Dr. Lalsangkima Pachuau, a member of the Presbyterian Church of India (Mizo Synod), teaches in the Department of Mission and Ecumenics at the United Theological College, (Bangalore) India. Coming from a “tribal” community called “Mizo” in Northeast India, Dr. Pachuau holds a Ph.D from Princeton Theological Seminary.
This article appeared in the International Review of Mission 89/No. 355 (October 2000): 539-555. An earlier version was presented at the Faculty Research Seminar of the United Theological College on November 24, 1999.
The author explores and analyzes various concepts of mission and missiology. The early Western missionary movement, generally speaking, aimed foremost at the saving of the souls from eternal damnation. Mission as expansion of Christendom through conversion and church growth was a dominant view during the Western colonial period. Then came the concept of missio dei, in which Christian mission was understood as Christian participation in God’s mission. But this was too broad: “If everything is mission, nothing is mission.” Instead, he proposes using "witness across religious boundaries" as the defining principle of mission and as the integrating principle of missiology, and he explores the implications of this defining hub for the future of theological study.
Although the study of Christian mission or missiology has begun to appear in theological academia more than a century ago, this field of study did not become an established discipline for a long time. Even today, the field has not been given its due recognition in many institutions around the world. Differences in the understanding of mission and the contrariety between the different renditions of the field of study have placed missiology in a state of confusion, thereby preventing it from occupying its proper place in theological academia. The confusion is the result of drastic changes of mission understanding and the resultant multiple faces of mission. In the present work, I intend to look afresh into the problem of identifying the nature and characteristics of missiology, and suggest a viable understanding. The development of the discipline, I believe, requires a comprehensive approach to understand mission, an inclusive understanding that is critically open to both the traditional view and new forms of understandings and interpretations of mission.
The purpose of this article is two-fold. Firstly, I will critique a few major approaches and perspectives to show that any exclusivistic attempt from one point of view is problematic, and that a healthy development of the discipline requires a holistic understanding of mission. Any proposal of a comprehensive understanding is also veiled with confusion and possibilities of misunderstandings. The multidimensionality of mission not only confuses theological academia, but also hinders the discipline of mission study from finding its proper place. The best way to clarify this problem, I suggest, is to find an integrative principle or the axis of missiology to which the various dimensions of mission are integrated. Secondly, I am trying to find the role and place of missiology as an academic discipline within the parlance of theological studies, and my attention is drawn in particular to the theological education system in the religiously pluralistic India.
By way of introduction to the subject-matter, let me first spell out my “interim” definition of mission to help me clarify my own presupposition. By Christian mission, I broadly refer to the church’s endeavour to cross its boundaries to serve, to share its message(s), and to interact with those outside the Christian fold. By saying this, I am trying to differentiate mission with the general understanding of the ministry of the church, which is “to provide for the inner needs of the congregation” Thus, while ministry is understood broadly as that which the church provides for its members within its borderlines, mission concerns those beyond the church’s boundaries. As will be made clear later, in a pluralistic world of today one needs to recognize the fact that the crossing of frontiers is no longer a one-way direction. One may, therefore, think in terms of crisscrossing the boundaries. What are the boundaries and why and how are they crossed? At this point, let me just say that a variety of borderlines have been identified in history. While some have been abandoned, others have been given more prominence. It is in the sense of boundary-crossing, I would argue, that biblical teaching on mission such as “commissioning” (Synoptic) and “sending” (Johannine) find their relevance for today. As we will see, there has been a significant shift from understanding mission as “church-sending” to “God-sending” in the last few decades.
The Concept of Mission in the Modern Missionary Movement:
What is commonly called the “modern missionary movement” among the Protestants is the product of pietistic and evangelical movements of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The modern missionary movement, generally speaking, aimed foremost at the saving of the souls from eternal damnation. Unless salvation is brought to the “heathens,” according to the dominant view of the movement, their souls are damned to hell. Thus, what Geevarghese Mar Osthatios calls “rescue the perishing” motive served as the spiritual springboard as well as the main goal of the modern missionary movement. The idea of saving soul is backed by a concept inspired by the evolutionary theory that views the “cultured” western Christian race to be highly superior to the uncultured “heathen” races elsewhere. Missionaries were sent, therefore, not only to save the “heathen” people’s souls from damnation, but also to civilise them and to elevate the “uncultured” people to be like the “cultured” western Christians. Mission, therefore, primarily aimed at the conversion of the “heathen” into the Christian “race”, through which it expanded Christendom by inculcating its values among the so-called “heathen.” Various “strategies” were devised to achieve the goal of conversion and the expansion of Christendom. This understanding of mission, abundant in mission literature of the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, continues to dominate a large number of “mission-minded” churches and individuals today. The few attempts to systematize mission studies as an academic discipline within or about the movement have been concerned mainly with “how to” convert the “heathen” and expand the Church.
