church planting over the last ten years in a remote, animistic (power-fear) context bears this out, as does the experience of many fellow missionaries working in similar contexts where a common theme that new missionaries quickly discover is that, “nothing is free.” We don’t have the space to consider specific linguistic and cultural examples, but it is intriguing to me how well the Nema 16 people, with whom the Lord has graciously granted us the privilege to work, were prepared for a debt-repayment presentation of the gospel in spite of the fact that animistic groups are considered to be power-fear oriented, nearly by definition. I don’t believe that the debt-repayment orientation only co-exists at a fundamental level in power-fear societies.
Space does not allow for a full treatment of how debt-repayment manifests itself in honor-shame societies through the patron-client relationship 17 nor how it plays out in innocence-guilt societies; although, it’s probably not hard for most of us to imagine how debt-repayment would play out in a legal setting. Even in the secular realm, books like Debt: the First 5,000 Years by David Graeber show that there is evidence that debt-repayment is a universally held cultural outlook with a very long history of exercising a formative role in cultures near and far. 18 His quoting of the Satapaha Brahmana from the 6th-7th century B.C.E is but one example: “In being born every being is born as debt owed to the gods, the saints, the Fathers and to men. If one makes a sacrifice, it is because of a debt owing to the gods from birth … If one recites a sacred text, it is because of a debt owing to the saints … If one wishes for offspring, it is because of a debt due to the fathers from birth … And if one gives hospitality, it is because it is a debt owing to men.” 19
The apostles didn’t spin the atonement diamond. Time and time again they helped walk unbelievers to one or two facets of the atonement diamond that we could call, as the author of Hebrews does, “the elementary doctrine of Christ” (Hebrews 6:1). Just because some elements of the atonement are fundamental and form the “door” through which one must pass (you can’t just pass through the wall or whatever point of the building you choose), that in no way minimizes the beauty of the all-encompassing, multifaceted atonement. It doesn’t mean that certain facets are more important or, returning to the house metaphor, that just because you must pass through the door it means that the door is the most important part of the house. It merely recognizes the New Testament precedent: it is we who need to move (repent) if we are to exercise faith.
It is we who must embark on a journey and that journey must include enough of God’s Story for us to understand our need to be rescued from coming judgment. Our missiological theories, our understanding of worldview, our desire to be relevant may all tell us to “spin the diamond” so that we will be more effective in our proclamation of the “gospel,” but the gospel proclamation events in the New Testament don’t give us that freedom. We are not free, as the honor-shame movement would like us to believe, to develop a different plan of salvation for each culture type we encounter.
We must walk our audience to a place in front of the diamond where “forgiveness of sins in order to save us from final judgment” are the facets most prominently in view. On the way there we must prepare them for what they will see. We must place the gospel within the larger narrative of creation, fall, redemption and restoration so that they come to see themselves as they really are, in need of rescue from imminent eschatological judgment. If we don’t take the time to prepare them for what they will see, what we show them will be “just noise” to them. But, that is not because we walked them to the wrong facets. It’s because we didn’t take enough time to prepare them to see the facets of the atonement (the gospel) that the apostles proclaimed to unbelieving audiences.
God’s Larger Story
In our proclamation of the gospel, because it must be understood within the context of the larger Story of God’s complete revelation, we will include other facets of the atonement that are very relevant to our specific audience. But they will always be facets that “angle back from” the facets of “forgiveness of sins” and “salvation from future judgment/wrath.” Facets that speak to people from honor-shame societies are clustered very closely to these two facets, so it’s quite natural to be able to weave those themes into the Story we tell from the Old Testament and the life of Christ as we lead the unbeliever to a place where he feels the weight of his need for forgiveness in order to escape the coming judgement.
We are absolutely free to remind our audience of how shame entered the world and how having our sins dealt with and becoming part of God’s family with a glorious, royal, and reigning future restores our honor. But, those themes are supporting themes in God’s larger Story. Why? Because they weren’t the main themes proclaimed to the unbelievers by the apostles in the gospel proclamation events recorded in the New Testament. We are not free to proclaim as the gospel what the NT doesn’t. It doesn’t mean that, when telling God’s overarching Story, we cannot include honor-shame themes as one of the middle or outer rings of the bullseye, or, to go back to our metaphor, one of the adjacent facets of the atonement diamond. We can and should include them, just like we would highlight other facets of the atonement when preparing a power-fear or innocence-guilt audience to hear, understand and believe the gospel.
What I am proposing is that all cultures can understand cognitively and feel subjectively their need for a Savior to rescue them from coming judgement through the forgiveness of sins. This is true for two reasons: (1) “Although guilt, shame, and fear are three distinct cultural outlooks, no culture can be completely characterized by only one. These three dynamics interplay and overlap in all societies;” 20 (2) The debt-repayment perspective is held by all three cultural outlooks: guilt, shame, and fear. Not asking for payment for a debt owed (forgiveness) because someone already paid the debt is easily understood. What may not be so easily understood (and is why we MUST proclaim the gospel as part of God’s larger Story) is the relationship between sin and debt. I suspect strongly, that western missionaries that have tried to communicate a gospel of forgiveness of sins in non-western settings and have found it to be “only noise” to their audience discovered this to be the case because they hadn’t taken the time to walk their listener down the long preparatory Old Testament path that leads people to understand the cross as it was proclaimed by the apostles.
