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Hendrik Kraemer: A Great Missions Scholar (1888-1965)

August 14, 2023
By Bassam Michael Madany

Part One

The First International Missionary Council met Edinburgh, Scotland in 1910. It marked the formal beginning of the Ecumenical movement. The Second International Missionary Council met in Jerusalem, Palestine, in 1928, and discussed a wide range of topics from industrialization to race relations.

The International Missionary Council asked Dr. Hendrik Kraemer to prepare a study guide for the meeting of the third IMC to be held at Tambaram, near Madras, India in 1938.

“At the time Hendrik Kraemer was Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Leiden, The Netherland. Born in 1888, Kraemer was raised at a Reformed Church orphanage in Amsterdam. He began a spiritual journey culminating as a missionary to Indonesia, including translating the Bible and encouraging the Indonesian churches. Back home, he survived a Nazi concentration camp during WWII, and became an internationally recognized Christian leader. He died in 1965.”

Kraemer, Hendrik (1888-1965) | History of Missiology (

The Study Guide that Dr. Kraemer wrote:

The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World.

In this article, I quote from passages of this book to show the relevance of Kraemer’s work, now that serious departures from Historic Christian Missions have taken place since the book was published eight decades ago.

“The Western Crisis is characterized by the almost complete replacement of all absolutes by relativism. Yet people starve and degenerate without ideals. So, the world ‘bristles with idealisms, noble and ridiculous, pure and demonic’ - idolatrous pseudo-absolutes (race, nation, classless society, a ‘holy’ or ‘eternal’ country; showing people cannot live on relativism alone. But when all is relative, ‘nothing is really worth-while, because it has no foundation in Eternity.’”

Kraemer described the Crisis of the Church thus:

“The tension between the Church’s essential nature and its empirical condition means the Church is always in a state of crisis. As a divine-human society it ‘is not one of the many religious and moral institutions that exist in the world.’ As an incarnated empirical human institution, it simultaneously witnesses against an evil-dominated world, while also witnessing to it being God’s creation and object of redeeming quality. The Church experiences crisis between the world and divine orders but is often unconscious of this because unless it realizes its nature and mission, behaves as if it was just a religious and moral institution.”

“The Church in its present crisis must face two main facts:

“1. Increasing secularization. The Corpus Christianum, the ‘indissoluble unity of Church, Community and State’ in Medieval Europe has been shattered, with the Church seeming irrelevant to most people.”

“2. The necessity for a fundamental re-orientation of the Church to the world. The Church must go ‘to the bottom in its criticism of and opposition to the evil of the world’ and ‘to the bottom in its identification with the sufferings and needs of the world.”

“The Church needs the Gospel realism that is deeper than the cynical and pessimistic realism of modern man, taking man and God radically and seriously. In the past a minority in the Churches have borne responsibility for the missionary task. For the Church to become a living body the majority must grasp this vision, e.g., not large individual gifts but financial contributions from the total membership are needed.”

“Kraemer contends that the Bible is the only legitimate source from which to derive our knowledge of the Christian faith in its real substance. He finds the Bible to be both radically religious and intensely ethical. Yet the ethical is subordinated to the religious because the Bible is radically theocentric. It is always the Living, eternally active God, the indubitable Reality, from whom, by whom and to whom all things are.”

Kraemer refers to the contrast between Christianity and the world’s religions.

“All philosophy, all idealistic religion, all consistent mystical religion, all moralism are man’s various attempts at self-redemption and instinctively they reject the truth that God and God alone can work redemption.

“So, while we are faced with God’s revelation in Christ, we are also confronted with the revelation of man. That is, man wants to be God, and this is supremely seen when man finds God or the Eternal Mind in himself. The Cross, while being God’s grace, simultaneously is God’s judgment since it reveals not only God’s love but also natural man’s blindness to God’s revelation and refusal ‘to recognize that the divine grace, as manifest in Christ, means the divine judgment on man’” (I Cor 2:8).

Christianity is the religion of the Incarnation.

“This stresses that an act of revelation makes the Christian faith possible; that what is revealed remains a mystery. The truly amazing thing about the Incarnation is that this doctrine of God really becoming man is proclaimed precisely by that religion which affirms an indelible distinction between God the Creator and man His creature, which all religions that assume the essential identity of God and man indignantly reject.”

Christianity means justification by faith.

“Romans 1-8 presupposes that the moral perfection of God requires the moral perfection of man. Therefore, Christ is the crisis of all religions and philosophies because they are all clumsy or magnificent evasions of the fact that it is impossible for sinful man to correspond to God in his perfection. Only God can make the impossible possible in Jesus Christ. Further, assurance of salvation can only be gained after such radical questioning and with such a radical answer.” (Rom 8:38, 39)

Christianity is the religion of reconciliation and atonement.

