While Western Christians Theorize, Arabic-Speaking Christians & Muslims Dialogue
Middle East Resources Ministry
The Internet has ushered in a new phase in the history of the Arabic-speaking peoples of the Middle East and North Africa. Communications between ordinary people take place on a daily basis at a much deeper level, as may be observed from the comments of the readers of online Arabic media.
One of the liveliest Arabic sites on the Internet is www.elaph.com As the first Arabic online daily, it began in London, England, on 21 May 2001. It has correspondents throughout the Arab world, as well as in Europe and the Americas. It publishes news and op-ed articles by Arab writers and intellectuals, and welcomes listeners’ comments.
The major difference between this new medium and the print press of the Arab world is the freedom enjoyed by all participants, both writers and respondents. No censorship inhibits the expression of various and conflicting opinions, as is the case in the print media.
On 11 June 2007, an article was posted which dealt with an ethical problem known in Arabic as Khulwa. This word describes a situation when a man and a woman, working at a government or business office, find themselves alone in a room or a cubicle. It is not my intention to comment on the specific fatwa that was issued by a professor at Al-Azhar Universityin Cairo, in which he offered a solution to the problem. My main interest lies in the comments that came almost instantly from 34 readers. Some referred to the topic of Khulwa, but the majority seized the occasion to begin a dialogue on an important religious subject prompted by the last sentence of the article in Elaph. It called for a new hermeneutic of the Islamic religious and cultural heritage.
The first response came from a Christian in Alexandria, Egypt. He began, “One thing is needed, as the Messiah told Martha, who was burdened by too many concerns.” He concluded, “We don’t need a new prophet. What we need is the one who said: ‘I am the truth, the resurrection, and the life.’”
About an hour later, another response was posted. “The Lord Jesus is the only one who gives rest. He said: ‘Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ Then he pleaded with the readers; ‘Come to the king and savior and you will find rest; you don’t need a nabi, or a mufti to help you. Cry out to God and ask him: ‘save me from my bewilderments and confusions, and help me to know your person.’”
I salute the Christian reader who initiated this dialogue that was totally unrelated to the Khulwa problem. He gave a sincere and Biblical marturia (testimony) about the Lord Jesus Christ.
Two hours after these comments appeared, a Muslim responded, manifesting his indignation at the contents of the Christian testimonies: “The Glorious Qur’an honors the Messiah as a human being and as an apostle; but it contradicts the claims of divinity and sonship attributed to him, and warns those who do so, with terrible sufferings in this life, and at the End.” He then proceeded to criticize the Christian doctrine of forgiveness of sins, based on the person and work of the Messiah.
A Christian responded by elucidating the role of Christ in granting forgiveness to those who trust in Him:
“Some people imagine that forgiveness happens simply with a word uttered by God, but such forgiveness would be cheap and encourages sinning. However, the forgiveness that cost much more than silver and gold, was purchased with the precious blood of a sinless lamb, is the basis for true forgiveness (I Peter 1:18-19). The Messiah came so that, anyone who believes in him may not perish, according to John 3:16.
Showing his genuine interest in the salvation of the Muslim respondent, the Christian witness went on saying:
“Have you ever met a sick person who says, ‘I won’t go to see a doctor unless I’m healed first?!’ God always takes the initiative by searching for man. God loves the sinners. ‘For while we were yet sinners, the Messiah died for us.’ (Romans 6:23) Forgiveness, in Christianity, is full and free, (References followed from John 5:24, Romans 8:1-2, and John 1:12.) No one should judge the veracity of these words, as long as he remains outside the faith.”
“I have given these Biblical testimonies to show you that a man receives forgiveness as a free gift. However, it cost God the precious blood of his beloved Son to bring about our forgiveness. No one should belittle the value of the Messiah’s sacrifice on the cross.”
“Also the Messiah, pbuh (peace be upon him), said: ‘Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’ (Matthew 4:10) At this point it must be pointed out that the Muslim misinterpreted or misunderstood our Lord’s answer to the devil. The Muslim continued looking for Scriptural proofs of the Qur’anic view of the Messiah. So he quoted Matt. 10:40: ‘He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me.’ The point he was trying to make, can only be understood if I refer to the Arabic text of the passage:‘man yaqbalukom yaqbaluni, wa’man yaqbaluni, yaqbalu al-ladhi arsalani.’ He interpreted the verb arsalani, i.e. He sent me, to mean that Jesus was simply a rasool, i.e. one who was sent.A clever argument, indeed; however he failed to realize that Christ was referring to the redemptive mission that God had sent him to accomplish.
A Christian respondent tried to convince the Muslim that according to the New Testament, Jesus never refused worship. He said: “The word ‘worship’ occurs sixty times in the New Testament; all of them have to do with worshipping Jesus, the Messiah. He accepted this worship. At other instances in the NT, when worship was directed at humans, it was always rejected, such as in Acts 10:25, in reference to Cornelius; and to the Angel in Revelation 19:10, and 22: 8-9 Other references to Jesus accepting worship are found in Luke 17:12-17 and John 20:29”
A Muslim responded by saying that the Messiah is merely “bashar” i.e. human. He then proceeded to quote from the word of Allah, who has no partners (i.e., the Qur’an) Surat al-Maida (Table) 73, and Women: 156 and al-Tawba 30 (Repentance) and ended by saying the ‘Qur’an has settled the matter. To quote from Biblical texts, is like hanging on to a spider’s web!’
In less than 30 minutes, the response came from a Copt. He began by pointing to the Qur’anic account of the miraculous birth of the Messiah referring to Surat Mariam: 21 and Surat Women: 171, as well as to other passages that relate the unique qualifications of the Messiah. He then proceeded to give a Biblical testimony about the Messiah: ‘Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God and the only mediator between God and man. He ended his words by saying: ‘I invite you to receive the Messiah.’
Another Christian joined the dialogue, and responded to the Muslim who had asserted that Jesus was merely a human being:
“We don’t deny that Jesus is human; our Christian faith teaches us that the Messiah is both God and man, and he is without sin. He is the Son of Man, as well as the Son of God. We believe that God was incarnate and came to our level as human beings, for our salvation. All the prophets from Adam to John the Baptist came to prepare the way for the Incarnate God. He came to save his people from their bondage to sin, and to help them regain the state they enjoyed prior to the fall. To understand the very essence of the Christian faith, you need to read the Holy Bible.”
“The Messiah is the beginning and the end, the way, the truth, and the life. He is the Son of God. God did call him, ‘this is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’ This is a mystery that is above the human mind. God sent his Son to redeem us on the cross and to save us from our sins. I plead with you dear reader, do try and understand the Christian faith. The Messiah said, ‘he who hears me has heard the Father and he who receives me, the Father will receive.’ Blessed are those who are saved; but the sinner who does not repent will be tormented in the fires of hell, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Four minutes after the above message appeared, an irate Muslim reader wrote:
“Enough your babblings!” He then quoted from Surat Al-Umran, ayah 61.It addresses a Muslim by warning him against listening to any argument that is brought forth by non-Muslims and that contradicts what had already descended, i.e. the Qur’an. He ended by a quotation from the verse that brings God’s curse upon all liars, meaning those who do not accept the teachings of the Qur’an!”
Responses followed quickly, one after another. Here is one, referring to Christ on the cross:
“He who could not save himself from the cross, how can he save others? What a person does not have, or possess, he cannot give to others. You Christians are simply dreaming; the Messiah is but a slave of Allah, and His messenger; he also needs Allah’s forgiveness. A Christian imagines he can commit the seven sins, and then go on to Paradise?!”
Another Muslim drew attention to what he called ‘minds that had stopped functioning’ by referring to the Biblical doctrine of original sin, which he considered as an absurdity.
“Earthly laws say that a person is innocent until proven guilty; however in Christianity, man is born sinful?! How could that be, when he is still like a clean page, with nothing written upon it?”
“The Messiah taught us saying, ‘bless and don’t curse.’ So, we pray that you will be blessed and pray that the true God will open your heart to understand the truth.”
“What’s going on? I feel as if I were sitting in a church! Why are we dealing with religious details, whether Christian or Islamic? You must understand that religion has to do with one’s relation with God. No need to advertise faith on the Internet; it’s sufficient to see religion reflected in one’s behavior, and with respect for the values of civilizations.”
Around 45 minutes later, a Muslim added his comments, using Biblical references to prove that the Messiah was no more than ‘abdullah, i.e. a slave of Allah:
“John said that Jesus lifted his eyes to heaven and said, this is life eternal (John 17:6) How can the Sender and the Sent-one be one, while the text refers to God and to Jesus, as the sent- one?”
A little before midnight, the final comment appeared:
“O people, all the apostles and prophets were sent by God to make Him known, in order that He may be worshipped. What are you talking about when you mention that God has three images (persons?) These are nothing but fabrications of human minds. As for the Injeel, it has been altered and changed, and many of its sections have been erased, to suit the whims of the priests who wanted to magnify their positions, and to lord it over simple people. Some of the contributors to this site aimed at convincing others of their positions, and cause them to depart from the true worship of God.”
Thus far, I have been quoting from the dialogue that began on 11 June, 2007, between Arabic-speaking Christians and Muslims. I am very thankful to the Lord that several Christians seized a golden opportunity, and gave a wonderful testimony about their faith.
As we reflect on the above quotations, we may classify them under three headings:
Scripture, the Person of Christ, and the Redemptive work of Christ.
All the Christians who participated in the dialogue manifested a strong belief in the final authority of the Bible, the Deity and humanity of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the work of salvation He accomplished by His death on the cross, and His resurrection. On the other hand, Muslim respondents, denied vehemently the above mentioned doctrines, and affirmed the final authority of the Qur’an, their belief that the Messiah was one of many rasools (apostles) sent by Allah to enlighten mankind; and they denied the historicity of the crucifixion.
It must be observed that neither side had a difficulty in understanding the belief of the other side. The Internet dialogue proved that both Muslims and Christians, using the same language, and living within Daru’l Islam, differed in their faith commitments, due to their different premises, or presuppositions. Thus we may conclude that real communication did take place between Christians and Muslims, regardless of the fact that the dialogue did not end in changing the minds of either side.
At this point, I would like to place the above dialogue within the broader historical context of Christian-Muslim encounters and “dialogues,” going back several centuries, to demonstrate that serious Christian-Muslim discussions have been going on for a long time, and have revolved around three crucial points, namely, the Bible, the Trinity, and the person and work of Jesus Christ.
So, as we look for a scholarly study of the historical context of Christian-Muslim discussions, I find the work of J. W. Sweetman, a British missionary who labored among the Muslims of India before the Partition of 1947, singularly helpful. I refer to his nearly encyclopedic book, ISLAM AND CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY: A Study of the Interpretation of Theological Ideas in the Two Religions, Part II, Volume I; by J. Windrow Sweetman, D.D. Professor of Islamic Studies at the Selly Oak Colleges. It was published in 1955 by the Lutterworth Press, London.
Unfortunately, Professor Sweetman passed away before the completion of his project; only four of the six volumes of his work were published. Still, what we find in them, is indeed a treasure of great value.
I quote from several relevant passages of Volume One, Part Two, in order to show that the Christian message was made known to the Muslims of both the East and the West (Spain), for quite a long time. This will highlight my radical difference with some modern Western Christians who have claimed that missions to Islam have failed because we have not contextualized our message.
Sweetman refers to our indebtedness to the Eastern Church and its apologia for the Christian faith, a subject that is hardly known or acknowledged by many Western Christians. Under the heading of, The Eastern Church and Islam, he wrote:
“Though compelled outside the Byzantine Empire to come to terms with a Muslim government, the Eastern church could not escape the consequences of the confrontation of rival political powers so that common citizenship with Muslims was not easy to achieve. But Christendom owes a debt to Christians in the East for a fidelity to their faith which has survived through the long centuries, and for the valuable contacts which were maintained with Islam at a time when there was a possibility that the primary conditions of reconciliation, namely understanding and knowledge of each other, might have been denied by frontier barriers to the lands of Christendom and Islam. Perforce, the Eastern Church remained in the closest contact with Islam down through the years. P. 6 [Emphasis mine]
Dr. Sweetman goes on to deal with the subject of “The Christian Through Muslim Eyes.”
“Ibn Hazm’s account in his Fisal deserves to be recorded in full. He was writing c. A.D. 1049, probably in Spain: ‘Though Christians are People of the Book (Ahlu’l Kitab) and also accept some of the prophets, the majority of them and their sects does not accept the Unity in its purity (mujarradan), but profess the Trinity (tathlith) and so here is the place for them to be discussed.’ P. 18, 19 [Emphasis mine]
It is important to know that Ibn Hazm was a second-generation Muslim, as his grandfather was a Christian. He became one of the bitterest enemies of the Christian faith in Europe, and embarked on a detailed critique of the Christian Scriptures.
“If we include the knowledge that Ibn Hazm had of Scripture, its various versions and other matters at this early period, we find him possessed of a body of information about Christianity (and Judaism) which, however perverse in some particulars, compares most favourably with the meager and often faulty acquaintance with Islam possessed by Latin Europe. However much the Christians of the East knew about Islam, Western Christendom had suffered from the schism of the Church and was cut of from potential sources of information about Islam. It is also quite clear that the chief knowledge of Christianity even in European Islam had an Eastern origin. The reason for this is that the barrier of language was there non-existent, whereas in the West much linguistic study had to be undertaken before there could be an easy familiarity with Islamic beliefs and practice. Ibn Hazm’s Western additions are, however, not without interest and it is possible that Ibn Hazm may have had Western sources of information about Christianity through family associations, since his grandfather had been a Christian.” P. 22
After several quotations from both Christian and Muslim sources showing the degree of knowledge that Christians possessed of the Muslim faith, and vice versa, J. W. Sweetman concluded this chapter with this observation:
“This should be sufficient to show the kind of mutual acquaintances there was between Islam and Christianity in the East, and it will be seen that there was no such parallel acquaintance in the West until the proximity of Muslims and Christians in Spain and Sicily helped to dispel the ignorance of the Latin world. Naturally, since the Muslims of Spain were less cut off from the East than the greater part of Western Europe, it was more likely that the Muslims in Spain would have sounder knowledge of Christianity there than the Christians of Latin lands had of Islam. But that was a temporary phase.”
The above quotations indicate that quite early in the history of Islam, Muslims did become acquainted with the major beliefs of the Christian faith, especially in the area of Christology. Their rejection of the Christian message was due to the tenacity of their belief that Muhammad was Allah’s last rasool, and the Book that descended on him, was the very Word of Allah!
Sweetman tells us that “Ibn Hazm was of Spanish origins and was born at Cordoba towards the end of the tenth century and he was living till about A.D. 1064. In his book entitled Al Fisal fi’l Milal wa’l Afwa’ wa’n Nihal, a work of four volumes, incorporates a devastating attack on the integrity of the Bible. … It may be said that Ibn Hazm seems to have had considerable equipment for the task in which he employed himself. He had knowledge of various translations of the Old Testament and New. He knew the divergences between the Septuagint and the Hebrew. There were some fragments of the Old Testament translated into Arabic as early as the eighth century, most of which were perhaps unknown to Ibn Hazm, with the exception of the translation of the Scripture from the Latin version into Arabic which is attributed to John of Seville in that century, and which has been known in Spain in Ibn Hazm’s days.
“Ibn Hazm has now to answer the question which must have trembled on the lips of his interlocutor for some time. Supposing that his case for the untrustworthy character of the Jewish Scriptures is made out, what then becomes of the Qur’anic confirmation of these books, and what about the Muslim argument that the former Scriptures bear witness to Muhammad? P. 223 [Emphasis is mine]
“It is quite right for us to accept the Torah and the Injil. We have never denied it, but we call him an unbeliever who rejects these two books. But we merely hold that the sending down of the Torah on Moses by Allah is true, that the sending down of the Psalms on David by Allah is true, that the sending down of the Injil on Christ is true and the sending down of Scriptures on Abraham is true… We believe in all of these. … But we have already said and say again now, that the unbelieving children of Israel changed the Torah and the Injil. They increased it and decreased it, but Allah left surviving some parts as he pleased, in order to set up an argument against them.” P. 224
At this point, I would like to point out that Muslims in general, whether learned scholars such as Ibn Hazm, or present-day ordinary Muslims, subscribe to a specific view of the origin and nature of the Scriptures or Books of Allah. They claim that prophets or rasools received books from Allah containing specific messages or laws for their particular people. Literally, those Kutob, (plural of Kitab,) descended upon the prophets, containing divine speech. Muslims then proceed to project backwards their own concept of revelation, by imposing it on all the previous scriptures, such as the Torah of Moses, the Psalms of David, and the Injil of the Messiah. Now, should a different view of the origin or nature of a Kitab (that preceded the Qur’an) be held, it is judged as invalid; and its contents are then considered as having undergone alterations and falsifications. All that must have happened prior to the descent of the Qur’an on Muhammad!
Back to Dr. Sweetman’s reference to the polemics of Ibn Hazm:
“Having satisfied himself with this attack on the Jews and Judaism and the Scriptures which are now in the hands of the Jews, Ibn Hazm turns his attention to the books of the New Testament and in particular to the Gospels. He anticipates no difficulty in showing the untruth of Christianity, which, says he, must be apparent to the meanest intelligence. He starts by saying that in the case of the New Testament he has no need to establish that it is not from God, as he has done in the case of the Torah. Christians themselves have relieved him from this necessity, because they do not claim that the Gospels were ‘sent down upon’ Christ by Allah, and neither do they claim that Christ brought these to them, but all without exception, … do not dispute that the four Gospels were compilations by the four whose names they bear.” Pp. 331, 332.
“Ibn Hazm in these criticisms overreaches himself and proves too much. He leaves no conceivable motive to any of the writers except a desire to deceive. What this deception was supposed to achieve is left in complete obscurity and why these people should endure the persecutions, which Ibn Hazm himself relates in another place, in defence of such a deception is not explained. Ibn Hazm’s position is not of a man who considers the whole story to be a fable. He is by his own faith committed to belief in the historical character of Christ and of much that is recorded in the Gospel. He has to explain why an imposture such as this could succeed unless there were absolutely no people to protest. He cannot bring the testimony of any one of the true hawariyun, [disciples of Christ] to whom he admits the Qur’an gives a witness. He thinks Allah preserved the corrupt scriptures as a testimony against Christians, having as much of the original true Gospel to support the alleged prophecies about Muhammad, and yet is committed to the view that Allah did not preserve any protest from the true followers of Christ. All He did was to preserve the productions of Matthew and the rest, upon whom Ibn Hazm pours out his scorn. The account which Ibn Hazm gives is therefore incredible to the Christian.” Pp. 253, 254
“[Ibn Hazm] shows a remarkable erudition but a peculiarly literalist mind, and he makes no attempt to question whether the material he has gathered is not capable of an entirely different interpretation which has eluded him. Considering the date in the eleventh century when he wrote, his work must be regarded as a great achievement even when one feels that much of it is beating the air. It serves here to illustrate the most uncompromising attack on the Christian position at any rate as far as the Scriptures are concerned. It is not to be regarded as an excursion into a bygone age which might well have been left in oblivion… It is, therefore, important because it reveals what is being taught to Muslims even to-day, and its arguments may well be one of the forces to be reckoned with by those who seek an understanding between Islam and Christianity. That it does not increase the understanding but rather accentuates the misunderstanding will be obvious to the Christian who reads this account of its theses.[Emphasis mine] Pp. 259, 260
Dr. Sweetman turned to the great Eastern Muslim scholar, Al Ghazzali. He commented thatin contrast with the radical polemics of Ibn Hazm, Al Ghazzali’s work (Ar Raddul’l Jamil) may be considered as an irenical criticism of Christianity.
