Rhetoric, Ethics, and the Missionary's Job
"So, what does a missionary do?"
I was ready for the question, and I had an answer.
I was in Moscow, Russia, invited for the annual Adam Smith Forum of the Libertarian Party of Russia to join a discussion panel on the "Moral Sentiments of Capitalism." I was the only Christian invited to it, as far as I could judge from the presentations of the other speakers, Russian, American, or European. At the very least, I was the only one who openly declared that Christianity-and specifically Calvinism-was the foundation of liberty and innovation and capitalism. The others were mostly American or Russian university professors, writers for libertarian or conservative think tanks, or political activists. A friend of mine informed me that the majority of the members of the Libertarian Party were atheists or agnostics. Don't ask me how I got invited. I have no idea.
In the official announcements for the forum I was presented as a "columnist for American Vision." At the time I wasn't writing for American Vision anymore, but I told my hosts that even if I had been, my real occupation should be described as a "missionary."
Later, in a private conversation, one of my hosts asked me:
"What does a missionary do?"
The star of our discussion panel was Deirdre McCloskey, a distinguished Chicago University professor, the author (among other publications) of two books (with another in the making) on the emergence of capitalism in the West: Bourgeois Virtues and Bourgeois Dignity. Bourgeois Dignity was the book that piqued my interest when I read it, for it was a very intelligent refutation of all materialistic theories for the emergence of capitalism. Prof. McCloskey literally destroyed modern materialistic economic science by presenting irrefutable evidence that material factors like trade, geography, accumulation of capital, evolutionary genetic development, class warfare, or any other material factor, had nothing to do with the economic phenomenon of the last three centuries which produced this enormous growth in wealth and productivity which we have witnessed since the rise of the Dutch Republic in the late 1500s.
So, what factor did Prof. McCloskey offer instead, that we can deem responsible for the rise of capitalism, liberty, and innovation?
Rhetoric. Capitalism with its innovation is the product of the unleashed creativity of human minds which find newer and newer ways to produce more and more at less and less expense, and thus make everyone healthier, wealthier, and ... well, healthier and wealthier. This unleashing of the creativity of the human mind came as a result of a changed perception of the meaning of business, work, profit, and entrepreneurship; and that change arose from a change of social rhetoric, in the way the culture relates to life. While McCloskey's book lets quite a few things go unexplained, this thesis in itself is quite powerful and is worthy of consideration. Yes, social rhetoric-non-material and impossible to measure with the yardstick of modern economics or sociology-is in fact the most powerful economic and sociological factor of all. It can enslave or anesthetize the human mind, but it can also free it and unleash its creative energy to levels unthinkable before. Change the rhetoric of a culture, and you have changed its history. It's that simple.
"So, what does a missionary do?"
My ready answer was:
"A missionary changes the rhetoric of a culture."
Otherwise, a missionary is not doing anything of value.
Changing a Culture's Rhetoric
Unfortunately for the strong thesis it defends, Prof. McCloskey's book suffers from a serious flaw: It didn't explain what changes the rhetoric of a culture. After all, one doesn't wake up one morning and say, "I am going to change my rhetoric today, from one being hostile to liberty, business, growth, and productivity to one being favorable to liberty, business, growth, and productivity." The rhetoric of a culture is not a primary factor for changing history. It is itself a result of something more fundamental, some deeper change in the minds and hearts of the people in a culture. Jesus said, "Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks" (Matt. 12:34, literal translation from Greek), indicating that when we see a change in the rhetoric of a nation, we should be looking for a hidden cause for that change, some "overflow" in the commitment of a culture to a certain faith, philosophy, or ethical system.
Prof. McCloskey didn't go that far with her book's thesis. So I used this opportunity to do so for my Russian listeners. They were familiar with McCloskey's thesis. They were not familiar with our Lord's thesis in Matt. 12:34. They hadn't asked themselves the question, "What changes the rhetoric of a culture?" I was there to ask it-and to answer it.
