GREENVILLE PRESBYTERIAN THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY
BOOK REVIEW: AN INTRODUCTION TO THE SCIENCE OF MISSIONS BY J.H. BAVINCK
AT 44 Missions
July 29, 2015
Bavinck’s Introduction to the Science of Missions, though over fifty years old, is still relevant and helpful for studying missions today. The book is divided into three main parts: the Theory of Missions, Elenctics, and the History of Missions. The first part examines the scriptural basis for missions and what place it has in the life of the church, whereas part three, the history of missions, examines the missions work that has actually occurred throughout church history. Part two, elenctics, occupies a place in between the other two and in the task of missions is a call to the unbeliever, asking him what he has done with God, and is characterized by prophetic preaching and calling the native to repentance.
Bavinck further divides part one into three subparts: The Foundation of Missions, which directly examines the Old and New Testaments to discover the biblical concept of missions; The Missionary Approach, which addresses practical problems on the missions field; and finally, The Goal of Missions, which addresses the relationship between the mother church and the newly established churches.
Bavinck begins by noting that one may not initially believe the Old Testament provides much warrant for missions. For God was the God of Israel, and they were a called out people, separated from the rest of the nations because the one true God had graciously chosen to be their God out of all the peoples of the earth. Yet because the Old Testament is so clear that there is only one God, missions is a necessity. The separation of Israel was always intended by God to be a temporary arrangement, for He said to Abraham that through his seed all nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12:3). The later prophetic writings also spoke of salvation coming to the nations, and Israel never forgot this. In fact, the way God deals with Israel is meant to show the world how God deals with them. Those who persecute Israel, God destroys. Even when Israel is unfaithful and God sends pagan nations to destroy them and send them into exile, God still sends judgment upon those whom He used to rebuke His people, precisely because they were His people. Thus God shows both Israel and foreign nations that relationship with God can only come through covenant. As redemptive history progresses in the Old Testament, it becomes clear from the prophets and political circumstances that Israel must either be absorbed into the surrounding political world or become the living power that draws other nations into the light of God and His salvation. Per Isaiah 66:18-19 and similar passages, Israel will be glorified one day, and it is the glory of Israel that will draw nations into her and the true God, even more so than the force of the call itself. So while the Old Testament laid emphasis on the glory of God’s name over missions, the prophets also foresaw an eschatological future where the salvation of the nations would occur in the last days after the Messiah had defeated them.
During the intertestamental period missions work was not done, though Josephus records that Jews would try to lure Greeks to their worship services in hopes of converting them. The Jews desired to show that theirs was the true philosophical wisdom and they were the people of culture. In fact they claimed Greek philosophy and the Old Testament were of a piece. While the Jewish expectation of the Messiah was a political or military figure who would transform the world order and bring salvation worldwide, they did not expect one to come who would suffer and die in order for His kingdom to be inaugurated. They did not see that the kingdom was spiritual. Jesus comes and says the kingdom of God is at hand, and He calls others to repent. But when He dies and subsequently rises and ascends to the right hand of the Father, he commissions the apostles to continue His missionary work. They too are to call sinners to faith in Christ, from house to house, across the world. Christ inaugurated His kingdom, but it will not be consummated, full salvation will not be realized, until He returns. In the meantime, Bavinck insists, missions is of utmost importance. Now the church follows in the footsteps of Christ in bringing the gospel to the pagans (John 20:21), and Christ’s work, and the church’s, was already seen and spoken of in the Old Testament prophecies. When the task of missions is complete, full salvation and the return of Christ will occur. Christians too have received the work of reconciliation, and it comes through the proclamation of the gospel given to the masses. God is working through His church, by His Spirit, to bring the elect to faith.
The missionary approach must ultimately be determined not by psychology or ethnology, but by theology. God’s Word must have the final word. Per II Cor. 5:20, we preach Christ and extend an invitation in the name of Christ. Through the preaching of Christ, then, the pagan encounters the living God. Therefore the approach must show the heathen the love and mercy of Christ through the cross above all else. This also means that the gospel cannot be presented in the abstract, but always as a life-giving message to the people being spoken to, since a real, living encounter with Christ is occurring. The way we preach, and the urgency of our preaching, will depend upon the context that we are preaching in. We need to be ready to preach in and out of season, but different situations will require different applications. It is also important to go to the place where unbelievers are, to give them the word in their own homes, where they feel most comfortable. This is to follow the example of Christ and the apostles. The missionary must also live in such a way that the message proclaimed is modeled by the life lived. The missionary must also, to a certain degree, give up his own freedoms and cultural habits and assume some of the cultural habits of the natives to which he is ministering. Bavinck is adamant that missionaries must be highly trained and paid; if they are not trained, their mistakes have ripple effects for centuries, and if they are not paid, they have to entangle themselves with the economy of those they wish to reach, which may have undesirable consequences. Western culture is also so advanced and different from tribal cultures that one has to take care in just how much and how quickly acculturation occurs. Many will soon desire to abandon their primitive practices, shirking them off to take a place with the real world powers.