“He starts his work by saying that what he has seen of the arguments of the Christians for their belief are very feeble, and yet that the most thoughtful of Christians do not hesitate to accept them in spite of the obscurities and ambiguities which they present. In these arguments Christians rely on a blind allegiance to authority (taqlid), holding tenaciously to the literal meaning which their ancients laid down dogmatically.” P. 262
“It will be seen that Al Ghazzali is here proposing that the passages in the Gospels which attribute humanity to Christ should be taken literally and that any other passages which apparently predicate divinity to Him should be interpreted allegorically. This indicates that Al Ghazzali has prejudged the question. His creed is that it is impossible that there should be a union of divinity and humanity in Christ, and the method of interpretation he has adopted must lead to this result. So in spite of the appearance of fairness which we have here, it must be admitted that Al Ghazzali’s argument is to support a foregone conclusion. It is, however, very interesting to find he is prepared to argue the case on the assumption that the Gospels are genuine, and this in marked contrast to what we have seen in the case of Ibn Hazm’s attack.” P. 267 [Emphasis mine]
“After these attempts to reinterpret the sayings of Christ recorded in the Scripture, in which one of the classic texts has been left without some consideration, but which suffers to a certain extent from lack of an ampler consideration of the whole context, Al Ghazzali turns his attention to the use of the word ‘Kalima’ in the Qur’an. He says that Christians think that this term used of Christ in the Qur’an bears the same connotation as in their own technical use of it. He says, ‘This is a great illusion and blindness, which has made the Christians think that this technical meaning (istilah) which they have postulated … must be what is meant by the people of every dispensation (shari’a), and that what is found in the honourable book (the Qur’an) necessarily indicates the divinity of Jesus, which is, ‘O people of the Book, do not exaggerate in your religion and speak of Allah nothing but the truth. The Christ, Jesus son of Maryam, is only the apostle of Allah and His Word which he has cast into Maryam and a spirit from him. So believe in Allah and His messengers and do not say: Three (thaltha --- trinity). Stop! It would be better for you! Allah is only one God!’ (Sura iv. 170) Pp. 304,305
In closing, Dr. Sweetman referred to the time in the life of Al Ghazzali when he was seeking the true meaning of life and its mysteries, and was wandering in many parts of the Eastern Islamic world. The Eastern Christians that this Muslim scholar knew were preoccupied with Christological subjects. They had not benefited from the works of Saint Augustine, the Western Church father. Augustine was a staunch defender of Orthodox doctrine, but did not restrict his concerns for the doctrines of the Trinity, and the Person of Jesus Christ. His own life experiences, as well as his encounter with the British monk Pelagius who was spreading an unbiblical anthropology, led him to emphasize the Pauline doctrines of sin and sovereign grace. It is very sad that the Christian East had too little of Augustine, and too much of metaphysical speculations!
Sweetman concluded his reflections on the career of Al-Ghazzali:
“As one reads these pages one feels how sad it is, that this truly great soul had not deeper and clearer instruction during those days of his wanderings in search of peace of soul, and one may remark on the absence of any evidence in these pages, that the doctrines of grace had been shown to him, in the matter which is all important to the Christian evangel. Apparently Al Ghazzali was looked upon as in intellect to convince, rather than as soul in quest of peace and salvation, as indeed he was.”Pp. 307,308
My quotations from the work of J. W. Sweetman have shown that both Muslims and Christians, when they came in contact with each other, gained a considerable knowledge of the beliefs of the other side. I don’t mean that Muslims, for example, accepted or even understood the Christian concept of revelation. But they did get to know what the Christian belief about this subject was all about; even though they rejected it resolutely. And while Western Christians in the Middle Ages were, at first, slow to learn about Islam, nevertheless, they eventually accomplished an adequate knowledge of their opponents’ faith.
Thus, when we take all that into account, and consider the great missionary work that was accomplished during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries among Muslims, one cannot but be extremely perplexed, and even saddened, when voices were raised among some Evangelicals (beginning with the 1970s,) that mission work has been a failure among Muslims, and that the failure was due to their inability or unwillingness to contextualize their message.
For example, in the Foreword of the book, DOWN TO EARTH: STUDIES IN CHRISTIANITY AND CULTURE: The Papers of the Lausanne Consultation on Gospel and Culture. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980, Edited by Robert T. Coote and John Stott, we find these words:
“What are the reasons for people’s resistance to the Gospel? How are we to explain the pitifully small ‘dent’ which has been made, for instance, on the 600 million Hindus of India or the 700 million Muslims of the Islamic bloc? Although different answers are given to these questions, they are basically cultural. The major challenge to the worldwide Christian missions today is whether we are willing to pay the cost of following in the footsteps of our incarnate Lord in order to contextualize the Gospel. Our failure of communication is a failure of contextualization.” John Stott, London, Christmas 1978. P. viii [Emphasis mine]
What was then the real cause for “the pitifully small ‘dent’ which has been made, for instance, on … the 700 million Muslims of the Islamic bloc?” as the Introduction to the book stated?Was it the Christians’ failure to take Islamic culture seriously, and thus they failed to contextually communicate the Gospel to Muslims? We have already noticed the ability of present-day Christians whose mother tongue is Arabic, to clearly witness to Muslims, about their Christ-centered faith. Earlier, throughout the Christian-Muslim encounter, Christians gave the Muslim conquerors and their descendents, a Biblical reason for not adopting Islam. The road-block that Christians faced both in the early years of Islam and up to the present day, was neither cultural nor linguistic; it was the core Islamic belief-system that offered an entirely different view of the nature and purpose of God’s revelation. I will return to this point later on. But at this point, I would like to enquire about the reason for that facile acceptance of the diagnosis by some Western Christians that claims that missions to Muslims have failed due to our unwillingness to contextualize the Gospel, so as to make it attractive and understood in a Muslim milieu.
Unfortunately, the relatively new discipline of Missiology has concerned itself to great extent with the subject of Culture, while at the same time showing less than proper interest in the theological and confessional aspects of the Christian Tradition. I would like to illustrate my remark by quoting from: Creeds, Councils & Christ, by Gerald Bray, published by the Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, in 1984.
Dr. Bray is a Canadian scholar, and an ordained minister in the Anglican Church. He teaches at Beeson Divinity School in the areas of church history, historical theology and Latin. Before coming to Beeson, he lectured at Oak Hill College in London, England.
Describing some of the changes that have taken place in Biblical Studies, Dr. Bray wrote:
“Anthropological influence has been felt in the work of Structuralist interpreters like Paul Ricoeur, which has highlighted the symbolical richness of biblical language and imagery. At a more prosaic level it has led to the search for ‘dynamic equivalence’ in translating the Scriptures. These are expressions and symbols which can convey the original force of the Greek New Testament in contemporary idiom. Ideas of this kind have been influential among missionary translators attempting to bridge the enormous gap between a primitive culture and the relatively sophisticated world of the New Testament.” P. 24, 25
“The fundamental assertion of the Bible is that God can and does speak to mankind in a way which enables us to make an intelligent response. God and man are not so much cut off from each other by their mutually incompatible natures as united by spiritual characteristics which make communion between them possible. The need for all mankind to find a purpose in existence, to create a metaphysic, is the testimony of nature to this fundamental reality. The Christian revelation is God’s answer to this need, fulfilling and replacing aspirations half-hidden in the mythologies and cosmologies of the world. In this sense it is related to them by a kind of generic affinity, but at the same time it is radically different. The message of the Bible is a message of spiritual truth addressed to the human mind. Dogmatic definitions of its content are not an aberration, but the logical outcome of the process of revelation itself. Salvation for the whole man cannot bypass the mind, but must use it for the powerful weapon which it is. [Emphasis mine]
“Properly understood in this way, Christian dogmatism is the greatest force for freedom which mankind has ever known. By claiming the mind for God, dogmatism shatters the bounds of the natural world which imprison the creative imagination and distort scientific analysis. … The early centuries of the Christian Church were a time of great hardship for those who followed the way of the cross. Christians had little cause to indulge in activities which might sidetrack them in their race for the prize of eternal salvation. Yet it was in those very centuries that the dogmatic foundation of Christian theology was laid, to be built upon later in the great struggle against paganism and Greek philosophy. Today, a dispirited and non-dogmatic Church is in retreat everywhere in the Western world. It is time we looked again at our heritage and re-examined our attitudes toward it, so that we too, like our forefathers in the faith, may bear a true witness to the God who has spoken to mankind and sent his Son into the world to save us from our sins.” Pp. 37, 38 [Emphasis mine]
In Chapter 3, Gerald Bray dealt with the subject of “The Sanctification of the Mind.”
“The first principle which had to be established was that the human mind (nous) was corrupted by the fall of man, and that human reason (logos) could not function properly in its fallen state. Here it was necessary to maintain a delicate balance between two opposing tendencies in pagan thought. On the one hand, it was essential to reject the idea that a man could know God by a process of deductive reasoning (1 Corinthians 1:21). The gospel was folly to the Greeks (1 Corinthians 1:23; Acts 17:32) precisely because it could not be explained by a process relying on logical argument. The intellect of man had to be crucified on the cross and born again.” P. 73 [Emphasis mine]
Islamic Anthropology, a Clue to a Proper Missionary Approach
It is indeed very sad, if not tragic, at this moment in world history when Christians and Muslims are coming in close contact with each other in many parts of the world, that cultural considerations have taken center stage in several missionary circles, in lieu of those important theological considerations that are necessary for a proper missiological approach to Islam. I can best explain this point by quoting from a comment on an article that appeared in the January 1959 issue of the quarterly journal, The Muslim World. Its title was “MAN AND HIS PERFECTION IN MUSLIM THEOLOGY,” by Uthman Yahya. The then editor of the journal prefaced the article with these timely words:
“The following article is translated by permission from the first number of Toumliline I,
Principes d'Education, Rabat, 1958, pp. 41- 56, the journal of the Monastery at
Toumliline, Azrou, Morocco. This small Berber town, situated some 70 kilometers south
of Meknes, has in recent years become a symbol of Muslim-Christian theological
meeting... The paper that follows was contributed in French during the second session of
1957 by Dr. ‘Uthman Yahya, an ‘Alim [theologian-jurist] of Al-Azhar, Cairo. The general subject of the Conference was education. Dr. Yahya’s exposition of Muslim theology and its concepts of man and his salvation raises several deep questions. The Christian must always be perplexed about its ready confidence that ‘to know is to do,’ that man's salvation happens under purely revelatory auspices and that through the law given in the Divine communication is the path that man will follow once he knows and sees it. The whole mystery of human recalcitrance and 'hardness of heart' seems to be overlooked.” [Emphasis mine]
I consider these words as the best commentary on the Islamic doctrine of man, and his salvation. It is at this very point, that we may locate the radical difference between Islam and Christianity. According to Muslim theologians, the disobedience of the first man, and his fall, had no lasting consequences for him, and the entire human race. In other words, there is no such thing in Islam as a doctrine of original sin.
This fact was impressed upon me in a special way some twenty years ago when a Tunisian listener to my radio broadcasts of the Word of God, put it very cogently when he wrote: “When you speak about sins in the plural, I understand you say; but when you speak about sin in the singular, I don’t.” Sin (in the singular,) in the sense of sinfulness or a propensity to break the law of God, is foreign to the mind of a Muslim and has never been a part of his doctrinal tradition.
This unwillingness to reckon with the consequences of the fall has predisposed Muslims to welcome all theories that advocate the native goodness of man. In reading Arabic literature of the modern period (since 1800), one is reminded of the affinity between the Muslim doctrine of man and that advocated by such men of the Enlightenment such as Rousseau and Voltaire. Not that Muslims share the French writers' hostility to religion, but they find in them allies who had dissented from the Christian understanding of man.
In Islam, man does not need redemption from without, since “Man's salvation happens under purely revelatory auspices.” Man is weak and prone to forget the demands of God’s Law (Shari’a); therefore, it becomes necessary to remind him, time and again, of the contents and demands of this Law. God accomplishes this by sending messengers (rasools) with specific revelations to deliver to mankind. These revelations “descend” upon them in the form of a Book. As to the content of these divine books, they are purely and simply laws that enable mankind to walk on the Right Path, (Al-Sirat al-Mustaqeem.)
When we take into consideration the above description of the Islamic doctrine of man’s salvation, it becomes evident that the main obstacle in reaching Muslims is not cultural, but doctrinal. Thus, Islamic anthropology does not differ that much from the Christian heresy of Pelagianism, or its modern type known as modernism.
At the beginning of my paper, I referred to the initiation of a dialogue between Arab Christians and Muslims that was launched on the Internet in connection with the ethical problem of Khulwa. We cannot but marvel at the boldness and love exhibited by the Christians who engaged in that web-dialogue. There was no polemical motif in their testimonies; their goal was to tell Muslims that the Gospel had a real message of liberation from the bondage of legalism. They exhibited a spirit of love and genuine concern for the eternal welfare of their (virtual) Muslim neighbors. This agape love for one’s neighbor cannot but melt the hearts of some of those who read the Christians’ marturia. This love is a reflection of God’s prior love for lost sinners, and is the powerful reason for the conversion of Muslims to Jesus Christ.
What I have just stated is illustrated in a paper that was delivered at a Conference that was held at Zurich, Switzerland, on The Plight of Women and Minorities in the Middle East and North Africa, (24-26 March, 2007.) The title of the paper was: The Christians of the Maghreb Under the Rule of Islamists. For those who are conversant with classical Arabic, you may like to read the entire text by going to this URL: http://www.elaph.com/ElaphWeb/ElaphWriter/2007/4/225336.htm
Here are some quotations from the paper:
“The New Christians’ phenomenon throughout the Arab Maghreb has come to the attention of the media. For example, the weekly journal, Jeune Afrique, devoted three reports on this subject with respect to Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria. In March 2005, the French daily Le Monde, devoted a complete report about this topic. And Al-‘Arabiyya TV channel telecast two reports on the subject that had been recorded in the Kabyle district of Algeria.
“Jeune Afrique estimates that the number of people who have embraced Christianity in Tunisia is around 500, belonging to three churches. A report on the website of “Al-Islam al-Yawm” prepared by Lidriss el-Kenbouri, and dated 23 April 2005, estimated the number of European evangelists in Morocco to be around 800, and that quite often, their evangelistic efforts are successful. The report further adds that around 1,000 Moroccans have left Islam during 2004. The magazine “Al-Majalla” in its No. 1394 issue, claimed that the number of New Christians in Morocco is around 7,000; perhaps the exact number may be as high as 30,000.
“The report that appeared in the French daily Le Monde claimed that during 1992, between 4,000 and 6,000 Algerians embraced Christianity in the Kabyle region of Algeria. By now, their numbers may be in the tens of thousands. However, the authorities are mum about this subject, as an Algerian government official put it; the number of those who embraced Christianity is a state secret.”
The paper went to deal with the Most Important Factors for Conversions to Christianity:
“When we consult those who had come over to the Christian faith to learn about the factors that led to their conversion, they mention the following factors:
“First factor: The violence of the fundamentalist Islamist movements: “This factor played a greater role in Algeria in the aftermath of the terrible massacres that began in 1992. A Christian evangelist working in Algeria reported: “These terrible events shocked people greatly. It proved that Islam was capable of unleashing all that terror, and all those massacres! Even children were not spared during the uprising of the Islamists! Women were being raped! Many people began to ask: Where is Allah? Some Algerians committed suicide! Others lost their minds; others became atheists, and still others chose the Messiah!”
“Second Factor: The failure of the political regimes: The Arab Maghrebi states have tried for the last four decades, various political regimes, such as nationalistic, political Islamists, and dictatorial types. Therefore, the embracing of Christianity among the people of the region would represent another attempt to find the right regime; since the all the previous ones have failed.
“Third Factor: The religious training within the family. The report of “Al-Majalla” included the testimony of a young Moroccan woman who embraced Christianity: “Our father used to order us to pray and read the Qur’an; when we disobeyed that command, he punished us with beatings. He told us that if we refused to wear the hijab, we would suffer in hell.” According to her testimony, this young woman’s relation with Allah was devoid of love. A Christian Moroccan who is involved in spreading his faith declared: “Many of us regard Islam as a social fetter or shackle or handicap.”
“Undoubtedly, the religious education which is given these days in Muslim countries offers a sadistic and fearful view of Allah, whose punishments are severe. He is not to be questioned about what He does; only his followers are questioned about their acts. It is no doubt that the horrific massacres perpetrated by the Islamists in Algeria have contributed to the success of the evangelistic work both in Algeria, and in the surrounding countries. But why are people choosing specifically Christianity?
“Fourth Factor: The geographical and linguistic factors have played an important role in the conversion of Maghrebi people to Christianity. This is especially the case with France which has welcomed many Maghrebi immigrants. We should not forget the existence of Christian churches in some of the big cities of North Africa, nor the impact of five Christian satellite TV stations that telecast their programs in Arabic. The young Moroccan evangelist estimates that personal contacts are responsible for 60% of conversions; while the role of the Internet is around 30%, while those who embraced Christianity through the work of foreign missionaries tends to be around 10%.
“Quite often, the “New Christians” testify to the fact that what they discovered in their new faith is love; it was the major factor in their conversion. These are some of their words: “We found out that in Christianity, God is love.” “God loves all people.” “What attracted us to Christianity is its teaching that God is love.”
The testimonies of these new Maghrebi Christians are heartwarming. The Christian message came to them through various means, but it struck them as a message of a loving God in search for His lost sheep. They embraced the Messiah who died on the cross, and rose again for their justification. Notwithstanding all the difficulties that will face them in the future, they are not ashamed of the Biblical Injil that brought them peace with God, and the gift of eternal life.
It is my fervent hope that we pay more attention to the Biblical directives on missions, especially those of Saint Paul. For notwithstanding the Jewish and Gentile outright rejection of the gospel of the cross, Paul did not hesitate to proclaim “Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” As he put it in First Corinthians: “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but for us who are being saved, it is the power of God. (In Greek, the last words are as follows, dunamis Theou estin.” (1:18) Whereas the basis of our salvation is in the person and redemptive work of Jesus Christ, the instrumental means of our salvation is the kerygma, i.e., the “Word of the Cross,” whether it is formally preached by a minister of the Gospel, or given as a marturia (testimony) by a Christian. Paul expressed this basic missionary doctrine in verse 21: “For since in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom did not know Him, it pleased God, through the foolishness of the preached message (kerygmatos) to save those who believe.”
In preparing this paper, I did not intend to minimize the importance of culture in the transmission of the Gospel. I was simply protesting the endless abstract theories that keep coming from some Western Christians, telling us to adopt their novel views of missions to Muslims. Some have gone so far as to advocate Insider Movements where the “followers of Jesus” still identify themselves as Muslims., while others promote the production and dissemination of “Muslim-friendly” translations of the Bible. Radical contextualization theories want us to eliminate the use of such Biblical words as “Father” in reference to God, and “Son” in reference to Jesus Christ. Their advocates tell us that these terms are “repugnant to Muslims!” What a shocking departure from the historic Christian faith!
My sincere thanks go to my fellow Arab Christians who initiated on 11 June, 2007, a lively dialogue with Arab Muslims, by pointing lovingly and boldly, to the Lord Jesus Christ, as the Savior, and the only Way, the Truth, and the Life.
A Statement of Missionary Concern
As a result of the spread of a new theory of missions known as Contextualization among many Evangelicals, a Caucus on Biblically informed Missions was held at Four Brooks Conference Center, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, between July 9 and 11, 1985. The following Statement was issued at the end of the assembly:
BECAUSE the uniqueness of the Christian Faith is being compromised by the movement called 'Contextualization,' as advocated by many, which increasingly places cultural considerations above Biblical norms; and
BECAUSE the integrity of the Christian Gospel is being nullified by contextualized attempts to ‘build bridges' to non-Christian religions and to find common salvation-ground with them; and
BECAUSE the well being of the Christian Mission to earth's billions is being jeopardized by the development of 'ethno-theologies' that would avoid the reproach of Christ and the offence of the Cross.
