Doing Evangelical Theology with the Japanese

by Kelly Malone

Crucial theological issues and proper contextualization that communicates the gospel in a way that can be understood and applied by the Japanese.

When I was in Japan I studied the Bible with Japanese people in the Japanese language. In doing so, I presumed I was applying a basic principle of contextualization—helping people to understand the truths of scripture in their heart language. So I was taken aback when Japanese people with even limited English ability would say to me, “Can we study the Bible in English? The use of Japanese terminology in relation to Christianity is confusing.” The problem, beyond my limitations in the Japanese language, was that our approach to the scriptures really did not speak to the hearts of the people. I was using Japanese terminology already loaded with a Confucian-Buddhist-Shinto conceptual framework to try to explain Christian theology that had been developed in a Western, rationalistic setting. When North American missionaries try to use Japanese terminology to explain Western theology, confusion often reigns. They may teach Japanese Christians to evaluate their own culture negatively, while at the same time presenting Western theology as the standard for orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

While this Western, intellectual approach to theology has been considered “interesting, attractive, and praiseworthy,” it has failed to bring about theological contextualization in Japan (Sato 1997, 56). Instead, the result has been a “two story” theological framework. The upper story is occupied by the transcendent God of Western theology, while the lower story is the world of everyday life where people “think and feel” Japanese (Furuya 1997, 4-5). Many Japanese Christians, even those who are members of conservative evangelical churches, maintain belief in one transcendent God on the upper level while continuing to participate in traditional Japanese religious practices such as ancestral rites, Buddhist and Shinto rituals, and the occult on the lower level (Lewis 1993, 289). Most Japanese consider this Westernized form of Christianity to be an “imported religion” which has only “limited appeal” for the intellectual elite and certain “marginal individuals” (Mullins 1998, 5). These marginalized believers are, for the most part, those who have a Western outlook as a result of either living abroad or extended interaction with westerners in one of Japan’s globalized megacities. Increasingly, they are drawn to international churches that use contemporary Western praise songs, study the Bible in English, and look to missionaries and other expatriates as their primary spiritual mentors. And they often have difficulty sharing their faith with their own families and other Japanese.  

Developing an Evangelical Alternative

In order to meet the challenge of theological contextualization for Japan, we must begin with the question, “What does it mean for a Japanese person to believe in and follow Christ today?” (Koyama 1998, 9). This is an application of Kosuke Koyama’s emphasis on the need to distinguish between the biblical culture and our own in the process of contextualization:

We are quick to say that in spite of the distance, the issues which Paul raised have enduring relevance to us. I agree. But I am deeply aware of the distance that appears between Paul’s world and ours. If we fail to appreciate that distance, we will not understand the historical concreteness which is vital to Christian faith. This situation emphasizes both the importance and the difficulty involved in contextualization. (1998, 9)

This necessitates finding some connection between Christianity and Japanese explanations of truth. While I was teaching at the Christian Leadership Training Center (CLTC) in Tokyo, my students and I tried to develop an evangelical theology that was contextualized for Japanese culture.

Evangelical theology is done in response to God’s self-revelation in scripture. This revelation, which finds its completion in Jesus Christ, defines the parameters of what we hold to be true about God, his relationship with the world, and his will for people (Stott 1996, 4-5). According to 2 Timothy 3:15-17,

The holy scriptures…are able to make you wise to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

The Bible is God’s chosen means to call us to faith in Christ and to instruct us in righteousness. A theology that is contextualized for Japan will “bring the gospel message meaningfully into the life-context of the people” (Koyama 1998, 6). Only Japanese Christians can truly understand and express theology in “thought forms” and “language” that will be indigenous to Japanese culture (Muck 2004, 3). They must learn to develop theological insights which will “challenge the presuppositions, values, standards, and lifestyles” (Stott 1996, 13) of contemporary Japanese, both inside and outside the church. A theology that does not communicate the gospel in a way that can be understood and applied by Japanese is of little use in Japan (1996, 14). Christian theology is not only based upon God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ; it also affirms faith in Christ as the foundation for life—both in this world and the world to come. A theology that flows out of faith in Christ leads to a commitment to serve Christ. As such, this theology has a missiological intention. Its purpose is to equip Christians to participate in the “mission of the exalted Jesus carried out by his followers in and through the power of the Holy Spirit” (Kostenberger and O’Brien 2001, 266). At CLTC, we found three aspects particularly useful for the process of theological contextualization.

