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January 24, 2011Missiology

Monday is for Missiology with Keith Eitel

For today's "Monday is for Missiology," I have a guest presenter that is worth your time.

Keith Eitel is an important voice in missiology today. He is Professor of Missions, Director of the World Missions Center, and Dean of the Roy Fish School of Evangelism and Missions at Southwestern Seminary. He was a charter signatory to what is now the Evangelical Missiological Society and is well respected in the field of missiology.

For those of you reading along with MissionSHIFT you read his essay. In his MissionSHIFT essay he wrote, "we live in a time of dangerous creativity in missionary circles," and I agree there is, so we debate a bit in the book about what those dangers are. Let me have him unpack some more of his thoughts here. Leave your thoughts in the comments. Feel free to interact with what he has written here, or if you have read MissionSHIFT, as many of you had, what he has written there. And don't be surprised if you see him drop by later in the comments.

The following is from Dr. Eitel:

Second Thoughts: MissionShift

Keith E. Eitel


Today I received an invitation from Ed Stetzer to elaborate some Second Thoughts regarding our chapters in the book named above. So here are a few.

David Hesslegrave's initial reflections are spot on as far as I am concerned. He uses Carl F. H. Henry's concerns about the direction of evangelicalism in the years just before the current era of conversations about mission, missions, missional, and missiology all began in our brave post-modern or late-modern world. Henry's thoughts were published in Toward a Recovery of Christian Belief (1990). Hesselgrave recounts meeting Henry and reflecting on his published concerns. That reminded me of when I met Henry in 1982 while I was a missionary in Cameroon. The stories below relate to this discussion and affirms something Hesselgrave emphasized in his Second Thoughts.

Henry was invited as a guest lecturer at the Cameroon Baptist Theological Seminary, and the first roving lecturer to visit several such schools in subsequent years that were sponsored by the Accrediting Council for Theological Education in Africa. Henry's baggage did not arrive until he was nearly ready to depart the country. The seminary housed him in the guest apartment attached to the house in which my family and I were living. We hosted him for several evening meals and chats.

Sitting and drinking tea one of those evenings we started discussing the law of non-contradiction as applied to the formation of biblical theology and absolute truth. As a young missionary trying to make initial sense out of the whole discussion of contextualization, I found his comment most intriguing. I asked him whether he would consider that Aristotelian logical formula to be a Greek postulate culturally conditioned or whether it could be derived by something deeper, more innate, or universal in human existence. He said, "I firmly believe it is evidence of the Imago Dei in mankind, and is thus transcultural making biblically defined theological first elements universal." Hesselgrave's comments in his Second Thoughts echo this very premise.

The next day I drove Henry to the market to enlist a tailor's help in making him a few shirts. He was in his early 70's then and a bit feeble, especially considering the physical demands of traveling that far into rural parts of Africa. I opened his door to help him out onto the uneven ground when the local Peace Corps lady volunteer approached me. I introduced them and he grasped her hand with a grandfather's loving touch. Still holding her hand, he said to her, "My dear, have you ever had the wonderful joy of knowing the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal savior?" An evangelistic conversation began.

These two story lines are directly related. Had Henry not believed absolutely True truth regarding God, mankind, sin, salvation, the provision of redemption, and the ultimate joy of knowing God in Christ, he would not have initiated the second conversation. Theory or core beliefs issue forth in practical applications. Problems surface when this order of priority is reversed. This reality seems to be the missing piece between what Charles Van Engen's chapter detailed and the practical suggestions he made to the folk at that missional conference he described. Hesselgrave pinpoints it and gets to the nub of the need to tether our missiology to a firm set of biblically determined convictions regarding God's revealed truth. In Hesselgrave's Second Thoughts comments he stated that, " . . . to be Christian conversations on the meaning of 'mission' must give attention to historic and orthodox theology, and to the established creeds and doctrines of the church. They must move from these theological universals to prevailing particulars, not vice versa." The italicized section is essential. We should not default into a system that lets culture critique scripture but should always filter any and every culture through the grid of scripture.

My chapter in MissionShift was to make that very point. I started with a genuine story, an incident in Bali where a missionary's views of contextualization led him publicly to participate in worship of Shiva in a Hindu temple. Some reviewers critique my use of this story as being irrelevant because it is syncretism rather than an illustration of contextualization. Herein lies the very point. Some think my criticisms represent a slippery slope in one direction (toward legalistic tendencies); Henry and Hesselgrave make it clear that there are two slippery slopes, and the other one ends in this very sort of designer theology that constitutes syncretism. I fully affirm critical contextualization techniques to achieve a proper balance if the term "critical" means there are hermeneutical, biblical, and consistent theological safeguards built into our methods from the beginning. But to affirm critical contextualization without defining these first principles, and using them as careful boundaries, will eventually default into varying levels of syncretism. Practically speaking, then, culture usurps the dominant role and critiques scripture. Post-modern skepticism regarding absolute truth, or a grand narrative that is reliably true, seems to mean that truth is discovered from within human experience or perhaps even tailor made.

I think we who wish to be true to the Great Commission are speaking past each other. We try to come at the same desired center from opposite ends, one from the priority of the text and the other from a cultural frame of reference. The latter tends to result in a "reader response" hermeneutic rather than a "didactic" one. Horizontal, relative truth is no substitute for vertical revealed truth when it comes to understanding what God wishes to communicate to humans of all cultures. Text and context should not be placed in a dialectic tension. God's revealed truth should address humanity prophetically and with priority.

My use of such an extreme illustration as the Bali incident was so that any of us who wish to engage culture with biblical truth will see the realistic end of modes of contextualization that inadvertently let culture lead in the dance between text and context. Both Henry and Hesselgrave constitute voices that alert us to this potential pitfall as we engage a brave new world that is in dire need of ancient biblical truth.

Feel free to jump in. Keep in mind a broad spectrum of Christians interested in missiology read this blog, so avoid references or discussions limited to one denominational family.

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Monday is for Missiology with Keith Eitel