The Necessity and Danger of Polemical Theology

Already Not Yet


Justin Taylor:

D. A. Carson argues that polemical theology is biblical but can also be dangerous:

. . . any robust theology that wounds and heals, that bites and edifies and clarifies, is implicitly or explicitly engaging with alternative stances.

In a world of finite human beings who are absorbed in themselves and characterized by rebellion against God, polemical theology is an unavoidable component of any serious theological stance, as the Bible itself makes clear.

But then he points to the dangers:

Nevertheless there is something wrong-headed about making polemical theology the focus of one’s theological identity.

This can be done in many ways.

There are well-known scholars whose every publication has an undertone of “everyone-has-got-this-wrong-before-me-but-here-is-the-true-synthesis.”

Some become far better known for what they are against than for the overflow of their worship or for their generosity to the needy or even for their affirmation of historically confessed truth.

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Contextualization Presentation of the Gospel

<div style=”margin-bottom:5px”> <strong> <a href=”; title=”Contextualizing the gospel” target=”_blank”>Contextualizing the gospel</a> </strong> from <strong><a href=”; target=”_blank”>Werner Mischke</a></strong> </div>

Great presentation on Contextualization of the Gospel.

Related Sites:

Jackson Wu Blog

Werner Mischke Blog

FB Page for Missions Theology

I decided to create a Facebook Page where some of the articles in this blog get mirrored. There are several reasons for this.

1. I wanted to have a place that focuses on Missions Theology (or Contextual Theology). However, I did not want to limit this blog.

2.  FB has its own type of reader. Although most people who visit my WP blog also visit FB, there are demographic differences in the two groups. Wanted to broaden the audience, but also get people from both groups accessing in both directions.

3.  It kind of forces me to revisit and “clean up” my old posts. In theory one should go back and fix grammatical errors, and update thoughts and so forth. But when one has nearly 400 posts, it is an onerous task. But selecting posts to mirror in FB gives me a good opportunity to review and “fix.”

4.  Some are more open to dialogue in the FB environment than in the WP environment. Perhaps the page will be educational for myself as well.

The FB Page is titled “MMM-Mission Theology”

Four “L”s from Missions History

Successful missionaries, mission programs, and mission movements in Christian history seem to have four characteristics. They don’t always have all three, there is a priority to them. Now some that have been numerically successful (such as the invasion and subsequent colonization and “Christianization” of South America) fail to meet the criteria of sound Christian missions, in my opinion. So maybe there is some bias up front. Decide for yourself.

1.  Letting Go of the Ministry.

  • The missionary is not focused on consolidating power, property, or people. He maintains a “light touch on the reins” as well as light touch on the reign.
  • The missionary is willing to share power, and let go of power.
  • The missionary prepares his people and organization for his temporary or permanent absence

2.  Localizing God’s Work.

  • Translate Scripture, songs, and liturgy into the local vernacular
  • Create an indigenous (3 or 4 self) church
  • Christians should be part of the culture (perhaps counter-culturally, but still part), not part of a different/foreign culture.

3.  Loving God’s Lost and Found

  • The missionary loves the people more than himself, and demonstrates more concern about their well-being than the well-being of his “own people.”
  • The love the missionary has for the people overflows the small cup of eternal destiny to all aspects of their lives as individuals and as a community.
  • The people understand, in some small way, the depth of God’s love for them through the love demonstrated by the missionary.

4.  Linking Up Partners for God’s Work

  • Training up local partners in the field
  • Developing and organizing organizations for training and mobilizing missionary partners.
  • Building and encouraging support back home for mission work.

I don’t find these to be equally weighted. Of these four the least important (although still important) is Letting Go. Power is intoxicating, and even good missionaries become addicted. It takes strength of godly character to be weak, to be vulnerable, to maintain limited control, to empower others.

The middle two are Localization and Linking Partners.  I am not sure which is more important. Both really are needed. These seems to be more important and there appear to me to be fewer exceptions— fewer examples of successful missions where there was not localization or where there is no development of people in the field or agency or home.

The most important appears to be Love. A lot of “sins” and failures appear to be overlooked by the people being ministered to where the love of God is identified in the self-sacrificial love that the missionary shows the people he works with.