The greatest biblical inspiration of the movement was the so-called “Great Commission” of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. As disciples of Christ, according to the dominant reading, Christians are commissioned to “go” into all the world, proclaiming the gospel and baptizing new disciples (i.e., converts). Thus, the church understood itself as receiving a mandate from the words of the risen Christ to extend his kingdom by discipling and baptizing the “heathen” of the nations. As a proactive movement inspired by the command to “go”, the movement was invigorated by a crusading spirit. Lesslie Newbigin once observed, “One of the dangers of emphasizing the concept of mission as a mandate given to the Church is that it tempts to do what we are always tempted to do, namely to see the work of mission as a good work and to seek to justify ourselves by our works. On this view, it is we who must save the unbelievers from perishing.”
This notion of mission so strongly dominated mission understanding in the modern missionary movement that the term “missiology” has often been related mainly to the study of Christian expansion through conversion of non-Christians to the Christian religion. Thus missiology has been understood as a discipline that studies “how to” convert or “how to” expand Christendom. To most of the so-called “mission-minded” western Christians, mission is evangelism among the non-Christians; and evangelism is defined as the proclamation of the Gospel with an intention to convert men and women to Christ. Not only do conservatives identify mission with the “conversion” of the “heathens” to Christianity and the expansion of Christianity in the “heathen-lands,” but many of the relatively liberal Christians also comply with this understanding of mission, with the result that they perceive mission to be irrelevant for contemporary society. Mission, for many liberal theologians is an outdated enterprise belonging to the colonial past, and any Christian attempt to convert non-Christians to Christianity is arrogant and disdainful. Mission, therefore, is implicitly questioned on moral ground as its understood goal is aiming at the ceasing of other religions. Commenting on the views of some theologians, David Bosch states “Mission appears to be the greatest enemy of the gospel.” One should note that the negative perception not only arose out of the narrow understanding of mission, but also the failure to read the development and changes of the mission conception through time. So dominant is the understanding of mission as the churches’ endeavour to multiply itself in number through conversion and civilising activities that the significance of changes and development of mission understanding in the ecumenical movement has frequently been overlooked.
Ecumenical mission thinking may be traced to have begun at the World Missionary Conference of 1910 (in Edinburgh), which is aptly called the “birthplace of the modern ecumenical movement.” The development took a decisive turn at the founding of the International Missionary Council (IMC) in 1921. Issues debated and studied at the IMC meetings at Jerusalem in 1928 and at Tambaram (Madras) in 1938 signify important milestones in the development of mission thinking. A major shift in mission understanding within the ecumenical movement surfaced from the early 1950s, which changed the face of ecumenical mission permanently. Up until this time, the “why” and the “what” of mission were taken for granted and as indicated before, missiologists tackled the question of “how,” “wherefore,” and “whence” of mission. The question of “why mission” significantly appeared during the IMC meeting at Willingen in 1952, especially when the theme of “Missionary Obligation of the Church” was dealt with. The conference could not approve the report dealing with the theme. The question of “why” led to the question of “what,” and an exciting period was inaugurated by such prompting questions. Although it has rightly been pointed out that the emerging period was a period of crisis in mission, it was also a period of creative thinking. What was once considered an indisputable practice of the church, namely missionary activities, turned out to be the most problematic one. A well-known German missiologist Walter Freytag is quoted to have said, “Formerly missions had problems, but now they have become a problem to themselves.” The problematizing of mission was neither an artificial act nor a mere academic exercise, but a natural and spontaneous outcome of the period. The impact of the international socio-political movements on mission thought was significant. Movements such as de-colonization, the rise of Communism—especially the expulsion of missionaries from China by the Communists—and the attempt to vindicate Human Rights culminating in the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) have direct and indirect impact on mission understanding. The validity of mission as practiced was questioned, and the new susceptibility led to the broadening, the re-interpretation, and the re-conceptualization of mission.
