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May 19, 2008Leadership, Research

Contextualization, Fundamentalists, Modernists, the ABWE, and the Kingdom

I had an interesting and exciting week last week at two mission boards.

First, it was good to connect with theologically conservative and biblically driven people who care about contextualization-- at the International Mission Board and the Association of Baptists for Worldwide Evangelism.

Right now, there is a backlash against contextualization in some quarters of evangelicalism. This is unfortunate-- evangelicals do not need more reasons not to engage culture. They can be, as I often say, "biblically faithful, culturally relevant, counter culture communities for the gospel and the Kingdom." Missionaries get that... and I love being around them.

For example, the folks at the Association of Baptists for Worldwide Evangelization (the ABWE), have a great resource to help people determine the "soil" they are seeking to reach. You can see the seminar here. They understand that the "how of evangelism is in many ways determined by the 'who, when, and where' of culture."

Second, my transportation got my blood flowing. The good folks at the ABWE sent a plane to get me-- a really small plane. And, I must confess to being a bit nervous due to the weather.

My favorite moment was when my "pilot" introduced me to the young man who was flying the plane. He was 18 years of age. He did great... under the guidance of his flight instructor. And, I was able to get a good night of sleep thanks to their help.

Third, it was good to review some history over dinner with ABWE President Michael Loftis. The ABWE was founded by missionaries from the American Baptist mission board. And their founding got me thinking about the Fundamentalist - Modernist Controversy.

The early twentieth century was a time of theological conflict between churches. Every denomination was impacted. One of the prominent battles took place in the 1920's and 30's within the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America.

The "Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy" was a clash between theologies typified by Harry Emerson Fosdick on one end (liberal), and J. Gresham Machen (classic fundamentalism) on the other. Before the term fundamentalism became associated with cultural retreat it was primarily a theological term that pointed to five essential doctrines common to fundamentalists: the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth, vicarious penal atonement, and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the historical reality of his miracles. The controversy surrounding these and related doctrines were not superficial, but critical to the identity and action of the church.

Theology gives birth to action, and differences in doctrine lead to differences in practice. For example, some of those who held more liberal theology often saw the Kingdom of God as that which would ultimately come about through the restorative, social outworking of gospel principles by "God's grace in human life and institutions." (I recently gave some cautions regarding this view at the dwell conference in NYC.)

For many liberals the coming of Christ was not an external arrival of the Savior, but his gradual emergence through the church's social work. Classic fundamentalist theology saw the Kingdom of God as that which is established by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, entered into by faith and repentance, and culminates in the literal return of Jesus Christ. Some churches found their primary ministry in social work, while other churches saw their primary goal to be evangelism and church planting, and it was differing views of the gospel and the kingdom that led to these differences.

That difference became a point of contention in the ministry of Dr. Raphael Thomas (as explained in the ABWE history document here):

Dr. Thomas had a great heart and gift for evangelism. He loved to travel into the countryside, visiting the barrios, ministering to souls as well as bodies. He also had a real rapport with high school and college students in Iloilo and developed ministries to reach them with the gospel of Jesus Christ. These activities became a point of conflict when he was criticized by fellow workers for not spending enough time in the hospital. Complaints were made against him to the board. Finally, orders came from the general secretary of the home board telling Dr. Thomas to cease his evangelistic itineration and confine himself to running the hospital. This he could not conscientiously do. It was intolerable that he not be permitted to carry out his first love, evangelism, which was the primary reason for his presence in the Philippines. He felt that he could not continue under that yoke.

Dr. Thomas and his family returned to the USA in February of 1927 and resigned from the ABFMS soon afterwards. In August of that year, they visited the home of Marguerite Doane, along with several other friends. That informal get-together resulted in the birth of the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism (ABWE), with the Thomases as one of the founders and its first missionaries. They returned to the Philippines in 1928 where they ministered for several more years. Dr. Thomas retired from the mission field shortly before the outbreak of World War 2, but continued in active service for the mission as a traveling national representative for a number of years.

Those of us who believe the "Kingdom of God" is an important emphasis (that needs to be reclaimed) must be careful. It would be a tragedy if we failed to learn that the last group that used the Kingdom of God to talk of justice often forgot to talk of Jesus. The folks at the ABWE believe we can do both-- and I agree with them.

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