The More Difficult Task

A relevant question that could come up here is which is more difficult? Is it harder to to make theology relevant to a community, or faithful to God’s Word. At first glance, it may seem that it really depends on the person. For example, an untrained person who is fully enculturated (born into) culture “B” would be quite well-suited to providing a relevant theology– but one that is likely to be not true to God’s Word.

On the other hand, a seminary student enculturated and trained in culture “A” could be reasonably thought to be able to provide a theology that is true to God’s word, but is not relevant in culture “B.” But this is a mistake.

Consider the following figure.   While there are some definite limitations to this figure, it does show a couple of things fairly well. Culture “A” has within it a number of theologies that are relevant to it. The same is true of Culture “B.” Overlapping God’s Revelation with it, creates smaller regions. God’s Word as canon, provides a standard or limiter of what is acceptable to God. theologies culture

Region 1 is Theology that is well-contextualized to Culture A. It is relevant to the culture and is faithful to God’s revelation. Region 2, is a culture “A” that is conformed to or fulfilled through God’s Word. Similarly, Regions 4 and 3 are well-contextualized theology and fulfilled culture with respect to culture “B.”

But, of course, these are not all of the options. Region 7 is Culture “A” that is not conformed to God’s Word, and Region 8 is the similar situation for Culture “B.” Regions 5 and 6 are Theologies that are not conformed to God’s Word in Cultures “A” and “B,” respectively.

For a new believer enculturated in Culture “B,” poorly versed in God’s Word, it is much more likely that a theology developed by him (or her) would not properly be conformed to God’s Revelation. That is why Region 6 is shown as much larger than Region 4… God’s Word provides a limitation on all theologies that may be seen as relevant to that culture. It is much easier, and more likely, for this person to develop a theology that is relevant, but heterodox, and work towards developing a sub-culture that fails to be fulfilled by God’s Word.

For a seminarian enculturated in Culture “A” and trained in theology from that culture, the challenge is different but no less challenging. The seminarian would be challenged considerably in ministering in Culture “B.” He (again, or she… but I will use he here for simplicity of language) will be tempted to simply transport his theology over based on the presumption that it is the “correct” theology. The same struggle will occur with culture. He will be tempted to simply see the culture of his upbringing and training as the correct culture… and teach it. Unfortunately, the culture brought will seem foreign to the potential respondents, and the theology is likely to not deal with the situation of people in Culture “B.”

But suppose that the seminary graduate does intentionally seek to contextualize. He will be hit by two major limitations.

Limitation #1. His relative ignorance of Culture “B” will make it hard to find a Biblically sound, relevant theology (Region 4). It is a target easier to miss than to hit.

Limitation #2. His relative ignorance of God’s Revelation. One might assume that the seminarian is well-versed in Scripture. But he is versed in God’s revelation as it applies to his own culture (or sub-culture). God’s revelation is much greater than that.

(You may now be noting why I sort of apologized for this figure earlier. Overlapping contextual theologies, cultures, and God’s revelation is sort like overlapping varieties of apples with different forms of government– they are different types of things. Still, I hope that the relationships of the regions can make sense on some level.)

But which limitation is greater for the seminary graduate? It is the second one. Spending time in Culture “B” will gradually reveal the nuances of the culture… and subtleties that are beyond him can be filled in by host believers eventually. However, the expansion of one’s understanding of God’s Revelation to the point that it is clearly seen as it relates to a different culture is much harder. One might even suggest that without the Holy Spirit’s illumination, the task would be impossible.

An Example from the Bible

A.  As the Israelites escaped from Egypt, they eventually arrived at Mt. Sinai. There Moses went up to commune with God, while the Isrealites and the other non-Israelits who had escaped with them waited. When Moses failed to come down from the mountain after a long time, the people feared and asked Aaron to deal with the situation. In Exodus 32, Aaron makes an altar and a golden calf. Why would he do this?

In Egypt, the bull is sacred, and so he may have been drawing answers from the culture he was raised in (heterodox theology from culture A). On the other hand, knowing that they are heading to Canaan, where the bull is a symbol of Baal, “the local god,” this may have been a heterodox theology seeking relevance in culture B.

Before one get’s too critical, it must be noted that there are considerable similarities between orthodox Israelite Theology (as guided by the Mosaic Law) and Egyptian theology. According to Herodotus (The Horizon Book of Lost Worlds, by Leonard Cotrell, page 288ff), the Egyptians:

  • Practiced circumcision

  • Had a priesthood

  • Practice rites of cleanliness

  • Had rules regarding “clean” and “unclean” foods

  • Had animal sacrifice with requirements that the animals are unblemished.

  • Maintained rules of endogamy

In Egypt, the Bull was sacred to Apis, a god popularly worshiped in Memphis (Egypt) and often seen as a go-between of man and the higher gods. It is hardly surprising that Aaron might go in that direction. In Exodus 32:6, part of the worship was to “play,” suggesting the sexual activities associated with the Canaanite faith. This sympathetic magic was tied to fertility of families as well as the land. Apis, in Egypt, was also often seen as a god of fertility.

