Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Incarnational Missions?

By Rev. Bassam M. Madany

In missions work today, across a broad spectrum of evangelicalism, a new term has gained coinage: “Incarnational Missions.” Just what should we, who have been active in mission work, and those just beginning their journeys in the field, think about the appearance of new missiological jargon or terminology such as that under discussion? One can certainly appreciate new terms that appear in any language which refer to new realities and concepts. But perhaps it might be the better part of virtue to stop for a moment and reflect on this particular one. What is behind the desire to define missions as “incarnational” when the simple adjective “Christian” was enough to define mission work in the past? It almost seems right from the starting point that those desiring to use this word are hesitating to use the adjective “Christian” for the vocation they have chosen – that of confronting unbelievers with the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Is “Christian” just too confrontational these days?

The term “Incarnational Missions” springs from the whole contextualization movement which began in the second half of the last century. It is another “buzz” word especially appealing to the confident young people, who have no serious background in missions, but yet are sent off by many local churches for short-term forays into foreign fields. However, the word “incarnational” should not be taken up by mere humans in such a facile way to explain what they do “for the Lord.” This theological and doctrinal word should be reserved for the person of Christ alone. As the Nicene Creed put it, “Who for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man.” The use of it adjectivally is arguably a trivialization of God’s work of redemption. Might its use among many today have some connection to the utter lack of truly biblical and theological understanding among Christians?

None other than the prominent Christian leader Rev. John Stott made some serious criticisms of past missionary efforts in the Foreword of “DOWN TO EARTH: Studies in Christianity and Culture.”1 He claimed that “the meager results of missions among 600 million Hindus of India and the 700 million Muslims of the world,” can be explained:

“Although different answers are given to these questions, they are basically cultural. The major challenge to the world-wide Christian mission today is whether we are willing to pay the cost of following in the footsteps of our incarnate Lord in order to contextualize the Gospel. Our failure of communication is a failure of contextualization.” (P. viii)

In Chapter 5, Hermeneutics and Culture: A Theological Perspective, C. René Padilla, director of Ediciones Cereteza, Buenes Aires, Argentina, in commenting on ‘The Interpreter’s Historical Situation,’ wrote:

“Interpreters do not live in a vacuum. They live in concrete historical situations, in particular cultures. If God’s word is to reach them it must do so in terms of their own culture or not at all. This is clear from the Incarnation itself. God did not reveal himself by shouting from heaven but by speaking from within a concrete human situation: he became present as a man among men, in Jesus, a first-century Jew. Because of the very nature of God’s Word, we can only know the Word as a message contextualized in a particular situation.” (Ibid., p. 68)

While it is true that interpreters don’t live in a vacuum, the importance of the Word of God, the Bible, in bringing Christ to the nations is their paramount tool of witness. It confronts all cultures with its truth claims. And God’s word in any translation does not produce saving results until and unless the Holy Spirit has touched the heart of the listener/reader. Not all Scripture came to us through the mouth of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the Word of God, the Logos, who pre-existed before the world. His Incarnation was a unique event in salvation history; it was intended to secure the salvation of mankind. This is the clear teaching of the Bible.

As mentioned above, Rev. Stott maintained that in the past, mission work produced “meager results” because missionaries had a “communication” problem in the cultures in which they ministered. They failed to contextualize the Gospel. Was Stott correct in suggesting that past missionaries did not “pay the cost” of following in the footsteps of the “incarnate” Christ? The book he edited in 1980 was a precursor to later statements of Stott that further explained his intent for “Incarnational Missions.” It has not met with universal acceptance among evangelicals.

Stott delivered his “final” sermon at the Keswick Convention on 17 July, 2007, where he expanded on his claim that Christians needed to “be like Christ in his Incarnation.” He actually recognized that some would “recoil in horror” from such an idea (“The model – becoming more like Christ”). What Christian could disagree with the aim he stresses – that of being holy as God demands – and this part of his sermon is completely acceptable. But to connect our obedience and walk with the Lord to being like him in his Incarnation seems an unnecessary accretion to the plain intent of the Bible. It would not have occurred to the missionary giants of the past to speak in such terms.

