A double strand
The title of a book tells you a lot about where the author is coming from. There are two books I use in teaching evangelistic preaching which illustrate this very nicely. One is a book of essays entitled Mastering Contemporary Preaching. (Do you get the picture? Preaching is something which can be “mastered”—as an angry bull might be mastered by a matador. What does that tell you about the authors’ view of preaching? And their view of the preacher?). I use an essay by Bill Hybels out of this book, entitled “Speaking to the Secularized Mind”. The other is by William Willimon and is called The Intrusive Word. Again, the picture is clear: the world is in sin and darkness, but the Word of God intrudes from the outside: so his theological preferences are not hard to see.
These two authors illustrate quite different approaches to what it means to preach evangelistically–to preach the Gospel–and they will provide us a door into a bigger topic which has implications not only for how we preach but for how we understand church and Christian mission in general.
Let us begin by putting the two Williams into conversation.
Hybels is very keen that preachers listen to their culture in order to “connect” with secular hearers. He says, for example:
As we learn the way non-Christians think . . . we can speak the words of Christ in a way they’ll hear.”
The emphasis is on shaping the message in such a way that outsiders can hear and understand. It would seem to be a straightforward and commendable suggestion.
Willimon, however, is convinced that this is completely the wrong approach, and understands this idea of “hearing” of the Gospel as problematic:
People bring many things with them in their listening to a sermon. Having been preconditioned, their ears are not in tune with the message. . . Desiring too desperately to communicate, at any cost, can lead us into apostasy. . . . Can we preachers respect the gospel enough to allow people not to understand it?
Willimon’s point is that the preacher should not, must not, try to speak in a way that the hearers can understand. That is a sure recipe for getting it wrong. As soon as I try to adapt the message to my (sinful) hearers, I am inevitably watering it down. There is nothing in their experience which will prepare them to hear and understand the message, because the Gospel is so counter-intuitive to sinful people.
For Hybels, the fact that this is a consumer culture means that we have to respond to our hearers as the consumers they are, and give them what they want. He knows that his hearers will treat their response to the Gospel as they would the purchase of a used car: that is their normal way of functioning. It may take them six months “simply to kick the tires, look at the interior, and check the title before he finally can say, ‘I’ll buy it!’” So he makes allowances for them and seeks to be relevant:
An unchurched person who does venture into a church assumes that whatever is spoken will not be relevant to his life. That’s why I select 60 to 70 percent of my illustrations from current events. I read Time, Newsweek, US News and World Report, Forbes, and usually Business Week. . . . Why? Because when I can use a contemporary illustration, I build credibility. The unchurched person says, “He’s in the same world I’m in. . . .” When I quote Augustine, he feels like I’m not playing in the same ball park.
Relevance for Willimon, however, is precisely what the preacher should not strive for. If your hearers find you relevant, then you are not preaching the Gospel. If the Gospel is preached authentically, the person outside of Christ will find it unintelligible:
We preachers so want to be heard that we are willing to make the gospel more accessible than it really is, to remove the scandal, the offense of the cross, to deceive people into thinking . . . that it is possible to hear the gospel while we are still trapped in outmoded or culturally conditioned patterns of thought and hearing.
Hybels’ attempt to establish a common footing with his hearers is misguided, because:
\”Common human experience\” doesn\’t exist, and even if it did, it should not be confused with the gospel. . . . Preaching means to engender experience we would never have had without the gospel.
585 >> 758 words
History of this conflict
This conflict is hardly a new one, however. In fact, it runs like different-coloured but intertwined strands through the whole history of Christian missions.
Let me give three more illustrations, and then suggest what lies behind the conflict, and how we might resolve it. (I will only say at this point that my conclusion is not that both are correct, tempting though that is. That would be too easy!)
1. Barth and Brunner
In 1934, Emil Brunner published a book entitled Nature and Grace. In it he argued from the existence of general revelation to the validity of natural theology. General revelation is God’s self-disclosure which is \”universally available\” and which \”it is impossible for anyone not to know\”, whether or not they have a Bible, whether or not they know about Christ. Natural theology is the deductions people then draw from that revelation, “the attempt to attain an understanding of God . . . by means of rational reflection, without appealing to special revelation.”
