Hendrik Kraemer's "The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World" (1938): Summary

Hendrik Kraemer (1888-1965) was a lay Dutch missiologist and prominent figure in the ecumenical movement from Dutch Reformed Church in the Netherlands.  Kraemer worked for the Dutch Bible Society in Indonesia (1922-1937), was professor of the history and phenomenology of religion at Leiden University (1937-1947) and served as the first director of the Ecumenical Institute in Bossey (1948-1955).  Kraemer was an excellent linguist with a deep understanding of Islam, of the importance of independent churches, the role of the laity, and the encounter between God and man in the midst of social and religious crises. 

The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World (1938)
This 477 page tome was commissioned for the World Missionary Conference held in Tamram, India in 1938, and it had a wide impact on overseas mission.  Its task was to “state the fundamental position of the Christian Church as a witness-bearing body in the modern world, relating this to different conflicting views of the attitude to be taken by Christians towards other faiths, and dealing in detail with the evangelistic approach to the great non-Christian faiths” (v).

Chapter one, titled “A World in Transition” sets the context of crises in the West, East and in the church, which all call for “the urgent necessity of fundamental re-orientation of the Church regarding its relation to the world and all its spheres of life” (xi).  Chapter two, titled “Whither Missions?” considers criticisms of the church and missions and concludes that “Missions have to work by purely religious and moral persuasion, the witness to Christ and His Kingdom” (xii).  Chapter three, titled “The Christian Faith and the Christian Ethic” explores the various ways of expressing the Christian faith through “biblical realism” and asserts the freedom and realism of the Christian ethic, while concluding on an “intrinsic unity of faith and ethics in the Christian revelation, on account of its theocentric character” (405).

Chapter four, titled “The Attitude Toward the Non-Christian Religions” requires a closer treatment.  Kraemer summarizes the first three points of this chapter: First, the attitude towards the non-Christian religions is to be seen in the context of the general problem of the relation of Christianity to the world and its spheres of life.  Second, the only standard for religions is Jesus, therefore “the most fruitful and legitimate way to analyse and evaluate all religions is to investigate them in the light of the revelation of Christ” (110). Christ, as the ultimate standard of reference, is the crisis of all religions, of the non-Christian religions and of empirical Christianity too” (110).  Third, “the character of this faith and the nature of the divine truth of revelation” excludes attitudes of superiority.

Kraemer poses a further question: “How and where does God reveal Himself in the religious life as present in the non-Christian religions?” (111).  He rejects Thomistic “natural theology” as, from the standpoint of revelation, “a failure and an error” (115).  Indeed, “general revelation” is a contradiction of terms (111).  Kraemer also criticizes Barth’s theology of revelation for refusing to deal with the “universal religious consciousness amongst men” (111).  Emil Brunner, is the champion of a modified natural theology, in which it will not do to deem of one substance the sublime religious and moral achievements of religions and revelation in Christ.  Thus, “it will no more be permitted to consider undiscerningly the glimpses of revelation and the religious intuitions of mankind as a preceding and preparatory stage for the full revelation in Christ” (123).  Rather than “fulfillment” it is proper to speak of “conversion and regeneration” as the relation between religions and revelation (124). 

Thus, the “function of natural theology will henceforth be, not to construe preparatory stages and draw unbroken, continuous lines of religious development ending and reaching their summit in Christ, but in the light of the Christian revelation to lay bare the dialectical condition not only of the non-Christian religions but of all the human attempts towards apprehension of the totality of existence” (125).

To sum up, Kraemer describes the relation of the Christian Church to the world in all its domains as a “combination of a prophetic, apostolic heraldship of truth for Christ's sake with a priestly apostolic ambassadorship of love for His sake” (127).  Regarding points of contact for the missionary, Kraemer asserts the only true ones can be found in antithesis to revelation and in the disposition and the attitude of the missionary (139-140).

Chapters five and six, titled “The Non-Christian Systems of Life and Thought,” survey major religions, including “Naturalist Religions,” Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. Shinto, Islam and Judaism.  Chapter seven, titled “The Present Religions Situation in the Non-Christian World,” surveys relevant conditions among “primitive” peoples, as well as in India, China, Japan and Islamic regions. 

Chapter eight, titled “The Missionary Approach” begins with noting the lessons from the last 150 years of missions.  First, the original belief that non-Christian religions were steeped in darkness and error, has turned out to be “totally erroneous” (284).  Second, these great non-Christian religions should be regarded as “complex civilizations and social structures” (286).   Third, as the result of missions “many ideas and motives that can historically be proved to be fruits from the tree of Christianity are incorporated in the modern expressions of the ancient religions” (288). 