Aaron, with limited understanding of God’s will, made a pretty good attempt at guessing what God would want based on his understanding of Egyptian culture, and perhaps his limited understanding of Canaanite culture. It wasn’t all that hard.

But he was still wrong. It took God’s Word, coming through Moses, to clarity what God expected of them. The result was something that would “make sense” to most of the people, while still deeply challenging them to change.

Interestingly, God’s revelation to Moses actually was not simply to one culture, but to two. The revelation was to Israel, a nomadic people– but also to Israel, a sedentary people.

B.  In the New Testament, we find the Apostles and church leaders struggling with the issue of how God’s revelation would apply to non-Jews. The Apostles and church leaders would be seen as well-versed in Scripture, as well as the words of Jesus. Yet, they truly struggled with this. The Jerusalem Council was where this was dealt with as a body. The action of the Holy Spirit helped to sway the body to the understanding that Greeks do not have to become Jews to become Christians. Even after the council, however, struggles remained, as seen in differences between Paul’s understanding and the council decision (there is no indication at least that Paul rejected the eating of blood for Gentiles). It is also seen in the Epistle to the Galatians (if one accepts that that letter was written after the Jerusalem Council), where people who were apparently well-versed in the Hebrew Bible differed considerably from Paul and the Apostles in its application to Greeks.

Knowing Scripture is not enough. It is a huge challenge to understand Scripture to see its relevance and application in a different culture than one’s own. In truth, understanding a different culture is “the easy part.”

Theology as a Contextual Activity

The following is the very first draft of the very first chapter of the book on Missions and Theology I am working on. It is not meant to be highly in-depth, but more for Bible schools.

Chapter 1

Theology as a Contextual Activity

Contextualization has become a well-respected term in missions, since the term was coined over 40 yeas ago (footnote this). It’s value in theology has slowly grown. When one speaks of “Contextual Theologies” it often refers to theological systems tied to minority populations. For example, Black, Feminist, Womanist, Liberation, Dalit, and Minjung are labels for just a few of many identified “Contextual Theologies.”

While it is certainly true that these are indeed Contextual Theologies, there is often the presumption that they contrast some sort of theology that is “real” or “supra-cultural.” This writer recalls reading an article in which the author stated that another term for “Calvinist Theology” is “Biblical Theology.” Since Calvinist Theology is a type of Systematic Theology (or more narrowly perhaps, Soteriology) it is clearly not “Biblical Theology” as a category. It must be assumed then that the author was suggesting that Calvinist Theology is Real Theology… the Theology that supraculturally makes up the Bible.

This idea falls apart (for Calvinist or any other theology) fairly quickly, since the Bible is a work of Revelation not Theology. Theology bridges the chasm between God’s revelation and man’s culture. Based on this, all theology is contextual (footnote on Stephen Bevans).

Let’s Consider, for example, Millard Erickson’s guidelines for good theology. Refer to Table 1. Several of the guidelines of good theology are dependent on the context. Of course, Erickson is concerned with Systematic Theology, but as we move forward, we will see that all theology categories are, to some extent, contextual.

Characteristic

Permanent/ Unchanging

Changing (Contextual)

Biblical (based on, consistent with)

X

Systematic (coherent, harmonious, drawn from the whole of Scripture)

X

Relates to issues of general culture and other academic fields

X

Contemporary, Contextualized to the time and place to be used.

X

Practical

X

Table 1. Characteristics of Good Theology

cultural-bridge

Figure 1. The Contextual Bridge

One way to look at this is that theology provides the bridge between God’s revelation and the cultural context of the respondent. See Figure 1. For the most part, God’s unchanging revelation is, well, unchanging– but not completely. God’s special revelation, the Holy Bible, and the life of Christ is unchanging, except to the extent that Biblical studies and archaeology gives new understanding of these. God’s general revelation (creation and history) are more dynamic, but have less impact in theology except in Philosophical and Historical theology.

Man’s culture is much more dynamic and more varied. This dynamism is most relevant for Practical theology since it most clearly connects Theology to ministerial practice. Such practice is irrelevant unless it is understood and valued by the recipients in each culture. The process is often seen as somewhat iterative. A cycle of action and reflection. There is similar here to a Praxis Contextualization as described by Stephen Bevans (footnote this). Refer to Figure 2. There are, however, differences. Praxis Contextualization is, in theory at least, driven initially by action, not reflection. Secondly, the reflection in Praxis Contextualization may not be intentionally grounded on Scripture– often, in fact, guided by Marxist class politics (in Liberation Theologies).