IT IS IMPERATIVE that an alarm be sounded and a standard raised for the rallying of those concerned with the fulfilling of the Great Commission in a truly Biblical context.
1. WE AFFIRM the sovereignty of the Living Triune God in world evangelization and Gospel response, REJECTING any ultimate dependence on human means and methods of communication;
2. WE AFFIRM the sufficiency of the Biblical revelation, carried home by the Holy Spirit, to bring lost men and women to saving faith in Christ, REJECTING cultural accommodations which obscure, alter or relativize the Gospel, God's power unto salvation to everyone who believes;
3. WE AFFIRM the plain sense of Holy Scripture as normative for Christian discipleship and duty, REJECTING sophisticated reinterpretations by self-styled experts which falsely stimulate missionary activity and deflect from true Gospel obedience;
4. WE AFFIRM that for historic Christianity, love for the lost and the unity of believers are always based on Scriptural truth, REJECTING concepts of love which are contrary to truth and righteousness;
5. WE AFFIRM that faithfulness to God's revealed Word is the key to lasting God-honoring results in homelands and on mission fields, REJECTING concepts of love which are contrary to truth and righteousness;
6. WE AFFIRM the primacy of Gospel proclamation over all other forms of Christian service, REJECTING theologies of mission which would reduce evangelism to a parity with social action;
7. WE AFFIRM the believing Church to be God's appointed means for the accomplishing of His purposes, REJECTING approaches that would bypass faithful, albeit imperfect, congregations in lands where the Church has already been planted;
8. WE AFFIRM the importance of Christian workers identifying themselves as fully as possible with those to whom they would go with the Gospel, REJECTING, however any identification which violates or obscures both the letter and spirit of Scripture;
9. WE AFFIRM as those with a particular concern for the Islamic world, the long history of Christian missions to Muslims and rejoice in the many accomplishments, REJECTING the charge of general failure due to a lack of 'proper contextualization';
10. WE AFFIRM the responsibility of Christ's servants to declare to Muslims and all others the Christian message with precision and consistency; REJECTING appeals that would minimize, or seek to obliterate, the essential differences between Christianity and any other religion;
11. WE AFFIRM the unique Person, final authority and transcendent glory of Jesus Christ, our Great God and Savior, apart from Whom there is no salvation; REJECTING all comparisons between Him and the founders of other religious systems; and
12. WE AFFIRM the completeness of the redemptive work of Christ and the utter graciousness of His redemption, REJECTING any confusion of the Biblical revelation with so-called 'redemption analogies' in other religions/cultures of the world.
IN SUPPORT OF THESE AFFIRMATIONS, we would declare:
OUR COMMITMENT to further the Gospel of the grace of God by all means that are consistent with Biblical principles and Biblical ethics, this with a view to fulfilling Christ's supreme will for His Church in this age; and
OUR COOPERATION with all who would advance God's work in God's way for God's glory, whom we invite to join hands and hearts with us that together we might reach out ever more effectively to the peoples of the earth with the Gospel of Christ; and
OUR CONFIDENCE that the victory of the gospel in the hearts and lives of a vast multitude out of all nations and kindreds and people and tongues is assured by the Resurrection triumph of our Lord Jesus Christ, by the convicting and converting power of the Holy Spirit, and by the good will of God the Father.
IN TESTIMONY TO WHICH, and in the fervent hope that like-minded believers will stand with us in our affirmations, we herewith subscribe our names.
AN EXPLANATION of "A Statement of Missionary Concern"
As stated above, a number of men -- most of them missionaries and missions executives, representing several nationalities -- shared their concern for the integrity of the Christian Faith and the Gospel in an informal setting at Four Brooks Conference Center in Eastern Pennsylvania. Out of the Caucus, as it was called, came "A Statement of Missionary Concern" which was released publicly to certain periodicals and has been shared privately by the signers. Because the Statement was necessarily concise, it has been suggested that there should be a fuller explanation of its purpose and interpretation of its contents.
UNDERSTANDING THE BACKGROUND
The years since World War II have been marked by ferment and change in the Christian Church as in other spheres of human involvement. Recognizing the revolutionary nature of our time, we should not have expected the movement for world evangelization to escape the pressure for change. Christian Missions have not only been widely impacted by forces from without; they have been deeply influenced by voices from within. Themselves influenced by developments -- religious and political, social and economic -- in the larger world, these missionary voices have often called for radical changes in the carrying forward of the missionary task. In particular, they would bring to bear upon the Scriptures such modern disciplines as cultural anthropology and linguistic analysis, supposedly freeing the missionaries and the nationals from Western thought-forms and behavior-patterns and thus expediting the advance of the Gospel.
The signers of "A Statement of Missionary Concern" recognize the inevitability of change. The desirability of any particular change, however, depends on its relationship to the one constant in time and eternity, the inerrant Word of God. It is our belief that, if the Scriptures have too often been read through Western eyes and applied in Western ways, it is equally perilous, if not more so, to adjust them to the cultural milieu of peoples whose thinking and folkways have been almost totally shaped by non-Christian and even militantly anti-Christian influences. We believe that, while it is by no means to be equated with Westernization, there is an underlying Christian culture implicit in the Scriptures, a culture, which is the fruit of their faithful proclamation. It is because we fear for both the doctrinal root and practical fruit of Gospel proclamation at the hands of the advocates of radical change, that we have sounded an alarm.
How did this dominant stress on the cultural adaptation of the Gospel come about in some evangelical circles? One may find its source in a 1954 watershed volume, Customs and Cultures, by Eugene A. Nida. As Secretary of Translations for the American Bible Society, Nida offered an apologetic for his view that Bible translations should offer a 'dynamic equivalence' of the Biblical text, in keeping with the culture of the particular language group rather than approximating a literal rendering. Behind this was his personal belief, not only in the importance of cultural forms, but in the errancy of the Bible. For Nida only God was absolute. The Bible was relative because of the human and cultural factors involved and could, therefore, be rendered freely without bondage to words.
Many missions and missionaries in the post-World War II period shared Nida's interest in linguistics and anthropology, especially those working among tribal groups with unwritten languages. Journals, such as Practical Anthropology (later merged with Missiology), focused on the problems of communicating the Gospel across cultural barriers. Increasingly the missionary task was described in technical terms. Fuller Seminary's School of World Mission popularized the word 'missiology', and in the early 1970's, a Fuller professor, Charles Kraft, called for an integrating of Christian theology and anthropology in what he named 'ethnotheology' which would vary from culture to culture. In time, Kraft would also seize upon Nida's expression, 'dynamic equivalence', and apply it, to church planting. 'Dynamic equivalence' churches, like 'dynamic equivalence' translations, could also reflect great cultural variations, even to incorporating aspects of the prevailing non-Christian religions.
While these developments were taking place in broadly evangelical circles, liberal Christendom was articulating its own agenda. Throughout the 1960s the World Council of Churches was in process of redefining evangelism and missions in cultural terms. For WCC spokesmen, evangelism and missions were to be carried on in the political, social and economic arenas and consisted in the changing or (if need be,) the overthrow of existing unjust structures. As for salvation, that had a primary reference to physical wellbeing, material abundance, peace and justice, all in this world. Significantly, influential elements within the Roman Catholic Church were to adopt the same agenda, giving rise in Latin America to a 'Theology of Liberation.'
While largely resisting Liberation Theology and the equating of salvation with societal change, the evangelical mainstream was to be influenced by a closely related concept put forward by the Conciliar Movement. In 1972, the World Council's Theological Education Fund released a report, Ministry in Context, which called for the replacing of the time-honored missions term 'indigenization' with 'contextualization'. In the minds of its coiners, contextualization relates, not only to the cultural aspects of church life and worship, but also to the adapting of the Gospel to the total cultural situation. This could simply mean adapting the presentation to different cultures, or it could mean accommodating the message as well. Soon many evangelicals were employing the new term, usually giving it much the same meaning as they had to indigenization.
Over the course of the next few years, however, it became apparent that some very articulate mission experts, now known as 'missiologists', were reading into contextualization a broader meaning. The Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in 1974 concerned itself with the cultural issue more than any other previous evangelical missions gathering, coming up with a statement in its Covenant which could be taken in either a conservative or radical way. By 1978, any ambivalence was ended. The Lausanne Continuation Committee sponsored a Consultation at Willowbank, Bermuda, which openly called for the contextualization of the Gospel. Some, although not all of the papers (published in Down to Earth: Studies in Christianity and Culture), proposed a more radical approach which would affect Gospel content. In the fall of the same year, the Lausanne Committee co-sponsored with World Vision a Conference on Muslim Evangelization at Colorado Springs, which included many of the Willowbank participants. Their papers (published in The Gospel and Islam: A 1978 Compendium) explicitly applied the contextualization concept to the Christian approach to Islam. The major thrust was on avoiding cultural offence and thus increasing the likelihood of highly resistant Muslims coming to Christ.
In the years since 1978, this theme has been developed in such books as C. George Fry and James R. King's Islam: A Survey of the Muslim Faith and especially Phil Parshall's New Paths in Muslim Evangelism and Bridges to Islam. Fry and King go on record against Gospel broadcasting and tract distribution to Muslims, regarding them as "a denial of the incarnation" with its call to personal contact and loving involvement. Among other things they also question "the determination to extend the Church at all costs" in Muslim lands and to turn non-Christians into Christians. For them the incarnational model virtually becomes the message. As for Parshall, on the strength of his Bangladesh experience, he advocates the building of bridges to Muslims. For example, the use of the Quran in witnessing and the identifying of Allah and 'Isa with the God of the Bible and Jesus are advocated. The offering of concessions to Muslim converts, such as permitting them to observe the fast month of Ramadan, and the sheep feast, to pray in the Muslim manner and to go through some initiatory rites other than baptism, are also suggested.
Because these proposals have been widely circulated and have proved especially captivating to young missionaries and missionary candidates, we have felt it essential that the other side is presented and the dangers to the Gospel are exposed. Not only are the integrity of Missions to Muslims at stake but the well being of the entire evangelical missionary enterprise. We do not question change within the parameters of Scripture, but we reject 'new paths' and 'bridges' which pass beyond Biblical bounds and which, however well-meaning, do violence to the God of the Bible, and to the Christ of the Cross and Throne.
INTERPRETING THE STATEMENT
BECAUSE the uniqueness of the Christian Faith is being compromised by the movement called 'Contextualization,' as advocated by many, which increasingly places cultural considerations above Biblical norms; and
BECAUSE the integrity of the Christian Gospel is being nullified by contextualized attempts to 'build bridges' to non-Christian religions and to find common salvation-ground with them; and
BECAUSE the well-being of the Christian Mission to earth's billions is being jeopardized by the development of 'ethno-theologies' which would avoid the reproach of Christ and the offence of the Cross--
IT IS IMPERATIVE that an alarm be sounded and a standard raised for the rallying of those concerned with the fulfilling of the Great Commission in a truly Biblical context.
1. The signers are not condemning out of hand everyone who makes use of the term 'contextualization.' Our concern is directed at the contextualizing concept as formulated by the World Council of Churches and as embraced by avant-garde evangelicals who, for all intents and purposes, place culture above Scripture.
2. Nor are the signers opposed to 'bridge-building' to non-Christian peoples. Effective witnessing always involves the finding of some points of contact in our common humanity. However, we reject any idea that common ground can be found with non-Christian faiths on the great issues of God and man, of sin and salvation. The God of the Bible is not to be confused with the Allah of the Quran or the deities of other world religions.
3. It is the signers' conviction that the strength and long-range effectiveness of the witness of the believing Church is conditioned upon not soft-pedaling the finality of Jesus Christ and the stumbling-block of the Cross. These are supra cultural because eternal, and we must take care that they not be compromised by Western culture or any other cultural milieu. Let it be understood that we are not defenders of Western civilization. Rather we do see the blessings of the Western world as flowing from a reception of the Gospel, and its curses as stemming from a rejection of the Biblical message.
II. The Affirmations
1. WE AFFIRM the sovereignty of the Living Triune God in world evangelization and Gospel response, REJECTING any ultimate dependence on human means and methods of communication.
Comment: While we appreciate the contemporary emphasis on proper cross-cultural communication, the most finely tuned communication techniques are incapable of producing truly spiritual results. All genuine conversions are God-given, not man-induced. With Jonah we hold that "salvation is of the Lord" and with Paul that it is all of grace, even the faith which claims it, being God's free gift.
2. WE AFFIRM the sufficiency of the Biblical revelation, carried home by the Holy Spirit, to bring lost men and women to saving faith in Christ, REJECTING cultural accommodations which obscure, alter or relativize the Gospel, God's power unto salvation to everyone who believes.
Comment: Our sole hope for success in world evangelization lies in the Holy Spirit and His wielding of His sword, the Word of God. Attempts to make the Gospel more palatable not only emasculate the Gospel but completely short-sell its power to work conviction and effect conversion. The God-breathed Scriptures have not lost their ancient power, and Spirit-applied; the Gospel is still God's dynamite unto salvation.
3. WE AFFIRM the plain sense of Holy Scripture as normative for Christian discipleship and duty, REJECTING sophisticated reinterpretations by self-styled experts which falsely stimulate missionary activity and deflect from true Gospel obedience;
Comment: Not only do the Scriptures authenticate themselves, but they rightly interpret themselves to those who, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, are willing to obey. The Biblical message is clear to faith and obedience. Trusting and obedient Christians understand the logic of the Great Commission -- the going forth, the preaching of the Gospel, the making of disciples, the planting of churches. They do not need new twists of interpretation to impel them to action.
4. WE AFFIRM that for historic Christianity, love for the lost and the unity of believers are always based on Scriptural truth, REJECTING concepts of love, which are contrary to truth and righteousness.
Comment: While the insistent call to Christians to love each other and to love non-Christians to Christ, is always right and especially so in today's world, we must not confuse true caring with sentimentality. All expressions of human love are to be tested by the holy love of God. The truth is to be spoken in love, but love is never to do violence to truth. Unconditional love is not indiscriminate love.
5. WE AFFIRM that faithfulness to God's revealed Word is the key to lasting, God-honoring results in homelands and on mission fields, rejecting the assumption that success hinges on new and exotic strategies.
Comment: Because we live in an increasingly tumultuous and threatening age, missions experts are driven to devise strategies to meet new situations. We do not despise tactics and strategies, which take seriously the missionary principles, and practices marked out in the New Testament. However, when strategists have had their input, it is still the Word of God that is the appointed means that is used by the Holy Spirit in accomplishing His work.
6. WE AFFIRM the primacy of Gospel proclamation over all other forms of Christian service, REJECTING theologies of mission, which would reduce evangelism to parity with social action.
Comment: Widely accepted in present-day evangelical circles is the equation that "Mission equals Proclamation plus Service," with service understood as referring to social and even political action. This, we are convinced, is already leading to a repetition of the 'Social Gospel' error. In theory, the new missiologists would meet the needs of the whole man, but in practice concern for the body often outweighs concern for the soul.
7. WE AFFIRM the believing Church to be God's appointed means for the accomplishing of His purposes, REJECTING approaches that would bypass faithful, albeit imperfect, congregations in lands where the Church has already been planted.
Comment: In their impatience with the past performance of others and their zeal to implement their own grand strategies, some missiologists have tended to regard existing national churches as obstacles to Gospel progress. This strikes us as ingratitude to earlier missionaries, as insensitiveness to faithful brothers and sisters in those churches, and as insult to the Holy Spirit who has called those churches into being.
8. WE AFFIRM the importance of Christian workers identifying themselves as fully as possible with those whom they would go with the Gospel, REJECTING, however any identification which violates or obscures both the letter and spirit of Scripture.
Comment: Honest missionary attempts at cultural identification with nationals go back at least to the middle of the last century. The call of the contextualizers to incarnate the Gospel comes, therefore, very late indeed. Moreover, some of their own reported experiments in identification have passed beyond Biblical bounds into theological compromise. The uniqueness of the Incarnation of our Lord must be maintained and models for mission work must be sought in the apostles' lives and teachings.
9. WE AFFIRM, as those with a particular concern for the Islamic world, the long history of Christian mission to Muslims and rejoice in the many accomplishments, REJECTING the charge of general failure due to lack of 'proper contextualization.'
Comment: Much of the current dissatisfaction with traditional missionary work is focused on the relatively small response of Muslims to the Gospel. Yet the Christian approach to Islam has a glorious history which can be despised only at our peril. Those who suggest that "our failure to communicate is a failure of contextualization" are hardly familiar with that history. Against great odds and constant persecution, the Church of Jesus Christ has been planted in Islamic lands.
10. WE AFFIRM the responsibility of Christ's servants to declare to Muslims and all others the Christian message with precision and consistency; REJECTING appeals that would minimize, or seek to obliterate, the essential differences between Christianity and any other religion.
Comment: In sincere but misguided attempts to influence Muslims in particular, certain advocates of radical change have given the impression that there are considerable points of contact and areas of agreement between Christianity and Islam. This we regard as contrary to the facts and unfair to Muslim people who deserve an accurate presentation of the Christian faith. No obscuring of the true issues will accomplish any good in the long run.
11. WE AFFIRM the unique Person, final authority and transcendent glory of Jesus Christ, our Great God and Savior, apart from whom there is no salvation, REJECTING all comparisons between Him and the founders of other religious systems.
Comment: At the heart of all the issues that we raise is the uniqueness and exclusive claim of the Lord Jesus Christ. We see this as being compromised by the penchant of some, over-eager to impress Muslims, to compare the Risen Lord and Islam's dead Prophet in the same breath. If Christ cannot be compared with angels or men in the Bible, then he can only be contrasted with the founders of other religions.
12. WE AFFIRM the completeness of the redemptive work of Christ and the utter graciousness of His redemption, REJECTING any confusion of the Biblical revelation with so-called 'redemption analogies' in other religions/cultures of the world.
Comment: Not only is the Person of Christ unique, but the Work of Christ cannot be duplicated. In contrast with every other religious system, only the Bible offers men salvation through the Work of Another. Some have sought to find 'redemption analogies' in Islam and other religions of works. This necessarily downplays the perfect redemption of Christ and the utter graciousness of His salvation. (Romans 3:21ff)
III. The Declarations
IN SUPPORT OF THESE AFFIRMATIONS, we would declare -
OUR COMMITMENT to further the Gospel of the grace of God by all means that are consistent with Biblical principles and Biblical ethics, this with a view to fulfilling Christ's supreme will for His Church in this age; and
OUR COOPERATION with all who would advance God's work in God's way for God's glory, whom we invite to join hands and hearts with us that together we might reach out ever more effectively to the people of the earth with the Gospel of Christ; and
OUR CONFIDENCE that the victory of the Gospel in the hearts and lives of a vast multitude out of all nations and kindreds and people and tongues is assured by the Resurrection triumph of our Lord Jesus Christ, by the convincing and converting power of the Holy Spirit, and by the good will of God the Father.
1. In committing ourselves afresh to fulfilling the Great Commission in our time, we are convinced that the Biblical message must be furthered by Biblical methods. The ways of God are not the ways of fallen men, and redeemed men must constantly search the Scriptures to bring their ways into conformity with God's. In missionary activity, as in all things, spiritual things are spiritually discerned.
2. Although we have felt impelled to challenge the contextualization movement, we do not fence ourselves off from anyone who would seek to advance the Gospel through Scriptural means. We gladly acknowledge our bonds with all such and urge them to stand with us as we would hold fast the faithful Word and hold forth the Word of Truth.
