Saturday, February 18, 2006

Correct Knowledge and Doctrinal Minimalism

How much correct knowledge of God, Christ and the gospel is necessary for “genuine conversion?” The answer may not be so easy as we might think for those of us working missionally among adherents of new religions, particularly those sharing some affinities with Christianity.

This week I exchanged some emails with a Fuller student who is working on a religion project paper that compares missional contextualization in Islamic contexts with the development of a similar approach to Latter-day Saints. Our exchange was interesting as we integrated our experiences in LDS culture with the writings on Islamic contextualization, and then wrestled with the question of correct knowledge of God and disavowal of heretical knowledge. I thought it might be helpful to summarize some of our thinking here for others to wrestle with in their missional contexts.

We began with recognition of our cultural assumptions that might influence our thinking on this topic. As children of the Enlightenment and Modernity, we recognize that in the West we tend to understand knowledge, and doctrine, in abstract propositional ways, and to value knowledge as an end unto itself. By contrast, a more Hebraic understanding of knowledge tends to be more relational. As Westerners we need to wrestle with the issues and the biblical texts on their own cultural terms rather than imposing Western understandings of knowledge on the subject matter.

With due consideration of our cultural biases, we then considered the essence of the question as to how much correct doctrine is necessary for converts, especially in connection with heretical doctrine. Most evangelicals have some kind of doctrinal formula in mind, from the simple to the complex, but the assumptions upon which these formulas are based need to be reassessed in light of a fresh exegetical and missional engagement with Scripture.

Rick Brown wrote an interesting article for the International Journal of Frontier Missions titled “What Must One Believe About Jesus for Salvation?” The article provides an interesting survey of relevant biblical texts, and his thesis challenges conventional formulas that speak of the necessity of certain doctrines equated with orthodoxy in Christendom, including the deity of Christ, Trinitarian theology, and a substitutionary atonement. Brown’s argument is worthy of careful reflection.

In addition to the question of knowledge of Jesus related to soteriology, we might also consider the broader question of conversion as it relates to worldview transformation. In our discussion we also considered an article by Paul Hiebert, also found in IJFM titled, appropriately enough, “Conversion and Worldview Transformation.”

For those more inclined toward more expansive definitions of orthodoxy as influenced by systematic theology, we might consider that missions has been called the “mother of theology.” Missiologist Gailyn Van Rheenen has used this term in his writings, and by this he means that the early church developed her theology primarily through the messy process of missional engagement with cultures, rather than through philosophical reflection in the form of systematic theology.

After considering these questions from a missiological perspective, and after engaging in fresh theological reflection, we came to the conclusion that some form of doctrinal minimalism is in order. It appears from the biblical evidence that a minimal amount of correct knowledge and doctrine was presented to and accepted by the “convert,” and our tendencies toward more extensive evangelistic formulas might be not only unbiblical, but also put the doctrinal cart before the horse. Rather than expecting potential converts to have more extensive and orthodox theological views, perhaps this is something that should be developed over time as individuals mature in the discipleship process.

And what of the question of the disavowal of heresy from converts? This too may be more difficult and messy than we had previously thought. The biblical texts seem to indicate an admixture of orthodoxy and heresy on the part of those in the covenant (whether Old or New), and while this is not ideal, and the discipleship process should strive toward a deeper and more accurate understanding, surely new converts should not be expected to disavow much of their doctrine and worldview prior to or immediately after acceptance of the gospel. This too might be viewed as a part of the lengthy process of discipleship and sanctification, and missionaries should give those under their discipleship care plenty of room for the Spirit’s working in human lives.

After these discussions I wondered whether it is possible that we have asked more than we need to of those considering the claims of Christ within new religions.


ardlair said...

Not trying to be funny can so many muslims be so wrong?

John W. Morehead said...

Ardlair, I'm sorry, but I have no idea what you are trying to ask, or what it has to do with the subject matter of this post.

Ramón said...

John, I followed a link from Paul Metzger's Facebook page and loved this post. I think the Church must continue to return to moments like Acts 15 in which we realize with humility that our interpretation of the Scriptures must always be ready to respond to how the Spirit is moving missionally. Thank you for putting the questions out there.

John W. Morehead said...

Ramón, thank you for taking the time to track this down, read it, and reflect on it.