This has a very practical bearing on evangelism. Thus, Brunner argues, an evangelist can appeal to people to repent, because they already know from general revelation that God exists, that God is a righteous lawgiver, and that they have failed to keep that law:
Only because men [sic] somehow know the will of God are they able to sin. A being which knew nothing of the law of God would be unable to sin.
According to Brunner, there is a “connecting point” in human nature, in the mind or in the conscience, with which the Gospel will connect, and which will enable the Gospel to be understood.
Barth replied to Brunner’s thesis with what is generally considered the shortest title in theological publishing: Nein!–No! He has no patience for a discussion of general revelation and natural theology because he is convinced that \”[the] subject . . . [of natural theology] differs fundamentally from the revelation in Jesus Christ.\” Sinful human beings, because their powers of reasoning are distorted and naturally inclined against God, cannot draw accurate theological deductions from general revelation. Any theology they construct is inevitably going to be partial and misleading, even idolatrous. And in that kind of anthropocentric theology, there is no longer any Gospel, nor any need for a Gospel.
This all sounds fairly abstract: why would anybody (except theologians) get upset about such an idea? But I suspect you can already see the lines of connection. If Barth is right, then Willimon’s approach to preaching makes perfect sense. If the Gospel is the powerful word of the Creator, breaking into our sinful and helpless condition from the outside, and turning the world upside down—or, better, right side up—then it needs no help from us. If you need surgery, the doctor is unlikely to need your help or advice: the only thing you can do is submit to the anesthetic and let the doctor operate.
But if Brunner is right, that there are connecting points in a sinful world which will predispose people to understand the Gospel, then Hybels’ approach is more appropriate. On this view, preachers need to find the connecting points, otherwise their words will be wasted.
473 >> 458 words
The second example takes us back into the world of mission and evangelism, which is where this issue belongs, and where it most frequently fought over.
2. De Nobili and Tournon
In 1604, a young Jesuit, Robert De Nobili, arrived in India, and began an unusual form of missionary work. Few Indians were being converted because there had been an emphasis on the need for converts to adopt European customs and dress, and many Indians were too committed to their own culture to do so. Nobili decided to become an Indian in order to win Indians. He gave up anything that might cause offence, such as the eating of meat and the wearing of leather shoes. He adopted the saffron robe of the ascetic holy man. He impressed his hearers by his perfect command of the Tamil language, and by quoting with ease from famous Indian authors.
At the end of five years, a number of leading Brahmans were baptized. Naturally they retained their Indian customs and dress. This was not as unproblematic as it sounds, however. Some customs were on the borderline between having cultural and religious significance. More clearly a problem was the fact that Brahmans would have nothing to do with people of lower castes, and were suspicious of a religion that potentially embraced all castes, and thus implicitly threatened the existence of the caste system itself.
Pope Gregory XV pronounced himself in favour of De Nobili’s approach. A hundred years later, however, Charles Tournon, an investigator from a later Pope, saw things differently, and recommended a rejection of all cultural concessions:
[H]e issued a decree in sixteen points, wholly unfavourable to the methods and practices of Nobili and his Jesuit followers. Ceremonies which had been suppressed as offensive to Indian ideas were to be restored in detail. Caste differences were not to be observed, as they had been in the past. Practices regarded as too nearly allied to Hindu superstition were to be suppressed.
De Nobili, it seems to me, is in the tradition of Hybels and Brunner. He is willing to sacrifice everything of western origin. He finds as many points of connection as he can within Hindu culture and uses these to construct a bridge over which the Christian Gospel can travel.
Tournon, however, is an ancestor of Barth and Willimon. From his point of view, Nobili has sold out by his concessions to local culture. Hindu theology and Christian theology are of different origins, and any attempt to merge them is inevitably going to result in a watered-down Gospel. But it is not only theology: if adopting the culture means that the inequities of the caste system are to be maintained, then that is an outright denial of the Gospel which removes distinctions between “Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free.”
461 >> 440 words
3. Tertullian and Justin Martyr
A parallel tension exists in the attitude of the early church fathers. Admittedly the weight is on one side, but the other side also exists, represented most famously by Tertullian:
What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? . . . Our instruction comes from \”the porch of Solomon,\” who had himself taught that \”the Lord should be sought in simplicity [singleness, purity] of heart.\” Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel!
