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Constants in context: A theology of mission for today — Book Review

22 March 2010

Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today (American Society of Missiology Series) Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today by Stephen B. Bevans

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Since one of the authors of this book, Roger Schroeder, is visiting South Africa right now, and I hope to attend a missiological conference where he will be speaking in a couple of days’ time, I thought I would post this review, which I originally wrote six years ago for the International Bulletin of Missionary Research

This book is a survey of twenty centuries of mission history in the light of different models of mission theology, and ends with a proposal for a mission theology for the 21st century. The theological models the authors use are based on those proposed by Justo L. González and Dorothea Sölle, which they refer to as types A, B, and C.

  • Type A is mission as saving souls and extending the church;
  • Type B is mission as discovery of the truth;
  • Type C is mission as commitment to liberation and transformation.

The three models are typified in the early church by Tertullian of Carthage, Origen of Alexandria and Irenaeus of Lyons respectively.

The authors go on to describe each model of theology in relation to six constants:

  1. Christology
  2. Ecclesiology
  3. Eschatology
  4. Salvation
  5. Anthropology
  6. Culture

They then examine these constants in six different historical contexts.

As an Orthodox Christian, I read the authors’ description of Type A and Type B theology, and felt repelled. I could not identify with either of them. Type C, however, was familiar to me; it was Orthodox theology.

This is not surprising, since Irenaeus is regarded by the Orthodox Church as a saint and a Father of the Church; Tertullian and Origen are not. As I read on, however, I felt marginalized: in all six periods of mission history the authors identified Orthodox mission with Type B, and not with Type C, yet made no attempt to explain this (to me) glaring discrepancy. It is a pity that the book lacks a bibliography.

The book is a good introduction to Roman Catholic mission history and theology. Its coverage of Orthodox mission history and theology, however, is thin and misleading. There is a flaw either in the models themselves, or in the authors’ application of them.

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Since that was written more than five years ago, and was subject to a limit of a maximum of 300 words, perhaps I can add a few words here.

In this book Bevans and Schroeder do for Roman Catholic missiology what David Bosch did for Protestant mission theology in his magnum opus Transforming Mission. But both books are weak when it comes to Orthodox missiology. Perhaps the nearest approach to such a work on Orthodox missiology is James Stamoolis’s Eastern Orthodox mission theology today, but Stamoolis was not himself Orthodox, but rather an ex-Orthodox Baptist. He got some things right, and made some good points, but one only has to read Archbishop Anastasios Yannoulatos’s Facing the world to see that there some glaring omissions in all three books, and some grave distortions in the first two. Archbishop Anastasios is undoubtedly the best Orthodox missiologist today, but Facing the world is a collection of essays and papers rather than a coherent narrative, though perhaps a coherent narrative is a very “western” thing to ask for.

The misunderstandings that I see in Bevans & Schroeder’s book are perhaps some of the things that could be discussed, and perhaps corrected, at the kind of Missional Symposium proposed by Professor Germanos Marani.

That apart, however, I think the book gives a pretty good overview of Roman Catholic missiology, and how it worked itself out in different periods. And, as with Orthodox mission, it too did not follow a single model, and different models sometimes came into conflict, as can be seen, for example, in the film The Mission. So I’m not saying the book isn’t worth reading, just that what Bevan and Schroeder have to say about Orthodox mission sometimes needs to be taken with a rather large pinch of salt.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Joe permalink
    28 May 2010 1:56 am

    The bibliography is in the back of the book.

    • 3 June 2010 8:25 am

      Joe,

      Not in my edition, there isn’t.

      There is, on page 489, a list of books previously published in the American Society of Missiology series, but that is not a bibliography for this book.

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