The Gospel In Human Contexts: A Brief Conversation With Paul G. Hiebert & His Responders

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.


5 thoughts on “The Gospel In Human Contexts: A Brief Conversation With Paul G. Hiebert & His Responders

  1. Hi Glen,

    I think this is a very timely post. It seems to me that often in this country (USA) these days, apologetics is presented in a “We v. Them” sort of way. That makes me cringe. Instead of giving a reason for the hope we have in us it often becomes a dry courtroom defense for the faith, and rather than hiring Raymond Burr to play Perry Mason, the casting call goes to Chuck Norris instead, and the unbelieving “opponent” gets chopped and kicked to the ground. I admit that I’m being a bit over-dramatic here, but not by much, because the central reason for explaining such things to people is to win their hearts to Jesus.

    I myself am a conservative Christian with friends from across the Christian/non-Christian spectrum, and the kinds of comments I see from Dr. Geisler reprinted here are not unlike for example, the anti-Catholic sentiments that I hear from one of my conservative Christian friends. He says that you can’t be Catholic and call yourself a Christian. It is easy to point to certain scandalous problems within the historical and present day Catholic church while ignoring the scandalous problems within the history of Evangelicalism and that seems to be ongoing today. How about the shared problems that haunt both groups? I can only hope that Catholicism does not suffer from the same kind of self-righteousness that EvangelicaliWe believe that the only true basis of Christian fellowship is His (Agape) love, which is greater than any differences we possess and without which we have no right to claim ourselves does.

    On our church website we have a statement which reads as follows, “We believe that the only true basis of Christian fellowship is His (Agape) love, which is greater than any differences we possess and without which we have no right to claim ourselves Christians.” Knowing this about ourselves not only affects the relationships we have with our brothers and sisters in Christ, but everyone around us.

    Reaching out to the unsaved is like anything else in our walk with the Lord. It boils down to trust in Him and a genuine sense of self. We share certain similarities and responsibilities, but we all as different as fingerprints and there’s no telling how the Lord will use one person and the next for His purposes. Seems to me that our job is to stay sharp and be ready to be used wherever and whenever He wants to use us. It’s obvious that we aren’t to cut ourselves off from unsaved people in every facet of our lives. They’re us, basically. The only difference between us and they is Jesus, and they’re precisely who we are supposed to have hearts for. That’s something that really speaks to the integrity of this faith, and that is that because Jesus is true, and because He alone is worthy, Christianity can take the hits right on the chin and still allow us to love the person who’s attacking our faith. That’s why we should be able to reason and discuss without tumult with other people. Part of that has to do with what you stated here: “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.”

    If we set out to make our unbelieving friends a “mark”, they will feel like one. There’s really no good reason to do that. Thanks for the post. Sorry if my response is a bit disjointed.

    Peace in His name,

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, David. Your last paragraph is telling in reference to making unbelieving friends a “mark.” This is why many people who sell Amway are so distrusted. They often bait and switch their friends and acquaintances, telling them they are interested in them for one reason, and then using the optimal opportunity to tell them about their products. I have had it happen to me. And plenty of non-believers have had it happen to them in relation to Christians who deploy misdirection concerning their reasons for relating to them.

    Most people would prefer straight-forward honesty and friendship to all the religious subtleties of evangelistic tactics.

  3. Concerning the comment about non-believers being a “mark” or not coming to them with an agenda, I look at who God is and what Jesus did. Isn’t God’s agenda to draw all people to Himself, to develop a right relationship with Him because that is what they were created for? Didn’t Jesus’ statements to people about following Him set an agenda–to deny themselves, take up their crosses, and following Him?
    I do not see a dichotemy between having a loving friendship with a non-believer while also having an “agenda” that is best for them–a repaired relationship with their Creator. I don’t see a bait and switch, secular vs. sacred separation that you seem to point to.

  4. Hi Kevin, thank you for your thoughtful comment. Nowhere did I point to a secular vs sacred separation. Quite the opposite. What I am responding to is the perception of many of my non-believing friends that the only reason Christians wish to spend time with them is to convert them. That is where the dichotomy comes into play. While we may know in our hearts we love others and show it by sharing with them the gospel, they often perceive our approach as suspect, given that we haven’t even bothered to get to know them, except on a superficial level. Also, I agree that God desires for all to come to Christ, although I do not care for the term agenda because of its baggage. Clearly we are to preach the gospel and to be witnesses throughout the nations. But how do we do that?

    The gospel itself is offensive enough to people without us getting in the way through the social ineptness of not loving people for who they are, rather than what we wish for them to be. I suggest that our relationships should certainly be infused with the gospel, but in a way that takes authentic interest in people for the long-term, whether or not they choose to believe. I further reiterate that gospel proclamation is critically important. I only suggest that we not sabatoge such opportunities by baiting them through a show of friendship, only to reveal an underlying intention of wanting to convert them; and once they are converted, moving on to the next person, forgetting the others. This is one of the great tragedies of evangelism. I think discipleship should be far more committed to the relationships before they believe, when they believe, and even if they never believe.

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