Evolving Themes and Concepts of Mission:
In the process of searching for the “why” and the “what” of mission, a new and exciting period of quest for an in-depth and viable theology of mission came into being. One after another, important themes and issues surfaced attempting new interpretations of mission. The various themes of re-conceptualization that emanated in the new period includes mission as missio Dei, mission as “Christian presence,” mission as “witness” in and to the six continents, mission as development, mission as liberation, mission in relation to dialogue with people of other faiths and non faiths, mission as contextualization and inculturation. Categorically, the various themes are related. For the purpose of this paper, we shall broadly classify the themes under two major headings, namely missio Dei and Witness. The deductive reasoning at laying down the biblical-theological foundation of mission and its raison d’ être finds its consummation, so to speak, in the missio Dei concept, and all the functional definitions of mission that have emerged such as proclamation, liberation, contextualization, dialogue, and others can be interpreted as acts of “witnessing.” Thus, while the former is a deductive (theoretical) definition, the latter defines mission through its functions. One may also consider functional definition of mission (as “witness”) as “how to” participate in the mission of God. In attempting to define the term “missiology,” an American missiologist James Scherer relates two definitions dialectically. The definitions are those of Johannes Verkuyl and Alan Tippett. The definition by Verkuyl says, “Missiology is the study of the salvation activities of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit throughout the world geared toward bringing the kingdom of God into existence….” Alan Tippett on the other hand defines missiology as “the study of man [sic] being brought to God in history….” Here, the starting points are different: Verkuyl begins with God (the subject) by looking at God’s activities, whereas Tippett starts with human being (object) and analyses the process and modes of missiology. The two definitions closely parallel the distinction we are trying to make between deductive and functional definitions.
Perhaps, the most influential and enduring concept, which to some extent subsumed other biblical concepts of mission, is missio Dei (mission of God). According to proponents of the concept, Christian mission should be understood as Christian participation in the mission of God by putting God at the centre and as the source and author of mission. Based on the Western medieval theology that describe the activities within the Trinity, the missio Dei concept suggests that mission should be understood as being derived from the very nature of the Triune God, that is, in the sending of the Son by God the Father, and God the Father (“and the Son”) sending the Spirit, and the Triune God sending the Church into the world. Mission, therefore, is seen as “a movement from God to the world.” The concept, considered to be based on sound biblical and theological grounding, has been looked upon as almost uncontestable. Furthermore, it serves as a major alternative and corrective principle to the traditional understanding of mission. The concept challenged the triumphalistic and paternalistic inclination of western missionaries under the protective umbrella of colonialism. The emphasis on the singularity of mission against the traditional notion of missions (plural) as the churches’ endeavours has a far-reaching implication. The new emphasis on the oneness of mission indirectly left important effects on the on-going discussion of mission and unity. Consequently, mission as God’s mission anticipates that mission cannot be claimed by any one particular church or region, and therefore, mission should be carried out in and to all the six continents. At the first Commission on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME) meeting in Mexico City in 1963, “mission in six continents” became “the leit-motiv.” The “Message” of the meeting reads, “[the] missionary movement now involves Christians in all six continents and in all lands.” The old practice of identifying the “non-Christian worlds” as “mission fields” was done away with. As the object of God’s mission, there can be only one “mission field,” that is, the world. Mission as a movement from the western Christian lands to non-Christian lands came to be considered inadequate.
The concept of missio Dei is not free from difficulties. The most serious drawback involves the problem of specifying the missionary activities of God in the world. The extent of God’s mission, especially with regard to God’s activity in the secular world, remains a point of dispute. The Willingen conference of the International Missionary Council (IMC) in 1952—where the missio Dei concept first surfaced publicly—“wrestled with the question of the relation between God’s work in the mission of his Church and his work in the secular history.” The meeting could not come to a consensus. In Willingen and the period following, two major—and somewhat competing—approaches to missio Dei emerged. The first one, a dominant view in the Willingen meeting, understood mission as God’s evangelizing action through the church. The second, which raised serious opposition to the dominant Willingen view, was developed forcefully later especially in the report on the study of the “Missionary Structure of the Congregation” in the early 1960s. It conceived missio Dei as God’s activity in the secular world over and above the church, saying, “the world provides the agenda.” Whereas the first approach maintains “the church [as] the principal vehicle of God’s mission,” the latter tends to reduce the church’s place in God’s mission “even to the point that it excluded the church’s involvement.” The conflicting convictions regarding the extent of God’s activity in the world relate closely to the conflicting theories of salvation-history (Heilsgeschichte) between Karl Barth and Oscar Cullmann. Whereas Barth and his followers identify God’s work only within the “sacred history … inaccessible to secular historical research and known only by faith,” Cullmann and his followers—among whom are well-known missiologists—view that God’s work is discernible in the secular history. Here lies the distinction between missiology “from above” and missiology “from below.” In other words, the missio Dei concept, which is often presumed to be exclusively a missiology “from above,” is also conceived to be a missiology “from below.”
At the Whitby meeting of the IMC (1947) and the following years, the terms kerygma, koinonia, and diakonia were used to define the understanding of mission. The Willingen Conference (1952) added “the notion of ‘witness’, martyria, as the overarching concept,” saying “This witness is given by proclamation [kerygma], fellowship [koinonia], and service [diakonia].” As an overarching concept, “witness,” became the dominant mode of doing mission and the most “comprehensive portrayal of what mission is or is supposed to be.” In the New Delhi Assembly of the WCC (1961) where the IMC merged with the WCC, the Council chose “Witness”, “Service” and “Unity” as the key concepts and primary concern of the ecumenical movement. By the first World Mission Conference of the CWME in 1963 in Mexico City, “Witness” became the catchword of the meeting and unquestionably the most dominant concept to understanding Christian mission. The influence of Orthodox mission theology was felt significantly on understanding mission as witness especially after the New Delhi Assembly of the WCC in 1961.
The new emphasis serves to rescue mission from the straitjacket of proclamation and church planting. In some circles, witness and proclamation are still seen as the two main modes of communicating the Gospel in which the former tends towards activism and the latter verbal communication. But in the ecumenical understanding since the early 1950s, attempts have been made to interpret proclamation, service, and fellowship as the means of witnessing to the Gospel. “Witness” (or martyria) is a powerful and emotive biblical keyword capturing the Christian understanding of what it means to have faith in Christ. As Jesus Christ the Word incarnate himself witnesses to what he is and what he sees (John 3:11, 31-32; 18:37) in the world, the disciples are called to be his witnesses (Acts 1:8). Witness as the all-embracing mode of mission subsumed within it most important themes that emerged in the new era such as “presence,” “liberation,” and “dialogue.” It should not be denied that the new ecumenical formula is action-oriented and tends towards activism as the main mode of doing mission. While the action-oriented nature of mission as witness serves as a corrective means to traditional missionary paradigm, it also brings with it the tendency to limit mission to social activism.
Some Implications for the Academic Study of Mission:
1. Mission as expansion of Christendom through conversion and church growth, a dominant view during the Western colonial period, as we said, is still one of the most influential positions as well as understanding especially at the grass-root level of the churches in India. The conservatives continue to cling onto the model of “how to” do mission (or “how to” convert and multiply) taking the questions of the “why” and the “what” of mission for granted. Many proponents of this model would assert that the “why” and “what” of missions are clearly answered in the Bible, especially in such texts as “the Great Commission” (Matthew 28:16-20). With this simplistic answer to the “why” and “what” of mission, this model fails to take the challenges of the world seriously but hides itself behind the security of its own religious walls. Since Christian mission directly concerns the world beyond the bounds of Christianity, or the interaction with those beyond the frontier line, any definition of mission—including deductive works on the biblical meanings of mission—has to take the world beyond the bounds of Christianity seriously. Thus, the “how” question is closely linked to the “why” and “what” questions, and the “why” and “what” could not simply be answered “from above”, but also “from below.” With regard to finding easy answers from the Bible, one needs to be aware of the subjective involvement of the reader and the influence of one’s predilection in reading the Bible. One’s predilection often determines the kind of “answer” one “receives” from the Bible. In other words, claiming simple “Biblical answer” is neither easy nor convincing.
