Edinburgh 1910 to 2010:

A Century of Being Changed

Guest editorial by Alan Race

from Modern Believing, Vol 51:3 - Jul 2010

This volume of Modern Believing marks the centenary of the 1910 World Missionary Conference, which was held in the Assembly Hall of the United Free Church of Scotland, Edinburgh, on 14th - 23rd June. It does so by reflecting essentially on a number of themes - Christian missiology, ecumenical unity, tensions between mission and interreligious dialogue, theology of religions, and the Great Commission at the climax of the Gospel of Matthew - all themes which occupied the minds of those in attendance at Edinburgh. Each theme remains as controversial and contested now as it was then.

By any standards, Edinburgh 1910 was a remarkable achievement. However, a great deal of course has changed in the world context since then, culturally and theologically, geo-politically and intellectually. As a result, and at the very least, we might observe that my identified themes have become more complex, more tangled, more polarised and even more vexed as time has advanced. Some of the essays here more than hint at increased Christian theological and institutional stubbornness and even possible reversal of that imaginative openness to the world which seems required if Christian faith is to be 'fit for missionary purpose' in the twenty-first century. But there are sketches of ways forward as well.

In this introduction my intention is to lay out a number of trajectories of theological thought which surface in the contributions of the authors which follow, rather than summarise each chapter as such. Issues overlap always but different authors have concentrated on particular aspects of a whole tapestry. Therefore, I hope to highlight aspects of the contributions of the authors via the trajectories themselves.

Let me initially, however, outline some of the context of Edinburgh 1910, before turning to my chosen themes stemming from that period and the new challenges confronting Christian missiology a century later.

Context then

The Edinburgh Conference 1910 harnessed the cumulative impact and reflections of the nineteenth century Protestant missionary expansion across the world; from it has flowed the twentieth century Christian ecumenical movement which issued in the formation of the World Council of Churches in 1948. 1,200 mission-shaped delegates gathered (no mean achievement in 1910) to share experiences and discern their next step. They were confident about what had been achieved and optimistic about the future. (The Great War had not yet begun). Charles Clayton Morrison, who was editor of the Christian Century for much of the first half of the twentieth century, gave a firsthand account of the Conference in an article which appeared in the Christian Century for 7th July, 1910. Capturing this spirit of optimism and setting his remarks in a transcendental framework, he wrote:

Everyone feels the presence in the conference of a power not ourselves, deeper than our own devices, which is making for a triumphant advance of Christianity abroad. And not less are the delegates thrilled by the sense that the conference foreshadows a new era for the church at home.[1]

Clearly, these were heady times.

Part of that 'new era' was the summons to Christian unity, for Christian mission itself was plainly undermined by the fragmentation of Protestant denominationalism. As Morrison wrote:

The theme of Christian unity is running through the whole conference like a subterranean stream. It breaks through the ground of any subject the conference may be considering, and bubbles on the surface for a time. It is almost the exception for a speaker to sit down without deploring our divisions. The missionaries are literally plaintive in their appeal that the church of Christ reestablish her long lost unity.[2]

Leaving aside the Christian romanticism implicit within that phrase 'long lost unity', it is an irony that as conversations about Christian unity have since achieved a life of their own among mainline churches, and as the twentieth century progressed have embraced the Catholic and Orthodox worlds, Christian fragmentation has exponentially increased. One estimate from 2001 recorded that there were 33,830 Christian groupings/denominations/churches around the world.[3]

Other dynamics shaped Edinburgh 1910, not least the hugely energetic personality and cultural background of John R. Mott (1865-1955). Mott was an American Methodist layman who, as chairman of the Conference, was its main driver. (But he was ably supported by the meticulousness of Joseph H. Oldham (1874-1969), the organising secretary). Mott was a charismatic leader gifted with a rhetorical flourish in speech-making. He was also imbued with the American spirit of the times which saw itself in the vanguard of spreading western democracy around the world. As Risto A. Ahonen, of the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Mission, has expressed it:

The future of humankind to a large extent depends on the actions of American society. In Mott's view, the ultimate goal, the coming of God's kingdom, is inextricably interlinked with the future development of this world.[4]

For Mott, the American ideal and Christianity merged into a single vision and shaped his driving notion of 'Christianization'.

