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Paul G. Hiebert’s Anthropological Insights for Missionaries [1985]—Thirty-Three Years Later

Author: Rochelle Cathcart Scheuermann
Published: Winter–Spring 2018

MD 9.1

Article Type: Review Article

Hiebert, Paul G. Anthropological Insights for Missionaries. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1985. 316 pp.

For Paul G. Hiebert, missions and anthropology were always meant to be in partnership even though, as he noted in 1978, they more often resembled “half-brothers—sharing, in part, a common parentage, raised in the same setting, quarrelling over the space and arguing the same issues.”1 Having earned a PhD in anthropology from the University of Minnesota, the unfolding of Hiebert’s missionary calling led him to become “arguably the world’s leading missiological anthropologist,”2 with his lifetime spent trying to appropriately bring together anthropology, missions, and theology. In this article, we will trace the development of Hiebert’s anthropological missiology and consider the continued impact his most popular book, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries has within missiology today.

Born in India in 1932 to missionary parents, Hiebert assumed his own life would be spent in full-time overseas service; however, a different path unfolded for him. Though his wife’s health and traveling restrictions prevented him and his wife from returning to the field after their initial six-year term (in which he completed his PhD fieldwork while working with the Mennonite Brethren Mission Board), Hiebert’s calling to missions never waned, even though he often questioned his path. He completed teaching stints in several universities (e.g., Kansas State University, Mennonite Brethren Seminary, University of Washington) before he joined the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary in 1977. It was here, as he wed anthropology with missiological practice, that he confessed it as a “return to mission, as I understood it.”3 Hiebert began writing for a missiological audience on topics from conversion to contextualization. In 1990, he joined Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, leading its Intercultural Studies PhD program to national prominence. He remained there until his death in March 2007, at the age of 74.

Hiebert was convinced that missionaries needed training in three areas: (1) Scripture, (2) ministry skills, and (3) anthropology.4 He recognized that the post-colonial world called for missionaries who were post-colonial. For too long, he bemoaned, well-meaning missionaries brought a foreign gospel that was linked with “Western power and technology” and “therefore unacceptable, to many people.”5 He tackled this “Western” gospel problem by arguing for the autonomy of local churches and Christians (e.g., the fourth self); championing contextualization practices that he believed would lead the Church toward a global, meta-theology; and promoting a critical-realist epistemology.6 Placing himself in line with Harvey Conn, Charles Kraft, and others, Hiebert took up the task of “carry[ing] out the trialogue between philosophical, historical, and empirical approaches to the study of both Scripture and humanity.”7 Between 2002 and 2006, this idea was solidified into what would become known as missional theology, a “third way of ‘doing theology’”8 that took seriously Scriptural teaching, historical application, and local human realities.

Hiebert’s life-long pursuit of this trialogue produced a marked practicality in all of his writings about contextualization, global theologizing, and missionary work. He wanted missionaries exposed to and equipped with anthropological principles that would help them navigate cultural differences and build up truly indigenous and locally-empowered churches. So when he sat down to write Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, his goal was “to provide young missionaries with some basic tools for understanding other cultures and for understanding themselves as they enter these cultures.”9 Using his own experiences in India, Hiebert’s book contained a mix of theory, case-studies, exercises, and application that made it useful for his intended “young missionary” audience as well as those who had been engaged with missions for some time.

Hiebert organized his book into four main themes, with each section building on the last. In the first section, he establishes the theological assumptions of his position and then argued for the use of anthropology and other social sciences as helpful aids for good theology and missionary work. In particular, he noted that anthropology helps with a holistic view of people in their local settings, giving insight to relevant communication, cultural practices, and social structures. Hiebert was careful to assent to the authoritative nature of Scripture, the mission of God, the centrality of Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the priesthood of all believers, and these remained foundational in his cultural engagements throughout the book. The gospel, he noted, was given within culture; however, it remains distinct from cultures, must be incarnated into each culture, and should call all cultures to be transformed.10

The second section of the book considers the impact of culture on the missionary. Hiebert began with an in-depth look at the causes and stages of culture shock and provided practical insights for navigating through the stress, frustration, and tensions that this shock brings. He suggested that an incarnational approach is a helpful (and biblical) way for missionaries to deal with ethnocentrism and called on missionaries to follow Christ’s example of cultural identification (Phil 2:5–8). Hiebert recognized that many people are ignorant of their own cultural assumptions because of the seemingly innate quality of culture. To help out the Western missionary (his main audience) overcome their cultural blindness, Hiebert traced the major themes of the modern world and how the cultural particularities that come from these themes manifested in Western missionaries—both in their interactions with cultural others and in their (in)ability to distinguish gospel and culture.

