Jesus of the East

  • Jack Heppner, Author
  • Retired Educator

Jesus of the East, by Phuc Luu – A Book Review

In one sense, Jesus of the East; Reclaiming the Gospel for the Wounded, makes explicit what many contemporary Christian writers have been saying for quite some time; namely, that the western church would be enriched if it paid closer attention to faith perspectives in the Eastern Church. At least two times, Luu points to Brad Jersak, whom I have been reading for more than a decade now, as having a major influence on his thinking. But as I read I kept hearing other voices like those of Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Richard Rohr, N.T. Wright, Eugene Peterson, Pete Enns and many more.

In North America alone, more than 2.5 million people are leaving churches of all stripes every year. On the one hand, says Brian McLaren, in Faith Beyond Doubt, churches “… are choosing to double down, often reverting to authoritarian Simplicity, circling their wagons behind demagogues and their Stage One fundamentalisms, whether nationalistic, economic, religious, or, worse still, a fusion of the three.” On the other hand, many are finding renewed hope and direction by refocusing on the “Jesus of the East.”

I find it of interest that Jesus of the East is published by Herald Press, which has been the voice of the Anabaptist Churches in North America for many years. In past generations there were wagonloads of recognized Anabaptist theologians who spoke for the Anabaptist perspective on theology. But it seems that the Benders, Yoders, Hershbergers, Augsburgers, Toewses, Swartleys, Dycks and Schroeders, etc., have had their say. The question modern Anabaptists are now asking is who can speak for them today in any kind of significant and authoritative way? Could it be a Vietnamese refugee named Phuc Luu?

If, in fact, Luu is given that role, I am personally encouraged. In a time when some Anabaptists keep hitching their stars to the disgraced evangelical movement in America, others are looking deep within and discovering the Jesus of the East. Of course Anabaptists have always said that they were intent on recovering the perspectives and dynamics of the early church. But perhaps too often they were still caught up in western theological constructs which now seem to be failing them. So looking more directly at the Jesus of the East may be a way of finally finding the true Anabaptist home. As inconvenient as this may be for some, I think it may be the only way forward.

Luu says that the western theological paradigm began with the rise of Gnosticism and the writings of Augustine, both of which did not have a strong appeal within the Eastern Church. But it was the development of the “satisfaction, substitutionary atonement theory” in the 11th century that cemented the western theological trajectory into place for the next millennium. Of course it was picked up by Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and many others in later centuries. So in a sense, Luu is challenging the central tenants of a thousand-year history of western theological thought and suggesting that we would have done better to stay with more eastern notions. In fact, he recommends that western Christians backtrack far enough to finally discover a more holistic gospel in the East than they have propagated in the West.

This is indeed a massive undertaking, but Luu is confident that it can be done. To make his case, Luu keeps circling back to a few key arguments, each time adding another layer of understanding. I will highlight below some of the perspectives that keep surfacing throughout the book.

  1. The West sees sin as a stain, inherited from Adam’s original sin, which needs to be punished to stave off God’s wrath. Jesus’ purpose for becoming human was to provide a perfect sacrifice for this purpose, which – unintentionally perhaps – allows us to overlook the life and teachings of Jesus as a foundation for Christian living. The East sees sin as a wound which needs healing. Jesus focuses his attention on those who are sinned against, offering liberation and curing. This becomes more clear when Paul is interpreted in the light of Jesus, instead of the other way around as is usually the case in the West.
  2. In the West, in the shadow of gnostic thinking, Jesus is seen through a mind-body dualism. Jesus’ divinity is emphasized more than his humanity. Souls are more important than bodies and the gospel basically has to do with eternal salvation of the soul. The body, and the world in general, is tainted and slated for destruction. In the East, the incarnation is the enfleshment of God. As Athanasius said, “The Word of God became human so humans can become more like God.” In order to heal every part of humanity, Jesus had to assume all of humanity in every way. The body of Christ in this world includes church people and “the least of these!” In other words all of creation is slated for restoration.
  3. In the West, the gospel is seen as providing both the problem and the solution; all people are destined for hell but Jesus has come to rescue from eternal damnation that minority of humans who respond to Jesus. In the East, pagans are not damned, but are like lost sheep who need to be found, liberated and enlightened.
  4. In the West, God is finally able to turn his face toward sinners because his retributive justice has been accomplished through Christ’s death. In the East, God is not counting sins against humanity and so, through the cross, declares God’s restorative and distributive justice, bringing reconciliation, wholeness, healing and unity to all of creation.

In Jesus of the East, Phuc Luu does a masterful job of showing that many of the renewal impulses within the church today are rooted in the eastern way of thinking about Jesus. For me, it brought many threads of recent studies together in a coherent and focused way. Get this book and read it!