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Jesus as the dutiful son: Confucian ideals in Asian christology

Jesus as the dutiful son: Confucian ideals in Asian christology

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Published by: Simon Cozens on May 28, 2010
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Jesus as the dutiful son: Confucian ideals in Asian christology
Simon Cozens
May 28, 2010

The doctrine of filial piety is one of the most obvious demonstrations of Confucian philosophy in Asian society today, and, according toChing (1977, p98), the reason why Confucianism is still an integral part of the Asian worldview. Missionaries have debated the limits of acceptable involvement in filial piety rites since the 17th century; (Luttio,1994) Christian firstborn sons are left with little or conflicting guidance about their role with regards to family responsibilities; and yet Christian teaching about these areas revolves around themes of the sovereignty of God and the prohibition of idolatry, without dealing directly with the issue of ancestral obligations.

This essay takes as its point of departure the image of Jesus Christ as the \u2018firstborn over all creation\u2019 from Colossians 1:15-18, and investigates the possibility of developing a christology of the prototypical Son, Christ the fulfillment of Confucian filial ideals. We will proceed by investigating the contributions of Confucian theologians to date, highlighting relevant theological work by authors from Africa, and presenting Biblical exegesis for these ideas. We will assume that the reader has knowledge of the Confucian worldview and its heritage in the East Asian region today;Rozman (1991) provides a useful primer.

1 Contextualchristology

The discipline of christology, in the words ofPhan (2003, p123), is \u201cnothing but attempts to answer Jesus\u2019 question \u201cWho do you say that I am?\u201d\u201d. WhereasO\u2019Collins (1995) claims to present a universal \u201cchristology\u201d based on first- century evidence and the historic debates of the church,Greene (2004) envisages a plurality of christologies, drawing on the categorizations of christology from below (starting with Jesus the man) and from above (starting with Jesus\u2019 divine status), and Moltmann\u2019s categories of \u201ctherapeutic\u201d and \u201ctheoretical\u201d christologies. (pp. 18\u201326) These categorizations are a step forward, but the answer to the question \u201cwho do you say that I am?\u201d will need to be adequately contextualized to the cultural, historical and sociological location of the respondent.

Similarly,Parratt (1995, p81), writing about African theology, makes an interesting point in regard the development of christologies in context: much of Western christology has revolved around the titles of Christ\u2014Messiah, Christ, Son of Man, Son of David, and so on\u2014whereas such titular approaches have \u201cnot provided a promising basis for an African christology.\u201d Instead, Third World theologians focus more on \u201cfunctional\u201d or existential approaches: what Christ has done, and how his deeds relate to the individual believer.

Parratt citesPobee\u2019s (1979, p81) question \u201cWhy should an Akan [a member of his tribe] relate to Jesus of Nazareth, who does not belong to his clan, family, tribe or nation?\u201d There is an echo here of the words of the Gaderene demoniac in Mark 5:7:\u03c4\u03af \u1f10\u03bc\u03bf\u1f76 \u03ba\u03b1\u1f76 \u03c3\u03bf\u03af, \u1f38\u03b7\u03c3\u03bf\u1fe6;\u2014\u201cwhat is there between me and you?\u201d The key question in this form of christology is the nature of the relationship between Jesus and the individual believer. We might go further and suggest that for christology to \u201cwork\u201d in Africa, it must be profoundlyrelational. Latin theology, developed in the imperial tradition of Rome and the feudal setting of Europe, traditionally relies on positional and titular authority to communicate the person of Christ; Eastern theology in the Greek philosophical tradition is motivated by ontological considerations; but in African\u2014and, we would argue, Asian\u2014contexts, the primary relationship is the clan, the family, the ancestors. To answer the question of how Jesus relates to us in these contexts, we must, Parratt argues, look to the acts and experience of Jesus, and, significantly for this present study, examine how Jesus has brought us into a fuller community beyond and transcending the old clans and communities. (p. 82)