2. The confusion in understanding the church’s place in God’s mission (missio Dei) and the conflicting convictions on God’s work in secular history led to the difficulty in identifying what is involved in Christian mission. The problem indirectly led the discipline of mission study to a perplexing state. The study of mission, with a primary understanding of mission as missio Dei, could not find its place in the existing theological education system as it clearly is an overarching discipline that holds all other disciplines of theological study within itself. In one sense, the entire arena of theological education deals with missio Dei. David Bosch has rightly noted, “[T]heology, rightly understood, has no reason to exist other than critically to accompany the missio Dei.” The problem of identifying the extent of God’s works (or mission) in the concrete historical sphere also led to the difficulty of stabilizing mission as an academic discipline. Johannes Aagaard has pointed out that under the missio Dei conception, “everything we do is [easily] identified with the historical missio of God, unqualifiedly and indiscriminately.” This notion leads to the obliteration of boundary or boundaries to define mission. It was such a tendency to limitlessly broaden the concept of mission under the missio Dei concept that compelled a prominent missiologist Stephen Neill to protest, “If everything is mission, nothing is mission.”
3. The emphasis on action-oriented understanding of mission as “witness” is also in danger of limiting mission within the narrow confines of ethical imperatives. Loosing sight of the multidimensionality of mission easily lead to the replacement of the very term “mission” with other terms such as “justice.” This danger is not constructed merely in abstract; there are instances that can be quoted in which attempts have been made, consciously or subconsciously, to subsume mission within other disciplines such as Ethics. For instance, the “Final Statement on ‘the International Consultation on Mission and Unity’”, a consultation jointly sponsored by the NCCI and the Gurukul Lutheran Theological College, defines mission as “a process of ethical transformation characterised by the availability of justice, freedom and dignity for all.” While ethical issues constitute an important dimension of mission, mission can neither be limited nor subsumed within one’s conception of ethical imperatives. Justice as an issue and a theme is an essential part of mission and the most crucial norm to judge mission activities, but mission is not limited to justice.
In providing these points of critique to the major definitions and interpretations of mission and their implications in the study of mission as an academic discipline, it is not my intention to surpass the definitions. On the contrary, I hang on these definitions to further my search for missiology’s place in theological education. My intention is to show that when taken and utilized in isolation, each of these approaches is in danger of limiting the meaning of mission within the bounds of its own pretensions and emphases. Christian mission, therefore, should not be defined with an “either/or” mindset. Christian mission is a multi-faceted discipline, and has multiple major concerns, which includes verbal proclamation of the Gospel, religious conversion, inter-religious dialogue for mutual understanding and peace, promoting social justice, uplifting the down-trodden, and many others. Christian mission has many-ness not in a fragmentary sense, but in the sense of wholeness.
The Study of Mission in Theological Education:
The multidimensional nature of mission directs its study to become an inter-disciplinary activity. Not only does mission have many modes, it has many sides and is linked with various theological and non-theological disciplines. Thus, as an interdisciplinary field of study, it has a crucial complementary role to play in the entire arena of theological study. At the same time, its inter-disciplinary nature also perplexes academicians in finding its role and place in the academic arena and impedes its independent existence within the existing theological education system.
Mission Study or Missiology (as we interchangeably use the two terms) as an academic discipline is closely related to the study of (other) living religions, and the discipline itself by definition is incomplete without its biblical-theological, historical, and practical-ethical dimensions and foundations. From the time of Friedrich Schleiermacher, who was the first to attempt to find a place for mission study within the wider theological study, there have been various suggestions to place mission study within one of the existing fields of study. Schleiermacher himself suggested that mission study should be included within Practical Theology. Although he suggested that it be included within Practical Theology, Schleiermacher made his detailed treatment of mission study in his section on ethics. While mission historians such as Gustav Warneck, John Foster and Kenneth Scott Latourette argued that mission should be included within church history, a small minority of theologians also suggested that it be placed within systematic theology. The multidimensionality of mission is a problem to missiology in regard to its place in the theological education system. A century and half after Schleiermacher, theological academicians are still asking: Should mission study be an independent discipline or should it be included within other disciplines of theology? There has not been a consensus.