Although I have said that the Conference reflected huge optimism, this should not imply that Mott and his colleagues were naive about world affairs. They were aware that around the world there were the stirrings of nationalism in opposition to the colonialism of empire. Furthermore, Mott was critical of aspects of the alliance of Christian mission with any decadent excesses of western culture, and was clear that that alliance, when it issued in unexamined negativity towards other cultures and civilisations, was detrimental to the spread of the Gospel.

That was 1910. Let me turn now to explore some of the trajectories of theological thought stemming from that time.

1. Missiology and Loose Ends

How has the Christian understanding of mission changed since 1910? The best indication of this can be seen in the shift in the language of missiology through the twentieth century. Although it was not explicit as a motto in Edinburgh, the title of Mott's book, The Evangelization of the World in this Generation (New York, 1900), nevertheless informed the background missiological framework for most of the delegates. In contrast, by the time the World Council of Churches organised their Seventh Assembly at Canberra in 1991 the language had undergone a significant mutation. At the end of the twentieth century the view was that 'a reconciled and renewed creation is the goal of the church's mission'.[5] Between the goal of conversion of the whole world and work for the world's reconciliation and renewal there lay some fundamental shifts in Christian conceptuality as well as massive changes in the fortunes of nations. Central for the new orientation in mission was the rise in the concept of Missio Dei, which has been defined as 'God's activity which embraces both the church and the world, and in which the church may be privileged to participate.'[6] No longer was mission narrowly confined to saving souls, the conversion of nations or planting churches, but it assumed a more all-embracing spectrum of activities: in addition to traditional conversion, mission also meant inculturation (translation) of the gospel in local and regional cultures, political and economic liberation, nation-building and development, dialogue with people of other religions, and action for justice, peace and ecological sustainability. Given the twenty-first century global proportions of these themes, there is an obvious sense in which Canberra's vision cannot be gainsaid.

Other factors have also been at work in the conceptual shifts within missiology. Most urgent in this respect has been the need to disentangle Christian mission from its association with western culture and western expressions of dominance. Paul Cho brings out how the motivation for this disentanglement led to the establishment of mission as a subject matter for theological reflection in its own right. As nations gained independence the Euro-centric 'captivity' of theology was deemed inadequate. If Edinburgh 2010 sets any comparable agenda for the present century then it will lie in seeking to harness the fruits of multiple centres of indigenised Christian faith, as the vibrancy of Christianity shifts from its European origins to the global south. Precisely what this might entail and what theological tools will be sharpened for discerning the authenticity within such vibrancy no-one can predict.

Cho also reminds us that not everyone was in thrall to Motts's 'evangelisation of the world in this generation'. The German Lutheran scholar and father of modern Protestant missiology, Gustav Warneck, was concerned that Mott was not sufficiently theologically grounded. Mission, Warneck believed, was a function not simply of individuals expounding the message but also of local congregations witnessing as whole communities in society. As Warneck put it, in reaction to Mott's 'this generation' rallying call:

Nothing is achieved by mere doctrinaire watchwords; indeed, they may do much harm; we must have congregations that are spiritually and morally matured, and, moreover, native pastors who are spiritually and morally matured... [7]

For Warneck, Mott was too hasty and triumphal, too seeming to want to force the divine hand. Mission should be God's doing primarily. But Mott rejected the criticism and insisted that Christians of each and every age should take responsibility for preaching the gospel as a matter of urgency in their own times and places.

