Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues


Paul G. Hiebert’s book, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues is divided into three parts, providing an insightful perspective on many issues faced by the modern missiological movement.  In the first part of the book, Hiebert reflects on the epistemological foundations of science, theology and missiology.  This discussion concludes with Hiebert’s presentation of what he refers to “critical contextualization” and “metatheology.”  In the second part, titled “Reflections on Planting Churches”, Heibert touches many practical issues facing missionaries, including their position in the bicultural bridge, leadership development, and urban evangelism.  The final part is titled, “Reflections in Spiritual Encounters” where Hiebert provides an outline and framework of his own theology and theological responses for particular missiological issues.


Hiebert begins the book with a discussion on epistemological foundations for theology where he discusses the epistemological views for both science and theology.  Hiebert reviews briefly how the awareness of the observer has impacted the fields of science, anthropology, theology and missions.  “Science has convincingly shown us that there is a human element in all knowledge.”  (1994:27)  While six epistemological positions are described, Heibert engages further discussion with Naïve Realism, Idealism, Determinism, and Critical Realism as epistemological foundations for theology.  A position for critical realism is advocated, and Hiebert believes that this position supports the priesthood of all believers and provides a framework for contextualization.  Heibert insightfully points out the failure for a number of Christians to see the importance of understanding their epistemological position, “Most Christians, like most scientists, do not examine their epistemological foundations.  They assume that they understand clearly and without bias what Scripture has to say.” (1994:26)  He encourages Christians to, “distinguish between debates over the epistemological foundations of theology and those over the content of theology.”  (1994:31)


Having provided a framework for his own approach to missiology and theology, Heibert continues with an explanation on how one’s epistemological framework plays a role in missiological thinking.  In particular, how one defines the core of the Gospel, how the Gospel interacts with other cultures, and how Christians view and interact with non-Christians.  Hiebert then discusses the move which must occur from anticolonialism to globalism.  The anticolonialism movement was deconstructive where each community was seen as independent, and theology was localized.  The globalism movement, however, will include a shift to interdependence and a contextualization of theology.   This shift towards globalism is a forward response to anticolonialism.  It will require a reevaluation of mission history, critical contextualization, a double translation (focusing on the meanings and forms), incarnational witness and recognition of both felt and real needs.  (1994:64-65).  The ability to form a metacultural grid with the perspectives of both an “empathetic insider” and “comparing outsider” is a key development in anthropology and in the shift towards globalism.  Fundamental to globalism is critical contextualization, and theologies which are developed locally and affirmed globally.  Hiebert writes that, “Theology must be done in the community.  It is ultimately the task not of individuals but of the church.” (1994:71)


Critical contextualization is this process of finding that cultural expression of the Gospel.  In the past, it is argued; missionaries have failed to contextualize the Gospel by appropriating certain cultural words, phrases, and customs, while allowing the Gospel to judge others.  This has lead to a situation that Koyama refers to in Water Buffalo Theology as a “kitchen theology” where a “correct” Christian theology is displayed in public, however in private believers return to their cultural heritage.  Hiebert explains that this uneasy coexistence of a public Christianity and private “paganism” has lead to syncretism.  “Non-Christian beliefs and practices infiltrated the church from below.”  (1994:81)  The process of critical contextualization must first uncritically gather information on traditional beliefs and customs.  These beliefs and customs are then studied in light of scripture, and finally corporately evaluated in light of biblical understandings and truths.  Hiebert writes that the process of contextualization not only helps believers to evaluate and appropriate their own traditional beliefs and customs to Christianity and take ownership of these decisions, it also helps all belivers to a deeper understanding of the Gospel.  “It seems contextualization as an ongoing process in which the church must constantly engage itself, a process that can lead us to a better understanding of what the lordship of Christ and the kingdom of God on earth are about.” (1994:92)


This process of critical contextualization results in cultural expressions of the Gospel message, and therefore further diversity within the Church.  Hiebert writes, “The growing pluralism in Christianity raises, as it did in the early church, the question of absolutes and unity.”  This therefore leads to the development of what Hiebert refers to as a “metatheology.”  This metatheology is defined as, “a set of procedures by which different theologies, each a partial understanding of the truth in a certain context, could be constructed.”  (1994:101) Hiebert writes that, “If theology is to become more than a Rorschach inkblot into which we project our own cultural prejudices, we need a standard against which to test our theologies.”  (1994:102) Hiebert is far from advocating syncretism, but rather advocates for a process of contextualization that encourages a cultural response to, and manifestation of the Gospel.


