Book Review: An Introduction to the Science of Missions, by John Herman Bavinck

Review
03.02.2010

The other night I told my wife I was going to begin this book review by asking the reader, “If you were going to be marooned alone on an island, what one book on missions would you take?” My wife, with her always-helpful, unfailing sense of logic, replied that a book on mission might not be the best thing to take if one were to be stuck alone on an island.

So, let’s try this: If you were going to be sent out for the rest of your life as a missionary and could take along only one book on missions (in addition to the Bible), what one book would you take? Even though I don’t like superlatives, I have little trouble naming that one book for me: An Introduction to the Science of Missions by J.H. Bavinck.

This is not the Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck, author of Reformed Dogmatics. This is his nephew, Johan Herman Bavinck. In J.H. Bavinck we find a writer who is able to draw on his experiences as a faithful pastor (a Dutch congregation in Bandung, Sumatra, 1919-1929), a passionate missionary (in Java, Indonesia, 1929-1938), and a serious biblical scholar (Professor of Theology and Missions, Kampen Theological Seminary, 1938-1963).

Yet it’s not his pedigree or experiences that make me like this book so much. It’s his biblical focus and his humble, common-sense discernment in the face of so many unsatisfying, man-centered, pragmatic alternatives. In a day when so many books on missions are about “ten research-tested and socio-anthropologically-approved steps to guaranteed missionary success,” Bavinck’s book is a tall glass of cool water.

WHERE’S THIS BOOK GOING? TO SCRIPTURE

You get a sense for where this book is headed in the introduction as he lists the questions he hopes to address. The list ranges from the foundational to the methodological:

  • “What is the basis of missionary work? What position does it occupy within the total framework of Scripture’s commands and promises?”
  • “Is it permissible to accommodate ourselves to the spiritual heritage of the peoples among whom we work?”
  • And “Ought missions be primarily concerned with calling individuals to repentance or should it give priority to the community, to the tribe, to a people?” (5)

What strikes me about these questions is how relevant they are to missions today, and this book was published in 1954.

But I think the secret to the timelessness of this book is exposed in this comment at the end of the introduction:

It is with such urgent questions that the theory of missions is concerned. Answers can be given solely on the basis of Scripture. For the work of missions is the work of God; it is not lawful for us to improvise. At each step we must ask what it is that God demands. Although it will not always be easy to find the right course, our search must surely be led by what God has said in his word. The task of the theory of missions now clearly lies before us. (6)

Did you catch that? He said that “Answers can be given solely on the basis of Scripture.” That is what sets this book apart from so many modern books on missions. This book is fundamentally rooted in the Bible, not in ideas taken from the author’s experiences and observations on the mission field. Not that the book is not practical—it certainly is. But its practical ideas rise out of biblical texts, giving it an authority that I find lacking in most current, more-pragmatic books on missions.

And it’s this biblical rooting, I think, that gives the book an almost eerily timeless quality. Reading it, I felt at times as if Bavinck had been reading our mail and was addressing current missiological controversies. Contextualization, heart-languages, bridging from non-Christian “scriptures,” translation difficulties, orality, cultural imperialism, the role of social sciences, incarnational vs. representational ministry—all these “hot” issues and more are at least hinted at. Yet what’s so helpful is that Bavinck doesn’t have an axe to grind, since he’s largely anticipating rather than participating in these debates.

But you’d be mistaken if you thought the book was merely a theological reflection on the idea of missions. Experience matters, and the fact that Bavinck spent twenty years in Southeast Asia as a pastor and missionary shows through. Yet instead of letting those experiences and observations form the foundation for his method, as so many other books do, he keeps those experiences in their place, always deferring to the authoritative and sufficient Word of God. They are permitted to raise their hands and ask question, as students do; they are not permitted to write out the course curriculum, as a professor does. The result is a book that addresses practical topics with sustained, careful, biblical reflection.

OVERVIEW

The book is divided into three parts. The first part addresses the theory of missions (foundation, approach, aim), much of which is a biblical theology of missions from Genesis to Revelation. For a book translated from the Dutch, this section is surprisingly heart-warming, offering an eloquent, at times soaring, meditation on the glory of God among the nations, which alone is worth the price of the book. The section also includes helpful meditations on how Scripture should shape our contextualization, and warns against minimizing the essentially confrontational nature of the gospel.

In the second part, Bavinck reflects on the convictional aspect of evangelism, what he calls “elenctics,” which is from the Greek word elengchein meaning “to rebuke” or “to bring to shame.”  And he describes it as evangelism that labors, under the Holy Spirit, to bring “conviction of sin and a call to repentance.” (222) Any who work among Muslims or among Hindus should find his consideration of bringing awareness of sin immensely useful, given that Muslims essentially view sin as ignorance while Hindus view it as illusory, self-misunderstanding. Bavinck is exhaustive in his reflections on how humanity tries to hide their sense of guilt (a la Romans 1) in false religious worship, and how we can lovingly expose it from Scripture.

The third part addresses the history of missions and his outlook for the future. The history section is perhaps the least extraordinary part of the book, having a bit of a tacked-on feel. But it’s only 30 out of the book’s 309 pages. And Bavinck’s view of the future is simultaneously cautionary, dated, and optimistically biblical. He ends by saying we must have confidence in God rather than in our analysis or strategies:

We know that the missionary enterprise is not a human undertaking, in which we must take into account our forces and counter forces, but it is the work of Jesus Christ who will gather to himself, through our instrumentality, a congregation out of every nation. It is upon this that we base all our expectations. Here we feel that we are on the border of a miracle, and it is for this reason that at each moment great surprises can overtake us. (308)

A FEW OBLIGATORY CRITIQUES

It should be obvious by now that I really like this book. Are there any downsides to it? Well, yes, as a humanly-authored book there are always some. The book is overly academic in a few places (at least for me), in part because it’s responding to the works of a few dead Dutch guys I’d never heard of nor will probably read. But much of this discussion is mercifully short and is confined to the preface.

In addition, it took me a while to figure out just what Bavinck meant by “elenctics” and why it was so important, but he eventually won me over. Also, he seems a bit uncritical in the history section of the ecumenical trends in the European churches of the 1930s and 40s. Admittedly, not many of the worst fruits of that movement had materialized by the time he was writing, and he does sound a brief cautionary note about minimizing the gospel to maximize visible unity. All in all, the final history section is weak compared to the rest of the book and an anti-climactic conclusion.

WORTH THE WORK

Finally, this book may not be what some readers are looking for. Bavinck’s effort to find missionary methods in Scripture is no mere cut-and-paste job, which means that reading this book takes thought, study, discernment, and prayer. If you are a pastor or missionary, putting this kind of book to work will take a lot of, well, work. It is not one of those “how to” books with clear methods, extravagant claims, and simple “proven” steps.

But if you want a book on missions that digs deep into the whole Bible to find its practical principles; if you want help placing your missions methods in a biblical context and drawing your methods from the Bible; and if you want a book that keeps God’s glory in the gospel as the chief aim of missions, then this is certainly the book for you.

By:
Andy Johnson

Andy Johnson is an associate pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC.