Conservative Theology

June 19, 2008

Missions and Evangelism / Missions and the Gospel


This is a review of the book Christianity Rediscovered by Vincent Donovan.

I first came upon a reference to Christianity Rediscovered in the book Models of Contextual Theology as a proponent of the "message model" of Christianity.  Donovan seemed to have some interesting insights into the gospel and its missionary message.  I was not disappointed!  While there were a few key points that I strongly disagree with Donovan on, all of his concepts merit discussion.

A Model for Missions

The first major concept that Donovan brings forth is a new model for missions.  Donovan showed that the social work method for evangelism - plant schools, hospitals, and missions, and you will transform people into the gospel - has failed miserably in many areas.  In addition, it is completely counter to the methodology used by the Apostle Paul when evangelizing.

Paul's method was to present the gospel, establish a Church, and then leave.  Donovan says that:

The final missionary step as regards the people of any nation or culture, and the most important lesson we will ever teach them -- is to leave.

Basically, we have a habit of, rather than evangelizing, setting up co-dependent relationships with third-world peoples.  They don't need buildings, full-time clergy, curriculum, or anything of ours - just the message of Jesus Christ.  Then they need to be expected to incorporate that into their culture and be the Church on the terms of their culture, not ours.  And then they need to repeat the process, by sending out missionaries themselves.

His method was to make missionary work a finishable activity. He was a missionary to the Masai people, who were divided up into 25 villages.  He then crafted a 5-year plan, after which the evangelization of the Masai would be finished, whether or not they accepted the gospel.

He brought nothing whatsoever for them except the Bible, God's message, and eventually a call for baptism. 

He started out with five villages.  He discussed the gospel with one of them on each day of the week for one year.  At the end of the year, he asked them if they would accept baptism at that time.  If the answer was "yes", he would baptize them, and continue with them for a short period to establish a church.  If the answer was "no", he would still count his mission complete (although unsuccessful) and move on to the next.

A book that he cited many times in his discussions is Missionary Methods: St. Paul's or Ours? which is going on my wish list :)

A Model for Cultural Interaction

Donovan also emphasizes the need for an uninterpreted gospel.  While this might, at least in theory, be unattainable, I think it is a laudable goal - even for local outreach.  Christianity has built up a great amount of baggage in terms of ritual, theology, common practice, common terminology, etc., which are not in the Bible.  These things are mostly good, but that is because they are reflective of the Biblical message in a Euro-American culture.  When the Biblical message is given to other cultures, a very different outcome might occur, and we need to be ready for that.  It is interesting that Donovan, while Catholic, adopts a lot of Protestant assumptions and methodologies for his book.  He reduces the number of sacraments down to two - baptism and the eucharist.  He removes many of the regulations and associated theologies that are common with the Catholic Church, in order to empower the Church to thrive within a new culture.  

Because the people he was connecting with were communal, he presented the gospel for them to accept or reject as a group.  This is often a difficult concept for us, being individualists, but it has support within scripture on a smaller scale (a single person can be representative of a household for which all are baptized at a time).  While I agree with his approach for the group he was evangelizing, I would be careful in generalizing it, even for communal groups.  In fact, he did not always follow that approach, either.  In one case, which seemed to follow almost exactly the pattern that Bruche Olson used for the Montilones, he evangelized a single member of the tribe, who in turn told the gospel to the rest of the tribe.

A Reason for Missions

This part of the book I both agreed and disagreed with Donovan.  First, the disagreement.  Donovan believes that God provides salvation for the nations of the earth through whatever religious system they already have set up, whether or not they are ever evangelized, and, I think, whether or not they accept Jesus when He is presented.  

The reasoning for his arguments are:

  • Salvation is (most people assume) provided for those people who were born before Jesus (including but not limited to the Jews), so why should such grace be denied because of the salvation event?
  • Most of the people he met with were already earnest in their search for God, as were those before them.  In fact, one of the reasons they latch onto Jesus is because of their desire for God.  It is strange that they would be given salvation but not their ancestors who also desired for God.
  • God has already been working within all people before missionaries ever came.

Now, before criticizing these points, I want to go into what Donovan believes the purpose of missionary work is.  In fact, it is points like those above which would discount missionary work in general to many people.  Yet Donovan has another justification other than salvation which he thinks is equally pressing.

God has given us a mission to tell the world about the gift of His son, and to unite the world in faith to that gospel.

I mean, honestly, I can't find anything wrong with that justification, except that I don't hold it to the exclusion of the cause of salvation.  Basically, the picture that Donovan is painting is that God wants the world to unite in obedience to Jesus.  Independent of whether or not acceptance of Jesus is needed for salvation, we are called to fulfill God's mission for God's glory.  I would say this might be the best defence of inclusivism (see previous post) that I have ever read.

Now, the problem with inclusivism is that it simply isn't biblical.  We touched on that in the previous post, but I should point out that judgment is just as much of the Christian message as salvation is.   It may very well be true that the Church has over-emphasized judgment in the past, but leaving it out is just as improper.  The Bible makes the reality of judgment of all people very clear throughout, as well as the means of salvation.  As we pointed out previously, God can save for any additional reason that God chooses - He is not bound at all, and in the Old Testament frequently (but not always) chose mercy over judgment, even when He Himself had pronounced the judgment.  But while that does offer some hope, the only sure path to salvation is through the Lordship of Jesus and believing that God raised Jesus from the dead.

