Glad to see John Fea stand up for evangelism (in response to the news of John Allen Chau’s death) as something distinct from social justice:

The Great Commission is one of the reasons I remain an evangelical. If you are a Christian and do not believe in evangelism, missions, or “making disciples” in the world then you need to explain to me why you take Jesus’s words seriously in some places of the Gospels (love your neighbor, caring for the poor, etc.) and not in Matthew 28:16-20. It seems to me that the Great Commission of Matthew 28 is something more than simply, “go into the world and do acts of social justice.” If this is what the Great Commission means, then I am not sure how Christianity is any different than the Peace Corps or some other non-religious agency. It seems to me that the requirement to “make disciples” and “baptize them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit” requires something more. Chau took this call seriously.

But for some proponents of social justice, John crossed a line:

In fact, John’s position is in the ballpark of the spirituality of the church since he implies that salvation is something more (and more profound) than rearranging equitably the chairs on the deck of Good Ship Society.

I sometimes wonder if John follows the news more than he should. But so far, he’s still reading the Bible along with his headlines.

Beware Medical Missions

Frederick Lugard, a British colonial administrator and Governor at distinct times of Hong Kong and Nigeria, included this estimate of medicine and preaching in his report on the “Rise of our East African Empire” (1893):

I think the most useful missions are the medical and the industrial, in the initial stages of savage development. A combination of the two is, in my opinion, an ideal mission. Such is the work of the Scotch Free Church on Lake Nyasa. The medical missionary begins work with every advantage. Throughout Africa the ideas of the cure of the body and of the soul are closely allied. The “medicine man” is credited not only with a knowledge of the simples and drugs which may avert or cure disease, but owing to the superstitions of the people, he is also supposed to have a knowledge of the charms and dawa which will invoke the aid of the Deity or appease His wrath, and of the witchcraft and magic (ulu) by which success in war, immunity from danger, or a supply of rain may be obtained. As the skill of the European in medicine asserts its superiority over the crude methods of the medicine man, so does he in proportion gain an influence in his teaching of the great truths of Christianity. He teaches the savage where knowledge and art cease, how far natural remedies produce their effects, independent of charms or supernatural agencies, and where divine power overrules all human efforts. Such demonstration from a medicine man, whose skill they cannot fail to recognize as superior to their own, has naturally more weight than any mere preaching. A mere preacher is discounted and his zeal is not understood. The medical missionary, moreover, gains an admission to the houses and homes of the 10 natives by virtue of his art which would not be so readily accorded to another. He becomes their adviser and referee, and his counsels are substituted for the magic and witchcraft which retard development.

Meredith Kline had a point.

The 2k Middle Way

This should eliminate the “R” from R2K with help from the Gospel Allies. Trevin Wax mentions three matters where New Calvinists (posing as neo-Calvinists) can learn from Anabaptists (hint, it’s not how to build a gospel barn). If Mr. Wax had spent a little more time with 2K, he might have posed these theses better.

First, “What happens in the church matters more than anything that happens in the world.

Reply: what have 2kers been saying but only to hear that Christianity must go beyond the church parking lot? And is it not a tad rich to hear about the importance of the church at a website that puts the RA in parachurch? In other words, a high church Calvinism would help Mr. Wax restore the visible church to its proper significance.

Second, “The church changes the world by being the church.”

Reply: don’t go empire building without referring to your Constantinian playbook. Heck, would the church even have a Trinitarian theology to wind up the complementarians without the emperor calling an ecumenical council? Don’t forget either that the conversion of emperors and kings gave a plausibility to Christianity that made the evangelization of medieval Europe more plausible than it would have been with Christianity as a minority and persecuted faith. Do remember as well that the number of Christians spiked in the first half of the fourth century — from 10% of the population in 300 to 50% in 350 — undoubtedly because Christian politicians made the faith respectable and even remunerative.

Meanwhile, as kind as it is to regard Anabaptists as making a difference, overlooking the enormous influence of magisterial Protestants in so many of the aspects of Christian life we take for granted is unfortunate. Whether you like Vacation Bible School, Sunday school, a Bible in every hotel room, or parachurch foreign missionary enterprises, the evangelicals who read and take heart from the Gospel Allies would have a dry and parched religious landscape if they had had to depend on Anabaptists who went before.

Third, “The church is strongest in its witness when it occupies the margins.”

Reply: another kind and generous assertion, but is anyone going to tell me that the OPC has been incredibly strong — compared to Tim Keller, the Gospel Allies, the hipper portions of the PCA, and the behemoth Southern Baptist Convention — because Orthodox Presbyterians have ministered on the margins? Please.

