by C.J. Moore
“God is at work around you. Will you join him?” 1 This was the central, groundbreaking question for the thousands of readers of Henry Blackaby’s Experiencing God, a book and Bible study that sailed off of evangelical bookshelves in 1990. Blackaby continues: “When you recognize where God is working, you can join Him in what He is doing. Then you will experience God doing through you what only He can do.” 2 Though popular, Blackaby’s work received detailed critique, namely for its dependency upon subjective “callings” and “leadings” from God. 3 Yet, his central idea and the premise of its resulting question remain important. Our sovereign God is providentially at work in this world. Shouldn’t his people, then, seek to join him where he is at work?
Blackaby’s command—a command he believed to be derived from the Bible—is particularly relevant for those who have given their lives to Christian mission; that is, to cross-culturally making the gospel known to those who do not know it, with the aim of making disciples and planting churches. 4 What’s more, in these cross-cultural endeavors, missionaries regularly come into contact with religious others: Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Confucianists, Taoists, atheists, agnostics, and the like. A common, missiological consideration—one to be further explored in this essay—is the use of others’ religious truth claims for the sake of contextualization in gospel proclamation. I propose that the sovereign God has prepared others to hear and believe in the gospel (i.e., preparatio evangelica). Thus, one of the missionary’s main objectives must be assessing these “preparations” and properly contextualizing the gospel by referring to them.
Definitions and Modern Assessments of the Preparatio Evangelica
Several terms have been used to refer to the preparatio evangelica. Common phrases include: (1) preparation for the gospel or gospel preparation; (2) pre-evangelism or pre-evangelization; (3) preparation of/from religions; (4) redemptive analogies; and (5) remnental revelation. Another doctrine—though not to be equated with the preparatio evangelica—is also important: general revelation.
Timothy Tennent, a prominent missiologist in his own right, is one of the most vocal supporters and articulators of the preparatio evangelica. He defines it in the following way: “[literally], ‘gospel preparation,’ referring to God’s work in the pre-Christian heart that prepares a person to receive and respond to the gospel message.” 5 He adds that it serves as a bridge for religious others to “cross over to receive the Christian gospel.” 6 Furthermore, some constructs and truth claims within other religions serve as “shadow[s] and vague anticipation[s] of what [is] to come,” when Christ is finally proclaimed. 7 He attributes their existence to God, noting that these truth claims are “providential disposition[s],” which “serve as… guide[s]… to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.” 8 Moreover, God also made the world in such a way that seeds were sown “into the fabric and design of creation that anticipate the plan of redemption that will eventually unfold.” 9 These seeds—or “preparations”—are essentially set in motion and providentially provided to help missionaries advance more relevant explanations in their proclamation of the gospel.
Calvin Shenk refers to the “preparation for the gospel,” when he says that other religions have some “goodness and truth… placed there by Christ,” and these things “should not be rejected.” 10 Rather, they have a positive function. 11 Yet, he also wisely notes that “some aspects of religions are a preparation for the gospel, [while] other aspects are judged by the gospel. There are stepping stones and bridges, but there are also contradictions to Christ.” 12 This observation serves as a warning that, in the contextualization process, not all things are useful for gospel proclamation, and not all things can be employed in contextualization. If taken too far, missionaries might begin advocating for insider movements 13 or contextualization methods 14 wherein the religious other retains a syncretistic identity (e.g., the so-called “Christian Muslim” oxymoron). 15 This must be avoided. The missionary has to discern things of goodness and truth that can be properly and biblically employed: “doctrines and practices… religious questions, glimpses of truth, yearnings, anxieties, symbols, and ideas… [that] can be refashioned to communicate something of Christ.” 16 Especially important is the distinction that missionaries, while advocating for the use of some truth claims, should never claim that Christianity fulfills the whole system or entirety of a non-Christian religion. Some religions—on the whole, or in part—will serve as negative preparations, helping religious others understand all that they should not follow or believe. 17
The preparatio evangelica is what Alfonso Nebreda calls “pre-evangelization,” or “a stage of preparation for the kerygma which, taking man as he is and where he is, makes dialogue possible and awakens in man the sense of God, indispensable to opening the heart to the gospel message.” 18 It can come in the form of revelation, attraction, enlightenment, or witness. Making it indispensable, he claims that it is “an essential condition for the faithful transmission of the divine message,” for it is “an integral part of God’s plan to convey his word in human words.” 19 As well, Todd Miles believes “non-Christian philosophies and religions have… [some] insight into the nature of God and His redemptive purposes,” namely because of what Shenk calls “redemptive analogies” that exist in other worldviews. 20 These analogies and insights must be reoriented toward Christ, just as Paul reoriented his onlookers in Acts 17 “toward the God and Father of Jesus.” 21
The most original contribution to this discussion comes from Daniel Strange. Based on the theory of original monotheism 22 Strange argues that missionaries—among other Christians—can access the “remnental revelation” that remains within other world religions. This remnental revelation is an addition to both general and special revelation, and it consists of those “‘commonalities’ and ‘continuities’ [albeit, those ‘distorted over time’],” such as events, themes, and archetypes that remain within other religious traditions. 23 Poetically, Strange summarizes his viewpoint with sufficient nuance: “[We] might say that non-Christian religions are not glorious, and yet God can be glorified through them, are not truthful, and yet God can teach us truth through them, are not good, and yet God can bring good through them, and are not salvific, and yet serve God’s purposes in salvation.” 24 Much like Shenk, Strange warns his readers that the preparatio evangelica can also serve as a basis of religious others’ judgment by God, thus becoming not a preparation for eternal life but a preparation for eternal death. This very fact is why both gospel proclamation and proper contextualization are so important. Again, care must be exercised here.
