Theological Education Overseas

I recently wrote a short article for The Fellowship of Baptist Educators. The article is located Here.

This particular organization supports American seminary professors giving of their time to teach at Bible Schools and Seminaries overseas.

Missions that focuses on theological education is a bit controversial.

  • For some, it is a poor use of resources. A few years ago, a major mission agency that I had some tangential involvement in, began to decimate, and then destroy its program for seminary training overseas. The argument was that focus should be on placing resources into work with Unreached People Groups. The lack of logic here seems stunning to me. If one is seeking to reach unreached Asian groups, the best use of resources seems to me to be training Asians to reach them. Perhaps the underlying logic is that they could get more giving from supporters if they got some quick numbers (and training pays off in the long-term more than short-term). Or perhaps there was the underlying belief that Jesus is “returning any day now.” But if Jesus is returning very soon, our role is to serve faithfully and with excellence, rather than focus on short-term projects. And if Jesus is not returning soon, then education makes even more sense.
  • Others, however, can be concerned about theological imperialism. This appears to me to  be a more valid concern. Often theologians go overseas and do more in terms of indoctrination than education. Here in the Philippines we find people arguing about KJV versus NIV, or whether Halloween is a good or bad holiday— things that really should have ZERO relevance here. Others seem more interested in promoting their own denomination or their own theological spin (Whether it be some form of Pentecostalism, Reformed Theology, Complementarianism, Nuothetic Counseling, and so on) rather than empowering locals to have their own contextualization of the Christian faith.

While this second point has some strength, I still feel that theological educators are a good thing.

  1. If we accept that the church has a spiritual unity, then we benefit from communication, in instruction from each other. We grow through each other. This occurs, however, if their is humility from all parties, and mutuality (all sides learning from all sides).
  2. Theological imperialism occurs with or without instructors. Horrible theology flows from 1st world countries to majority world countries continuously via TV preachers, radio preachers, books, brochures, podcasts, and websites. So often friends of mine here quote some TV preacher and talk about how wonderful they are. Even when the person is not so bad, it becomes clear quite fast that their trust in this talking head has short-circuited their own Biblical and Theological process. I end up giving some vague response that I hope will cover up my real feelings about the preacher and his/her beliefs without actually lying. A good theological instructor can help a student develop tools to analyze and develop their own theological perspectives. Sadly, in this globalized setting, localized theology will not develop by removing instructors. Someone will fill the void… often someone who should be critiqued and found wanting.



Inter-religious Dialogue as a Tool

I have recently, finally, started working on my book on Inter-religious Dialogue (IRD). I should not have been so slow. I will be teaching the course starting in October (2018). This is the third time I have taught the course, but this will be the first time with my own text. I hope to have at least a rough draft ready by then.

The following is the rough draft of the Introduction.

Imagine that you have a toolbox. Imagine you are a carpenter, and in your toolbox you have only one tool — perhaps a hammer. Can you build a house only with a hammer? Poorly at best. Can you hammer screws? Again poorly. Other tasks are likely even worse — leveling, sawing, drilling, and more. The results would be poor. The carpenter would be exhausted and the constructed house would be a disaster.

A wise carpenter has three things:

  • A toolbox with a variety of tools of the trade

  • Skills in how to use each of the tools effectively

  • Wisdom to know which tool to use for each task

Now imagine that each Christian has a toolbox of skills associated with serving God. Some tools may be spiritual disciplines such as prayer, bible study, witnessing, and mediation. Other tools may be less specifically religious such as teaching, polemics, argument, encouragement, and counseling. Having a wide variety of skills/disciplines is important, but this is not enough.

One must know how to use eachtool well. A carpenter may have a power saw, but still need considerable training to use it well. A minister may “know how to preach,” but still there is a great distance beween this and preaching well or effectively.

Skillful use is not enough. One must have the wisdom to know the right tool to use in each specific circumstance. Some people are very skilled in prayer, but as important as prayer can be, there are times when prayer is the wrong tool… or at least an inadequate tool. A hungry neighbor needs more than prayer. There are times when preaching is needed, and times when it is inappropriate or unhelpful.

This book is about a tool — dialogue. Specifically, it is about the tool of dialogue, and how it can be used effectively as a Christian minister in interacting with people of other faiths.

At a basic level, most everyone knows how to do dialogue. But this does not mean that everyone is equally competent to dialogue well. This also does not mean that everyone knows when to use it and when not.

