Transforming Mission Theology

Written by Charles Van Engen Reviewed By Li Ma

This book is a compilation of writings by missiologist Charles Van Engen, who has taught biblical theology of mission at Fuller Theological Seminary for more than twenty-five years. The author offers a rigorous theologizing of mission as well as a candid self-reflection on a variety of issues related to the theologies and praxis of mission. The book is divided into five parts, covering the sources, meaning, methods, goals and samples of mission theology. This book is an unrivaled resource for scholars as well as mission workers. This is largely due its wide scope and deliberate wrestling with particular problems that were rarely theologized, such as the resistant groups and ethics of missionary cooperation.

Since the author emphasizes that “there was no one methodology that could encompass doing theology in mission and doing missiology in theology” (p. xvi), he adopts an interdisciplinary approach with a strong biblical emphasis. Every issue of discussion is placed into a cross-disciplinary framework of examination and is brought back to the biblical context.

The author dismisses a totally disenchanted and pessimistic attitude towards mission theology. Instead, he states several affirmations in every section. For example, the four affirmations in the introduction serve to orient later affirmations with regard to specific contextual problems (pp. xvii–xix). He also uses a dialectic discourse in explaining “what mission is not” to further clarify his assumptions (p. xix). For example, the assumptions that mission “is not what we in the Christian church want it to be” or “what our surrounding culture or our world wants it to be” are revealing statements that convey ethical authenticity. In this way, the author also expresses his epistemological and ethical propositions in these guidelines.

If Parts I–II are necessary but largely generic foundational discourses on defining mission theology, Parts III–V are innovative and even boundary-breaking analyses on the methods, goals, and models of mission theology. For example, chapter 7 lays out five paradigms of contextualization, including communication, indigenization, translatability, local theologies, and epistemology. These processes combine to create what the author names “the hermeneutical spiral,” “a tapestry of interaction between gospel and culture” (p. 170). This helps visualize how the Christian message gets integrated from theory to action and then to contextualization.

More innovatively, the author begins with the theological problem of resistance in chapter 10. This is where self-reflection serves best in his theologizing about missional ethics. Often, we tend to discuss “receptive peoples” while leaving out conversation about “resistant peoples.” Mission work becomes what he calls “selective targeting” of the former group (p. 216). As a result, even the communication of the gospel can become “receptor-oriented” (p. 217).

With regard to resistance, there are multiple layers of complexity too. The author lists two possibilities. Either some groups are resistant because of contextual factors or some may be resistant because of factors within the church (p. 247). As the author candidly acknowledges, “the nominalism and secularization of the church itself has been one of the greatest obstacles to world evangelization” (p. 247). Likewise, “our theology of conversion may itself create resistance” (p. 248). He challenges the commonly held view that counter-culturalness is necessarily good, for “strongly counter-cultural” strategies may contribute to “a sense of strangeness” such that unreached groups lack cultural and spiritual interface with the church and receptor group (p. 249). Japan is an example in this line.

The author’s discussion on mission partnership is also thought-provoking. When he explains “what a global body of Christ image does not mean,” he uses the example of mission “moratorium,” a way to give concrete shape to the oneness of the church in mission. The “three-self” formula of Henry Venn and Rufus Anderson serves a specific case. As he analyzes, “many receiving churches that have been taught that mature, indigenous churches should become ‘three-self’ churches—simply became selfish and self-centered” (p. 277). And “the long-term result of that ‘moratorium’ was an increasing myopia and insularity” for many third-world churches (p. 269). Before reading this part, I wondered about this particularizing theology, such as the “three-self” principles, which were later used by China’s communist regime to co-opt churches. Yet, his analysis makes sense given the biblical catholicity of the church as Christ’s body.

In chapter 12, the author lists faith, love, and hope as the three-fold goals of mission, which are reminiscent of Augustine’s methods in preaching. Van Engen stresses that “mission that is not based on biblical revelation, the text that declares the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and offers a new birth through the Holy Spirit, may be church expansion, or colonialist extension, or sectarian proselytism” (p. 293). This is a very insightful remark. I can relate it to today’s resurging trend of “sectarian proselytism” in China, which in the 1920s created detrimental consequences to churches and strong resistance in China. Sectarianism itself discredits the gospel, but unfortunately, history has repeated itself.

Lastly, the author is keenly conscious of two major contemporary challenges to mission that protestant theologians seldom addressed: urbanization and migration. He devotes two excellent chapters to these facets of postmodern society. Globalization and accelerated urbanization challenge Christians to rethink and reevaluate mission theology. It is in these areas that Christian scholars of different academic disciplines (such as economics, political science, sociology, media culture, etc.) ought to collaborate with missiologists and public theologians in the future.

Li Ma

Li Ma
Calvin College
Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

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