How 9Marks Can Rise Above Shameful Theological Debates

How 9Marks Can Rise Above Shameful Theological Debates September 3, 2019

This is part three in a series responding an article from 9Marks titled “Nothing To Be Ashamed Of: Penal Substitutionary Atonement In Honor-Shame Cultures.”

In Part 1, we saw how the writers, Samuel and Sequeira, misrepresented Jayson Georges, founder of honorshame.com. In Part 2, we saw how 9Marks used strawman arguments. This series corrects the false impressions conveyed in the 9Marks article. At the same time, the series spotlights ways we need to improve theological debate.

Credit: Public Domain

In this post, I continue describing four more characteristics of unhealthy theological discussion. By avoiding the following tendencies, 9Marks can rise above the shameful ways of debating that plague the church.

3. Treating others’ ideas as your own

When reading 9Marks’ criticism, I several times felt as if I were reading a summary of my own work, especially Saving God’s Face, which the 9Marks article considers “a somewhat careful and more balanced approach to using honor-shame categories, although not without problems.”

After complaining against writers of honor-shame theology, they essentially regurgitate what I and others have preached for years! For instance, they write:

Sin is the failure to honor God’s lordship by distrusting him and disobeying his commands (Mal. 1:6, Rom. 1:18–21).

Shame is the human experience of dishonor and alienation from God (and one another) that results from sin, specifically, because we stand objectively guilty, under the sentence of condemnation due to dishonoring of God and violating his commands. Those who live in sin and rebellion will face eschatological shame—they will stand condemned in the final judgment and experience God’s eschatological wrath.

Amen!

In the gospel, Jesus, God the Son incarnate, bears the guilt and shameof all those who have dishonored God and are deserving of eternal punishment and shame. He stood in the place of his people as a substitute to reconcile sinners to God; to credit the honor of his righteous life as a gift of grace through faith to those who recognize that they stand ashamed before a holy Trinitarian community.

Precisely! I’ve argued extensively for this in several places, including Saving God’s Face and, more concisely, in “How Christ Saves God’s Face…and Ours.” So, if we agree, why then do they treat the views of their “opponents” as if they were not their views?

Samuel and Sequeira repeat this error elsewhere. In the section “Cultures are not that simple,” they detail various nuances of honor and shame, especially how they function in human cultures. Once again, I and others make this exact argument in numerous blog posts and publications.

For a robust treatment on the subject, see my Themelios article “Have Theologians No Sense of Shame: How the Bible Reconciles Objective and Subjective Shame.”

4. Cherry-picking Sources

In order to honor those with whom we debate, we ought not to cherry-pick the sources we use in opposing others’ views. The 9Marks article primarily disputes a book published 19 years ago, a short blog post drawing from an article written in 2005, and an independently published “Beginner’s Guide” written to introduce practitioners to the broad ideas of honor and shame.

Credit: Flickr/barnimages

Why not interact with more recent publications? Why write as though a two-decades-old book is representative of those writing on the topic today?

I’ve already shown how 9Marks misrepresented Jayson’s blog post. But now my question is, “Why not interact with his more thorough writings?” By nature, blog posts often are snapshots of ideas, without scholarly elaboration. Furthermore, the original article dates back to 2005.

5. Theologize from fear

This is a serious problem in the evangelical community (of which I belong). So many books and blogs use fear to shape people’s theology. The typical formula for theologizing from fear goes something like this:

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            What if people believed idea A?

           Idea A might lead to Z.

            Therefore, we should not believe idea A.

Another more subtle way is to gradually intensify one’s wording and accusations. For instance, observe the exaggerated language that spans the 9Marks article.

Are these re-interpretations of the atonement faithful to the Scriptures? We contend that they are not. In fact, we believe that these reconstructions empty the cross of its power (1 Cor. 1:17). We present our argument on three fronts, …

We are not free to impose extrabiblical worldviews on Scripture in order to reshape its message in ways that better fits our context. The cross does not come to us as a raw and uninterpreted event, giving us the license to infuse it with new meaning in encounters with new cultural contexts….

