Conversion or Fulfillment?

I have posted before on the question of whether we all worship the same god or not. I noted that when it comes to the Abrahamic religions– most notably Christianity, Judaism, and Islam– there is a lot of discussion as to Willi-Heidelbachwhether or not we worship the same God. The same question could equally apply to religions that have as their center of worship a god who is the creator of all things. Some of these may be described as polytheistic or henotheistic, but really only have one being that they worship who is truly ultimate.

Some say NO. Since the characteristics of the god each worships is different, then clearly each worships a different god. The challenge with this view is two-fold. First, it works against a missiological connection. Missionaries have often used a group’s belief in a creator god as a starting point for bringing in Biblical revelation. Second, since there are perhaps no two people who completely imagine God identically, and no single person who has ever envisioned God as he truly is, a NO response opens the door to the bigger question of whether anyone truly worships God in both spirit and truth.

Some say YES. If there is only one God, it is almost nonsensical to say we worship different gods. However, with different faiths have so radically different descriptions of god, how can we really say that the object of our worship is really the same?

I suggested an intermediate response before of NO, BUT

That is, No we don’t worship the same God, But we SEEK to worship the same God. This is most clearly true in the case of the Abrahamic faiths, since all of them seek to worship the God of Abraham as revealed in the Torah. However, any group that worships the one creator god could be seen as seeking the same object of their worship.

With further reflection, I would like to add another answer that does not replace “no but,” but does enhance the answer. The answer is YES, BUT

That is, Yes we do worship the same God, But some do not know the God they worship.

This answer is quite supportable in Scripture. In John 4, Jesus seems to give this answer to the woman of the Samaritan faith, an Abrahamic faith.

“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.  Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.

John 4:19-23

Jesus appears to acknowledge that the Samaritans worship the same God as the Jews, but it is a god they do not know.

The same could be said regarding non-Abrahamic faiths. In Acts 17, Paul links the God of the Bible, rhetorically to Zeus and to Deus. In Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas note that they are speaking of the living god who created all things who has revealed himself and his goodness to all nations at all times. These presentations of the Gospel also could be viewed as consistent with a message to people who ultimately worship the same god, but one that they don’t truly know.

There is not a lot of difference between NO BUT and YES BUT. Yet there is some reason to value YES BUT.

A major value is that it offers the possibility of reframing Conversion as Fulfillment.

Some of the Hill tribes of Myanmar and India for example, worshiped the god who created all things, but they believed that they had failed in losing the Great Book that was once given to them. Many of them, now Christians, do not see the transition in terms of rejecting their former faith, and conversion to a new faith. Rather, they see themselves as believing the faith of their ancestors, but now fulfilled with a restored book and Savior.

This is not so different from the first century Jewish Christians who saw their faith in terms of a fulfillment of the faith of their forefathers, rather than a replacement. I believe the Samaritans could also see acceptance of the Gospel of Christ in terms of a fulfillment of their ancestor’s faith rather than a replacement.

Could the gospel of Isa fulfill the faith of those who have followed what was established by Muhammad, Bahá’u’lláh, or Nanak? Can God’s revelation in the Bible fulfill other faiths as well?

 

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Among Them and Overwhelmed

Quote from PGJ Meiring’s article, “Max Warren and His Seven Rules for a Dialogue Between Christians and Non-Christians. “Actually, the article was originally written in Afrikaaner (Max Warren en sy sewe reëls vir ’n dialoog tussen Christene en nie-Christene” DEEL 47 # 3 & 4 SEPTEMBER & DECEMBER 2006, P. 588-599.)

The fourth rule/principle is “Identification.” Here is a rough translation of an excerpt of Meiring’s article regarding Identification:

20130909-070218

Preparation of the Prophet Ezekiel

The fourth principle probably asks the most of the conversation partners: the willingness to identify as far as possible with the other person’s life and conditions he lives in. It asks you to understand “the language of his heart”. It does not come naturally of itself: it requires imagination, endurance, humility and much love. Warren loved to refer to the example of the prophet Ezekiel, the prophet to the exiles in Babylon, sent with an all-important message from the Lord. Even though Ezekiel cannot be in the modern sense a “missionary” – after all, he is a prophet sent to his own people – he provides a model for all to consider as the Lord prepared him for his preaching task. Before the prophet was sent to speak, he had to first experience and learn to listen – and this is a lesson that every missionary in our day needs to seriously consider.