So before anyone tries to buy a farm next to an Amish family, take Mr. Wax’s recommendation of Anabaptism with a grain of salt. If you’re really Reformed, you can chase it with a shot of Rye.

How Are You Going to Get them to Read John Mbiti once They've Read Ben Carson?

Ever since Philip Jenkins’ (at least) The Next Christendom, people have found it fashionable to assert that the churches in the Southern Hemisphere are leaving the Christian West in the dust (of death?). The odd thing about this logic is that it missed how much Southern or Global Christianity had learned (for good or ill) from the Christian West, first through colonial churches and then through pietistically inspired non-denominational missionaries. Indeed, the West has been dominating the world for almost 500 years. Not saying that’s a great thing or a wretched development. It simply is what it is.

And now comes some evidence of the West’s dominance even in Global Christianity:

Now, a new study, polling more than 8,000 Christians in four languages across three countries, has found that African Christians aren’t reading African Christians, either.

In the Africa Leadership Study, a quarter of Central Africans, a third of Angolans, and half of Kenyans named a preacher or pastor as their favorite author. Majorities in Angola and Kenya named authors whose writings were explicitly Christian. High percentages also named African writers.

However, “overlap between the two was low, with relatively few respondents identifying favorite authors [who] were both African and Christian,” said Robert Priest, a professor of international studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, who presented the findings to the American Society of Missiology.

The lack of prominent indigenous authors was also evidenced by the library holdings of five major Christian higher education institutions in Kenya, where only one African Christian (John Mbiti) ranked among the top 15 authors with the largest presence on the shelves. Kenyan Christian bookstores had a significantly different top 15, but only one African author (Dag Heward-Mills) cracked their lists. Other commercial booksellers and street vendors didn’t have any African Christian authors among their top 15.

Turns out that once you link the world politically and economically (not to mention linguistically and educationally), the Christian voices with the loudest mouths tend to dominate. (Odd though how the bishops with global jurisdiction aren’t on those lists.)

Reasons for Conversion

In the year 300, by some estimates, Christianity had roughly 6.3 million adherents, a little over ten percent of the Roman Empire’s population. By 350 those numbers shot up to 33.8 million and over 55 percent of the empire’s inhabitants. What might explain such a dramatic rise? The conversion of the emperor to Christianity undoubtedly was a factor. And throughout the early middle ages, one of the major strategies of evangelists or missionaries is to win the monarch as the way to saving the nation.

By the twentieth century, however, reasons for conversion take a dramatically different form. Monarchs are largely ornamental. Societies become secular and pluralistic. And so another set of reasons for considering Christianity emerges. In a review by Stratford Caldecott of a book on the string of English writers who converted to Roman Catholicism over the course of the twentieth century, the author observes how that momentum decreased after Vatican 2:

. . . through the reforms and changes associated with the Second Vatican Council, the Church “began to move way from the Italianate paradigm into which the converts had been received.” In many places, the Church appeared to be seeking an accommodation with modernity that undermined the appeal of conversion. “As Roman Catholics exploited ensuing new opportunities and began to enter the post-war middle class and to assume prestigious social and political positions, their previously homogeneous subculture fragmented. With it crumbled the assumption that being a Roman Catholic automatically made one distinct from, and opposed to, dominant British principles and structures.” Not only did the flood of conversions begin to dry up (from 12,490 per year at the end of the 1950s to about 4,000 per year by the 1970s), but writers such as G. K. Chesterton and even Dr. Dawson came soon to be regarded as marginal even among Catholics—representatives of a subculture that had had its day.

Peter Berger weighs in on the subject of evangelism, in this case Rome’s “New Evangelism” and adds that in a period when religion is less important to social life, the tendency of churches will be to appeal to converts as part of their rejection of secularism:

Highly secularized Western Europe, the Italy of Communione e Liberazione and the Bavaria that was the home of Pope Benedict, Poland under a regime of militant atheism, which Pope John Paul resisted and eventually helped demolish, and Latin America, the locale of John Paul’s address, a continent where the main challenge to the Catholic Church has not come from secularization but from the explosion of Evangelical Protestantism. Despite the big differences between the three cases, what they have in common is the loss of Catholic hegemony. Curiously, conservative Catholics and Evangelical Protestants in the United States have also mobilized against “secularism”, which, in the most religious Western country, is a numerically small sectarian movement seeking to use the federal courts to banish religion from the public sphere. And of course “secularism” is blamed by religious conservatives of all sorts for the post-1960s changes in sexual behavior of which they disapprove.