David J. Hesselgrave has written many books about Christian missions and cross-cultural engagement. His 2005 book Paradigms in Conflict2 is full of insight and instruction. One chapter entitled “Incarnationalism and Representationalism” in particular has much to commend it. He gives a short history of Christians modeling their lives after Christ’s, and mission work after his ministry. Liberation theology and concern for the poor was a type of incarnationalist missiology, especially among Catholics, but increasingly among Protestants as well. Evangelicals continued to hold evangelization as a high priority, but after John Stott came to advocate an understanding of the Great Commission where “Jesus and his mission became the model for the church’s mission” (p. 144) things began to change. Besides liberation incarnationalists there were now holism-incarnationalists (Christ transforming individuals and societies) and conversion-incarnationalists (Christ is redeemer but also as model in how missions is done). Hesselgrave believes in the representationalist model for missions. According to Andreas Köstenberger3 there is a discontinuity between Jesus and his followers in the way missions are done. Jesus followers are witnesses to him, not emulators as such, and the apostle Paul is the model missionary.

Hesselgrave is in the line of the great missiologists I refer to in this paper. They would agree with him to the three questions he poses: “what are missionaries to be, to say and to do.” Are they to be “incarnations” of Christ or “disciples, witnesses, representatives, and ambassadors of Christ?” (p. 152) They are not, as incarnationalists claim, just a “continuation of Christ’s own personal mission” but God’s representatives who, through history, go out witnessing under God’s plan of redemption, as the Apostle Paul did. What they say is the Good News of salvation in Christ alone whose incarnation, life and atoning work is unique to him for the saving of his elect from all the nations. And they do as Paul did, preach the obedience of faith, build up the churches and seek believers to grow up unto Christ. This is the representational model in witnessing to Christ.

I have been engaged in missions to Muslims since 1953, and by the mid-1970s, I became increasingly concerned about these new trends in missions. In 1985, I called a meeting for concerned missionary leaders to discuss the spread of the Contextualization movement. We met at Four Brooks Conference Center, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in July of that year. I read a paper on “Re-Thinking Missions Today: Neo-Evangelical Missiology and the Christian Mission to Islam” (*).

Dr. Frederick W. Evans, Jr., an authority on contemporary American church history, read a paper on “Neo-Evangelicalism and Its Impact on Missions: An Historical Overview” (*). The following are excerpts from his informative and valuable essay:

Summing up our discussion, the debate narrows down to the question as to whether eternal issues or this-worldly concerns are primary. The Neo-evangelical has ever increasingly been tending to major on the affairs of this life. How revealing is the title given to the published papers of the Willowbank Consultation, “Down to Earth!” with John Stott acknowledging that the answers given “are all basically cultural.4 Then, too, the Neo-evangelical joins his Liberal counter-parts in rejecting any dichotomy between body and soul. One missions professor, a veteran of many conferences and consultations, has asked, "Does the bugaboo of dichotomizing, the one great, unforgivable missiological sin of the 80’s, keep us from distinguishing between the relative importance of the body and material things and the eternal value of the soul?"5 Wherever we have turned a hard heart to man’s physical and material needs, we stand reproved by God’s Word. But wherever we have turned a blind eye to the spiritual needs of men, we stand doubly condemned. May God grant us the sight and insight of F. W. H. Myers “St. Paul”

Only like souls I see the folk thereunder,
Bound who should conquer, slaves who should be kings,
Hearing their one hope with an empty wonder,
Sadly contented with a show of things.

Then with a rush the intolerable craving
Shivers throughout me like a trumpet call:
O to save these, to perish for their saving,
Die for their life, be offered for them all!

Some of those who advocate “Incarnational Missions” suggest, but rarely substantiate, that past mission work was basically a failure. I suppose it depends on what one believes is success. This is not always easy to determine. Some faithful missionaries could point to little success in numbers of converts. Yet from its earliest days, Christianity spread and took hold, from the Mediterranean world into Europe, and then to the entire world, because of the total dedication of missionaries to the cause of Christ and the salvation of souls. They believed in the importance of mastering the languages of the peoples among whom they lived and worked. They studied their cultures in order to understand those with whom they dealt. Their models for missions were St Paul, Timothy, Titus, and the countless “lay” missionaries who spread the faith. They were living examples of the Holy Spirit’s activity in human lives. For them the “imperative” of the Great Commission was transformed into an ‘indicative,” thus making their mission work, a spontaneous and joyful activity.