The honor-shame movement has done a lot to help the church better understand certain aspects of the atonement that had for a long time gone unnoticed or, at least, under-valued. Their desire to proclaim the gospel in relevant ways is unimpeachable. Whether or not the gospel, as it was proclaimed by the apostles to unbelievers in the New Testament, survives the honor-shame movement’s handling of it unscathed is something some of us are concerned about. Hopefully, this article can help us appreciate the positive contributions made by those in the honor-shame movement while also thinking critically about how, when addressing people from other cultures, to preserve and communicate effectively the gospel that the apostles proclaimed.
Article originally published by AccessTruth.com. You can read the article here from Access Truth.
- It is important to note the limited scope of what we will be looking at here: the proclamation of the gospel to unbelievers. I am not addressing the multiplied ways in which the NT authors DO in fact reference honor-shame themes when speaking to believers about the atonement. ↩
- The other aspect that needs to be evaluated in light of the NT’s recording of actual gospel proclamation events to unbelievers is whether that audience was called upon to appropriate that message by publicly demonstrating their loyalty to a group of people (the church) and to Jesus, as per Baker and Georges. That is beyond the scope of this article, but I believe it to be answered in the negative. ↩
- The gospel being that which Paul defines in 1 Corinthians 15 as the message of Messiah’s death for sin, his burial and resurrection as prophesied by the OT Scriptures. Consequently, we can say that the “gospel,” in this sense, was not preached until after the resurrection. For that reason, we are not dealing here with the “good news of the kingdom” proclamation events in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. ↩
- Georges, Jayson. The 3D Gospel: Ministry in Guilt, Shame, and Fear Cultures (p. 57). Timē Press. Kindle Edition ↩
- Georges, Jayson. The 3D Gospel: Ministry in Guilt, Shame, and Fear Cultures (p. 57). Timē Press. Kindle Edition. ↩
- A third option would be that the apostles didn’t understand their audience; but I doubt that anyone reading this article would entertain that option as a valid one. ↩
- The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (1 Co 1:23). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles. ↩
- The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ac 10:42–43). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles. ↩
- There isn’t time to unpack the subtler, but not less real, references to coming judgment (and forgiveness that is needed to avoid it) in Acts 20:26 where Paul alludes to Ezekiel’s word picture of himself as a watchman placed by God to warn Israel of God’s impending judgment (Ezekiel 33:1-9). ↩
- The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (1 Th 1:10). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles. ↩
- The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (1 Th 2:16). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles. ↩
- I think that Westerholm is worth quoting at length on this point as he ties it back to the book of 1 Thessalonians. “Doubts begin as soon as we push beyond the issue that Stendahl rightly identifies as pivotal to Paul’s mission—the terms by which Gentiles could be admitted to the people of God—and ask an even more basic question: What moved Gentiles to enlist in a community of believers in the first place? [the importance of becoming members of the community or “covenant people of God” is a key nexus between the NPP and the honor-shame movement] We do not need Stendahl to tell us that Paul did not crisscross the Mediterranean world offering peace of mind to people plagued by a guilty conscience. But nor are we to imagine that he attracted Gentile converts with offers of membership in the people of (the Jewish) God, or that he advertised easy terms of admission to the Abrahamic covenant; with or without circumcision, few Gentiles can have felt a pressing urge to join a Jewish community or enter their “covenant.” Paul’s message can only have won acceptance among non-Jews by addressing a need they themselves perceived as important—if not before, at least after they met him. On the nature of that need, his letters are unambiguous. Most scholars believe 1 Thessalonians was the first of Paul’s extant epistles to be written. Sent shortly after Paul established a community of believers in Thessalonica, the letter reflects from beginning to end the thrust of Paul’s message when he first arrived in the city. At any moment, Paul had warned his listeners, an outpouring of divine wrath would engulf an unsuspecting humanity and bring it sudden destruction (1:10; 5:3; cf. 2 Thess 1:5–10). Human sinfulness had all but reached its limit. Gentiles for their part had paid no heed to the true and living God while serving idols; their immorality was notorious and their conduct in general befitted darkness, not light (cf. 1 Thess 1:9; 4:4–5; 5:6–7). As for Jews, estrangement from God was signaled by their no less notorious history of rejecting his messengers: the prophets of old, the Lord Jesus but recently, and now his apostolic witnesses (2:14–16). Retribution [debt-repayment language which we will look at in a minute] for all would be swift and inescapable (5:3). Many people today—for reasons we need not explore here—do not take such a message seriously. Evidently, however, Paul’s first-century readers in Thessalonica had done so; the notion that a deity might be angered by their actions was nothing new, and divine displeasure was a dangerous thing. Jews and non-Jews [both from honor-shame cultures] alike had