Recently, Laurent Ramambason has helpfully outlined the various points of view under four headings, namely “mission oriented theological studies”; “recognition of missiology as a separate subject”; "combination of missiology with some other subjects”; and “dimensional study of mission.” Christopher Duraisingh advocated the first one, and forcefully argued that mission has to become “the undergirding perspective of the educational [i.e., theological education] process itself.” In a context where mission study exists only at the margin of theological education, Duraisingh’s proposal appears to be too ambitious and unrealistic. Following Schleiermacher, Wolfhart Pannenberg proposes that missiology should be included within or combined with Practical Theology. A number of institutions are still following this approach, and placed mission studies within or combined with Pastoral Theology; while others combined it with Church History, some combined it with or relate it closely to World Religions. Taking the multi-dimensional nature of mission seriously, some scholars propose that the various dimensions may be taken care of by various fields of study: Biblical, Systematic Theology, Church History, and Practical Theology. The problem with this proposal as well as the previous one (i.e., combination with other fields), says O. G. Myklebust, is “whenever missiology is integrated into one or more of the other disciplines, it does not receive its due.” With few exceptions, scholars of other fields rarely give importance to missiological dimensions within their fields of expertise. The central puzzle continues to be how to deal with the multi-dimensional nature and the inter-disciplinary function of missiology. I join a number of mission thinkers in insisting that missiology is a complementary discipline and could not exist independently from other fields of theological study. At the same time, to expect other fields of study to take care of missiological issues and concerns within or from their fields is nonrealistic and self-defeating.
James Scherer has done a good analysis on how missiology is complementary to various other fields of study. He listed five fields of study with which missiology has to be related, namely Biblical Studies, Church history, Systematic Theology, Social Sciences, and World Religions. I will not repeat what he says except to emphasize his strong insistence on “missiological controlling [or driving] principles” to be operative as criteria for relating with such fields. One also gets a strong impression that none of the fields in themselves bother to give due emphasis to missiological themes, and any limitation of missiology within each field would do great injustice to missiology. The most important contribution of Scherer, in my opinion, is his insistence that there should be “essential missiology” to determine what is “normative missiologically.” To set the norms, he chose not to draw boundary line or lines, but look for a centre or the essence. The complementary approaches cannot work without “the integrating missiological center,” he says. I think Scherer is right in insisting that “essential missiology” should be operative in relating or integrating missiology with other fields. However, in spelling out “the integrating missiological center” or “essential missiology,” Scherer surprisingly moves backward historically and conceptually to “the basic traditions and conceptual principles embodied in the works of [Gustav] Warneck, [J. H.] Bavinck, and [Johannes] Verkuyl.” An “essential missiology,” he says, should “touch with the roots, motives, classical foundations, and goals of the discipline—i.e., God’s glory, ‘conversion of the Gentiles,’ planting of the church, hastening and preparing for the kingdom.”
I agree with Scherer methodologically. It is impossible to rigidly set limits to the multidimensional missiology, and the best way to approach the problem is to find the centre, or I would rather call it the axis, that would hold together various dimensions of missiology. This centre should determine what is missiological in the process of integration with other fields of study. However, I do not agree with Scherer with regard to what the integrating principle is. In identifying the integrating principle or principles, one should have in mind and look for the distinctive contribution missiology must make to the existing theological education system. For this purpose, the function of what Lesslie Newbigin and Hans-Werner Gensichen call “dimensional aspect” of missiology, which is “to permeate all disciplines … of the theological encyclopedia” has to be temporarily abandoned, and one should concentrate on “the intentional aspect” of missiology. In other words, for the purpose of finding the core or axis of missiology, we should dispense with what we earlier called a “deductive definition” of mission and focus on a “functional definition.” Although missiology must be concerned with “God’s glory”—taking an example from Scherer’s list—there is nothing distinctively missiological about “God’s glory” as all fields of theological study must also be concerned with it.
Integrating Principle of Missiology:
To suggest the axis or integrating principle of missiology, let me return to my interim definition of mission for a moment. Christian mission, I have said, is about the boundary-crossing activity of Christians or the Church following God who crossed the boundary between God and the world (missio Dei) in and through Jesus Christ. The word “crossing” is noteworthy especially in today’s context of conflict between fundamentalist groups of various religions. Here, one ought to note that the call is “to cross” and not “to crush” the boundaries. In the light of this definition, we may ask if the attempts of various fundamentalist groups of different religions (including Christian fundamentalists) to crush the boundary by destroying the cultural differences be considered mission. What are the boundaries the Church in mission is called to cross? Drawing from the history of Christian mission, let me suggest three types of boundaries from which I will make my option; these are, religio-territorial boundaries, cultural boundaries, and religious boundaries. The distinction between cultural boundaries and religious boundaries cannot be precise because culture and religion are often too difficult to distinguish. In the modern missionary movement up to the early twentieth century, religio-territorial was undisputedly the defining boundary which Christian missionaries were understood to cross. Missionaries were considered missionaries when they crossed over from Christian Europe to non-Christian Asia, Africa, Latin America and others. The reaching out from Christendom to “mission fields” in the “non-Christian lands” was the basic way of doing mission. At the collapse of Christendom and when the major direction of mission changed from “foreign mission” to “world mission,” the notion of identifying “non-Christian lands” as “mission fields” was gradually abandoned. As described earlier, the World Mission Conference of the CWME in 1963 (Mexico City) declared that mission “is not just to three continents, but six [or all the continents],” involving Christians in all lands.