I will mention just a few of those faithful workers in past mission work. I knew them as fellow laborers in the vineyards of Daru’l Islam, (the house of Islam). It was the general rule among mission agencies in the early years that the native languages must be learned. These people mastered the local languages so that they could be fully equipped to give a clear testimony about the person and work of Jesus Christ. In the spirit of Romans 12, they offered themselves as living sacrifices in the service of the Lord of missions.

While studying at the Reformed Presbyterian Seminary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1950-1953) and later at Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan (1957-1958), I got acquainted with the writings of some great missionaries whose works impacted my own fifty-year ministry. For example, Roland Allen’s books emphasized the relevance of Pauline missiology to missions in our times, such as his “MISSIONARY METHODS: ST PAUL’S OR OURS?”6 and “THE SPONTANEOUS EXPANSION OF THE CHURCH: and the Causes which Hinder it.”7 Hesselgrave points to Allen as a prime example of the “Pauline Model” of missions. His central focus was on “Paul’s missionary message and methods of evangelizing people and planting churches as he was directed and energized by the Holy Spirit.” (p. 157)

Another missionary expert was Dr. Harry Boer, who labored in Northern Nigeria, and authored “Pentecost and Missions.”8 I was impressed by his zeal and commitment to the cause of missions in Africa. In none of Allen’s or Boer’s works, was there any reference to a model similar to “Incarnational Missions.”

When surveying the lives of William Carey, Reginald Heber, Henry Martyn, Samuel Zwemer, and William Temple Gairdner, it matters little what “label” is used to describe their work. Their legacies witness to the fruits of their labors in Muslim lands. Take for example the life of the Rev. Henry Harris Jessup, the author of KAMIL ABDUL MESSIAH: A SYRIAN CONVERT FROM ISLAM TO CHRISTIANITY.9 He kept copies of the correspondence between Kamil and his father, and translated it into English, to tell us the gripping story of one of the early Muslim converts and martyrs in the Levant. Dr. Jessup’s autobiography, FIFTY THREE YEARS IN SYRIA (*), is a mine of information about the beginning of Protestant missions in the Middle East. He was one of the founders of the American University of Beirut, and a close friend of Cornelius Van Dyck, whose translation of the Bible into Arabic is a classic. Both Henry Jessup and Dr. Van Dyck became multicultural persons in the best meaning of the term.

The story of the Rev. James Dennis, professor of theology at the Presbyterian Seminary in Beirut illustrates the keen sense of how an American missionary-scholar even changed his name to avoid a serious misunderstanding that would have occurred were his English name used. His two-volume book on Dogmatics was published in 1890, under the title of Kitab Nidham al-Ta’leem Fi ‘l Allahut Al-Qaweem.10 In Arabic, his name appeared as Rev. James Ennes, al-Amercani. He did that because “Dennis,” if transliterated into Arabic, meant “unclean.” So by dropping the letter “D” he became Rev. James “Ennes,” which in Arabic meant “human”!

In 1964, I met retired missionary Helen NOORDEWIER in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She had a fruitful ministry serving as a missionary nurse at the United Presbyterian Hospital in Al-Mahallah al-Kubra, in the Delta of Egypt, from 1924 to 1964. She studied Arabic for five years in preparation for her work of mercy, and read her Bible in Arabic. The last time I visited her at a home for the aged, she gave me her copy of the Qur’an, printed in Cairo, in 1371 A.H., 1952 A. D. I’ll never forget her parting words: “Rev. Madany, I would like to tell you that I still have my devotions in Arabic!” She went to be with the Lord in February, 1987, at the age of 94!