What do we inherit from these exchanges for the current century? In many respects, the two emphases in missiology from the debates of 1910 have simply continued and expanded - tensions between seeking individual conversions and corporate witness in community, and between an end-time crisis-eschatological focus and a longer term 'kingdom' agenda which is aimed at building alliances in search of a re-ordered and globally responsible future. The burgeoning of trinitarian theology towards the end of the last century has supplied the theological foundations, especially as it is here that the metaphor of 'sending' seems most at home. But what this trinitarianism might mean in the light of the big shifts in human consciousness - awareness of the expanse of creation's story being revealed by cosmologists from the Big Bang to Who-Knows-Where, the rise of critical thinking in relation to Christian Scriptures, Belief-structures, and History, and the ever-deepening encounter with the world's religions - has scarcely begun to be imagined in missiological thinking.

By way of a final comment on the task of missiology it is worth illustrating the impact of broader critical thinking by pausing to ask what bearing New Testament studies might have on the matter. Included in this volume of articles is a reflection by the New Testament scholar, Leslie Houlden, on the Great Commission passage at the end of Matthew's Gospel. This passage has played such a major role as a kind of rallying-call for mission that it might seem almost impertinent to question whether we have really comprehended what the passage may or may not be addressing in Matthew's own time and setting, or what may or may not be inferred from it for mission today. Nevertheless, on closer inspection, it turns out that we should tread carefully.

Houlden calls the Great Commission not so much a 'rallying-call' as a 'trumpet-blast'. It is essentially Matthew's determined effort to replace the enigmatic ending of Mark's Gospel, where the women leave the tomb in a state of fear and trembling, with something on a grander scale. Silence is no proper ending, for the message must have got out if it was to be followed! Mark had left a loose end too many, so for Matthew there was tidying up to do. But to modern people this seems a cavalier approach to writing: changing something to suit your own purpose! Yet this is what the evangelists did and it is what New Testament scholarship has taught us. Precisely what Matthew thought he was commending in the circumstances of his own time we cannot fully know. The meaning of 'all nations' could not have had the global reach which we now can envisage. And then there is the eschatology of the first century: Matthew's world is simply not our world. The Great Commission is more like a theological tableau than a command to pronounce the truth of Christian commitment over others before we have sat down and conversed with them. It is commitment language and not systematic language. But if that is the case, what are the implications for mission and for relations with people of other faiths? Might one say that the loose threads of Mark which Matthew felt so compelled to weave into a more consistent cloth have actually multiplied? The multireligious world which surrounded him is actually far more pluriform, opaque and puzzling in the present-day than anything he could have imagined.

2. Ecumenical Unity

John Mott had disagreements not only with Gustav Warneck but also with his close colleague, the skilled organiser and theologically studious Joseph H. Oldham, who himself was a student of Warneck. Regarding Mott's temptations to glide over of differences between ecclesiological convictions for the sake of rallying the troops (trumpet-blasting?), Oldham wrote to him about Christian divisions:

The divergences go very deep and can be transcended not merely by goodwill but by very fundamental and prolonged rethinking of the existing position. The difference between fundamentalists and modernists is almost a difference of two quite distinct religions. I do not think that the problems can be resolved purely as a matter of cooperation.[8]

The comparing of the problems of Christian unity to those of the relationship between religions could be said to have been prescient of Oldham. Thus it is perhaps not for nothing that the issues of relations between religions have occasionally been labelled as issues of a 'wider ecumenism'. And at the present time, the opposition between 'fundamentalists' and 'modernists', as Oldham identified them then, easily translates into division between 'conservatives' and 'liberals' in our own day, whether we are talking of intra- or interfaith relations.

The philosophical problems of 'unity' in relation to 'multiple expression' - the 'one' and the 'many' - is of course ages old. Both the monotheistic religions of the West and the monistic religions of the East (to use an over-simplified categorisation) have their own historic ways of dealing with this, the former leaning towards exclusionary and the latter towards inclusionary strategies. But both of these approaches seem unsuited to the present circumstances. How to balance sameness and difference, common ground and variety, seems as elusive as ever. Moreover, in the interfaith arena the challenge involves us in complexities over and above those facing Christian ecumenism alone.

So, concentrating on Christian ecumenism, where do we peg the 'sameness' and where the 'difference'? Is it that the divided churches recite ancient formulae - say, the ecumenical Creeds - as their sameness and then specify difference as merely the accidental circumstances of historical change - say, the product of the need to confront ecclesiastical corruptions at the time of the Reformation, or of a rebellion against Erastian-type church-state settlements, and so on? For many, however, this would seem too simple. The theological ecumenist, Paul Avis, in his survey of the problems and opportunities of Christian ecumenism, draws attention to the concept of 'diffentiated consensus'. This is the view that some, basic doctrinal agreement between the churches is necessary but different communities and traditions might interpret that consensus in their own terms, and for the remainder of the relationship there is on-going methodological dialogue between them. Such a notion has obvious merits, and it does seem to prevail in practice, in so far as the commitment to on-going dialogue supersedes even those occasions of tension when, under non-dialogical circumstances of a past era, the churches may have fallen out completely.

More than this, Avis intriguingly avers that Christian ecumenism might learn from the interreligious commitment to dialogue, and there is surely a slight irony in this. For the history of Christian involvement in interreligious relations has historically followed roughly the pattern of ecumenical relations - that is, enthusiastic embrace, succeeded by hesitation in recognition of seemingly insurmountable problems at theological and philosophical levels, and then settling for a pragmatic modus operandi. But here the tables have been turned. It appears that the dialogical methodology being developed within the more complex interreligious matrix is being made to serve what ought to be lesser intractable difficulties in the (historically prior) intra-Christian matrix. If this is the case, then could we ever envisage a theology whereby commitment to ecumenical dialogue as such is itself the measure of Christian unity, with no higher purpose to forge further consensual words of agreement, in the same manner as some parts of the interreligious dialogue movement consider dialogue itself to be the soul of religious being? Dialogue itself is what matters.

For the rest, Avis is content to own up to the doldrums of much ecumenism while remaining fully committed to an ecumenical vision of unity which must ground itself in both intellectual credibility, perhaps a measure of provisionality in relation to formulae and Christian generosity in openness to the movement of the Spirit.

3. Mission and Dialogue

Although the missionaries who gathered at Edinburgh in 1910 were clear about their vocation to preach the Christian gospel that does not mean that they were unanimous in any automatic condemnation of other religious ways. In fact the reports for the fourth Commission, charged with working out the Christian message in the context of non-Christian religions, revealed a wide range of mission practices as well as theological approaches. What could not be ignored, however, was the spirituality which existed within other religious convictions, a spirituality which displayed sophisticated philosophy, personalist ethics, and a devotional sense that was evidence of real experience. Inevitably, this set up a tension with a view of Christianity which thought of itself as absolute and finally superior. The seeds of a dialogical future were beginning to be sown. Certainly such a dialogue was informed at best by an inclusivist-type theology, whereby Christ 'fulfilled' the aspirations of other spiritualities; nevertheless, any residual clamour for triumphalism at Edinburgh was being undermined by the experience of mission itself!

We should note other currents of thought alive during the same period. Interestingly, seventeen years earlier in Chicago, at the great Columbia Exhibition which was staged to celebrate a growing American pride in technology, the first 'World Parliament of Religions' was inaugurated. Largely initiated by American Christian liberals this gathering attempted an interreligious rapprochement as a spiritual and ethical antidote to a potential future dominated by amoral technology alone. Many have now adopted this event as the beginning of the global interrelligious dialogue movement in modern times.

Thus the tension between Dialogue and Mission was opened up in the light of two global conferences in the years immediately before and after the turn of the 20th century. Missiology became heir to both Edinburgh and Chicago. The accounts of both Wesley Ariarajah (Protestant) and John Pawlikowski (Catholic), both veteran theologians of dialogue and mission, trace their denominational Christian reactions to this inheritance with candour and honesty. Both provide sober reading about what has and has not been achieved in these debates.