He asserts that the “only valid motive and purpose of missions is and alone can be to call men and peoples to confront themselves with God's acts of revelation and salvation for man and the world as presented in Biblical realism, and to build up a community of those who have surrendered themselves to faith in and loving service of Jesus Christ.  No pretensions whatever, derived from presumably superior ethical or religious or cultural elements, have anything to do with" the apostolic claim and obligation of Christianity (294). The aversion of some to evangelization, and preference to “sharing religious experience” or “social service” stem from a confusion that regards “religion as primarily the purveyor of psychological experience” which forgets “the prophetic character of the Christian revelation” (295).  The “orthodox” missionary attitude requires purification toward humility while the liberal missionary attitude requires recovery of the revelational character of Christianity (297).

Kraemer labels the proper missionary approach “evangelistic” and envisages it consisting of three aspects: evangelism, adaptation and service (302).  Evangelism must “strive for the presentation of the Christian truth in terms and modes of expression that  make its challenge intelligible” against the background of universal human challenges (303).  The person of the missionary, in his/her character must naturally evoke human trust, or the proclamation will ring hollow. 

Regarding adaptation, Kraemer points to the NT model in which revelation “stands in revolutionary contrast to this concrete Jewish and Hellenistic world, but at the same time freely uses its ideas and thought-forms to express itself, and so Christian truth experiences its first incarnation” (313).  Without adaptation, Christian revelation is purely foreign, and arrives sterile.  And yet there is a risk that the Younger Churches will over-adapt, omitting the repudiation of other religions (319).  Kraemer rejects calls to replace the OT with other sacred texts.   

In sum, “the Christian approach to the non-Christian religions includes an equally firm grasp of the vital elements in the Christian revelation and of the necessity to speak and interpret it to the hearer in a way that stirs his living response, whether it is an affirmative or a negative one; not in a way that pleases our particular orthodox or liberal doctrinal appetites, right as they may sometimes be (334).
The third aspect of the evangelistic approach, service, is addressed in Chapter ten.  Chapter nine, considers “The Missionary Approach” in the contexts of Africa, India, Islam, China and Japan.

Chapter ten, titled “The Christian Mission in Relation to its Environment,” treats the
nature of the Church, and the relation of Christianity to its material and cultural environment.  The approaches of Roland Allen and Nevius are seen as “evangelistically-minded.”  “Culturally-minded” missions capitalized in Eastern interest in Western knowledge.  Neither of these will produce an indigenous Church, Kramer believes: “A more effective way of becoming an indigenous Church is to become conscious of what a real Church is rather than to attack the problem implied in the word "indigenous" without knowing what a Church is” (415).  Thus he undertakes ecclesiological articulation in service of a renewed “Church-consciousness.” 

For Kraemer, the character of the Church is distinct from that of a voluntary religious goodwill society, since it exists as “God’s act through Jesus Christ, called into being by His redemptive purpose” (416).  The church’s nature is eschatological, thus it is not an “ideal institution” but an interim one which can never feel at home in the world but “finds its origin and ends in God's redemptive Will for the world, and therefore enters fully into the need and peril of the world” (418).  Enlivened by the charismata, the church exists for the sake of the world. 

With this ecclesiology in view, Kraemer asserts that “the radically religious and theocentric conception of Christianity as contained in Biblical realism gives courage to use the heritage and use it creatively and critically” to indigenize Christianity in congenial thought-forms (420-421).  The criterion for adoption or rejection of a particular form “lies in whether it serves to express or to frustrate” faithful communication (421).  He also points out that there is a difference between faithful indigenization and being recognized as indigenous: “However indigenous in the best and deepest sense of the word it becomes, the non-Christian environment will not cease to consider it objectionable until it has become at least a strong and impressive minority” (423).

Turning to the theme of service, Kraemer describes the Kingdom of God as “an operative but transcendent reality” (430).  As beneficial as it is to society, the Church can not pretend that Christianity will realize ideal cultural social or political conditions. Kraemer finds fault with H. Vernon White who contrasts evangelism and service as opposing agendas for the church, noting that “The spirit of mercy and helpfulness is as essential an element of the Christian faith as is faith in the forgiveness of sins” (431).  While the Church is not driven by utopianism, it does not shrink from emancipating work when duty calls (434).  In this context Kraemer’s remarks, in a footnote, on Hocking’s Rethinking Missions:

The approach towards the problem of the Christian mission in the non-Christian world in [my] book is entirely different from that of the Laymen's Enquiry. Here, however, I avail myself of the opportunity to say with great emphasis that one of the detrimental effects of the discussion which centred around it is that the wealth of splendid practical advice and insight stored up in these reports remains so largely unused. Horror at the underlying "activism" and "syncretism" has blinded the eyes to some outstanding merits of these reports. 

In conclusion, he offers three lines of action for his moment: adoption of a radical religious approach (such as he has described throughout), devoting attention to ritual and worship for family and community use, and leveraging of Christian festivals for dramatic impact among rural Christians.

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