Then, near our home in South Holland, Illinois, lived a retired missionary, Cornelia DALENBERG (1893-1988). She was recruited by Dr. Samuel Zwemer to serve as a Missionary Nurse in Arabia (Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman). Upon her retirement, she came regularly to our home and tutored my wife Shirley in Classical Arabic. I inherited her pocket-size Arabic Qur’an, with some statistical notes on certain Qur’anic Surahs and Ayahs written by her in the inside back cover. She identified so fully with the Arab population of the area, that they gave her an honorary name, Sharifa (the Noble Woman)!

Another reference to a giant in the faith was the late Rev. Dr. Harvey STAAL, a friend of Cornelia. He labored as a Reformed Church missionary in the Persian Gulf area for many years. He had mastered Arabic to such an extent, that when living in Kuwait, he won an Arabic-language prize offered on Kuwaiti Television! His lasting accomplishment was his work on transcribing, keying, and publishing MT. SINAI ARABIC CODEX 151, perhaps one of the earliest translations of the Bible into Arabic, circa 867 A.D., 253 A.H. This translation was done in Damascus, by a Christian layman, Bishr ibn Al-Sirri, from Syriac into Arabic. Dr. Staal published his English translation of CODEX 151, to enable students of Eastern Christianity to become aware of this important work that included comments on some crucial New Testament texts.

The late Professor J. Windrow Sweetman, a giant missionary scholar of the last century, labored among the Muslims of India before the Partition of 1947. He devoted his life to the study of Islam, and authored several books on historical-theological subjects, that pointed to his fervent love for reaching Muslims with the Gospel of salvation.11

To illustrate what genuine scholarship joined to fervent faith can accomplish in missions to Muslims, I urge the reader to read the Appendix to this paper, which is an article about Professor Sweetman that my dear wife Shirley wrote for the February, 2001 issue of the Missionary Monthly, a journal published in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Finally, I would like to endorse two recent works by Professor Rodney Stark of Baylor University in Texas, which throw light on the spread of early Christianity throughout the Mediterranean world. He summarized the astonishing spread of the Christian faith during the second half of the first century, in these pithy words: “Within twenty years of the crucifixion, Christianity was transformed from a faith based in rural Galilee, to an urban movement reaching far beyond Palestine. In the beginning it was borne by nameless itinerant preachers and by rank-and-file Christians who shared their faith with relatives and friends.”12

How True! It was the deep faith of those “itinerant preachers” coupled with the spontaneity of their proclamation of the Good News that secured the conversion of countless men and women within the Roman Empire. No trendy missiological clichés encumbered their joyful teaching and sharing of the message of Christ with neighbors and friends. This spirit of utter devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ enabled the early Christians, to accomplish marvels. Many have since followed in their footsteps. They may not always have known success as some modern missiologists define it, but whatever failures they are judged to have been a part of, should not be blamed on their inability to incarnationalize the Gospel. They knew the incarnation was unique to our Lord and not something that could be conceptualized into a pattern easily imitated and continued. They were more interested in holding to a high view of Scripture, its translation into the languages of the cultures in which they ministered, and the sovereignty of God over its success in converting souls to the Glory of God.



“J. W. Sweetman: Pioneer Missionary Scholar”

We have written a great deal about the late Samuel Zwemer, and have recently promoted the work of the late Harvey Staal. It is time to do homage to the late J. Windrow Sweetman, surely a giant scholar of the last century whose work, is rapidly gathering dust and being forgotten, and yet remains a veritable treasure.

James Windrow Sweetman was Vice-Principal of the Henry Martyn School of Islamics, at Aligarh, India, and then Professor of Islamics at the Selly Oak College, Birmingham, England. He died in 1966 while the second volume of Part II of his masterly work on “Islam and Christian Theology” was going through the press. We can be thankful for what has been preserved of Dr. Sweetman's great work on the subject. It consists of an historical survey covering the relation between the Eastern Christian Church and Islam, the Middle Ages in Europe and the era of the Crusades, the Preaching Orders of the Church versus Islam, and the “polemical climax” personified in the champions of their respective faiths whose weapon was the pen, not the sword: Ricoldo of Montecroce and Nicholas of Cusa on the Christian side, Ibn Hazm and Al-Ghazzali for Islam.