Yet there have been overtures between missiologists and dialoguers over the years. Mission has learned that nothing authentic happens outside of relationships and this leans towards developing dialogue-friendly approaches; and Dialogue has learned that worthwhile encounters depend on witnesses who have a story to tell about how faith makes a difference in life and this leans towards the acceptance of mission as at least an exercise in mutual listening. Nevertheless, a basic tension remains and the nub of the issue is Christian absolutism. Therefore the question arises: is it possible to embrace a Christian commitment without theological absolutism? To do so would require a keener sense of provisionality about theological claims, an historical awareness about the limitations of human experiences, a tuned critical sense about the motivations of power within all language, and simply the willingness to accept the validity of the basic religious experience of others. At the present time this would seem a rather remote possibility, at least in official circles. Some might say the very idea of distinguishing between Christian commitment and theological absolutism is itself an oxymoron. In dialogical thinking it seems unavoidable and is the reason why dialogue still ruffles feathers in some missiological circles.

4. The Jewish Axis

Arguably, the longest-running dialogue in Christian history has been with Judaism. That said, it has hardly been a dialogue. The New Testament itself is coloured by the period when Christian faith was beginning to separate from its parent, and it therefore reflects the acrimony of many such family breakdowns. The story of what factors - external historical, such as the Roman onslaught on Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE, and internal theological, such as the developing Hellenising of Christian identity - led to the breakdown continues to be researched. But why single out this particular Jewish-Christian axis as being relevant beyond its own long painful history of loss and mistrust?

I have long thought that the agonising over Jewish-Christian relations provides a clue for our understanding of the Christian theology of religions more generally. This was evident in some of the Edinburgh 1910 responses to other religions. For instance, Ariarajah highlights a quotation from one of the delegates, the scholarly missionary theologian J. N. Farquhar: 'Christ's own attitude to Judaism ought to be our attitude to other faiths even if the gap is far greater and the historical connection is absent.'[9] Others at the Conference, such as Dr. Mackichan, Principal of Wilson College, Bombay, while praising the high philosophy of much of Indian thought, nevertheless advocated that Christ satisfies the 'unfulfilled longings' of the Indian mind. Farquhar's own book, The Crown of Hinduism (1913) consolidated such a view.[10] Coming to our own time, many theologians might agree with the Catholic writer, Claude Geffré:

Personally, I fail to see how we can leave completely behind a certain inclusivism, that is, a theology of the fulfilment (to use a term present in Catholic theology since Vatican II) in Jesus Christ, of all seeds of truth, goodness, and holiness contained in the religious experience of humankind.[11]

Those who wish to move beyond the language of fulfilment know that they are faced with a formidable task, for we know that the language of fulfilment is determinative of much of the New Testament scriptures.

The legacy of the language of fulfilment can be seen in the changing fortunes of the Christian assessment of Judaism under Pope John-Paul II and his successor Pope Benedict XVI. The former Pontiff did more for Catholic-Jewish relations than any other before him. The Jews became our 'elder brothers' (sic) and the theology of supersessionism was finally laid to rest: Judaism was not to be seen as a preparation for Christ and Christianity, but was a religion to be valued in its own covenantal right. This did not mean that Christian faith surrendered its sense of absolutism, for other strands in John-Paul's thinking reaffirmed Christian superiority. Since then, however, the ambivalence has been accentuated under the leadership of Pope Benedict XVI. John Pawlikowski traces the recent history of Catholic-Jewish relations and draws attention to the vexed nature of the tension between dialogue and mission regarding the place of Judaism. The reinstating from pre-Vatican II liturgy of Benedict's Good Friday 'Prayer for the Conversion of the Jews' demonstrates that 'mission' continues to have the upper hand. Theologically, this puts in jeopardy the revolutionary turn-about represented by the Christian acceptance of the continuing validity of God's divine covenant with Jews.

