An Apologist’s Advice (that missionaries should hear)
In one of my favourite sections in John G. Stackhouse’s Humble Apologetics, he gives the following bits of advice. Always good to remember, but especially as we all step through that complicated maze we have come to call “contextualization.” Substitute the word missions and missionaries for the words apologetics and apologists, and the warnings cut an even broader track. They are so helpful I’ll quote them at length:
Apologetics, like any other Christian activity, must be undertaken first as an act of love to God. In particular, we must be sure not to compromise God’s mission, God’s law, God’s message, or God’s love in our zeal.
First, we must not compromise God’s mission. We must not re- strict it so that it becomes narrower than God wants it to be: not merely “souls” being “saved,” or “minds” being “changed,” but whole people being adopted into God’s family and cooperating with him in the global work of redemption.
Second, we must not compromise God’s law. We must not manipulate or deceive, and particularly not use the “bait-and-switch” tactics that show up occasionally among evangelicals, and particularly in work with students: “Come and find out how to have great sex!” “Come to this talk and your grades will go up!” We must not use fear tactics, or success tactics, or any other tactics that are not congruent with the message we are offering and the Lord we serve.
Third, we must not compromise God’s message. Throughout the history of the church, well-meaning apologists have trimmed the gospel to make it fit a little easier with the presuppositions and preferences of the audience. Christianity seems too Semitic and not classically sophisticated? Let’s make it look and sound like Platonism, as some of the earliest apologists tried to do, or like Aristotelianism, as some medievals undertook to make it. Too much mystery in Christian theology? Let’s render Christianity Not Mysterious, as John Toland wrote in 1696. Too many references to the superstitious and supernatural? Let’s edit the New Testament to make Jesus look more enlightened and sophisticated, as Thomas Jefferson did (at least twice) literally with scissors and paste. Too much ancient strangeness and especially Jewish elements? Let’s follow the lead of modern liberal theology and strictly separate the New Testament’s “essential” message from its old-fashioned husk.
No, the gospel will appear foolish to sophisticates in every society. Too much editing of the message to suit the categories and interests of our neighbors can result in our merely echoing them, rather than giving them the gift of something wonderful they don’t already have. Apologetics must always maintain fidelity first to the sacred tradition.
Fourth, we must not compromise God’s love. Apologetics must always look like God’s love at work. People should be able to tell we love God and that we speak and act in the name of God’s love. Any apologetics that falls short of this standard falls badly short of the glory of God.
-John G. Stackhouse, Humble Apologetics, 140-141.