For me, at least, these seem to be important aspects for training and evaluating new missionaries.

Praying for WEAK Christian Missions

Missions tends to reflect the mindset of the missionaries, and the mindset of the missionaries tends to reflect the mindset of the churches they come from, and the mindset of these churches tend to reflect the surrounding culture.

The Coronation of Charlemagne, by assistants o...
The Coronation of Charlemagne, by assistants of Raphael, circa 1516–1517 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Since missionaries during the “Great Century” of Missions and into the 1900s, Christianity has had a triumphalistic edge to it. Going back a bit to Constantine, and far more so to Charlemagne (PERHAPS picking up some ideas from his grandfather and Islamic interaction),
  • Christianity has often been tied to powergovernmentally and militarally.
  • With the “Enlightenment” it became tied to power educationally.
  • With the Industrial era and the colonial expansion of Western powers, it became tied to power economically, and technologically.
It is hardly surprising that the dominant church culture and associated missions culture became fascinated with such power and often used these powers to carry out its work. Christendom seemed more than an abstract concept but a workable goal.
Is this always wrong. Is it always wrong to utilize resources one has to carry out work for the Kingdom of God? I believe the answer is “NO.” However, as useful as power is… it is also dangerous. Christian Community Development has shown that internal assets in communities are more important for meaningful transformation than pumping in support from outside (Christian) communities.
An interesting quote from Stan Nussbaum is from his article: “Vulnerable Mission Strategies.” It is to be found in Global Missiology (January 2013). For the PDF, Click Here.
When we try to use money as our strength in so-called partnerships, are we not overlooking 1 Cor. 1 as the default setting for mission—God using the weak to confound the strong? Are we not relegating that “weak” and vulnerable method of mission to those who are too poor to be able to afford to do mission the way we do it? Are we not assuming that people do mission from a position of strength if they can and from a position of weakness if they must?
There is a very difficult choice for the next generation of Western Christians. I see no easy answer. Should we complement the “weak” vulnerable mission of the Majority World church with our strength, or should we forego our strength and copy the vulnerable mission that the Majority World uses by necessity? If missionaries and mission agencies are so interested in bringing more glory to God, why would we not cut back on the mission methods that are failing to bring much glory to him? Why not replace them with a more vulnerable strategy, one that for its inspiration harks back to the cross, the resurrection, and Pentecost instead of the conquest of the Promised Land?
Why not pay the prices of vulnerable mission and bring to God the glory that vulnerable mission in his name brings?

1.  Jim Harries’ Mission. This page was recommended to me (Thanks, Jonathan). Jim is a missionary in Africa and has done a lot of work and writing on Vulnerable Missions. He has some interesting thoughts including the (very interesting idea in my opinion) that the proliferation of “Prosperity Gospel” in Africa came, mostly inadvertantly, from missionaries not utilizing vulnerable missions. That kind of makes sense. Using sender-based communication rather than receptor-based communication can lead to miscommunication… including miscommunication of doctrine. Missionaries coming to an impoverished people from a position of (relative) wealth and power can easily add to the confusion of message.

The Harmful Reach of Christians: A Critique of Cross-Cultural Missions

Cardboard Magazine

missionsBy: Michael Simmelink

You know what’s right in the world? Young adults are understanding the words of Jesus to “go and make disciples” to mean spending their time and resources helping those less fortunate. You know what’s wrong in the world? As Paul Borthwick says in his book Western Christians in Global Missions, “although globally aware, these young people seem unclear on what the gospel is beyond just ‘doing good.’”

Mission work has become synonymous with good deeds, and that is the heart of the current crisis in missiology. A good deed can be defined as a usually spur-of-the-moment act that is not expected to be replicated or establish any sort of long-term partnership. It is simple examples like holding the elevator for a guy with his hands full or lending change to the woman who is a little short at the cash register. They say “thanks,” you say…

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Oh, You Beautiful Fool

If you haven’t heard the song “Beautiful Fool” you might want to take a moment to look it up. It was popularized by Country artist, Kathy Mattea. However, the version I am familiar with is by its composer, Don Henry (also wrote “Mr. God” a funny but definitely instructive song). It is an ode to Martin Luther King Jr. (and some others). The chorus is:

Oh, you beautiful fool

Swimming upstream,

kicking up waves.

