Jump directly to the Content Jump directly to the Content
March 4, 2013Missiology

Monday is for Missiology: Hope for the Future--Three Imperatives from David J. Hesselgrave

Today, I'm sharing an excerpt from David Hesselgrave's recent article "Did Cape Town 2010 Correct the 'Edinburgh Error'? A Preliminary Analysis." It first appeared in the The Southwestern Journal of Theology. Both David and the Journal were gracious enough to allow me to post it here.

For those of you not familiar with David, he is in many ways the "dean" of evangelical missiology. He is co-founder of the Evangelical Missiological Society, author of countless missiology books, and professor emeritus at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. One of those books was Missionshift, which I coauthored. In it, we discussed The Edinburgh Error. It's also been a topic here on the blog in the past for those who would like more info.

Here is an excerpt from David's article dealing with three imperatives if evangelical missions as we know them are to have a future:

Recently, a much younger and highly respected evangelical professor of missions was motivated to write to a small circle of professor friends. Despite the many organizations, tremendous energy, and sometimes almost frenetic activity that characterizes the evangelical missionary movement these days, he warned that the future of evangelical missions is very much in jeopardy. With a deep sense of urgency, he urged his colleagues to be especially watchful and faithful to biblical faith and mission.

He is by no means alone. We do not like to face it and therefore we ordinarily do not, but some of our foremost evangelical theologians and historians also forecast a bleak future for evangelicals if they continue on their present path. Taking the long look, I understand. Review again the early struggles of post-war evangelicals mentioned above and you will notice a pattern. In those early controversies having to do with cooperative evangelism, the inerrancy of biblical autographs, and the priority of evangelism in mission, the issues were clearly delineated and opposing points of view were vigorously debated over a number of years. Nevertheless, agreement was not forthcoming. However, with the passage of time differences were more or less settled, not by reasoned discourse, but simply by a growing indifference. In all three cases, these controversies were "resolved" in a direction that can only be described as more liberal and less conservative.

John Stott is right. It could not have been theological disagreement that afflicted Edinburgh 1910, because its leaders disallowed theological discussion. It was theological indifference that was fatal both to Edinburgh and, later, to ecumenical missions. The same could be true of evangelical missions in the aftermath of Cape Town, not because critical theological discussions are disallowed but, rather, because they are disdained. Additionally, mission-minded evangelicals have an abiding interest in cultural change and simply love to generate and discuss new strategies for dealing with it. However, they tend to demonstrate an uneven interest in that which is changeless and are prone to taking unchanging truth for granted rather than celebrating it and elaborating it. These preferences must change. They must give way to three imperatives if evangelical missions as we know them are to have a future.

Imperative #1:

To be and remain "evangelical," mission entities must understand and describe Christian mission as witnessing to the truth of the "evangel" or good news of the gospel of Christ and discipling the peoples of the world in his Name with special attention being given to those who have yet to hear the gospel.

This imperative can be stated in a variety of ways, of course. It can also be carried out in a variety of ways. The endeavors that attend it will also differ. However, neither semantics nor theology should be allowed to obscure the fact that, at its very core, the missionary mandate is world evangelization. The word "mission" is a much debated term in mission circles. In secular parlance, however, it is almost invariably understood in accordance with its dictionary definition--i.e., as having to do with sending someone on a stipulated assignment or, sometimes, the stipulated assignment itself. Few, if any, seem to have a problem with this meaning of the word except those involved in the mission of the church! Historically, ecumenists have had a major problem with the word and now it occasions serious problems for evangelicals. That should be sufficient to alert us to the fact that the problem is as much theological as it is semantic--in fact, much more so.

That should not be and need not be. Missiologists who advocate the adoption of some alternative word that does not carry the same negative connotations have a point. Theoretically that could be done, but as a practical matter it is all but out of the question. Some missiologists advocate use of the biblical terms apostolos and apostellō and, following Catholic practice, urge us to think and speak in terms of the "apostolate." That proposal has more to be said for it, but even if adopted it would not resolve the problem because it does not answer to the basic issue. Viewed from a biblical perspective the question is: "When New Testament missionary/apostles specifically, and successor missionaries generally, were sent forth, what was their stipulated assignment?" The answer to that question was so obvious to Stephen Neill some fifty years ago that he said, "If everything that the Church does is to be classed as 'mission,' we shall have to find another term for the Church's particular responsibility for 'the heathen,' those who have never yet heard the Name of Christ."

Making allowance for Neill's now archaic word choice, Bible-believing Christians should be able to agree that, whatever else the Christian mission may entail, beyond question it entails evangelism and evangelization. That takes priority (Stott's word) in the text and that biblical priority should be made crystal clear in context of missions today.

