The Missionary Approach to Muslims: L. Blosser on "Contextualization"
Dangers to the Gospel Missions
The missionary's effort to bring the gospel to the world may encounter two especially formidable kinds of obstacles. One of them is the hostility of the people to whom he goes which may take the form of persecution. The other, often more subtle, but just as dangerous, is the pressures on the missionary to compromise the gospel message in the interests of making it more acceptable to the people he addresses.
Current efforts to bring the gospel to the Muslim world face both kinds of obstacles. The intolerance of many Islamic societies and countries toward Christian missions is well-known. At a conference on missions to Muslims held early in November at the Reformed Bible College our attention was repeatedly directed to the second kind of danger to missions. Especially Rev. Leon F. Blosser, a Reformed Baptist veteran of 13 years of missionary service among Muslims in the Persian Gulf area, and currently headmaster of a Christian school at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, called attention to what he saw as "alarming trends in Christian witness to Muslims."
He began his address by alluding to a speech of Dr. B. B. Warfield to a group of prospective missionaries printed in the July 1898 issue of the Presbyterian Quarterly. The famous Presbyterian professor warned against five dangers that will destroy a missionary and his church. One of those dangers is that the missionary himself is converted to the religion of his hearers, the danger;
that in striving to commend Christianity to the heathen and to remove their stubborn and abounding difficulties in accepting it, we simply explain Christianity away." Warfield continued, "I have met more than one missionary from Mohammedan lands, for example, who had learned to state the doctrine of the Trinity 'so genially and so winningly' (as they express it), that it roused little or no opposition in the Mohammedan mind. And when I heard how they state it, I did not wonder; they had so stated it as to leave the idea of the Trinity out. The method of conversion by concession is really, at bottom, an attempt to deceive men into a profession of Christianity; to make them believe that Christianity is not what it appears to be, and does not involve in its profession all that it seems; that it is much 'easier to take' than men have been accustomed to think. 1
Missionary Blosser saw this danger which was so clearly described by Dr. Warfield almost a century ago as a peril to especially missionary labors among Muslims, as an increasing threat also to such missionary labors today. He saw it appearing especially in a popular missionary policy which is commonly called "contextualization."
The Contextualization Problem
Missionary conferences at Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1974 and at Willowbank, Bermuda, in 1978 focussed attention on how we must deal with cultural barriers in trying to bring the gospel.
How can I, who was born and brought up in one culture, take the truth out of the Bible which was addressed to people in a second culture, and communicate it to a people who belong to a third culture...?
And, how can converts relate to their own culture? The word "contextualization" was used to cover the attempted answers to these questions.
Every missionary, setting out to bring the gospel to people of a different country and culture from his own, has to make a number of adjustments (just as any immigrant does). One of his first and biggest problems is likely to be that of learning to understand and speak a different language. The question the missionary has to face is how far he should go in making adjustments to this different culture. On that point missionary opinions and practices have varied widely. Mr. Blosser pointed out that while some missionaries have tried to make as few changes as possible even "going out with the English Bible," others have swung to the opposite extreme of assuming everything the missionary has to say can be put into the cultural forms of the person to whom he is going. Although the Willowbank report noted the danger of compromise of the gospel when this adjustment was carried too far and acknowledged the authority and inspiration of the Bible, the enthusiasts who follow its theme of "contextualization" have not escaped that danger. One has to distinguish, as some seem disinclined to do, between changes that concern only unimportant matters of custom and those which would alter the gospel message. As the missionary observed,
There is a vast difference between deciding to drop or alter the trinitarian formula in baptism or redefine or eliminate the sacrament of the Lord's table, and considering whether or not the congregation should sit on the floor or on benches, sing eastern or western tunes, or use a particular form of architecture in building a place of worship!
Between such extremes, the speaker saw the proper course of the missionary who 'in mastering the language, strives to selectively adopt customs and elements of lifestyle into which can be poured content consistent with a Christian world view.'
Keeping and Bringing the Gospel Content
Some have argued that translating the Bible from one language to another, seeking "dynamic equivalents" in the other language, should also be carried over into all of these cultural matters. Blosser pointed out that the aim of the translator has to be to faithfully convey the content of the message from one language into the other, not alter it. Faith always has content. "He that cometh to God must believe that He is" (Hebrews 11:6) — one has to believe that proposition. Christianity is not just a nebulous feeling of love. Man was created in God's image, with a mind and ability to deal with reality as it is. But he also has a will, which, since the fall, forces the mind to distort any knowledge of God which it receives (Romans 1:18-23). All non-Biblically oriented thought becomes an attempt to turn the truth of God into a lie. All non-Christian religion (or culture) at its best is an exercise in suppressing the knowledge of God. It is not neutral!
A Movement Against Doctrine
Dr. Geerhardus Vos in 1905 spoke of "the dislike of dogma and theology which is so widespread in our days" and the "veritable dread of everything that is not immediately practical or experimental." Mr. Blosser sees that dislike of doctrine sweeping through the churches of our time and more particularly their missionary thinking in the movement for "contextualization" which threatens to destroy the Christian faith by relativizing it.
Missionary Destruction of the Gospel
He mentioned some disturbing examples of missionary leaders whom he saw moving in this direction. He cited the recent Baker-published book, Islam — A Survey of the Muslim Faith, co-authored by George Fry and James King as revealing "a complete reversal of opinion — at least on Mr. Fry's part — from evangelicalism to relativism."
Mr. Fry (also a speaker at this RBC conference) in 1969 had warned that;
From its inception ... Islam has been Christianity's most dangerous doctrinal challenge. It offers 'another Christ,' 'another gospel,' another way of salvation.
In this new book, on the contrary, we find him holding that there is no difference in meaning between the Islamic "Allah" and the Christian concept represented by "God" (p. 48). In the same vein Fry and King in this new book state that,
The posture of evangelicals is that the Christian mission is not to communicate a culture (usually Western), or a creed, or a church, or a moral code and commandments, or customs. Rather dialogue-witness for them is to share a person, Jesus Christ, who has been for them a transforming power and a Savior-Friend. What the consequences of Christ will be for Muslims, in terms of their culture, creed, mosques, codes, commandments, and customs, evangelicals do not pretend to know. There have been spontaneous Jesus Muslim movements in both Anatolia and West Africa; but no Westerner knows, or can even pretend to know, what the person and power of Jesus will mean for Muslims. pp. 137, 138
Another similar missionary writer, Phil Parshall, in his book New Paths in Muslim Evangelism (Baker Book House — 1981, p. 195) suggests that since baptism is offensive to Muslims missionaries consider substituting something else for it.
If the Christian missionary, in effort to accommodate Muslim prejudices, is to discard all creeds, church, moral code and commandments, baptism, which the Lord commanded, and, while talking to them about Jesus, has no way of knowing what that is to mean to them, what does he have left to communicate? Jesus said, "If you love me, keep my commandments" (John 14:15), and John warned, "He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him" (1 John 2:4). Blosser suggested that if the evangelical no longer knows or pretends to know, as Fry and King now say, "what the consequences of Christ will be for the Muslims, in terms of their creed, mosques, codes, commandments" he has become indistinguishable from a liberal.
The time has come to sound an alarm that will alert pastors and missionaries to the dangers inherent in the contextualization movement. Let us return to the faith once delivered to the saints and continue as that great apostle to Islam, Samuel Zwemer, admonished us. 'Preach to the Moslem, not as a Moslem, but as a man — a sinner in need of a Savior.'