But what about the others? Good systematic theology is clearly contextual as shown by Millard Erickson. One can refer back to Table 1 to see the contextual aspects of Systematic Theology.

cycle-of-reflection

Figure 2. The Cycle of Practical Theology

Less obvious would be that Historical, Philosophical, and Biblical theologies are dependent on the context of the recipient– yet they are. Consider the Method of Correlation. Tillich meant by this, in part, that theology must answer the existential questions of human existence. One can take this further. It should answer the questions of cultural existence as well. It must answer the Big Questions that we as humans keep asking, but also must answer the questions that concern specific cultures. A failure to do this leaves a theology irrelevant to a culture. Consider, for example, historical theology. Theology over 2000 years of church history, even a narrow aspect of that, is far too broad to be handled in any work. Any historical theological work would involve the synthesis and distillation of many sources. For such a process to have relevance to the reader it must correlate to the concerns of the reader. The same applies to Philosophical and Biblical Theologies as well. In all of these categories of theology, it must scratch where it (contextually) itches. Additionally, while some aspects of reason are supracultural, much of it is culturally embedded… so the logical structure of theologies are also bound by the cultures that they are connected to.

It is inaccurate, then to say that theology can be contextual or non-contextual. Rather, it would be more accurate to say that theology is contextualized well or contextualized poorly, to a specific cultural group. Additionally, a theology may be aware or unaware of its cultural connections. Referring to Figure 1, for a theology to be unaware of its contextual supports is like a bridge that is blissfully unaware of what it connects to. On the other hand, if it is not faithful to God’s revelation, it may appear to be relevant, but is not important.

Discussion Questions

  1. Paul Hiebert describes three forms of contextualization in missions. They are non-contextualization (failure to adjust ministry to the new recipient culture), uncritical contextualization (over-adjustment to the recipient culture, losing critical aspects of the Christian missage) and critical contextualizaiton (dynamic interaction of culture and God’s word. (footnote). Are these categories relevant to contextualization of theological categories? If so, how?

  1. David Bosch has argued that in addition to the classic Three-self model of indiginization of the church, one should add a fourth category– self-theologizing. That is, that an indigenous church should go beyond simply self-governing, self-propogating, and self-sustaining. In fact, it could be argued that the difference between an “Indigenous Church” and a “Contextualized Church” is the issue of self-theologizing. Are there dangers to having local groups developing their own theology?

Slow Food and Slow Missions

Before reading this little post, I hope you will take the time to read the excellent article:

Be Patient, Missions is Urgent” by Josh Manley

An quote from this article worth meditating on is:

“Among other things, Paul’s priorities teach us this: The urgency of the mission requires patience to ensure that the integrity of the mission is not undermined. Undermined by what? Any method that sacrifices faithfulness on the altar of fast, or pastoral care on the altar of impressive numbers.”

Sloppy and fast has not only often beenslow-food-logo-1 the methodology but even the rallying cry. Some might note the slogan of  SVM ““The Evangelization of the World in This Generation” to AD2000 (“the largest, most pervasive global evangelical network ever to exist” -Ralph Winter) seeking “cooperation in establishing a church within every unreached people group and making the gospel available to every person by the year 2000.” to DAWN’s “Saturation Church Planting.” I am NOT saying any of these organizations were or are bad. Rather, the language of them can lead some people to embrace a manic behavior of missions, rather than one of planning and discernment.

Big programs with lofty dreams are… commendable… to a point. But they get wrongly understood by many.

Bigger is not Better

Faster is not More Effective

Jesus certainly did not use a Fast strategy. In fact, one could make the argument that He rejected a “fast strategy” rejecting public demonstration of his Messiahship at the temple, and rejection of a quick rulership of all nations (from His temptations in the Wilderness). One could further argue, that the success of Slow ministry during the first three centuries of the church, compares quite favorably with the Fast ministry strategy of the 4th century post-Constantine church.

Strangely, the article got me thinking about the Slow Food Movement. It is a move to localize food, focus on quality food, and ensure healthy/clean food. As such, it rejects much of the industrial food infrastructure. The theory is that slow food is healthier, is tied to a higher quality of life, and establishes a more harmonious relationship with the world. The key terms are “good,” “clean,” and “fair.” You can read about the movement at www.slowfood.com

For fun, let’s take the definition for one of their terms: NEO-GASTRONOMY

– Neo or ‘new’ gastronomy is a concept of gastronomy as a multidisciplinary approach to food that recognizes the strong connections between plate, planet, people and culture. The term was coined to correspond with the evolution of the Slow Food movement, which began with an initial aim to defend good food, gastronomic pleasure and a slower pace of life (eco-gastronomy), and then logically broadened its sights to embrace issues such as the quality of life and the health of the planet that we live on (eco-gastronomy).

Is there a point of correspondence here between Missions and Slow Food? Could missions become so focused on volume and speed, that it is producing sloppy, unhealthy churches and “believers” who are ill-equipped spiritually or socially to impact the world in a positive way? Is there a more holistic view of God’s Kingdom than missions as a multi-level marketing scheme?

Instead of Neo-Gastronomy, what about Neo-Missions? Or perhaps it is better to say “Archaeo-Missions. ” (One could argue that neo-gastronomy is also archaeo-gastronomy). One might come up with a  definition that sounds a wee bit like the definition above:

Neo or ‘new’ missions is a concept of missions as a multidisciplinary approach to kingdom growth that recognizes the strong connections between faith, action, community and culture. The term was coined to correspond with the evolution of the Biblical Missions movement, which began with an initial aim to empower evangelism, discipleship and add savor (salt and light) in the world, and then logically broadened its sights to embrace issues such as human rights and other aspects of shalom on the planet that we live on.

