Missiology as an Academic Field of Study?


Missiology is a rather young field of study and there has been a question of whether it should be considered an academic study. And if it is an academic study, how should it relate to other academic disciplines. I get it. If one thinks about it, Missions sounds like a less than a real topic— perhaps  a closet in the house of Ecclesiology or Soteriology. Or maybe a religious wing to Sociology or Anthropology. I think, however, that we live in an era where interdisciplinary courses of study are given more respect, so perhaps the uncertain regarding Missiology is dated. Still, I think it is worth thinking about.

An interesting article is one by Peter F. Penner, “Missiology as a Theological and Academic Discipline.” (Theological Reflections Euro-Asian Journal of Theology, August 2018). Penner speaks of how Missions has often been built on a poor theological background (I think that is pretty well-known). He also pointed out that Missions has typically been built on a poor Biblical hermeneutic.  He notes what I have seen— the study of the “Biblical Basis of Missions” is commonly in no way about the basis of missions. Rather, missions already is identified and recognized as godly and good, and then people seek to find prooftexts and illustrationsin the Bible to support these views. He quotes David Bosch who references that attitude, “…we already know what ‘mission’ is and now have only to discover it in Scripture.”

But deciding that Missions should be established on a better theological foundation, and be drawn from Scripture (rather than reverse) does not answer the question, necessarily, as to whether it should exist as an academic discipline. Penner describes four attitudes in terms of relationship between Missiology and and other Academic disciplines.

#1.  Missions may be important in its relationship to the church, but is not really an academic discipline.

#2.  Missions is certainly important and should permeate and interact with all other (Christian) academic disciplines

#3.  Missions is a bit of an embarrassing topic that is not really to be dealt with in academics.

#4.  Missions so permeates all aspects of Christian experience and academics that it makes no sense to study it as a separate academic topic.

These all make sense, but I kind of feel like there is one missing. Perhaps I misunderstand the categories and the 5th one I would like to add somehow fits into the previous four.  However, if one looks at Missions (or Missiology) as a academic discipline that is interacting with other academic disciplines much like two cultures might interact, then one can look at it in terms of categories of acculturation.  Four major ones are:

  1.   Assimilation.  The first culture loses its identity in the second culture.
  2. Separation.  The first culture refuses to interact much with the second culture strongly maintaining its own uniqueness.
  3. Integration.  The first culture interacts strongly with the second culture affecting and being affected by the second culture.
  4. Marginalization. Ineffectual integration where the result is the first culture being less than functional in the second culture.

I feel the three of these line up with the four attitudes regarding Missiology.

Attitude (#2) lines up with (C), Integration.  Missiology can and should interact with other academic disciplines and should affect and be affected by other disciplines.

Attitude (#3) lines up with (D), Marginalization.  Missiology may exist as an academic discipline, but it is somehow seen as inferior or irrelevant in relation to other disciplines. As such, it is likely to be embarrassing and ignored.

Attitude (#4) lines up with (A), Assimilation.  Missiology may be relevant and important, but its unique identity is lost in other disciplines. It may show itself in other disciplines but doesn’t have a unique and distinct “culture” (much like a culture may not exist as a community within a broader culture, but may still show itself in terms of the culinary arts or visual arts in that broader culture).

That leaves one attitude and one acculturation strategy, but they don’t line up. The remaining attitude is that Missions is foundational in much of Christianity, but is still not an academic study. The remaining acculturation strategy is Separation.  

Separation (Acculturation strategy (B)) I think should relate to a fifth attitude regarding Missiology. It is a worthy topic of academic study but there is little interaction with other academic disciplines. This attitude is pretty common, I think. Many schools have a Missions department that doesn’t interact much, academically, with other departmetns. Happily, that seems to be lessening as training is becoming more interdisciplinary. However, there is the risk that it could go so far that it drifts into Assimilation (Attitude #4).

That just leaves us with one attitude (#1).  However, when one thinks about it, it should not relate to an Acculturation strategy. That is because the attitude rejects the premise that missiology should be seen as an academic discipline in the first place. The cultural equivalent is where one denies that a culture exists, in the first place, to interact with the broader culture.

Keeping this in mind then, I would rank the attitudes from best to worst. Needless to say, this is in my own biased opinion.

Best                                                #2

                                                 #4       #5

                                                       #3

Worst                                             #1

#3 and #1 could be reversed. From a practical standpoint, attitude #3 is likely to express itself in avoidance of missions. So that could be seen as worse. However, from an academic standpoint, #1 is worse since it rejects the premise of missiology as a field of study in the first place. Being “embarrassed or avoidant” of the field of study at least recognizes its existence. I can see how those two can be reversed.

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