Reflections and resources for lifelong learning for missionaries


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:


No God But One: Allah or Jesus? a review


What do you mean by the word “mission”?


  1. David Wood

    Here is a good quote from John Stott on the subject.

  2. gus

    Finding common ground is less a compromise in order to keep everyone happy than it is a framework of beginning a conversation

    • Gary Ridley Sr

      How one defines ‘common ground’ makes a difference. Some, in liberal circles, use it with the implication that all religions are the same and lead to God. If by ‘common ground’ we are talking about similar concerns and interests, I agree but I would prefer to use ‘points of contact’ to avoid the implication that all religions are the same. Yes, common ground is a framework for beginning a conversation but in a liberal framework it often is a conversation that abandons the uniqueness of Christ which I want to avoid by using ‘point of contact.’

      • gus

        The terms ‘common ground’ and ‘common word’ are commonly used in Mslm work and, in this field of discussion, are not relegated to a liberal bent. I understand your desire to use a new term to avoid confusion, but the terms are already widely used in Mslm missiology and so we are left to keep them as defined, which is finding commonality to build discussion of Scripture.

  3. Gus, thanks for your input into this discussion. Could you point us to an article or book that uses the term “common ground” for the purpose of starting a conversation? I would also appreciate an example of common ground that might be used to begin a conversation with a Mslm.

    • gus

      Hey Ken, Here are a few articles and a book I have on my computer. There are many more examples in dissertations and thesis and blog discussions

      From Seed to Fruit, 2010

      2005 Toward Common Ground in Understanding the Human Condition. In Muslim and Christian Reflections on Peace: Divine and Human Dimensions, edited by J. D. Woodberry. New York: University Press of America

      New Paths in Interfaith Dialog, Understanding Islam from the Light of Earliest Jewish Christianity, Rodney Cardoza. Conference on Muslim Peace, Justice and Interfaith Dialog, DC © 2007

      Islam, Once a Hopeless Frontier, Now? Comprehensive Contextualization, International Journal of Frontier Missions, 21:1 Spring 2004, Harley Talman

      The Legacy of John Amos Comenius, INTERNATIONAL BULLETIN OF MISSIONARY RESEARCH, Vol. 29, No. 4 Mike W. Stroope

      Allah in Translations of the Bible, International Journal of Frontier Missions 23:4 Winter 2006, Kenneth J Thomas

      The Emmaus-Medina Intertextual Connection: Contextualizing the Presentation of God’s Word, International Journal of Frontier Missions, 23:2 Summer 2006, Brad Williams

      Contextualization Among Muslims; Reusing Common Pillars, J Dudley Woodberry

  4. gus

    The most common example is the use of the OT prophets that we share to begin the conversation. We find Adam, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David and others in common and so begin the conversation that leads to a clear picture of Jesus. We also find common ground in the names of God, and the perfection and virgin birth of Jesus. We find common ground in calling Jesus the Word of God, and in His death, resurrection, and return.

  5. Gary Ridley Sr

    Gus and Ken, I’m really enjoying this interaction! It’s what is suppose to happen on a blog in my opinion. Gus, where would I find the article by Dudley Woodberry?
    And by the way, I’m planning to write a review of From Seed to Faith on a blog post this month.

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