Also curiously, the Russian Orthodox Church has defined itself as the defender of traditional values against the alleged degeneracy of modern morals. Not only has the Moscow Patriarchate found an ally in this campaign in the Putin administration, but has sought better relations with the Vatican on the same basis. In 2009 Patriarch Kirill of Moscow established warm relations with Benedict XVI.

But Berger thinks that pitting faith against secularism is a false dichotomy and argues for a way to evangelize that is remarkably congenial with 2k because it springs from a recognition that people don’t spend all their days thinking like they do when the assemble on the Lord’s Day:

Pluralism affects the faith of individuals, the character of religious institutions, and the way in which the state relates to religion. Therefore, the theory must span the psychological, institutional and political dimensions of the pluralist phenomenon. The individual lives with a diversity of worldviews and values, between which he must choose. Faith is no longer a matter of fate, but of decisions that may be reversed. It follows that religious certainty is hard to come by. Faith is typically tinged with doubt.

I would say that this situation realizes more fully what “faith” actually is. Preachers frequently counter-pose faith and unbelief, further suggesting that the latter is a terrible sin for which God will punish us in hell. Leave aside that this (Calvinist) God is not one I would want to worship. More relevant for the present argument is that the aforementioned counter-position is misleading: The opposite of faith is not unbelief but knowledge. I know that the skyline of the city I see from my desk is Boston and that this is where I am right now. I don’t need faith to make this affirmation. I do need faith if I affirm that there is the city of God, beyond all the skylines of this world, and that this city is the eternal destination intended by God for his creatures. Christians in particular should not deplore the fact that the pluralist situation points them back to the proposition of the New Testament: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

It follows that religious institutions, even if they don’t like this, become de facto voluntary associations. This creates anxiety, and a nostalgia for certainty. It also provides a market for fundamentalist movements (not all religious), who promise absolute certainty. An important factor in the pluralistic situation is the presence of a secular discourse, which necessarily dominates in a number of modern institutions (notably those based on science and technology, on the market economy, on bureaucracy). This is where secularization theory was not completely wrong; it just exaggerated the hegemony of the secular discourse.

Aside from explaining Jason and the Callers, Berger recognizes (or at least permits the recognition) that faith in Jesus Christ is one thing but not everything. Contrary to w-wists where everything is either for or against Christ (or the French Revolution), 2k understands that faith is one part of a person’s life. It is the most important and it has clear implications for some aspects of natural life (sex, marriage, procreation). But Christianity is not a totalizing with which to one-up Richard Dawkins or Rachel Maddow.

Speaking of Missions

It looks like the United States is (as it always has been) a mission field. In the December issue of First Things, R. R. Reno comments on what he calls the “new secular moral majority.”

In a 1957 government survey, only 3 percent of respondents checked the “none” box. Now they’re a fifth of all Americans. From one in thirty-three to one in five, and the number is likely to grow. . . . And it’s making a difference in culture and politics. The unchurched exhibit a remarkably united front when it comes to controversial moral issues.

But Reno wonders if the rise of “nones” represents something new:

Even in the 1950s (and, for that matter, in the 1900s), a fairly substantial number of Americans were either believers or unchurched. True, the sensibilities of a mostly Protestant Christianity shaped them, and for the most part they thought of themselves as Methodists or Baptists or Presbyterians or just “Christians,” but they were functionally secular in many ways.

For Reno this means that churched in America are “battle-tested.” We’ve been here before and perhaps the secularists will not really “inherit the earth.”

But I wonder what it says about the churches and their members that they may be willing to live with a stand-off between the churched and “nones,” with the latter having a slight upper hand because they reproduce and even like children. During this whole period, from the 1880s to the present, Protestants (and post-Vatican II Roman Catholics) have tried to win the culture through politics rather than evangelism and discipleship. Discipleship seems especially pertinent for keeping people who once thought themselves churched within the church. From the Social Gospel, through the Cold War, to the Religious Right, politics was supposed to save the nation. Not.

Could it be that religiously-inspired politics have actually done more to hurt the name of Christ and to push Americans away from churches than the offense of the cross itself? And what would happen if instead of spending so much time on political activism and the culture wars, Christians in the United States actually tried to explain to their neighbors the enormity of sin (Christians’ included), the hope of forgiveness in Christ, and the importance of word and sacraments for finding ongoing comfort amid human suffering and weakness? It might not mean a decrease in the number of “nones” since the wind blows where it will. But it sure seems like a better strategy than invoking biblical norms for people who don’t believe the Bible.

Reformed Missions, Neo, Restless, and Paleo

Weeks have lapsed since John Starke engaged in a bit of cherry picking by claiming that modern young and restless missionary and evangelistic efforts are as old as old Calvinism itself.