From an Asian perspective,Phan (2003) also remarks that attempts at christological investigation must be made \u201cin the context and in terms of their own cultures and socio-political conditions.\u201d (p. 98) The transplanted \u201cpot\u201d of Western theology must be broken for the living plant within to take root in new soil. After reviewing three contemporary Asian christologies, he posits that an \u201cadequate\u201d theology must use \u201cthe resources of the Asian people, both their philosophies and their stories.\u201d (p. 119)

We will return to Peter Phan later as we explore his christology of Jesus as the elder brother and ancestor.
2 Existing Confucian Christologies

While many theologians have embarked on the search for a christology engaging with Confucian worldview, very few have dealt with the concept of filial piety and the dutiful son. To examine some of these theologians in historical order: Wu Lei-ch\u2019uan first sought to engage Confucianism in the 1920s in China, developing a Messianic christology around theChung Yung\u2019s idea of the \u201ccoming saint\u201d; (seeLam 1983, p63ff.)Ching (1977) mentions the Five Relationships of Confucianism but does not apply them to Christianity;Lee (1993) explores Christ as the Way and the Light;Kim (1994) contrastsjen andagape;Yeo (2005) examines the \u201ccruciformren\u201d of Christ putting an end to the law, and inYeo 2008 develops parallels between the Jewish law and Confucianli;Tan (2006) focuses on Jesus as the Confucian sage.

Only two theologians, however, Danjo Ebina and Peter C. Phan, have directly considered the question of filial piety
and the Sonship of Christ, and we will examine and critique their thought here.
2.1 DanjoEbina

The first Japanese Protestant theologian, Danjo Ebina, sought to integrate his Confucian worldview with Christian faith. The locus of his faith was a personal experience of God, and he \u201ccame to discover his deep desire to seek God the Father as his child,\u201d (Dohi,1997, p14). He referred to his relationship with God as afushi ushin, \u2018father-son ethics\u2019 and saw Christianity as \u201cthe fulfillment of Confucianism from the standpoint of his own self-identity or self-realization.\u201d (Ishida,

1992) Japanese theology therefore began as an encounter with Confucianism and specifically with filial piety. We see some
elements in Ebina\u2019s writing which point to Christ as the prototypical dutiful son:

The reason why Christ was aware that his relation with God was an ethical father-child relation, was that there was an ontological father-child relationship in his person. The reason why there was an ethical father- child sustance in Christ was that there was in his person something equal to theousia of God. (cited inDohi

1997, p26)

Ebina\u2019s views were attacked at the time by Masahisa Uemura who, while happy to describe Christianity as \u201cthe way of filial piety\u201d (cited inDohi 1997, p29), sought more of a break from his Confucian past than Ebina. He considered Ebina\u2019s christology to suffer from the heresy of adoptionism, he argued that Ebina denied the divinity of Christ, (a charge which Ebina himself vigorously denied) he stated that if Christ is our elder brother then he is not distinctly different from us and cannot function as our saviour, and appealed for a return to the historical creeds of the Church.

Ebina, for his part, argued that the historical creeds are the result of contextualised debates and discussions and need to be re-evaluated in new historical circumstances. (Ishida,1992) In a sense, Ebina\u2019s christology is a Confucian development of Abelard\u2019s moral influence theory of atonement. For Ebina, Christ is able to be our saviour because he represents the highest form of man and \u201cthe difference between Christ and us is not one of substance, but in the degree of development.\u201d (cited inDohi 1997, p26) Because Christ realized the father-child relationship with God, he is able to draw out the latent divine nature within ourselves. Similarly, for Abelard, Christ\u2019s obedience to his Father ignites a \u201csupreme love in us, which not only frees us from slavery to sin, but also acquires for us the true liberty of sons of God.\u201d (Commentary on Romans, cited inHill 2003, p139)

