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Nozomu Miyahira's
Towards a Theology of the Concord of God

A Review by
Rev. Ralph Allan Smith

Two Major Problems

Whatever the merits of his proposal from the perspective of clarity in Biblical exposition, what about its value as a theological proposition? Again, I have to say that it seems to me less than successful. I should note in passing that I am not in principle against the notion of expressing the doctrine of the Trinity in terminology other than that which has become traditional. After all, there was plenty of diversity in the early Church itself, including disagreement over some of the most important theological terms.

But Miyahira's proposal is unsuccessful. To be specific, the theses fails in two of its most important aspects, the linguistic foundations for the new formula and the notion of contextualization that supposedly throws light on past and recent discussions of the Trinity. In both of these areas Miyahira's treatise is remarkably naive. Where he has majored, the trinitarian theology of Tertullian, Augustine, and Barth, he has demonstrated scholarly judgment, done adequate research, and expounded positions with some nuance. However, in the two above-mentioned areas, his thesis is conspicuously flimsy.


With respect to the linguistic foundations of his thesis, for example, Miyahira's book progresses from an erudite discussion of Tertullian, Augustine, and Barth to a presentation of Japanese culture and language that must be judged relatively sophomoric. We are told about Japanese rice culture and agriculture. From there we jump to Japanese notions of "man" that are supposedly largely influenced by this rice culture. Even on a superficial reading, this blend of bygone Japanese culture and unsophisticated linguistics holds little promise for theology. In fact, the linguistic argument is not only naive, it is remarkably similar to the type of thinking about ancient Hebrew and Greek found in the theological discussions that James Barr put to rest in his well-known work, The Semantics of Biblical Language.[4]

Words have meaning in a context. Historical and etymological considerations are interesting, but not only are they not essential to the definition of a modern Japanese word, they are usually not even particularly relevant. What is important is present day usage. To return to the matter of context, as Barr emphasizes, words have meaning in sentences, not as isolated units. But what is even more important is the ultimate context for the use of both words and sentences: the worldview of the speaker. Within that larger context, people use words with different meanings in different discourses, which is why every dictionary offers multiple meanings for a single word. Only the linguistically naive or the perversely political [5] assume that all of these meanings somehow overlap or include one another.

What do Japanese people mean by the word "ningen"? Miyahira tells us the history of the word and offers an analysis by a philosopher, as if all Japanese people had a common notion of "ningen." I think, rather, that even in Japan, it depends upon the person and his or her worldview. A television program some years ago, "A Warning for the 21st Century," featured, among other things, two Japanese scholars arguing about the nature of man. While they both assumed the basic truthfulness of the theory of evolution, one of them, the Nobel prize winning Japanese biologist Tonegawa, asserted in no uncertain terms that man is a machine,[6] while the Jungian psychologist Kawai, naturally, denied that man is a machine. Though these men operate from more or less the same starting point — biological evolution — they have come to have very different definitions of man. When they use the word "ningen," they have in mind a being that conforms to the peculiarities of their own worldviews. The fact that they are both Japanese is not primary at all. This is not to say that Buddhist, Shinto, or Japanese background does not come out in various ways in Japanese life and thought. But there is no reason to believe that it is so fundamental to their view of humanity that most Japanese must be thought to be carrying around the kind of cultural baggage Miyahira imputes to them in his notion of "betweenness."

Whatever ancient influence from the Japanese agricultural past a sufficiently sensitive observer might be able to detect in the thought of men like Tonegawa or Kawai, it is clear that they are attempting to offer a definition of man that fits their own modern secular views of the world. The question, then, is, what is the view of man that we find in the Christian worldview and what kind of terms should we develop to express that. If the proper word for Tonegawa is "machine" because that word expresses his understanding of man as a biologically determined being, what is the proper word for a Christian who views man as created in God's image and likeness?

But I digress. The point is that the linguistic argument is basic to Miyahira's whole work. If this is faulty — and it seems to me that his argument is grossly naive from a linguistic perspective — the entire thesis is undermined. In spite of its importance to his whole thesis, the linguistic side of the argument seems neither well researched nor adequately considered.


[4] James Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language (London: Oxford University Press, 1967). It is possible, of course, that Miyahira believes that his own statements about the Japanese culture and language are not similar to what theological scholars in the past have said about Hebrew and Greek language and culture. But he might realize that among his readers someone may be struck by the similarity and complain. Shouldn't he at least give us a footnote which addresses the issue?

[5] I am thinking of feminists, for example, who insist that words like "chairman" contain some hidden bias.

[6] Ironically, after Tonegawa went on to explain, with some emphasis, that there is nothing in man that cannot be explained by scientific method, he also added that humans are not simple machines. Rather they have "many random elements" in them. This is the kind of magic that only Nobel prize winners can perform! On the one hand, Tonegawa pontificates that man is totally explicable by scientific method. Then, at the same time and with no apparent sense of contradiction, he also asserts that random elements, which in the very nature of the case no science can explain, abound in this rational machine. The question now is whether or not scientific method has any explanation for why a machine like Tonegawa wishes to perplex us with such paradoxes!


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