In the Authorized Version, Ezekiel 3:15 is translated as: “I came to them of the captivity … and I sat where they sat, and remained astonished among them for seven days “. The Revised Standard Version translates this slightly differently: “I came to them of the captivity … and I sat there overwhelmed among them for seven days”. The emphasis is different, says Warren: the first-mentioned translation emphasizes Ezekiel’s “entering into the experience of the exiles” while the latter “the ‘Overwhelming’ character of what the prophet experienced by joining these exiles where they were ” is emphasized (Warren, 1960: 60vv).

Both emphases are important: first of all, we must meet people where they are, we must “Sit where they sit”. We must understand their situation – their joy and their pain and how these experiences influence their views and beliefs (Warren, 1960: 17). “You and I can not bring men to Christ by whistling to them at a distance. We have to go and meet them, as God does, and psychologically speaking, this means coming to them imaginatively where they imagine themselves to be “(Warren, 1955: 31). The second emphasis, however, is just as important: that we become “Stunned.” We find ourselves speechless because we find it so difficult to really understand the other because their need is so great, and we are struggling to make clear the salvation of Christ because our vocabulary is too inadequate. But also speechless because we experience God already there, that He has already made his voice heard in the situation (Warren,1960: 17).

Encountering Theology of Mission

I recently finished reading Encountering Theology of Mission: Biblical Foundations, Historical Developments, and Contemporary Issues, by Craig Ott, Stephen J. Strauss, and Timothy C. Tennent. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I enjoy Mission Theology, and have long been concerned that much of missions has a sort of Machiavellian quality to it (do what seems to work), partly due to a failure to recognize the foundational nature of theology to sound ministry practice.9780801026621

I read as an interested party rather than a reviewer. As such, I probably lack the critical eye needed to give a proper analysis of the work. What I can say is that I felt that the first two parts (‘Biblical Foundations of Mission’ and ‘Motives and Means for Mission’) were excellent giving a good overview of the subject matter. Although clearly from an Evangelical perspective, the picture given was broader, and appropriately tentative, commonly, with regards to conclusions.

Perhaps I need to read it again, but the third part (‘Mission in Local and Global Context’) left me rather unsatisfied. It seemed to me that the coverage of contextualization of theology was inadequate, with no serious mention, as I recall, of evaluating localized theologies. I think the weakest section was the final chapter, dealing with ‘The Necessity of Mission: Three Uncomfortable Questions.’ It seemed like the rather balanced and theological tone of the previous chapters disappeared, and was replaced by a more apologetic approach to some awkward questions in Evangelical circles. There is a tendency here to challenge the arguments for non-traditional viewpoints (to an Evangelical) with equally disputable arguments. To be fair, they were dealing with tough questions that will always be open to honest disagreement, and maybe I am being unfair since my views may not be entirely in line with the authors in this section.

For me the strongest section would probably be chapter 6 where I feel the authors did an excellent job of dealing with the difficult balance of “Spiritual” and “Social” aspects of Missions. Additionally, the historical and contemporary motivations and understanding of mission tasks I felt to again be fair and address intelligently the diversity that has been associated with the Christian mission.

All in all, those interested in theology or missions (or theology and missions) should find this book interesting and valuable. To me, it establishes a good foundation historically and biblically for viewing a number of issues regarding theology of mission. At its strongest, I found it greatly rewarding without getting bogged down in minutiae. Even in its less strong points, it still provides a good starting point for additional research. Of recent books that I have read on a theological or biblical foundation for missions, I would place it second only to C.J.H. Wright’s book, “The Mission of God.” And compared to Wright’s book, this book is shorter and more accessible. That does have its advantages.  Bosch’s book “Transforming Mission” is hard for me to compare to this book because of the years separating the reading. I guess I would have to say that one should really read all three books… and value each one for its own strengths.

 

Motivation for Missions

Reading through “Encountering Theology of Mission” by Ott, Strauss, and Tennent. In Chapter 7 they list 13 motivations for doing why_go_graphicmission work. They divide them into two categories: Questionable Motivations and Appropriate Motivations. For me, I would like to play with the list a little bit. For me, some of the questionable motivations are poor motivations, while some are simply inadequate. Of the appropriate motivations listed, one seems to me to be Inadequate, and one Poor. Two I thought should be combined into one. I decided to move the list of 13 into three groups:    Poor, Inadequate, Appropriate. 

