As the world becomes more global, the increasing awareness of and interaction with different religions combined with a change in the conception of truth has caused a reevaluation of Christian missions. Questions about the propriety of conversion, methods for evangelism, and the goal of missions have been debated for over a hundred years. Writing closer to the start of these debates (1938), The Dutch Reformed theologian and missionary Hendrik Kraemer offers his clear and forceful opinion on the necessity of Christian missions for the world in The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World. (The following quotations are from the third edition, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1969).
Kraemer begins by describing the state of affairs at the time of his writing and the difficulties it posed for the world at large and the church in particular. The beginning of post-modernism was shaking much of the West, while the East was still reeling from its collision with the West. The Church was continuing to wrestle with how it should function as only a part of society rather than as the center. After noting these realities, Kraemer defends the importance of Christian missions and the need for conversion in the midst of this confusion: “The starting-point of missions is the divine commission to proclaim the Lordship of Christ over all life; and therefore a return to the pristine enthusiasm for evangelism and a new vision of what this implies in word and deed in the present and complicated world are needed” (60).
If Christians are to work towards the conversion of adherents of other religions, how should they view those religions? It is common today for professing Christians to view other religions as either equally valid paths to God or partial paths to be complemented by Christianity. Kraemer, though addressing the second mindset more directly, offers his unqualified denial of those options. Christianity is not fundamentally similar to other religions but is sui generis—in a category of its own. Religions are “the various efforts of man to apprehend the totality of existence, often stirring in their sublimity and as often pathetic or revolting in their ineffectiveness” (111). Christianity is not the pinnacle or culmination of these efforts because these efforts are not pointing to Christ to begin with.
The Cross and its real meaning—reconciliation as God’s initiative and act—is antagonistic to all human religious aspirations and ends, for the tendency of all human religious striving is to possess or conquer God, to realize our divine nature (theosis). Christ is not the fulfillment of this but the uncovering of its self-assertive nature; and at the same time the re-birth to a completely opposite condition, namely, the fellowship of reconciliation with God (123).
This understanding of non-Christian religions reveals the continuing necessity of conversion but removes the sting of the charges of arrogance and superiority leveled against evangelism. If Christianity is the culmination of human religion, then the Christian missionary has the missing puzzle pieces others have lacked—strongly implying their inability to grasp them prior to the missionary offering his superior perception. But if Christianity is a completely different understanding revealed by God and empowered by the Holy Spirit, the missionary is in no state of superiority. Rather, he is an individual who has been graced with the truth of God and now humbly and fearfully works to bring this revelation to others.
This understanding of Christianity’s place in relationship to other religions also addresses the question of “points of contact.” Often, missionaries look for beliefs or practices in other religions that they can utilize to bring Christian belief and practice into a particular culture. Kraemer finds this practice dubious. First, because religions are a unified set of beliefs and practices, so no individual belief or practice can be separated from the whole.
Every religion is a living, indivisible unity. Every part of it—a dogma, a rite, a myth, an institution, a cult, is so vitally related to the whole that it can never be understood in its real function, significance and tendency, as these occur in the reality of life, without keeping constantly in mind the vast and living unity of existential apprehension in which this part moves and has its being (135).
Second, since religion is by nature an outgrowth of man’s rebellion against God, a better approach to other religions is an emphasis on the points of difference rather than similarity. “In light of the dialectical situations of all religious life and of all religions…points of contact in the real deep sense of the word can only be found by antithesis” (139). Kraemer proceeds to provide an overview of other main religions as they are found in various parts of the world and demonstrates this antithesis.
Is missions work then simply a rational persuasion highlighting the confrontation between the revelation of Christ and other religions while trusting the power of the Spirit? No, Kraemer does note a human element of contact—the missionary himself. The missionary must be aware of how the people think, believe, and live in order to best demonstrate his sincere concern for those he wants to embrace Christ. “Only a genuine and continuous interest in the people as they are creates real points of contact, because man everywhere intuitively knows that, only when his actual being is the object of human interest and love, is he looked upon in actual fact, and not theoretically, as a fellow-man” (140).
Though Kraemer’s denial of points of contact may need to be nuanced in some way, his focus on antithesis is a helpful reminder of the uniqueness of Christianity. God is not revealing Himself through the different religions around the world. He has revealed himself generally through creation and specifically through Jesus Christ and His Word. Thus, the only way for people to know God is through someone verbally communicating to them that gracious revelation found in Jesus Christ.