Professor Sweetman shows that the modern dialogue between the two great faiths is not to be accomplished by easy, popular methods, but demands rigorous and dedicated intellects on both sides. His own contribution sets an example of the fine scholarship, which the Christian/Islamic debate requires. Following are some choice paragraphs from the first chapter of that important booklet, “The Bible in Islam.”

“Six hundred years had passed since Christ walked the earth and yet no one had put His words into the tongue of the Arab. … The characteristic name by which both Jews and Christians were known among the Arabs was the People of the Book, which meant the people of the Bible. Yet that by which they were famous was kept as a hidden treasure, hoarded and not cast abroad like seed to bring forth fruit.” (Pp. 9, 10)

“Here is the tragedy of the Church at the time of the rise of Islam. All truth demanded that, when Muhammad’s spirit was stirred with the needs of his people and when he was groping after Him who could save and unify, he should have had in his hands the true Jewish and Christian Scriptures. Instead it was left for him to learn by hearsay from the lips of uninstructed or imperfectly instructed Christians what those Scriptures contained. It seems quite evident to me that initially Muhammad considered that he was putting Biblical truth into language which could be understood by his own countrymen. It was to be an “Arabic Quran” to be recited in a familiar tongue. And if it had been a translation of the Christian Scripture he might have been like a Luther giving the living Word to the “raw Saxon” or a Tyndale who unlocked the treasures of Scripture for the man of common speech. (P. 11)

“What is important, and to our mind a tragedy, is that the translation of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments had to wait till more than a century at least after the experience of Muhammad on Mount Hira. The first was perhaps a translation from the Latin made in Spain by John of Seville in the early eighth century, and probably from the Vulgate. The second, if we are to believe the reporters, was by a Muslim who made his translation in the latter part of the same century at the command of the Caliph Harun Ar Rashid. Then the renowned translator of the Greek philosophers into Arabic, the Syrian Christian physician Hunayn son of Isaac, tried his hand in the ninth century. The earliest translation of the New Testament I have ever read and handled is one made in the eleventh century by a Christian of Baghdad, a piece of work marked by devotion and ability. But oh! The pity of this long delay.”13 (P. 12)

“Now, after a lapse of time in which the Christian Scriptures has remained still unknown to them, Muslims came from a newly-fixed point of view to the Old Testament and the New Testament, placed in their hands by tardy Christians. It is at first a source of gratification to them, for the Quran commends the earlier Scripture. But when they come to examine the newly discovered book they find that it does not agree at all with that to which they have gradually become accustomed. ‘This Gospel tells how Jesus really died and so it cannot be the Injil which Muhammad commended. That was a revelation which God gave to Jesus, a book which marked His prophethood; but this consists of several books by disciples called Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and letters written by Paul and John, James and Peter.’ And so they conclude that these writings are not the original Gospel but that the Jews and the Christians have corrupted the primitive revelation.” (Pp.17 & 18)

Sweetman advocated a loving approach to the Muslim. In chapter IV under the title “The Missions of Penitence and Love” he wrote:

“Should not therefore the missionary as the representative of the Church of Christ as well as the ambassador of Christ Himself be penitent when, through an initial fault, the Arabs were not given the Scripture in their own tongue? Francis of Assisi went with the message of love into the armed camp of the Saracens, counting not his dear life dear unto him if only he might commend the love of Christ; and Raymond Lull, whose all absorbing theme was the Love of the Beloved, came at last to martyrdom for Christ’s sake. These and many others sought victory for the love of Christ and tried to break down the barriers which centuries of estrangement and violence had strengthened; but it was given to Henry Martyn to dedicate all his great intellectual powers, the qualities of his loving and gentle spirit, the passion of his soul, to make restitution for what was withheld from Islam in the past, to see that the Word of God was not only translated but made into an instrument whereby the truth of Christ might speak to all who followed the Islamic path.” (P. 24)