always been concerned to keep on good terms with the supernatural powers that influenced, or even controlled, their destinies. With such concerns, Paul’s message found a natural resonance. We may well wonder whether Stendahl can be right in suggesting that the question “How am I to find a gracious God?” has occupied people in the modern West, but it is inconceivable that he is right in denying such a concern to the people of antiquity—particularly if we think of those who responded to Paul’s message of pending doom. Whether or not it induced a harbinger of the introspection characteristic of later times is, in this regard, a red herring. With or without an introspective conscience, anyone who takes seriously a warning of imminent divine judgment must deem it an urgent concern to find God merciful. So much is clear. Conversely, nothing in the letter suggests that the relationship between Gentiles and Jews in the believing community was an issue in Thessalonica. If “the leading edge of Paul’s theological thinking was the conviction that God’s purpose embraced Gentile as well as Jew, not the question of how a guilty man might find a gracious God,” and if the latter question marks rather the concerns of the later West, then it must be said that Paul’s message to the Thessalonians left them in the dark about the core of his thinking while pointlessly answering a question that they were born in quite the wrong time and place to even dream of raising. The answer Paul gave to the question he is no longer allowed to have raised was that God had provided, through his Son Jesus, deliverance from the coming wrath (1:10; 5:9). This message of “salvation”—appropriately labeled a “gospel” (= good news)—had been entrusted to Paul (2:4, 16). To be “saved,” people must “receive” the gospel he proclaimed (1:6), recognizing it to be, not the word of human beings, but that of God (2:13). Such a response to the word of God signified a “turning to” the true and living God (1:9) and faith in him (1:8). Those bound for salvation were thus distinguished from those doomed to wrath by their response of faith to the gospel. The former are repeatedly identified as “the believing ones” (1:7; 2:10, 13), the latter as those who do not believe (or obey) the truth of the gospel (cf. 2 Thess 1:8; 2:12; 3:2).” Westerholm, S. (2013). Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme (pp. 4–6). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. ↩
- This is significantly different than the honor-shame’s procedure of classifying the culture according to their prominent cultural outlook and then adjusting “the gospel” to the audience. The approach I’m suggesting works in the opposite direction. It looks at the gospel proclamation events in the book of Acts first in order to help us think about the target audience’s worldview. ↩
- It is also interesting to consider the following question, “What is man’s default position when it comes to being right with God or a god(s)?” Is it not some form of debt-repayment whereby he will gain favor with the god(s)? Does this not tell us something about the universal understanding of the concept of debt-repayment, particularly in the realm of religion? This is probably most clearly seen when mission efforts go awry. The result inevitably ends up being a works (debt-repayment) gospel. ↩
- The debt-repayment perspective is not at odds with a penal substitutionary perspective of the atonement. Rather it is complementary and explanatory. The very act of carrying out the penalty of our sins is couched in debt-repayment language. Judgment, whether temporal or eschatological, in the Bible is often expressed using words and concepts like “wages” (Rom. 6:23, 2 Peter 2:13), “repay” (Heb. 10:30), “retribution” (Heb. 2:2) or “I will give to each of you according to your works” (Rev. 2:23) or even “treasure” in the negative sense (James 5:3). On the positive side are concepts like “ransom” (I Peter 1:18,19), “redemption” or “redeem” (Heb. 9:12) and “forgiveness” (see especially Jesus parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35). Even words like “reckon/charge” have an economic background (Philemon 18 and Rom. 5:13). All of these speak to this theme of debt-repayment when describing fundamental aspects of penal substitution. Jesus’ death on the cross and subsequent resurrection rescues us from eschatological judgment; that future moment when we would have been otherwise “repaid” our “wages” of sin by suffering its eternal penalty. ↩
- The name of the ethnic group has been changed because of the sensitive nature of the ministry. ↩
- Interestingly enough, although many trace the legal oriented penal-substitution theory of the atonement to Anselm, his theory had this honor-shame oriented patron-client relationship as its basis. ↩
- While I would far from endorse Graeber’s political stance, there is much to be said for his understanding of the formative weight that the concept of debt plays in societies around the world from ancient times. He writes, “What I want to emphasize, though, is the degree to which what we consider our core tradition of moral and political theory today springs from this question: What does it mean to pay one’s debts? Plato presents us first with the simple, literal businessman’s view. When this proves inadequate, he allows it to be reframed in heroic terms. Perhaps all debts are really debts of honor after all.” (Graeber, David. Debt – Updated and Expanded (p. 197). Melville House. Kindle Edition.) (See BBC’s interviews of Graeber regarding debt and religion/religious texts.) ↩
- Graeber, David. Debt – Updated and Expanded (p. 43). Melville House. Kindle Edition. ↩
- Georges, Jayson. The 3D Gospel: Ministry in Guilt, Shame, and Fear Cultures (p. 15). Timē Press. Kindle Edition. ↩