Pauline Missiology Part I

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, l985.

“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 l954 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 l970’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 l960s 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 l972, 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 l974 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 l978, 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 l978 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


Pauline Missiology II

Rev. Bassam M. Madany

In Part I of Pauline Missiology, I dealt with the developments in the theology of Christian Missions that took place during the second half of the Twentieth Century. I referred to the rise of the Contextualization Movement and how it became almost the sole driving force within Evangelical Missiology. My main burden was not so much to critique this new development in Missions, but by way of contrast, to set forth Paul’s teachings about the role of Gospel proclamation in the fulfillment of the Great Commission.

My alarm at the powerful new trends at work among some missionary organizations was at its peak during the 1980s. That led to convening a meeting in 1985, of colleagues involved in missions, and the issuing of a Declaration of Missionary Concern. Several papers were read at the meeting where the history of the Contextualization Movement was related, coupled with an analysis of the so-called failure of the classical Missionary Movement due to its unwillingness to contextualize the Gospel among peoples of the non-Christian world.

Since my retirement from radio missions in 1994, I continued my study of the missionary scene. I was thankful to notice that other critical voices were being raised regarding the new trends in Missiology, such as an article by a professor at an Evangelical Seminary calling for the “Re-Theologizing of Missiology.” There were indications from the mission fields telling about some ardent contextualizers who were now reconsidering their previous radical positions. So I began to entertain the hope that before too long the Contextualization Movement would alter its ways. I am sorry to say that my hopes were not fulfilled.

Early in 2005, I received two communications from missionaries laboring in Muslim-dominated areas that asked for my advice concerning the use of Arabic terms that apply to the Lord Jesus Christ. One missionary alerted me that in his field, there were some associated with an Evangelical organization attempting to spread a “Muslim-friendly version of the Arabic Bible.” In other words, the time-honored Arabic translation known as the Smith-VanDyke (1860) version was considered inadequate in a Muslim field. The protagonist for the Muslim-friendly translation wanted to alter some fundamental terms used about our Lord by substituting an Arabic word that did not convey exclusively the divinity of Jesus Christ. In my response to the missionary I wrote:

“To the best of my knowledge, when "Jehovah" appears in OT Hebrew, the LXX rendered it: Kurios and the AV: LORD. In Arabic, it was translated: Al-Rabb. [Lord]

“I am not aware of any translation used by Arabic-speaking Christians that uses:

Al-Mawla. Have you heard of the MT. SINAI ARABIC CODEX 151 version of the NT? It was published in 1985 by THE INSTITUTE FOR MIDDLE EASTERN NEW TESTAMENT STUDIES in Louvin, Belgium. This translation, which may be the oldest known Arabic version of the NT, uses “Al-Rabb” uniformly when it refers to the Lord Jesus Christ, such as in Romans 1:6, and 1:7, all the way to II Peter 3:18, and Jude 24.

“One of the most puzzling things for me is that the Contextualizers seem to be ignorant of the fact that Christianity pioneered the translation of its Sacred Text, a fact that indicates genuine contextualization. In contrast, Islam requires Arabization, so that its sacred text, the Qur’an is authentic and authoritative, only in Arabic.

“Furthermore, they seem to omit the unique role of the Holy Spirit in conversion. Great as good translations are, ultimately, it is the Holy Spirit, “the Lord and giver of life,” who brings about metanoia (conversion) in the life of the convert.”

I will now refer to another message received early last year from a missionary who thanked me for sending him the Statement of Missionary Concern,” and explained how it had helped him to grow in his appreciation of the Biblical statements about the proper conduct of missions. He had been in correspondence with me about the attempt of some missionaries who were advocating the use “Isa” the Qur’anic name for Jesus, in the translation of the Scriptures into the language of a Muslim group in West Africa. In the traditional translations of the Word of God into languages used by Muslims, the name “Yesu’a” has been used. It so happens that “Isa” is etymologically meaningless as an Arabic name; while “Yesu’a” in its Hebrew root means Savior. Here are some pertinent excerpts from his letter:

Dear Rev. Madany,

The “Statement of Missionary Concern” has certainly helped me to tease apart the humanistic trends that are entering the enterprise of missions, and has certainly called me back to a closer walk with the Lord and His word. Thank you.

I am completely rethinking the approach, as I realize that much of the felt-needs approach is very human centered and does not presuppose the absolute hostility of fallen man to the truths of the Gospel.

If nothing else, this “Isa” project has certainly made me want to bring glory to the name of Jesus and to see him honoured. I have grown increasingly appalled--spurred on also by your insights--of the uncritical and un-Biblical stance that many well-meaning Christians have taken. May God give us courage to be 21st century Reformers.

The packet with your books on The Bible and Islam has arrived and I have distributed them to our team. Also, would it be possible for us to copy them here and distribute them to other missions? (I have a very good working relationship with a number of other missions. If your book could be part of their orientation package, that would be a great asset to seeing solid Biblical thinking here in the mission community.

Once again, thank you for all of your input to date. It has been most valuable.

I come now to the main point of my article by consulting the teachings of the Apostle Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians, as to how he dealt with the communication of the Gospel in the mission fields of the Church. He delved into this subject as he corrected several doctrinal and ethical lapses that occurred among the young church in Corinth.