Scriptural Warrant for the Preparatio Evangelica
As for biblical warrant for the preparatio evangelica, certain texts come up more often than others. For obvious reasons, Judaism is used as a defense more than almost any other religion, and in all truth, it exists in a category by itself. The entire Old Testament serves as an example of the preparatio evangelica, for it was preparing God’s people—religiously speaking, Jews—for the reception of the gospel, a gospel that was both accepted and denied by Jews. Jesus was, thus, able to do the following: “[Beginning] with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to [his disciples] in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). 25 He opened their minds to “understand the Scriptures,” showing from the Old Testament that he “should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47). Jesus once rebuked the Pharisees, for though they searched for “eternal life” in the Scriptures, they failed to “come to [Jesus] that [they] may have life,” for the Scriptures, namely, bear witness “about [him]” (John 5:39-40). As for other Old Testament references, God once spoke direct prophecy through Cyrus (2 Chron 36:22; Ezra 1:8); Melchizedek, a king of Salem, blessed Abram in Genesis 14:17-24; and lastly, chapters like Psalm 19 and 104 point to the general revelation 26 of God in creation, which is perceived by both Christians and non-Christians and plays a significant role in making all people without excuse before God (Romans 1). Thankfully, general revelation, which makes one guilty, can play an important role in leading one to believe in the special revelation of God’s Word, which makes one redeemed.
As for New Testament examples, a few references stand out. The most classic example is Acts 17:16-34, wherein Paul references an “unknown God” and teaches that this is the “God who made the world and everything in it… [the] Lord of heaven and earth” (Acts 17:24). Robin Hadaway summarizes this passage by saying: “Paul’s activities in Acts 17:16-34 show how to communicate the Gospel cross-culturally.” 27 Paul, by researching and finding this reference to an unknown God, was utilizing a “contextualized bridge to their culture,” accessing a “cultural entry point for [Christian] witness.” 28 That is, what one might call a preparatio evangelica, for he filled “in their limited concept of God [i.e., a preparation for the gospel] with the true new meaning of God,” exploiting a “small part of [their] secular… false religion’s writings for illustrative [and] connection purposes.” 29 What is more, earlier in the book of Acts, the reader is told that God “did not leave himself without witness,” for in his common grace and through general revelation, preparations for the gospel were left among non-Christians (Acts 14:17). In Luke 7:9, Jesus says that he found more faith in the centurion than he had seen in Israel, itself. John writes that God draws others to himself (John 6:44), and as well, God—in His sovereignty—reveals and hides things concerning himself, from group to group and person to person (Matt 11:25).
Some Missiological Implications
It behooves us at this point to consider some modern examples of the preparatio evangelica in other religions, which help in the way of missiological implications. In Islam, the Muslim’s belief in monotheistic religion can be used as a commonality between Christians and Muslims, for “Christians can [to some degree] celebrate with Muslims their timely rejection of idolatry and their acceptance of monotheism,” while at the same time proclaiming Christ as the better way since “Muslims still need to hear and respond to the good news of Jesus Christ,” the exclusive means to salvation and the only way to the Father (John 14:6). 30 In Hinduism, the morality prescribed and declared in their Scriptures can serve as “little windows of God’s grace,” that prepare and draw them to Christ, the greatest moral exemplar and mankind’s only hope for a justification that leads to (moral) sanctification. 31 In African Traditional Religion (ATR), the African’s desire and need for a mediator—namely, ancestors—between man and God can help the Christian as he proclaims Christ as the sole and supreme mediator. In Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths can be employed, as Christians may agree with Buddhists that all of life is suffering because of attachment to impermanent things; however, the solution is not to follow the Noble Eightfold Path but, rather, to attach oneself to God—the permanent and immutable one—through faith in Jesus Christ. For other tribal religions, including ATR, animal sacrifices can serve as “shadows” and “images” of “the great and final sacrifice of Jesus that eliminates the need” for any animal sacrifice. 32 All in all, missionaries should use all of the appropriate preparatio evangelica they can find to make Christ known to any and every person—and, more importantly, any and every people group—who still needs to hear “the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17).