Dreams weren’t meant to come true,

That’s why they call ’em dreams…

Oh, you beautiful fool.

In my last post I mentioned Baron Justinian Von Welz (1621-1668), who renounced his title becoming, I suppose, just Justinian Welz when he went on his ill-fated mission trip to Surinam

He was a man before his time. Few listened to him as he gave excellent suggestions on how Lutherans (and Protestants in general) could do missions, just a matter of years after the Treaty of Westhphalia (ending the sectarian Thirty Years War).

Few if any listened to him or took his ideas seriously. Finally, he took up his own call and went by himself to Surinam as a missionary, and died soon afterward… no measurable impact from his mission work.

Yet, his ideas reappear in the Danish-Halle missions of the late 1600s and the Moravian missions movement in the early 1700s. And all of these inspired William Carey, the London Baptist Society, and what we sometimes call the “modern missions movement.”

Baron Von Welz was before his time, and died with no measurable impact of his ideas. Yet he inspired a whole movement that is alive and well today.

Instead of giving his biography. Here is a nice simple biography of his life and impact.  CLICK HERE

Definitely a beautiful fool… may those like him increase.

Missions Starting in Genesis 1:24-

What is the most important social unit in Missions? In fact, there are many social units that could be selected. First of all, however, what is a “social unit”?

An individual, group, or community, considered as a discrete constituent of a society or larger group.

Here are some options for the most important social unit in Missions:

Relief depicting the Adoring Angels About 1500...
Relief depicting the Adoring Angels About 1500; Giovanni Antonio Amadeo; Italy, Milan or Pavia Marble The expressions of grief on the faces suggest that this relief formed part of a Lamentation group with mourning figures gathered around the body of Christ. The jagged, clinging drapery style is typical of several Lombard sculptors. It is sometimes referred to as �cartaceous� drapery because it resembles crumpled paper (Latin �carta�). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1.  The Individual. This seems like a pretty obvious choice. After all, salvation certainly has an individualized quality to it. A “personal relationship” with God emphasizes the choice in the individual person. The individual as the most important social group certainly also fits well with the Western mindset from which the Modern Protestant missions movement has sprung.

2.  The Family or Community. If the individual is the pillar of Western society, then the family or local community could be thought of as the pillar of (at least some) Eastern societies. With missions moving from Western nations to “Eastern nations” (or 2/3 world or NSCs) one might suggest the need to emphasize family and local community. Of course with group conversions, and recognition of family and community dynamics in evangelism and church planting movements, one could argue that family/community is the most important… or at least should be.

3.  The Cultural Unit or People Group. In recent times, this has become of key importance. Some of this springs from (what I consider to be) a flawed understanding of Matthew 24:14. It seems to be poor scholarship to believe that we can make an arbitrary list of ethnic groups and expect that God will speed up the Second coming if we express the Gospel in an understandable way to group on that list. Still… evangelism, church-planting, and discipleship tends to work effectively within cultural units. As my former Missions Professor said, “Missions… sharing the Gospel cross-culturally… is like pouring syrup on a waffle, not a pancake.” By this he meant that the Gospel tends to be accepted, pooled, in little cultural pockets (like syrup on a waffle) rather than spread out and responded uniformly by many groups like syrup spreading over a pancake. Cultural groups are important… they can’t be ignored.

4.  Local Church. Maybe the local church is the center of our understanding in missions. I do tend to appreciate a Missional church understanding of Missions over the common Cross-cultural understanding of Missions. The importance of the local church as the sender… and a local church as a primary result of Missions is very true.

5.  Universal Church. Maybe the focus is on the Body of Christ as a whole. We are baptized into one church and one Spirit. We are all new creations with (my opinion) a new (missional) calling. And while the Kingdom of God and the Body of Christ are not (and should not be thought of as) synonymous… there is a lot of overlap since the Body of Christ has a very important role as salt and light and as leaven (in a good way) bringing in God’s Kingdom in some small, but critical, way.