3. It has been characteristic of those who advocate the new missiological approaches to confess the failures of the past and present. While we are only too willing to confess our personal faults, we rejoice in past victories and anticipate the final victory of Jesus Christ. If some would accuse us of 'triumphalism', it is not our triumph but His that we proclaim. It is in His triumph that Gospel workers the world around are more than conquerors.
In "A Statement of Missionary Concern" and in the Commentary on it, we have sought to reflect glory on the Triune God. Our desire has been that God the Father is magnified by a theology of missions that is consistent with His Word and His will. We have also been motivated, as far as we know our own hearts, by a genuine jealousy for the 'Crown Rights of the Redeemer'. We must protest when we feel God the Son is being dishonored, however unwittingly. Again, we have wanted to be constrained by God the Holy Spirit, not just to give Him lip service. It is our hope that this effort will recommend itself to those who share our concerns and that it will alert others to what we see as a very present danger.
September 30, 1985
Frederick W. Evans, Jr.Written on behalf of the signers of A Statement of Missionary Concern
Re-Thinking Missions Today
Caucus on Missions in July 1985,
which dealt with the topic of Contextualization.
Neo-Evangelical Missiology and the Christian Mission to Islam
During the last two decades, some severe criticisms have been levelled at the missionary work which has been undertaken since the days of William Carey. We are told by these critics, for example, that missions among Muslims have been a failure. Most of the missionaries of the past, so the critics say, were not good at "cross-cultural communication." This happened because missionaries failed to "contextualize" the Christian message.
In this paper, I refer to evangelical missionary theorists who have espoused and propagated this way of looking at the modern missionary enterprise as the neo-evangelical missiologists. I would like to examine their thesis about the alleged failure of missions among Muslims from three inter-related perspectives: the historical, the theological and the Biblical perspectives.
I - The Historical Perspective
In attempting to work out a new methodology of missions, several neo-evangelical missiologists base their endeavors on their own interpretation of the history of missions in the last 200 years. This is specially the case when they are re-thinking the Christian mission to Muslims. They seem to be oblivious of the fact that the Christian-Muslim encounter began almost fourteen centuries ago! The difficulties we face as we seek to reach Muslims with the gospel are embedded in history long before the rise of the Protestant missionary enterprise. To put all the blame on the messengers of the gospel during the last 200 years does not only ignore history, but it dishonors the testimony of countless Christians who lived under Islam and who were not ashamed of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
We must never forget these points of history: according to the Arabian prophet, 1 - Christ never claimed to be the Son of God; 2 - the belief in the Trinity amounted to faith in many gods; and 3 - the Messiah never died on the cross.
In the Islamic tradition, the whole system of Christian doctrine has been judged as inferior and corrupt. Islam alone is the final and complete faith. As some Muslims remind me in their letters, the preaching of the Christian faith is anachronistic. As far as Allah is concerned, Inna deena 'inda Allahi al-Islamu, i.e., the accepted religion with God is Islam!
Rather than to indulge in too much introspection as we survey the history of missions to Muslims during the last two centuries, we must bear in mind that as far as Muslims are concerned, there is no need to seriously consider the claims of the Christian message. The true gospel, the Injeel, no longer exists, for the Christians have corrupted it. Anyhow, the Quran has superseded and supplanted the gospel. There is nothing more striking about the Muslim's attitude to other religions than his absolute conviction about the superiority and finality of his faith!
The majority of the peoples conquered by the Arab armies in the initial days of the conquest were Christian. Their Christianity was not pure. Some were Chalcedonian while others entertained erroneous teachings concerning the two natures of Jesus Christ. But in all fairness to these Eastern Christians, we must not write them off as if they presented no Christian testimony to the invaders. Granted that they were weak in the areas of Biblical anthropology and soteriology, they all confessed their faith in the triune God, the deity and sonship of Jesus Christ, his atoning death on the cross and the complete trustworthiness and final authority of the Bible.
The writings of the Christians of the Middle East who lived during the caliphates of the Umayyads (7th and 8th centuries) and the 'Abbasids (8th- 13th centuries), reveal that they did not hesitate to explain why they did not Islamize. It is very surprising to read the contents of their apologetical and polemical works. Many Christians worked in the courts of the caliphs in Damascus and later on in Baghdad. They conversed freely about points of difference between the two religions. Some neo-evangelical missiologists seem to forget that the core of the Christian message was adequately defended by the conquered Christians of the Middle East. The hardening of the attitude towards the Christian faith among Muslims happened before the conversion of the ancestors of many European and American missionaries!
Having referred briefly to the role played by the Christians of the conquered lands, we may consider the record of some of the pioneer Protestant missionaries who worked in the Arab world. I am better equipped to deal with this part of the Muslim world, since my pre-seminary education took place within the Arab world. Furthermore, my own involvement in the Muslim world has continued because of the very nature of my radio ministry. I have had the privilege of corresponding with thousands of Arabic speaking listeners, both Muslim and Eastern Christian. Thus, my knowledge of Islam is neither purely academic nor archaic.
Does the historical record uphold the charge that the pioneer missionaries who labored among the Muslims were intent upon spreading their culture as well as the gospel? Let's take the history of the American University of Beirut. This institution of higher education is considered as the most powerful academic institution in the entire Middle East. But it was not founded as an American cultural mission. Its original name was the Syrian Protestant College and was founded by Presbyterian missionaries in 1866. The founders planned to teach all the subjects in Arabic. The Evangelical Church which they organized was an Arabic speaking church. Its liturgy was simple, the Word of God was central, and every part of the worship service was in Arabic. When we think about the translation of the Arabic Bible, the names of some pioneer missionaries like Eli Smith and Cornelius Van Dyck come to mind. Their wonderful work was accomplished with the help and cooperation of such Lebanese scholars Yazigi and Bustani. One of these early missionaries, the Rev. George Ford, learned the language so well that he composed Arabic hymns which are still used today in the evangelical churches of the Arab world!
Of course one should not hide the fact that some of the later missionaries did attempt to foist Western concepts on the people of the Middle East through the instrumentality of educational institutions which were modeled after Western schools. This is a part of my personal experience as I have had the privilege to study and later on to teach in Roman Catholic and Protestant mission schools. But this later development took place after the triumph of religious liberalism in Protestant missionary circles. That this was a factor in the decline of missionary work among Muslims cannot be denied. But I am puzzled by the fact that neo-evangelical missiologists do not seem to take this sad fact into account. I am referring to the impact of liberalism on missions. Why this silence? Is history a lesser authority than the newer discipline of cultural anthropology?
May we still maintain that Christian missions among Muslims have failed when for more than a quarter of a century ( between the two great wars while the Middle East was under British and French colonial rule) the gospel was seldom heard in most of the mission schools? I can never forget many commencement speeches which were disgusting for they contained nothing Biblically Christian, just plain platitudes. No wonder that some of the graduates of mission schools joined radical movements including the Communist parties of their respective countries!
To sum up, a careful study of the history of Islam and the Christian presence in the Muslim world, indicates that the thesis that missions to Muslims have failed and that this failure would not have taken place had the pioneer missionaries and those who followed them contextualized the gospel, cannot be sustained. Islam from its beginnings had a built-in bias against the Christian faith. This strong anti-Christian motif has solidified across the centuries. Western culture has indeed invaded the Middle East and other Islamic countries. This took place primarily because of the triumph of Western imperialism among the followers of Islam. We cannot speak of the temporary setbacks of missions to Islam without taking into account the destructive role played by liberalism in the mission field. And finally, as we end this historical excursion, we thank God for the advent of radio missions and the awakening of many nationals to testify of their faith among their fellow citizens who follow the Muslim way. The gospel is being proclaimed without Western baggage, and equally without the novel methods of syncretistic missiologies.
II - The Theological Perspective
Neo-evangelical missiologists would like the church to embark on new ways in missions to Muslims since they claim that the old methods of the last 200 years have been faulty. As we have noticed in Part I of this paper, a careful study of the history of the Christian-Muslim encounter during the last 1400 years does not sustain the thesis of these missiologists. The difficulties in the Christian mission to Muslims are not to be located in the alleged wrong methods of Western missionaries but in the Muslim tradition itself. From its inception, Islam has been a consciously anti-Christian faith, and its basic motifs have been anti-redemptive. So when we continue to study the reasons for this radical shift in the attitude of some Western missiologists towards Islam, we discover that the inspiration for the call to change did not come from a re-discovery of a thoroughly Biblical theology, nor from a fresh appreciation of the rich Christian tradition, but from an inordinate fascination with the new discipline of cultural anthropology. I will now dwell on this important point. In his contribution to the Consultation on Gospel and Culture held at Willowbank in Bermuda, in January 1978, Stephen C. Neil began with these words:
Throughout history, religion and culture have been inextricably connected. There has never yet been a great religion which did not find its expression in a great culture. There has never yet been a great culture which did not have deep roots in a religion. (Down to Earth: Studies in Christianity and Culture, edited by John R. Stott and Robert Coote, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI 1980. p.1)
In spite of this timely observation by a veteran missionary scholar, one could not help but notice among the many papers read at the Consultation a lack of a deep interest in the theological dimensions of the problems we face in missions among Muslims. Culture was regarded as the important bridge which will enable us to reach the Muslims with the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is as if the "discoveries" of cultural anthropology have provided us with a modern Aladdin's lamp which will solve all our problems. This novel attitude is in marked contrast with the approach of the pioneers. They did not merely confine their scholarly pursuits to the study of Islam, its history and its practices. They reflected theologically on Islam. One thinks, for example, of Samuel Zwemer's
The Moslem Christ. An excellent and lucid study in the area of Islamic Christology and its implications for missions. Another classic is the monumental work of Prof.
J. W. Sweetman: Islam and Christian Theology: A Study of the Interpretation of Theological Ideas in the Two Religions. This missionary scholar who labored most of his life in India (prior to its partition in 1947) shows the extreme importance of a deep theological reflection not only on Islam but equally on Christianity in its relation to Islam.
When we look at the contributions of scholarly men such as W. Montgomery Watt, we cannot escape noticing that the theological approach remains very prominent. In his book, The Formative Period of Islamic Thought, whole sections of the book deal with such themes as: God's Determination of Events, The Support in Tradition for Predestinarian Views, The Distinction between Iman (faith) and Islam, God and evil, the Createdness of the Quran, the Attributes of God, the Denial of Anthropomorphism and the Maturing of Sunnite Theology.
One more reference to a recognized historian, Bernard Lewis, formerly of the University of London, but now teaching at Princeton University. His writings on the history of the Middle East are filled with deep theological insights. In the quarterly journal American-Arab Affairs, the following comments appeared in a review of Lewis' latest book, The Muslim Discovery of Europe.
In trying to account for this lack of interest in the world of Christendom, Professor Lewis offers two principal explanations, one historical, the other theological. The second explanation (theological) for the Muslim attitude derives from the politico-religious character of Islam. For the followers of Muhammad Islam is the final dispensation of a revealed truth. As such it logically engenders among the Muslim community a sense of ultimate fulfillment in being chosen to receive the final revelation from God through his Messenger the Prophet. As Professor Lewis suggests:
The Muslim doctrine of successive revelations culminating in the final mission of Muhammad led the Muslim to reject Christianity as an earlier and imperfect form of something which he, himself, possessed in the final, perfect form, and to discount Christian thought and Christian civilization accordingly. After the initial impact of eastern Christianity on Islam in the earliest period, Christian influences, even from the high civilization of Byzantium, were reduced to a minimum. Later, by the time that the advance of Christendom and, the retreat of Islam had created a new relationship, Islam was crystallized in its ways of thought and behavior and had become impervious to external stimuli, especially those coming from the millenial adversary in the West. (American-Arab Affairs, Spring 1983, Number 4 p. 155)
While theology in Islam has not played the same role that it has in Christianity, and while the Sharia (Law) is more prominent in the mind of the Muslim than Kalam (theology), we may not jump to the conclusion that Islam is a non-theological religion. For example, when Muslims attack the Christian faith, it is always done in terms of the so-called theological and doctrinal errors of this religion. Consciously or unconsciously, Muslims give theological grounds for their instant rejection of the gospel of Christianity. In the light of all the foregoing considerations and having noticed how even secular scholars cannot but seek to understand Islam theologically, how are we to assess the words of the Rev. John Stott in his Foreword to Down to Earth? Writing about the meager results of missions among 600 million Hindus of India and the 700 million Muslims of the world, he remarks:
Although different answers are given to these questions, they are basically cultural. The major challenge to the world-wide Christian mission today is whether we are willing to pay the cost of following in the footsteps of our incarnate Lord in order to contextualize the Gospel. Our failure of communication is a failure of contextualization. (p. viii)
According to the Rev. Stott, we have hardly made any progress among Muslims because we have not made the right analysis which would have shown us that our problems are basically cultural! As if when dealing with Muslims, it is quite easy to separate the theological from the cultural. According to the Rev. Stott, the incarnation of the Son of God has become the proto-type for proper contextualization. And since we are not willing to pay the price of following in the footsteps of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we refuse to contextualize and thus we fail to communicate the good news.
These are far-reaching charges. In my readings of scholarly works produced by non-evangelical Christians or by non-Christians, I see no such one-sided emphasis on the cultural aspect of Islam. Nor do I encounter the new jargon of some Western missiologists. It pains me so much that it is some of my dear brothers in the faith who are espousing these novel theories and making far-reaching statements about failure of missions to the Muslims. That we must study and learn the cultures of the people to be reached for the Lord is axiomatic and has never been doubted by any serious missionary of the gospel. The first Western missionary to Muslims, Raymond Lull, did not go to his field of labors in Tunisia before learning the Arabic language and culture. He even lobbied for the introduction of the study of Arabic in the universities of Europe. Enough has been mentioned in the first part of this paper to indicate that the pioneer missionaries excelled in learning Arabic as well as the culture of the people. None of them ever dreamt of staying for one or two terms in the mission field. Their graves in Beirut, Cairo and elsewhere in the Middle East testify to their complete devotion to the cause of Christ. They respected the uniqueness of the person and mission of the Messiah and tried to model their missionary activities in the tradition of Paul and the other holy apostles, and not after an incarnational model!
Since Islam claims to be a revealed and theistic religion, are we right when we place so much emphasis on a cultural approach to Islam? As Stephen C. Neil observed when he was referring to the close relationship of history, religion and culture: "the church entered into easy relations with that culture only when the religion which underlay it had ceased to be a living force." But when we consider Islam, the words just quoted gain added weight. There is hardly an aspect of Islamic life and culture which has not been infused with the Muslim faith. It is impossible to separate between Islam as culture and Islam as a religious faith. Islam has shaped its own theistic worldview.
When we reflect theologically on our subject and ask ourselves: what is the basic motif of Islam which distinguishes it from the Christian faith, we may come up with several answers. We may point to the traditional points of controversy such as: the authenticity of the Bible, the Trinity, the deity of Jesus Christ and his atoning death on the cross. Islam claims to have been sent from God in order to correct these false teachings of Christianity and thus bring true deliverance to mankind. While one should not deny that Islam is very self-conscious about this aspect of its mission, yet I would like to put forth the thesis that the basic motif of Islam is its teaching of the native goodness of man. This religion asserts that man can save himself and construct a peaceful world order by doing the revealed will of Allah. For us Christians, it is very important to realize that the Muslim religious tradition not only denies the crucifixion of the Messiah, but the very necessity of redemption. This important fact was impressed upon my memory over twenty five years ago upon reading an article in the quarterly journal, The Muslim World. The then editor of the journal prefaced the article with these timely comments:
The following article is translated by permission from the first number of Toumliline I, Principes d'Education, Rabat, 1958, pp. 41- 56, the journal of the Monastery at Toumliline, Azrou, Morocco. This small Berber town, situated some 70 kilometers south of Meknes, has in recent years become a symbol of Muslim-Christian theological meeting... The paper that follows was contributed in French during the second session of 1957 by Dr. 'Uthman Yahya, an 'Alim of Al-Azhar, Cairo. The general subject of the Conference was education. Dr. Yahya's exposition of Muslim theology and its concepts of man and his salvation raises several deep questions. The Christian must always be perplexed about its ready confidence that "to know is to do," that man's salvation happens under purely revelatory auspices and that through the law given in the Divine communication is the path that man will follow once he knows and sees it. The whole mystery of human recalcitrance and 'hardness of heart' seems to be overlooked. (Man and His Perfection in Muslim Theology, The Muslim World, January 1959, p. 19)
Islam has always taught a doctrine of man which does not take into account the disastrous consequences of the fall. Once a Tunisian listener put it very cogently when he wrote: "When you speak about sins in the plural, I understand you; but when you speak about sin in the singular, I don't." Sin, in the sense of sinfulness or propensity to break the law of God, is foreign to the mind of a Muslim and has never been a part of his doctrinal tradition.
This unwillingness to reckon with the consequences of the fall has predisposed Muslims to welcome all theories which advocate the native goodness of man. In reading Arabic literature of the modern period (since 1800), one is reminded quite often of the affinity between the Muslim doctrine of man and that advocated by such men as Rousseau and Voltaire. Not that Muslims share the French writers' hostility to religion, but they found in them allies who had dissented from the Christian understanding of man. In Islam, man does not need redemption from without, as the editor of the Muslim World remarked about the Muslim doctrine of man: Man's salvation happens under purely revelatory auspices.
Several neo-evangelical missiologists tell us that our past efforts among Muslims and others have failed. They place the reason for our failure in the cultural area. The implication of their claims are unavoidable. Contextualize, take this and that element from the Islamic way of worship and culture, and you will begin to succeed in your mission. Actually, this approach is very shallow and does not reckon with the theological subjects which are of great importance to Muslims. For no matter how much we contextualize the gospel message, the stumbling block remains: according to the fundamentals of Islam there is no need for redemption from without. The Quranic doctrine of God takes care of the acknowledged need for forgiveness. Allah is both Rahman (Merciful) and Raheem (Compassionate). He forgives sins without any recourse to the death of the Messiah.
Islamic culture, as we have already noted, is totally influenced by the Muslim faith. It is impossible to divorce the two. The difficulties in missions among Muslims are real and have been with us for fourteen centuries. At this late date in history, to suggest that we shift the emphasis from the theological to the cultural is to part company with a long-standing Christian tradition. Furthermore, it offers a false hope that once the magic of contextualization has been put into action, success is guaranteed!
We are now ready to view from a Biblical perspective the main theme of some neo-evangelical missiologists, i.e., that Christian missions among Muslims have failed because of a lack of a proper cultural approach.
III - The Biblical Perspective
It is when we view the modern contextualization movement among the neo-evangelicals from the Biblical perspective that we become very alarmed. One fails to see how the major Biblical themes which deal with the mission of the church in the New Testament age have been taken into consideration. Furthermore, one notices upon the reading of the literature of the contextualization movement, the impact of the theologies of the World Council of Churches. Just as one recognizes the eclectic nature of the WCC teachings and pronouncements, so one finds the same thing occurring among the proponents of the new missiology. More emphasis on incarnational theology and less emphasis on preaching and proclamation. There is more preoccupation with secondary issues such as forms of worship, fasting and the timing of baptism than a genuine desire to understand the true nature of Islam and the Biblical guidelines for missions among Muslims. The spirit of the new approach, as stated earlier in this paper, is not so much the Bible as the new discipline of cultural anthropology.