Hill goes on to point out two objections to subjective understandings of the atonement, both of which apply to Ebina\u2019s christology. First, merely having Christ as an example does not help us to attain that \u201cdegree of development\u201d of which Ebina speaks\u2014if all we are to do is to follow Christ\u2019s example of love then we are essentially saving ourselves; second,

that there is nothing necessarily salvific about Christ\u2019s obedience, and if there is something about that obedience which is
objectively salvific, then the subjective theory is superfluous:

This, then, is a serious problem with many subjective accounts of the atonement.Either they seek too weak, failing to explain why Christ\u2019s death should change us so much as to save us;or they seem superfluous, riding on the coat tails of another theory of the atonement. (Hill,2003, p140)

To this we can add a third objection specifically for Ebina\u2019s theology: whereas Abelard wrote from detailed personal and cultural understanding of sin and its relationship to salvation, Ebina was always dogged by charges that he never understood the nature of sin. (Germany,1965, p25) In a sense, he never subjectively needed a saviour; what he needed, as a young samurai after the Meiji Restoration had dissolved the feudal system, was a lord to serve, (Dohi,1997, p13) and it was his individual charismatic experience of adoption, acceptance and commitment that engendered his whole theology. The problem which Christ solved for him was not spiritual; it was historical.

These objections should be borne in mind when developing a christology of filial piety. To overcome them, such a christology must demonstrate that Christ\u2019s status as proto-firstborn must provide real salvific and not merely exemplary \u201cvalue\u201d to the individual believer, and that it is firmly rooted both in the cultural context but also in the common experience and heritage of the Christian community.

2.2 PeterPhan
As we noted earlier, (Phan,2003) describes some of the requirements for an \u201cadequate\u201d christology within an Asian
context, one of which is a serious engagement with issues of filial piety: He tackles the issue head-on by suggesting that

\u2026 an Asian Christology must develop the image of Jesus as theelder brother of the family, caring for his siblings and responsible for the cult of the ancestors (Jesus as firstborn among the living) and after his death and resurrection, as anancestor mediating the life of God to the community (Jesus as firstborn among the dead). (pp. 121)

Phan traces the outlines of a christology in these terms, stressing Jesus\u2019s status as the firstborn son and his obedience to his parents (p. 136) and the kinsman-redeemer image which places him at the head of his family clan. (p. 137) and exploring how such a figure would be viewed both in Jewish and in Vietnamese society. He then deals with some of the objections against identifying Jesus in this way, and considers the role of Jesus as high priest to the cult of worship to his Father, comparing it with the cultic role of the emperor in Vietnamese society. Finally, he interprets Jesus\u2019s death and resurrection as \u201chis own enthronement as ancestor. He is no longer dead but alive and dwells among his own family of spiritual descendants, his adopted brothers and sisters, just as the ancestors are truly alive and present in the memory of their descendants.\u201d (p. 142)

Phan also makes use of Paul\u2019s treatment of Christ as the new Adam, contrasting Adam\u2019s disobedience to God with Christ\u2019s filial piety in obedience to his heavenly Father, obedience being one of the primary expressions of piety in the Confucian worldview.1

For Phan, then, Jesus is both a \u201cmodel of filial piety in an analogical sense\u201d (p. 143) but also an ancestor who receives the worship of his spirital descendents. In contrast to Ebina, he does not see Jesus\u2019 firstborn status as obtaining our salvation, avoiding some of Hill\u2019s criticisms of subjective atonement theories; rather, Christ is the inaugurator and cultic head of a new spiritual family.

On the other hand, there are a number of critiques we can apply to this concept. First, while Phan argues that the measure of any christological doctrine should be its praxis, (p. 102) there is little reflection on how believers should practically apply this theology. Despite a concern for the role of Christians in the ceremonies around the veneration of ancestors, (p. 135) the pastoral implications are left unsaid: Should Christians no longer take part in ancestral rites? Should they do so on the understanding that they are actually making sacrifices, in some sense, throughChrist ? Or is this christology a basis for developing an separate, Christianized ancestor practice?

1See Mencius\u2019Li Lau, ch. 19

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