The missionary does not want to destroy a culture, but wants to help it as he is able economically and medically. There also needs to be an ability and awareness of the shortcomings of American/Western culture as well in order to avoid them when transmitting ideas to a third world country. At bottom, though, the missionary desires to reach the native’s spiritual life and see them come to faith in Christ. While a person cannot be separated from their physical life, it does not follow that if physical conditions are better for a sinner, he will then be more inclined to repent and believe the gospel. The Spirit blows where it wills, and God saves sinners rich and poor, from all over the world, despite their individual societal circumstances. Tribal bonds do not need to be immediately broken, and some may be acceptable, but those which are sinful of themselves must cease immediately. Beneath all these layers that make up a person, the missionary must face the pagan with his own true sinful nature and with the living God. Their primitiveness must also not be regarded as stupid or ignorant, for this hinders an encounter-in- love with them. Rather, it must ultimately be seen as their way of fleeing from the reality of God. Preaching must also take into account what the heathen believes about religion already, for no one lives in a vacuum. The gospel must strike these false notions and show the truth of God in Christ. Bavinck stresses that all men have encountered God in some sense, due to natural revelation, and this is the sole point of contact between the missionary and pagan. The unbeliever already has a knowledge of God, and this is precisely why all men suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18). The gospel message then is not the answer to man’s seeking the true God, but is actually a rebuke of man’s rejecting the true God and exchanging him for fanciful idols. Our point of contact is therefore a point of antithesis, and though we can be polite, we must never omit the call to repentance and we must never obscure the antithesis.
This leads to the aim, or goal, of missions. Bavinck sees three purposes: the conversion of the heathen, the establishment of the church, and the glorification and manifestation of divine grace. These are not separate purposes but are interwoven into the fabric of the coming and extension of the kingdom of God. This coming of the kingdom includes the extension of the church over the whole earth. God’s glory is of foremost important, followed by the establishment of the church, and lastly the individual conversion of the heathen. The aim of missions is preoccupied with God’s glory and kingdom. Missions is for the eternal kingdom. The kingdom is comprised of churches, and in each church there are people whose hearts have been transformed by the love of Christ leading to sacrificially loving God and one another. All real salvation is enjoyed within the church, in fellowship, and not in isolation. The gospel calls people out of their old tribal bonds and into the new bond of Christ and His kingdom, where true family is found among the kingdom people. The church ought not to be a national entity, as it is alien to this world. One united church is the ideal, but in this sinful world and with cultural and theological differences, this may not be realized. Churches will have their own liturgy, which may to an extent reflect the pagan culture, but the rule is that the closer in proximity a custom to paganism is, the harder it will be to redeem it and use it in a righteous manner. Often times the converted pagans are more adept at discerning what can be used and what must be rejected, for it is they and not the missionary who grew up in the societal milieu. It must be remembered that Christ is King of all, and when something is redeemed, it is really Christ taking possession of what is already His and transforming it for use in His kingdom. Some of the most difficult practical matters are dealing with marriage customs, initiation ceremonies, eating of meat offered to idols, practices concerning death and burial, cultivation of the soil, and the worship service itself. Pagan religions often see women as the ones to toil the land, they may pray to idols to bring forth a bountiful crop, and polygamy may also be an accepted cultural norm. Initiation rites in tribes are often tied to cultic and sinful practices. Many also, like the Japanese and Chinese, venerate their dead ancestors. Can this be incorporated into a religious model, or must it outright be rejected? These are the types of questions that must be answered with care, looking to the Scriptures as the final and absolute guide.
After a church is established, the mother church and its relation to the newly formed church must be addressed. Paul exercised careful leadership over the young and tender new churches, yet he had special authority as an apostle to do so. It appears that the New Testament only sees one church, and doesn’t distinguish between old and new churches, fragile or firm churches. Christ Himself led his church through Paul; it is not that the church of Antioch exercised authority through Paul. No one church is in subordination to any other. Practically, if a mother church exercises too much control over the young church, the young church will never learn to grow and take on responsibility for itself. Scripture alone should guide the church; it ought not be required to submit to a more “mature” church. Another question is the division of churches due to denominationalism. Bavinck proposes that where there is agreement on the essence of the gospel, some degree of cooperation may occur. Yet, he also advocates that various churches and missionary societies not work in the same regions, by agreement, because doctrinal differences are legitimate. If the truth of God’s word is sacrificed in the name of “unity,” division is more desirable than this false unity. Bavinck believes ultimately that all true churches are in essence one, because they all promote and comprise the kingdom of God, and seek His glory in all things. Thus the division of new and young churches is removed in the underlying unity that comes through being one with Christ. The young church must also take over missions activity of its own, even though it is a fledgling church with little funds and limited knowledge. If such a church remains financially dependent, it cannot help but feel inferior. Following Nevius, Bavinck argues that the gospel must be spread and the church must grow through the spontaneous proclamation of it by the regular church member, and not primarily through a specialized and paid workman.