In this third part of my paper, I plan to deal with two main passages of Scripture which have tremendous implications for missions to Muslims: Romans 10 and I Corinthians 1 & 2. In Romans 10, Paul deals with the main reason for the failure of the Old Testament people of God in reaching their destiny. "They are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they do not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness." (Romans 10:2b, 3 NIV)
Paul does not deny the general principle revealed in the Old Testament that "The man who does these things will live by them." (Leviticus 18:5 NIV) The Jews of Paul's days believed that they could be saved by doing the requirements of the law. The Muslims believe that God is pleased with them when they live in accordance with the Shari'a (Law). As we have noticed in the second part of this paper, according to Islam, man's salvation happens under purely revelatory auspices. Now Paul did not deny the truth which is revealed in Leviticus 18:5, but he taught that there was no such a human being who could attain salvation by doing the law. God had revealed another way which was compatible with the fallen state of man. Paul does not theologize as if no doctrine of redemption had been revealed. Rather, he quotes at length from Deuteronomy 30. Moses points to a righteousness which is given to the repentant sinner by God's grace. Now the instrumentality or the means for this gift is the saving Word of God.
Personifying the "righteousness that is by faith," Paul writes: Do not say in your heart, 'who will ascend into heaven?' (that is, to bring Christ down) or , 'Who will descend into the deep?' (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? ' The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,' that is the word of faith we are proclaiming: That if you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10: 6 - 9 NIV)
It is quite evident from these words of Paul that he puts the emphasis on both content and proclamation. Through this activity of the church, the saving Word of God comes so close to the hearers that it is as near to them as their own heart and mouth. Of course, the saving message must be appropriated. It must be believed and confessed. Paul is giving us in this chapter a very important teaching about missionary activity. He summarizes the teaching of this section of his Letter to the Romans by saying in verse 17: Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ. Paul is dealing here with what is commonly known as the instrumental cause of our salvation. Saving faith, regardless of the cultural background of the hearer, comes into being in an atmosphere where Christ is proclaimed. This is not meant to aggrandize the role of the apostle or the messenger of the gospel. This is simply the God-ordained way of missions across the ages, in all lands and among all cultures.
When we come to the teachings of Paul in I Corinthians 1 & 2, we meet the same high regard for the doctrine of proclamation. In doing his work as an apostle and pastor and in correcting doctrinal errors, Paul called 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 1 and 2, Paul equally emphasized the contents of the proclamation and the appropriate method which was compatible with the message. His agenda after his conversion was simple: the preaching of the cross of Christ. Why was Paul equally concerned about the message and the method? He was aware of the fact that the content of the message: Jesus Christ and him crucified, required a methodology which 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 situation in 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 Quranic and doctrinal grounds. According to Islam, Allah (God) did not and could not have permitted the Messiah to be killed by the Jews. But we must recognize that Muslims throughout history have not always been totally consistent with the teachings of their faith. The legalism of Sunni (orthodox) Islam has pushed many to look for peace with God in the way of Sufism (mysticism). Also, suffering and redemption are not foreign to the minds of the Shi'ite Muslims. Neither should we forget in our missionary work that Muslims are never sure about their standing with their Creator on the Day of Judgment. All these factors must be taken into consideration when we present the gospel to them as well as when 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 the salvation of all those who put their trust in the crucified and risen Messiah.
When we reflect on the first two chapters of I Corinthians, we also 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 only 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 which the Muslims require of us 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 think 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 himself with the message. He became all things to all men that he might win some. But he never compromised on the fundamentals. His main concern was always God-directed. Or 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. (vv. 1,2,4,5)
The faith which Paul spoke about in these verses was not simply the orthodox or 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 by Paul. 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. (vv. 13,14)
Needless to say, the apostle ended his teaching about the importance of the message and the proper method which must deliver the 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.
Today, the mission of the universal church is at the crossroads. Unlike the early years of this century when it was rather easy to distinguish between liberal and Bible-believing and orthodox missionaries, the lines are rather blurred in our times. The Liberationists quote Scripture in order to re-interpret the meaning of salvation and desire to clothe their ideology with the mantle of the gospel. Neo-evangelical missiologists who are specially concerned about the challenge of Islam, are eager to stress that they do not want to part company with the historic Christian tradition. However, our examination of their claims from the historical, theological and Biblical perspectives has shown that their map for a successful missionary endeavor among Muslims cannot stand the test. If we follow in their footsteps, we are not showing fidelity to the tremendous missionary heritage of the ancient church or of the specifically Protestant era of missions during the last two centuries.
In conclusion, I would like to submit for further reflection the following theses:
1. The Christian mission to Muslims has a bright future, as long as it is carried on in the time-honored apostolic tradition, i.e., with emphasis on the centrality of the preaching of the Word of God.
2. The present situation in the Muslim world is unique. Since 1800, it has been undergoing radical changes due to the end of the isolation of its masses from the currents of world thoughts. It is therefore uniquely open to the impact of the Christian message.
3. The advent of mass communications is bringing the gospel to many areas of the Muslim world which had never heard its redeeming message. Young Muslims are very eager to learn about the contents of the Christian Scriptures. This provides us with a golden opportunity to present the claims of Christ.
4. The Muslim diaspora in the West presents a unique opportunity for mission work. The uniqueness of the Muslims' presence, neither as conquerors nor as conquered, but as guest workers, students and immigrants, is a new situation which has no parallel in history.
5. A reading of Muslim literature written by open-minded writers and of listeners' letters who are responding to gospel proclamation, indicates that the Lord is moving by His Word and Spirit. He is creating hunger and thirst among the Muslim masses for a message which can be found only in the authentic gospel. Our hope is re-kindled and we believe that the best days for missions among Muslims are ahead of us. Muslims will be converted through Christian testimony and through the preaching of Jesus Christ and him crucified.
Neo-Evangelicalism and Its Impact on Missions
Because the assigned topic is wide-ranging and my competence is limited, it would seem the part of wisdom to approach it descriptively rather than definitively. Not only does it take in considerable territory, but also the subject of Neo-evangelicalism as it relates to Missions is still very much ‘current events’ and therefor involves rather subjective judgments. And yet sufficient years have elapsed since the New Evangelical phenomenon first manifested itself to begin to draw certain conclusions. Although it is a brief history, it is nonetheless a revealing one and worth pondering. Accordingly, the thought is to let history speak, to look at the subject from an historical, rather than a specifically theological, perspective. Through such an historical overview, the doctrinal issues at stake will inevitably surface and be placed in an understandable frame of reference.
The plan of procedure will be to consider Neo-evangelicalism successively as a mood, as a movement, and finally and more extensively, for such is our primary concern in this gathering, Neo-evangelicalism as a missiological influence. Hopefully in this way we will at least touch all the main bases and cross home plate with some sense of having dealt with the issue before us.
It was some years after Harold Ockenga, in a 1948 Fuller Theological Seminary convocation, first called for a ‘New Evangelicalism’ that observers of the religious scene became aware that something different was indeed afoot. When the significance began to dawn on them in the late 1950’s, they tended to regard it as an in-house affair, peculiar to the Fundamentalist/Evangelical tradition. Actually it was part of a revolutionary ferment in the larger Christian world triggered by the events surrounding World War II. In the West, the Neo-orthodoxy of the 1920’s and 30’s began to give way to a more radical
Neo-Liberalism. In the Third World, rapidly emerging from colonialism, the classical Liberal and Evangelical theologies both were challenged by various ‘ethnotheologies’ – African, Asian, and in Latin America, by a ‘Theology of Liberation.’ It was an isolated thing, therefore, when elements in Fundamentalism/Evangelicalism—the two terms had been almost interchangeable—began their move toward a Neo-evangelicalism and when a Neo-reformed emphasis started to take shape among certain heirs of Reformed orthodoxy.
Still it came as a jolt to many when in 1959 Edward J. Carnell, Ockenga’s successor as Fuller Seminary President, published a broadside against Fundamentalism. 1 Beginning with an attack on Fundamentalist separatism, as represented by J. Gresham Machen – an attack certainly viewed with favor by his denominational publisher – he went on to lash out at the anti-intellectualism of Fundamentalists. Especially did Carnell savage what he regarded as their cultural barrenness, prudish life-style, and failure to do justly and love mercy. His overall thesis was that "Fundamentalism is orthodoxy gone cultic," 2 concluding that "the fundamentalist is so intimidated by the cult that his sense of social grace has all but atrophied."3 Most significant for the future was his statement, "While we must be solicitous about doctrine, Scripture says that our primary business is love." 4
Carnell’s book, with its derisive attitude and almost bitter invective, was to reflect the feelings of an increasing number of young and not-so-young Evangelicals. Vernon Grounds, by this time President of Conservative Baptist Seminary in Denver, recognized "with a wry smile the truth in the liberal jibe, ‘Fundamentalism is too much fun, too much damn, and too little mental." 5 Not that the New Evangelicalism had as yet taken concrete form with a definite program of action. Charles Woodbridge, perhaps its earliest critic, would later write from a militant Fundamentalist stance, "The New Evangelicalism originated not as a system of carefully thought out theology but as a theological mood or attitude quite different from that of the stalwart ‘Old Evangelicals’." 6 Carnell seemed to agree when he wrote about "a radical atmospheric change within American orthodoxy." 7 At the outset, therefore, Neo-Evangelicalism was a contagious mood rather than a coherent movement.
Yet its future direction was set, and its broad outlines were fast taking shape. Instead of separating from the liberalized denominations, the New Evangelicals would seek to penetrate them and recapture them for their brand of orthodoxy. Instead of being truculent and combative, they would be tolerant and loving. Instead of living in a spiritual ‘ghetto,’ they would interact with contemporary culture. Instead of being obscurantist in matters of scholarship, they would not ‘duck’ the hard questions raised by evolutionary science and the historical criticism of the Bible. Of course, there was no thought at the start of abandoning high Scriptural ground, but it would eventually lead to the concessions which have such grave implications for the Missionary Movement today, yes, and which bear on such related matters of concern as the identifying of social concern with the Gospel. Indeed, early on, Dr. Ockenga went so far as to state: "The New Evangelicalism differs from Fundamentalism in its willingness to handle the social problems which Fundamentalism evaded. There need be no dichotomy between the personal gospel and the social gospel. The true Christian faith is a supernatural experience of salvation and a social philosophy." 8
From its first decade, therefore, Neo-evangelicalism was committed to an Aristotelian view of the wholeness of life, personal and social, mind and body. Implicit in this was a rejection of the Platonist dichotomy between body and soul, between their world and the next. Heaven and hell, the eternal consequences of faith and unbelief, would, logically, no longer be determining categories for the Neo-evangelical mind-set. Happily numbers of this persuasion have not followed out the logic of their position and have retained a keen sense of the lostness of men without Christ. Their concern for souls has been better than their underlying philosophy. However, they cannot completely escape the logical implications. They have, to a greater or lesser degree, embraced the mood, the spirit of the age. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote prophetically from prison about a different kind of world in the making, ‘a world come of age.’ Others have written about the ‘new man’ and the ‘new consciousness’ of our time. In much the same vein, Neo-Evangelicalism would offer the Christian world the ‘New Evangelical man’ who has shed the baby clothes of an immature Fundamentalism and come of age at last.
As if to confirm the fact that the stage for Neo-evangelicalism had been set in advance by other forces, there was a succession of contributing developments on the larger Fundamentalist/Evangelical scene. Notable among these was the emergence in 1949 of Billy Graham as a national figure. In short order, leading Evangelicals, some friendly to the new emphasis, were cultivating him and co-opting him for their programs. Because his own higher education was limited and because he had had some bad experiences with the Fundamentalist ‘right,’ Graham was especially susceptible to blandishments from the Evangelical ‘left.’ Gradually he became the popular symbol of the New Evangelicals, his high status with the public heightening their status as well. Moreover, his irenic disposition inclined him to adopt their more open attitude towards religious Liberals, if not toward Liberalism itself. Before long, his Crusade policies closely mirrored their rejection of separatism, their cordiality to the Conciliar churches, and their distaste for doctrinal exclusiveness. There can be no question that in its early years Neo-Evangelicalism rode the coattails of Billy Graham.
Parallel with Graham’s ‘Cooperative Evangelism’ was the impact made by a number of Neo-Evangelical journals, without which the movement’s headway would have been considerably slowed. In 1952, Donald Grey Barnhouse definitely took his influential magazine, Eternity, into the Neo-evangelical camp, and shortly thereafter Robert Walker did the same with Christian Life, later combining the Neo-Evangelical and Charismatic emphases. But it was the launching of Christianity Today in 1956, which was to have the most widespread impact for Neo-Evangelicalism as a movement. Not that it adopted the extreme position of some other publications, but in its espousal of ‘Cooperative Evangelism’ and in its seeking to reach main-line Protestants, it contributed mightily to what it called ‘Conservative Evangelicalism,’ the very expression suggesting that there is a ‘Liberal Evangelicalism’ as well.
Equally essential to the success of any religious movement in our day is its having what C.H. Spurgeon called ‘smithies’ where the Gospel ‘steeds’ are ‘shod’ and then sent out to minister. Already we have noted that the New Evangelicalism came to birth and grew to adolescence at Fuller Theological Seminary. From its beginnings in 1947, Fuller trained many able and articulate young men, not all of them committed to the Neo-evangelical approach. By the late 1950’s, however, there were rumors of a division in the Fuller faculty. With the withdrawal of a number of the original professors who were committed to the older Evangelicalism, those with the more advanced views were now free to push them to accelerate change. Meanwhile, other seminaries, Christian colleges and eventually Bible colleges came under increasing Neo-evangelical influence as older faculty members retired and younger men took their place. One should not underestimate the stress, which the New Evangelicals had from the start placed on intellectual respectability and academic attainment. Together with secular colleges and universities, Evangelical institutions were now demanding earned doctorates of their teaching staff, most of which had to be earned under Liberal auspices, usually, though not always, with some theological softening in the process.
That the winds of theological change were blowing through the halls of hitherto orthodox schools soon became evident. In 1957 Harold Ockenga had insisted that "the New Evangelicalism adheres to all the orthodox teaching of Fundamentalism." 9 Most interesting is the fact that Fuller Seminary at its inception had presented itself as the West Coast conservator of the "Princeton Theology" of the Hodges and Warfield. By 1966, however, there plainly was doctrinal drift, especially from the Hodge-Warfield view of Scriptural inerrancy. A Seminar on the Authority of the Bible convened at Wenham, Massachusettes, in June of that year, revealed a growing rift right down through the ranks of Evangelical theologians and Biblical scholars. What has since come to be known as “The Battle for the Bible” became common knowledge in 1970, when the Fuller Board and Faculty, under the leadership of David Hubbard, altered the Seminary’s Doctrinal Statement at a number of points, redefining the Scriptures as infallible in matters of faith and practice but not inerrant in matters of history and science. It was the signal that Fuller had officially embraced the historical-critical method.
Throughout the 1970’s the gulf between adherents of the older Evangelicalism and the New Evangelicals grew wider and wider. When a Fuller professor, Paul Jewett, wrote a book which, for all intents, denied the Bible’s infallibility in matters of church practice, a former Dean of the Seminary, Harold Lindsell, took it upon himself to expose the doctrinal slippage at Fuller and elsewhere in two successive volumes. Not only so, but others across the nation raised a banner with their International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. The battle was joined and continues to this day in the Evangelical Theological Society and elsewhere. In addition to the tensions in theology, Neo-evangelicalism has prompted sometimes acrimonious differences with insistent calls to ‘radical discipleship’ from such crusading publications as Sojourners and The Other Side, from such outspoken advocates as Ronald Sider and John Yoder.
It would be a mistake to toss the term ‘Neo-evangelical’ about too freely. Donald Bloesch of the Presbyterian seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, after listing churches and individuals under the Neo-Evangelical heading, rightly offers this caveat:
What is important to recognize is that every person and fellowship mentioned in this section, as in the rest of the chapter, is moving. While some may be neo-evangelical or neo-fundamentalist in this period, in another few years they may belong very properly to another category. Some neo-evangelicals are returning to fundamentalism, whereas others are breaking through to a catholic concept of the church. 10
Even so, some of the early Neo-evangelicals, alarmed at the turning the movement has taken, are today in the forefront of the flight for inerrancy. By the same token, many true Neo-evangelicals abjure the term, not wanting to be categorized and feeling perhaps that they have moved beyond it.
While watching our words, we can still speak of Neo-evangelicalism for practical purposes. There is a general movement of thought, which has permeated large segments of the old Fundamentalist/Evangelical constituency—and taken in others outside it. Bloesch, as we have indicated, does not shrink from naming names:
Churches where neo-evangelicalism has made a significant impact include the Evangelical Free Church, the General Conference Baptists, the Conservative Baptist Association of America, the Evangelical Covenant Church, the Salvation Army, the Evangelical Church of North America, the Wesleyan Church, the Church of the Nazarene, the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana), the Christian and Missionary Alliance, the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A., the Southern Baptist Convention and nearly all the Presbyterian communions. 11
If one friendly to the movement can write in such specifics, certainly others of us can, with reasonable care, do the same. Moreover, if Neo-evangelicalism is as pervasive as Bloesch suggests, we most assuredly are justified in calling attention to its inroads into Missions as conceived and practiced in this ninth decade of the 20th Century. This we shall now attempt to do.
Almost invariably associated with the ‘science of missions’ or ‘missiology,’ as understood today, is Fuller Seminary’s School of World Missions. What Gustave Warneck proposed in the last century and J. H. Bavinck outlined three and more decades ago, the leadership of the Fuller School—beginning with its founder, Donald McGavran—has brought to a high state of development. With the Seminary fathering the New Evangelicalism, one might expect the Neo-evangelical approach to influence the way in which its School of World Mission has tackled the relatively new missiological discipline. Reflecting this influence is the volume, Contemporary Theologies of Mission, 12 co-authored by McGavran and by his successor as Dean, Arthur Glasser.
Surprisingly, it is McGavran, a product of the liberal Disciples of Christ denomination, who is less sanguine about the prevailing Conciliar theology of mission. He deplores the fact that for "most of the mainline missions" the light for worldwide evangelization and church expansion has "already turned red" and that for "evangelical missions, one by one, here and there" the light is beginning to turn from green to red. 13 He regards as an 'erroneous hermeneutic' the way in which "the modern-day social context is allowed to determine the interpretation of the sacred text," 14 insisting that to call the changing of social structures ‘evangelism’ "accords neither with common sense nor with the Bible." 15 Indeed, he expresses the fond hope that his readers "will have the Great Commission in mind whenever they use the word ‘mission.’" 16
Rather is it Arthur Glasser, with personal roots in Fundamentalism, who looks more kindly upon Conciliar theology and the whole Conciliar apparatus. "The evangelical," he writes, "can easily underestimate the complexity of the task and make superficial or simplistic judgments regarding the Conciliar theology of mission." 17 As for the differences which do exist, he maintains that "the issue is not between Christians and non-Christians, for Jesus Christ is freely confessed as Lord both within and without the Conciliar movement." 18 Yes, according to Glasser, "all those who are theologizing on the Christian mission confess that Jesus is Lord." 19 Because, in the Fuller professor’s words, "the Spirit is struggling within the churches that they might more fully rise to the complex challenge of their world-wide mission," 20 "we must respond to openness with openness, seeking to be both fair and irenic." 21
Throughout Glasser never masks his personal feelings regarding those who attract or repel him. Lamenting "the polarization between ‘social gospel’ liberals and fundamentalists" between the two World Wars, he rejoices in the "reconciling presence" more recently of "the neoevangelicals with their capacity for appreciating those elements in Barthianism that represent a genuine return to Reformation theology." 22 He goes on to record, even more emphatically, his negative feelings about Fundamentalism: "The disastrous fundamentalist-modernist clash of the twenties has brought depressing consequences in its wake. The ‘separatist’ withdrawal mentality caused many Bible-believing Christians to abandon their churches, retreat from culture, and forsake the arena of intellectual encounter." 23 Not only does he pay his ‘respects’ to Fundamentalism, but, going behind it in history, he writes ‘finis’ over the simple motivation of Pietism: "Gone are the narrow presuppositions of the early Pietists whose missionary understanding had but a single focus, an overwhelming concern for the spiritual condition of the ‘heathen.’" 24 For Glasser there must now be the double-focus of Gospel proclamation and social concern. Nor, going back behind Pietism, are the creeds of Christendom entirely safe from Glasser’s strictures: "Few evangelical theologians ….. appear to have sensed how hopelessly inadequate, from a missionary point of view, are the historic creeds whose exposition and defense have always been an evangelical priority." 25
How are we to explain this pilgrimage of Arthur Glasser from Fundamentalism which climaxed in his drafting an "Open Letter"” at the 1983 World Council Assembly in Vancouver urging Evangelicals to throw in their lot with the Conciliar movement? Once again he is quite open in revealing some of the contributing factors. He writes of Conciliar missiology, "Evangelicals have derived much benefit from pondering the new literature on the subject." 26 Not only has Glasser read widely -- one might say ‘unwisely and too well’ -- but he has also sought and been sought by Conciliar types with whom he has engaged in continuing dialogue. In an almost artless biographical manner he tells of repeated encounters during the 1960’s and 70’s which broke down suspicions, his and others, and led to mutual appreciation and recognition. At the same time, he notes his impatience with the older leadership of the Interdenominational Foreign Mission Association (I.F.M.A.) which was resistant to the changes he desired and his corresponding admiration for forward-looking Evangelicals who had broken with Fundamentalist stereotypes. 27?