Paul began by calling the church of Corinth back to the fundamentals of the faith. He stated his thesis both negatively and positively. “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel -- not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” I Cor. 1:17 NIV

In elaborating this thesis in the remaining verses of chapters 1and 2, Paul emphasized the contents of the proclamation as well as the appropriate method for the delivery of the message. His agenda was the preaching of the word of the cross. Why was Paul equally concerned about the message and the method? Because he was aware of the fact that the content of the message, Jesus Christ and him crucified, required a methodology that gave all the glory to the triune God and not to man. The faith of the converts must be anchored in the power of God and not in the wisdom of man.

Paul teaches us in a passionate way the importance of guarding the integrity of the Christian faith when it is being propagated. He must have been tempted to compromise in order to make the message more acceptable to the hearers. He knew very well that the basic presuppositions of the Greeks precluded any belief in the crucial doctrine of the resurrection of Christ. Furthermore, the Jewish tradition could not tolerate any teaching about a crucified Messiah. But Paul did not compromise. This is what he wrote: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.” I Cor. 1:18 NIV

When applying these words to the Muslim world, we must realize that the message of the cross is foolishness to the followers of Muhammad. The gospel of the cross is denied both on Qur’anic and doctrinal grounds. According to Islam, Allah did not and could not have permitted the Messiah to be killed by the Jews.

At this point, we must recognize that Muslims, throughout their history, have not always been totally consistent with the teachings of their faith. The legalism of Sunni (Orthodox) Islam has pushed many Muslims to look for peace with God in the way of Sufism (mysticism). Also, suffering and redemption are not foreign to the minds of Shi’ite Muslims. We should not forget, in our missionary work, that Muslims are never sure about their standing with their Creator on the Day of Judgment. These factors must be taken into consideration when we present the gospel, and as we elaborate missionary principles for work among them. But the fundamental reason why we must proclaim without compromise the word of the cross is that God has ordained it to be the means of grace for salvation.

When we reflect on the first two chapters of I Corinthians, we notice that Paul deals with the utter failure of man to find his way in the universe by relying on his own wisdom. “For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe”

I Cor. 1:21 NIV.

The implication of this apostolic teaching is tremendous. In God's sovereign disposition, he has ordained that all humanly-originated attempts to find him must fail, and they cannot but fail since man’s heart is totally darkened by sin. The God-ordained way of salvation is through the preaching of the gospel. This great emphasis on proclamation may sound rather out of place in an age when dialogue is becoming very fashionable and when all kinds of gimmicks are being used to bring about conversions. And yet the words of Paul are very clear:

“God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.” We cannot avoid the offense of the word of the cross. The contextualization that the Muslims require in order to make our message acceptable to them is nothing less than unconditional surrender. It is rather naive on the part of so many missiologists who are flying the banner of contextualization in missions to Muslims, to imagine that the followers of Islam will settle for anything less than the Islamization of the Christian messenger! 

Paul’s concern was the necessity of being completely faithful to the received gospel. His mind was focused on the message. This does not mean that he neglected what is called today cross-cultural communication. As a native of the Mediterranean world, Paul was at home in several cultural milieus. He spoke the language of the people and gave not only the gospel message, but he gave himself with the message. He became all things to all men that he might win some. But he never compromised on the fundamentals. As he put it in the second chapter of I Corinthians:

When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony of God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.  (1,2,4,5)

The faith that Paul spoke about in these verses was not simply the orthodox or the apostolic teaching about the Messiah. It was equally that personal faith which was evoked and created by the Holy Spirit. This is why the human instrument or channel was

de-emphasized. He wanted the faith of the converts to rest not on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power. It was such an important subject for the apostle that he kept on discussing the crucial importance of a proper methodology. The unique role of the Holy Spirit must be maintained in any teaching about missions. Unless and until the Spirit of God touches the hearts of those listening to the proclamation of the gospel, the words of the missionary remain fruitless. As Paul put it:

This is what we speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in words taught us by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. (13,14)

Needless to say, the apostle ended his teaching about the importance of the message and the proper method that must deliver that message with a special emphasis on the unique role of the Holy Spirit. He alone is the author of conversion. Regardless of the cultural or ethnic background of any human being, and no matter how hard we try to bring the message to his attention, the work of the Holy Spirit remains indispensable for his or her conversion. 

It is regrettable that the advocates of Contextualization have relied greatly on cultural anthropology to the neglect of the time-honored theological disciplines. I have been astonished that some, who belonged to churches with strong Confessional Standards, accepted uncritically this novel methodology.

I would like to make one last comment with the hope that I am not misunderstood. In the episode I related earlier in this article when some missionaries were advocating the use of a so-called “Muslim-friendly” translation of the Bible, they seemed to ignore the millions of Arabic-speaking Christians who are accustomed to use a term for Lord that was in use for around one thousand years before the Smith-VanDyke version appeared in 1860.

It is as if we have never existed, or that our traditions as Eastern Christians were of no value! Furthermore, the advocates of Contextualization among Muslim peoples, seldom exhibit knowledge of Arabic similar to those pioneer missionaries such as Elie Smith, Cornelius VanDyke, James Dennis, and Samuel Zwemer.

A revival of a serious study of the basic theological disciplines: Biblical Studies, Church History, Systematic Theology, Biblical Theology, remain the sine qua non of any missiology. Above all, we should sit at the feet of the Apostle Paul, and drink deeply from his teachings about missions. There is no substitute for Pauline Missiology.

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