Middle East Resources

Pauline Missiology - Part II

In Part I of Pauline Missiology, I dealt with the developments in the theology of Christian Missions that took place during the second half of the Twentieth Century. I referred to the rise of the Contextualization Movement and how it became almost the sole driving force within Evangelical Missiology. My main burden was not so much to critique this new development in Missions, but by way of contrast, to set forth Paul's teachings about the role of Gospel proclamation in the fulfillment of the Great Commission.

My alarm at the powerful new trends at work among some missionary organizations was at its peak during the 1980s. That led to convening a meeting in 1985, of colleagues involved in missions, and the issuing of a Declaration of Missionary Concern. Several papers were read at the meeting where the history of the Contextualization Movement was related, coupled with an analysis of the so-called failure of the classical Missionary Movement due to its unwillingness to contextualize the Gospel among peoples of the non-Christian world.

Since my retirement from radio missions in 1994, I continued my study of the missionary scene. I was thankful to notice that other critical voices were being raised regarding the new trends in Missiology, such as an article by a professor at an Evangelical Seminary calling for the "Re-Theologizing of Missiology." There were indications from the mission fields telling about some ardent contextualizers who were now reconsidering their previous radical positions. So I began to entertain the hope that before too long the Contextualization Movement would alter its ways. I am sorry to say that my hopes were not fulfilled.

Early in 2005, I received two communications from missionaries laboring in Muslim-dominated areas that asked for my advice concerning the use of Arabic terms that apply to the Lord Jesus Christ. One missionary alerted me that in his field, there were some associated with an Evangelical organization attempting to spread a "Muslim-friendly version of the Arabic Bible." In other words, the time-honored Arabic translation known as the Smith-VanDyke (1860) version was considered inadequate in a Muslim field. The protagonist for the Muslim-friendly translation wanted to alter some fundamental terms used about our Lord by substituting an Arabic word that did not convey exclusively the divinity of Jesus Christ. In my response to the missionary I wrote:

"To the best of my knowledge, when "Jehovah" appears in OT Hebrew, the LXX rendered it: Kurios and the AV: LORD. In Arabic, it was translated: Al-Rabb. [Lord]

"I am not aware of any translation used by Arabic-speaking Christians that uses:

Al-Mawla. Have you heard of the MT. SINAI ARABIC CODEX 151 version of the NT? It was published in 1985 by THE INSTITUTE FOR MIDDLE EASTERN NEW TESTAMENT STUDIES in Louvin, Belgium. This translation, which may be the oldest known Arabic version of the NT, uses "Al-Rabb" uniformly when it refers to the Lord Jesus Christ, such as in Romans 1:6, and 1:7, all the way to II Peter 3:18, and Jude 24.

"One of the most puzzling things for me is that the Contextualizers seem to be ignorant of the fact that Christianity pioneered the translation of its Sacred Text, a fact that indicates genuine contextualization. In contrast, Islam requires Arabization, so that its sacred text, the Qur'an is authentic and authoritative, only in Arabic.

"Furthermore, they seem to omit the unique role of the Holy Spirit in conversion. Great as good translations are, ultimately, it is the Holy Spirit, "the Lord and giver of life," who brings about metanoia (conversion) in the life of the convert."

I will now refer to another message received early last year from a missionary who thanked me for sending him the "Statement of Missionary Concern," and explained how it had helped him to grow in his appreciation of the Biblical statements about the proper conduct of missions. He had been in correspondence with me about the attempt of some missionaries who were advocating the use "Isa" the Qur'anic name for Jesus, in the translation of the Scriptures into the language of a Muslim group in West Africa. In the traditional translations of the Word of God into languages used by Muslims, the name "Yesu'a" has been used. It so happens that "Isa" is etymologically meaningless as an Arabic name; while "Yesu'a" in its Hebrew root means Savior. Here are some pertinent excerpts from his letter:

"Dear Rev. Madany,

The "Statement of Missionary Concern" has certainly helped me to tease apart the humanistic trends that are entering the enterprise of missions, and has certainly called me back to a closer walk with the Lord and His word. Thank you.

I am completely rethinking the approach, as I realize that much of the felt-needs approach is very human centered and does not presuppose the absolute hostility of fallen man to the truths of the Gospel.

If nothing else, this "Isa" project has certainly made me want to bring glory to the name of Jesus and to see him honoured. I have grown increasingly appalled--spurred on also by your insights--of the uncritical and un-Biblical stance that many well-meaning Christians have taken. May God give us courage to be 21st century Reformers.

The packet with your books on The Bible and Islam has arrived and I have distributed them to our team. Also, would it be possible for us to copy them here and distribute them to other missions? (I have a very good working relationship with a number of other missions. If your book could be part of their orientation package, that would be a great asset to seeing solid Biblical thinking here in the mission community.

Once again, thank you for all of your input to date. It has been most valuable."

I come now to the main point of my article by consulting the teachings of the Apostle Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians, as to how he dealt with the communication of the Gospel in the mission fields of the Church. He delved into this subject as he corrected several doctrinal and ethical lapses that occurred among the young church in Corinth.

Paul began by calling the church of Corinth back to the fundamentals of the faith. He stated his thesis both negatively and positively. "For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel -- not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power" I Cor. 1:17 NIV

In elaborating this thesis in the remaining verses of chapters 1and 2, Paul emphasized the contents of the proclamation as well as the appropriate method for the delivery of the message. His agenda was the preaching of the word of the cross. Why was Paul equally concerned about the message and the method? Because he was aware of the fact that the content of the message, Jesus Christ and him crucified, required a methodology that gave all the glory to the triune God and not to man. The faith of the converts must be anchored in the power of God and not in the wisdom of man.

Paul teaches us in a passionate way the importance of guarding the integrity of the Christian faith when it is being propagated. He must have been tempted to compromise in order to make the message more acceptable to the hearers. He knew very well that the basic presuppositions of the Greeks precluded any belief in the crucial doctrine of the resurrection of Christ. Furthermore, the Jewish tradition could not tolerate any teaching about a crucified Messiah. But Paul did not compromise. This is what he wrote: "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God." I Cor. 1:18 NIV

When applying these words to the Muslim world, we must realize that the message of the cross is foolishness to the followers of Muhammad. The gospel of the cross is denied both on Qur'anic and doctrinal grounds. According to Islam, Allah did not and could not have permitted the Messiah to be killed by the Jews.

At this point, we must recognize that Muslims, throughout their history, have not always been totally consistent with the teachings of their faith. The legalism of Sunni (Orthodox) Islam has pushed many Muslims to look for peace with God in the way of Sufism (mysticism). Also, suffering and redemption are not foreign to the minds of Shi'ite Muslims. We should not forget, in our missionary work, that Muslims are never sure about their standing with their Creator on the Day of Judgment. These factors must be taken into consideration when we present the gospel, and as we elaborate missionary principles for work among them. But the fundamental reason why we must proclaim without compromise the word of the cross is that God has ordained it to be the means of grace for salvation.

When we reflect on the first two chapters of I Corinthians, we notice that Paul deals with the utter failure of man to find his way in the universe by relying on his own wisdom. "For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe" I Cor. 1:21 NIV.

The implication of this apostolic teaching is tremendous. In God's sovereign disposition, he has ordained that all humanly-originated attempts to find him must fail, and they cannot but fail since man's heart is totally darkened by sin. The God-ordained way of salvation is through the preaching of the gospel. This great emphasis on proclamation may sound rather out of place in an age when dialogue is becoming very fashionable and when all kinds of gimmicks are being used to bring about conversions. And yet the words of Paul are very clear:

"God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe." We cannot avoid the offense of the word of the cross. The contextualization that the Muslims require in order to make our message acceptable to them is nothing less than unconditional surrender. It is rather naive on the part of so many missiologists who are flying the banner of contextualization in missions to Muslims, to imagine that the followers of Islam will settle for anything less than the Islamization of the Christian messenger! 

Paul's concern was the necessity of being completely faithful to the received gospel. His mind was focused on the message. This does not mean that he neglected what is called today cross-cultural communication. As a native of the Mediterranean world, Paul was at home in several cultural milieus. He spoke the language of the people and gave not only the gospel message, but he gave himself with the message. He became all things to all men that he might win some. But he never compromised on the fundamentals. As he put it in the second chapter of I Corinthians:

When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony of God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power.  (1,2,4,5)

The faith that Paul spoke about in these verses was not simply the orthodox or the apostolic teaching about the Messiah. It was equally that personal faith which was evoked and created by the Holy Spirit. This is why the human instrument or channel was de-emphasized. He wanted the faith of the converts to rest not on men's wisdom, but on God's power. It was such an important subject for the apostle that he kept on discussing the crucial importance of a proper methodology. The unique role of the Holy Spirit must be maintained in any teaching about missions. Unless and until the Spirit of God touches the hearts of those listening to the proclamation of the gospel, the words of the missionary remain fruitless. As Paul put it:

This is what we speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in words taught us by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. (13,14)

Needless to say, the apostle ended his teaching about the importance of the message and the proper method that must deliver that message with a special emphasis on the unique role of the Holy Spirit. He alone is the author of conversion. Regardless of the cultural or ethnic background of any human being, and no matter how hard we try to bring the message to his attention, the work of the Holy Spirit remains indispensable for his or her conversion. 

It is regrettable that the advocates of Contextualization have relied greatly on cultural anthropology to the neglect of the time-honored theological disciplines. I have been astonished that some, who belonged to churches with strong Confessional Standards, accepted uncritically this novel methodology.

I would like to make one last comment with the hope that I am not misunderstood. In the episode I related earlier in this article when some missionaries were advocating the use of a so-called "Muslim-friendly" translation of the Bible, they seemed to ignore the millions of Arabic-speaking Christians who are accustomed to use a term for Lord that was in use for around one thousand years before the Smith-VanDyke version appeared in 1860.

It is as if we have never existed, or that our traditions as Eastern Christians were of no value! Furthermore, the advocates of Contextualization among Muslim peoples, seldom exhibit knowledge of Arabic similar to those pioneer missionaries such as Elie Smith, Cornelius VanDyke, James Dennis, and Samuel Zwemer.

A revival of a serious study of the basic theological disciplines: Biblical Studies, Church History, Systematic Theology, Biblical Theology, remain the sine qua non of any missiology. Above all, we should sit at the feet of the Apostle Paul, and drink deeply from his teachings about missions. There is no substitute for Pauline Missiology.