“Man wanted to be ‘like God’ and so his natural relation to God, his Lord and Maker, has been destroyed. By speaking of reconciliation and atonement, stress is laid on the need for God to take the initiative to restore the natural relation, on the indispensable need for forgiveness.”

The Kingdom of God.

“All problems in all spheres of life in this broken and disordered world reflect the underlying root of all evil, namely the disavowal of God’s will, the rejection of divine rule. Man cannot create the Kingdom of God, nor an ideal society. Only God can create the new order and therefore must take the initiative which he has done in Christ, by his saving Will.

The Christian faith is a new way and quality of life.

“The peculiar nature of this way of life stresses that God as Creator and as Renewer stands at the beginning of Christian faith. For a new and real relationship with God, not moralism or intellectualism, is the reality.

“Ordinary human thinking is inclined to embrace Voltaire’s blasphemy: ‘It is his job to forgive.’” But God’s love is radical: ‘His holy condemnation of sin and the sinner is a sign of His love, because disregarding the reality of sin would be indulgence, not love. Only if one takes holiness seriously, can one take sin seriously and understand that sin is, by its nature, irreparable.”

The Christian Ethic.

“As for the Christian faith so too the Christian ethic ‘is embedded in the same sphere of concrete religious realism and is radically religious and theocentric, in doing the will of God. Consequently, the Christian ethic is summed up as Augustine captured it: “Love God and do what you like!

“In both the Gospels and apostolic writings, the religious and the ethical are intertwined (e.g., Phil 2:12-13). The backbone of the Christian ethic is the inseparable connection between what God has done (the indicative) and therefore what man must do (the imperative).”

The Attitude Towards the Non-Christian Religions

“The Christian religion revolves around two poles: the knowledge of God and man. The non-Christian religions are not merely sets of speculative ideas about the eternal destiny of man. Christianity is built on the prophetic and apostolic witness to a divine order that transcends and judges the whole range of historical human life in every period. It follows that Christianity’s relation to the world is dialectical, combining a fierce “yes” and a fierce “no”, reflecting the “yes” and “no” of God who judges the world, yet simultaneously claims it for his love.”

“When we do this, we will deeply appreciate that it is offensive to speak glibly of the superiority of Christianity. While it is possible, with respect to the historical manifestation of Christianity, to point to certain traits which indicate superiority to other religions, there are other traits for which the same can be argued for non-Christian religions. What makes Christianity unique among religions is that radical self-criticism is one of its chief characteristics, since even it must bow to the sovereign Will of God.”

“Man’s condition is dialectical, of divine origin, yet corrupted by sin and rebelling against the divine will, as eloquently stated by Pascal: ‘What a chimera man is! What a novelty, what a monster, how chaotic, how full of contradictions, what a marvel! Judge of all things, a stupid earthworm, a depository of truth, a heap of uncertainty and error, the glory and refuse of the universe.’”

“The missionary and the Christian take both sides of the dialectical condition of non-Christian religions seriously because Biblical realism does so too. Inspired by this Biblical realism, the attitude towards the non-Christian religions combines down-right intrepidity and radical humility: One will often meet representatives of the non-Christian religions who justly fill one with deep reverence, because they represent in their whole life an extraordinary degree of devotion to the reality of the world of the spiritual and eternal. Nevertheless, in the light of Christ’s revelation it is a disturbing thing that such advanced spiritual personalities often do not show the least comprehension of the greatest gift of Christ – the forgiveness of sins “

Points of Contact

“A good missionary is expected to eagerly search out points of contact. Many considerations make this a legitimate and necessary quest:

“Biblical realism’s presentation of God as ‘deeply and strenuously concerned about man and the world’ is reflected in its passionate anthropomorphism and the Incarnation, showing ‘God wants, even passionately wants, contact with man, and thus through the act of His revelation shows His belief in the possibility of contact.’ It would make the Gospel void and meaningless to dismiss this, the strongest argument for the existence of the point of contact in man.”

“The factuality of point of contact is also indicated by our common humanity, a common psychological apparatus characterized by “our common capacity for religious and moral experience, effort, achievement and failure, our common aspirations, needs and dreads.”

“The problem of the point of contact is always surrounded by confusion: This has been aggravated by the Barthian ‘thunder stroke’: ‘There is no point of contact.’

“The effect of this Barthian position is to make preaching, religious education and instruction, missions, theological discussion, and instruction, all look rather absurd. While a surer grasp of points of contact does facilitate more effective mission ‘it has the same tendency as all human instruments, to induce us to entertain a delusive trust in these points of contact. The sole agent of real faith in Christ is the Holy Spirit.”