This book is primarily aimed at missionaries and ministers who work in cross-cultural or religiously pluralistic settings. However, the places on earth that are monocultural and religiously monolithic are decreasing rapidly. Therefore, there are fewer and fewer ministers who can say that they are competent in their ministry without skills in inter-religious dialogue.

Philosophically, this book sees inter-religious dialogue as seeking understanding. This is in contrast to those who see it primarily in terms of relativization of beliefs at one extreme, and apologetics at the other. As such it is consistent with Evangelicals, who take very seriously their own truth convictions regarding religious faith. However, it also challenges the presumption of many Evangelicals that the most effective way to interact with people of other faiths is through preaching or teaching (one-way communication), or through arguing.

Sadly, a book is by its nature a form of one-way communication. Since this book is about dialogue, it is my hope that readers will have an opportunity to go through this book with others — and especially with others of a variety of viewpoints. Dialogue, as a tool, is practiced, not simply read about; and is made sharp through practice with those of diverse opinions.

Sowers and Storytellers

Matthew 13 is an interesting chapter and is a place where the Parable of the Sower is given. However, in the same chapter are two more sowers. They are described in the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares.

Parable of the SowerImage result for parable of wheat and tares

Image result for parable of wheat and tares

Sower One who shares the Word of God

Seed God’s Word

Parable of the Wheat and Tares

Good Sower Son of Man (Christ)

Evil Sower The Evil One (Satan)

Good Seed Wheat

Evil Seed Tares (Darnel Ryegrass

Parable of the Mustard Seed

Sower Not identified… but presumably God/Christ

Seed Kingdom of God

On the other hand, one can reverse it and compare the different roles:

Role of God

Parable of the Sower The One who has the message that brings fruit

Parable of the Wheat and Tares The One (Son of Man) who sows the good seed

Parable of the Mustard Seed The One who initiates the Kingdom of God

Role of Satan

Parable of the Sower The one who snatches the message from people

Parable of the Wheat and Tares The one who plants the bad/evil seed

Parable of the Mustard Seed Not in this parable

Role of the “Righteous”

Parable of the Sower Those who hear and understand the message

Parable of the Wheat and Tares Those who were planted by the Good Sower

Parable of the Mustard Seed Not stated. Presumably part of the mustard plant

Role of the “Unrighteous”

Parable of the Sower Those who fail to respond to the message

Parable of the Wheat and Tares Those who were planted by the Evil Sower

Parable of the Mustard Seed Not stated. Presumably not part of the mustard

Some personal reflections on Matthew 13

1. The chapter gives us good reason for caution in “locking in” meanings for symbols. In Matthew 13, seeds have three different meanings depending on the parable. Arguably, there are four meanings, since there are two different seeds in one of the parables. Likewise, there is more than one meaning for sower as well. This is imporant to remember since there is a temptation to find consistent symbolic meanings in the Bible. One only has to look at so-called “Christian Numerology” to find those who think that numbers must have a symbolic meaning and that meaning must be consistent throughout the Bible (and sometimes even beyond). An awful lot of bad theology comes out of this idea.

I recall a preacher noting the uses of symbols in Matthew 13. He suggested that the birds in the Bible are consistently symbols of evil, so in the Parable of the Mustard Seed, the “REAL” message is that over time, the Kingdom of God would become more and more evil. However, if one rejects a consistent use of symbols the more obvious understanding is that the Kingdom of God will start small and insignificantly, but will continue to grow and spread and become too big to ignore.

I also recall another (same?) preacher stating that yeast is always a symbol of sin in the Bible. Therefore, the Kingdom of God is really the flour in which sin becomes introduced and then grows/expands. I can see why some commentators might prefer that understanding. Since seeds (wheat berries) were earlier described as being linked to the righteous in the same chapter, then flour could be linked to Christians (or technically speaking, ground up Christians). For some, I suppose, it may also be less troubling to see the woman as being linked with Satan (or a Lilith character) rather than with God. Some get bothered by feminine imagery of God. But, again, if one rejects consistent symbols, the more likely understanding is that the yeast is the kingdom of God, the flour is the world, and the kingdom starts out small and insignificant but interspersed in the world, it begins to grow and transform the world.

2. One must be careful to avoid reading too much into parables. While the “one parable, one message” view may be too restricting, it is often tempting to take the parable off onto tangents that they were never meant to go.

