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January 31, 2011

Mission, Described and Defined: More Discussion around MissionSHIFT

A few weeks ago I started a discussion on missiology, sparked by the book MissionSHIFT, which I recently co-edited with David Hesselgrave. David recently added some "second thoughts" as he was teaching through the book, and has graciously allowed me to share them with my blog readers. In addition, we gave away some books to other bloggers and decided to start a discussion.

Two weeks ago, I published the first installment of David Hesselgrave's "second thoughts" essay. I also shared some excerpts of the responses by other bloggers in two installments (here and here). Last week Keith Eitel joined the discussion.

Today, I am publishing the second part of David's essay. Those participating in the discussion have already seen this and are ready to respond today. You can be a part of the conversation if you would like. Just order a copy of MissionSHIFT and follow along. If you post on your blog anytime in the next two weeks, just add your link in the comments. I will post another blog with some of the best of the comments.

This is a long essay, but an important one. There is lots of talk about mission, missiology, and contextualization without any consideration of what those terms mean. David takes us deep and it's worth the dive.

Borrowing from the Human Sciences:

Much is Beneficial but How Much is Too Much?

During the years leading up to and away from the middle of the 20th century, social studies such as psychology, anthropology, linguistics, education, sociology and communication came to the fore in our universities, often at the expense of philosophy and sometimes at the expense of the hard sciences. After completing an undergraduate degree in philosophy I myself enrolled in a masters program in communication. The year was 1950. One of my professors and several graduate students had just returned from a symposium held at the University of Nebraska and addressed by the Jewish psychologist, Abraham Maslow. Maslow had made a remark (whether offhandedly or formally I do not know) that had immediately attracted the attention of all attendees. Distancing himself from behavioral studies that concentrated on elaborate experiments with mice and rats, and monkeys and chimpanzees, Maslow had said, "I would like to suggest that there is a significant difference between these creatures and humankind. If you really want to know what a human is thinking and why he is behaving as he is, you can ask him!"

Maslow went on to become one of the founders of humanistic psychology. Opposed to Freudian psychotherapy and Skinnerian behaviorism, he also believed that those who live by sound doctrine and obey the Scripture are the enemies of true religion. Many of his ideas--some of them questionable at best--have been appropriated by Christian scholars generally and by Christian psychologists and counselors in particular. At the foundation of all of them is a rudimentary idea so manifestly true that it supports not only Maslowan humanism but all human sciences. It can be stated as reported by my early classmates at Minnesota or in the simple postulate: "Humans communicate verbally." What is remarkable about all of this is that a notion so elemental and blasé as this one had the potential, not alone to engage the minds of university scholars, but also to direct their subsequent studies!

An Abbreviated Overview of Paul Hiebert's Essay, "The Gospel in Human Contexts: Changing Perceptions of Contextualization"

Paul Hiebert's essay is addressed primarily to professionals such as those who attended the Morning Star symposium. As one of our premier Christian anthropologists, Hiebert has long been concerned with contextualization--with equipping missionaries to adjust to religious, social, cultural and historical contexts when communicating the gospel. Over the years he has lectured and written widely and helpfully on the subject. His grand essay in MissionShift is one of his last offerings and worthy of careful consideration. In it Hiebert delineates four different views of contextualization that have successively tended to prevail in mission circles. They can quite easily be located on a "contextualization continuum" (my term) according to the degree of human and cultural awareness involved.

View 1 is that of "colonial missions" in which missionaries see the gospel as "acultural and ahistorical"; or according to which missionaries recognize the need for some adjustment to culture but tend to look down on other cultures as primitive and inferior; to emphasize form more than meaning; and to introduce Western ways of living and worship.

View 2 is "uncritical contextualization" which, while reflecting an increasing awareness of the importance of culture, nevertheless occasions less than praiseworthy responses in the missionary community. At one extreme it results in a dogmatic insistence on the rightness of the missionary's culture and way of thinking, or, at the other extreme, in an affirmation of the validity of all cultures and the right of local people to read the Bible for themselves and formulate their own theologies.