The main burden of this section lies in the linking of Judaism's fortunes in Christian theology of religions with that of other religions. Intuitively, one might say, the Catholic discussion has always known that if the theological acceptance of Judaism is celebrated without reservation then the implications for a broader acceptance of other world religions could not be avoided. It would lead to a pluralist view of many religions and this would be crossing an unthinkable theological line.

Is it possible to forge a way forward out of this impasse created by the language of fulfilment? Here is one option, albeit rather radical. A couple of years ago I stood with a scholarly American rabbi on Mount Nebo in Jordan, the alleged site where Moses was buried. From the ridge, looking across the River Jordan, it is possible to see Jerusalem on a clear day. I asked my dialogue colleague what was the latest scholarship on Moses's entry into the Promised Land. His answer was candid and revealing: 'It didn't happen - there's no real evidence for it. Jewish monotheism emerged from within the already lived-in land, it was not brought from without and then imposed. But that doesn't stop me lighting Friday night candles and proclaiming my people's liberation.' This demythologised-and-remythologised view raises a possibility also for Christians. Is it possible to affirm theological identity, Jewish or Christian, without binding it to specific biblical credentials which look to lodge it firmly within historical happenings? For my rabbi colleague, Jewish experience took priority over the uncertainty of historical origins. Liberation is the point of religion, not the fact of historical happening. For Christians, a comparable stance would be the celebration of Jesus's resurrection as confirmation of God's endorsement of his kingdom-vision without the necessity for thinking his body had to come out of a tomb. Again, the story is a parable of liberation, not history in any ordinary sense.[12]

Such strategies of reinterpretation are unlikely to command wide approval. Divorcing history from belief seems too cavalier a treatment of history as well as a violation of what it means to believe. Yet the concentration on experience is refreshing and it may represent how many believers actually function in life. Between 'persons' and 'tradition' as competitors in the locus of faith, most scholars seem inclined to assume that 'persons' take priority over 'tradition'.

5. Borderlands and Margins

This section concentrates on the discipline known as Theology of Religions. With the rise and impact of interreligious dialogue - which is a recognition that religious belonging is both persisting and worthy of respect - there can no credible statement of Christian faith now which can afford to bypass the problem of religious plurality. Yet it seems to have taken something of a back seat in recent years. This may be because the business of having to pursue practical dialogue between people and traditions has taken precedence over theological model-making. Certainly the events of 9/11 and subsequent world events have given rise to a substantial - and welcome - escalation in dialogical encounter and endeavour. But precisely where that has left the theology of religions discussion is as yet unclear.

In 1983 I published a book, Christians and Religious Pluralism, which attempted to order various positions in the field, adopting the typology of 'Exclusivist, Inclusivist and Pluralist'.[13] Roughly speaking it suggested that exclusivists thought of Christian faith as the one and only way of salvation, inclusivists thought of other religions as ways of salvation which remained imperfect or incomplete in certain respects, and pluralists were happy to accept the major world religions as valid ways of salvation in themselves. Since then, some have added a fourth category which is sometimes labelled 'Particularity'. This is a position which argues essentially against 'religion' as a comparable family of beliefs and practices, promotes dialogue between them essentially along ethical lines, and generally refuses to consider whether or not other traditions can be counted as effective for salvation. I myself tend to the view that Particularity is a form of theological exclusivity now blessing itself as 'postliberal' or 'postmodern', notwithstanding its openness to dialogue.[14] The theologian of religions, Professor Perry Schmidt-Leukel, considers that there can only be three and not four logical possibilities in the theology of religions.[15]

As in so many issues theologians remain divided over the merits and demerits of each of these positions. Given this impasse it is perhaps unsurprising that minds and hearts have turned to practical projects for interreligious cooperation between people. Yet within all dialogue and projects of interreligious cooperation the question which will not evaporate is the desire on the part of colleagues and neighbours to know what Christianity thinks about their religion as such. Respect alone, as a function of relationships and developing friendships, does not sufficiently serve as an adequate answer to the theological question.