For example, Who can be saved based on the Parable of the Sower and the Parable of the Wheat and Tares? In the latter of these two, it seems as if one is born saved and another is born unsaved. A somewhat hyper-Calvinistic view may be seen as described here. There is no suggestion that tares can become wheat. An obvious problem here, however, is that if one applies this understanding consistently, then mankind is essentially two species (“wheat” or “darnel/tares”) with one being created by God, and the other being created by Satan. It does not seem likely that Jesus is suggesting that Satan is a literal Creator of humans.

In contrast to this extreme, one might address the other extreme in the Two Ways. In it, humans are one “species” with a choice between a narrow and a wide path. One might take this as an extreme Arminian viewpoint. God makes the paths and people decide which path to follow.

But then if one takes those two parables as describing two extremes, a more mediated view might be argued from the Parable of the Sower. The message of God’s Word is given to all. People may be different types of soils with no suggestion of being two unrelated species. There appears to be God’s initating work of salvation, and man’s response. Still there is uncertainty about the details of the process. The Bible seems to generally not give a lot of clear information on the mechanism or process, so this parable appears to me to best reflect a sound, if uncertain, soteriology.

That being said, none of these parables are really about the process of salvation.

3. Parables are both described as making truths clearer, and also disguising truth. Matthew 13 tries to describe some very complicated relationships such as the word of God to mankind, and the Kingdom of God to the world. As such, parables can be quite helpful— connecting the abstract to the concrete. However, there is a temptation to read one’s own theology into the story. Additionally, one needs cues to know how to understand the symbols. Both the Parable of the Wheat and Tares and the Parable of the Sowe are interpreted directly by Jesus. In some cases, this does not happen, so it is understandable that so many bizarre interpretations occur. Thus one needs to look at the broader themes within the Gospel text, as well as see what the listed purpose of the story is.

Ultimately, to use parables, one needs to:

  • Apply them to link difficult, abstract ideas to what is more concrete. (Abstract does not inform abstract. Concrete is less valuable to inform concrete.)
  • Provide cues as to the meaning of the symbols (One cannot assume that symbols are obvious or are the same as used elsewhere.)
  • Have a broader context to make clear the purpose of the story. (If the story does not inform a larger message, it doesn’t have much of a purpose.)
  • Have a clear interpretation to prevent misinterpretation. (However, if the story does not “make sense” with the interpretation, the story has no real point for existing.)

Brief Glimmers of…. Hope

Years ago I read a quote from a book. I liked the quote so much that memorized it. Since I no longer have a copy of the book, I cannot verify that I am quoting it correctly. But it goes something like this:

“Life is a sucking, swirling eddy of despair, bespeckled by brief glimmers of false hope in an ever-blackening universe.”

-Quote (as best I can recollect it) from “Late Night with David Letterman: The Book”  (ca 1985)

I am sure you are wondering why I would choose such a bleak quote. There are some reasons. The first has to do with orality. The second with theology. The third is exegetical.

Orality. I tried to verify the above quote by going to the Internet. That is usually a good way to verify most quotes. I wanted to verify the wording, and I wanted to know who first said it. After all, the book I read it in may not be the original source.

The curious thing was that I could not find any good information on the Web. The closest one I found was actually on a comment list on a post:

The human condition is a swirling, sucking eddy of despair – filled with small moments of false hope, erroneous assumptions and tuxedoed clowns, in an ever-blackening universe.   (

Sadly, that quote gave no source information. There is also a forum seeking to determine the source: result for life is a sucking swirling eddy of despair

They worded the quote as:

“Life is just a swirling, sucking whirlpool of despair, filled with brief flashes of false hope, in an ever-blackening universe.”

The one making the query said that he or she first saw the quote in a college newspaper ad in 1982. Others in the forum did not know who first came up with the quote. Their versions varied, like

“Life is a swirling eddy of despair in an ever blackening universe”

There are a number of variations on the Internet, but no clear original form. I would argue that I probably come close to the original form. First, in a literary (non-oral) society, one might expect the quote to shorten and its words to simply. So “bespeckled by brief glimmers” can become “occasional glimpses” or ‘brief flashes,” or a whole clause disappearing.

There is still a question. One individual above said he (or she) saw it in 1982. But since the book I quoted came out in 1985 and was basically a compilation of  stuff from the show from 1983 until the book was finalized. It does make me wonder if the 1982 date listed above was incorrect. After all, an easy place for a quote to enter a culture orally (without being written down) would be on a daily/nightly TV show.

Key here, however, is that all of the versions still stay true to the basic quote.