View 3, Hiebert's "critical contextualization," highlights the difference between "universal Christianity" and local forms of it; between God-given revelation and humanly devised theologies; and between the everlasting gospel and contextualized/uncontextualized versions of it. In this view, pastors and leaders of the younger churches try to interpret and apply the gospel appropriately in their respective cultures. Missionaries serve the younger churches by encouraging and assisting in these endeavors.

View 4, "divine revelation given in human contexts," represents an extension and elaboration of "critical contextualization." It is here that some of Hiebert's most recent and penetrating contributions are to be found. Those contributions are based upon one pre-understanding and represent the outworkings of three important and related principles. The pre-understanding (often overlooked by ordinary Christians but obvious to Bible scholars) is the fact that Scripture itself was given to humans in particular historical and socio-cultural contexts. For that reason, eternal truth and the particular contexts in which it was revealed must be differentiated. The three principles that aid us in that process are as follows.

1) The principle of ontology (the nature or being or reality): the gospel is divine revelation to humans, not the result of human searches for truth. The gospel reveals God's universal message to mankind but the gospel cannot be equated with any one particular human context.

2) The principle of phenomenology (the description of actual phenomena): the gospel must be put in specific socio-cultural contexts in order to be understood. We must study both Scripture and humans and then build a bridge between them. Hiebert terms this "doing missional theology."

3) The principle of missiology: the gospel is to be understood as transformational, not only informational. "The gospel is not simply a message to be affirmed but also a call to follow Christ throughout life in radical discipleship." (98). It involves believers in caring for the poor, oppressed and sick as well as "bringing the gospel to the lost." (99)

Relevant Christian Postulates Posed by Saint Augustine

Exactly what the Morning Star symposium questioner had in mind I am not sure, but his question was as germane as it was unanticipated. His question was, "What is the connection, if any, between classical rhetorical theory and practice on the one hand, and contemporary contextualization theory and practice on the other?"

To understand this question one must bear in mind that in the ancient world rhetoric was much more than "flowery speech." Rhetoric was defined as the "art of persuasion" and as such constituted the very acme of ancient education because the ability to persuade others entailed a grasp of all types of knowledge. In fact, to possess knowledge and the ability to use it in defense of oneself or another often meant the difference between continued citizenship and banishment, or even between life and death. The connection between rhetorical training and advocacy of any kind in the early church becomes immediately apparent when we remember that, like Saint Augustine, many of the early Church Fathers were well-schooled in rhetoric.

It was when he was serving as the rhetor of Milan, Italy, in A.D. 387 that Augustine was convicted, converted and baptized under the ministry of Ambrose. Later, he returned to North Africa to become Bishop of Hippo and, subsequently, one of the most penetrating and influential theologians the church has ever produced. He not only provided the church with a brilliant apologetic vis-à-vis pagan religions and in that sense was truly a missionary, he also provided the church with a vigorous defense of orthodox doctrine.

Reference is made here especially to Augustine's classic On Christian Doctrine (trans. D. W. Robertson, J., NY: Liberal Arts, 1958) In the struggle between Christianity and paganism Augustine embarked on a twofold task when writing this book: (1) to define Christian doctrine in such as way as to preserve an exclusive gospel while sifting out pagan accretions; and, (2) to effect a rapprochement between revealed truth and those aspects of pagan learning not inherently antagonistic to that truth.

Drawing upon the Exodus narrative Augustine first inquired as to whether or not "gold from Egypt" could be used to advantage in the church. Then he proceeded to answer his own question by proposing three basic postulates or principles that we do well to keep in mind when examining issues such as those that surface--or lie just beneath the surface--of Hiebert's "The Gospel in Human Contexts." Translated into terms especially appropriate here, Augustine's postulates are as follows:

1) All truth is God's truth.