June 06, 2008

Missions and Evangelism / Views of Salvation


At a local meeting we had a discussion on the four main views of salvation that Christians have adoped.  They are:

  • Religious pluralism - this is the view that every (or at least most) religions are a real path to God and salvation
  • Christiant inclusivism - this is the view that all salvation occurs because of Christ's saving work, but God uses all religions as a real and direct way to gain access to that saving work
  • Salvation through Christ - this is the view that all salvation requires belief in Christ as savior, except for those who have not heard the message of Jesus
  • Salvation through Christ alone - same as the above, but without the caveat about people who have not heard

Here's my take on it - the arguments of the religious pluralists and the inclusivists are usually against a straw version of the Salvation through Christ positions.  For instance, they say that it would not be reasonable to say that God simply hasn't spoken through those other religions. I agree fully.  But that's not what the Salvation through Christ options say.  Take Acts 17, for instance.  This is one of my favorite passages of scripture.  In this passage, Paul makes it known very clearly that he thinks that God has indeed been working in the religion of the Greeks.  He quoted their poets as giving truth, and gave credence to one of their altars as an altar to the true God.  Yet this is how he ended his sermon "...but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead."

Paul is clear - the Greeks did in fact have real (though incomplete) knowledge of God, but they still needed to repent!

When you realize that there is nothing contradictory between God having been active in all religions and God requiring repentance through Christ of all people everywhere, the reasons for taking on the inclusivist or pluralistic options vanish. 

So what about those who haven't heard?  My take on it is somewhat of a middle road between Salvation through Christ and Salvation through Christ alone.  

Look through the Old Testament.  The Old Testament is very clear what the rules are, and what the punishments are for not following the rules.  But what happens?  People continue to violate those rules.  The penalty for this is clear.  But what does God do?  Sometimes God punishes, but sometimes God shows His mercy.

So my point is that the path of salvation is clear - Christ alone.  However, God can choose to mercifully save anyone whom He wants.   This is not something we can count on - it's based entirely on God's choice (we often forget that God is not a candy machine - God can choose whatever God wants).  He might choose for them to be destroyed - that is the rightful fate of all of us!  By His mercy we have a path of salvation.  It is not outside of God's character that He might offer additional mercy to others.  However, unlike the "Salvation through Christ unless you haven't heard" position, God is under no obligation, and there is no system, for the salvation of those who have not heard.

What does God say about people who haven't heard, and its not their fault?  See Ezekiel 33:

When I bring the sword against a land, and the people of the land choose one of their men and make him their watchman,  and he sees the sword coming against the land and blows the trumpet to warn the people, then if anyone hears the trumpet but does not take warning and the sword comes and takes his life, his blood will be on his own head. Since he heard the sound of the trumpet but did not take warning, his blood will be on his own head. If he had taken warning, he would have saved himself. But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet to warn the people and the sword comes and takes the life of one of them, that man will be taken away because of his sin, but I will hold the watchman accountable for his blood.

Even if they are not warned by the watchmen, they are still taken away by judgment.  God might be gracious - but we have no guaranties. 

Bosch reports on a report which has a very interesting quote:

"We cannot point to any other way of salvation than Jesus Christ; at the same time we cannot set limits to the saving power of God... We appreciate this tension, and do not attempt to resolve it"

I think there are true believers of God in other religions.  Look at what God did with Cornelius (see Acts 10).  Do you think God has stopped doing that?  If so, you should take a look at what's happening in the Muslim world:

"Many people are having dreams. They see Jesus appear to them. Probably half our pastors were leaders, imams in Moslem mosques. They were leaders in these mosques, now they're pastors."

I have a friend that is familiar with some of these happenings.  It is a truly wonderful work of God!

June 01, 2008

General / The Problem of Conservative Theology


The unfortunate thing about conservative theology is that, although it may be dominant among church-goers, it has largely fallen out of favor with the academic elite.  Unfortunately for the Church, it is that academic elite which direct the Church, whether or not they are in official positions of power.

The problem, in large part, isn't that conservative theology doesn't work, or even that it doesn't work academically.  The problem is that conservative theologians are usually more interested in leading congregations than in academic work, and that all of the academy is beginning to equate "secularist" with "academic", so holding a secular perspective is actually becoming almost a prerequisite for participation, or, at the very least, one must argue from a secularist perspective when publishing in academic journals.

This leaves a dangerous void which will leave conservatives without an academic backing in not too many years.  Without being tied into academics, conservative theology runs the risk of not being able to answer the questions or problems of the world, and thus isolating it from the very people it is time to reach.  Academics is important for many reasons, but one evangelical one that people miss is that academics directs the public conversation many years in advance.  What academics are talking about today will filter down to the public over the next 10 years.  By engaging in academics, conservatives have an opportunity to actually lead the conversation, rather than simply following it, which has been our modus operandi for the last century.

This blog intends to inspire and challenge conservatives in academic thought, and also provide an academic voice for conservative principles in theology.  I hope that you enjoy it.