Athens has nothing to do with Jerusalem. Christianity has no need of help from non-Christian philosophies, whether Stoic or Platonic. The Gospel, being of God, stands on its own feet. It sits in judgement on the shortcomings of other views. I can almost hear Willimon cheering.
The opposite point-of-view is represented (among others) by Justin Martyr:
Whatever either lawgivers or philosophers [like Socrates] uttered well, they elaborated by finding and contemplating some part of the Word. But since they did not know the whole of the Word, which is Christ, they often contradicted themselves.. Christ . . . was partially known even by Socrates (for He was and is the Word who is in every man).
“Christ was partially known by Socrates” and other philosophers. True, he did not know everything: “they did not know the whole of the Word [and thus] contradicted themselves.” As Simplicianus explained to Augustine, “In the Platonists . . . God and his Word are constantly implied.” Thus the person who has read Plato will be looking in the right direction. Christianity will simply provide them the right path which they will readily embrace.
Summary so far
These two schools of thought could be characterised as those who believe there is a degree of continuity (large or small) between the Christian revelation and culture, and those who say there is some degree of discontinuity (either absolute, radical, or partial) between Christianity and culture.
In a postmodern world, we no longer have to pretend to be objective in our opinions, though we should be upfront about our biases, so at this point let me declare my interest in this topic! I confess that I have preached the Gospel under titles like The Gospel according to Calvin and Hobbes (and in this context I should clarify that, yes, I do mean the cartoon), Jesus is Alive, Elvis is Alive: What’s the Difference? What Jesus says to the Smashing Pumpkins, and the Gospel according to Jim Carrey, to name just a few. (I say “I have preached the Gospel,” but some would obviously doubt it!) In other words, my evangelistic practice is firmly on the side of continuity, so I have a strong reaction towards Willimon, but at the same time I confess that Hybels makes me nervous.
Is there a way to resolve this tension?
If it is not too presumptuous, let me begin with our doctrine of God, because all else flows from how we understand God. In every generation, the church has mined the resources of Scripture for clues and images of God to help it understand its identity and its role. The end of Christendom in the second half of the twentieth century has prompted another such theological reassessment: if the church does not exist as a chaplain to the state, if we can no longer assume that everybody in a so-called “Christian country” is in fact a follower of Jesus Christ, what then is the church to be and do? As a result, beginning with a lecture by Karl Barth in 1932, a fresh theological emphasis has emerged of God as a Missionary God, and of God’s work as the missio dei. As David Bosch puts it: “[M]ission is not primarily an activity of the church, but an attribute of God. . . . In the emerging ecclesiology, the church is seen as essentially missionary. . . . [T]he church is not the sender but the sent.”
What I want to argue is that the balance of scripture, doctrine and missionary experience are on the side of continuity, while at the same time I want to listen carefully to the cautions of the discontinuity school. To do this, I am going to draw on three sources: the writings of two missiologists, on two Christian doctrines, and finally on scripture.
So what light do missiologists have to shed on the question? I want to offer you two names:
Sanneh is an African from the Gambia who teaches at Yale. Many authors have one big idea which they then elaborate in different ways, and Sanneh’s big idea has to do with translation. Christianity, he argues, is intrinsically translatable. In this, it differs from Islam, which is diluted by the act of translation. (Sanneh speaks as a convert from Islam.) In Christianity, however, since the earliest days, the Bible and the Gospel have been translated into different cultures and languages. Far from being diluted by this process, Sanneh argues, Christianity actually gains strength from being translated. His main illustrations are from Africa, where he sees missionaries as having put power into the hands of African converts by giving them the Bible in their own language.
One implication of Sanneh’s thinking is that culture and language are God-given vehicles for the church’s mission. There is no culture-free mission and no culture-free Gospel. Although all cultures are distorted by sin, the Gospel always comes to people in the cultural forms of those who bring it, and it is always received into the cultural forms of those who hear it. There is no alternative: none of us has a place to stand that is outside all cultures. And the strange thing is that God seems to bless this arrangement, despite its limitations.
