About 35 years ago I heard Dr. Sam Rowen lecture on elenctics. The term is seldom used in missiology today and the concept behind it gets little press. There is, however, an article on elenctics in the Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, (p. 307,8). The chief proponent of elenctics is J. H. Bavinck in his book, An Introduction to the Science of Missions (1960). J.H. Bavinck (1895-1964) was a missiologist in the Dutch Calvinist tradition.
Elenctics, in Christianity, is a division of practical theology concerned with persuading people of other faiths (or no faith) of the truth of the Gospel message, with an end to producing in them an awareness of, and sense of guilt for, their sins, a recognition of their need for God’s forgiveness, repentance (i.e. the disposition to turn away from their sin) and faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.
The term ‘elenctics’ is derived from the Greek word translated ‘convict’ in John 16:8 (ESV). This conviction of sin includes and focuses on the sin of not believing in Jesus Christ (John 16:9). Bavinck emphasizes that this conviction of sin is the work of the Holy Spirit. Yet the missionary does have a role to play in unmasking false beliefs. Bavinck writes, “In all elenctics the concern is always with the all-important question: ‘What have you done with God?'” (An Introduction to the Science of Missions, 223)
This is not a mean-spirited “we’re right and you’re wrong” attitude. Rather it is a personal sharing of the conviction of sin and grace in Christ which we have experienced. Bavinck quotes Abraham Kuyper,
As soon as you, as a man, encounter a person as a man, … you possess with him a common starting point, and this is first of all, the sin you both have committed, and secondly, the grace which saves you and which alone can save him when the light from Christ penetrates into the darkness, and the sinner is gripped by the mercy of God. Thus, there arises on the one hand a feeling of a common tie with the pagan, a common human heart, and in that heart, there is the same sensus divinitatis; that heart is disturbed by the same sin; you are by nature as heathen as he, the sole difference is the grace which has been given to you, and that he too can share in. (Bavinck, p. 229, 230)
Elenctics does not treat non-Christian beliefs as neutral.
Rather, it is apologetic in nature in that it defends the Christian faith as the only true faith and accuses all other religions as rebellion against God. … It refuses to accept that there is God’s special revelatory truth in non-Christian religions and, in appropriate ways, confronts these religions in order to call their adherents to repentance. –Evangelical Dictionary of World Religions, 307.
Bavinck urges us to study non-Christian religions in order to unmask their rebellion against the truth. He insists, however, that we listen to the person with whom we are talking to understand “what he himself finds in his own religion”(Bavinck, p. 240). If we only understand the non-Christian religion from books, we may miss the mark and not understand how the individual experiences his faith.
I am not at all concerned that the term has fallen out of use. After all, it never was a common term in missiology. I am concerned with the tendency to focus on ‘common ground’ in dialogue with non-Christian religions as if we could come to a compromise that keeps everyone happy. There are points of contact, but as Paul’s sermon in Athens (Acts 17:16-34) shows, there are more points of difference that must be corrected by the Christian Scriptures which alone are God’s personal self-disclosure.
In addition to the sources mentioned above, I recommend the following for further study:
- Harold Netland, Encountering Religious Pluralism: The Challenge to Christian Faith and Mission, IVP, 2001.
- Timothy Tennent, Christianity at the Religious Roundtable: Evangelicalism in Conversation with Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, Baker Academic, 2002.