For discussion this week our theology class read through the book Christianity Rediscovered by Vincent J. Donovan. Donovan was a Catholic priest sent on missionary work to Tanzania in the late 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s. Christianity Rediscovered was published in 1978 to explain his methods as a Catholic missionary and he hoped it would affect the Roman Catholic Church in its post-Vatican II transitionary period.

Donovan’s missionary method explicitly left behind the work of the Roman Catholic Church up to his day. Rome had dedicated centuries to living among the peoples of Africa and had come to the point in the early 1950s where they were running hospitals and schools to show they cared for Africans in hopes that they could compassionately draw people into Christian faith. Donovan critiques the Roman methods because they had stopped overtly teaching the gospel to those outside the proximity of the mission complex. He decided he would go the Masai tribes with a convert to reach the tribes far from the mission hub. This book is Donovan’s memoirs concerning his time dedicated to this missionary work.

There are a couple of positive ruminations by Donovan that should be appreciated. For being a man who had little education in moving cross culturally his struggles from naïveté to hard experiences are valuable to witness in his beautiful narratives of life among the Masai people. The best of Donovan comes out in his critical thoughts on the place of the priest. He comes to the more organic and communal (similar to the Eastern Orthodox) perspective that the priest is a physical and visible manifestation of the unity of the community in relation to God and God’s presence with his people among the community as it worships in the liturgy, particularly in the Eucharist. The priest is not primarily a theologian, or preacher, or healer, or social worker, instead he is the expression of the community of faith and the Spirit in that local place. Connected to this priestly conversation he questions the place of the missionary. Interestingly, Donovan doesn’t believe a missionary can ever really be the priest of the people they are trying to reach, and that is because the missionary is not an organic manifestation of the community in that place.

A major conclusion to these definitions for priests and missionaries is that neither can be dedicated to allowing the gospel to be devolved or used for social activism in a culture or politics of a nation. Donovan sees a weakness in the dedication of the social gospel of the early twentieth century. The weakness is it hasn’t really changed the African peoples the work is serving. The social gospel was to bring the gospel through work but very few were excepting the gospel! There is a profound critique by Dononvan here on the contemporary practices of many churches who are trying to use social justice work as an implicit way to woo non-Christians into the faith.

There a number of issues I had with Donovan’s thesis, but I will limit myself to expounding here on only two of them. The first issue was his belief that the gospel is something that can be stripped of any cultural or historical meaning and presented to a new culture in a “pure”, un-interpreted way. Or as he says, he wants to elicit a “cultural response to a central, unchanging, supracultural, uninterpreted gospel.”[1] I don’t think this is possible. There are too many facets of study that teach us there is no way to separate anything we do or say from our enculturated, historical existence as humans. Whether it is philosophy’s explanation that in language a word only makes sense in relation to other words in a sentence. Or social theory’s identity development analysis that shows how individuals only gain a sense of self by relation to others.

More importantly, to understand the gospel there are elements of Jewish historical understanding that must be retained in our presentation to make sense of this good news. I encourage all pastors to read Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel. Dr. McKnight shows how the gospel must be the culmination of the story of Israel in the story of Jesus as the long-awaited Davidic king sent by God. God has sent Jesus to forgive and purify the people in order to be faithful to the covenant promises made long before. This gospel is always rooted in the history of Israel as it culminates in the first century. If we teach the theological implications of the gospel or the benefits of salvation as the gospel we are forfeiting talking about the gospel itself, the person of King Jesus. The gospel is not a pristine jewel sullied by the cultural trappings of Jewish first century practices and beliefs. Instead, it is the very historical basis of King Jesus’ life that overturns and expands so many of those Jewish beliefs which reveals what the gospel means. Only by watching the continuity and disruption of the Jewish culture around the person of King Jesus can we understand the implications for his actions and teachings. And only after understanding this thoroughly Jewish gospel of King Jesus as a cultural reality can we witness how it is able to enter into another culture and let that receiving culture experience continuity with the gospel or find disruption by it.

Second, Donavan’s idea that the gospel proclaimed will simply, almost naturally begin to reform the culture and rework from the inside out. There is too much of participatory, faithful obedience as a part of Christian life in my understanding of Christianity to except this passive belief in salvation. We are to “work out our salvation in fear and trembling”.[2] We are to work to not give our bodies over to sexual immorality and other vices of sin.[3] We are to strive for the goal set before us in King Jesus then work is a part salvation’s empowerment.[4] In fact, we are given the empowerment of grace (the gift of participation in King Jesus’ resurrection and ascension) to live in the good works of King Jesus’ life revealed in him beforehand.[5] There can be no assumption in Christian communal life that simply talking about the historical and cultural King Jesus story will transform us. Transformation occurs by inviting the Spirit to reshape our life together into the shape of King Jesus life.[6] That historical and cultural story of King Jesus is relived in the body of his people,[7] the bodies of his followers,[8] and we truly become the body of Christ.[9] Christian life, then, is the (cultural and historical) gospel life story of King Jesus relived in our bodies in our context, allowing him by the Spirit to purify or disrupt our cultural place and historical time through us.

God has begun this work, we join him in it, but that does not mean we aren’t called to intentionally address our issues, both individually and as a community. But there is a strange line that appears when addressing the issues of sin in the surrounding culture. Donovan says it is not the job of those who preach the gospel to try to change the culture and Paul agrees to this.[10] But again, Christians cannot hear this as an encouragement to speak ambiguously about the transformation that is a part of joining the community of faith. The expectation of all Christians in every church is that the community is together conforming to the image of King Jesus.[11] We must let the gospel retain its contextual elements in the life of King Jesus and also submit to his teaching that those who would become his disciple’s must count the cost because he asks us to give up a lot to follow him.

there are things we have learned from our culture’s place in history that will be disrupted, dismantled, even condemned by the gospel and we must actively submit to giving those things up. Other parts of our culture and history will be purified and refined, and in these things we will realize God was always leading us to King Jesus even though we couldn’t have known it before the gospel. Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered is like all cultures who experience the coming of the gospel. It is a book with beauty which will stand the test of time, but other parts must be left behind since we have continued to learn a better way in the story of King Jesus.


[1] Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered, 25th anniversary ed (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 2003), 24.

[2] Phil. 2:12

[3] Rom. 6:5-14

[4] Heb. 12:1-2

[5] Eph. 2:8-10

[6] Phil. 2:1-13

[7] 1Pt. 2:21

[8] Gal. 3:20

[9] Eph. 1:19-23

[10] 1Cor. 5:12

[11] Rom. 8:28-30

Posted by Justin Gill

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