Newbigin spent half his life as a missionary in India, ultimately as a bishop with the Church of South India. He returned to the UK in the 1970’s and became a trainer of missionaries. Like Sanneh, Newbigin is in some ways in the discontinuity tradition–he is very emphatic about the uniqueness of the revelation that comes to us in Christ–but he parts company with them at a significant point, and finally argues not for “total discontinuity” but for “radical discontinuity.”
One influence on him, he says, was again the issue of translation. Many cultures have a word in their own language for the supreme being, the omnipotent creator. Should a Bible translator make use of that local word? How far does the term for God in the receiving (“receptor”) culture resemble the Bible’s understanding of God? Indeed, those on the side of discontinuity would ask how can there be any real similarity between a pre-Christian understanding of God and the unique revelation of God which comes through Jesus. Is not any image of God apart from Christ necessarily idolatrous?
What Newbigin discovered was that Bible translators around the world almost always used the local name for God. And, he notes, on the few occasions when translators did not do that:
the converts have simply explained the foreign word in the text of their bibles by using the indigenous name for God.
You can imagine the conversation: “What’s that funny word you just read?” “Theos.” “What’s that mean?” “Oh, it’s the word the missionaries like to use for God.” “Well, if that’s what they meant, why on earth didn’t they say so?”
Of course, there is a certain irony in the fact that we are even discussing the propriety of this when, as English-speaking Christians, we use the word “God,” which was itself a pre-Christian term and which those who first translated the Bible into the Germanic languages, like Luther and Wycliffe, decided was an adequate vehicle for the good news of Jesus. I am sure we would say that since then our understanding of “God” has been filled out and transformed by the understanding of God we have received from the Gospel, and that is certainly true. Nevertheless, we need to note that the pagan term “God” was the starting point.
B. Reading Christian doctrine
Each time we emphasise something different in the nature of God—whether God as Sufferer, God as Liberator, or God as Missionary–we are pressed to rethink all other doctrines in light of it. So if we think primarily of God as a missionary God, reaching out to the world with forgiveness, healing, and new life, what effect does that have on how we read other doctrines? Traditionally, the argument between continuity and discontinuity has focused on the doctrine of revelation: how is God revealed to the world? Yet I think other doctrines also shed light on the issue. Let me suggest just two:
a) Pneumatology: Where is the Spirit at work?
Barth observes: “It seems that behind [Brunner’s] re-introduction of natural theology a ‘new’ doctrine of the Holy Spirit wants only too logically to break forth.” And indeed, how we understand the doctrine of the Spirit is crucial for understanding this topic.
Willimon would say that the Spirit works through the preaching of Christ, and I would agree. Yet at the same time the Spirit is always and everywhere at work throughout the world, drawing attention to Christ and glorifying Christ, even where Christ is not yet named. The Spirit works through all of God’s revelation: through general revelation to point people towards Christ, and through Scripture and preaching to make Christ real. As John’s Gospel makes clear, the Spirit convicts people of sin, righteousness and judgement, even before they hear the Gospel. The Spirit prepares people to hear the Gospel.
b) Grace: Where does grace find us?
Grace is the coming of God to the world and to the human heart in forgiveness, renewal, and reconciliation. But how is that grace known? One crucial answer would be: through the preaching of the Gospel. But there is more. Wesley, perhaps the most theologically reflective of evangelists, coined the term “prevenient grace”. In his understanding, there is a grace that prepares a person, softens their heart, makes them aware of their need, to hear the Gospel and receive Christ.
Don Richardson, pioneer missionary in Irian Jaya in the 1960’s, puts it this way: “[T]he God who prepared the gospel for all peoples [has] also prepared all peoples for the gospel.” Thus a snide witticism like the one Charles Campbell quotes: “[do not try to] meet the listeners where they are because too often they are ‘in the wrong place’” is actually to underestimate the work of the Spirit in the world. By the providence of God, no-one is in the wrong place.
537 >> 422 words
C. Biblical roots
This is not the place for a full examination of relevant Biblical texts, of which there are many, so let me just highlight one passage with a direct bearing on these issues. It is instructive not least because it shows Paul preaching the Gospel to an audience which knows nothing of special revelation: Acts 17, the story of Paul at Athens.