Frankly, I think it is safe to say that the Fruit of the Spirit is most evidently a “slow food.”… good, clearn, and fair.

Missions Theology and the 60s

The 1960s was an important decade for a number of reasons. Though down the list for many, the transformation of Missions Theology during this time was huge.

Sometimes, it seems like a lot of changes happened back in the 1920s and 1930s. During this time there was disillusionment with Christendom, and Christian missions as a (Western) Civilizing influence. Also W. E. Hocking’s influence and his work in developing “American Report of the Commission of Appraisal of the Laymen’s Foreign Mission Enquiry” that pushed a pluralistic agenda  away from evangelism and conversion, had an influence. Despite this, the dominant views of missions stayed in many ways in line with missions of the 19th and early 20th centuries.And this continued into the early 1960s.

For example, at the 1961 gathering ofjohn-stott-love-truth-themajestysmen the World Council of Churches in New Delhi, the purpose of the Commission of World Mission and Evangelism was “to further the proclamation to the whole world of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to the end that all men may believe in Him and be saved.” (“Christian Mission in the Modern World” by John Stott, p. 133). This view was in line with the mission thought for decades. It is true that Evangelism was often seen in terms of a partnership of proclamation and social ministry, but that hardly is out of line with the practice of missions through the Great Century and before.

Dialogue was recognized in the early part of the 1960s as an important part of dealing with other religions. However, it was understood in a manner quite different than the relativistic form that was popularized years later:

“True dialogue with a man of another faith requires a concern both for the Gospel and for the other man. Without the first, dialogue becomes a pleasant conversation. Without the second it becomes irrelevant, unconvincing, or arrogant. Whatever the circumstances may be, our intention for every human dialogue should be to be involved in the dialogue of God with men, and to move our partner and oneself to listen to what God in Christ reveals to us, and to answer him.”  (Ronald K. Orchard, ed., “Witness in Six Continents: Records of the Meeting of the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism of the World Council of Churches Held in Mexico City, 8-19 December 1963”)

However, as the decade advanced, changes continued. There was a growth in seeing Mission in terms of “Christian Presence” which called for behavior that appeared to be every bit as vague as the term sounds. With “The Church for Others” published for the WCC in 1967, things had radically changed. Missions did not really involve a call to repentance. Proselytism is seen as “the opposite” of missions. Conversion is not seen so much as individual and personal, but is seen as more corporate in form. That is not to say there were no good points in the work… but rather than mission theology had radically changed… and much of those changes undermined the historical purposes of doing mission work.

“Presence” became a word that was used as a substitute for “witness,” “mission,” and “evangelism.” Charles de Foucauld described a missionary as ‘a person who is in the place with a presence willed and determined as a witness to the love of God in Christ.’” (“Missions Theology” by Rodger C. Bassham, p. 73)  This definition is not so much wrong or bad, but so vague that it could entail doing almost anything or nothing. Panikkar during this same period, saw missionaries not so much as bringing Christ to other cultures, but helping other cultures “discover Christ” in their culture through the missionaries service to the people.

Why would there be such a radical change during this time? I really don’t know. However, the IMC, International Missionary Council, formally joined the World Council of Churches in 1961. Perhaps the IMC, a thoroughly missions-oriented organization, provided a strong influence on the WCC gatherings in 1961 and 1963… but that influence declined later in the decade, and was driven more by churches that had a different perspective and agenda.

The 1960s also saw the growth of Conservative Evangelical Missions with competing gatherings of their own in the 1960s at Wheaton and Berlin. Sadly, some of the missions theology with the Evangelicals was little better than that of the WCC, especially in the early years of the decade. In Wheaton there was a tendency to broaden missions to including drawing people into Evangelical groups from non-Evangelical Christian groups. At the same time, there was an even stronger push to narrow missions. Missions was so narrowly defined by some as to reject education and social ministry. Some like members of MacGavran’s Church Growth movement, sought to view missions as only entailing churchplanting, and separating between discipling (a missionary role) and perfecting (something almost the same as discipling, but not a missionary role).<Part of my appreciates the definition of missions as only churchplanting. It is simple… logical… elegant. However, it is also unscriptural, and establishes missions without a firm foundation.>

Thankfully, much of these views did not end up being approved in finalized statements. But the views in the 1960s have had a strong impact on Evangelical missions even until today.

There were some, like John Stott, who managed to be relevant/influential with both sides. While I don’t really believe that unity for the sake of unity is a virtue. Spiritual unity can occur with organizational diversity (but spiritual unity probably does not exist when we focus on stealing people from other Christian churches, and define such activity as “the Lord’s Work.”) I feel like some of the greater eccentricities of missions theology that grew in the 1960s may have been hammered out better with greater dialogue between both sides. The focus on missions as expressing God’s love through personal presence in the world is nice but wholly inadequate. But so was missions that embraced proclamation of the Word without Christian service. Maybe the two sides could have grown from each other.

But I could be wrong.