That seems so axiomatic to us today that it is accepted as a truism and seldom stated. For Augustine, however, the question was existential and significant. It was not without serious thought that, in Euclydian fashion, he eventually gave expression to the simple proposition "Egyptian gold is still gold," (i.e., "all truth is God's truth").

2) Scripture is the measure of truth.

"Egyptian gold" can be used to advantage by the church. In order to determine whether "Egyptian gold" is "real gold," however, it must be measured in the light of Scripture.

3) The amount of helpful truth available from the human sciences is minimal as compared with the amount derivable from Scripture.

Augustine did not stop where we might be tempted to stop. He went on to assure his contemporaries that the amount of useful information obtainable from a study of history, "number," disputation and philosophy (all aspects of rhetorical inquiry) is small when compared to that obtainable from Scripture itself.

A Preliminary Examination of Issues Growing out of Hiebert's Essay in the Light of Augustinian "Postulates"

Before dismissing Augustine as being ancient, his dilemma as being archaic and his solutions as being irrelevant, it is well that we take a close look at what has been happening in secular education and also at the relationship between human/social studies in secular institutions on the one hand and Christian institutions on the other.

1) An unchallenged assumption in doing contextualization: All truth is God's truth.

As noted above in connection with the inroads and impact of Maslowan humanism, human/social studies peaked in the twentieth century and have had a profound impact on Christian education as well as American education in general. Hiebert takes special note of this as regards mission theory. He writes, "After the 1930's anthropologists began to realize the importance of understanding the world as the people they studied see it, seeking to understand culture like an insider (the 'emic perspective') This change in perspective led to a profound shift in the nature of anthropological and missiological theories . . . . " (90; emphasis mine)

The underlying assumption here is that "All truth is God's truth." And so it is. Very few if any would disagree with Hiebert when he extols the benefits, not only of "emic" thinking, but of numerous other anthropological insights as well. Testing "Egyptian gold" both qualitatively and quantitatively on the basis of Scripture, however, is quite another matter--not only for Hiebert but for all of us.

2) The qualitative measurement of human science data by means of Scripture: avoiding syncretism and relativism when doing contextualization.

Perhaps the most divisive problem facing Augustine and the Church Fathers of his time had to do with the Incarnation of Christ. How could Jesus Christ be fully God and fully man at one and the same time? Judged by human rationality alone, he could not and on that basis some came up with answers calculated to appeal to inquiring worldlings. Serious debate ensued, especially after the Council of Nicea (325). Augustine died in 430 but, based solidly on Scripture, his theology contributed greatly to the Christology of Chalcedon in 451 (i.e., Jesus is of the same reality as the Father as far as his deity is concerned and of the same reality as man as far as his humanness is concerned).

Though the nature of Christ as God and man is still a matter of concern today, an equally and perhaps even more contentious issue in recent years has to do with the nature of biblical revelation. To what extent and in what sense are the words of Scripture both the words of men and also the words of God? How can they be both at one and the same time?

Hiebert's concern at this point is to bridge between the universal gospel of Scripture and the particular cultures in which missionaries and pastors of younger churches live and labor for Christ. This is what Views 3 ("critical contextualization") and 4 ("divine revelation given in human contexts") are all about. Critical contextualization stood for years as one of Hiebert's signal contributions to missiology. But in this essay he has extended critical contextualization by highlighting the fact that the Bible itself was written by human authors in their own particular local cultures. As he says, careful Bible scholars have taken that into account in interpreting the biblical text: viz, ". . . Scripture itself was given to humans in their particular historical and sociocultural contexts." (94; my emphasis).