1. Biblical-cultural dialogue.
The use of biblical-cultural dialogue is essential for the development of a theology that is both evangelical and contextual. We began this process by raising an issue (such as polytheism, religious pluralism, or ancestor veneration) from Japanese culture. Then, we looked at how the Christian scriptures respond to this issue. We sought to answer the question, “What does God have to say to us (Japanese) today?” This is an important step in the development of the personal identity of Japanese Christians. Hideo Yuki has said, “If Japanese Christians do not clarify their faith, they will not become Christian. The person must search for his/her faith” (2000, 33). Unless this search for faith is grounded in what the scriptures teach, people are prone to believe what seems most coherent, reasonable, or in keeping with their own religious experience. Only a “biblically constructed theology” that is consistent with the truth of divine revelation can be authentically Christian (Kantzer 1996, 27-28).

2. Biblical narrative.
We focused on biblical narrative as God’s chosen medium for revelation. After surveying biblical texts that were germane to understanding an issue, we attempted to enter into “constructive and corrective engagement” with the biblical narrative in our own contemporary setting (Flemming 2002, 204). This was done by trying to locate and understand the overlap between the biblical story and our own personal stories in order to apply the truth of the biblical texts to our own lives. Our goal was to move beyond biblical-cultural dialogue to personal transformation through what God was saying to us in his word.

3. Christian community.
Theology, like worship and fellowship, should be a “communal activity.” The Christian community provides the “interpretive framework” through which the meaning of the biblical text enters into our personal lives. The story of God’s work of grace in Jesus Christ brings transformation as we learn to appropriate its truth together (Grenz 2000, 316-317). At CLTC, we applied this principle through the use of small group discussion, teacher-student dialogue, and response papers in which students restated what they learned in class. In this way, class participants became part of a “hermeneutical circle” in which “active dialogue” with the “text [became] a vehicle for integrating the community into the sacred” (Roetzel 1985, 94). This is what Gary Corwin calls the “horizontal aspect” of theology: it is based upon the realization that “good theology” develops in the context of our relationships with other believers (2003, 146).

Doing Theology Together

Students at CLTC are learning to reach their own theological conclusions, and in doing so, they are making the Christian faith their own. Just as importantly, they are learning to state their beliefs in language and thought forms that are readily understood by Japanese people. This section focuses on three examples of the application of our theological method. Each example is a crucial theological issue in Japan: developing a monotheistic faith in a polytheistic context, understanding and explaining the work of Christ, and the nature and mission of the local church.  

1. One God in a land of many gods.
Japanese Christians face the difficulty of confessing faith in only one God while those around them allow for the possibility of many gods. While not unique to Japan, Japanese Christians must face this issue in order to establish their identity as followers of Jesus Christ. The term kami used to translate God into Japanese did not originally mean anything like the Christian concept of God (Suzuki 2001, 131-133). The term kami was originally applied to any object worthy of “respect and fear.” Norihisa Suzuki succinctly summarizes this distinction:

Comparing this concept with the Christian concept of God, we find first that the Christian God is the sole God, whereas there is a plurality of kami. Second, the Christian God is a transcendental god who supercedes….humans, plants, animals, and all other living things in the natural world as well as all phenomena; whereas anything that derives from such beings and phenomena that is “out of the ordinary” is a kami. Third, the Christian God is an omniscient and omnipotent god, whereas “evil and queer things” and other dreadful beings are labeled kami. Furthermore, whereas the Christian God is the creator of the universe, not all Japanese kami are understood as such. (2002, 141)  

Because of this polytheistic and animistic background, many Japanese have difficulty understanding kami when it is used to refer to the monotheistic God of Christianity (Suzuki 2001, 144). When kami is used, “‘the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’ [loses] its distinctive features and become[s] more in harmony with other gods in the universe” (Suzuki 2002, 155). The personal God of Christianity is reduced to an impersonal “life force” (Aung 2000, 88-91).