Secondly, mission has been conceived popularly in recent times as crossing of cultural boundaries. Especially in western countries, Christian mission has been closely related to the so-called “cross-cultural ministry.” All kinds of ministry done cross-culturally are often interpreted as mission activities. Culture plays a central role in mission and cultural boundaries are often the most sensitive and difficult parts in mission activities, but mission cannot be limited to cross-cultural ministry. Since Christianity does not have a specific culture of its own, and culture differs between different communities who claim to hold the same religion, every crossing of cultural boundaries does not consist in doing mission.
In my opinion, it is the religious boundary that defines the function of mission in the most specific way. Religious boundaries, which are also essentially part of cultural boundaries we have discussed, have endured the changes in the concept of mission in history and continue to be an important defining factor of mission. Although we try to differentiate religious boundaries from cultural boundaries, the two are intrinsically related and cannot be separated. Thus, when we talk about religious boundaries, to a certain extent, we also include cultural boundaries. I would argue that mission has always been conceived as witness to the Gospel across religious boundaries, and that mission is considered to have happened when an individual or group of one religion cross over into another religious domain with its message and promises. Mission in broad terms, therefore, essentially involves activities and interactivities across religious boundaries. In making this definition, I am aware of the need to be specific and realistic. I try to free myself, at least temporarily, from deductive definition because my quest involves the practical contributions missiology should make in the existing theological education system. Based on deductive reasoning, there are various attractive definitions within the broad conceptual framework of missio Dei such as mission as “the dynamic relationship between God and the world,” and mission as “participation in the humanisation of the world.” Such definitions, however, are too broad for our purpose.
Based on the definition of mission as witness across religious boundaries, I propose to identify the axis or integrating principle of missiology as a broadly defined “theology of religions” (theologia religionum), a discipline that came into popular theological parlance only in recent decades. By theology of religions, I mean critical theological reflections on the interaction and intercourse between different religions through such means as proclamation and sharing of their different creeds and teachings, through dialogue of their adherents, and mutual challenges and partnership for common cause. William Burrows differentiates two approaches to theology of religions. One approach takes “the ‘salvation’ values of other religious ways” as the central question, and the other appraises “how complex traditions …diversely envision the character of the Whole and fashion praxes consistent with these visions.” Our purpose is better served by the former because our concern is not so much on the theories and concepts of religion, but on the interactions between living and active religions on such central concept as salvation. Thus, it is theology of religions that we are talking about, not theology of religion. Jacques Dupuis has made a clear distinction between the two. He says, “The theology of religion [as a Christian enterprise] asks what religion is and seeks, in the light of Christian faith, to interpret the universal religious experience of humankind ….” Christian theology of religions, on the other hand, “studies the various traditions in the context of the history of salvation and in their relationship to the mystery of Jesus Christ and the Christian Church.”
In formulating the above broad definition, I intend to include all schools of theology of religions, and wish to highlight that the intercourse between religions has been happening throughout Christian history. In recent years, because of the new recognition of religious plurality in most countries of the world, especially in the western countries, and the popular evolving of the accompanying pluralistic theology of religions, serious thoughts have just been emerging. Few mission thinkers had prophesied a few decades ago that the challenge of other religions as well as the oncoming pluralism of religions would be the greatest challenge to the theology of mission. Max Warren is quoted to have said in 1958 that, “the impact of agnostic science will turn out to have been child’s play compared to the challenge to Christian theology of the faith of other men [sic].” By 1961, Gerald H. Anderson, who now has become one of North America’s most prominent missiologists, commented on the unpopularity of the issue in the West. He wrote, “Christian theological endeavor has been more concerned with introspection, intra-Christian relations, than with the interrelation of Christianity with other faiths. Too often those most interested in the nature of the Christian faith have been those least interested in its relation to men [sic] of other faiths.” By 1991, the situation of religious pluralism was so pervasive even in the West that another American theologian Carl Braaten pleads, “Christianity needs a theology of religions.” Some conservative evangelical theologians such as John Sanders and Clark Pinnock have tried to bring home the challenge to the conservative circles. Even among those who do not recognize or experience the situation of religious pluralism, these scholars argue that the problem of salvation of the “unevangelized” people parallels the serious question posed by religious pluralism.
