Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Review of Constants in Context (Bevans and Schroeder 2004)

Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today is a brilliant fusion of church history and missiology.  It takes it’s place right beside Transforming Mission as the reference book for mission theology. This book offers a panoramic view at how different Christian traditions in historical periods have engaged in mission over the last 2,000 years. In order to explain these developments and point a way forward for mission in the twenty-first Century, Catholic missionary scholars Bevans and Schroeder use three types of theology to show how each type has struggled with issues that have remained constants throughout the history of the church in mission. Answering the questions (the questions themselves are the constants) that every church at all times has struggled to answer amounts to forming a missiology: (1) Who is Jesus Christ and what is his meaning? (2) What is the nature of the Christian church? (3) How does the church regard its eschatological future? (4) What is the nature of the salvation it preaches? (5) How does the church value the human? and (6) What is the value of human culture as the context in which the gospel is preached?” (Kindle Locations 1111-1115).

The three types of theology find their representatives with the early church fathers. “Type A” is represented by Tertullian and is called “law.” Humankind is fallen and only by special revelation can be saved. The mission of the church in Type A is to save souls and start more churches. Type B is represented by Origen and is called “truth.” Human salvation is already realized through the best of human reason. The mission of the church in Type B is to invite others to discover the truth. Type C is represented by Irenaeus and is called “history.” The church is committed to the proclamation and service of Christ’s lordship over all creation. The mission of church in Type C is the liberation and transformation of the world.

One weakness of the book is the caricatures present in the typologies (although I understand the need for simplification). For instance, Type A is unfortunately called “law” simply due to the penal understanding Christ’s death. A much better word to describe Type A would be “revelation” because of the high value placed on God’s initiative in that type. Furthermore, descriptive words for Type B and C could be “exploration” and “transformation,” respectively. I doubt the liberals of Type B would want to be identified with “truth!”

Another weakness is the understanding of mission in the book of Acts. As the authors correctly state, the book of Acts reveals a tension between Jew and Gentile, and how the apostles adapted ministry approaches and even theology as the socio-religious context changed. However, the constants in the book of Acts are the acts of evangelism and church planting. Acts chapter 29 would involve a new ministry approach to church planting in a new context. For the authors, the changing contexts seem to imply that these acts are secondary or optional in mission. “The church only becomes the church as it responds to God's call to mission, and to be in mission means to change continually as the gospel encounters new and diverse contexts” (Kindle Locations 2058-2059).

As an Evangelical, I can see myself in each of the types, although I identify most closely with Types A and C (the Bible is marginalized in Type B). As Catholics, the authors identify mostly with Types C and B. Therefore the book’s proposal of mission as “prophetic dialogue” largely omits Type A’s emphasis on conversion and church planting in mission. I feel that when speaking of the mission of “the church” it is important to make a distinction between the local church and the universal church. The local church seeks to multiply itself (Type A), whereas the universal church works for the transformation of societies (Type C). This could be a helpful corrective to their Catholic missiology. Especially in unreached areas of the world, how can there be any sustainable spiritual power needed for radical culture transformation without discipleship that happens in the context of conversion and church planting?

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