“We must not adjust the message of the cross to conform to a cultural framework. To do so is to pervert and distort the gospel of Christ. … Reconstructing the gospel into cultural categories in the name of “contextualization” is an affront to the design of divine offensiveness.”

If you are a reader of a trusted ministry like 9Marks, you will be alarmed. To repeatedly come across such language will firmly sow suspicion and fear into one’s mind, unconsciously hijacking one’s rational thinking.

Samuel and Sequeira own words reveal how they see the discussion. They say, “We present our argument on three fronts” Are we really at war with each other? Should we immediately assume a combative position?

(Much research shows the power of metaphors to subtly influence an audience. Here is a summary of my favorite study.)

6. Arguments from Misplaced Authority

The 9Marks article uses another tactic (to continue their battle metaphor) that undermines our search for truth. Before offering their assessments of honor-shame writers, Samuel and Sequeira ask,

Are these re-interpretations of the atonement faithful to the Scriptures?

“…faithful to the Scriptures” ––– yes, that’s the criteria I want us to apply! I welcome that standard.

They add,

We must read the Bible on its own terms and in its own categories and framework.

Absolutely! That’s why honor and shame are so important for a robust biblical theology.

Unfortunately, the 9Marks post does not engage with my and others’ use of the Bible. Instead, they cite John Stott to defend the “inner-biblical” logic of atonement.

… the inner-biblical and apostolic interpretation of the atonement is penal and substitutionary. Penal substitution is, in John Stott’s words, “the heart of the atonement itself.” It is the “center of the atonement,” the “linchpin” without which one cannot make sense of the other images that the NT authors use to describe the atonement: redemption, sacrifice, victory, reconciliation, justification, etc.

Whether Stott is right or not is beside the point. If we want to argue about what the Bible says or does not say, then use the Bible.

Confusing Background and the Bible

Finally, they subtly appeal to their own backgrounds as though authoritative or determinative for the debate. In their introduction, they say,

We, the authors, were born, raised, born again, and currently live and servein what may be appropriately labeled as honor-shame cultures…. 

… As pastors in an honor-shame context, we respectfully disagree with such approaches.

Later, they add,

…We present our argument on three fronts, followed by some reflections on how we think the atonement should be presented in cultures like ours.

The continued reminders that they are from “an honor-shame context” is a rhetorical device with consequences.

First, they effectively confuse biblical authority with personal authority stemming from their identity as people from a traditional “honor-shame culture.” Being from an “honor-shame” culture adds nothing to the message of the Bible itself. After all, their fundamental argument concerns what is or is not biblical.

What’s more, they speak as though everyone else doesn’t grow up in cultures shaped by honor and shame. They explicitly admit this when they state:

Even a cursory study of social mores in English Victorian society or the antebellum US South reveals a different picture. For a more contemporary example of the West’s honor and shame dynamic, consider the phenomenon of Internet shaming and social media. Consider also the complex sub-cultures within larger communities. To be a high school student in America today is to live within an “honor-shame” culture.

To some degree, all human cultures are honor-shame cultures. What makes a culture an “honor-shame culture” is the mass sensitivity people in a culture have to honor and shame. That heightened sensitivity has pervasive effects on how a community functions.

Accordingly, if someone in an American junior high or from the US South were highly sensitive to the honor-shame dynamics around them, they too could speak with as much “authority” as do Samuel and Sequeira. In any case, no one’s cultural background changes what the Bible says.

Wisdom from Proverbs

Much more could be said about the 9Marks article and ways that we, as Christ’s followers, need to improve the tone and content of our dialogue. Proverbs is a storehouse of wisdom. The book repeatedly offers instruction for gaining honor and avoiding shame. One example comes from Proverbs 18:13, which says,

“If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.”

Let us seek to understand others in order that we may learn from one another. Let’s commit to doing our best to represent others fairly and debate with a spirit of generosity. When we do, we will obey the apostles’ commands:

“Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.” (Romans 12:10)

“Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood….” (1 Peter 2:17)

 

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