The Alien Word

Basil Grafas
Sunday, March 1st 2020
Mar/Apr 2020

For the Word of God is quick, and mighty in operation, and sharper than any two-edged sword: and entereth through, even unto the dividing asunder of the soul and the spirit, and of the joints and the mary [marrow]: and judgeth the thoughts and the intents of the heart: neither is there any creature invisible in the sight of it. For all things are naked and bare unto the eyes of him, of whom we speak. (Heb. 4:12, Tyndale Bible 1534)

The heart of Christian missions is the speaking of the word of God into the unbelieving world. The book of Hebrews reminds us of a few things. This word is not inanimate, and it is not powerless. Filled with divine intent and projected with spiritual power, it breaks through human resistance. It finds our consciences, confronts our idols, performs heart transplants, and recreates sinful humans.

With that in mind, I was struck by a few posts I saw recently on Facebook, and I started to correlate them into two kinds of concerns. One set cited inadequately missional churches that do not reach far enough into and engage communities as part of their incarnational ministries. These ministries primarily promote moving into communities and coming alongside their people. The dynamic I imagine includes walking with, serving, and listening—it is participatory. It strikes me as implying patience and focuses on interaction with responses from the community itself.

The other set bemoaned the insufficient and unclear missionary proclamation of the gospel into the world. Its dynamic is proclamatory. It seems to me to be more of an ambassadorial function. It is prophetic. We deliver messages. It does not depend on a favorable reception. It involves saying what needs to be said, whether or not the hearers like it. It may presuppose resistance or disinterest.

Two men, Martin Luther and J. H. Bavinck—a Dutch pastor and theologian, who was also the nephew of theologian Herman Bavinck—explored two very different means by which that living, powerful word carries out the will of God.

Luther’s “Alien Word”

Luther referred to the gospel as an “alien word” that dealt with his own dread and anxiety (Anfechtung).1 He summarized the good news as something foreign to us that breaks into our fallenness from the outside. This alien word of God conveys an alien righteousness that does what we are powerless to do: save ourselves. This snatches us up and conveys us home to the Father’s house. A former professor of mine, Dr. Heiko Oberman, described what the implications of Anfechtung were for Luther’s theology.2 This was an alien word that was the only real response to the devil and unbelief. It is a word suited for the reality of spiritual warfare. Luther was clear that nothing he could say was adequate to deal with sin and the strategies of Satan.

Oberman noted the oddness of a professor of theology, Luther, confessing, “My scriptural knowledge would not suffice if I did not rely on the alien word.” This was a statement of trust. Luther could trust the strangeness, the confrontational nature of God’s word, to stop the devil in his tracks.3 It is crucial to understand Luther here. He does not trust his own memory or ability to discern what God is up to in the world. Rather, he trusts God to confront and defeat Satan. Luther understands that Satan has a grip on the world and that humans are not powerful enough to resist it. Only God, who is vastly greater than any creature, can do that. Speaking into the world, God saves the people who live in it when they are powerless to do so.

This alien word is confrontational. It changes us against our will. It creates from nothing and remakes everything, destroying our self-righteousness even as it declares sinners righteous.4 The alien word commands because God commands. This word defines us. It is not context-dependent. In his letter to the princes of Saxony, Luther counseled against using force, by the state or the mob, to stamp out unrighteousness. Rather, he said, “We must adopt the right way to drive out the devil and all offence, namely, by the Word of God. When we redeem the heart, the devil and all his pomp and power will assuredly fall of themselves.”5

This is the word that Luther had to proclaim. He saw himself in simple terms: as one who taught, preached, and wrote; but even then, the word did everything.6 Luther did nothing. His role was to trust it and watch it work. Scholars and enthusiasts who appear to make themselves indispensable to its understanding just distort its meaning or get in the way of its powerful activity.7 Luther knew that all efforts to master the word are foolish. God is fundamentally and salvifically hidden from our minds. We cannot find him. He must reveal himself to us in his word.8 Even more to the point, God reveals himself and his will to a resistant world enslaved to the devil, overcoming the most stubborn resistance. The word is alive and powerful.

Bavinck’s Possessio

Possessio is a Latin word introduced to modern missions by J. H. Bavinck in the 1950s. He had served as a Dutch missionary to Indonesia before leaving to teach the theology of missions. He spent years seeing how the gospel worked in the non-Christian world. Although his theological commitments were solidly Reformed, he worked his thoughts out in the field wrestling with a counterpoint of theology, cultural anthropology, and to a degree, psychology. This is what makes his ideas challenging.

Bavinck focused his thoughts on human beings by addressing their core concerns. This is what he called “five magnet points”: (1) the sense of cosmic relationship, an understanding that one senses belonging to this world; (2) a religious sense that provides an intuition not to always follow one’s desires; (3) the riddle of existence, living “between action and destiny”; (4) the craving for salvation; and (5) truth, what Bavinck termed “the reality behind the reality.”9 These are human concerns, and we can consider none of them without addressing who God is and what his being means. Bavinck’s five magnet points are very modern and very pre-Christian questions. They start with human beings and go from there. As a twentieth-century neo-Calvinist, however, Bavinck insisted that the final answers all must come from God.

If the word speaks into the unbelieving world, then how does it work? What does that progress of gospel truth look like for people not living in a Christian context? A related way of saying it might be to ask, what does conversion look like? Getting a grip on Bavinck is not any easier than it was to enter the thought world of Luther. Bavinck’s twentieth-century European modernist age was fascinated with new fields: cultural anthropology, linguistics, and psychology, to name a few.