Choosing our Words Carefully in Ministry

I watched a TED talk, as well as the 2016 movie “Arrival” recently. Both of them had a somewhat similar theme… that the way we think is guided strongly by the language and labels we use.

TED talk, Keith Chen’s “Could Your Language Affect the Way You Save Money,” noted a strange correlation between health and saving practicestimeless of people who are first language speakers in “tenseless” languages, versus those in “tense” languages. That is, looking at those in which verbs change based on past, present, and future (tense) and those in which verbs do not change (tenseless). The theory seems a bit far-fetched but there is a fairly strong correlation. For example, English has tenses for time:

I went to the store

I go to the store

I will go to the store

Some other languages, like in fact most other Germanic languages, are tenseless. Time is still addressed but not in the verb:

I go to the store yesterday

I go to the store now.

I go to the store next week.

Tenseless languages tend to have users that save better and have practices that lead to better health later in life. This correlation has a tantalizing theory as far as causation. Could it be that for tenseless languages, action is seen in more of a timeless way? Therefore, subconsciously there is a slightly lesser tendency to disconnect our activity today from the future. In other words, perhaps those from tenseless languages don’t feel that the sowing of today is as disconnected from the reaping of tomorrow.

Of course, this can be overdone. Benjamin Whorf suggested a time relativism of language where a culture that has a “timeless” worldview may have a timeless language. He used the example of the Hopi language. However, the example appears to be misguided a bit since the Hopi language can still distinguish between past, present, and future. Rather, language and thought connection tends to be more subtle..

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis suggests that how mfhsutq24qdiyjw767fx0tawe structure and use language will guide or influence how we think and how we behave. A classic example comes from fire investigations. A man is in a room that is suddenly engulfed in flames. Luckily he survived and when the investigator talks to him, he discovers that the survivor was smoking when the fire started. The investigator asks him if the lit cigarette could have caused the fire, the man replies, “I don’t see how, there was nothing in that room but a bunch of empty cans.” But what does it really mean “empty cans?” Is anything truly empty? In fact, those cans were full of highly flammable fumes. That and the lit cigarette came together to cause the fire. The man labelled the cans as empty, and in common usage he used the term “empty” correctly. However, the term in his mind was connected with “harmless” or “safe” and that led to behavior that was foolhardy.

Again though, one must avoid taking this too far. Some OT scholars had in the past suggested that the ancient Hebrews only thought in concrete terms… did not think abstractly… because the Hebrew language is built on concrete, rather than abstract, terms. That’s flawed. Every language, as far as we know, still deals with issues of time because we as humans need to separate activities of planning/preparation, from action, from recall/remembrance. Likewise all humans need to deal with abstract concepts whether we know it or not. Languages that do not have abstract terms have no problem with abstract concepts— that’s what metaphors do. Read Psalm 1 or Psalm 23 to see how concrete terms can be used to address highly abstract thoughts. In the movie Arrival, aliens give a timeless language to humans that is supposed to open one’s mind to timeless thought. One can think and recall timelessly (including “remember the future”) because the language “reprograms” the mind (if done early enough) to think timelessly.That also seems to take things too far (as far as we can tell) even though time in some ways is a mental construct. Language nudges our behavior and thought… and our behavior and thought nudges our language, but the causation is not normally dramatic.

What about us in ministry? I teach at a Protestant seminary in the Philippines, a predominantly Catholic nation. I said in my class, “Interreligious Dialogue with Asian Religions”:

“Please, I ask you, stop saying things like this to other people– ‘I used to be Catholic, but now I am Christian.’ Just stop saying that. People of other faiths around the world think that Christians are a strange disconnected, fighting lot. Why reinforce that?  If you want to say ‘I used to be a Catholic Christian, but now I am a _________ Christian,” that is fine. Choose your words carefully.

I know people that like the fact that the People’s Republic of China recognizes several religions, and two of those recognized are ‘Catholics’ and ‘Christians.’ Why feel good that a nation has legislated division of our faith? And why feel good that we came to China with such animosity that Chinese non-Christians figured that we are two distinct faiths? If we think that keeping a line of demarcation in China is good, wouldn’t it be better at least to support new labels such as “Catholic Christians” and “Protestant Christians”?

Here in the Philippines the term ‘Born Again’ gets thrown around a bit loosely. There is nothing wrong with the term I guess. It is a metaphor for the rebirth (another metaphor) associated with following Christ. The problem is that the term has drifted over time so that often “born again” now means, “individuals or denominational groups that associate being a Christian with saying the Sinner’s Prayer.” There is no Biblical correlation with saying a specific prayer and being recognized by God as His child. I am not against the Sinner’s Prayer… it encapsulates the declaration of repentance and allegiance to Christ. However, because of the reinterpretation of “Born Again,” it is often assumed that those that don’t use that term, or those that don’t associate following Christ to the Sinner’s Prayer, are not saved… are not Christians. And likewise, those who have said the Sinner’s Prayer, regardless of their age, understanding, motivation, or interpretation, are often believed to be regenerated, regardless of evidence to the contrary. The term “Born Again” is not bad, but it’s careless usage has led to incorrect thoughts and behavior.

More humorously, people sometimes ask, “Is your denomination ‘Spirit-filled?'” I am tempted to say, “No my denomination is Spirit-empty,” or perhaps “Spirit-filling” or “Spirit-sharing.” After all, the concept of the Holy Spirit indwelling, to say nothing of ‘filling,’ an institution is so far away from sound theology that it doesn’t really deserve a serious response. What they mean by the question, really however, is “Does your church promote upbeat and ecstatic worship, and theologize such behavior suggesting that it directly correlates to one’s relationship with God?” In that case I could simply say, No and No. But the sloppiness of the language results in such a corresponding sloppiness of thought that there is no way to answer it both truthfully, and in such a way that the questioner would understand. Language can both clarify and obfuscate.

Consider a different case. What about language we use for non-Christians. Are there undesirable ramifications for the language we use… often unwittingly? Consider a few… some are commonly used, and some far less. But what pictures come into your mind when you read these. And if those labels are used for THEM, do those labels affect how we picture US?

  • The Unsaved
  • The Lost
  • The Unregenerate
  • Pagans
  • Heathens
  • The non-Elect
  • Sinners
  • The Unreached
  • Those Jesus Misses Most
  • The Mission Field
  • The World
  • Children of Darkness
  • Seekers

Some of terms are quite pejorative. If I was speaking in church and said,

“We are surrounded by Sinners, children of darkness,” versus

“We are surrounded by our mission field of the unreached, those Jesus misses most,”

does the imagery in our head, the attitude in our heart, or the motivation toward action change?

 

Theology and Anti-Missions

William Carey, referred to by some as the Father of Protestant Missions, wrote his great booklet, “An Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens.” Carey came from a religious group, the Particular Baptists. As “dissenters” of the state church, they could, potentially, have a greater desire to share the gospel beyond national boundaries. However, this potential was crushed by a form of Calvinistic theology that saw the work of salvation as God’s alone. If, then, salvation was only a work of God, then it seemed quite logical that evangelism, both locally and cross-culturally, was irrelevant or even impertinent.enquiry

Carey chose not to challenge the theology of his church. Rather, he chose to challenge its implications. Preachers of his time and denomination commonly deduced from their theology that the Great Commission, in its Matthew 28 form, was simply Jesus’ address to his eleven present disciples. As such it lacks relevance today. Carey made three arguments against this thinking:

  • If “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel” is not for us today, then neither is “baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” What is our justification for baptizing, as Baptists, if Jesus only commanded the original disciples to baptize, and not us?
  • If the commissioning in Matthew was only for the original 11, presumably then every preacher who has shared the Gospel to unreached peoples over close to two millenia, including those who shared their faith to ancestors of the majority of readers of Carey’s booklet, did so without God’s authority/blessing.
  • If the commissioning was only to the disciples who were present with Him, why did Jesus end the commissioning with “Lo, I am with you always, to the end of the world.” Such a statement would be appropriate if Jesus was talking to people throughout future history. If Jesus was only talking to the Eleven, He might be more likely to say something like, “Lo, I am with you always, as long as you live.”

With this, Protestant missions gradually grew from a trickle into a stream and then into a mighty river.

But there was still a problem. The theology of many of the Particular Baptists said, “God has determined salvation from the past, and His work is completely unaffected by our activity today, so there is no need or value in evangelizing.” Carey added an important, but dissonant, statement. “Jesus has commanded us to evangelize, so you should do so– regardless of whether you believe it is effective.”

People can often live their entire lives with opposing beliefs… but this conflict can spring to the forefront when such a conflict is articulated effectively. It could be argued that the Baptists in London were already struggling between the belief that salvation is the work of God alone, and the clear Biblical record of God working through people to carry out His mission. The words of William Carey in his Enquiry, led to a great change of direction. But eloquence in a different direction can result in a very different result.

In 1826, Daniel Parker published “Views on the Two Seeds.” The two seeds he was referring to were those mentioned in Genesis 3:15, “And I will put enmity between you,” the serpent, “and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.”

Parker expressed the belief, in pages 4 and 5 of his work, that the seed of the woman was “Christ and the elect,” while the seed of the serpent is “the Non-elect.”

“Eve’s sin allowed Satan ‘to beget the wicked, sinful principle and nature in her,’ thus allowing both the seed of Satan and the seed of Christ to enter the human bloodstream. Satan’s seed is represented in the covenant of works, Christ’s in the covenant of grace. The elect seed can be redeemed, but the nonelect cannot.” (H. Leon McBeth. “The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness,” 374.)

The theology of this work resonated with Baptists, especially in the Western (what we would now call Mid-Western) regions and their view of determinism regarding salvation. McBeth, on page 372, lists three line items from the “Apple Creek Association” from that period showing Anti-Missions sentiments:

“19 We as an association do not hesitate to declare an unfellowship with foreign and domestic missionary and bible societies, Sunday Schools and tract societies, and all other missionary institutions.

21. No missionary preacher is to have the privilege of preaching at our association.

22. We advise the churches to protest against masonic and missionary institutions, and not to contribute to any such beggarly institutions.”

Of course, the anti-Missions movement was driven by other factors than theological. There were regional disagreements or rivalries. Most Baptists in the Eastern United States were “Regular” or supporting Missions, while those in the West tended to be anti-Mission. Cost had a factor, and poor churches in the frontier regions were more likely to see mission organizations as parasitic on the church. (I get reminded again, of the 2nd century work, the Didache, that gave local churches strict guidance to identify true versus false apostles. The biggest criteria was on how much time and support they sought from local churches rather than getting about their business of mission work.) Additionally, there was a suspicion of theological education, and seminaries were often lumped together with mission organizations in their opposition.

However, another major theological view that greatly strengthened the Anti-missions movement was ‘Biblicism.’ This is the belief or theological stance that only institutions that are expressly noted in the Bible are legitimate. This was very strong in the early 1800s, but still exists today. I have heard people say things to the effect that “The church is the only God-ordained institution to carry out His work in the world.” The statement presumes Biblicism, and then deduces that only one institution is established in the New Testament— the Church.

In 1827, the Kehuckee Association published “A Declaration Against the Modern Missionary Movement and Other Institutions of Men.” Those who agreed with such declarations, often called themselves “Old School Baptists” referring, presumably, to the pre-Carey Particular Baptist tradition, or even further, perhaps, based on the “Trail of Blood” belief that Baptist churches go back to Jesus and John the Baptist. The Campbellite Baptists, led by Alexander Campbell saw themselves as Reformers of the Baptist tradition, until they broke free from the Baptist fold to form the Campbellite or Church of Christ, movement, opposed Missions as well. Both of these have an underlying premise of Biblicism. For the Kehuckee Assocition, the Modern Missionary Movement is an “Institution of Men” rather than of God. For Campbell, “Where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent,” led to ‘where the Bible is not explicitly affirming, we oppose.” The Anti-Missions Baptists and the Campbellites saw themselves as seeking a “primitive” New Testament church and more recently, a “pre-Carey” Baptist church.

In the 20th century, other theological concernsrethinking have crept in. Perhaps most well known as the Liberal-Fundamentalist controversies in the 1920s. In broader Protestant circles, this can be seen in the controversy generated by “Rethinking Missions: A Layman’s Enquiry after One Hundred Years,” published in 1932 largely through the work of W. E. Hocking.

“The report distinguishes between temporary and permanent elements in the function of a missionary. The task of the missionary today, it was maintained, is to see the best in other religions, to help the adherents to discover, or to rediscover, all that is best in their own traditions, to co-operate with the most active and vigorous elements in the other traditions in social reform and in the purification of religious expression. The aim should not be conversion – the drawing of members of one religious faith over into another – or an attempt to establish a Christian monopoly. Co-operation is to replace aggression. The ultimate aim, in so far as any can be descried, is the emergence of the various religions out of their isoloation into a fellowship in which each will find its appropriate place.” (Stephen Neill “A History of Christian Missions, (Penguin Publishing, 2nd edition), page 419).

This report and the larger belief system it espouses, was a huge problem theologically. Despite the obvious differences with the narrow interpretation of Calvinist theology of the previous century, there was one obvious similarity. Both theological views said that there was really nothing that the church can or should do to offer God’s salvation to unbelievers. For the “Old-School Baptists” God did all the work of salvation, so their was nothing we can do to aid that activity. For those who accepted Hocking’s report, the best the church has to offer is not God’s call to salvation, but help for other religions to be better religions.

William Carey was wise in not challenging directly the theology of his compatriots, only the implications. But theology doesn’t just go away. Missions needs a better theological backing than what we normally give it. Most commonly it is given in the form of a series of “proof-texts” in a lecture or part of a course called “Biblical Basis for Missions.” Essentially, the course does what William Carey did. It says, “We don’t really need to deal with the issue of theology. Rather, if we will show that we are doing that we call ‘Missions’ can be linked to Biblical verses that are relevant and supporting.”

Some work in the vein of Carey’s Enquiry, answering more recent criticisms or interpretations of Matthew 28:18-20:

  • Arguing for the authenticity of the passage (that Jesus actually said it or it at least accurately describes what Jesus was seeking for the post-resurrection church).
  • Connect it with other Biblical passages to show that the passage is correctly understood and is consistent with other statements of Jesus, as well as other Biblical writers.

For a Christian Missions that is “built to last,” one needs a theological view, not a proof-text view, of Scripture. Regarding the latter activity, David Bosch states,

“I am not saying that these procedures are illegitimate. They undoubtedly have their value. But their contribution towards establishing the validity of the missionary mandate is minimal. This validity should not be deduced from isolated texts and detached incidents but only from the thrust of the central message of both Old and New Testaments.” (“Hermeneutical Principles,” pages 439-440)

A big problem is that Missions has been strangely quite absent from formal theological study over the years. As Christopher Wright notes,

“… there are many theological scholars and students whose understanding of theology is bounded by the horizon of the classical shape of the curriculum, in which mission in any form (biblical, historical, theological, practical) seems remarkably absent.” (Christopher J. H. Wright, ‘The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative,” p. 36)

In fact, one can even argue about where a Missions Theology would fit in. It could be a form of “Practical Theology”– attempting to bridge systematic theology (perhaps soteriology and ecclesiology) with real world practice. It could be its own sub-category of systematic theology, standing alongside Christology, Eschatology, Soteriology, Ecclesiology and the like). It could be a sub-set of Biblical Theology, going beyond “Biblical basis for Missions” to an attempt to draw the Testaments of God together to see the Missio Dei and the Missio Ecclesia.