The third section moves on to the work of missionaries and investigated how culture affects the message missionaries bring. Effective cross-cultural communication requires speaking in forms that others understand while minimizing distortions. It is here that missionaries were introduced to Hiebert’s hallmark ideas: (1) his call for critical contextualization in order for local believers to embrace forms in their churches that match local cultural patterns and (2) his promotion of the fourth self whereby people “develop a theology in which Scripture speaks to them in their particular historical and cultural setting.”11

The final section recognized that in becoming “bi-cultural,” missionaries now lived in a new reality, never quite at home in any one culture. This was a life-long issue for Hiebert,12 and based on his own struggles, he counseled missionaries in the challenges and the benefits of being a bicultural bridge. He walked missionaries through the stages of missionary life and the relationships they would have to navigate, from local people to supporting churches and mission agencies. He ended the book by recounting a short history of Protestant missions and noting that the task of missions remains unfinished and will always need workers who are able to face the challenges and opportunities of the ever-changing world.

There is no doubt that Hiebert’s book was a success in its time. Though others had written on various aspects of anthropological missiology,13 one could easily make the case that Hiebert’s was the most practical and accessible of them. As a master of his discipline (anthropology), he was able to distill a large amount of information without getting lost on rabbit trails or providing too much information. Throughout, he maintained a balanced tension between gospel and culture while holding to the Evangelical hallmarks of the authority of God’s Word and the necessity of gospel witness. He instructed missionaries about everyday living in order to survive cross-cultural encounters and considered the deeper issues related to missionary tasks like preaching, teaching, and theologizing. As such, his book was not simply a preparation for missionary life but a resource that applied to the entirety of a missionary’s life and work. That he could do this in such a comprehensive way through an easy-to-read and engaging book is impressive. Not everyone has the skill to take weighty academic material and make it accessible to the everyday person. But is there still a place for Hiebert’s work in the twenty-first century?

One way that Hiebert’s book has waned in relevance relates to audience. Anthropological Insights for Missionaries was mostly written for Western missionaries. Though Hiebert acknowledges that the “most rapid growth in the missionary force” comes from the “so-called Two-Thirds World,” Hiebert confesses that his book is “slanted toward a Western audience, because this book will be used largely in the West.”14 There is nothing inherently wrong in this approach and he believes that “the principles examined apply equally to missionaries from the Two-Thirds World” and says, “The reader need only think of local examples to replace the Western ones that are given.”15 However, this is probably only partially so. Though the sections that define culture, describe the use of symbol/function, and relate the challenges that missionaries face when crossing cultures are very translatable, there are two challenges that I see with his approach. First, he devotes one whole chapter to “Cultural Assumptions of Western Missionaries.” Perhaps this could help the “Two-Thirds World” missionaries understand their Western counterparts, but on the whole, this chapter is much less relatable to global audiences than other chapters. Second, and relating to the other critiques listed below, Hiebert follows modern anthropology in considering “others” as the object of study. While he argues passionately for the value of local Christians and defends their place at the table as equally positioned to self-theologize, there is still a measure of “otherness” expressed through the book. With so much focused on the “Western missionary” and the “receiving national,” present day resistance to hegemony may mute Hiebert’s actual belief and argument that missionaries must be humble servants who take the position of learner rather than lord.

Perhaps one of the biggest things working against Hiebert is the fact that he wrote about culture, and culture is never static. Only four years after his book was published, the Berlin Wall fell and two years later the USSR followed suit, instantly making some of Hiebert’s analogies and illustrations obsolete. But bigger than that, the advent of personal computers was just dawning, and worldwide access to the internet was just around the corner. The changes this brought to the world have been unparalleled. Globalization has changed the ways cultures maintain boundaries and interact with other cultures. Such instant access to international realities intensified the questioning of and skepticism toward modern tenants, solidifying postmodernism as an ever-present and challenging reality. Hiebert’s book did not foresee these changes and, because it was never updated, was also unable to account for these changes.16 This is the biggest critique that present-day missiologists bring to anthropological writings from this time.

Michael Rynkiewich, a fellow missiological anthropologist, argues that “Anthropology changed in the 1980s and 1990s, but missiology did not get the news. Anthropology gained some new insights, but missiology seemed satisfied with what it had already learned.”17 The “old” missiological anthropology was rather transactional, with “the missionary problem [being framed] as the communication of a message across cultures.”18 Furthermore, this “old” missiology was “steeped in functionalism and focused on symbol and ritual.”19 Anthropology taught missionaries how do deal with bounded cultural realities and answer the question, “How could a missionary learn language and culture in a setting, usually a village, and then shape the gospel in a way that an individual from that language and culture who was sitting across the table would understand it?”20 We certainly see these proclivities in Hiebert’s work.