Lest any feel that the discussion thus far has been a bit too personal and pointed, let it be remembered that Arthur Glasser has been taken at his word. There can be no gainsaying his missionary earnestness and love for Christ, but there must be some questioning of his conclusions and the route, which he has arrived at them. Moreover, some understanding of the subjective appeal of Neo-evangelicalism is basic to recognizing the rationale behind its objective positions as they have been worked out over the years. When was it that the Neo-evangelical viewpoint began to assert itself in the area of missions? When did a convergence between a considerable part of the Evangelical missionary movement and the Conciliar theology of mission begin to take place under Neo-evangelical auspices? Glasser takes as his "starting point" the Third Assembly of the World Council at New Delhi in 1961. 28
What was there about New Delhi that was so significant for the future inter-action of the Conciliar and Evangelical outlooks on the missionary task? For one thing, the Assembly, under conservative Lutheran pressure, expanded the World Council’s Basis to include references to Holy Scripture and the Trinity. This was hailed by Evangelical observers, including Billy Graham, as a very positive sign and most promising for Evangelical/Ecumenical relations. A second action was the vote to incorporate the hitherto distinct International Missionary Council as the World Council’s Commission on World Mission and Evangelism. This, while it occasioned great concern among conservative missions people, fired the imagination of a few I.F.M.A and E.F.M.A. (Evangelical Foreign Missions Association) member societies which had been edging closer to Ecumenical involvement through contact with such I.M.C. spokesmen as John Mackay and Lesslie Newbigin. Already they had adopted some of the Ecumenical vocabulary, substituting ‘mission’ for ‘missions,’ and now the absorption of the I.M.C. indicated to them that the World Council would become a force for global evangelization.
Evidently they had not attended closely enough to the total New Delhi Report which expressed itself unabashedly in universalistic terms, maintaining that the atonement through Christ "embraces all creation and the whole of mankind" and acknowledging "the wisdom, love and power which God has given to men of other faiths and of no faith." 29 Not only was universalism to be explicit in the world Council’s new mission involvement but a new concept of evangelism as well, as set forth in these words, "The attack upon social abuses and reconciliation, as well as preaching, Christian fellowship and worship, are all bound together in the message that is proclaimed." 30 Nor were these simply words. The new Commission on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME) was soon staffed by younger men who sought to implement actively the new philosophy of ‘mission.’ By the time of the Commission’s first meeting at Mexico City in December 1963, a secular agenda was well in place, reinforced by the public commitment of other World Council commissions to a Gospel of social change and even political revolution.
Over against the new Conciliar notion of evangelism as relating to all human need and as directed at the structures of society, Evangelicals in 1966 held two noteworthy gatherings. First came a Congress on the Church’s Worldwide Mission at Wheaton, called jointly by the E.F.M.A. and I.F.M.A. Its "Wheaton Declaration," drafted in large part by Arthur Glasser, struck a sorely needed note, very different from World Council pronouncements. Yet its ‘Confession’ of Evangelical flaws and foibles suggested that a strange wind was blowing: "We have sinned grievously. We are guilty of an unscriptural isolation from the world that too often keeps us from honestly facing and copying with its concern ..…. We frequently fail to communicate the gospel in a relevant winsome fashion." 31 Interpreting the ‘Declaration’ for an Ecumenical readership, Horace Fenton of the Latin America Mission wrote: "It was significant that the element of contrition was more in evidence at Wheaton than in some of our earlier, smaller gatherings. The fact that the Declaration began with a confession ... was cause for thanksgiving." 32
The second major Evangelical event of 1966 was the World Congress of Evangelism at Berlin in the fall of the year. Largely funded by the Billy Graham organization and officially sponsored by Christianity Today, its theme of "One Race, One Gospel, One Task" stressed the unity of mankind in need of Christ’s salvation, the uniqueness of the Biblical Gospel, and the proclamation of that Gospel to all men. As at Wheaton, this was a far cry from the this-worldly message, which had that very summer come out of the World Council’s Conference on Church and Society at Geneva. It could be said that the Congress fairly reflected the ministry and concerns of Billy Graham, although Frances Schaeffer warned against the non-evangelical sponsorship of many Graham crusades. Especially commendable was the financial provision, which enabled many Third World evangelists to attend. In short, the Berlin Congress represented ‘Conservative Evangelicalism’ come to influence and affluence since World War II. It sought to maintain a centrist position between Conciliarism and Fundamentalism. But could its sponsors and speakers continue to hold middle ground?
There were telltale signs that its chosen ground was already being eroded. The verbal substitution of ‘mission’ for ‘missions’ was generally accepted. Strong pleas were entered by Paul Rees and John Stott for more evidence of social concern. There was an emphasis on ‘Evangelical pluralism’ which might one-day be extended to include non-evangelicals as well. Quite plainly the Berlin participants were being affected by developments in the Conciliar camp. Some degree of cross-fertilization was taking place, and not even the radical extremism of subsequent World Council meetings -- Uppsala 1968 and Bangkok 1973 -- could altogether put a halt to the transmitting of Conciliar signals in an Evangelical direction.
At the Uppsala Assembly there was a dramatic intensification of the Conciliar drive to view salvation in this-worldly terms. The basic question raised, as whether the Gospel was one of personal conversion or social responsibility, with the answer a foregone conclusion. True, some proposed a synthesis of personal and social emphases, but, for all intents, it was the struggle for social justice, which prevailed. ‘Mission’ was to be carried out, not with the aim of Christian conversion, but in terms of political and social activism, which might at times involve violence. All of this prompted protests from Conciliar Evangelicals in attendance. Yet it would seem the mood of the Assembly swayed them more than they the Assembly. Wrote Peter Beyerhaus:
"In Uppsala the conservative evangelicals were heavily influenced by the dynamic of the challenge presented by the social problems of the Third World. In contrast with the earlier tendency of identifying mission with proclamation, John R. W. Stott, the main speaker for the evangelicals suggested the definition: ‘Mission equals proclamation plus service.’" 33 Of John Stott’s key role in bringing about Evangelical/Conciliar convergence more can and will be said.
If Uppsala 1968, preoccupied with Third World problems, "lifted up humanization as the goal of mission," maintaining that "the fundamental question" was now that of "the true man" rather than that of "the true God" 34 as heretofore, and if it continued to redefine ‘evangelism’ as the restructuring of society that man might truly be man, then Bangkok 1973 gave this specific missiological shape. Under the theme of "Salvation Today" this meeting of the Commission of World Mission and Evangelism sought to establish social and political salvation as the mission of the Church in a revolutionary era. For World Council leader, M. M. Thomas of India, "Salvation Today" meant physical well-being, material abundance, peace in the world and justice among all peoples. Only by this road could modern man realize true selfhood and dignity. As for the Church, its function was not to propagate itself but to further the movements for societal change. Although the final Bangkok Report somewhat tempered Thomas’ sentiments, Emilio Castro, CWME’s Director eventually to become the World Council’s General Secretary, could announce: "The missionary era has ended; the era of world mission has begun."
Throughout this period Evangelicals were holding their own conferences in various world areas – at Singapore in 1968, at Minneapolis and Gogota in 1969, and at Amsterdam in 1971. In both the Singapore and Minneapolis gatherings the call for increased social involvement became more insistent, with Leighton Ford, Billy Graham’s associate and brother-in-law, leading the way. A Singapore speaker approvingly quoted a Ford article in the Ecumenical Review decrying "conservative evangelicals who tend to regard evangelism merely as an isolated, individualistic religious experience." 35 At Minneapolis Ford himself issued a call for a "revolutionary evangelism" by Christians who have "earned the right to speak" through seeking for justice in society. As for the Bogota Congress, meeting in the midst of Latin American ferment, it issued an appeal for Evangelicals to become actively involved in social concerns. At Amsterdam, too, stress was placed on the social implications of the Gospel but without de-prioritizing Gospel proclamation.
Any discussion of the Evangelical missions scene, especially as impacted by Neo-evangelicalism, must acknowledge the role of the triennial Urbana Missionary Conventions sponsored by Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. Not only have multiplied thousands of young people been motivated to become ‘world Christians,’ but Urbana speakers have, by and large, pointed the way to a broader Evangelicalism, Glasser noting that they have "contributed significantly to the development of a mood of evangelical ecumenism within the worldwide church in our day." 36 In the 1957 Convention Donald Barnhouse had rattled the rafters with his call for "One world, One Church, One Lord," with special emphasis on "One Church," but it was in 1970 that the gifted Black evangelist, Tom Skinner, electrified the students and student leaders with an address that climaxed on this note:
“You will never be radical until you become part of this new order (God’s Kingdom) and then go into a world that is enslaved, a world that is filled with hunger and poverty and racism, and all those things of the work of the devil. Proclaim liberation to the captives, preach sight to the blind, set at liberty them that are bruised, go into all the world and tell men that are bound mentally, spiritually and physically, "The Liberator has come!" 37
Certainly Skinner’s words are not to be exactly equated with the Conciliar concept of ‘liberation,’ but it would be blind folly not to recognize a certain similarity.
Returning to the Ecumenical arena, it was in 1972, just prior to Bangkok, that the World Council’s Theological Education Fund released a report entitled, Ministry in Context, which called for the replacing of the time-honored missions term ‘indigenization’ with ‘contextualization.’ According to the report, ‘contextualization’ moves beyond ‘indigenization’ in that it "takes into account the process of secularity, technology, and the struggle for human justice which characterizes the historical moment of nations in the Third World." 38 In the minds of its coiners, ‘contextualization’ relates, not only to the cultural aspects of church life and worship, but to the adapting of the Gospel to the total cultural situation. This could simply mean adapting the presentation to different cultures, or it could mean accommodating the message as well. As used by advocates of the new Conciliar theology of mission, it has seemed to provide a convenient justification for their altering the meaning of salvation, of evangelism, and of the whole ‘mission’ concept.
All these developments within and without the Ecumenical Movement were the background for the International Congress on World Evangelization at Lausanne in mid-Summer 1974. Arthur Johnston of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School sees Lausanne as a watershed in what he has denominated "The Battle for World Evangelism." Far and away the dominant human figure was John Stott who delivered the first plenary paper and was the principal drafter of the ‘Lausanne Covenant.’ In the background of all Stott’s thinking seem to have been Conciliar developments during the preceding months and years. Following up his earlier definition at Uppsala that "Mission equals Proclamation plus Service," he underscored his conviction that social service was an integral partner with evangelism in the mission of the Church. In his own words, "I now see more clearly that not only the consequences of the commission but the actual commission itself must be understood to include social as well as evangelistic responsibility." 39 Not only so, but he now saw the Great Commission as committed to the Church as a whole rather than to burdened individuals and societies. He could see no reason to resist the Conciliar formula that the "Church is Mission" and went on to describe ‘mission’ as "a comprehensive word, embracing everything which God sends his people into the world to do." 40
It was Stott who summed up Lausanne for Ecumenical readers. He reported that he saw four aspects of the Lausanne message: An uncompromising commitment to the Biblical Gospel; the centrality of the Church in the purpose of God and evangelism; the need to take culture seriously; and the recognition of a cosmic conflict. 41 He rejoiced that "the Planning Committee had the courage to invite speakers whom they knew to be controversial and made no attempt to censor them." 42 In addition, he stressed "the need for theological debate with the liberation school" and described the ‘Spirit of Lausanne’ as a "welcome humility" which permitted "the bracing winds of freedom" to blow. 43
By no means should one convey the impression that Stott spoke for all the Lausanne delegates. Several speakers, including Billy Kim and Francis Schaeffer, came down hard on the side of Biblical inerrancy and forced a strengthening of the Covenant’s statement on Scripture to read that the Bible is "without error in all that it affirms." Donald McGavran held out for the primacy of evangelism over social concern as against Stott’s stressing the equal partnership of the two. And, indeed, the Covenant was to declare that "in the Church’s ministry of sacrificial service evangelism is primary." However, it was John Stott and his friends who had seized the initiative and then maintained it throughout the Congress. Other Evangelical voices were simply reacting to them, even as they themselves were responding to Conciliar initiatives.
Eight years before at Berlin, Beverly Shea was reported to have said, "The wheat was so high, you couldn’t see the fences." A similar euphoria pervaded Lausanne, and not without some good reasons. Commenting on the Lausanne ‘Spirit,’ Byang Kato would write:
"Lausanne has been a tremendous blessing to thousands of Christians around the world. It could lead to a phenomenal revival throughout the world within this decade. But unless evangelicals are on their guard and are willing as defenders of the faith to face ridicule, the International Council on World Evangelization could become a tool for ecumenical pressures towards their unification of the world." 44
Kato then went on to suggest that much would depend on the positions taken and the policies pursued by the Continuation Committee appointed to follow up Lausanne. As it turned out, the Committee was to go through a two-year period of some inner conflict over both purpose and personnel, but in January of 1976 its direction was set when Leighton Ford was elected chairman.
There can be no question that Ford’s thinking, in social and ecclesiastical matters especially, has been greatly influenced by John Stott. Just how determining Stott’s influence has been on Ford and others is suggested by Johnston: "It took twenty-five years for the WCC to accomplish what Stott’s paper at Lausanne accomplished in the two years after Lausanne." 45 He refers to Stott’s persuading the Continuation Committee that authority for evangelism is derived from the Church, not directly through the Great Commission. Moreover, Stott was continuing in this same time frame to seek Conciliar rapprochement, telling the delegates to the World Council’s Fifth Assembly at Nairobi in 1975:
"Ecumenical leaders genuinely question whether evangelicals have a heartfelt commitment to social action. We evangelicals say we have, but I personally recognize that we have got to supply more evidence that we have. On the other hand, evangelicals question whether the WCC has a heartfelt commitment to worldwide evangelism. They say they have, but I beg this Assembly to supply more evidence that this is so." 46
Is one reading too much into these words if he draws the conclusion that John Stott would like to bring as many Evangelicals as possible into the Ecumenical orbit?
Again, the Stott influence on the Lausanne Continuation Committee has been manifest in subsequent Lausanne-sponsored consultations and conferences. He served, for example, as Chairman of the 1978 Willlowbank Consultation on "The Gospel and Culture" which fully endorsed and pushed the contextualized approach to the Gospel proclamation. Indeed, in his Foreword to the Willowbank papers he states:
"The major challenge to the world wide Christian mission today is whether we are willing to pay the cost of following in the footsteps of our incarnate Lord in order to contextualize the Gospel. Our failure of communication is a failure of contextualization." 47
To this day Stott continues to be the commanding personality among those Evangelicals who have embraced the newer approaches to ‘mission.’ After giving rather negative marks to the 1980 Lausanne Consultation at Pattaya, Thailand, the ecumenically oriented Evangelical, Waldron Scott, reported with satisfaction, "the most appreciated speaker was the ever-popular John Stott of England." 48
If this paper has focused upon the positions taken by Arthur Glasser and John Stott -- not, hopefully, upon their persons -- it is because these two men symbolize the coming together of two streams which have produced an Evangelical missiology quite different from that espoused by those who see the missionary imperative primarily, though not exclusively, in terms of heaven and hell, the saved and the lost. On the one hand, Glasser represents the American movement broadly characterized as Neo-evangelicalism. In its fevered reaction against Fundamentalism -- and even Establishment Evangelicalism -- it has rushed to embrace concepts and categories which are Biblically suspect, to identify themselves with men and movements that have to be considered sub-evangelical. On the other hand, Stott represents an Anglican Evangelicalism, which has stuck through thick and thin to an Established Church of the most diverse components. By reason of its ecclesiastical connection, it has learned to look the other way when faced with heresy and to go along with the commitment of the Church of England to the World Council. Illustrative of its compromised situation has been the two Congresses of Anglican Evangelicals at Keele in 1967 and at Nottingham in 1977. Keele was to put social action on a par with evangelism, while Nottingham, with John Stott in the chair, resolved that "evangelicals should join others" in the Establishment in working toward "full communion" with Rome.
It is the writer’s conviction that, for the cause of the Gospel as a whole, the converging of these two streams augurs nothing good. The appeal of winsome personalities such as Glasser and Stott, carries much weight with younger Evangelicals, as do their cultural grace and intellectual acumen. Moreover, the American Neo-evangelical and Anglican Evangelical, by their openness to change, have meshed with the mood of the hour. From a strictly human standpoint it would appear that they are riding the wave of the future. There is, however, another way of looking at things. A. W. Tozer gave expression to it a generation ago when asked by Philip Howard the meaning of the New Evangelicalism: "My brother, wait a few more years. The Liberals of today will soon pass into oblivion. Today’s changing Fundamentalist will soon become tomorrow’s Modernist. Then God will raise up a new generation of those true to His inerrant Word that will be valiant in flight against the enemy." 49
As for Missions in particular, it could well be, as Arthur Johnston fears, that the weaknesses of Berlin 1966, and especially of Lausanne 1974, will lead to the same sort of collapse by Evangelical Boards and Societies as that which eventually overtook the mainline Denominational Boards after Edinburgh 1910. Certainly the issues at stake are crucial. Peter Wagner aptly quotes Sherwood Wirt: "When social action is mistaken for evangelism the church has ceased to manufacture its own blood cells and is dying of leukemia. When social action becomes more important than evangelism the church has forgotten to breathe and is already dead of heart failure." 50 Such words are to be taken seriously, coming from one who in his earlier ministry knew Liberalism from the inside. Even more crucial is the matter of Biblical authority. Not only do Conciliar Liberals assert their own autonomy by making the Bible say what they want it to say, but even an acclaimed exegete like John Stott is now twisting the Scriptures to make them accord with his viewpoints. I refer to his using John’s version of the Great Commission to prove that the Commission means service, with Gospel proclamation and social action the two manifestations of that service. 51 Yet, alarming as all this may be, however damaging to Biblical missions, God once again will have the last word. "This Gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness among all nations and then shall the end come." 52
Because this Caucus is largely concerned with the Christian mission and message to the Islamic world, one or two added comments may be in order. The Conciliar theology of mission has virtually abandoned all thought of seeing resistant Muslims come to Christ, while the Neo-evangelical theology of mission, now rather distinctive by itself, seeks ways and means of making it easier for Muslims to accept the Christian Gospel. Bright and clever minds are employing cultural anthropology and contextualized theology to build bridges to the followers of Mohammed. The problem is that, because their ‘Christian-Qur’an Hermeneutic’ is first cousin to the ‘New Hermeneutic’ of the Liberal Conciliarists, they make so many concessions as to render the message they offer almost more akin to the 'Injil' of the Qur'an than to the Gospel of the New Testament. Again, we can rejoice that the Biblical approach to the Muslims, with the core of the message unadulterated, will continue to make its impact until the end of the age, Islamic opposition, Conciliar pessimism, and Neo-evangelical experimentation to the contrary notwithstanding.
