A Theme Word for 2016: 'Possessio'

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Elsewhere on this site, Staci asked if readers would be willing to submit a theme word for 2016. Here is mine. 'Possessio.' No it is not about demonic possession, or how much I possess my possessions, but something else. The Dutch missiologist, J.H. Bavinck, whose work has become more accessible than ever due to the efforts of the Bavinck Institute at Calvin Seminary along with the publication of The Bavinck Reader by Professor John Bolt and others, left a legacy of solidly Reformed mission's thinking. Included in this legacy is something he called 'possessio' which is likely derived from the Apostle Paul's idea of taking "'every thought captive to obey Christ" [2 Corinthians 10:5].

Neither "adaptation" nor "accommodation" but 'possessio': 

As Bavinck surveyed missionary approaches to non-Christian religions in his day, he came to the conclusion and idea that the Gospel must be adapted to, or must accommodate the local contexts or culture at all costs was fraught with danger —especially that of syncretism. In his book An Introduction to the Science of Missions, he compares this approach, especially used by the Roman Catholic Johannes Thauren (d. 1954) of his day, with the approach "to take in possession" every thought and worldview under the Lordship of Christ. Simply put, he is talking about dominion. He states:

[ ]...we would here note that the term “accommodation” is really not appropriate as a description of what actually ought to take place. It points to an adaptation to customs and practices essentially foreign to the gospel. Such an adaptation can scarcely lead to anything other than a syncretistic entity, a conglomeration of customs that can never form an essential unity. "Accommodation" connotes something of a denial, of a mutilation. We would, therefore prefer to use the term 'possessio', to take in possession. The Christian life does not accommodate or adapt itself to heathen forms of life, but it takes the latter in possession and thereby makes them new. Whoever is in Christ is a new creature. Within the framework of the non-Christian life, customs and practices serve idolatrous tendencies and drive a person away from God. The Christian life takes them in hand and turns them in an entirely different direction; they acquire an entirely different content. Even though in external form there is much that resembles past practices, in reality everything has become new. The old has in essence passed away and the new has come. Christ takes the life of a people in his hands, he renews and re-establishes the distorted and deteriorated; he fills each thing, each word, and each practice with a new meaning and gives it a new direction. Such is neither “adaptation,” nor accommodation; it is in essence the legitimate taking possession of something by him to whom all power is given in heaven and on earth. (pp. 178-179)

What is Bavinck suggesting or not suggesting:

He is NOT suggesting:

  •  Some kind of Western cultural imperialism that simply railroads over existing cultures and worldviews and obliterates them in its path.
  •  Some kind of launching of "Gospel bombs" by remote drones into the midst of those practicing other religions. In fact he recommended that "among the various peoples the gospel strikes roots as deep as possible, is naturalized as intensively as possible, without allowing it to fuse with native pagan ideas and modes of expression." (Visser, Heart for the Gospel, p. 284)

He IS suggesting:

  •  That Christianity and other religions are different right to the root, and that either Christ must be supreme and that this must show in the life of a new convert, or He is not supreme.
  •  That with the Apostle Paul, he is willing to demolish every stronghold that sets itself up as a rival dominion to that of Christ. [cf.  2 Cor 10:4]
  •  That creative, non-compromising ways be found to leverage local concepts and to "subversively fulfill"—to borrow the words of Hendrick Kraemer. One idea that he had in Java was to employ the common Javanese usage of the number 5 for Gospel purposes. He thus set up meetings of the "Circles of Five" which focused on the five elements, namely: the worship of God, faith in the Lord, pursuit of joy, love of neighbor, and the battle against sin. (Visser, p. 291)
  •  That the local culture does not dictate the terms of "newness in Christ." In fact he would suggest the opposite.

Summary

Bavinck rightfully worried about an approach of missions, both globally and locally which accepted other religions and other cultures and their practices uncritically. It would seem that the church would do well to examine his ideas of taking every thought and practice into the possession of the Lordship of Christ with consummate seriousness. That is why this makes a good theme word.  The alternate option as he pointed out, is the slippery slope of syncretism, which at the end of the day, provides no real hope and no real light. With him we pray "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." 

For further reading:

a.  A bibliography on J.H. Bavinck 

b. The  J. H. Bavinck Reader, eds. John Bolt, James D. Pratt and Paul J. Visser; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013, pp. 417

c. Paul Jan Visser. Heart for the Gospel, Heart for the World: The Life and Thought of a Reformed Pioneer Missiologist, Johan Herman Bavinck, 1895-1964, Eugene, OR, Wipf and Stock, 2003.  

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