In order to respond to this issue, at CLTC we began with the observation that biblical monotheism, like the monotheism of Japanese Christianity, arose within a polytheistic context. The Hebrew term El, for example, which is used for the God of Israel in the Old Testament, was originally identified with the polytheistic gods of the Mesopotamian and Semitic religions. In both the Old and New Testaments there is a continuous struggle to distinguish the God of Israel and, later, Christianity, from the deities of the surrounding peoples. The prevailing attitude of the world was that Yahweh was Israel’s god as opposed to the gods of other peoples. But Jews and Christians astounded other peoples of the ancient world with their claim that Yahweh alone was the one true God while all other gods were “false” (Grenz 2000, 272-274).

The realization that Japan’s polytheistic context is similar to the situation faced by both Old Testament believers and New Testament Christians enabled my students to enter into the biblical story. The same ambiguity that takes place when the term kami is used for God in Japan is also found in the use of the Hebrew Elohim for God in the Old Testament. While the natural sense of the plural Elohim is a plurality of gods, in the Old Testament it is used to refer to the “one God of Israel” (Roetzel 1985, 80). The same can also be said of Theos, the Greek word translated “God” in the New Testament. For example, when Paul proclaimed the gospel in Athens, he was brought before the ruling council because they wanted to know more about the gods of whom Paul was speaking (Acts 17:19-21). My students were encouraged in their own faith as they considered the biblical accounts of those who chose to believe there was only one true God while living in a polytheistic context. God makes this possible by revealing himself to us through creation, the conscience, direct manifestations (such as angelic appearances, dreams, visions, and direct speech), and his “self-revelation in the scriptures and the incarnation of Jesus Christ” (Netland 2005, 145-147). One of my students related how she had believed in one God from an early age because she thought a creator was the best explanation for the beauty she saw in nature. But it was only possible for her to enter into a personal relationship with this God later as a result of participation in Bible studies and hearing the testimonies of Christians who shared about their relationship with Jesus Christ.

2. Toward a Japanese understanding of Christ’s work.
It is difficult for the average Japanese person to grasp the Christian doctrine of the atonement. One person who tried to tell his mother about Jesus told me her response was, “How could one man’s death be for everyone?” A contextualized Christian theology must answer this question in a way that responds to both people’s intellectual issues and their spiritual yearnings. At CLTC, after an overview of four major views of the atonement—the moral example view, the satisfaction view, the penal substitution view, and the Christus Victor view—I raised the question, “Which view is most helpful for your understanding of the atonement?” While my students from conservative evangelical churches were familiar with penal substitution, they said it was difficult for the average Japanese person to understand because Japanese religions have no tradition of animal sacrifice. From a Buddhist standpoint, the thought of blood sacrifice is abhorrent. Spiritual purification of “soul and body” is sought through cleansing rituals (Ueda 1996, 34).

The satisfaction view of the atonement, however, is easy for Japanese to understand. Japanese society was built upon a feudal model until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Since Japan is less than two centuries removed from feudalism, many underlying themes of feudalism, especially honor and fulfilling obligation to those in authority, continue to be part of the Japanese psyche. There are many stories of Samurai, who acted to fulfill the honor of their feudal lord. According to the satisfaction view, God is like a feudal lord whose honor we have failed to satisfy due to our sin. Since we have dishonored God, we have committed a sin worthy of death. Jesus acts in our place, satisfying the requirements of God’s honor on our behalf (Garrett 1995, 21-22). When Japanese hear that God is our Lord whose honor was fulfilled through Christ’s work, they are hearing the gospel in terms that fit their worldview. Once this connection has been established, it is possible to explain more fully the meaning of the atonement using other motifs such as penal substitution, moral example, and Christus Victor.