In the sermon he preaches on Mars Hill, Paul draws on three “points of contact” with the pagan culture he is addressing: one, the altar to the unknown god (he assumes the legitimacy of equating this god with the God he is preaching); two, the pre-Christian beliefs of Stoics and Epicureans which he confidently weaves into his sermon; and three, the poets’ praise of the god Zeus. He seems to have no doubt that God has been at work in this pagan culture before he ever got there, preparing the people in however shadowy a way to receive the Gospel. And so he does not hesitate to make use of what he considers evidences that the Spirit of Christ has been at work preparing the Athenians to hear the Gospel of Christ.
As it happens, Willimon has written a commentary on Acts. Let me read you what he says about this chapter. He begins by expressing compassion for the Athenians and their spiritual plight :
Idolaters they may be, but at least they are searching. . . . Their religious yearning . . . is the inarticulate and uninformed yearning of the pagan for . . . God. . . . The church, rather than standing back from pagan religiosity, pointing our fingers in righteous indignation, should, like Paul at Athens, minister to their searching.
He suggests that it is important to connect with what the Athenians already know of God:
Appealing to their knowledge of creation (for he could not simply recite Scripture to pagans who were ignorant of Scripture) and to our common humanity, Paul asserts that his God \”made the world and everything in it.\”
This appears to be a different approach from that recommended in The Intrusive Word, where (for instance) rather than praising the appeal to \”our common humanity\”, we are informed that \”\'[c]ommon experience\’ [between believers and unbelievers] doesn\’t exist.\” Or again, does not the approach of Acts 17 come close to assuming the validity of natural theology? Willimon concedes that it does:
In reasoning from the natural world toward faith in God, Luke\’s Paul borders upon a \”natural theology\”–our observation of the natural world and its wonders is a forerunner of faith. . . . In citing the verses of a pagan poet (17:28), in drawing upon the pagan\’s experience of the world, Paul hopes to move them to faith by way of the natural world.
It would probably be unkind to suggest that Willimon’s emphasis on discontinuity simply becomes untenable as he tries to deal responsibly with the text of Scripture.
584 >> 491 words
To some extent, the answer to our dilemma is that both Hybels and Willimon are necessary. After all, missionaries who are in the front line of mission are in constant danger. As they strain forward to new fields of mission, and come close to a non-Christian culture, they may lose perspective, fall into syncretism, and sell out on the Gospel. Being a missionary is a risky though necessary business. They need the help, the partnership, of those who are looking in the other direction, back to the tradition. The missionary asks, Is this particular feature of the culture a God-given point of contact, or am I reading it wrongly? And a sympathetic theologian will enter into conversation, and offer a yes, no, or maybe. There is no place for the missionary to become intolerant of academic theologians; nor is there any place for theologians to scoff at the efforts of front-line missionaries. Both are legitimate ministries within the body of Christ, and in the mission of God.
But I promised I would not end simply by saying both Hybels and Willimon are right. That would be too easy. So let me modify what I have just said by suggesting that one of these two is more right than the other. Here is an image of G.K.Chesterton’s:
There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is to be more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic. . . . To have avoided . . . all [heresies] has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.
I would suggest that Chesterton’s image for orthodoxy can equally well be applied to the mission of the church as a whole—since mission is a central expression of the orthodox faith he is talking about. The missionary church is a chariot whirling through history, sometimes racing ahead, sometimes getting off track, sometimes stumbling. If it is not too whimsical, let me suggest an allegory: that the horse is the Gospel: it is after all “the power of God for salvation”, and it moves through time and space, drawing all nations into its train.
What then is Hybels? To me, he represents the missionary impulse as God’s Spirit communicates it to the church, as people make themselves available to follow the galloping of God’s Spirit. So what is his kind of ministry? Maybe we could say that his ministry (and that of other front-line missionaries) is the chariot itself, representative of the church following the lead of the Spirit.