Discussions about religion began to have a sociological gloss to them. Much of that involved a constant pursuit of common ground. Bavinck, however, had a profound sense of the spiritual realities undergirding religion. In one sense, all religions emerged from the thoughts of humans made in the image of God. But as Hendrik Kraemer once said, “Even those parts of another religion which might appear lofty and uplifting, prove to be parts of a whole that is under the judgment of God.”10 People are not looking for God; they are avoiding the God who reveals himself and constructing gods that suit themselves. Therefore, interreligious contact is innately confrontational. The trend was moving toward accommodation or what became known as acculturation and contextualization, which carry the greater risk of syncretism.11 Bavinck shaped much of that confrontation in his articulation of elenctics, which is the discipline of confronting wrong ideas with right ones. This confrontational process, however, had a thoroughly spiritual dimension to it.

In his Introduction to the Science of Missions, Bavinck responded to the Catholic preference for accommodation and syncretism with his own proposal of possessio, which means to take in possession. The idea of the gospel adapting itself to culture (the overwhelming practice by evangelical missions today) seemed strange to the Bible. In the first place, syncretism would be inevitable. Second, Bavinck preferred a term that underscored that God’s word was powerful and transformational. It did not fit in. It revolutionized.12 Possessio, unlike its successor in missions “contextualization,” led to the gradual erasure of syncretism.13

Therefore, when people come to Christ, their idolatrous practices and customs must be stopped or redirected. God takes possession of those lives and rebuilds them. When Muslims or Hindus become Christians, their whole lives change. Bavinck illustrates possessio as he addresses the choices that govern daily life, such as marriage customs. The changes include their ethics. He knows that possessio forces difficult choices on people, but we must make them regardless.14 Different things motivate Christians.

Bavinck is emphatically not suggesting that false religions such as Islam, Buddhism, or Hinduism are subject to a takeover. Bavinck, like his colleague Hendrik Kraemer, is talking about changing human lives, not false revelation. As Kraemer cautioned, “The entrance to this impregnable religious citadel (Islam) cannot be opened by presenting Christianity to the Muslim mind as the enrichment of its half-truths.”15 The more one penetrates different religions and tries to understand them in their total, peculiar entity, the more one sees that they are worlds in themselves, with their own centers, axes, and structures, not reducible to one another or to a common denominator that expresses their inner core and makes them all translucent.16 The new believer is not a Christ follower. The new believer is categorically different. God changes the inside and outside. That made Bavinck’s idea so consistent with his Reformed understanding of the Bible and equally out of step with Roman Catholic missionary practice.

What This Means to Missions

Both Luther and Bavinck remind us that believers are beggars before God—beggars who became sons and daughters—but God himself has a superabundance not only of love (a fashionable thought) but also of holiness, righteousness, and power. He does not need to accommodate the fallen representations of religions that look like Satan, not Christ. God will bring these down even as he breaks their grip on people.

More than that, God invests believers with his word and Spirit. They become ambassadors who convey the words to that unbelieving world. They become vessels, however cracked, that contain the sweet aroma of Christ. God is in control, and the advantage is not with the fallen systems of the world. It is the word of God that is living and powerful, not the pronouncements of governments or religious authorities.

We do need to speak to real people. We need to love them in visible and meaningful ways. We need not bargain with our beliefs. We do not have the authority to do so. As Luther and Bavinck well understood, their new faith placed them in the face of evil, right in the crosshairs. They knew confrontation and personal communication was necessary. Common ground, in the sense of the shared experiences of life, was there. Common ground, in the sense of worshiping the same God, never was.

There is a vast and growing chasm between missionary organizations and local congregations. The former routinely embrace concepts to include syncretism and inclusivism (at the very least) that conservative churches would likely outright reject. I think there are also some divisions growing between pastoral leadership and the members, but not nearly on the same scale as we are experiencing today in missions. We need to be clear about this. As a Reformed minister and missionary, I am not just talking about someone else. I am also including my people. As my youngest daughter used to say, “We’ve got issues.” Yes, we do.

Basil Grafas is the pen name of an American missionary working overseas.

  1. Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers (Nashville: Broadman, 1988), 60.
  2. Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).
  3. Oberman, 226–27.
  4. Gerhard Ebeling, Luther: An Introduction to His Thought (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1970), 238–39.
  5. Martin Luther, “Letter to the Princes of Saxony Concerning the Rebellious Spirit,” Luther’s Works, vol. 40, 59.
  6. Cited in George, 53.
  7. Oswald Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 89.
  8. David C. Steinmetz, Luther in Context (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 24, 31.
  9. J. H. Bavinck, The Church between the Temple and Mosque: A Study of the Relationship between the Christian Faith and Other Religions (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961), 32–33.
  10. Hendrik Kraemer, Why Christianity of All Religions? (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 136. Cited in David J. Hesselgrave, Paradigms in Conflict: 10 Key Questions in Christian Missions Today (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005).
  11. Roman Catholicism, with its emphasis on natural theology, has always had a high degree of tolerance for syncretism. Not so with Reformed missiologists (at least not historically). For the contemporary Roman Catholic and neo-evangelical perspective, see Robert J. Schreiter, The New Catholicity: Theology between the Global and the Local (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2004), 62–83.
  12. J. H. Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1960).
  13. Paul J. Visser, Heart for the Gospel, Heart for the World: The Life and Thought of a Reformed Pioneer Missiologist Johan Herman Bavinck (1895–1964) (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2003), 292.
  14. Bavinck, Introduction to the Science of Missions, 184–85.
  15. Hendrik Kraemer, The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1938), 355.
  16. Hendrik Kraemer, Religion and the Christian Faith (London: Lutterworth, 1956), 76.
Sunday, March 1st 2020

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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