My talk was titled: "The Rhetoric at the Foundation of Capitalism, and the Ethics at the Foundation of that Rhetoric."1 I presented the case for a change in the ethical outlook in Europe in the century after the Reformation as the factor for the change in rhetoric. And the change in the ethical outlook could be only one thing: Calvinism. No other factor can explain the sudden (single-generation) paradigm shift in the Netherlands, England, Scotland, and Switzerland that produced the modern world with its economic and social system, that produced enormous wealth hitherto unknown to post-Flood mankind.
The True Engine of Cultural Change
I am sure most of my listeners didn't agree with my thesis. A change of mind within an hour, over a single lecture, is a very rare thing. But I am happy to say that they at least understood my thesis quite well. How do I know if they understood it? Because I was asked the same question several times: Are you saying that if we don't change our faith, we won't see a change in the culture? No need to mention here what my answer was. The point is this: They understood. These Russian atheist/agnostic libertarians grasped very well the thesis, that behind every social change there must be a faith change, meaning an ethical/judicial change, for any ethical/judicial change is inevitably based on a change of faith. From one simple, mediocre, not-so-eloquent lecture, they grasped the essence of Christian Reconstruction, which Reformed teachers in the past have taken for granted as an established truth, the essence so eloquently explained by R. J. Rushdoony in his book, The Foundations of Social Order.
If only our own modern "Reformed" seminary professors, pastors, and missionaries could understand this key thesis so well!
It was several years ago when, finding out that I was in the process of translating Rushdoony's Institutes of Biblical Law into the Bulgarian language, an American missionary in Bulgaria asked me, "How is that going to help change the life of a person?" I replied, "You mean, what is the practical value of learning to understand and apply the law of God?"
That missionary was a graduate of a Reformed seminary, sent out by a Presbyterian church, part of a large Presbyterian denomination, working under the auspices of a large Presbyterian mission organization. Some of the other missionaries working with him were doctors of theology. They were all trained in the Reformed doctrines, in the history of the Reformation, so they were supposed to understand covenant theology and the nature of God's covenant. And yet, for them the connection between the law-word of God and change in the life of a person (let alone change in history or change in culture) wasn't something they would take to be obvious. The only change they expected had nothing to do with ethical or judicial change. The missionary's only job was to make his convert "believe the gospel," and to ensure that "believing the gospel" was vague enough and limited enough to subsist at the level of simple intellectual assent to a few intellectual propositions. "Believing the gospel" wasn't meant to be faith that exerts itself in obedience. In fact, certain modern "Reformed" theologians insist that the gospel has nothing to do with ethical obedience, even holding that the Great Commission doesn't require teaching and preaching obedience. My missionary friend had bought that crippling message entirely-lock, stock, and barrel.
In essence, the ethical/judicial nature of the covenant was lost on these Reformed missionaries. The knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves, Calvin said, "the Lord accomplishes by His Law,"2 that is, we can't know God or ourselves apart from the issues of good and evil, and apart from the issues of obedience and disobedience. Consequently, we can't know the gospel or believe the gospel apart from issues of good and evil, and issues of obedience and disobedience. The gospel is the restoration of God's covenant, and if God's covenant from the very beginning, at the Creation, was concerned about what is good, and required obedience, then the gospel is by default concerned with ethics and justice, and with obedience. Influenced by the modern dualistic fads in the Reformed seminaries, these missionaries thought that a vague, unspecified "belief in the gospel" can replace the ultimate issues that God has established as the foundation of His throne: justice and righteousness (Ps. 97:2).
My missionary friend is not in Bulgaria anymore, but his mission organization is still there, manned by other missionaries. Twenty years and many millions of dollars later, it has yet to produce any visible return on its investment. Having recently met with some of the converts produced by that organization, I couldn't help but notice that there has been no change in the rhetoric of these people. They have been unable to leave any visible mark on the church or on their culture, because rhetoric is never changed unless ethics is changed. And you can't change the ethics of a nation unless you teach the law of God.