Calvin and Geneva sent missionaries not only to France but also to Italy, the Netherlands, Hungary, Poland, and the free Imperial city-states in the Rhineland. We even know of two missionaries sent from Geneva in 1557 to Brazil. “Missions was not a ‘section’ of his systematic theology,” Keith Coleman says, “it was central to what he was trying to accomplish in his ministry.”

Church planting and missions aren’t a byproduct of the young Reformed resurgence of the last decade but something embedded in the Reformation’s God-centered commitment to advancing the gospel.

Without wanting to add to stereotypes about Calvinism and missions — the old canard that predestination gives no incentive for evangelism, as if justification gives no reason for good works — Starke exhibits and anachronistic turn of thought that could use correction. (It goes with another anachronism he has circulated, namely, that the sort of networks seventeenth-century British dissenting Calvinists constructed are similar to the Gospel Coalition.) The simple point is that sixteenth-century church planting was not the same as modern foreign missions or evangelistic efforts. In fact, the modern missions movement among Protestants did not begin until the late eighteenth century with institutions like the London Missions Society (founded roughly in 1795). What Calvin and other reformers were doing was trying to reform existing churches in Europe. Switching a parish or town from Roman Catholic to Protestant might qualify as missions or evangelism in one sense. But the notion of taking the gospel to a people or society that had never heard about Christ was not something that European Protestants began to undertake institutionally until almost 250 years after Calvin’s death.

Even here, when Europeans and those of European descent began to conduct what we know today as foreign missions, they did so through parachurch agencies (which are like the Gospel Coalition). In fact, Reformed state churches were slow to sponsor foreign missionaries, partly because they were still trying to complete the task of home missions. The Church of Scotland did not send Alexander Duff to India, considered to be the first Presbyterian missionary, until 1829, partly because the Kirk was still trying to plant churches in the Highlands.

Still, the point that folks like Starke need to consider is that prior to 1800 (roughly) European Christians were exceedingly ambivalent about indigenous peoples outside Europe. When Christianity traveled to new worlds, it did so as part of the baggage that either European colonists or immigrants packed on their way to places like North America, South Africa, and Australia. In colonial settings, settlers established churches for Europeans. Only later, as these communities became stable and as Europeans sought some kind of harmony with indigenous peoples did the work of planting of indigenous churches begin. And for the most part, only in the twentieth century did these indigenous churches, formerly dependent on European patrons (both ecclesiastical and colonial), establish their independence and become truly native.

That is likely an overstatement — “truly native” — since European Christianity, either through colonialism or migration, has been responsible for spreading Christianity around the world. Even when missionaries of the newly founded missionary societies, like the London Missionary Society, traveled with the intention of evangelizing non-Europeans, they did so with the blessings of and conveniences afforded by colonial governments and projects. It is virtually impossible to think of a case where Christian missionaries simply dropped into an indigenous setting and began to preach the gospel (how could they unless they spoke in tongues?). Even in Uganda among the Karamoja, where the Orthodox Presbyterian Church has a vigorous mission station, Presbyterians are dependent on the sort of penetration of Ugandan society that Europeans started under colonial auspices. Well before the OPC showed up in Uganda, other European churches had conducted mission works that acquainted natives in some way with the idea and nature of having churches. And these missionary efforts only came to Africa, whether church or parachurch, because of the remarkable (both good and bad) hegemony of Europeans around the world starting at the end of the fifteenth century.

But this dependence on cultural patterns established by former Christians is not all that different from the experience of the first church planters. The apostle Paul rarely preached to people who had no acquaintance with the God of Israel or his followers. When he did preach to the Greeks at Mars Hill, who seem to have had little awareness of Judaism, they snickered. Otherwise, Paul went to local synagogues and used the Christian groups in various cities as the basis from which to evangelism and plant churches.

All of this is to say, if Starke wants to make the point that predestination is not a barrier to evangelism, great. But generally only the Roger Olsons of the world would make such an argument (and to do so they would have to ignore the weekly proclamation of the word in churches of Calvinist persuasion). If Starke wants to claim for Protestant missions continuity between Geneva and Wheaton (the headquarters of Crossway Books and therefore of the Gospel Coalition), he should leave the task of history to licensed professionals.

Turning the Gospel Promise into a Law Threat

Speaking of matters missional. . .

I am struck by the motivation that missions proponents sometimes use to justify their efforts. Having grown up in a faith mission environment, I have some familiarity with the ploys designed to generate gifts for missions and even cajole youth into full-time Christian service. As a kid even I thought some of the tactics were manipulative. But recent reading in the work of Alexander Duff (1806-1878), who was the first modern Presbyterian missionary, the Church of Scotland’s own ambassador to India — Presbyterianism’s William Carey as it were, has prompted me to think that much of the modern movement for overseas evangelism has employed what appear to be dubious arguments. The following comes from Duff’s Missions The Chief End of the Christian Church (1839):

It thus appears abundantly manifest from multiplied Scripture evidence, that the chief end for which the Christian Church is constituted—the leading design for which she is made the repository of heavenly blessings—the great command under which she is laid—the supreme function which she is called on to discharge—is, in the name and stead of her glorified Head and Redeemer, unceasingly, to act the part of an evangelist to all the world. The inspired prayer which she is taught to offer for spiritual gifts and graces, binds her, as the covenanted condition on which they are bestowed at all, to dispense them to all nations. The divine charter which conveys to her the warrant to teach and preach the Gospel at all, binds her to teach and preach it to all nations. The divine charter which embodies a commission to administer Gospel ordinances at all, binds her to administer these to all nations. The divine charter which communicates power and authority to exercise rule or discipline at all, binds her to exercise these, not alone or exclusively, to secure her own internal purity and peace, union and stability; but chiefly and supremely, in order that she may thereby be enabled the more speedily, effectually, and extensively, to execute her grand evangelistic commission in preaching the Gospel to all nations.

If, then, any body of believers united together as a Church, under whatever form of external discipline and polity, do, in their individual, or congregational, or corporate national capacity, wilfully and deliberately overlook, suspend, or indefinitely postpone, the accomplishment of the great end for which the Church universal, including every evangelical community, implores the vouchsafement of spiritual treasures—the great end for which she has obtained a separate and independent constitution at all,—how can they, separately or conjointly, expect to realize, or realizing, expect to render abiding, the promised presence of Him who alone hath the keys of the golden treasury, and alone upholds the pillars of the great spiritual edifice? If any Church, or any section of a Church, do thus neglect the final cause of its being, and violate the very condition and tenure of all spiritual rights and privileges, how can it expect the continuance of the favour of Him from whom alone, as their Divine fount and springhead, all such rights and privileges must ever flow? And, if deprived of His favour and presence, how can any Church expect long to exist, far less spiritually to flourish, in the enjoyment of inward peace, or the prospect of outward and more extended prosperity? (pp. 13-14)

I am not convinced, as valuable as foreign missions are, that threatening the church with a revocation of God’s favor is wise. Worse, I don’t believe it is true. But it is curious to see how old this kind of appeal is.

What is also worth highlighting is Duff’s account of Reformed Protestantism several pages later, since he has to acknowledge that the Reformation did not show an interest in non-European pagans and so did not measure up to the ideal of the true church. Because the Reformation was “itself a grand evangelistic work” by which the Spirit “put it into the hearts of an enlightened few, to arise and make an ‘aggressive movement’ on the unenlightened many, by whom they were every where surrounded,” Duff is at liberty to approve of sixteenth century Protestants. But when it comes to efforts of the Covenanters and the remnant of Presbyterians who tried to avoid compromise with the politics of episcopacy, the crown, or parliament, Duff (who was a student of Thomas Chalmers and would take sides with the Free Church during the Disruption of 1843) is not so approving:

When, after the Reformation, the Protestant Church arose, as by a species of moral resurrection, with newborn energies, from the deep dark grave of Popish ignorance and superstition,—then, was she in an attitude to have gone forth in the spirit of her own prayers, and in obedience to the Divine command, on the spiritual conquest of the nations,—and, in the train of every victory, scatter as her trophies, the means of grace, and as her plentiful heritage, the hopes of a glorious immortality. But instead of thus fulfilling the immutable law of her constitution,—instead of going forth in a progress of outward extension, and onward aggression, with a view to consummate the great work which formed at once the eternal design of her Head, and the chief end of her being :—the Church seemed mainly intent on turning the whole of her energies inward on herself. Her highest ambition and ultimate aim seemed to be, to have herself begirt as with a wall of fire that might devour her adversaries—to have her own privileges fenced in by laws and statutes of the realm—to hare her own immunities perpetuated to posterity by solemn leagues and covenants. (p. 22)

I’m not sure what the point of this is other than to suggest that since 1800 we have always had the missionally minded and manifesto affirming with us. But because of the ways in which proponents of missions can threaten by inducing guilt, those with questions about the methods, if not the content, of foreign missions (especially non-denominational kinds) have to prove their innocence before raising their concerns.