The theology of religions question is forced more upon us when we are confronted by issues of what is coming to be called 'dual-belonging' or 'hybrid identity', and this is highlighted most clearly by Helene Egnell's celebration of creativity in the borderlands of theology. Much dialogue between religions, she contends, is skewed because of the absence of a critical awareness of its unexamined biases, particularly patriarchy. On the other hand, the 'hermeneutically suspicious' view from the feminist borderlands could well stimulate a different appreciation for what it is to be religious, let alone be in dialogue. Egnell identifies issues of relationality, valuing difference, multiple/hybrid identities, the feminist critique against institutionalised religion, as well as marginality itself. In particular, the notion of hybrid identity represents a formidable if puzzling challenge to any usual outline of Christian identity.

What can it mean for someone to be Buddhist-Christian or Hindu-Christian (for some the 'Buddhist' or 'Hindu' qualifier remains secondary to the substantive 'Christian', but for others both parts of the hybrid carry equal weight), when Buddhists are resolutely non-theistic and many Hindus are firmly monistic? Moreover, we are not envisaging faddish new-agers here, but serious spiritual questors. Dual-belonging represents an embodied interreligious dialogue in a single subject, an acceptance that one religious label cannot encompass the whole of the truth of reality. Egnell, along with others, maintains that dual-belonging finds even the model of 'pluralism' in the theology of religions - the view that there are many configurations of religious truth and practice which convey an experience of salvation/liberation - wanting. It is difficult to see how this can be the case, for dual-belongers seem to be walking examples of pluralist affirmation! Otherwise, what is the transcendent integration which corresponds to the existential realities of living from more than one tradition?

In relation to missiology, the question which hybridity confronts us with starkly is whether or not Jesus Christ can be said to be the final embodiment of divine self-disclosure. For some, such as the Catholic theologian Peter Phan, hybridity is compatible with Christian assumptions of Christ's finality,[16] but it has to be said that it is a moot point whether or not Phan stretches Christian language beyond what it can bear. Hybridity, particularly the kind where both identities are owned equally, seems to demand a model of religious belonging which mirrors a kind of mystical 'transcendent unity of religions', where the language of 'finality' attached to one revelation trumping all others, seems out of place. That which is the imagined truth of the hidden transcendence of 'God' is reflected in the inner interreligious conversation of dual-belonging.

Concluding Remarks

Delegates at Edinburgh 1910 could not have anticipated the conclusion of the missiologist, David Bosch, that mission itself seems incapable of a settled definition. Having said that, however, Bosch does offer a base-line definition: it is 'quite simply, the participation of Christians in the liberating mission of Jesus, wagering on a future that verifiable experiences seem to belie.'[17] 'Wagering' means hedging one's bets and there seems to be more than a hint of anxiety in Bosch's tone. Certainly, given the contingencies of history, the outcome of Christian mission is neither predictable nor inevitable. The invitation to mission is precisely that, an invitation.

But what was the 'liberating mission of Jesus'? In his own lifetime it centred on the 'kingdom of God', which was pitted against the 'kingdom of Caesar'. It involved him in confrontation with empire and oppression; in strategies of resistance against the prevailing economic arrangements which made the poor poorer; in words and gestures of inclusion such as works of healing and gathering and feeding; in challenging the structures of collusion where religious authorities promoted self-interest; in the living out of a view of the divine call which put a subversive priority on forgiveness for the sake of compassion - and much more. How this list might apply in the circumstances of today's world is both a hermeneutical and practical summons for translating his impact from 'then' into 'now'. It supplies an agenda for missiology and active mission for the churches in ecumenical relationship.