3. Church as “holy place.”
Indigenous Japanese religion is oriented toward action based upon predetermined responses to specific situations. Many people become “practicing Buddhists” when they visit the temple at New Year’s and the summer Bon festival. (Bon is the annual festival during which ancestral spirits are believed to return to visit their families. The time of celebration varies with location, but is held each summer in either mid-July or mid-August.) Also, many people become “practicing Buddhists” when they follow prescribed rituals at the family altar on behalf of deceased family members. They become “practicing Shintoists” for a wedding, the dedication of a child at the local shrine, and during the annual summer festival (Reader 1991, 15-16). In this context, belief develops “through contact and action: ritualism may at times be formal, but it can also progress in the right circumstances into committed participation and belief” (1991, 17). Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines are “locations” where spiritual power can be contacted and experienced (1991, 137-138).

The Church in Japan needs to become a place where people experience God’s transforming power. In order to accomplish this, churches must move away from their traditional “intellectual, clergy-centered” orientation toward an emphasis on the empowerment of “members through instruction and gifts of the spirit” (Mullins 1998, 180). At CLTC, we discussed what this kind of church might look like in Japan. Typically, churches limit their activities to only one location. Almost all ministry, evangelism, and discipleship are done only at the church building. Furthermore, the tendency is for all of this to be done by only one person—the pastor. So we talked about shifting the place which church occupies from one location in the community to the community as a whole.  Rather than “huddling together” as small groups, Christians are called to live as God’s people “in the midst of” their communities (Grenz 2000, 284). Christians can give the lost the opportunity to experience authentic community that comes about through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ by hosting small groups that meet for worship, fellowship, Bible study, ministry, and prayer. Rather than withdrawing these small groups into the limited confines of the church building, they can meet at various locations in the community.

Empowered with this new insight, I have seen CLTC graduates go out determined to make an impact by sharing the gospel in both word and deed with their communities. Their goal is to carry out the Great Commission while going into the world (Matt. 28:19). Rather than bringing people to a particular place to meet Jesus, they are acting on the belief that Jesus is already present and at work wherever they go (Matt. 28:20). Because Jesus is already there, we can make disciples everywhere. Those who respond with faith and obedience to Jesus’ call become his followers.

The Road Ahead

One day in class we discussed the doctrine of the Trinity. One of my students made the observation, “These are interpretations of biblical teaching about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. How can we know for certain that any of these interpretations are correct?” I was reminded once again of the need for Japanese Christians to make Christian theology their own. The same could be said for every people group in the world, whether in Tokyo, Tehran, or Toledo. This does not mean that people are free to believe anything they want. Nor does it mean they should merely interpret scripture through the lenses of their own culture in order to derive their own localized version of truth. We must encourage Christians to commit to serious dialogue between biblical truth, Christian tradition, their cultural context, and their own personal experiences. This process must take place as we do theology together under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. Only then can we reach an understanding of God’s truth which will engage people’s minds as well as speak to their hearts.

My students and I have taken a few steps down this road together. Along the way, we have been reminded of God’s faithfulness and the reliability of his word. We have learned to listen to God’s Spirit, who speaks to us through the word, as well as through other believers in the context of Christian community. We have grown in our awareness of the necessity of faith, not only for eternal life, but also for living in the midst of a broken and fallen world. We have seen that good theology which challenges the mind and transforms the heart also compels us to make Christ known among the people of Japan and around the world.


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______________. 2002. “On the Translation of God (Part Two).” Japanese Religions 27(2):133-158.

Ueda, Kenji. 1996. “Shinto.” In Religion in Japanese Culture. Eds. Noriyoshi Tamura and David     Reid, 25-42. Tokyo: Kodansha International.

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Kelly Malone is assistant professor of intercultural studies and Jack Stanton chair of evangelism at Southwest Baptist University. He served with the International Mission Board, SBC, in Japan from 1992 to 2007.

Copyright  © 2009 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS. 


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