Some, no doubt, would accuse the present writer of harsh strictures and too sweeping generalizations. As for the generalizations, it would seem that sufficient evidence has been brought forward to lay that charge to rest. The repeated words and actions of men are not to be shrugged off; they must be taken seriously. As for any undue harshness, that should be repented of and promptly. However, talk of ‘love’ can also serve as a smokescreen to obfuscate the real issues. This, it would seem, is what Charles Kraft was guilty of in his response to Richard Heldenbrand’s article calling into question his and others’ proposals for Muslim evangelism. Wrote Kraft, "Our differences result from my distaste for the combative approach to witness and my willingness to experiment with forms of witness that would show the kind of Christ-like love that we profess to recommend." 53 Once again love-talk would be used to cover more than a multitude of sins.
Summing up our discussion, the debate narrows down to the question as to whether eternal issues or this-worldly concerns are primary. The Neo-evangelical has ever increasingly been tending to major on the affairs of this life. How revealing is the title given to the published papers of the Willowbank Consultation, "Down to Earth!" with John Stott acknowledging that the answers given "are all basically cultural." 54 Then, too, the Neo-evangelical joins his Liberal counter-parts in rejecting any dichotomy between body and soul. One missions professor, a veteran of many conferences and consultations, has asked, "Does the bugaboo of dichotomizing, the one great, unforgivable missiological sin of the 80’s, keep us from distinguishing between the relative importance of the body and material things and the eternal value of the soul?" 55 Wherever we have turned a hard heart to man’s physical and material needs, we stand reproved by God’s Word. But wherever we have turned a blind eye to the spiritual needs of men, we stand doubly condemned. May God grant us the sight and insight of F. W. H. Myers "St. Paul"
Only like souls I see the folk thereunder,
Bound who should conquer, slaves who should be kings,
Hearing their one hope with an empty wonder,
Sadly contented with a show of things.
Then with a rush the intolerable craving
Shivers throughout me like a trumpet call:
O to save these, to perish for their saving,
Die for their life, be offered for them all!
6. Charles J. Woodbridge, The New Evangelicalism, Bob Jones University Press, 1969, p. 23
7.Edward J. Carnell, “Post-Fundamentalist Faith,” The Christian Century, August 26, 1959, p. 971.
10. Donald G. Bloesch, The Future of Evangelical Christianity, Doubleday, 1980, p. 35
12. Arthur F. Glasser and Donald A. McGavran, Contemporary Theologies of Mission, Baker, 1983
29. Cited by Arthur P. Johnston, The Battle For World Evangelism, Tyndale House, 1978, p. 144
31. The Wheaton Declaration, East Asia’s Millions, June 1966, p. 84.
32. Horace L. Fenton, Jr., “Debits and Credits: The Wheaton Congress,” International Review of Mission, October 1966, p. 478
33. Peter Beyerhaus, Missions: Which Way?, Zondervan, 1971, p. 59
34. Draft for Sections: Uppsala ’68, International Review of Mission, January 1968, p. 34.
35. Quoted by Johnston, op. cit., p. 247.
36. Glasser and McGavran, op. cit., p. 115.
37. Tom Skinner, Christ the Liberator, Inter-Varsity Press, 1971, pp. 208,9.
38. Report of the Theological Education Fund, Ministry in Context, October 1972, p. 20.
39. Quoted by Johnston, op. cit., p. 302.
40. John R. W. Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World, Inter-Varsity Press, 1975, p. 35.
41. John R. W. Stott, “The Significance of Lausanne,” International Review of Mission, July 1975, pp. 291-4.
44. Byang H. Kato, “An African Perspective,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly, October 1974, p. 311.
45. Johnston, op. cit., p. 298.
46. Response to Mortimer Arias, International Review of Mission, June 1976, p. 33.
47. John R. W. Stott and Robert Coote, Ed., Down to Earth: Studies in Christianity and Culture, Eerdmans, 1980, p. viii.
48. Waldron Scott, “The Significance of Pattaya,” Missiology, Jan. 1981, p. 60.
49. Editorial, “The Current Mood of Evangelical Christianity,” The Sunday School Times, March 12, 1960, p. 199.
50. Quoted by C. Peter Wagner, “Evangelical Missions and Revolution Today,” Missiology, January 1972, p. 98.
51. Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World, op. cit., p. 23.
53. Charles H. Kraft, “Response to Richard Heldenbrand,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly, July 1982, p. 140.
54. Stott and Coote, Down to Earth, op. cit., p. viii.
55. John A. Gration, “Key Issues in Missiology,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly, January 1984, p. 77.
This paper by the late Dr. Fredrick W. Evans, Jr., was read at a meeting of some concerned Evangelicals who met at Four Brooks Conference Center, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, between July 9 and 11, 1985. The meeting was called to discuss the spread of a new theory of missions known as Contextualization. At the end of the meeting, A STATEMENT OF MISIONARY CONCERN was adopted. Because of the brevity of the STATEMENT, Dr. Evans was asked by the signers of this document to write a fuller explanation of its purpose and interpretation of its contents.
Almost two decades have passed since the issuing of this STATEMENT, but its relevance is not diminshed. Rather than pay full attention to the Biblical givens regarding missions and specifically, the role of the Holy Spirit in conversion, certain voices are still clamoring for some type of contextualizing the Christian message in order to facilitate conversions of non-Christians.
The Statement of Missionary Concern as well as a paper by Rev. Bassam Madany “Rethinking Missions Today” are also available on this web site.
St. Augustine's Concept of the Freedom of the Will
Term Paper for Basic Christian Ethics
Calvin Theological Seminary
Academic Year: 1957-1958
Bassam M. Madany
The subject of the “Freedom of the Will” is of great interest to Christians. Their understanding of this matter colors their theology, their ethics, as well as their missionary approach. In the history of the church, the first major heresy concerning the doctrine of man – and of salvation – centered its main teachings in this field. The British Monk Pelagius propounded a theory regarding the freedom of the will which was judged as diametrically opposed to the scriptural doctrine of the “bondage” of the will. Pelagianism has persisted to exist in the Church under various names and with slight modifications. The man that led the fight against this heresy was Augustine, the bishop of the Catholic Church in Hippo, Tunisia. His interpretation of our subject has left a lasting mark on the life and faith of the Church.
At the time of the Reformation, both Luther and Calvin claimed their adherence to the substance of St. Augustine’s teachings. They were especially indebted to the North African Church father in their elaboration of the doctrines of grace and the freedom of the will. According to a present-day French authority on Calvin, the Genevan reformer quotes more in his writings from Augustine than from all the other Church fathers. Charles Hodge, the great Reformed theologian of the 19th century called his system of theology Augustinian. And so, if we are to understand our own official stand on many important subjects in theology and in ethics, we need to go back to Augustine. This is not to say that our theology or our ethics is thoroughly Augustinian, but it emphasizes our great indebtedness to, and reliance upon, St. Augustine in the elaboration of our beliefs regarding God and man.
Throughout history, three mutually exclusive theories of the freedom of the will have been held. We may call the first one “Fatalism”, the second, “Pelagianism”, and the third, “Augustinianism”. In “Fatalism” everything is predetermined and comes to pass because of a certain blind fate. Man is the unwilling slave of this cold and impersonal force. He has no choice and no freedom in deciding his actions. In some ancient heathen religions, this doctrine gave a morbid outlook on life. Man’s life was nothing but a tragedy! In Buddhism, where Pantheism is the soul of this religion and where God and man are not ultimately distinguished, no serious notice is given to the human side of our actions. Everything that exists is a part of God, and thus all actions of men are actually the direct manifestations of the activity of the God-who-is-all! Freedom of the will and human responsibility thus disappear.
In Islam, a “wholly-other” God is substituted to the heathen Fate. There is a sort of blind determinism emanating from God’s capricious will. Allah can will and does will anything. Man’s life with its minutest details has been predetermined and there is nothing that he can do except surrender to Allah. Hence the word “Islam” which is the Arabic for surrender, and “Muslim,” is the person who surrenders to God.
The Fate of Marxism is clothed with a philosophic garb known as “Dialectical Materialism”. History is conceived of as moving steadfastly towards the goal of the perfect classless society. There is nothing you can do to stop the onward march of history. You are free only if you join the progressive forces of the peoples’ movements and hasten the dawn of the Golden Age. If you remain a reactionary nothing but death awaits you!
Pelagianism does not agree at all with all sorts of fatalism. According to its founder, the will in each man is undetermined towards the bad or the good. A Roman Catholic scholar has this to say about this school of thought. “According to Pelagius the will is free, in the sense of free to choose right or wrong on any occasion, independently of what its previous acts may have been. There is no such thing as original sin, since sin is always a matter of will and never of nature: the individual will is the ultimate determinant of conduct.” Pelagius believed that Adam’s fall did not affect the integrity of the will. Man can always be good if he wants to. The reason that people rather choose evil than good, Pelagius attributed to ignorance. People simply did not know better, and so they did not behave well. Educate them, and the will would be able to choose the good. (How closely this comes to the tenets of 20th century liberalism is not hart to find!)
And so Pelagius began zealously to “educate” the citizens of Rome. He did his utmost to rid their minds of such beliefs as the depravity of fallen man and the necessity of special grace. His crusade was not left unchallenged for long. Augustine rose up in defense of the scriptural doctrines which the British monk denied. He had already dealt with the matter of the freedom of the will when he wrote De Libero Arbitrio. This book was directly aimed at the refutation of the Manichean teachings regarding the origin of evil and the nature of man. The rise of Pelagianism helped Augustine to sharpen his understanding of the biblical teaching concerning the state of man since the fall.
St. Augustine’s position differs from both the Fatalistic and Pelagian ones. Since he believes in an all-wise and holy God, he cannot accept any kind of blind determinism. He takes the fall of man seriously and realistically. He cannot agree therefore with the shallow and optimistic view of Pelagius. In order to understand Augustine’s stand, we may glance rapidly at his life and note especially those experiences which enabled him to construct a doctrine of the will which bears to this day his distinguished name.
Augustine was born in 354 in a small town in Southern Tunisia, which was at the time within the Roman Empire. His father was a heathen, but his mother Monica was a devout Christian. The predominant culture of North Africa at the time was Roman and the official language was Latin. At the age of 19, he joined the Manichean religion. This faith, which had its birth in Persia in the middle of the third century A.D., spread widely in the Near East and in Europe and North Africa. According to this system there were two principles in existence: Light and Darkness. Darkness invaded light and the first man was called into existence to repel the invasion, but he failed. Man can become free only by continence and renunciation. Augustine was a Manichean for nine years. He thought that in this faith he had finally come to solve the problem of evil. But he was never completely satisfied, as he related this later in his Confessions. He left this sect at the age of 29 and was for a while an agnostic. His search for the truth did not stop, however. As a teacher of rhetoric he came to Milan in Northern Italy where he had some pupils to tutor. He was very attracted by the eloquence of Ambrose, the bishop of that city. Finally, he was converted to catholic Christianity through the reading of the Bible, and especially of Romans.
Shortly after his conversion, St. Augustine began to write his book on The Problem of Free Choice. It is written in the form of a dialogue, and most likely it followed in substance an actual dialogue that took place between himself and his friend Euodius. The book begins with the important question, “I should like you to tell me: is God the cause of evil”? The book deals more with the problem of evil than with the problem of free choice. Augustine has a good deal to say about our subject in his Confessions, where he reviews his life up to his conversion and return to North Africa, in the form of a confession to God. Looking back at his life from its very beginning, Augustine endeavored to examine its details in the light of the Word of God. As he was always very interested in the problem of evil, and of the entrance of evil into the world, we may expect him to have a great deal to say regarding man’s will and its freedom. What he has to say on this subject does not stand in isolation from some other related doctrines. We shall look briefly at his understanding of the origin of evil, the fall of man, and the results of this fall. What a person believes in connection with these important subjects will influence his concept of the freedom of the will in a very definite way.
The Origin of Evil
In this matter, Augustine’s concept is influenced to a great extent by the philosophers. According to Father J.A. Beckaret, Augustine’s philosophy is “a synthesis of the strongest elements of Platonism, Stoicism and Neo-Platonism in a Christian perspective. We can maintain that this (synthesis) is original to such an extent and that its role is radical enough so as to constitute a specific philosophy.” Another recent writer on Augustine’s ethics, Bruno Switalski, has this to say: “Augustine learnt that evil is not an entity at all, that it is not a substance, but the privation of good, viz., a perverse turning of the will from God.”
While this explanation of the origin of evil may be termed speculative, what is of special importance to us is St. Augustine’s insistence on the role of the human will in the entrance of evil into the world. No matter how much we may differ with him on the nature and origin of evil, yet we cannot but agree with him that it was through man’s will that evil entered the life of man.
The Fall of Man
Augustine’s doctrine of the fall of man has a great deal to say about the relationship of that fall to man’s will. Etienne Gilson has this to say about this matter:
“In itself, free will would not be an evil; but it is not either an absolute good, such as temperance and justice are. It is a kind of a middle good, whose nature is good, but whose effect may be evil or good, according to the way man makes use of it.”
“And this will being changeable, since it is created out of nothing and thus imperfect in its nature, had only to choose the creature instead of the Creator, to introduce in itself and in the universe the initial disorder of sin.”
Now we come to consider specifically St. Augustine’s concept of the freedom of the will. Before the fall, man was free, i.e., he had the ability or power to sin or not to sin. This is not disputed by the Pelagians, the semi-Pelagians and the Arminians. Augustine believed also that in heaven, the redeemed are free in the sense that they cannot will to sin. What is most important to determine are Augustine’s teachings regarding man’s present state. He taught plainly that man has lost the ability to do good, he is free only to sin, but not to do good. This is very important for us to know. When in it is said, for example, that Augustine denied free will and that Pelagius affirmed it, it does not mean that the former denied the existence of one the faculties of the soul, and that the latter believed the contrary, Augustine simply meant that fallen human nature had lost the power to turn man to his creator. On the other hand, Pelagius “defined liberty to be the ability at any moment to determine oneself, either for good or evil.”
Augustine could not accept a complete separation between man’s intellect, will and emotions. These faculties are closely related to each other, so much as to render one’s actions always determined from within by those faculties. In other words, when man acts, his will is determined by self, i.e., by all the faculties of man. The will is not self-determined, it is not autonomous, but it is always related to, and motivated by, the heart of man. Man, in his present state, is fallen. His mind is in enmity to God. In the words of Paul, “The mind of the flesh is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can it be.” So that, they that are in the flesh cannot please God.” Romans 8:7, 8. Man’s emotions are contaminated by inordinate desires and lusts. His whole nature leads him away from God. Whenever he exercises his will, he is using a faculty which has also been seriously damaged by the fall. Man’s will has become a slave of his darkened mind and his depraved emotions. It still acts freely but only I the sense that it is not compelled by any force from without. It acts in complete harmony with man’s present nature. This means that man’s will is held in bondage to man’s evil heart.
Augustine relates in Book VIII of his Confessions how he admired the strength of character in Victorinus who chose to forsake his job rather than compromise during the reign of Julian the Apostate.
“He seemed to me not more resolute than blessed, in having thus found opportunity to wait on Thee only. Which thing I was sighing for, bound as I was, not with another’s irons, but by my own iron will. My will the enemy held, and thence had made a chain for me, and bound me. For of a forward will, was a lust made, and a lust served, became custom; and custom not resisted, became necessity. By which links, as it were, joined together (whence I called it a chain) a hard bondage held me enthralled.
Further on, in the same book, Augustine asks;
“Whence is this monstrousness? And to what end? Let Thy mercy gleam that I may ask, if so b the secret penalties of men, and those darkest pangs of the sons of Adam, may perhaps answer me. Whence is this monstrousness? And to what end? The mind commands the body, and it obeys instantly; the mind commands itself, and is resisted. The mind commands the hand to be moved; and such readiness is there, that command is scarce distinct from obedience. Yet the mind is mind, the hand is body. The mind commands the mind, its own self, to will, and yet it doth not. Whence this monstrousness? And to what end? It commands itself, I say, to will, and would not command, unless it willed , and what it commands is not done. But it willeth not entirely: therefore doth it not command entirely. For so far forth it commandeth, as it willeth; and, so far forth is the thing commanded, not done, as it willeth not. . . .For were the will entire, it would not even command it to be, because it would already be. It is therefore no monstrousness partly to will, partly to nil, but a disease of the mind, that it doth not wholly rise, by truth up borne, borne down by custom. And therefore are there two wills, for that one of them is not entire; and what the one lacketh, the other hath.”
This is not all that Augustine has to say about the present state of the will. He does not accept only the fall of man, but also man’s redemption. God has come to man in the person of His Son Jesus Christ. The redemption that Christ accomplished for His people on the cross is applied in their hearts by the Holy Spirit. Real changes take place within the hearts of believers. There is a new birth, a new creation, a new life. This new state of grace must have something to say about the freedom of the will. Gilson explains Augustine’s concept of the relation of grace to the free will of man in the following manner:
“In order to restore this order (which was destroyed by man’s fall) we need therefore a new creation. And the recreator cannot but be the Creator Himself. One can always fall by himself, but one cannot always rise up by himself, and one can never rise up when his fall is infinite, unless God Himself lends His hand and puts us back on our feet. This is exactly what He does when He gives us His grace . . . Far from abolishing man’s will, it is re-made into a good will, it is liberated.”
Thus Augustine views our subject in a scriptural perspective. The Christian Gospel offers hope to man: freedom from bondage to sin and liberty from the curse of the law. By re-fashioning or rather by re-creating man’s heart, God makes man truly free. There is a genuine conversion or “change of mind”, the emotions are purified, and thus the will is again free to worship and serve the Creator. St. Augustine’s contribution in this field though not perfect and final in itself, has still the freshness and the life that only Biblical doctrines have. His insistence on the incapacity of the will is fallen man to change itself is aimed at eradicating all hope that is man-centered. But there is hope with Augustine, and this hope is found only in God. What is impossible for man to accomplish is possible for God. These words taken from the beginning of Book 9 of his Confessions, illustrate very well the true freedom of the will is the life of the redeemed:
“O Lord, I am thy servant, and the son of Thy handmaid: Thou hast broken my bonds in sunder. I will offer to Thee the sacrifice of praise. Let my hart and my tongue praise Thee; yea, let all my bones say, O Lord, who is like unto Thee? Let them say, and answer Thou me, and say unto my soul, I am thy salvation. Who am I, and what am I? What evil have not been either my deeds, or if not my deeds, my words, or if not my words, my will? But Thou O Lord, are good and merciful, and Thy right hand had respect unto the depth of my death, and from the bottom of my heart emptied that abyss of corruption. And this Thy whole gift was, to nil what I willed, and to will what Thou willedst. But where through all those years, and out of what low and deep recess was my free-will called forth in a moment, whereby to submit my neck to Thy easy yoke, and my shoulders to Thy light burden, O Christ Jesus, my Helper and my Redeemer?”
 Cadier, Jean, in “Calvin et St. Augustin”, pp. 1039-1056 of Etudes Augustinienne, Augustinus Magister, Paris, 1954.
 St. Augustine, The Problem of Free Choice, translated by Dom Mark Pontifex, Westminster, Maryland, 1955 taken from “Introduction” by translator.