6 and 7. There are other choices as far as other social units as well. Some might focus on Denominations, and Particularists (both cultic and noncultic) often do. Others might focus on Nations (particularly in the past era of State Churches). Both of these are generally less favored now.

My choice is HUMANITY.

However, one may choose to interpret the first three chapters of Genesis, one thing is clear, WE ARE ALL CREATED AS LIVING CREATURES (of Nature) AND AS BEINGS IN THE IMAGE (authority) OF GOD. We are all children of God in the sense of our Creation, and we share in the turmoil of a shared Fall, and share the common need of Restoration. This common kinship, and common need should motivate us (in part) to love and act as channels of God’s love and blessing.

Often Missions (and followers of God) has not seen the great importance in the shared experience of our common humanity. Many have embraced Jonah’s attitude in which one’s people group needs (deserves?) God’s blessing, while others need God’s retribution. I am reminded of the amazing quote of a German cleric (17th century) about an early Lutheran missionary, Justinian Von Welz.  Von Welz was described as “… a dreamer, fanatic, hypocrite and heretic, … it was absurd, even wicked, to cast the pearls of the gospel before the heathen.” (Robert Glover, “The Progress of Worldwide Missions,” 1953, pg. 46). This quote makes NO sense at all unless one sees the relationship as fellow humans (brothers of a common God, and in need of a common savior) taking secondary precedence to both church and ethnicity.

Perhaps we need a missiology that starts with Genesis 1:24ff before it gets to Acts 1:8.

Intersubjective Missions Theology

Example of How Different Perspectives Can Provide Insight

I am not an expert in theology, and probably will never be.  However, I have been reading a book, Theology and Pastoral Counseling: A New Interdisciplinary Approach” by Deborah Van Deusen Hunsinger.

The book is an attempt to deal with conflicts between psychological answers for human problems and theological answers for the same problems. The author spent years seeking to integrate the answers. Seems like a worthy goal. In pastoral care, integration is a common goal. Some favor psychology and some favor theology, but most ultimately seek to bring them together for a common  answer. Even those that don’t seek to do this (Levels of Explanation crowd), there is not tension between the two fields since each are meant to deal with separate issues.

Hunsinger ultimately went with a different approach. Psychology and Theology sometimes give different diagnoses and different prescriptions. Instead of seeking integration of the two… instead of picking one over the other… instead of saying they deal with unrelated parts of the person… she suggested allowing them to speak… providing two perspectives that give a broader insight of a condition whose full character cannot be understood strictly from one perspective.

Let’s bring this over to Missions.  At first, one might be tempted to assume that there is only one perspective… biblical. If missions is carrying out God’s mission, it seems reasonable that the one perspective is God’s. But consider the following example. In missions, should one give money to to converts or potential converts? From strictly a Biblical perspective, the answer may not be determined with certainty. One should love neighbor (and enemy), and be salt and light in the misflavored poorly lit world we live in. Is giving money out a loving act in line with this? One needs the perspective of the social sciences to get a better understanding the problems of dependency and nominality of change. Yet the social sciences are also heavily limited as well. If the social sciences demonstrate real problems, they are heavily hampered in producing real positive change. As many have noted, Marxism (for example) has always been far better at pointing out societal evils than coming up with societal cures.

Looking at the image above, the book cover shows the value of intersubjectivity. The two blocks on the cover produce different shadows dependent on the angle of light. One can consider each shadow a different perspective. The three perspectives are necessary to provide a good understanding of the nature of the blocks.

Multiple perspectives, intersubjectivity, does not produce contradictions… at least in the negative sense contradictions are often viewed.  Rather, they broaden understanding based on the differences, recognizing that the differences come, in part, from different viewing perspectives.


1.  One does not have to see missions theology and the social sciences as being contradictory… in the sense that one must be right and one must be wrong. Rather, the “creative tension” between the two provides much insight.

2.  One does not have to integrate missions theology and the social sciences, in the sense, at least, of trying to get a common answer out of the two fields. However, commonality may evidence a sound foundation to build from.

3.  One doesn’t have to separate missions theology and the social sciences into different unrelated camps. Such an attempt would wrongly narrow the broadness of God’s role in the world anyway.

