For the Cause of the Son of God

For the Cause of the Son of God is getting closer to publication.  It should be available in about a month or so.  In the meantime, I’d like to share something from the original dissertation that didn’t make it into the book.  This is an excursus from chapter 2.

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2.1.3        Excursus: Harry Boer and Pentecost

There can be little question that Harry R. Boer’s Pentecost and Missions has been widely influential in the last half-century of missiology.[1] Michael Goheen noted how Boer, through Pentecost and Missions, strongly influenced Lesslie Newbigin in his thinking about the place of the Holy Spirit in missions.[2] David Hesselgrave indicates that the arguments of Boer in Pentecost and Missions have been rather conclusive.[3] Numerous other examples could be added of authors who accept and promote Boer’s thesis.  Until now, little has been written in a critical vein.

Leaving aside Boer’s material about the place of the Great Commission in the history of the church (see 2.6.1), we can proceed directly to lay out his basic position.  It is well-summarized by Roger Greenway in connection with the statement of the Great Commission in Acts 1:8:

The words, “You shall BE my witnesses” do not merely state what the Church would DO, but what the Church would BE.  The Great Commission, as the divine mandate to the Church to be a witnessing Church, is not only a law similar to that which was set forth at the beginning of human history (“be fruitful and multiply”), but it is its spiritual counterpart in the new creation.  It is a statement of the task of the renewed humanity as the earlier statement expresses the task of the old humanity.  The urge to witness is inborn in the Church.  It is given with her very being.  She cannot not-witness.  She has this being because of the Spirit who indwells her.  Pentecost made the Church a witnessing Church because at Pentecost the witnessing Spirit identified Himself with the Church and made the Great Commission the law of her life.[4]

Stating it in another way, the Great Commission is not so much an extrinsic command; rather, it belongs more properly to the intrinsic character of the Church.

Essential to Boer’s thesis is a distinction between command and law.  Boer writes: “The difference between command and law in the present discussion is, as we conceive it, that command has objective but no subjective force, whereas law has both.  A command comes from the outside and can be obeyed or disobeyed, depending on the attitude of the recipient to it.  A divine law, on the other hand, although it has an external origin, carries within itself its own effectuation.  It finds its subjective aspect willingly responding to its objective aspect.  Understanding command and law in this sense, it may be said that God alone can make laws, and man can give only commands.”[5] In Boer’s thinking, the Great Commission, like the so-called Cultural Mandate of Genesis 1:28, is a divine, organic law.  This critical distinction between law and command and the accompanying language is suggestive of the influence of the philosophy of the cosmonomic idea.[6] This philosophy, founded by Herman Dooyeweerd and D. H. Th. Vollenhoven, emerged in the mid-twentieth century in Reformed circles in the Netherlands.  It also later migrated to North America.  For our purposes, it is worth noting that Harry Boer originally wrote Pentecost and Missions as his doctoral dissertation at the Free University of Amsterdam, where cosmonomic philosophy originated.

While a thorough critical evaluation of cosmonomic philosophy falls outside of our purposes for this study, we ought to at least consider the distinction between law and command and what implications an acceptance or rejection of this distinction might have for the Great Commission and, more to the point, our definition of mission.  Does Boer have a significant contribution to offer on this subject?

To answer that, one must again adopt the methodology of ad fontes.  Does Scripture inescapably lead one to this distinction?  Boer does not provide any proof to that end.[7] In fact, when studied more closely all of God’s imperatival speaking can be characterized, on Boer’s scheme, as being “laws.”  This is so because man was created to obey God.  Man’s disobedience to God’s laws is an ethical and moral issue, and while Boer does not explicitly develop his scheme in that direction, it should be noted that, in general, cosmonomic philosophy sees the spheres of faith and morals to be mutually exclusive (or sovereign).  Applying this to the Great Commission we have been considering, it does not appear that obedience or disobedience would be considered an ethical failure.

In Boer’s view, mission is not so much what Christ commanded the church to do as much as what the church spontaneously and naturally is.  While there is much to be said for the leading of the Holy Spirit and the fact that he does spontaneously and naturally lead the church in Christ’s ways, we need to recognize that Boer’s position comes dangerously close to separating law and revelation.  This same criticism has been levelled at cosmonomic philosophy by J. Douma and W. Nieboer.[8] What happens then is that mission becomes whatever the church does rather than what Christ commanded the church to do.  One might argue that a dissonance here is unlikely or impossible since the church will always be naturally led by the Holy Spirit to follow Christ’s Word.  However, such a view is vulnerable to being labelled as an over-realized soteriology that does not adequately take into account the effects of sin.  For this reason, it is better to speak in the categories of purpose and laws.  God’s laws are the imperatives given in his Word; these include the Cultural Mandate and the Great Commission.  His Holy Spirit leads and empowers God’s redeemed people to obey these laws, if only in a small measure in this life.  God’s purposes are the reason why a given part of his creation exists, and while this can be distinguished from God’s laws, it cannot be separated.  Man exists in the first place to give glory to God; the same must be said for the church (Ephesians 1:11-12).  Yet clearly, as part of that grand purpose, the command for mission has also been given.[9]

In conclusion, Boer made a significant contribution to missiology by drawing our attention to the indispensable work of the Holy Spirit.  However, Pentecost and Missions did not make any significant advances in answering the question of the definition of mission.  In fact, in some respects Boer represents a potential step backwards from the Word of God as the foundation for missiology.  Following Boer could lead one to a position where mission is what the church spontaneously decides it to be, rather than what the Word of God declares it to be.  If that happens, then we are back to Stephen Neill’s aphorism, “If everything is mission, nothing is mission.”


[1] Harry R. Boer, Pentecost and Missions (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961).

[2] Michael W. Goheen,“As the Father has sent me, I am sending you”:  J.E. Lesslie Newbigin’s missionary ecclesiology (Zoetermeer: Boekencentrum, 2000), 111.

[3] David J. Hesselgrave, Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally: An Introduction to Missionary Communication (Second Edition) (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 82-83.

[4] Roger S. Greenway, Go and Make Disciples: An Introduction to Christian Missions (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1999), 53-54.  Italics are original.  It should be noted that while Greenway presents this as a direct quote of Boer, the liberties taken more aptly characterize this as a summary.

[5] Boer, Pentecost and Missions, 121-122.

[6] In particular, note the similarities in language between Boer and Dooyeweerd:  “In every modal sphere two sides can be distinguished.  On the one side there is the law or norm which is peculiar to this modality; on the other side there is whatever is subject to this law or norm.  Therefore, Dooyeweerd speaks of the law-side and the factual subject side of each aspect.”  L. Kalsbeek, Contours of a Christian Philosophy: An Introduction to Herman Dooyeweerd’s Thought (Toronto: Wedge Publishing Foundation, 1975), 70.  Cf. Herman Dooyeweerd, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought (Vol.3-4) (Philippsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1969), 549.  Dooyeweerd speaks about the “internal structural principle” of the temporal church institution and how that relates to love.  His language and approach sound very similar to Boer.

[7] D. A. Carson’s critique is similar: “In short, Boer’s thesis is tied too much to an argument from silence, and is short on nuance.”  The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 437.

[8] J. Douma, Another Look at Dooyeweerd (Winnipeg: Premier, n.d.), 30-31.

[9] See Carson, The Gagging of God, 437.

 

 

About Wes Bredenhof

Pastor of the Free Reformed Church, Launceston, Tasmania. View all posts by Wes Bredenhof

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