9Marks does so much well but representing and responding to issues related to honor and shame are not among them. This is Part Two in a series interacting with their recent blog post “Nothing To Be Ashamed Of: Penal Substitutionary Atonement In Honor-Shame Cultures,” which uses strawman arguments.
I will identify six things that plague theological debates. My goals are two-fold. First, I want to clarify misunderstandings, which the blog post perpetuates. Second, I hope we can learn how to improve our theological discourse by not repeating old mistakes.
2. Making strawman arguments
Unfortunately, too many believers make “strawman arguments.” This logical fallacy gives the impression that one refutes an opponent’s idea when, in fact, he or she does not hold the idea being refuted. This is a more subtle form of misrepresenting a person’s views.
Under the heading “Three Reasons to Avoid the Honor-Shame Re-Interpretation of the Atonement,” Samuel and Sequeira contend,
First, in all articulations of the atonement, indeed in all theology, biblical categories must take precedence over cultural ones. We must read the Bible on its own terms and in its own categories and framework. We are not free to impose extrabiblical worldviews on Scripture in order to reshape its message in ways that better fits our context.
What do they imply about those who advocate for the integration of honor and shame into our theology? Do I and others believe that cultural categories should take precedence over biblical ones? No! Who of us says otherwise?
In fact, an underlying contention made by me and others is that honor and shame are biblical categories. This fundamental observation informs my work in Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes. In the so-called most “legal book” in the New Testament, one finds honor and shame themes nearly everywhere.
The writers assert that “biblical categories must take precedence over cultural ones.” While true in one respect, it overlooks an obvious point: biblical categories are cultural categories. Categories like law, redemption, sacrifice, etc. are all categories of thinking found in cultures throughout history.
Intensifying the Problem
The 9Marks article subtly reframes the implicit charge above. It calls the work of honor-shame writers “re-interpretations” and, later, “reconstructions.” They are accused of trying to “infuse [the cross] with new meaning.” These are needless provocations. Moreover, 9Marks does not defend their accusations.
For instance, Samuel and Sequeira attempt to summarize the way some honor-shame writers depict the atonement.
In general, the atonement is reframed as follows: (1) Through their sin, people have broken their relationship with God; (2) their sin thus results in shame and disgrace; (3) through his death, Jesus takes on our shame and restores our honor; (4) we must respond by being loyal to Jesus and entering God’s family; (5) thus, though we were once shamed and outcast, God through Christ raises us into eternal honor.
This is an accurate, albeit very partial, synopsis of what recent advocates of honor-shame thinking. Which of the above points should we consider “reinterpretations” or “reconstructions”? Does 9Marks deny the above five points?
Arguing from Silence
The 9Marks authors add,
Typically muted in such models are notions of guilt incurred through violating God’s law, God’s wrath expressed in retributive justice for law-breaking, and God’s provision of our Lord Jesus Christ as a righteous, wrath-absorbing substitute through whom we receive forgiveness of sins and a righteous standing before him.”
The word “muted” normally suggests that an idea is not expressed strongly or vigorously. However, the writers imply that advocates of “honor-shame theology” categorically deny substitutionary atonement.
As I show in Saving God’s Face, one can affirm substitutionary atonement and still acknowledge the ways that honor and shame influence a biblical view of the atonement.
In addition, one should expect honor-shame writers to focus less on traditional aspects of penal substitution. After all, it would be odd to do otherwise when trying to serve as a corrective. A corrective seeks to bring balance to presentations of the biblical message. We could easily say, “For the past few hundred year in the West, muted are biblical themes related to honor and shame.”
Grievously, we notice the litmus test used in the 9Marks article––– the test for soundness is whether one primarily emphasizes one biblical metaphor above others. Why must we choose between biblical metaphors? I affirm the value of the Bible’s legal metaphors every bit as much as its familial, royal, sacrificial, or honor-shame metaphors.
For the sake of argument, if ever Western theology were out of balance in its emphases, what would it look like for people to advocate for a corrective?
A final example of a strawman argument is in the section “Cultures are not that simple.” The 9Marks writers say, “the claim that notions of honor and shame are alien to ‘Western’ cultures is overstated.” They cite no one who makes this argument. In reality, their claims against honor-shame writers are overstated. Georges and I have both written multiple posts about honor-shame in Western cultures. We also address this topic in our books.
Strawman arguments give the illusion of truth and ultimately mislead. Using a strawman is not the way we should discuss and debate important biblical ideas.
This next post concludes with the final 4 unproductive ways to have a theological debate.