Whenever people express concern to
me about honor and shame, they inevitably reemphasize the importance of law.
They are nervous that honor-shame threatens to displace “law” as a key biblical
After countless conversations, I've
realized what the real issue is. (After all, I repeatedly tell them that law is
an important idea.) People are afraid that by not stressing law-language, we
would relativize right and wrong.
This is a bad assumption that is
based on their confusing law, commands, and absolutes. Even if there is some
overlap, they are three distinct concepts.
Typically, this topic comes up when
taking about the meaning of sin. I simply want to make a basic point:
Describing sin in legal term is completely valid, yet
“sin” is bigger than the law-metaphor. It is more than the
breaking of a law (even God’s Law).
I know that can be hard for people
to grasp. Here are two tips that may help.
1. Don't Confuse
Laws with Commands
Sooner or later, someone will appeal
to Gen. 3, saying that Adam and Eve broke God’s law when they ate the fruit.
They suggest that humanity broke God’s law in the Garden.
The problem is this:
God gave a command, not necessarily a law. A
command is only a “law” when one’s metaphorical context is legal. What if we
switched metaphors? As Creator, God is also Father. A father’s commands are not
inherently reckoned “laws.” We do not typically peak of a child’s disobedience
(to parents) as “crimes.” That would mix metaphors.
In short, a law can be a
command but a command is not necessarily a law.
No doubt, sin can rightly be
described as breaking a king’s laws, but we can talk about sin using other
metaphors. For instance, it is just as valid to explain sin as dishonoring God.
2. Don't Confuse
Laws with Absolutes
A number of people uphold legal
metaphors as a way of protecting an absolute standard of right and wrong. They
assume that an honor-shame perspective relativizes moral norms. After all, they
suppose, honor and shame depends on context.
What one might fail to see is that
laws are just as “relative.” A law only has authority within a certain sphere.
As much of the world knows all too well, laws are often created and enforced
according to the will of those in power. Thus, the inconsistency common to many
legal systems does not people to associate legal metaphors with “absolutes.” If
anything, laws may represent arbitrary abuses of power.
In other words, there is no inherent
connection between the metaphor of “law” and absolute norms.
I know how some readers will
respond. They will say, “But God is king of all nations, so His commands are
absolute laws.” Yes, I agree. That is why legal metaphors are essential for
understanding the full breadth of biblical truth.
However, we can emphasize morality
and goodness in other ways (besides the law) without devolving into utter
relativism. For instance, when our view of what is worthy of honor and shame is
oriented upon Christ, we discern what is absolutely glorious and praiseworthy.
Paul’s own words beautifully
illustrate the standard by which we should live and thus what we fail to do
when we sin.In 1 Cor 10:31, he says: So, whether you
eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of
Jackson Wu (PhD, SEBTS) teaches theology and missiology in a seminary for Chinese church leaders. Previously, he also worked as a church planter. He has just released his second book One Gospel for All Nations: A Practical Approach to Biblical Contextualization. In addition to his blog, jacksonwu.org, follow him on Twitter @jacksonwu4china.