“The light of revelation in Christ exposes all religious life, whether lofty or degraded, as under divine judgment, since it is misdirected, thus turning all ‘similarities’ (points of contact) into dissimilarities. The revelation in Christ says ‘no’ to every point of contact, denying its development would lead to apprehending the revelation in Christ. But it also, dialectically, says ‘yes’, uncovering in the misdirected expressions of religious life “the groping and persistent human aspiration and need for ‘the glory of the children of God.’”

Points of contact can only be found by antithesis. Dialectically, we must discover ‘in the revealing light of Christ the fundamental misdirection that dominates all religious life and at the same time the groping for God which throbs in this misdirection, and which finds an unsuspected divine solution in Christ.

“There is only one point of contact which leads to many points of contact, namely the disposition and attitude of the missionary. As long as a man feels that he is the object of interest only for reasons of intellectual curiosity or for purposes of conversion, and not because of himself as he is in his total empirical reality, there cannot arise that humane natural contact which is the indispensable condition of all real religious meeting of man with man. Consequently, the problem of the points of contact is a problem of missionary ethics and not merely a problem of insight and knowledge.”


“Though it is a branch from the prophetic stock of Judaism and Christianity it has become, like Roman Catholicism, a syncretistic religion incorporating theocratic and legalistic Islam, mysticism and various sorts of popular religion, in which the naturalist vein of the primitive apprehension of existence shines through.”

Islam is distinguished from naturalist religions by the prophetic message proclaimed by Muhammad as the direct revelation of God and its derivation from Judaism and Christianity.”

Islam is a simple religion with a concise creed: There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His Apostle. In its constituent elements and apprehensions, Islam is a superficial religion. In keeping with the nature of Islam as a religion involving absolute surrender to God it ‘might be called a religion that has almost no questions and no answers.

Islamic revelation, wahey, is externalized and fossilized in a set of immutable divine words, the Quran. In Biblical realism, however, revelation means God is ‘constantly acting in holy sovereign freedom, conclusively embodied in the man Jesus Christ… The foundation of Islam is not; The Word became flesh. It is, The Word became book.”

“Superficiality is also expressed in Islam’s clumsy, external conception of sin and salvation. In a facile and unconvincing manner, it speaks of the tabula rasa of the human mind at birth. Obedience in surrender to the God of Omnipotence is the core of Islam. But obedience in fellowship with the God of Holy Love is the core of Biblical realism. The eventless relation between God and man in Islam, stands in sharp contrast to the eventful relation of Biblical revelation.”

“The riddle of Islam is that despite its superficiality, it grips its adherents more tightly than any other religion. Even nominal Muslims are willing to die for Islam or to kill a man deemed to be a defiler of Islam.”

“Also, the riddle of Islam is that though so superficial and unoriginal (considering its origin and material), its adherents believe it possesses absolute religious superiority. From this superiority-feeling and from the fanatical self-consciousness of Islam, is born that stubborn refusal to open the mind towards another spiritual world.”

“How might this riddle of Islam be solved? By reference to the core of Islam (the aims of Muhammad) – the strength and weakness of Islam:

“Islam is radically theocentric engendering passionate awe as reflected in the common Islamic statements Allahu Akbar (God is great) and La sharika lahu (He has no associate):’God’s unity and soleness, His austere sovereignty and towering omnipotence, are burning in white heat within Islam.”

“Muslims test against shirk, the unpardonable sin of giving God an associate (seen as polytheism). There is a process of super-heating in the religious concepts of Islam. Allah is “white-hot Majesty, white-hot Omnipotence, white-hot Uniqueness. His personality evaporates and vanishes in the burning heat of His aspects.” These depersonalized aspects – though there is a personal connotation – are the real objects of religious devotion. ‘The surrender to Allah, the fundamental attitude in Islam, has that same quality of absolute ruthlessness. The ideal believer, the abd (or servant, as Islam says) is, so to speak, personified surrender and nothing else.”

“God’s Will becomes virtually august divine arbitrariness. ‘This hyperbolic theocentricity… derives from the fact that man has no real place in the relation of God and man… Man is entirely absorbed in the greatness and majesty of God and vanishes away” God is too exalted to have fellowship with man, or to be his Father. The intrinsic unity of the religious and the ethical is destroyed by this hyperbolic theocentricity and, consequently, such problems as that of theodicy and of the cry for a God of righteousness are entirely absent.”

A note of explanation

The Internet and social media have broken down the walls surrounding Islam for the last 1400 years. This has allowed critical views of Islam to impact the young generation and for Christian Missions to propagate the Gospel on YouTube and on Satellite Television. The rich information of Kreamer’s “The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World,” provides a helpful source for young missionaries in the preparation of their messages in reaching Muslims in a relevant and timely manner.

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