 Beckaret, J.-A. «Bases philosophiques de l’ascèse augustinienne, in Augustinus Magister, II, Paris 1954, pp. 703-711 ».
 Switalski, Bruno, Neo-Platonism and the Ethics of St. Augustine, N.Y., 1946, p. 72.
 Gilson, Etienne, Introduction a l’Etude de Saint Augustin, Paris, 1949, p. 189.
 Ibid., p. 191.
 Hodge, Charles, Systematic Theology
 St. Augustine, Confessions, tr. By Edward B. Pusey, New York, 1949, p. 152.
 Ibid. p. 161.
 Introduction, p. 214.
 Confessions, p. 169.
THE PROVIDENCE OF GOD ACCORDING TO CALVIN
Note: During the academic year, 1957-1958, I attended Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and pursued special studies in the area of Christian Ethics, Liturgics, History of the Christian Reformed Church, and Calvin’s Institute of the Christian Religion.
THE PROVIDENCE OF GOD ACCORDING TO CALVIN
Bassam M. Madany
A Term Paper
S U M M A R Y
A. (I.16.1-5) The Providence of God in the Universe and in Nature:
The Christian faith contemplates the works of God not only in their origin but also in the present government and upholding of this world. Events, no matter what they are, reveal the providence of God. God governs and conducts everything; every creature is submitted to Him. Thus, we receive confidence and comfort. Providence is not foreknowledge; it even presides at the contingent affairs of nature.
B. (I.16.6,7) Special Providence Regarding Creatures:
Special providence is exercised in a sovereign way in the life and condition of every creature, and directs all the particular events of each creature. God Himself directs every flesh, and all creatures, both animate and inanimate, towards the ends which He proposes.
C. (I.16.8,9) This Doctrine Has Nothing to do With “Fate”:
As the Master and Moderator of all things, God executes by His power that which He determines. Even though the order, the reason, the end and the necessity of things escape us and remain very often fortuitous for us, and that future events are uncertain for us, it is very certain that everything comes from the secret movement of God’s hand. Distinction between absolute necessity and contingent necessity.
D. (I.17.1-5) The Meaning and Extent of Providence:
Even though the reason of what comes to pass is often hid from us, the will of God is the most just cause of everything which He does, and should be to us like reason, wisdom and law. But providence does not annihilate man’s responsibility:
a) He should on the contrary take care of the conduct of his life, and use the means which God gives to him for the preservation of his life, since they are the instruments of His providence.
b) Without speculating over the hidden will of God, which he is unaware of, he should always obey the revealed will of God in the Scriptures, which he knows of. Man is therefore responsible for his evil intentions, even though God will use them to execute His judgments.
E. (I.17.6-11) The Fruits of Providence Which God Uses For the Salvation of His Own:
Without denying the value of secondary causes, the believer knows that God, the principal cause, uses His providence for his salvation, and holds in check the hearts and thoughts of men, as well as the devil. In prosperity, he renders thanks to God, and in adversity he receives a spirit of patience, repentance and pardon. He also knows how to witness in gratitude towards those whom God used to do good unto him, considering his own responsibility, contemplating in the same act the justice of God and the iniquity of man, also making use of all means as legitimate instruments of providence; also confiding in God in all circumstance, without fear and distress, since nothing, neither any person nor Satan, can hurt him without the good pleasure of God.
F. (I.17.12-14) Refutation of Objections Taken From the Scriptures:
In what sense do the Scriptures speak of the “repentance” of God and of changes in His will? The language of Scripture accommodates itself to our weakness and to our usages. The threats of God are conditional.
G. (I.18.1-4) Refutation of Three Other Objections:
1. By working through unbelievers, does not God get some of the stains of their vices? Should we not distinguish in God between willing and permitting?
The answer is given through Biblical examples which show what is the providence of God, that God works internally in the hearts of men, and inspires both affections and movements, mainly in hardening the unbelievers, even though these do not cease to be guided by their own will. The Scriptures offer us mysteries to be believed, and not problems to be solved.
2. If God decides in His counsel about things which He defends in His Law, are there not in Him two contrary wills?
The will of God is one, but it seems to us both diverse and changing, but it appears to us thus because it is inaccessible to us. It is the quality of the will which qualifies the act, and God knows how to get good out of evil.
3. If God works through evil men, they are thus unjustly condemned.
If they are condemned, it is because they never had the intention to obey God; their evil willing renders them I inexcusable. We repeat another time: it is the intention which qualifies the act. Biblical examples.
CALVIN’S DOCTRINE OF THE PROVIDENCE OF GOD
According to A. Lecerf, “the task which confronted the Reformers of the sixteenth century was twofold. They had, first, to resist the invasion of the Church by the pagan spirit; and secondly, to restore to the believer the joy of salvation by Christ”.[i] This explains why both Luther and Calvin restated with utmost clarity the Biblical doctrines of Providence and justification by faith alone. They bequeathed a rich heritage to their followers thus enabling them to go through fiery trials with the assurance of their complete security. The doctrine of the Providence of God was very real in the life of all the Protestant reformers. They believed that God not only created the world, but that He remains its absolute Master, and that He intervened in the affairs of the world at every moment.
Calvin’s interest in the doctrine of Providence can be easily assessed in the place it occupies in his commentaries sermons and the Institutes. Chapters 16-18 of Book I deal exclusively with Providence. It is also taught in his Tracts, Against the Libertines (1545) and in the Consensus Genevensis known also as the Tract on Predestination (1552).
We may divide Calvin’s treatment of this doctrine into three parts:
A. The Nature and Extent of Providence (I.16.1 – I.17.5);
B. The Fruits of the Doctrine of Providence (I.1.6-11);
C. The Refutation of Objections to the Doctrine of Providence (I.1.12 – I.18.4).
A. The Nature and Extent of Providence:
Calvin begins this part of the Institutes by saying: “It were cold and lifeless to represent God as a momentary Creator, who completed his work once for all, and then left it. Here especially, we must dissent from the profane and maintain that the presence of the divine power is conspicuous, not less in the perpetual condition of the world than in is first creation.”[ii] Thus Calvin insists that the Christian faith contemplates the works of God not only in their origin but also in the present upholding and government of the world. Events, no matter what they are, reveal the Providence of God. He governs and guides everything; every creature is under His submission. “First, then, let the reader remember that the Providence we mean is not one by which they Deity, sitting idly in heaven, looks at what is happening in the world, but one by which He, as it were, beholds the helm and overrules all events.” [iii]
Providence should not be thought of as foreknowledge or prescience. On the contrary “Providence consists in action.”[iv] The laws of nature do not function on their own, they have no separate or autonomous existence, they have their God-ordained place. He normally works through these laws, but sometimes He may suspend them or even work against them. There is but one Sovereign in the Universe: He is God the Creator and Sustainer of everything.
F. Wendell has this to say regarding the different aspects of the doctrine of Providence according to Calvin:
“In 1545, when Calvin wrote his Tract Against the Libertines, he distinguished three aspects of Providence which were not maintained with the same care in his later writings, especially in the Institutes. First, Calvin mentions the “Natural Order” according to which God directs all creatures in accordance with the conditions and properties which He Himself had impressed on His creation. To this “universal operation” Calvin opposes “special Providence” by which God operates in His creatures and causes them to serve His goodness, justice and judgment, according to whether He wishes to come to the aid of His servants, or punish the wicked, or prove the patience of His servants or chastise them in a fatherly manner. Thus, special Providence concerns man particularly, and the constant intervention of God in his life. There is no doubt that God uses second causes, Satan and the wicked included, but they are nothing but means by which He accomplishes His purposes. But even here (i.e. in special Providence) we have only the external action of God with respect to man. The third aspect of Providence consists on the other hand in that God ‘governs His faithful, living and reigning in them by His Holy spirit’ which means that it is practically identical to the internal witness of the Holy Spirit. We may rightly see God’s saving grace in this aspect of Providence. By this grace, God transforms and regenerates the elect who are made in a certain fashion the beneficiaries of a new creation. Thus placed under the mastery of the natural order, of special Providence and of the internal operation of the Holy Spirit, the believer finds himself in a complete and absolute dependence on God.” [v]
Calvin insists that they doctrine has nothing to do with “Fate”. “Those who would cast obloquy on this doctrine, calumniate it, as the dogma of the Stoics concerning fate. . . . We do not admit the term Fate, both because it is of the class which Paul teaches us to shun, as profane novelties (I. Tim.6:20), and also because it is attempted, by means of an odious term, to fix a stigma on the truth of God.”[vi] Calvin wants us to submit to the Scriptural truth that even though the order, reason, and necessity of things may escape us and remain very often fortuitous for us, and that future events are for us uncertain, yet we should be convinced that everything comes to us from the hand of God.
Providence does not annihilate man’s responsibility. On the contrary, it establishes it as an integral part of the created order of things. Calvin had to fight on two fronts in order to safeguard the biblical doctrine of Providence. It was not only the mechanistic determinism of the Stoics that he had to contend with, but there was also another danger and a more subtle foe. “Irreconcilable also with this doctrine is the Pantheism of the ‘Libertines’ who taught that there was only one cause, i.e. God, the first cause, translating His will in the individual wills of men, these wills not being at all causes but merely effects.”[vii]
Calvin’s originality in this matter centered in this fact: by God’s creation, conservation and government, He “constituted real creatures which are irreducible to Himself. Among these spontaneous causes, there are some which are moral (i.e. capable of determining themselves in their choices by virtue of a judgment of value) and whose actions bring into being the moral value and the condition of each personality.” [viii]
Calvin’s doctrine of Providence yields therefore two important principles: 1) Man should take care of his life and use all the means which God gives him for the preservation of his life. These means are the very instruments of Divine Providence. “God has been pleased to conceal from us all future events that we may prepare for them as doubtful, and cease not to apply the provided remedies until they have either been overcome, or have proved too much for all our care. Hence, I formerly observed that the Providence of God does not interpose simply; but, by employing means assumes, as it were, a visible form.”[ix]
2. The second principle is this: Man should always obey the reveled will of God in the Scriptures rather than speculate about the hidden will of God of which he is ignorant. Man is therefore held responsible for his evil intentions—as measured by the will of God—even though God will use them to execute his judgments. “The will declared by His word is, therefore, that we must keep in view in acting. God requires of us nothing but what he enjoins. If we design anything contrary to His precept, it is not obedience but contumacy and transgression. But if He did not will it, we could not do it. I admit this. But do we act wickedly for the purpose of yielding obedience to Him? This assuredly He does not command.”[x]
Calvin knew nothing of mere theoretical or speculative doctrines. He was eminently practical. The title which he gives to Chapter 17 of Book I is quite revealing: “USE TO BE MADE OF THE DOCTRINE OF PROVIDENCE”. In the French version the title is: “WHAT IS THE AIM OF THIS DOCTRINE IN ORDER THT WE MAY PROFIT FROM IT”. This brings us to the second part of our paper:
B. The Fruits of the Doctrine of Providence:
Calvin devotes paragraphs 6-11 of Chapter 17 (Book I) to show the profit that is ours in taking to heart the doctrine of Providence. He asks us to mediate on this doctrine “that we may thence derive the best and sweetest fruit”. Without denying the value of secondary causes, the believer should realize how that God, Who is the principal cause, uses His providence for his salvation, and holds in check the hearts and thoughts of men as well as of the devil. “The Christian, then, being most fully persuaded that all things come to pass by the dispensation of God, and that nothing happens fortuitously, will always direct his eyes to Him as the principal cause of events, at the same time playing due regard to the inferior causes in their place”. [xi]
Both prosperity and adversity are in the hands of God. The believer thus learns how to show his gratitude in times of prosperity and how to manifest a spirit of patience and repentance in times of adversity. Calvin notes several well-known passages of Scripture in support of this view and makes the pertinent remark that “the chief aim of the historical books of Scripture4 is to show that the ways of His saints are so carefully guarded by the Lord, as to prevent them even from dashing their foot against a stone”.[xii]
This fact was taken to heart by all the Reformed martyrs of the 16th and 17th centuries. They applied Calvin’s teachings on Providence in all their severe trials. Their seal for the reformation of the Church was always tempered by their resignation to the will of God. One cannot but admire their heroic struggles and their readiness to die for the Christian faith. “When unjustly assailed by men, overlooking their malice (which could only aggravate our grief, and whet our mind for vengeance), let us remember to ascend to God, and learn to hold it for certain that whatever an enemy wickedly committed against us was permitted, and sent by His righteous dispensation. Paul in order to suppress our desire to retaliate injuries, wisely reminds us that we wrestle not with flesh and blood, but our spiritual enemy the devil, that we may prepare for the contest (Eph. 4:12).”[xiii]
At all times, therefore, the believer is called upon to hold fast to the Biblical doctrine of Providence so as to be delivered from all fear and anxiety. For just as the believer would shudder at the idea of living under “fate” or “chance”, so would he rejoice in the fact that “he can confidently commit himself to God.” Calvin lists a number of the hazards of life in his days—which could be augmented tremendously in our ultra-civilized age—and shows how miserable a man would feel “were he placed under the dominion of chance.”[xiv] Finally, Calvin summarizes the practical issues of this doctrine in the last paragraph of I.17.11: “In one word, not to dwell longer on this, give heed, and you will at once perceive that ignorance of Providence is the greatest of all miseries, and the knowledge of it the highest happiness.”
C. The Refutation of Objections to the Doctrine of Providence:
Calvin ends his treatment of the doctrine of Providence by facing the standard objections which were as old as the life of the Church. In the last three paragraphs of Chapter 17 (Book I) he deals with the objections which are superficially based on Scripture, whereas Chapter 18 is devoted entirely to the refutation of the objections of “natural” reason.
Among those who objected to the way Calvin elaborated his doctrine of Providence, there were some who alluded to the passages of Scripture which spoke of the “repentance” of God, e.g. Gen. 6:6, I Sam. 15:11 and Jer.18:8. These passages as well as others seem to indicate that God did not decree from eternity what He should do with men, but rather He seems to ordain day by day, even hour by hour, what He knows to be good and just according to the personal merit of each individual. But this is not actually true. God in Himself does not change, and whatever He causes to pass—which might appear as completely new, He had already ordained from eternity. “What then is meant by the term repentance? The very same that is meant by the other forms of expression, by which God is described to us humanly. Because our weakness cannot reach his height, any description which we receive of Him must be lowered to our capacity in order to be intelligible.”[xv] God accommodates His revelation to our finite nature and to our present sinful condition, and by doing so, He uses words which superficially imply “repentance” and change of mind.
Another aspect of the difficulty would disappear, if we remember that the threatening of God are conditional. They are not to be taken in an absolute fashion. Many times the very threatenings of God manifest His desire for the salvation of men. “Why did the Lord send Jonah to the Ninevites to predict the overthrow of their city? Why did He by Isaiah give Hezekiah intimation of his death? He might have destroyed both them and him without a message to announce the disaster. He had something else in view than to give them a warning of death, which might let them see it at a distance before it came. It was because He did not wish them destroyed but reformed, and thereby saved from destruction.”[xvi]
We should turn now to consider the objections which are mentioned in Chapter 18. We may formulate the first one as follows: By working through unbelievers, does not God acquire some of the stains of their vices? Should we not therefore distinguish in God between willing and permitting?
The answer is given through Biblical examples which show the nature of Providence, and how God works internally in the hearts of men, and inspires both their affections and movements, especially by hardening the unbelievers, even though they do not cease to be guided by their own will.
Calvin refers to the first chapter of Job where “we learn that Satan appears in the presence of God to receive his orders, just as do the angels who obey spontaneously. The manner and the end are different, but still the fact is that he cannot attempt anything without the will of God.”[xvii] Calvin also alludes to the crucifixion of our Lord where we see how that God “had determined what the Jews had executed.” The actions of the good as well as of the wicked are included in the Providence of God. “He not only exerts His power in the elect, who are guided by the Holy Spirit, but also forces the reprobate to do Him service.”[xviii] Calvin is aware that many would object to his explanation. Some would plead ignorance of this whole matter and say: “I think otherwise.” Others would say: “I would not have this subject touched”[xix] But we should realize that we are dealing here with one of the mysterious subjects, that of the relationship of the Infinite God and His Providence to finite creatures. Here as well as in other instances, “the Scriptures offer us mysteries to believe, and not problems to be solved.”[xx]
The second objection is: If God determines in His counsel about things we He prohibits in His Law, are there not therefore two contrary wills in God?
Calvin believes that the solution of this problem is in a sense not difficult. In fact he does not regard this objection as directed primarily against himself so much as against the Holy Spirit “Who dictated this confession that holy man Job, ‘The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away’ when after being plundered by robbers, he acknowledges that their injustice and mischief was a just chastisement from God.”[xxi] Here Calvin does not claim originality, but relies on St. Augustine’s explanation which he deems worthy to be accepted by all pious and modest men. “. . . in a manner wondrous and ineffable, that is not done without His will which is done contrary to it, because it could not be done if He did not permit; nor does He permit unwillingly but willingly; nor would He Who is good permit evil to be done, were He not omnipotent to bring good out of evil.” (Augustin. In Ps.111.2)[xxii]
According to Calvin, ultimately God has but one will. This will appears to us both diverse and changing, but this is so because its essence is inaccessible to us. As far as man is concerned, it is the quality of his will which qualifies his acts. God being omnipotent knows how to get good out of evil.
The last objection which Calvin mentions is: If God works through evil men, and thus accomplishes His purposes, are they not unjustly condemned?
Calvin points to the election of Jeroboam. In a sense it was not God’s will that the ten tribes would revolt against the royal line of David. “And yet we know it was God’s will that Jeroboam should be anointed.”[xxiii] The apparent contradiction is to be solved in this way: “The people could not revolt from the family of David without shaking off a yoke divinely imposed on them, and yet god Himself was not deprived of the power of thus punishing the ingratitude of Solomon.”[xxiv]
Thus if the wicked are condemned, it is because they never intended to obey God. Their evil willing renders them inexcusable in the sight of God. If we still fail to understand the subject we should not be too disturbed. It is taught by Scripture, and this should settle the matter for our perturbed minds. No amount of speculation will help. Therefore, here as well as in the other mysteries of our faith, we may take to heart the advice of the Genevan Reformer by which the first Book of the Institutes is ended: “Our true wisdom is to embrace with meek docility, and without reservation, whatever the Holy scriptures have delivered. Those who indulge their petulance, a petulance directed against God, are undeserving of a longer refutation.”[xxv]
[i] A. Lecerf, An Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics, Lutterworth, London, 1949, p. 13.
[ii] J. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Beveridge), I.16.1.
[iii] Ibid. I.16.4.
[iv] Ibid. I.16.4.
[v] F. Wendel, CALVIN; Sources et Evolution de sa Pensee Religieuse, Paris, 1950. Second part, 4th section on Providence”.
[vi] Institutes, I.16.8
[vii] A. Lecerf, Etudes Calvinistes, Neuchâtel, 1949, « Souveraineté divine et liberté créée » (1932).
[viii] Ibid. p. 17.
[ix] Institutes, I.17.4.
[x] Ibid., I.17.5
[xi] Ibid., I.17.6.
[xii] Ibid., I.17.6.
[xiii] Ibid., I.17.8.
[xiv] Ibid., I.17.10.
[xv] Ibid., I.17.13.
[xvi] Ibid., I.17.14.
[xvii] Ibid., I.18.1.
[xviii] Ibid., I.18.2.
[xix] Ibid., I.18.3.
[xx] J. Calvin, Institution de la Religion Chrétienne, Labor et Fides, Geneve 1955 Prefatory note by editors, p. 178.
[xxi] Institutes, I.16.3.
[xxii] Ibid., I.18.3.
[xxiii] Ibid., I.18.4.
[xxiv] Ibid., I.18.4.
[xxv] Ibid., I.18.4.