What then is Willimon? His role seems to me to caution over-enthusiastic missionaries to remember the Gospel, to remind them that mission is God’s work not theirs, to remind them that the world is no friend to God or to the Gospel. So where does that fit in my allegory? Maybe this is the role of the reins, offering direction, keeping the chariot on track, preventing swerving to left or right. Or maybe this represents the brakes (I guess even a chariot has to have brakes), slowing the chariot down as it goes round a sharp corner, preventing disaster as it comes too close to a precipice.
Which is more important? In one way, it is a silly question, since both are needed: but surely the point of the chariot is to move forward. This is the way the horse’s energy is pulling. The church is the instrument of God’s mission in the world. I would suggest therefore that the missionary impulse (of Hybels) is the primary one, and the corrective impulse (of Willimon) a secondary one. Both are needed—but the point of the chariot is to follow the power of the horse, and to reach the promised destination.
March 22, 2005
- Bill Hybels, Stuart Briscoe and Haddon Robinson, Mastering Contemporary Preaching (Portland: Multnomah Press 1989), 31
- William H. Willimon, The Intrusive Word: Preaching To The Unbaptized (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1994), 18-19
- Hybels 36
- Willimon 19
- Willimon 23.
- Clark H. Pinnock, \”Revelation\” in New Dictionary of Theology ed. Sinclair B. Ferguson, David F. Wright and J.I.Packer (Downer\’s Grove: InterVarsity Press 1988), 585.
- Ibid. Colin Brown, \”Natural Theology,\” 452.
- Natural Theology. Comprising \”Nature and Grace\” by Professor Dr. Emil Brunner and the reply \”No!\” by Dr. Karl Barth (London: Geoffrey Bles 1946), 25
- Ibid., 7
- For Christians to affirm any truthfulness in natural theology invites “[the] assimilation of God to nature and of revelation to history, and thus the reduction of theology to anthropology.” Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth, Biblical and Evangelical Theologian (Edinburgh: T.&.T.Clark, 1990), 136.
- At one point, the disagreement is expressed in terms of a metaphor. Brunner distinguishes between natural revelation and special revelation with an image which suggests complementarity: \”from nature we know the hands and feet but not the heart of God.\” (25) While there are some things we can deduce accurately about the character of the Creator from looking at the creation, it is only from Christ that we truly know the Creator\’s heart. Barth counters with Calvin\’s version of the same image: \”Christ is the imago in which God makes manifest to us not only his heart but also his hands and feet.\” ( 74) There is no image of God outside of Christ: anything we know of God we know through Christ.
- Michael Amaladoss, “Robert de Nobili”, Biographical Dictionary of Missions, ed. Gerald H. Anderson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1999), 498-499.
- I understand the one western connection he retained was Italian wine for the Eucharist.
- Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics, translated by Peter Holmes, chapter 7.
- Justin Martyr, Second Apology, chapter 10.
- Augustine, Confessions 8:2, 159.
- Three fairly straightforward examples: after the First World War, when Romantic ideals of progress and human perfectibility had been shattered, theologians rediscovered Biblical emphases on the darkness of the human condition and the transcendence of God. Again, after the Second World War and the accompanying Holocaust, the need for a theodicy led to a fresh discovery of a theology of the suffering of God. And in the Liberation movements of the 1960’s, there was a fresh emphasis on the Biblical image of God as the great Liberator. This is not to say on the one hand that all such emphases are of equal value, nor on the other that they are only of passing cultural interest: it is merely an observation that this happens.
- David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books 1993), 389
- Ibid., 390, 372
- A friend from Brock University told me that, some years ago, there were protests from Muslim students when a new chaplain was appointed, because he was not born in an Arab country and could not speak Arabic.
- Sanneh suggests that this power directly fuelled the independence movements in Africa in the 1950’s and 1960’s, as well as the growth of the phenomenal growth of the church in Africa after the missionaries left: “[B]etween 1964 and 1984 Christian numbers increased from about 60 million to roughly 240 million.” Lamin Sanneh
- Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books 1992), 124.
- So is Sanneh on the side of continuity or of discontinuity? See what you think: “The central premise of missionary preaching is the reality of God: Creator, Sustainer, Judge and Redeemer. The specific Christian understanding of this is expressed in the understanding of Jesus Christ as the historical and personal manifestation of God’s power. [That sounds remarkably like discontinuity. But then he goes on:] When they came to Africa, missionaries began with a methodical inquiry into the nature and character of God among Africans, and before long it was obvious Africans had a deep sense of the reality of God. That resolved a fundamental dilemma for mission, for there would be no need to lay the groundwork of the concept of God. [Yet that sounds suspiciously like continuity].” Sanneh 158.
