The title of this book caught my attention when I was searching for something else on Amazon (this is not a review as such; I'm using the book as a springboard for the following reflections). When I was at seminary my New Testament Greek lecturer ('professor' in American terminology), Dr Greg Lockwood (a true scholar and gentleman), would pepper our study of the Greek NT text with anecdotes and excursions into dogmatics which served to highlight some point the Biblical text was making. One anecdote went back to the time when he was a missionary in Papua New Guinea in the 1970s; apparently the neighbouring Roman Catholic missionaries always made a point of explaining to the Lutherans that 'we did not bring Christ to these people, he was already here'. Now, that probably makes perfect sense in the context of a Roman Catholic understanding of theological anthropology (of which more in a minute), but a Lutheran could only offer a qualified assent to the proposition, if indeed he could assent at all. Unfortunately, that is the thesis of this book: evangelism does not bring Christ to unbelievers, for he is already there...in a mysterious, sacramental kind of way.
To be sure, God does not forsake pagans or non-Christians. In His general providence and kindness He 'makes the rain to fall on the just and unjust' and it is 'in Him that we live and move and have our being', such that only God's upholding of the world ensures our continued existence. Further, God earnestly desires the salvation of all people, and directs and blesses the preaching of the Gospel to that end. In fact, as far as I know, there are no more 'heathens' in Papua New Guinea today, they are all confessedly Christian, but that's thanks to the generations of missionaries who took Christ to the PNG people. Come to think of it, I think there are more heathens (or pagans or unbelievers or whatever you wish to call them) in Australia these days than there ever were in PNG. History, even very recent history, teaches us that the course of the Gospel through the world mysteriously ebbs and flows among various peoples, surging in glorious fullness in one place while receding with a 'melancholy, long, withdrawing roar' in another, leaving men stranded and exposed in their spiritual helplessness.
Anyway, back to the problem with saying that Christ is with non-Christians in an unqualified way. Lutheran doctrine, following the clear teaching of scripture, asserts that all human beings born since the fall of Adam are 'without fear of God, without trust in God and are 'concupiscent'', a technical theological term which is boldly defined by the confession as meaning humans are 'full of evil lust and inclinations from their mother's wombs'. This state, commonly called original sin, according to the confessions truly 'damns and brings eternal death'(Augsburg Confession, Art II, both Latin and German texts; the locus classicus for this teaching is Paul's argument in the first chapters of Romans).
It is because of their unforgiven sin - both actual sins and original sin - and most particularly because of their idolatry, that pagans/heathen/non-Christians are not in fellowship with God. They are not in some 'neutral' spiritual state either, rather they are in active rebellion against their Creator and desperately need to hear the good news of the redemption He has won and offers to them through and in Christ. But without missionaries or preachers, they do not have Christ, even if in some mysterious way he is there (given that according to classic theology wherever the Father is there the Son is also). Non-Christians may even express an intense desire for redemption from their current state of bondage to sin and evil (in my experience Hindus and Muslims often have a much greater desire for redemption than the average post-Christian Westerner), but they are themselves powerless to initiate or accomplish their redemption. Only Christ has done that by offering up his own body and his precious blood as an atonement for sin and only the Spirit working through the Word can bring the benefits of that atonement to them.
So, do you see what I mean about a Lutheran being only able to offer a qualified assent, if indeed any at all, to the proposition that Christ is already with pagans, heathens and unbelievers? But members of church bodies which operate with a less rigorous theological anthropology that leaves the door open for genuine human seeking after and co-operation with God apart from His revelation in Christ can be much more positive about the extent to which Christ may be present in the lives of pagans and unbelievers. They may even teach, as does Rome (see Catechism of the Catholic Church 1260 & http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/audiences/2005/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20051130_en.html), that by following the tenets of their religion and abiding by their conscience the heathen may be saved (I'm sorry Roman friends, but what is that but rank Pelagianism?).
Which brings me to what intrigues me about this book. Evangelicals (non-Reformed ones anyway), Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are disparate groups, but they have at least one thing in common, namely a weak theological anthropology that tends towards semi-Pelagianism or the full blown variety thereof, i.e. the belief that fallen human beings have some innate spiritual capacity, a 'spark of indwelling divinity' as I once heard an Orthodox priest put it, that means they can genuinely contribute something to their salvation (synergism) even from the outset. Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy have also, at least for the last couple of generations, been cautiously open to Eastern religious experience as possibly providing an authentic knowledge of God. But until recently Evangelicals would have shied away from such openness. Now I wonder if this book signals a movement for change? Even if that's not where the authors think they're going, it's quite possibly where they'll end up if the history of their own more liberal Protestant brothers is anything to go by (it's no accident that historically missiology was the field upon which the 20th C. conflict between Protestant 'Fundamentalists' and 'Liberals' was fought most viciously - see J. Gresham Machen's life story for e.g.).
Then there's also the curious notion that evangelism is a sacrament. That needs unpacking. For Lutherans evangelism is a form of the ministry of the Word, of which sacraments are visible forms (cautiously following Augustine's suggestion that sacraments combine the Word with a visible element). Applying the term 'sacrament' to evangelism seems problematic then - what is the visible element? But then speaking of sacraments as a general category at all is more Roman Catholic than Lutheran or indeed Evangelical. Lutherans rightly prefer to speak simply of 'Holy Baptism' and 'the Lord's supper', although I suppose there is no in principle objection to the more general term as a form of shorthand, as in 'Word and sacrament ministry'. But I'm suspicious of the sort of imprecise language the authors of this book already engage in with their title; it is often the mark of lazy thinking which returns to haunt in unexpected ways (this raises the question of why the important subject of evangelism is so often the victim of lazy thinking?). How easily the bland statement that 'the world is a sacrament' can lead back to paganism, and indeed if anything can be a sacrament, or if everything already is a sacrament in the sense of a bearer of the presence of God (which forms the basis of the authors' argument), does that not make Baptism and the Supper superfluous?
I fear the authors have forgotten - or never learned - that without explicit knowledge of Christ the true nature of God is hidden from fallen man, and the encounter with Him in nature or conscience is much more likely to inspire terror and craven idolatry than the Biblical faith and worship that the knowledge of Christ and His benefits brings. That's why I contend that it is at best problematic, but at worst actually dangerous to evangelism, to suggest that Christ is already present with unbelievers.
Click on the post title to see the book's Amazon page. The co-authors, Jerry Root and Stan Guthrie, are respectively a professor of practical theology and an editor at 'Christianity Today' magazine. We at the old manse think they could have benefited from the input of a systematic theologian along the way.