This leads to part two, Elenctics, which may be examined more briefly. Bavinck says this deals chiefly with the conviction of sin, which comes through the proclamation of the Word and by the power of the Holy Spirit. Bavinck discusses whether sound reason can be used in the service of elenctics. He refers to Calvin who said that the god of philosophers is something entirely different from the God-Man Jesus Christ. Simply seeing God explained rationally will not of itself lead a person to salvation. One must instead become convinced of the sin hidden behind unbelief, the sin of fleeing from God. The focal point must be not the folly of paganism but its diabolical character, that it is an affront to the holy God and is self-exaltation. Bavinck again refers to general revelation as the starting point and point of contact between the missionary and the unbeliever, and encourages pressing the antithesis. He argues that the rationality of man, infected with the noetic effects of sin, will not lead one to the truth, because the fallen man is led in his thinking by his sinful emotions rather than an earnest quest for truth.
We can also pity the heathen because we share with them a common sinful heart. The believer has been redeemed, but he knows what it is like to be in the darkness of sin, without hope of God. He can appeal to the pagan on this level, and extol the virtues of being called out of darkness and into the marvelous light of Christ. Elenctics, then, since it falls under conviction of sin by the power of the Holy Spirit, falls neatly under the missionary disciplines. One must ask the heathen what he is doing with God in the darkest shadows of his heart, and place before him the ugliness of himself in light of the holiness of God. The Bible in essence is a cry against false religion, paganism, the worshiping of idols instead of the one true God. All false religions are really a form of idolatry and self-exaltation, and never a seeking after the true God who has plainly revealed Himself to all men. What men do with God is bury him under a concept, shove him away to an endless distance, dissolve him in all sorts of secular realities, and make him into a nice fairy tale of boundless beauty. The gospel call of repentance, which pertains to elenctics, brings us face to face with the God we try to avoid.
Finally, Bavinck briefly addresses the history of missions. Bavinck argues that the emphasis must not fall on the individual men that comprise the history of missions, but God who used these men as His instruments for His glory. We can then see the history of missions as the wrestling of God with His church, His seeking to put it on the footing that He desires. The history of missions has been fraught with peril, and many obstacles have had to be overcome. For a time churches in Europe believed that the colored races had no promises of salvation since they allegedly descended from Ham. The motive for missions must also be that God desires to possess a people from every tribe and tongue to enter into His peace found in His eternal kingdom. The church became a state church soon after the Acts of the Apostles. This brought with it a more complex message, one tied up with nationalism, economic, and political factors. Christianity at this time had become the state religion. The church took upon itself in the middle ages the duty of bringing better civilization to others. Even during the Reformation, missionary work was seen as colonization, done primarily through the East Indian Company. Thus the church was unrighteously intertwined with the nations and things of this world. Then by the 18th century a pietism emerged in missions. This dissented from state churches and shirked political and cultural alliances. In fact, it went too far in the other direction and advocated a withdrawing from and complete separation from society. This was tied up with an eschatology that said Christ would return soon, so any engagement with the things of this world was a waste of time at best. During more modern times of missionary labors, it has become clear that churches themselves are called to engage in missionary activity, and not just parachurch organizations. The young churches realized that they too bore responsibility in proclaiming the gospel and sending out missionaries. Young and old churches alike have taken up the task. However, a resurgence of nationalism and acculturation of the modern Western ways has likewise occurred. Some have also done missions work out of a sense of guilt and as a form of penance. This is because many are realizing that the missions endeavors of history have often not been according to the will of God. Today the gospel is said to be going forth much as it did in the early church, by the spontaneous expansion of the gospel by ordinary lay-preachers.
In closing Bavinck mentions that atheism and agnosticism are on the rise, which has only increased since this book was published in 1960. He sees the issue in his present day being primarily that Asia, Africa, and other countries are most concerned with getting rid of their primitive ways and are trying to appropriate the Western style of life. They are too busy to bother with questions of God and morality. He also mentions the growth of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists. Though there seem to be many opposing forces, Bavinck reminds the reader that, in the end, the power to convert lies not with man, but with God, and that God will bring into His fold every single person for whom Christ died. Thus we can take confidence that our labors are not in vain, and that prayer for the conversion of the nations avails much.
 Bavinck, Introduction to the Science of Missions, xxi; 221
 Ibid., 7
 Ibid., 11
 Ibid., 19
 Ibid., 27
 Ibid., 29
 Ibid., 32
 Ibid., 81
 Ibid., 95
 Ibid., 107
 Ibid., 131
 Ibid., 155
 Ibid., 175
 Ibid., 194
 Ibid., 201
 Ibid., 222
 Ibid., 228
 Ibid., 271-72
 Ibid., 277
 Ibid., 305