What is irreducible in the Gospel? How do we give freedom to the hearers to synthesize?


Yesterday, as three groups of the House of Bishops went to visit churches, museums and cultural centers around Taiwan, I found myself thinking about the challenges of proclaiming the eternal Gospel to people whose thinking is organized in radically different ways than that of the West.

It’s not a new problem. The early missionaries of the Church struggled with explaining the Hebrew roots of Christianity to people of the Hellenistic culture. Missionaries who traveled East long ago learned to share the good news in ways that were intelligible back then. And now that we, who are formed in Western thought are trying to travel West to share the same Gospel, we are having to revisit that missionary challenge once again.

On Friday, when we had a presentation from the principle of the Theological School in Hong Kong, we talked about the difficulty in explaining the formal relationships of the third person of the Trinity to the first and second persons, in a culture that understands Spirit in a totally different manner. What they’ve discovered in Hong Kong is that, to be effective in educating clergy for the East, they have had to move away from the classical Western Augustinian models of sin and redemption toward a paradigm of companionship and discipleship. Once that happened, there was a rapid change in the ability of the students to synthesize the material they were learning and express it in ways that both surprised and taught their instructors.

On Saturday I had the chance to have lunch with a retired Taiwanese Episcopal priest, who had been trained as a Western philosopher (and had taught at St. John’s University for part of his ministry). We talked at length of the challenges of teaching Western ideas in a completely different semiotic context. As one of the translators of the Book of Common Prayer into Mandarin, he was particularly aware of the challenge of communicating nuance to the reader so that the reader would be able to understand and synthesize a deeper understanding in the way that students in Hong Kong recently have managed.

The two conversations have driven home for me the need for all of us who are trying to do missionary work (even among the scientific sorts) to think long and hard about the irreducible minimum concepts that we are trying to express. And how we can do so in a way that allows the hearers in the new and different culture the ability to respond in ways that teach us something about the nature of God. Since it does stand to reason that God is somehow present in their midst and has been whispering the Gospel in their ears all along (in a Rahnerian fashion I guess).

Anyone who has learned from the African, Native American and Latino Christians will know what I mean. Anyone who has learned something of God from the laboratory or the equation will as well I hope.

No answers – perhaps not for a long time, perhaps never. But it’s something to ponder while I wander the streets of a city in a country of a very different culture.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Dale Cooper says

    Thanks–deep thanks–Brother Knisely for helping (me) to think, carefully and with Spirit-anointed discernment, I hope and pray, about these important questions. May the Lord be with you as you continue your ministry–and your work in Taiwan.

    Dale Cooper
    Grand Rapids, MI

  2. Susan Stiles says

    Having spent two years in the “mission field” teaching in China, I found the greatest challenge was to recognize how much of our own culture is blended into our own understanding of Scripture and theology. As I now try to learn from the Aramaic translations of the “new” Testament in George Lamsa’s work, I am sometimes shocked by how my own Christian formation, in its effort to get to the correct meaning of Jesus’ life and teaching, missed the original spectrum of meaning in Jesus’ own culture and language.

  3. To my way of thinking, this is exactly what’s great about Anglicanism: it is doctrinally minimalist. Two Creeds, the canon of Scripture, and Common Prayer. Especially helpful are the Creeds, I’d say; there’s very little “interpretation” in them. “For us and for our salvation, he came down from Heaven”; that’s the barest possible statement of the case, allowing for many different possible understandings. Which is why there are so many theories of salvation! All to the good, I’d say.

    “One canon, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries, and the series of Fathers in that period,” if you want to point to possible reference materials for people to look at.

    I think we over-complicate the whole thing, to be honest….

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