In essay 2 of MissionSHIFT, the late Paul G. Hiebert wrote what would be his final published article entitled The Gospel in Human Contexts: Changing Perceptions of Contextualization. Five people responded to him: Michael Pocock, Darrell L. Whiteman, Avery Willis, Norman L. Geisler, and Ed Stetzer. I will say now that there is far too much material for me to attempt to review fully the essay and its responses in this single post. Therefore, I strongly urge interested readers to purchase the book to read the section for yourselves. In this post, I would like to interact briefly with Drs. Geisler and Stetzer in relation to how they perceive Hiebert, for they cut to the heart of the problem which contextualization presents to those who engage in mission cross-culturally.
At the start of his response, Geisler lists a number of points of agreement with Hiebert. Yet, the list feels like a good news/bad news set up, with the bad news far outstripping any memory of the good. For starters, he takes Heibert to task concerning his views of Scripture, calling into question his orthodoxy as an evangelical. He writes that Heibert “fails to note that the Bible is an infallible and inerrant written revelation from God.” He further states, “In short, he does not affirm that the Bible is the written Word of God.” This simply isn’t true, as it was not Heibert’s task in the essay to write a systematic theology; his task was to deal with the gospel in human contexts, and the limits of space and the scope of this project did not allow for unlimited theological caveats which would satisfy western conservative apologists who hold to Aristotelian formulaic logic.
I am thankful for Stetzer’s gracious and intelligent response to Geisler. He provides a probing analysis of the disconnect between Geisler and Heibert, highlighting for us that this is a prime example of worldview differences. In light of this interchange, it seems apparent to me that Geisler seems to lack self-awareness of his own reliance on his own worldview assumptions which he inhabits unselfconsciously. While I would identify with a great many of Geisler’s conservative views (although as a charismatic, I doubt I am conservative enough for his taste, based on comments he made in the footnotes), I take issue with his response to Heibert in this volume.
I will not try to reduplicate Stetzer’s effort here, although I do have a few questions for Geisler. I have a lot of friends and acquaintances from various spiritual backgrounds, many of them non-Christian. There are athiests, agnostics, Muslims, Bhuddists, and so on, plus a wide variety of people from various streams of Christianity. Many of them are deeply influenced by post-modern thought, particularly those who are from more liberal faith traditions. What am I supposed to do as I engage my friends in conversation who do not follow Jesus? Start a theological rumble with them using Aristotelian formulaic logic in order to prove their views wrong and my conservative truth claims correct? Is my role to convince them to subscribe to a pre-approved doctrinal statement before it can be said they believe in a way that satisfies an evangelical panel of experts?
Geisler criticizes Heibert, saying “he rejects the approach that ‘other theologies and religions are false and must be attacked (136).’” He then goes on to say,”But if Christianity is true and by the law of noncontradiction the opposite of true is false, then why should one not oppose what is false and is thereby opposed to the truth (136).” I quote below the full context of Hiebert’s statement as I believe it will speak for itself in response.
Theological positivism holds that our central concern is truth and that our theology corresponds one-to-one to Scripture. Other theologies and religions are false and must be attacked. We are concerned with truth and define it in rational terms. We divorce it from feelings and values because these undermine the objectivity of the truth. Our concern is that people believe the truth of the gospel because that determines whether they are saved. We define the truth in prepostional terms and seek to transmit it unchanged. We see ourselves as God’s lawyers, and we put our trust in experts who have studied Scripture deeply.
Finally, we (positivists) see the gospel as acultural and ahistorical. It is unchanging and universal and can be codified in abstract rational terms and communicated in all languages without loss of meaning. The sociocultural contexts of neither the listeners nor the messengers need to be taken into account (87).
So, I am left to continue to wonder. How do I engage mission in my multi-cultural daily life? To attempt a positivistic attack on the views of my friends using the Aristotelian laws of argument would destroy those relationships. It would be a bait and switch, indicating my desire to share a meal or enjoy their company was based solely on my secret motive to convert them to my belief system. They would feel betrayed, and rightly so.
My most conservative friends might get offended by this, but I choose another path. I am going to befriend folks who don’t know Jesus, but I will continue to do so without an agenda. Whether or not they ever choose to believe, I will be their friend. God has been faithful throughout my life to bring people to me who ask of the hope which he has deposited in me. And when they do ask, I share in my own way, using Scripture memorized and stories of what God has done in my life. I do not go so far as some of my missional friends as to avoid any presentation of the gospel. But I do allow such conversations to flow out of authentic relationships, rather than agenda-driven encounters and relationships. It is the stuff of disciple-making. It is probably also enough to brand me as theologically wanting in the eyes of some of my conservative colleagues. That’s okay. The conservatives in Jesus’ day did the same thing, and he had some choice words for them, too.