Mission is the Mother of Theology: Problem, Permanent, or Perpetual?

By John Drury

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

You may have heard it said, "Christian doctrine is really just baptized Greek philosophy." Let's take a look at this claim and consider how one might respond to it.

In order to curb the pejorative tone of this accusation, it is important to note the motive behind Christian use of Greek philosophy. In an important early twentieth century essay, Martin Kahler declared, "Mission is the mother of theology." What he meant by this is that the early church first began to theologize (explicit reflection on its teaching) in response to the missional encounter of the gospel in new cultures. In other words, the early Christians embedded their claims into the language and mind-set of its pagan mission field in order to bring them into the fold. Such mission-driven theology can be seen at work specifically in the intertwining of Greco-Roman culture and the Hebrew Scriptures, first in an incipient form in the New Testament and later in the full-blown synthesis of Trinitarian and Christological doctrines.

Most people would not quarrel with whether this happened. It is certainly an aspect of the historical development of Christianity. The question is what to do about it now that it is the case. What do we do with all this Greek philosophy commingled with classic Christian doctrine? As I see it, there are three logical options:

(1) Problematic - One view would be that the existence of Greek ideas in Christian doctrine is a problem to be solved. One might be charitable enough to say that this synthesis was innocent in its day, but it must be eradicated now. Greek philosophy is dated at best, and pernicious at worst. We must clear off the husk of cultural expression and get back to the kernel of Gospel truth. In Kahler's terms: mission is the mother of theology, but theology has grown up and no longer needs its mother.

(2) Permanent - The opposite view would be that the synthesis achieved by the early Christians is the essential form of Christianity. There was no Christianity properly-so-called until this encounter took place. Orthodoxy's dependence on Greek philosophy is therefore not a problem to be solved but a relationship to be explored. To retrieve a robust Christian faith in our day requires a simultaneous retrieval of the insights of Greek philosophy and culture. In Kahler's terms: mission is the mother of theology, and thou shalt honor thy mother.

(3) Perpetual - There is a third view that the cultural embedding of the gospel is a perpetual process that must occur over and over again. On each new mission field, theology once again does its work of reflecting on the gospel and its claims in the new context. This is a hybrid view, for on the one hand it agrees with the first view that past cultural expressions are not normative, while on the other hand it does not disparage those cultural expressions for what they are. In Kahler's terms: mission is the mother of theology, and each new mission is the mother of a new theology.

What do you think?
Would you agree that mission is the mother of theology?
Is this a fair account of the possible responses to this fact?
Is there a possible response not listed?
Toward which approach do you lean? Why?
Should we make use of all of these options in a case-specific manner? If so, which options go with which issues?


At 11:53 PM, November 09, 2005, pk said...

Option 3 resonates with me the most. The word that comes to mind is that following Jesus is an incarnational endeavor. It will look different in Sri Lanka than in Madagascar. "Each new mission is the mother of a new theology."

This implies that there is some "kernal" that is being incarnated into each and every new culture. That's a whole new blog as to what the kernel is, eh?


At 2:14 PM, November 14, 2005, David Drury said...

Great thinking, John. And good categories. Your thoughts on (and correction to the over-simplification of) the Hellenization of Christian Theology were right on in your Theology Today piece. Good stuff.

Like Paul (scary to him though it may be) I would align a bit with your option number 3. Or, at least, I am drawn to it as a plausible thing to engage in and remain orthodox in some manner. In history I see that it has happened, so that it happens again is no bother to me--perhaps it's even a joy to re-create that history. To re-paint the Velvet Elvis as someone has recently said.


At 3:55 PM, November 17, 2005, Just . Jay said...

i have seriously been thinking on this one ALL week. here's what I think, although i haven't made up my mind or come to a definitive conclusion yet...

to incluide the Gentiles in God's "new" Kingdom, changes needed to be made... in delivery if nothing else. right? so the "emergent greeks" could find God "relevant." ha! funny but possibly at least partly true.

if you are a fisherman by trade, jesus would say you will be "fishers of men" from now on... right? if you were a baker, "fishers of men" wouldn't mean quite as much.

i simplified that last point, i know, but this question has been bouncing around like a ping pong ball in my head!

my ever-present conviction that theology must be practical and applicable to be worth anything more than a hot cup of jack-squat, well, i think that may have come in to play with the greeks. and everyone else.

to answer the question, i think it is a mixture of all three.

problematic if greek thoughts are no longer relevant (i hate that word these days) to the current culture(s) and are kept only for tradition's sake.

permanent in that it IS part of tradition and history and has really brought ther Gospel to a more dynamic place than without the "synthesis"

perpetual in that the Word of God is a living thing and will and must "adapt" or "evolve" within the framework God allows to reach as many as possible, of course NOT changing or evolving from the original gospel message. i don't know how to explain "evolve" quite the way i want to (uh oh, i think the 700 club is mad at me for saying that word. i hope i am not called out to be assassinated.).