May 11, 2009

Cross-Cultural Apologetics and Missiology

David HesselgraveIf there’s one area that I believe is almost completely neglected in missiology (the study of missions) today, it’s the role of apologetics. Thankfully, veteran missions scholar David Hesselgrave has clarified its importance in “Revelation and Reason in Cross-Cultural Apologetics and Missiology” in the latest issue of the Journal of the International Society of Christian Apologetics.

Having served as a missionary in Japan for twelve years, Hesselgrave certainly has the experience and insight to address the question: What role do reason and apologetics have in missions? Many answer by saying that reason and apologetics are simply a byproduct of our Western approach to knowledge and are therefore irrelevant to those who have an Eastern or other non-Western way of thinking. But Hesselgrave knows better, and he points us to the trinary approach of conceptual/postulational, concrete-relational/pictorial, and psychical/intuitional ways of thinking rather than the Eastern vs. Western binary approach.

What does this mean? Hesselgrave explains that, instead of there being just two opposite and irreconcilable approaches to knowledge, people in all cultures approach their pursuit of truth in varying combinations of these three ways of thinking. As he summarizes:
“[This] proposal is especially helpful to Western Christian apologists and missionaries because we can anticipate that, as a result of the Imago Dei [i.e., image of God in man], the employment of cogent, coherent and consistent reasoning will be both appropriate and effective in Eastern cultures. At the same time we can anticipate that due to our fallen nature, God-given rationality will be rather easily transmuted into rationalism and irrationalism in both Eastern and Western cultures. Divine revelation will serve both to complement and complete, and to compensate and correct, ways of thinking and knowing in all cultures.”
In other words, reason and apologetics are both needed as we proclaim the gospel to all cultures. But if this is true, what does it mean for cross-cultural missions? Hesselgrave concludes by summarizing four avenues for reappropriating apologetics in our missionary task, namely:
1) Ronald Nash’s tests for truth as rooted in the nature of God,
2) Harold Netland’s defense of our objective propositional faith over fideistic subjectivism,
3) Norman Geisler’s three kinds of essentials of the Christian faith, and
4) Paul Hiebert’s view of the local church as a hermeneutical community.
One need not agree with (or even understand!) all of these applications to approve of Hesselgrave’s conclusion:
“After my experiences in Japan and a half century of subsequent involvement in evangelical missions worldwide I suggest that evangelical apologists and missionaries ‘renew their vows.’ . . . Currently missionary efforts to evangelize the world stand in need of the contributions of evangelical theologians and philosophers. Of course, the converse is also true. Apologists and theologians stand to benefit from the contributions of evangelical anthropologists and cross-culturalists.”
To which I reply with a hearty “Amen!” Hesselgrave’s principles can be used to powerful effect in Africa, and I commend his incisive article to everyone who is committed to our Savior’s missionary task.