- The Finality of Christ, cited in Hunsberger 205. “[T]he Christian sees the Gospel as the end of religion. God has spoken his word in Jesus Christ and whatever echoes of that word are to be found in the religions and cultures of mankind can be heard as echoes, not as parallel and independent messages.” “Teaching Religion in a Secular Plural Society,” cited in Hunsberger 214.
- Or again: “Obviously the missionary can only begin by using words which have some meaning for his hearers. . . . He can only introduce what is new by provisionally accepting what is already there in the minds of the hearers.” There is the voice of continuity, the recognition that one has to speak in the language of the culture, and begin where people are at. Yet he goes on immediately to say: “What if the new thing is in fact the primal truth by which all else has to be confronted and questioned?
- How do you begin to explain that which in the end must be accepted as the beginning of all explanation? That is the problem of the evangelist.” Lesslie Newbigin, The Light Has Come: An Exposition of the Fourth Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 2.
- Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1995), 170, in Hunsberger 206.
- It is arguable that the pre-Christian understanding of “God” was closer to the biblical notion than that of contemporary western culture at large.
- Brunner and Barth, 94
- Cf. “[T]he Holy Spirit is universally present through the whole fabric of the world and yet uniquely present in Christ, and, by extension, in the fellowship of his disciples. . . .[T]hat same Spirit also speaks in the hearts of all men, for God has nowhere left himself without a witness that always, to a greater or lesser degree, points to Christ.” John V. Taylor, The Go-Between God (SCM 1972), 180-181. Cf. “The eternal Spirit has been at work in all ages and all cultures making men aware and evoking their response, and always the one to whom he was pointing and bearing witness was the Logos, the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world.” (191) Lest it be thought that Taylor may be opening up a distinction between the Spirit and Christ, it is important to emphasise that the Spirit at work in the world is the same Spirit of Jesus Christ who is also at work in the preaching of the cross. The danger is epitomized by a writer like Philip Rosato, who speaks so consistently of the Creator Spirit and the Redeemer Spirit that they almost become two separate entities:
“[T]he Redeemer Spirit so monopolizes Barth\’s attention that the Creator Spirit has no power to lead man to truth which is not explicitly christological. . . . Barth attributes to the Spiritus Redemptor a function which is really that of the Spiritus Creator. . . .” Rosato wants to understand the Spirit\’s work “in a way which is free from the Word and yet endowed with equal ontological validity.” Philip J. Rosato, The Spirit as Lord: the Pneumatology of Karl Barth (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1981), 149-151. Wesleyan scholar Victor Shepherd defines it thus: “Prevenient grace is the hidden work of God in the heart of every human being quietly preparing that person for the moment when the morning dawns and the truth flashes and he who has always been the light of the world is finally recognized and acknowledged to be this.” Victor Shepherd, Sermon: The Heart of the Matter, November 2001 (http://www.victorshepherd.on.ca/Sermons/theheart.htm). Cf. Prevenient grace is the hidden movement of God\’s Spirit within us moving us towards that moment when we consciously embrace the grace of the crucified and find God\’s love flooding our hearts. Victor Shepherd, Sermon: A Note on God’s Love, May 1997
- Don Richardson, Eternity in their Hearts (Ventura CA: Regal Books 1981), 33. As Clark Pinnock says, the “Spirit works everywhere in advance of the church’s mission, preparing the way for Christ.” Clark Pinnock, Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press 1996), 192.
- Charles L. Campbell, Preaching Jesus: New Directions for Homiletics in Hans Frei\’s Postliberal Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 148
- This is encouraging because his emphasis on discontinuity can come across as lacking in compassion.
- Willimon, Acts, 142-143)
- Ibid., 143. His language here seems to echo Calvin’s comments on the same verses.
- Willimon, The Intrusive Word, 23.
- Willimon, Acts, 143.
- G.K.Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908; Wheaton IL: Harold Shaw Publishers 1994), 106-107.