Can we validly apply the name “science” to missions?

If we mean an exact science like mathematics, the answer is No. On the other hand, if we mean “classifiable and verifiable knowledge,” an affirmative reply may be admitted.

In any case, Professor J. H. Bavinck, of Free Amsterdam University, Holland, has written a book, lately published by the Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, to which he gives the title An Introduction to the Science of Missions. It is a book of substance: always thoughtful, frequently thrusting, and altogether thorough (What are the Dutch if they are not thorough?).

Professor Bavinck is equipped with a formidable vocabulary. In the Introduction he discusses “apostolics” and “prosthetics,” possible terms to be used in describing the discipline of Christian thought within which we place the world mission of the Church. “Apostolics” would be used to denote “the notion of missions in general,” the concept of the Church as a community of the “sent.” “Prosthetics,” interestingly enough, is derived from a Greek word which in Acts 2:41 is translated “added:” “And there were added unto them in that day about three thousand souls.” The word reappears in verse 47: “And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.” Both terms are rejected in favor of the phrase “the science of missions.” This is defined by Bavinck (in words borrowed from Abraham Kuyper) as “The investigation of the most profitable God-ordained method leading to the conversion of those outside of Christ.”

“Elenctics” is an extraordinary word that is used as the subject of the book’s second section. Drawn out from the Greek verb elengchein, it speaks of the whole phenomenon of conviction of sin, and the shame or condemnation growing therefrom. Thus of special importance for missions is our Lord’s word in John 16:8: “And when he [the Holy Spirit] is come, he will reprove [elengxei] the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment.”

From the “elenctic” point of view the crucial question with which men everywhere need to be confronted is, “What have you done with God?” Until they are brought to an acknowledgment of the God who stands self-revealed in Jesus Christ, they tend to move in four directions with respect to God:

1. Men may move in the direction of wrong identifications between God (or the gods) and the natural world. Thus we have animism and magic.

2. Others may move in the direction of some form of divine absenteeism. Thus we have the old Chinese belief in a being who created the heavens and the earth, but whose distance from common mortals is so great that he can be evoked only by the emperor.

3. Some will move in the direction of losing God behind laws and norms. Thus we have in Buddhism the contradiction of atheism and devotion in a system in which the all-important thing is not the being of God but the dharma, the doctrine of the eightfold path and all that is associated with it.

4. And some may move in the direction of mysticism. Thus we have, whether by artificially induced intoxication or by philosophical contemplation, the wiping out of the distinction between subject and object, between “Thou” and “I,” and the negation of what is basic in the Christian revelation, that is, the ineffaceable distinction between Creator and creature.

If these are the lines along which we discover the judgment and shame that rest upon St. Paul’s “natural man” (who is any man not “in Christ”), how are we to reconcile this biblical condemnation with what is manifestly true and noble in some of the insights of the higher religions?

For his reply Professor Bavinck would lean on the doctrine of common grace. This is the grace, attributable to a universal operation of the Spirit of God, that preserves the society of sinful man from total self-destruction. It causes even the distortions, derangements, and delinquencies that attach to human emotions, conscience, laws, institutions, insights, and desires to subserve the sovereign purposes of Almighty God. It is the antidote to complete racial destruction. It is the anteroom to the saving grace that is given in Jesus Christ our redeeming Lord.

This, it will be seen, is far removed from the position held by such thinkers as Harvard’s Professor Hocking, that the Christian message derives its supremacy of claim to the fact that it crowns and fulfills the aspirations that are found in the devotees of all the higher religions.

On the contrary, it has been the classical faith of the Christian Church that even such insights and susceptibilities as the Spirit of God has been able to keep alive in the intelligence and conscience of mankind have been twisted and debased in the unhallowed service of pride, so that even “religion” has become man’s final stronghold of self-sufficiency in the “flight from God.” Nor is this true only of pagan religions. It proved true repeatedly in the life of God’s covenant people, Israel. It may be seen indeed in false uses to which this thing called “Christianity” is put today.

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Here is the point of convergence between the thinking of Professor Bavinck and that of Bishop Stephen Neill in his recent volume called Creative Tension. He suggests that “the only way in which [Christ] can fulfill human aspirations is first to reduce them to ashes.” He contends that “each religious system, in its autonomy, in its aim of self-realization, is so far in rebellion against God and so far under judgment.” What is intrinsically true in any of these systems will not be destroyed. It will pass through the “scorching fires of Christ’s judgment.” It will die to itself having implemented man’s pride. It will rise in a “joyful resurrection.”

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