Who is better qualified to remind both expatriate missionaries and national leaders of the significance and implications of this truth than Paul Hiebert? When posed by an anthropologist, however, certain all-important issues soon come to the fore. For example, biblical anthropology tends to universalistic and encompassing. When writing Romans Paul quickly establishes the need for salvation on the basis that primals, Greeks and Jews--all alike--are sinners. God concludes all in sin that he might have mercy upon all (cf. Rom. 3:10, 20-21). (Secular) cultural anthropology, on the other hand, tends to be particularistic and differentiating. Each culture has its own understanding of good and evil, each has its own notions of validity and functionality. Hiebert takes note of the problem when he says that biblical universalism pressed too far yields "uncritical contextualization." But by the same token, cultural particularism pressed too far yields relativism, syncretism and over-contextualization. Hiebert does not really explore that problem in any depth but it is very real, especially today as intimated above.

Just as the nature of Christ as God and man challenged the full faculties of the faith and reason of Augustine and the Church Fathers, so the nature of Scripture as the Word of God and the word of human authors challenges the full faculties of the faith and reason of evangelical scholars and missionaries today. Augustine employed Scripture as the measure of all truth claims whether theological as to the nature of Christ, anthropological as to the nature of man, or (by implication) missiological as to the limits of contextualization. Evangelicals today exalt Jesus Christ as being fully God and fully man. It is both well and necessary that they do. However, a Bible written by human authors in their socio-cultural contexts all too easily becomes a human and cultural book instead of the inerrant Word of God. Nevertheless, if Christ's humanity did not diminish his divine nature as being the Son of God and without sin, it follows that human authorship of the Bible need not diminish its divine nature as being the Word of God and without error. As a matter of fact, these two truths are inextricably linked. Bible authors bear witness to Jesus. Jesus bears witness to the Bible. To paraphrase Maslow, "If you want to know what Jesus is thinking you can ask him!" But you can ask him directly only when he was actually here on earth. . . and, when he comes again. In the interim you must inquire of him by reading what he says in Scripture.

3) The quantitative measurement of human science data as compared with the data of Scripture: avoiding secularism when doing contextualization.

Count on the secular sciences to be the source of an almost endless supply of ideas and proposals of all kinds--important and unimportant, good and bad, right and wrong, practical and impractical, mission-friendly and mission-unfriendly. And since evangelicals especially seen to be interested in enhancing church and mission by almost any honorable and available means, count on evangelicals to pounce on every secular finding and notion that shows potential for Christian baptism and service whether in church, school or mission.

Evidence for this is everywhere to be found. Even a cursory review of post-war mission programs in Bible colleges and seminaries reveals not only an increase in the number of mission departments, professors, courses, library holdings and degree programs, but also the incursion of the human/social sciences in all of them. By way of examples, consider the substitution of "intercultural studies" for "mission studies"; the deference shown to doctorates from secular universities; the multiplication of courses featuring secular content in preference to theological teaching; and the accolades accorded mission strategies created out of profane proposals. Don't misunderstand. Justification can be found for all or most of these developments. For example, when granting accreditation, American accrediting associations look with favor on "intercultural studies" as a discipline and on "international development" as a course, not on "mission studies" and "world evangelism." When granting visas foreign governments do the same, viewing on degrees in "Christian mission" with disfavor if not disdain. In spite of justifications, however, the cumulative impact of all of this on mission theory and practice can be nothing short of seismic. Eventually, mission students may come to wonder whether they are actually studying Christian mission at all!

No one, mission theorist or missionary practitioner, can read the anthropological insights of Paul Hiebert and not profit thereby. He combines a wealth of knowledge of both the human sciences and biblical theology in a way that is eminently practical and contributive to Christian mission. His essay is evidence of this. Every student of mission should read it and master it. Nevertheless, with the above in view, Augustine's postulates are still worthy of consideration. We may be arriving at a point where too much Egyptian gold is being passed around without scrutiny and where overly much of it is being mined, minted and circulated without careful examination.

Feel free to post your links below if you've commented on the writing at your own blog, but let me also encourage you to excerpt that here and join in the discussion in the comments.

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