But postmodernism brought something new to the world. Rynkiewich notes that postmodernism is a double-edged sword, having changed the world we live in and also the discipline of anthropology itself. No longer is anthropology a discipline where an objective observer considers a subject and then reduces his/her observations into essentialist explanations of a bounded culture. Postmodern anthropology says there is no objective observer and culture is not an internally-consistent whole with sharply-defined boundaries. Culture exists within an arena of contestation because no two people ascribe the same meanings and significance to every aspect of the culture in which they interact.21 And because culture exists on a number of levels (global, national, regional/geographic, and with other subsets), cultural boundaries are not fixed. As Kathryn Tanner notes, cultural identity is now a “hybrid, relational affair.”22 People now “mix and mingle,” says Rynkiewich, so that “culture is marked by hybridity, food is marked by fusion, and language has become languages.”23

Hiebert’s work does not consider this. His book deals, by-and-large, with societies that are “uniform, bounded, and isolated from world history, trends, and technologies,” but as Rynkiewich points out, this simply is no longer the case.24 In this, Rynkiewich is correct in his concern that much of missiological anthropology has not moved with the times. What the postmodern missionary needs is a missiological anthropology that enables her to “be as mobile, flexible, and clever as the postcolonial people she is trying to identify and be in missions with.”25

Craig Ott echoes Rynkiewich’s call for updated missiology and says that Hiebert’s critical contextualization model is largely based on an essentialist understanding of culture that is no longer valid for most of the known world. Since cultural boundaries and identity are not only not fixed, but also rapidly changing, we need to put less focus “on preserving or transforming the ‘traditional culture’ of the past.”26 As such, Hiebert’s concern for local churches having the autonomy to deal with traditional customs does not address the overwhelming influx of Christian programming and ministry models with which these cultures are now bombarded.27 New contextual models must take globalization into account.

So where does that leave us with regard to Hiebert? Is Hiebert so outdated that this book by a man celebrated as “arguably the world’s leading missiological anthropologist” is no longer worth reading? I do not think so. As with any discipline, knowing your roots is important for making sure you understand your present times. Hiebert is one of those reads that any serious student of missiology needs to master. Without writings like his, the missionary enterprise might be woefully behind the times instead of only struggling to keep up with the postmodern changes of the last thirty years.

But I think there is a bigger reason that Hiebert remains valid today. Modern and postmodern anthropology are not “either/or” but “both/and.” Ott rightly observes that:

Hybridization has made cultural boundaries porous, but has not entirely removed them. Cultural differences are not as fixed and impermeable as one thought, but they do still impact identity, communication, and expression. Cross-cultural workers will still do well to learn the local languages, customs, beliefs, and traditions of the people with whom they work. Many aspects of contextualization as advocated in the late twentieth century are still important.28

What is needed is not abandonment of the cultural tools from the twentieth century, but rather adaptation and supplementation. If we use Anthropological Insights for Missionaries as a stand-alone text, we will contribute to a missiology that is “based on an outdated anthropology that is recommended to potential missionaries for a world that no longer exists.”29 But if we use Hiebert’s book as one of many tools, making sure to supplement Hiebert with topics of globalization, urbanization, and cultural identity, Hiebert remains an asset rather than being a detractor. As we noted earlier, Rynkiewich wrote his own book, Soul, Self, and Society, to serve, as his subtitle states, as A Postmodern Anthropology for Mission in a Postcolonial World. He rightly calls out our missiology where it is faulty and behind the times and helpfully adds chapters on postmodern topics related to “Migration, Diaspora, and Transnationalism” and “Urbanization and Globalization.” What is interesting, at least to me, is that Soul, Self, and Society relies heavily on works published in the twentieth century. Until he gets to the chapters related to postmodern issues, Rynkiewich’s book reads much like other anthropology texts I have read, including Hiebert’s cultural approach in Anthropological Insights for Missionaries. The new postmodern realities, as Rynkiewich himself proves, have not meant total abandonment of prior cultural approaches. In this case, Hiebert remains relevant, albeit incomplete.

I would have no problem recommending Soul, Self, and Society as a missiological anthropology text, if you are looking for a straight anthropological text with missionary leanings. Indeed, for advanced missiology students, this would better serve their purposes than a more generalized text like Brian Howell and Jenell Williams Paris’ Introducing Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective.30 However, one thing remains largely in Hiebert’s favor. His book is much more accessible to a wider audience not only because it is easier to read but, more importantly, because it is immensely practical. I continue to use this book as one of the means by which I instruct MDiv and MA in Ministry students about appropriating missiological insights for local church ministry. Having a book that is accessible and garners interest is essential in this endeavor. My students regularly cite their appreciation for Hiebert, and course evaluations consistently show that, for my US-born students (many of whom are postmodern by age, philosophy, and self-identification), Chapter Five on “Cultural Assumptions of Western Missionaries” has (surprisingly) been one of their best reads ever for helping them understand themselves as cultural beings.