“So now the cross which is presented to the Muslim’s gaze is the cross of sacrifice and passion. The story of Abdullah and Sabat seems to be prophetic. They had been friends and then Abdullah heard the voice of God and found peace in Christ. He fled from his native place but was recognized in the streets of Bukhara by Sabat, his one-time friend, who denounced him. He was mutilated and martyred by a mob, Sabat standing by the while and consenting to the deed, like Paul at the death of Stephen. Fiery-tempered and uncontrolled as he remained even to the very end, something came into the life of Sabat at that hour of his friend’s death. He tells us himself, ‘He looked at me … but not with anger. He looked at me … but it was with compassion and the countenance of forgiveness … and when he bowed his head to take the fatal stroke, it was as if all Bukhara exclaimed, ‘What new thing is this?’ Brought by God’s hand and with the vision of the face of his dying friend, it was this fierce Sabat who joined with the gentle Martyn to give back the word of reconciling love to the Muslims of India and Persia. Henry Martyn himself died, with the sacrifice of all that he so richly was and with a most willing surrender of his loving heart to his task, in a lonely village in Asia Minor about the age when ‘the young Prince of Glory died.’

“Such is the true way to commend the Gospel to Islam, the way of penitence and sacrifice. It was William Temple who said cogently: ‘You can never say to men, Go to the Cross; you can only say Come! We must stand under the shadow of the Cross where our tears of penitence flow when we beckon to our brothers in Islam to come and ‘see whether there was any sorrow like unto His sorrow.’ It is not to be done with violence, whether of arms or conceit and superiority, but with a sense of standing ourselves under judgment of a task undone, a task to which Christ’s love would fain have constrained us, and of ourselves as sinners saved by the grace which we commend to men.” (P. 25)

In the last chapter titled, “The Living Word,” J. W. Sweetman closes with these final words: Listen to a final testimony from the lips of an Arab:

“For by His Word He cleft the rock of my heart and opened it as a grave. So I see He does to the hearts of other men as evil and as wicked as I was. Verily it is His Word which makes of a wolf a meek and willing lamb, and of a ravenous beast a mild and docile creature… Thus was I led to Jesus Christ and to salvation.” (P. 44)


1 Down to Earth: Studies in Christianity and Culture; edited by John R. W. Stott and Robert T. Coote. W. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1980

2 David J. Hesselgrave, Paradigms in Conflict 10 Key Questions in Christian Missions Today, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, 2005.

3 Köstenberger, Andreas, The Missions of Jesus and the Disciples According to the Fourth Gospel: With Implications for the Fourth Gospel’s Purpose and the Mission of the Contemporary Church, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1998.

4 Stott and Coote, Down to Earth, op. cit., p. viii.

5 John A. Gration, “Key Issues in Missiology,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly, January 1984, p. 77.

6 Missionary Methods: St Paul’s Or Ours? By Roland Allen. World Dominion Press, London, 1953

7 The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church, and the Causes which Hinder it By Roland Allen, World Dominion Press, London, 1956.

8 Pentecost and Missions, By Harry R. Boer, with Foreword by Dr. W. A. Visser‘t Hooft. W. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1961

9 KAMIL ABDUL MESSAIH: A Syrian Convert from Islam to Christianity, by The Rev. Henry Harris Jessup, D. D. The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1898; Middle East Resources, 2008.

10 Kitab Nidham al-Ta’leem Fi ‘IL Allahut Al-Qaweem, American Press, Beirut, 1890 A.D. 1305 A. H.

11 The Bible in Islam. London: The British and Foreign Bible Society, London l954. Islam and Christian Theology: A Study of the Interpretation of Theological Ideas in the Two Religions. Part II Volume I. London: Lutterworth Press, l955. Islam and Christian Theology. Part II Volume II. London: Lutterworth Press, l967

12 “Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became An Urban Movement and Conquered Rome” by Rodney Stark, HarperOne, An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2006, P. 25. “The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries.” By Rodney Stark, HarperOne, An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1996.

13 J.W. Sweetman was unaware of the 1953 discovery of MT. SINAI ARABIC CODEX 151. It is one of the oldest Arabic translations of the New Testament done by a Syrian Christian in the latter part of the ninth century. Most likely, due to the Mongolian invasion of the Middle East in the thirteenth century, the manuscript was smuggled to the safety of the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mt. Sinai.