- Henry Blackaby, Richard Blackaby, and Claude King, Experiencing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God, Revised and Expanded (Nashville, TN: Lifeway Press, 2007), back cover. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- For an example, see Greg Gilbert, “Book Review: Experiencing God, by Henry Blackaby,” Nine Marks, May 22, 2001, https://www.9marks.org/review/experiencing-god-henry-blackaby/. ↩
- Certainly, a more robust definition of “mission” could be offered, but for the sake of space and brevity, this shall suffice. ↩
- Timothy C. Tennent, Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church is Influencing the Way We Think About and Discuss Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 282. ↩
- Ibid., 44. ↩
- Ibid., 130. ↩
- Ibid., 159, 184. ↩
- Ibid., 159, 184. ↩
- Calvin E. Shenk, Who Do You Say That I Am?: Christians Encounter Other Religions (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1997), 48. ↩
- Ibid., 88. ↩
- Ibid., 179. ↩
- I highly recommend Ayman S. Ibrahim and Ant Greenham’s book critiquing insider movements: Muslim Conversions to Christ: A Critique of Insider Movements in Islamic Contexts (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 2018). Though for perspective and nuance, the reader might want to see Harley Talman and John Jay Travis’ edited book advocating for insider movements: Understanding Insider Movements: Disciples of Jesus within Diverse Religious Communities (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2016). ↩
- Here, I am thinking of C5 or C6 forms of contextualization. For more on this, see John Travis, “The C1 to C6 Spectrum: A Practical Tool for Defining Six Types of ‘Christ-Centered Communities’ (‘C’) Found in the Muslim Context,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 34.4 (1998): 407-408. Phil Parshall provides a needed critique of these higher forms of contextualization (see “Going Too Far?” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, eds. Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne (Pasadena: William Carey, 2009), 663-667. ↩
- I have dealt with this elsewhere in presentation made at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Colloquy on Soteriological Issues in 2019: “Salvation on the Mission Field: A Survey and Analysis of C5 Nomenclature for Muslim-Background Believers.” This presentation is available in text form at the following website: https://mbts.academia.edu/CJMoore. ↩
- Shenk, Who Do You Say That I Am, 150, 154. ↩
- Ibid., 155. ↩
- Alfonso M. Nebreda, “Pre-Evangelization in the Form of Dialogue,” In Modern Mission Dialogue: Theory and Practice, ed. Jan Kerkhofs, 128-139 (New York: Newman Press, 1969), 128. ↩
- Nebreda, “Pre-Evangelization,” 134. ↩
- Todd L. Miles, A God of Many Understandings?: The Gospel and a Theology of Religions (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 338; Shenk, Who Do You Say That I Am, 153. ↩
- Miles, A God of Many Understandings, 340. ↩
- For more on original monotheism, see Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths: A Christian Introduction to World Religions, 2nd Edition (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2012), 40-46. ↩
- Daniel Strange, Their Rock Is Not Like Our Rock: A Theology of Religions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 120. For Strange’s full take on this doctrine, see pp. 95-120. ↩
- Ibid., 307. ↩
- Unless otherwise specified, all Bible references in this paper are to the English Standard Version of the Bible (ESV) (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007). ↩
- For clarification, general revelation is “the self-disclosure of God to all rational beings, a revelation that comes through the natural creation and through the makeup of the human creature” (Russell D. Moore, “Natural Revelation,” In A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin [Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2007], 71). ↩
- Robin Hadaway, “Contextualization of Missions: The ‘Unknown God’ of Acts 17:16-34,” Midwestern Journal of Theology 12.2 (2013): 54. ↩
- Ibid., 61. ↩
- Ibid., 62, 65. ↩
- Tennent, Theology in the Context of World Christianity, 44. ↩
- Ibid., 69-70. ↩
- Jonathan Edwards, referenced in Gerald R. McDermott, “What If Paul Had Been from China? Reflections on the Possibility of Revelation in Non-Christian Religions,” in No Other Gods Before Me?: Evangelicals and the Challenge of World Religions, ed. John G. Stackhouse, Jr. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 28. ↩