For me, the most important is Missions Theology that establishes a sound foundation for Missions today. This would draw heavy on its Biblical Theology roots, but honestly and faithfully addresses systematization with historical and philophical sources as well. Wright goes on (on page 37) to quote Mark Spindler:

“If ‘mission’ is understood as the sum total of all actual missionary activities in the modern period or as everything undertaken under the banner of ‘missions,’ then an honest biblical scholar can only conclude that such a concept of mission does not occur in the Bible… It is therefore anachronistic and hence meaningless to attempt to base all modern ‘missionary’ activities on the Bible, that is, to seek biblical precedents or literal biblical mandates for all modern missionary activities. Mission today must, rather, be seen as arising from something fundamental, from the basic movement of God’s people toward the world… All ‘missionary’ activities that have grown up in history must be reassessed from this perspective. Once again, a biblical grounding of mission by no means seeks to legitimate missionary activities that are actually being carried out. Its goal is, rather, evaluation of those activities in the light of the Bible.”

We presently live in a “missionally sloppy” time. We live in an era where missions is often seen as converting people from one Christian denomination to another, or one theological ‘club’ within Christianity to another. For some it is about sending money to local workers, while others are convinced that missions can only happen when people are active cross-culturally. Some see evangelism as absolutely essential to missions, while others see social justice and ministry as key, while others identify a more holistic approach. Some feel that spiritual mapping and praying down ‘principalities and powers’ is essential, while others see it as useless fiction. Some see long-term workers as essential, while others see them as anachronistic and believe that more can be done with short-term teams. Some believe that we must do things “the way Paul did it,” others that we must be sent as the Father sent Jesus, while some see other forms of adaptation in missions. Many provide their ultimate theological justification for their Missions activities as “it seems to work” or “God appears to be blessing it” — (may as well use the line from the Debby Boone song, You Light Up My Life, “It can’t be wrong when it feels so right.”)

A good missions theology would not answer all of these concerns, but would at least provide a foundation for evaluating the various currents.

The Boundaries of Missiology

I periodically supervise seminarians in theses or dissertations. Usually, their papers are in missions (although sometimes I oversee other types of papers). A couple of the papers I oversaw in missions pushed the limits of what is considered to be missiological at our seminary. One had to do with process of contextualization of preaching for surrounding villages in a certain country. Since the researcher is from a similar culture, it could be considered not to be missions. Another was researching contextualization of training for a sub-cultural group of a larger culture that is on the other side of a national boundary. A third was researching the value of and understanding of “missional church” principles to church growth in a specific region in Asia. pushing-the-wall2

This third paper was the most difficult to get approved. This is because it is not, strictly speaking, cross-cultural, and the ‘missional church movement’ is sometimes seen as a competitor to missions rather than an ally (and therefore, not missiological). In defending the paper, I noted that my dissertation was on the use of medical missions in a region of the Philippines. It could be argued that it also is not “missions” because of its characteristics of being short-term (for those that see missions as long-term), social (for those who see missions as evangelism and churchplanting), and sometimes same culture (for those who see missions as strictly cross-cultural). My colleague stated that missiology has changed over the years so maybe my paper would not today have been accepted as being a missions dissertation.

That got me thinking a lot about what the boundaries or definitions for missions and missiology should be. My most recent one on this topic is HERE.

However, I struggle in this area. I prefer a broad definition for missions. On the other hand, if one makes it too broad, then everything in ministry becomes missions. I am not sure that all ministry topics should be “gobbled-up” by Missions. But there are certain functions and topics that seem to lap over the more narrow definitions for Missions. A lot of missions strategies function both cross-culturally and same-culturally. Should these strategies be researched by two separate groups of people due to a fairly arbitrary dividing point? Not sure.

But I am pretty sure of a couple of things.

  1.  If Missiology has changed over time to accept certain things as fitting into its realm and excluding other things, those changes have come due to the academic freedom to evaluate and change. In other words, if the changes are good, then the flexibility for those changes to occur is also good. Therefore, having research that pushes the boundaries of Missions should be welcomed.
  2. If the definitions for Missions and Missiology are “Perfect” today (if perfection can be identified), they will cease to be perfect as contexts change over the next few years. Therefore, again, research that pushes the boundaries of Missions should be welcomed, to anticipate and respond to these changes.

I don’t know, however, how much push is good and how much is bad. Good creativity comes in part from having good boundaries. But every now and then, the boundaries have to be tested, and moved.