As I have noted elsewhere, Just because we live in a literary society does not mean that oral transmission does not happen… it just means that oral transmission is just sloppier.

Theology.  A more important question than attribution is “Why do people (regardless of its exact form) remember this quote? I believe that it is because people believe it is false. They think it expresses a dismal attitude that the quoter does not actually believe in.  The one who quotes it is, in fact, one who believes that the hope is not false but real.  I am reminded about a quote of Moltmann that I have used before:

Hope alone is to be called ‘realistic’, because it alone takes seriously the possibilities with which all reality is fraught. It does not take things as they happen to stand or to lie, but as progressing, moving things with possibilities of change. Only as long as the world and the people in it are in a fragmented and experimental state which is not yet resolved, is there any sense in earthly hopes. The latter anticipate what is possible to reality, historic and moving as it is, and use their influence to decide the process of history. Thus hopes and anticipation of the future are not a transfiguring glow superimposed upon a darkened existence, but are realistic ways of perceiving the scope of our real possibilities, and as such they set everything in motion and keep it in a state of change.


Exegetical.  While some people believe that not know the context or the author is unimportant to the meaning. The words are just words, and we provide the meaning as the reader. There can be cases where this is true. However, the quote appears to need a context. After all, it was was created by a writer of the Late Night With David Letterman Show, then it appears clear that it is meant to be cynical humor, and the hyperbolic language makes sense. But since we don’t know the source, it is possible that the language is meant to be taken without irony or humor.

It is the same problem that one gets with SMS (text) messages. They come without non-verbal cues… so one really needs to have a firm sense of the context and the person writing it to know how to interpret it.

Presence and Function

I was reading a chapter, entitled “Embedding Chaplaincy: Integrity and Presence” by Margaret Whipp, in the book “”A Christian Theology of Chaplaincy,” edited by Caperon, Todd, and Walters. There is a sizable quote that, although speaking of Chaplaincy could just as easily be applied to Missions:

Presence counts.  In one of the more radical twentieth-century experiments in workplace ministry, the ‘Mission de France’ embedded worker-priests amid the sweat and grime of northern industrial docklands. Stripped of all their priestly trappings, their mission was simply to belong: to live and move and have their being among the other heavy manual workers. ‘But what did they actually do?’ asked the curious English bishop when he interviewed the worker-priests’ superior. Abbe’ Godin’s emphatic reply caught the entire spirit of the movement: ‘C’est la presence. C’est la presence!’

Presence matters. Woody Allen famously quipped that 80 per cent of life consists of showing up. This is what we cherish as one of the keenest principles of incarnational theology — that presence precedes function. The real human presence of Christ — ‘which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and touched with our hands’ (I John 1:1) — reveals the transformative power of God’s own being, and dwelling among us.

The chaplain’s <and missionary’s> presence, however, is scarcely navigated without problems. Paul Ballard rehearses the challenge of steering between the twin perils of an over-identification with management objectives which threaten to blunt our prophetic edge and a ministry on the margins of institutional or industrial life which is too irrelevant to cut any ice. “This is, of course, precisely the tension of the incarnation — of being in the world so entirely that there is identity and yet being ‘not of this world’ so as to be free to serve it.’ In Niebuhrian terms, chaplains <and missionaries> must negotiate a subtle course between the twin poles of cosy assimilation and crude opposition in order to find their true missional integrity.

Thought #1

Whipp’s analysis points to the vital importance of presence, but also its challenges to avoid being ineffective and/or irrelevant. Conciliar Missions, back in the 1960s began to redefine Missions in terms of Presence. I may be wrong here, but it seemed to me that often Missions and Presence were seen to be the same thing.  The role as intentional transformer seemed to get lost (again, as I understand it). Perhaps the issue there is a failure to see Missions in terms of both Presence AND Function. As Whipp noted above, in Chaplaincy (and I would add Missions), Presence precedes Function, in line with Incarnational Theology. As such, Missions is not Presence alone, and Presence is not of itself Function. Incarnational presence empowers function.

Thought #2. 

On the flip side, there are groups that believe that incarnational long-term foreign missions are unnecessary, or too financially inefficient to be utilized. For them, the goal is to just send money to local ministers. I have talked about this issue before. It is true that local ministers are typically more effective, and are more financially frugal. Still, it is missions in which function is given such high priority that presence is discounted. Presence has a certain power that should not be discounted. It is entirely possible that God could have carried out His mission for mankind without the Incarnation, but the presence of God With Us, is symbolically powerful, even without the atonement.