Imperative #2:

As a first order of business in any organization, conference, or undertaking designed to further biblical mission, attention should be given to a confessional statement/statement of faith upon which its deliberations and determinations will be based. Unanimity on nonessentials is not a requirement for Christian unity and cooperation. Unanimity on essentials may not be necessary when the objective is something less than fulfilling the Great Commission. But when the goal is to glorify God by preaching the gospel and discipling the nations, unanimity on the essentials of the Christian faith is necessary. When that is the objective, enthusiastic well-wishers cannot be allowed to replace robust gatekeepers.

After spending over sixty years in missions, Donald McGavran admonished colleagues to give careful consideration to the distinction I am making here. Not necessarily opposed to alliances formed for other purposes, McGavran nevertheless arrived at a point where he insisted that, if the purpose is to "disciple the ethnē," we must be assured that participants embrace the cardinal truths of the Christian faith. We must also know the kind of authority they ascribe to Scripture. If some participants disagree as to whether or not people are lost, for example, they cannot be expected to agree as to what needs to be done on their behalf. If some do not agree that the Bible is completely trustworthy and the final arbiter in all matters of faith and practice, they cannot be expected to agree as to how missiological proposals will be measured and evaluated.

Admittedly, affirmation of an orthodox statement of faith will not guarantee error-free outcomes, but the absence of such an affirmation will make errors more likely and outcomes more tentative and even questionable. As a matter of fact, evangelical entities and gatherings should do more than agree upon and actually state their basic beliefs; they should give regular attention to the review and refreshment of them. Even though duly affirmed, beliefs cannot be automatically assumed. Mainline church congregations repeated the Apostles' Creed as a part of their worship rituals long after various items in the Creed had been dismissed as irrelevant or discarded altogether. The importance of all doctrines articulated in orthodox faith statements is assumed, but at any given time and place the special relevancy of some of those doctrines will be most obvious and necessary. If biblical mission is to prevail, essential doctrines should be periodically recalled, their meaning refreshed, and their relevance renewed.

Imperative #3:

Evangelicals must reclaim the apostle Paul as the model missionary, his message as entirely normative, and his methods as most instructive. As recently as the mid-1960s when I was privileged to join the faculty of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Paul's gospel was unquestioned, his missionary methods were salutary, and Paul himself was considered to be the "Missionary Par Excellence." That was a heritage bequeathed to us by some of the most prominent mission theorists of over one hundred years. But the winds of change were already blowing and were destined to become a gale. Despite continued references to the work and writings of Paul and the publication of some outstanding works on this great apostle to the Gentiles, Paul's influence in missionary theology and practice gradually but steadily yielded center stage in both theological and missiological studies and publications. This was due to a confluence of factors: NPP thinking on New Testament Judaism; a rethinking of Reformation theology; widespread acceptance of the transformational mission paradigm; the meteoric rise of missiological holism; the preference accorded to Jesus the Model Missionary; a preoccupation with the kingdom; the popularity of missionary strategies such as orality and "storying the gospel"; and still more.

I do not mean to indict these proposals and movements wholesale. Some are manifestly good and most helpful. Each must be evaluated independently. However, in one way or another, all seem to have contributed to the downgrading of the importance of Paul's writings and ministry. Whatever else might be said, the following cannot be gainsaid: Paul did not receive his gospel indirectly from the apostles in Jerusalem but by direct revelation. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul wrote a considerably larger part of the New Testament than any other writer. It was Paul who was sovereignly chosen as missionary to the Gentiles, and it was Paul and his team who evangelized and planted churches throughout the first century Mediterranean world.

Answering the call of God and following Paul's example, earlier missionaries of the modern missionary movement, while lacking some of the skills now thought necessary and committing some of the offenses of which they are now accused, nonetheless gave themselves first and foremost to the proclamation of the gospel and the planting of those majority world churches now so highly and rightly esteemed. Only when evangelical missionaries of the present and future find it in Scripture and in themselves to recover Paul, proclaim a Pauline gospel, and enlarge the church of Christ will they make an optimum contribution to our world and, yes, to the kingdom of God.

David J. Hesselgrave, "Did Cape Town 2010 Correct the 'Edinburgh Error'? A Preliminary Analysis," Southwestern Journal of Theology, 55.1 (Fall 2012): 77-89.

The Exchange is a part of CT's Blog Forum. Support the work of CT. Subscribe and get one year free.
The views of the blogger do not necessarily reflect those of Christianity Today.

More from The Exchange

Christianity Today

Monday is for Missiology: Hope for the ...