Conservative Theology

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.