by Rev. Bassam M. Madany
My theological training took place during the 1950s; first at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1950-1953), and later on at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan (1957-1958). Between these two periods, I was engaged in mission work in Syria, and in church work in Manitoba, Canada.
At the RPTS, my training was in the old Princeton Seminary tradition. Emphasis was placed on the basic theological disciplines: OT & NT studies, Systematic Theology, Church History, Homiletics, and Church Government. In the area of practical theology, we covered Reformed Evangelism and a study of the major cults. I audited a course at Pittsburgh-Xenia Theological Seminary on Dispensationalism under Dr. John Gerstner.
At CTS, beside the courses that introduced me to the Christian Reformed Church, I took courses in Ethics, Biblical Theology, The Theology of John Calvin (Study of the Institutes), and missions.
I should not forget to give credit as well to the following men who contributed to my theological formation: O. T. Allis with whom I had the privilege of a very fruitful discussion on the hermeneutics of Dispensationalism; Samuel Zwemer, the great authority on Islam, and Pierre Marcel, of the Calvinist Society of France.
Looking back at the formal theological training I received during the 1950s, missiology was not present at that time as a distinct discipline alongside the basic theological courses. This does not imply that seminary education was uninterested in the cause of foreign missions. It was understood that a proper knowledge of the tenets of a non-Christian religion coupled with learning its language were absolutely necessary tools for any prospective missionary and his work.
Now, as Missiology has developed during the last quarter of the twentieth century, quite often it took a wrong turn, by de-emphasizing theology, and uncritically accepting cultural anthropology as a "guide" in the how to "do" missions. It welcomed the Contextualization Movement and its critique of the missionary policies and methods as they have been carried on since the days of William Carey. To illustrate this development in Missiology I will quote from a document that was issued by a group of concerned missionaries who met at the Four Brooks Conference Center in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, between July 9 and 11, 1985.
"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";
I have quoted at length from the statement of the concerned missionaries in order to illustrate the inroads of the Contextualization Movement on Missiology. Contrast that with the approach of the pioneer missionaries. Their starting point was a solidly Biblical and theological standpoint. This is evident from the books they produced such as Samuel Zwemer's The Moslem Christ; an excellent and lucid study in the area of Islamic Christology and its implications for missions. Another classic work was the monumental work of Prof. J. W. Sweetman: Islam and Christian Theology: A Study of the Interpretation of Theological Ideas in the Two Religions.
Another example of the extreme importance of the necessity for a theological approach in our understanding of Islam comes from the British Jewish scholar Bernard Lewis. In his book, The Muslim Discovery of Europe, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1982), he wrote:
"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 millennial adversary in the West." p. 300
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? There is hardly any aspect of Islamic life and culture which has not been impacted by the Muslim faith. It is impossible to separate Islam as culture from Islam as a religious faith. Faith and culture in Islam are the two sides of the same coin.
When we reflect theologically on our subject and ask ourselves: what are some of the basic motifs of Islam that distinguish it from the Christian faith; we may come up with several answers. But I would like to advance the thesis that a fundamental motif in Islam is a strong belief in the native goodness of man. This religion asserts that man can please the creator and construct a peaceful world order by doing the revealed will of Allah. Muslim tradition not only denies the crucifixion of the Messiah, but also the necessity of redemption.
The unwillingness of Islam 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, 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.
Taking into consideration the history and spread of Islam during the last 1400 years, and reflecting on the Biblical teachings about Christian Missions, we may see the crucial importance of examining the teachings of Paul on this subject. In this article and in a subsequent one, I hope to deal with Paul's "Theology of Missions" as we find it in two of his major epistles, Romans and I Corinthians.
From the very first chapter of Romans, we become conscious of the fact that Paul's major concern was the Gospel, and its dissemination throughout the world. The Good News deals with the plight of man and the grace of God.
The point of departure in Christian proclamation is "the plight of man." When we have adequately explained this condition that impacts the entire human race, we are ready to expound what we mean by the grace of God as His unmerited free gift that He bestows on man on the basis of the accomplished redemptive work of Jesus Christ. In missions, whether among Muslims or others, our starting point must begin with Biblical anthropology. No secular worldview should determine our missionary approach to followers of non-Christian religions.
I repeat. The starting point in our Theology of Missions must be Biblical anthropology. This was Paul's approach in his missionary work among the peoples of the Mediterranean world. In his Letter to the Romans, Paul's theme was, "I am not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile." (Romans 1:16 NIV)
Paul began in verse 18 by dealing with the wrath of God in order to explain the seriousness and consequences of the Fall. In Chapters 1, 2, and 3 up to verse 20, Paul showed that both Jews and Gentiles; Greeks and Barbarians, "have sinned and come short of the glory of God." That was not his entire burden, as he was very eager to proclaim the Good News. "But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe." (3:20, 21 NIV)
Having expounded the doctrinal foundation of Biblical Christianity in the first seven chapters of his letter, Paul summarized his message in Romans 8. However this did not mark the end of his letter to the Christians in Rome. Before he began his discussion of the ethical aspect of the faith, he dealt with the problem of the unbelief of his people and their ultimate salvation. It is very instructive to notice that Paul, while dealing with this subject, elaborated in Chapter 10, an important missionary principle.
Referring to his people Paul wrote, "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)
The apostle did 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 salvation was accomplished through keeping the law. This is similar to the Muslims' belief that Allah is pleased with them when they live in accordance with the Shari'a (Law). For according to Islam, "man's salvation happens under purely revelatory auspices." While acknowledging the truth revealed in Leviticus 18:5, Paul showed that man, since the Fall, could not achieve salvation through the law. He quoted from Deuteronomy 30, where Moses pointed to a righteousness that is granted to the repentant sinner by God's grace. The instrumentality or the means for this gift is the proclamation of 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)
We notice how Paul placed a special emphasis on the proclamation of the Gospel as a means of salvation. It is through this activity of the church that the saving Word of God comes very close to the hearers, as near to them as their own hearts and mouths are. But this saving message must be believed and confessed. Paul summarized his teaching with this important missionary principle: 'Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.' (10:17) Paul dealt here with the instrumental cause of salvation. In other words, saving faith, regardless of the cultural background of the hearer, takes place in an atmosphere where Christ is proclaimed. This is not meant to aggrandize the role of the apostle or the messenger of the gospel. The proclamation of the Gospel is the God-ordained way of missions across the ages, in all lands and among all cultures.
Paul's missiology was solidly based on his conviction that God had set him apart to proclaim the Gospel with boldness and clarity. It was not because he thought so highly of himself, but he believed in his high calling as an apostle commissioned to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. His responsibility was to deliver the message to Jews and Gentiles, to the highly-educated and to the hardly-literate. He accomplished that by preaching in Greek, and sometimes in Aramaic. He adjusted the manner of his delivery to the condition of the audience, but without diluting or compromising the message. This will become quite evident in our study of his First Letter to the Corinthians.
Sufficient to say at this point that our missiology should be solidly based on Holy Scriptures as they have been understood and confessed in the Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformation. To follow some new theories greatly influenced by secular disciplines would do great harm to the cause of Christian missions.
*Down to Earth: Studies in Christianity and Culture, edited by John R. Stott and Robert Coote, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI 1980. p.1