Should a Missionary be a Theologian or a Dogmatist… or Neither?


A missionary serves in a place where he or she must teach new believers. But should this role be handled as a Theologian or a Dogmatist?

The term “dogmatist” is commonly used in a negative sense. This alone may indicate that I think it is the wrong answer to the question I pose. Let’s however, consider a more gentle definition. Two more perjorative definitions are:

Definition #1: a person insists that her beliefs amount to knowledge, and this leads her to insist that others are ignorant.

Definition #2: a person who believes too strongly that their personal opinions or beliefs are correct.

Gentler Definition: a person who inflexibly considers himself or herself knowing the truth and seeks to train others to agree.

This definition sees the person as having a great deal of conviction regarding beliefs and sees the person as focused on preserving and transmitting those beliefs with as little change as possible.

In a previous post, (https://munsonmissions.org/2016/04/15/between-the-normal-and-the-novel/), I had quoted Charles Hodge:

“If your review shall have the effect of commending the views which they advocate to the favorable regard of our younger theologians, I shall rejoice. I have but one object in my professional career and as a writer, and that is to state and to vindicate the doctrines of the Reformed Church. I have never advanced a new idea, and have never aimed to improve on the doctrines of our father. Having become satisfied that the system of doctrines taught in the symbols of the Reformed Churches is taught in the Bible, I have endeavored to sustain it, and am willing to believe even where I cannot understand. … I feel this the more because may of our brethren in this country have expressed great dissatisfaction with those articles. I am persuaded, however, that they contain nothing more than the common Protestant doctrine on the subject.”

-Quoting Charles Hodge in “The Life of Charles Hodge” by Archibald Alexander Hodge (published 1881) https://archive.org/details/lifecharleshodg00hodggoog . Note that this passage is quoted in part by Edward William Fudge in “Hell: A Final Word”)

Hodge, based on the quote above could be described as a dogmatist. He believes that his denominational flavor of Christian theology is correct and so he embraces simply passing it on to his students. In this sense, he really might not be called a theologian, but rather a conservator of past doctrine (a dogmatist). Of course, a study of his work may show that he did actually attempt to express the Bible creatively in new settings. I am simply referring to the quote as the basis of describing him as a dogmatist.

The theologian must create the bridge between God’s revelation and human culture (since theology is a human rather than divine construct). And since human culture is constantly in flux, and theology must change.

Based on this, if nothing else, a missionary must be a theologian rather than a dogmatist. However, we should not jump on this too quickly. After all, a missionary serves a mission board, and/or a denomination, and/or a church. As such, a missionary is commonly expected to take a conservative role in terms of doctrines. A missionary is likely to be chastized for choosing to do Eucharist in a manner different from the sender. Generally, the supporters would much prefer a dogmatist.

On the other hand, the missionary is also expected to be an effective communicator of God’s message. As such, the message should not come out garbled or deceptive to the recipient culture. The senders certainly don’t want the missionary to confuse or mislead the hearers. As such, they certainly want the missionary to do more than simply indoctrinate with little consideration for the culture and symbols of the hearers.

Of course it could be said that a missionary doesn’t have to be either. A missionary can simply evangelize and churchplant and leave theologizing and indoctrinating to others. In practice, this cannot be done. In ministry, there is a road with theologizing at one end and dogmatizing at the other. In between are different shades of each. In ministry you don’t have to be at either extreme of this road, but you do not have the option of simply not being on the road.

Much like a lot of things in the Christian faith, the concept of “Creative Tension.” Missionaries are cultural “Agents of Change” and “Agents of Preservation.” But this exists with Theology as well. One serves one’s denomination and church. But one also serves God. The priority is God, meaning faithfulness to His message. To do this means to preserve the message through creatively contextualizing it in a new culture.

However, one is also part of a supportive community and tradition. I have seen pastors and missionaries simply ignore their heritage, things can turn prety ugly fast.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s