It is, perhaps, an indictment upon missiologists that we have not continued to produce updated, postmodern works that define culture and its relation to ministry through compelling, readable, and practical prose. Then again, it may be testament to a humble scholar who used his craft so skillfully in service to the mission of God that Hiebert remains one of the world’s leading missiological anthropologists, and his book—which is almost thirty-five years old—continues to impact kingdom workers to be students of people as well as students of the Word.

Rochelle Cathcart Scheuermann (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is Vice-President of Academics at Lincoln Christian University, where she also directs and teaches as Associate Professor in a fully online MA in Intercultural Studies.

1 Paul G. Hiebert, “Missions and Anthropology: A Love/Hate Relationship,” Missiology: An International Review 6, no. 2 (April 1978): 178.

2 I am indebted to the oral history of Paul G. Hiebert’s life that I received as a student (2007–2011) in Trinity Evangelical Divinity School’s Intercultural Studies PhD program and to the summary of Hiebert’s life by my mentor, Robert J. Priest, in “Paul G. Hiebert, a Life Remembered,” Trinity Journal 30 (2009): 171–75.

3 Priest, “Paul G. Hiebert, a Life Remembered,” 172–73.

4 Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, 9.

5 Ibid.

6 See Rochelle L. Cathcart and Mike Nichols, “Self-Theology, Global Theology, and Missional Theology in the Writings of Paul G Hiebert,” Trinity Journal 30 (2009): 209–21.

7 Paul G. Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 10.

8 Tite Tiénou and Paul G. Hiebert, “Missional Theology,” Missiology: An International Review 34, no. 2 (April 2006): 221.

9 Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, 10.

10 Ibid., 52–6.

11 Ibid., 141.

12 Robert Eric Frykenberg, “Paul G. Hiebert, 1932–2007,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 31, no. 3 (July 2007): 129.

13 Cf., Harvie M. Conn, Eternal Word and Changing Worlds: Theology, Anthropology, and Mission in Trialogue (Grand Rapids: Academie, 1984); Charles H. Kraft, Christianity in Culture; A Study in Dynamic Biblical Theologizing in Cross-Cultural Perspective (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1979); Jacob A. Loewen, Culture and Human Values: Christian Intervention in Anthropological Perspective (Pasadena, CA: William Cary Library, 1975); Louis J. Luzbetak, Church and Cultures: An Applied Anthropology for the Religion Worker (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1976); Eugene A. Nida, Customs and Cultures: Anthropology for Christian Missions (New York: Harper & Row, 1954); Alan R. Tippett, The Ways of the People: A Reader in Missionary Anthropology (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2013).

14 Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, 27–28.

15 Ibid., 28.

16 The reader should note that this article is limited in scope to addressing the contemporary relevance of Hiebert’s Anthropological Insights for Missionaries. In later years, Hiebert did take cultural changes into account and wrote about globalization and postmodernism—mostly from a worldview perspective. See, e.g., Paul G. Hiebert, “The Missionary as Mediator of Global Theologizing” in Globalizing Theology, ed. Craig Ott and Harold Netland (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 288–308, or Paul G. Hiebert, Transforming Worldviews (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008).

17 Michael Rynkiewich, Soul, Self, and Society: A Postmodern Anthropology for Mission in a Postcolonial World (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 8.

18 Ibid., 5.

19 Michael Rynkiewich, “Do We Need a Postmodern Anthropology for Mission in a Postcolonial World?” Mission Studies 28 (April 2011): 153.

20 Rynkiewich, Soul, Self, and Society, 5.

21 See Kathryn Tanner, Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997).

22 Ibid., 57.

23 Rynkiewich, Soul Self, and Society, 9.

24 Rynkiewich, “Do We Need a Postmodern Anthropology for Mission in a postcolonial World?,” 164.

25 Rynkiewich, Soul, Self, and Society, 10.

26 Craig Ott, “Globalization and Contextualization: Reframing the Task of Contextualization in the Twenty-First Century,” Missiology: An International Review 43, no. 1 (January 2015): 51.

27 Cf. Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, 171–192; Ott, “Globalization and Contextualization.”

28 Ott, “Globalization and Contextualization,” 54–55.

29 Rynkiewich, Soul, Self, and Society, xii.

30 Brian M. Howell and Jenell Williams Paris, Introducing Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010).

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