Precisely how this outlook meshes with an evolving world and a future which stretches endlessly ahead (unless human hubris brings it to an abrupt end) cannot be known. We do not inhabit a first-century eschatology which interpreted history as being drawn to a climax through the divine will. Yet without that eschatology how is it possible to give meaning to traditional notions of Jesus's 'finality', which have inspired so much missionary endeavour? In today's multifaith world a different understanding is surely called for. The following estimate by the historian of religion, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, points in an alternative direction:

The future of Christian mission turns on learning to see God's mission in the Church as one part of His whole mission to mankind; not as His whole mission to one part of mankind (the fallacy of indifference) nor as His sole mission to all mankind (the fallacy of arrogance).[18]

The God glimpsed through the historical figure of Jesus, Christians affirm, is 'boundless love' and therefore universal in scope. For that reason alone, it would seem strange to imagine that that love has not been glimpsed in more ways than one, historically and geographically. Could Christian mission become an adventure to discover it afresh in the myriad opportunities presented by life itself?


  1. Charles Clayton Morrison, 'The World Missionary Conference' at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=471. Viewed on 19 April 2010. [back]
  2. Morrison, 'The World Missionary Conference'. [back]
  3. D.B. Barrett, G.T. Kurian and T.M. Johnson, World Christian Encyclopedia (2nd edn, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp.3, 10. at http://www.adherents.com/. Viewed on 19 April 2010. [back]
  4. Risto A. Ahonen, 'John R. Mott as an Ecumenical Leader. What was Mott's Vision?' at PDFhttp://www.edinburgh2010.org/fileadmin/files/edinburgh2010/ files/Resources/Ahonen_Mott.pdf. Viewed on 19 April 2010. [back]
  5. WCC, Come Holy Spirit, reproduced in James A. Scherer and Stephen B. Bevans SVD (eds), New Directions in Mission & Evangelisation 1 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992), p.84. [back]
  6. David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991), p.391. [back]
  7. World Missionary Conference, 1910, 'Carrying the Gospel' in Report of Commission I: Carrying the Gospel to All the Non-Christian World (Edinburgh and London: Oliphant), p.435. [back]
  8. Cited by Risto Ahonen, 'John R. Mott as an Ecumenical Leader' at PDFhttp://www.edinburgh2010.org/fileadmin/files/edinburgh2010/ files/Resources/Ahonen_Mott.pdf. Viewed on 20 April 2010. [back]
  9. See Wesley Ariarajah's article in this volume. [back]
  10. See Paul Hedges, Preparation and Fulfilment: A History and Study of Fulfilment Theology in Modern British Thought in the Indian Context (Switzerland: Peter Lang, 2001). [back]
  11. Claude Geffré OP, 'Paul Tillich and the Future of Interreligious Ecumenism', Paul Tillich: a New Catholic Assessment' in R. F. Bulman and F. J. Parrella (Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1994), p.268. [back]
  12. See John Dominic Crossan, Who Killed Jesus? (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), especially Chapter 7. [back]
  13. Alan Race, Christians and Religious Pluralism: Patterns in the Christian Theology of Religions (London: SCM Press, 1983). [back]
  14. Paul Hedges, 'Particularities: Tradition-Specific, Post-modern Perspectives', in Alan Race & Paul Hedges, Christian Approaches to Other Faiths (London: SCM Press, 2008), pp.112-135. [back]
  15. Perry Schmit-Leukel, 'Exclusivism, Inclusivism, Pluralism - Clarified and Reaffirmed', in Paul F. Knitter (ed), The Myth of Religious Superiority: A Multifaith Exploration (Maryknoll, NT: Orbis Books, 2005), pp.13-27. [back]
  16. In addition to works mentioned by Egnell, one could mention Peter Phan, Being Religious Interreligiously: Asian Perspectives on Interfaith Dialogue (Maryknoll, NY: 2004). [back]
  17. David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991, p.519. [back]
  18. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, 'Mission, Dialogue and God's Will For Us', International Review of Mission, Vol. LXXVIII, 307, July 1988, p.367. [back]

The Revd Dr Alan Race is Dean of Postgraduate Studies, St. Philip's Centre, Leicester, and author of numerous books and articles in Theology of Religions.