The Gospel Among the Nations: A Documentary History of Inculturation. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2010. 288 pp. $35.00..
The gospel is about movement—movement from Heaven to earth, human to human and culture to culture. As the gospel encounters people and takes root in their lives, they are changed by its transformative message. It is the gospel’s movement from culture to culture and the resulting changes that are the subject of Robert A. Hunt’s work, which “explores the ways Christians have engaged and can engage a pluralistic world with the gospel” (xi). Hunt is the Director of Global Education at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology. This title, a volume in the American Society of Missiology Series, was chosen by the International Bulletin as one of its 15 Outstanding Books for 2010.
Part One—a scant but jam-packed 30 pages of mission history, focusing on pluralistic encounters and enculturation—commences with the apostolic period, moves through the Patristic era, engages Europe and the rest of the world including colonialism, and concludes with the current era of post-colonialism and post-Christendom. Hunt reminds the reader:
Contextualization is not just a strategy for mission, it is an ever-present critique of all attempts to bind the meaning of the gospel and the reign of Christ to a single cultural context. (xi)
The gospel changes cultures, and our moving between cultures changes the way one sees and understands the Bible. New cultural contexts force us to see biblical themes that were passed over in our earlier settings:
As Christians working outside the West realized the need to cooperate, given the vastness of the un-evangelized world, they also had to distinguish the gospel from their denominational and national interests. (25)
Acknowledging that people are victims not just of personal sin, but of worldwide political, economic, and cultural structures that are manifestly un-Christian has become a central theme of Christian missions. (27)
Part Two, the majority of the book—260 pages—is a tremendous compilation of readings on enculturation, beginning with Justin Martyr and ending with an article prepared for the 2004 Lausanne meeting in Pattaya, Thailand. The 77 selections, primary sources with secondary analyses, come from all major branches of the church: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant, Evangelical, and Pentecostal. The entries are a Who’s Who in church history, theology and missiology; for example: Constantine, Venerable Bede, Nestorians, Benedictines, Carey, Livingstone, Bishop Petr, Pope Pius XII, Hocking, Koyama, Sanneh, and many others.
Of particular interest were the articles in Chapter 8, selections 49-59, originating from the Majority World. Selection 54, “Let My People Go,” was an eloquent discussion from Asia on self-reliance, the proposed moratorium on missionaries, and the need for indigenization with the goal “to read the Bible through our own cultural eyes and the eyes of poverty rather than through the eyes of western culture and affluence” (161). Selection 58 by South African Manas Buthelezi raises the question of “whether Christian love is safe at all in the hands of the white man” (183).
The final chapter includes 17 contemporary documents of the church, again representing all major branches of current Christianity. The Evangelical selections include the Lausanne Covenant, the Iguassu Affirmation of the World Evangelical Fellowship, the Sandy Cove Covenant and Invitation (highlighting creation care), and a poignant reminder by Richard Vos of the need to address issues of hunger and agriculture.
The entries that Hunt provides in this collection do have some commonalities. Nearly all adhere to a definition of mission that includes both evangelism and social justice. Many of today’s Evangelicals refuse to believe that Jesus intended for there to be a rift between these two biblical emphases. The gospel and its presentation must not be truncated into the “here and now” on the one hand, and the “sweet by and by” on the other The gospel is to be presented using both word and deed. It is a holistic message, taking its cue from the very life and practice of Jesus.
The Gospel Among the Nations is a boon for the student of missiology, with so much material gathered into one volume. The book will not be a quick read, but it will be worth the hours required. When completed, it can sit on the shelf as a handy reference volume. Hunt is to be commended for his years of research and his selection parameters.
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA