Reply to Doug Coleman (Part 1)

 Over at Doug Coleman’s blog, he raises a good questionreply-97622_640 about recent discussions of honor and shame. I think others have similar concerns. This post is my response.

Here is an excerpt from Doug’s blog post:

At one point in the video below, Jayson Georges discusses theological issues related to honor and shame. He notes that “Western” theology tends to define sin as “missing the mark,” but Jayson goes on to suggest that Scripture views sin more in a relational or covenantal context. “Sin is disrespecting God,” he says. “Sin rejects God’s honor and pursues a worldly honor.”….My concern lies in the seemingly vague way in which sin is described as dishonoring God or His name. The question that immediately comes to mind for me is, “How have we dishonored God or His name?” And my thoughts always circle back around to the matter of “missing the mark.”

For example, think of Adam and Eve in the garden. Did they dishonor God? I think so. How? By missing the mark God had established. God gave them a clear, specific command, and they disobeyed. As a result, they were guilty, ashamed, and afraid. But the sense of shame, guilt and fear all resulted from the fact that they missed the mark. It seems that the problem was not a vague dishonoring of God, but a very specific dishonoring of God by disobeying His specific command….

I agree that Jesus’ atonement takes away our shame. But how? If “missing the mark” is indeed an essential aspect of the definition of sin, then Jesus takes away the shame we deserve because we have missed the mark. He takes away the shame of our sin, the shame resulting from our dishonoring God by our sin.

First of all, I disagree with the way that both Jayson (from honorshame.com) and Doug link “missing the mark” and law-language. In my opinion, “missing the mark” is the far more vague wording. There is nothing inherently legal about this archery imagery. Keep in mind that we are dealing with metaphors.

4600503019_368e08f915_o_dDiscerning if and how different metaphors relate is not easy.

What I have argued previously (and I think Jayson would say) is that dishonor is the core problem that makes sin the evil it is. As Paul conveys in Romans 1:18—23, dishonoring God is the essence of unrighteousness. Although Romans 1 is a long tirade against sin, Paul never once appeals to law breaking. In Romans 2:23–24, Paul’s grammar itself reinforces the point as well. Breaking a law is but one way that people dishonor God.

We also shouldn’t forget Romans 5:13–14. Paul says

…or sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.

Sin existed even when there was no law.

Which Metaphor?

Explaining sin via law depends on our using a broader, royal metaphor whereby God is king. Though an utterly important truth, this is not the only metaphorical description of God. For example, God is elsewhere described as a father and shepherd.

Not only that, honor-shame language also perfectly suits royal imagery. Citizens are supposed to honor the king. Laws are simply explicit statements about how people should honor the king. Conceivably, someone could think of a way of dishonoring a king that does not direct break a stated law. Yet, no one would argue that the king will tolerate such shameful behavior on a technicality.

In a presentation called “Is Our Theology Enslaved to the Law?“, I illustrate how honor-shame serves as a very flexible paradigm that includes legal and familial metaphors.

Shame is Two-Faced

Finally, there is one more issue that I think is relevant here. Shame is both the fruit and the root of sin. Shame is both a subjective and an objective reality.

In other words, our sin shamefully reckons God unworthy of honor. Sin brings shame upon God’s name. This is not merely a subjective, psychological problem. This is a publicly manifest evil. As a consequence, people become shameful in God’s eyes (i.e. objectively). Furthermore, sin result in humans experiencing shame (subjectively).

Recognizing these two dimensions of shame may help to allay people’s concerns about what shame is in relation to sin.


I really appreciate Doug’s sincerity in raising these issues.

Sometimes, I find that people are defensive and therefore a bit combative when they sense that traditional ways of thinking are being challenged. Doug is a first-rate missiologist. I would encourage people interested in contextualization or who work among Muslims to check out his dissertation, which was published in the EMS dissertation series under the title A Theological Analysis of the Insider Movement Paradigm from Four Perspectives: Theology of Religions, Revelation, Soteriology and Ecclesiology.
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  • james

    Great stuff man. I don’t post replies often but I’ve read just about everything you are writing on the honor/shame stuff. It is a big blind spot in out Western theology. Thanks for thinking through these issues and helping others along the way.

  • Sandra

    Amen, Amen, Amen! Superbly said.

    Not only do I thoroughly agree with your comments Jackson, but I thank you for posting them so that they enter the honour/shame ‘conversation’. It also enables us here in our honour/shame research/writing/sharing in Africa to quote someone else who is saying the same as we are, and who has taken the issue slightly further in giving some clear terminology to some of what we were beginning to understand/learn/see – such as in relation to shame being both root and fruit.

    Could we also say that the ‘legal’ is within the ‘regal’? ie the overarching issue is dishonour and disobedience is within that – disobedience is sin because it is dishonouring God.

    Would it also be right to say that ‘missing the mark’ is sin defined in terms of shame/honour (as you have said and I agree), and ‘transgression’ is sin in terms of the law. ‘Missing the mark’ is essentially ‘falling short’ of the glory of God – its a standard we have failed to meet. ‘Transgression’ is the ‘crossing over’ a boundary/standard as set down in the law. Transgression is then also subset of ‘missing’ of the mark??

    I could say much more. There is much ruminating in our minds here as we together as missionaries and local theologians ponder and study the whole issue of honour/shame and its implications for how we share and teach the gospel.

    Thanks again Jackson for an excellent post.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jacksonwu jacksonwu (吴荣)

      Sandra, thanks for chiming in. Yes, I think you relate the terms well re: legal, regal, and transgression. Your comment is a helpful way of saying it.

  • http://www.HonorShame.com HonorShame.com

    Yes, I’d agree with JWu general response. To maybe make it clearer, here what I mean by the short phrase “sin is shame” —

    Sin is not giving God the praise he deserves.

    Sin smears God’s name (i.e., blasphemy).

    Sin demeans God’s value.

    Sin belittles God.

    Sin states that God is not worthy of praise, loyalty, and obedience.

    Sin dishonors God.

    Sin fails to rightly glorify God.

    Or, sin brings shame upon God. (To clarify, sin does not change God’s infinite glory or value, for that can never change. Rather, sin is the failure to rightly acknowledge and display that glory.) Sin is a breaking of relationship, not only breaking a rule.

    Hopefully that unpacks it a bit more using some other language.

  • dcoleman1705

    Jackson,

    Thank you for the response. I think this is a helpful conversation. I have some more thoughts and questions, but it may be a day or two before I can get them written out. Lord willing, I’ll follow up with a post on my blog soon.

    Blessings,

    Doug

  • Pingback: Some Further Thoughts on Sin, Honor, and Shame - DougColeman.net()