In the second part, Hiebert reflects on issues faced by missionaries, and in particular in the planting of churches.  The section of the book starts by seeking a better understanding and definition of how individuals are categorized as a Christian.  The discussion is seated in the case study of Papayya, who is an Indian, illiterate peasant.  This case highlights certain boundaries of how a Christian is defined as Papayya explores and begins to live out his new faith in Christ.  Hiebert presents four types of categories: intrinsic well-formed (bounded), intrinsic fuzzy sets, extrinsic well-formed (centered), and extrinsic fuzzy sets.  The author points out that in order to answer the common question, “What do we mean when we say Papayya has become Christian?” we need to first clarify and understand how we define the category of a Christian to avoid confusion.  Hiebert successfully argues that the Christian category should be defined as a centered set.  This means that one is a Christian based on their orientation towards Christ.  In other words, their membership in the set is based on how they relate to Christ, not on what they are in and of themselves.  Such a definition recognizes both the conversion and the movement towards the center, or maturation of a Christian.  In parallel to his discussion on epistemological foundations for theology, Hiebert writes that a failure to understand and communicate this definition of the Christian category will cause us to, “talk past each other, and our disagreements will arise out of different subconscious presuppositions rather than different theologies.”  (1994:133-4)


The second section continues with a discussion of the West’s attachment to order and programs and advocating for a focus on building people rather than programs.  Hiebert then explains the “bicultural bridge” that both missionaries, and nationals working with missionaries find themselves in.  In the subsequent chapter, the author describes the need for missions to be involved not only in the planting of new churches, but in the renewal of old churches.  The author provides a short discussion for the need to develop leaders, rather than followers, and leaders who have the vision of training future leaders.  Finally, this reflection on missiological issues is closed with a discussion of urban evangelism and the tendency of non-Christians to “window shop” the Gospel, and the need for the church to create and/or use neutral spaces to create an evangelistic bridge.


The third part of the book is titled, “Reflections in Spiritual Encounters” in which Hiebert begins to present not only the theological challenges to missionaries, but his own theological perspective on missiological issues.  The first chapter discusses the flaw of many missionaries to exclude what Hiebert refers to as “the middle.”  In particular this refers to “supernatural this-worldly beings.”  (1994:196) This “middle” is very real for the individuals to whom the missionaries, and doctors, minister to.  Since the missionaries are unable to respond to these issues, the people often turn to traditional solutions to these problems.  Hiebert writes that, “many missionaries trained in the West had no answers to the problems of the middle level – they often did not even see it.”  (1994:197)  As mentioned, these problems arise and are very real, and missionaries are unable to respond.  Hiebert points out some specific areas where missionaries have failed to develop theological responses, “Because the Western world no longer provides explanations for questions on the middle level, many Western missionaries have no answers within their Christian worldview.  What is a Christian theology of ancestors; of animals and plants; of local spirits and spirit possession; and of principalities, powers, and rulers of the darkness of this world (Ephesians 6:12)?” (1994:198)  For this reason missionaries must develop a holistic theology that answers questions presented by the worldview of their ministry context.  Hiebert begins to do so in his following discussion on spiritual warfare, and the chapter on “Healing and the Kingdom,” which provides a theological response to many missiological issues.


The final chapter of the book, “Healing and the Kingdom” is profoundly powerful in developing theological responses to a number of issues encountered in the mission field.  Hiebert develops responses to revelations, individualism, “signs and wonders”, healings and other issues.  Hiebert also provides a prophetic warning against the development of what he terms a “new Christian Magic.”  (1994:245)  He explains the dangers of such a development and warning signs of its existence.  He writes that the answer is in a careful discernment, “The answer lies neither in seeking miracles, nor in denying them.  The answer is to reject this dichotomy altogether, to see the naturalness of God’s extraordinary healings and the miraculous nature of his ordinary ones.”  (1994:248)


Hiebert covers significant ground in Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues.  The first section of the book provided a well formed discussion on the understanding of knowledge itself, and how this affects our theology and missions.  While his discussion of contextualization could be strengthened further by case studies or examples, he provides a solid framework by which to understand contextualization.  His second part highlights many of the past shortcomings of missions, and future challenges.  While Hiebert comes short of developing a full theology (which is not intended) his reflections provide a solid theological basis for further development in each mission context, and a superb example of how one must theologically respond to some of the issues highlighted in the second section of the book.  Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues contains valuable insights for anyone studying missions to further reflect on their own belief systems, theology, and challenges the reader to further research and understand their context and develop a theology that provides the necessary answers raised by their context.