While western theologians tried to cope with religious pluralism and struggled to introduce theology of religions seriously only since the late 1980s, theologians in multi-religious situations like India had been working on the issue for decades under several other nomenclatures. Scholars like P. D. Devanandan and Raimon Panikkar had done pioneering theological reflections on the pluralism of religions in the early 1960s, and the impact of Stanley Samartha’s work in the World Council of Churches has been felt throughout the world. In fact, if one wants to trace the historical development and the various struggles the issue of pluralism and dialogue faced in the non-Catholic ecumenical movement, Samartha’s recent autobiographical account is one of the best sources. Samartha’s Christological reflections on the pluralistic theology of religions remains to be one of the most original and in-depth studies on the field.
A few points of clarification are in order. Theology of religions evolved out of religious pluralism, which refers both to a conceptual condition and a historical situation. By religious pluralism, we are not referring to a mere multi-religiosity in which religions may independently exist, but a situation in which different living religions mutually recognize their existence side by side. Such situations demand dialogical existence of different religions, which is the essence of religious pluralism and an essential condition for mutual interactivities among religions. Religious pluralism and pluralistic theology of religions are not the same, and the latter should not be confused with the theology of religions. Pluralistic theology of religions is one school of thought within the theology of religions.
In suggesting the theology of religions as the essential integrating principle of missiology, I am influenced by a number of missiologists who made similar pleas for different purposes. The American missiologist Gerald Anderson has written on the issue in several places. In his 1993 article, he says, “No issue in missiology is more important, more difficult, more controversial, or more divisive for the days ahead than the theology of religions.” About twenty years earlier, Eric Sharpe had argued that “the encounter between Christianity and non-Christian religions, and the Christian evaluation of other religions, acts as it were as an epitome of mission theology.” Using Sharpe’s description, David Bosch declared that “the theologia religionum [or “theology of religions”]… is the epitome of mission theology.” Bosch’s thought on the importance of the theology of religions to mission theology has been further explored and analyzed by Gerald Anderson. I whole-heartedly agree that the theology of religions is at the heart of the theology of mission, but I would go further in suggesting that the theology of religions should be taken as the main defining principle of missiology. Not limiting missiology as such to the theology of religions, the theology of religions is to be utilized as the integrating principle of various dimensions of mission.
This paper is limited to explore and analyze viewpoints on mission and missiology with an attempt to suggest ways for viable understanding. Amidst conflicting viewpoints, we suggest that we need to hold a holistic approach and define mission in a comprehensive manner even to the point of risking its cutting edge. Essential as it is, a holistic understanding of mission brings with it various problems and its implications for mission study are perplexing. For a viable way of understanding mission, we suggest a defining principle in which two modes are operative, namely deductive and functional. Inspired by the former but drawn from the latter, we use witness across religious boundaries as the defining principle of mission and from which we draw the theology of religions as the integrating principle of missiology. In putting this point forward, I would like to remind ourselves that the context is a theological education system. In proposing the theology of religions as the hub of the multidimensional missiology, we have in mind the distinctive contribution missiology is to make to the existing fields of theological study. In conclusion, let me reiterate the limits of this paper. In proposing what I believe to be the hub of missiology, namely theology of religions, this paper can come up only to the stage of identifying it, and does not explore the intricacies within it. As far as missiology is concerned, we are in a critical and crucial period; “the field is wide, but laborers are few.” A further exploration into how theology of religions integrates various aspects of mission is a task set ahead for students of missiology. This paper raises the issue, specifies the way, and sets the trend in that direction. As an inter-disciplinary field of study with an important complementary role to play to all existing fields of theological study, part of the task of missiology involves the drawing out of missiological themes and issues from those fields of study. In some fields, the task has not yet begun.