Changing the Ethics of a Nation
In an earlier article for Faith for All Life I talked about the Biblical origin of foreign missions. I presented the case that foreign missions were not a "New Testament thing," that they were the very thing that the nation of Israel was supposed to do. Foreign missions were to be based on the law as the message that will bring the nations to God. Hebrews 4:1-2 tells us that the Israelites had the gospel as we do today, in the words Moses gave them. The modern distinction between law and gospel doesn't exist in the text; and it certainly didn't exist in Old Testament Israel. Deuteronomy 4:5-8 plainly establishes that the nations around Israel were to be drawn to God by the justice of His law. Calvin insists that the two dispensations of the Old and the New Testaments are in reality one dispensation, even if they are differently administered. He puts this in the context of his exposition on the law, emphasizing, again, the ethical/judicial aspect of that dispensation. The obvious conclusion of this, of course, is that the attempts to bring the gospel to a nation without bringing the law of God with it will end up in no gospel at all.
For we can't change the culture without changing its ethics; and we can't change the ethics without preaching the law of God.
Our modern world, and our modern system of economic organization known as "capitalism" (as inaccurate as the term is), was a product of such preaching of the ethical/judicial worldview of the Bible. The development of the West was a product of a judicial revolution, as Harold Berman demonstrates in his Law and Revolution. The work of the missionaries that changed history succeeded only where the missionaries were active in starting and bringing to a successful end that judicial revolution. Where the missionaries were only bringing Christianity as another myth, and only superimposed it on the local culture without changing that culture's ethical and judicial practices, it remained only a veneer lacking any deep roots. The fruits of such shallow missions and preaching are obvious in Latin America, where the Roman Catholic priests did nothing to challenge the prevailing ethical and judicial practices. In Mexico and other parts of Latin America, the majority of the population never abandoned their pagan beliefs. In Eastern Europe where the Eastern Orthodox Church emphasized kenosis3 over practical ethics and obedience, the public faith disappeared within a few years after the Communists actively suppressed it. (This didn't happen in Hungary and Transylvania where the Reformed faith had been dominant prior to the rise of Communism.) In many places in Africa where the faith has been preached only as an experience and not as a system of practical obedience to the law of God, the majority of the churches freely go back to pagan practices and mix them with Biblical myths. The historical record of both Reformed and non-Reformed missions shows plainly that without the law, there is no gospel preached.
But my missionary friend wasn't able to understand the simple truth that the change in the faith of the people and the change in their ethical commitment go together. Neither one is possible without the other. The law of God is an inseparable part of preaching the gospel, and contrary to his expectations, a nation can't be evangelized without presenting to it a thorough, detailed, deep exposition of the law of God and its application to every aspect of man's life and society. The early church had its Jews teach the pagans the law of God to build the new Christian culture (Rom. 2:17-20). Paul was instructed in the law, and he commended Timothy for his detailed knowledge of the Scriptures, which at the time would have meant the law and the prophets (2 Tim. 3:15), explaining that these Old Testament Scriptures were able to "make him wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ." Modern missionaries, taught in modern seminaries by modern professors, believe they don't need the law. Of what good is the law for changing the life of a person?
The Russian atheist/agnostic libertarians understood this concept. The American "Reformed" missionaries can't understand it.
I stuck to my convictions, criticism from such missionaries notwithstanding, and I translated Rushdoony's Institutes, as well as other books on the application and the validity of the law of God. A missionary's job is to change the rhetoric of a culture. And one doesn't change the rhetoric unless he first changes that culture's ethics: ethics, not simply as rules for behavior, but ethics as a comprehensive guide to understanding God, man, and the universe, and what man's purpose of existence is, and therefore man's blueprint for action. Anything short of this will be only a truncated gospel, and it won't create any lasting result. That was my firm belief from the very beginning of our mission in Bulgaria. That's why from the outset the translation and publishing of books expounding the law of God and its application today were the main thrust of our missionary endeavor. Consequently, Rushdoony's Institutes of Biblical Law has been an indispensable part of my preaching and teaching. That's why every time I am asked for advice by young missionaries concerning what they should do to really change a culture, my advice is: Translate this book. Then go from there. That book will lay the foundation for the change of ethics for anyone who reads it in his own tongue, and once you have that foundation laid, the rest is easy.
My advice to churches and missionary organizations has always been: don't waste your support on missionaries who do not understand the law of God, do not believe in its application today, and have no intention to preach it or explain it to their listeners. Such missionaries won't produce any lasting result, and neither they nor their converts will be able to exercise any influence over the culture. And they will certainly not be able to change history, even if in their rhetoric they claim they are out there to change history. The pattern of the church's support of missions must change radically if we are to see any return on the money we spend for missions. If we believe the data that over $2.5 billion are spent every year on mission support worldwide, then we are spending more money on missions in one year than the whole church spent on missions between A.D. 30 and A.D. 1900. The results are disappointing, to put it mildly. To change the results, we need to change the direction of support. And the money of the church needs to go for the preaching of the law of God as an integral part of knowing God, and as the tool for changing the culture, and for righteous dominion.
Which brings me to my call for action for the readers of Faith for All Life.
A Real World Cultural Transformation
For many years the focus of the Bulgarian Reformation Ministries has been on translations of books and on publishing them online for free, for all to read. Over the years we have accumulated over 35,000 pages of translated material on the application of the Biblical worldview in every area of life: theology, apologetics, economics, politics, education, business and vocation, science, history and eschatology, etc. (Another 15,000 pages are translated and are in the process of being edited.) The Bulgarian Christian Internet Library has been the dominant source for Christian material in Bulgarian on the Internet. No wonder, given that it contains more than three times as much material as all the other Christian websites in Bulgarian combined. The website has had a download traffic equivalent of 1,500 to 2,000 printed pages a day for the last several years, and a committed readership of about 1,000 readers if the website statistics can be trusted.
You can see the record of the work of the Bulgarian Reformation Ministries on our website: bulgarianreformation.org, where you can sign up for our monthly email updates.
As much as our funds have allowed it, we have been publishing some of the books-usually smaller books-on paper, in order to reach that part of the audience that, for one reason or another, prefers to read books on paper. We have seen an increase in the sales of these books, which in times of economic hardship for all European nations (especially for Bulgaria) is encouraging. Our message is getting out, and it is reaching more and more people.
But we never had the chance to publish on paper the book I talked about above: R. J. Rushdoony's Institutes of Biblical Law. While the costs of publishing in Bulgaria are much lower than here in the U. S., it will still require a much higher investment than normal. We want to present that book to Bulgarian readers as a publication marked by the excellent production quality this extraordinary volume deserves. The text's presence on the Internet, for all to read, has already made a difference (contrary to the skepticism of our antinomian friends). In a time when the church in Bulgaria is awakening to the reality of the ethical/judicial nature of the covenant of God, and when Bulgarian society, under the pressure of the judgment of God on its economy and its political institutions, is becoming aware of the necessity of a major change in its ethical commitment, the presence of this book on the book market will make an even greater difference.
A few years ago, when we published Gary North's short book on Puritan Economic Experiments, that volume was enthusiastically taken by a group of economists to a meeting with the then-Prime Minister of Bulgaria and placed in his hands. (Whether he read it or not is a different issue.) At the time, all was bright and rosy so far as the future of Europe and Bulgaria was concerned. If we publish Rushdoony's Institutes today, it will reach many more people, for many people are beginning to look for answers.
So if your question is "What missions should I support?" I have an answer for you: support the publishing of the Institutes of Biblical Law in Bulgarian. Go to bulgarianreformation.org and help us.
A culture is changed when its ethics are changed. A missionary's job is to change a culture's ethics by presenting the law of God. And that's a job worthy of your support.
1. The original talk was in Russian but you can find an English translation here: http://www.christendomrestored...
2. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Bk. 2, Ch. 8, sec. 1.
3. Kenosis is a Greek word meaning "to empty" or "to make empty."
Topics: Biblical Law, Education, R. J. Rushdoony, Dominion, Christian Reconstruction