Japanese Perspectives on the Death of Christ
How Chuang Chua (Regnum Books International; Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, 2021). 308 pp.
The book starts with a story: A missionary was preaching the gospel in Japan and concluded with “Jesus Christ died on the cross for your sins. If you accept him as your personal Lord and Savior, you will have everlasting life.” After the meeting, an elderly lady approached the missionary, saying, “Sensei, how can the death of Jesus cause me to go to heaven? Besides, I don’t want to go to heaven, I just want to be where my ancestors are.”
Written with an international theological background and years of experience as a missionary in Japan, this book by Chua offers a well-researched and insightful study in contextualized Christology. It is based on Chua’s PhD dissertation submitted to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. His doctoral supervisor (Harold A. Netland) endorses the book and provides a thoughtful short biography of the author, who passed away in 2015.
Most missionaries to Japan can relate to the story above: communicating the message of the cross in a way that is both understandable and perceived as truly good news is challenging. Chua acknowledges the effort that missionaries have put into creative and culturally intelligible ways of communicating the gospel. However, he takes contextualization a step further by looking at how influential Japanese Christian thinkers have understood the cross for themselves.
Three Japanese thinkers
Chua provides an overview of the history of Christianity in Japan and a summary of the development of Christian theology there. This sets the context for the heart of the book: in-depth expositions of three modern Japanese thinkers. All three agree that the cross demonstrates God’s suffering love.
Kitamori Kazō (1916–1998), a theologian. For Kitamori, the cross is the site where the God of love embraces his enemies, the very ones who have betrayed that love and hence come under his wrath. The divine embrace is thus an act characterized by deep pain.
Endō Shūsaku (1923–1996), a novelist. The theme of divine embrace is also prominent in Endō’s religious writings. It is an indiscriminate embrace of a maternal God—especially of the weak, the helpless, and the cowardly. Endō departs considerably from biblical teaching by focusing only on divine love and ignoring divine judgment.
Koyama Kōsuke (1929–2009), a missionary and theological educator. For Koyama, the cross reveals an impassioned God who continually moves toward the periphery in search of that one lost sheep. He develops a missiology of the cross using the motif of the “crucified mind” as opposed to the “crusading mind” (“Let the same [crucified] mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” [Phil. 2:5 NRSV]. See also vv. 6–8 and John 3:30.)
Through these writings, Chua insightfully illuminates cultural themes, religiosity, and the nature of Japanese Christianity. Common to all three writers are the themes of suffering, self-negation, and universal embrace. Chua evaluates their writings both in the light of biblical teaching on the cross and classical Western theories of atonement, and shows how these themes have parallels in Japanese culture.
These three Japanese thinkers are less interested in how the cross saves than they are in the divine demeanor displayed through it. Chua summarizes their views this way: “Christ suffered because of us; Christ suffered like us; Christ suffered for us” (p. 277). The impassioned God who identifies with the suffering of the people seems to resonate more readily with Japanese than the sovereign God who judges them. For this reason, Chua suggests that gospel preaching should focus on the manner of God’s suffering love and on what God has done through the painful death of Christ in order to redeem us from judgment of sin and death.
Approaching theology cross-culturally
In the final chapter, Chua offers three suggestions for an evangelical approach to cross-cultural theologizing:
- The incarnation as a theological model.
- Epistemic humility as a theological virtue.
- Canonicity and catholicity as theological principles (theological evaluations must be based on the entire biblical canon and evolve in dialogue with the global church).
Missionaries must avoid what Koyama calls a “passive-answer theology” and should instead cultivate a “lively invitation theology.” We should meet people on their own terms and invite them to walk with Jesus so that they can taste and see that the Lord is good (Ps. 34:8)
Overall, this book is an excellent model of how to do theology in conversation with the global church. It is a treasure trove of contextual insights into Japanese interpretations of the cross. Any reflective practitioner who is involved in cross-cultural communication of the gospel will greatly benefit from this book.