3.  One can allow both fields, missions theology and the social sciences to retain their respective voices, providing different perspectives, creating a fuller understanding of the overall nature of the problems and solutions to the human condition.

Balance in Missions

I have been teaching Missions History this term… one of my favorite

English: People of the Silk Road, Dunhuang, 9t...
People of the Silk Road, Dunhuang, 9th century. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

subjects, although I am not sure whether I do a good job with it.   It is hard to make history “come alive.” But had a couple of interesting insights that came from the class… particularly from comments made by the students. There are only 6 in the class. Three are from the Philippines, one is from Myanmar, one is from South Korea, and one is from Papua New Guinea.

Insight #1.  Balance in Missions Ministry.

We spent the first 3 weeks covering the first millenium of Christian Missions history. That is not a huge amount of time.  But frankly, most Protestant Missions History books don’t spend that much time during the first millenium. If I remember right (not having the book in front of me at the moment), Stephen Neill‘s book only devotes something like 50 pages to the first 1500 years of Christian missions. So not sure I did that bad.

Anyway, after covering the first millenium, I asked the class to come up with all (or as many as possible) of the missions methods, missions strategies, and missions principles that were utilized in the first 1000 years of Christian missions. They came up with a pretty nice list. Here is a list that we came up with. They are all jumbled up topically, chronologically, and structurally… but that is okay.

  • Accommodation/Contextualization
  • Care/Social Ministry
  • Church-planting
  • Translation work (Scripture, liturgy, hymns)
  • Cross-cultural ministry
  • “Poverty” missions
  • Monastic missions
  • Tentmaking
  • Power Encounter
  • Mission teams (sodality structures)
  • Cross and Sword
  • Women in missions
  • Government-sponsored missions
  • Education
  • Apologetics
  • Martyrdom
  • Targeting community leaders
  • School building work
  • Visitation
  • Mission centers (metropolitans, monasteries, etc.)
  • Business in missions
  • Giving gifts
  • Miracle missions
  • Faith-based missions

Then I asked to critique some of these… after all some are better than or worse than others. The “cross and sword” (or use of violence to expand the church) was recognized as a poor missions method (questionable in effectiveness, but highly problematic Biblically). Government-sponsored missions was also a concern because of the differing goals of government and church. Gift-giving was also seen as often not such a great idea because of a poor track record of bribing for spiritual change.

But one of my students brought up a really good point. He said,I think one bad method is too much reliance on any one single method of missions.” Wow! I think that is a great point. Missions needs balance and broadness. A very narrow and unbalanced form of missions is probably not such a great idea. There should be balance in ministry.

Insight #2.  Balance in Critique.

I was talking about missions in the time of Charlemagne (where missions through violence became popularized), and the Crusades (where missions through violence reached its pinnacle in Christian circles at least). Another student brought up an interest concern. She said, “When I hear all of these stories, it is difficult. I always think of Christians as good people.” Her concern was that there were an awful lot of bad people not only in the church, but even doing missions.

I said something like this. Probably not so well…

“One thing we really need when we study missions history is to find balance. Some people think the early church was only full of good people. That wasn’t true… check out the Bible for yourself. On the other hand, some people look at the ‘Dark Ages’ and think that the church was essentially dead… nothing good. That is also not true. At all points in history, there were bad people who describe themselves as Christians, and there were very good people who were Christians. Sometimes the common people seemed to be better than the leaders… the leaders perhaps become victims to the temptations of wealth and power. When we study Missions history we will see the good, the bad, and the really ugly… commonly existing and serving at the same time. We can learn from all of these. We can learn from their successes and their mistakes.

As we study them we need to remember that they are part of our family. We often think of Christians who are alive today as being brothers and sisters— family members— because of Christ. But those who have served before us… Celtic missionaries planting churches in Germany. Nestorian missionaries travelling through Central Asia on the Silk Road reaching the farthest points of Asia with the Gospel of Christ. Nuns serving with St. Boniface reaching Saxons and Frisians. They are our brothers and sisters in the same way as people today. The Church is not just about ‘the now’ but the past and future.

We need to study with balance… ready to applaud successes, but also acknowledge and learn from failures.”