Of course, one could argue that even the ones described as Appropriate may still be Inadequate if other motivations are completely absent. Still the list feels good to me, and am in no way suggesting my organization is superior… it just works better for me. I don’t plan to add a lot of  commentary at this time. Perhaps later, I will look into some more thought and text.

Poor Motivations

Civilization, Colonialism, and Cultural Superiority — Cultural or Governmental Imperialism is clearly poor since each culture has strengths and weaknesses. Those that seek to transform a culture or place under the subjection of another typically are blind to their own weaknesses. It is an act of power, not love.

Ecclesial Power and Denominationalism — Similar to the previous one, it is a misguided use of power and of personal kingdom building rather than building God’s kingdom.

Condescending Pity — Both of the previous ones assume that the missionary or the missionary’s culture, or the missionary’s denomination or agency is superior to alternatives. This is tied to that but also more personal— much like Jesus’ story of the pharisee in the temple praying and thanking God at how awesome he (the pharisee) was compared to that sinful tax collector near him. It is a mixture of power and pride.

Asceticism — Some have traditionally (and perhaps still do) go on missions as a form of self-denial. Some may do it in the form of penance (Green Martyrdom) or more focus on service (White Martyrdom). This (and the other items in the Poor section are probably not as bad as the first three, but it still is essentially self-serving (yes self-denial can be a form of self-service).

Adventure and Romantic Ideals– One could list this as inadequate… but it is VERY inadequate. If one wants adventure and the “romance” of doing really cool and awesome things, there are better choices out there.

Eschatological Motivation— In the book, this motivation was listed as acceptable. For me, it is no better than inadequate, and probably more in the poor category. So much bad missions has sprung from reaction to the belief (right or wrong) of the imminence of Christ’s return or even (shockingly) the belief that doing certain things will speed up Christ’s return. Perhaps if what was meant was support of Christ’s kingdom, in terms of its connect to Eschatological (or Salvation) History, maybe I could accept it as an acceptable motivation. But even then, it seems more like a useful understanding of missions, rather than a motivation for missions.

Inadequate

All of the three that I put as inadequate are related to the passion that God has placed in us to grow and fulfill some sense of purpose. Perhaps I could have put the desire for adventure heref, or even asceticism… but these three seem superior to those two.

Self-realization and Edification —   This is clearly inadequate since missions is other-centered or God-centered, not self-centered. However, it is fine and appropriate to want to find a sense of purpose in the work.

Gender-related  — Historically especially, although of course still present, women would join missions seeking to serve God when other formal roles of ministry were denied to them. This is a very understandable motivation… but inadequate by itself.

Divine Calling or Inner Compulsion — This was listed in the book as Appropriate. But I can see it no better than inadequate. And considering the fact that no mission board that I know of sees a sense of calling as enough to approve commissioning, I don’t think I am alone in this. Also, the theology of divine calling often pushes people into redefining desire for self-realization, overcoming gender barriers, or even romantic adventure, as a divine calling. Anyway, since it is a self-centered motivation, unlike the ones that follow, the best that could be said is that it is inadequate.

Appropriate

Compassion and Human Need — The most common emotion ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels is Compassion. Compassion implies action as well. Missions can be seen as an appropriate response to the second part of the Great Commandment— to love one’s neighbor (one in need) as one loves oneself.

The Love of Christ… and Obedience to Christ’s Command — These were listed separately in the book, but I see them as going hand-in-hand. If one loves Christ one keeps His commands. The Great Commission, additionally can be seen as an application of the Great Commandment… loving God with one’s entire being. I can see one choosing to separate these, but for me at least, the two go hand-in-hand.

Doxology… the Glory of God — Missions can be seen as an act of worship. Additionally, one can be motivated by the desire that all creation (all tribes, nations, tongues, peoples) worship God… in spirit and in truth. The image of Revelation 9 can be a great motivation.

Even with these “Appropriate motives” a missionary should probably have all three, not just one. He or she may also have some inadequate, but not necessarily bad, motives. They may even have some poor motives…. such as desire for adventure, or advancing one’s denomination.

Any missionary or missionary candidate should, thoughtfully and honestly, consider their motivations.

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?