Paul Hiebert’s “Excluded Middle”
In 1982 Paul G. Hiebert wrote an article in Missiology entitled “The Flaw of the Excluded Middle.”1It is reprinted in Paul Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues, 1994, pp 189-201. and also available at www.hiebertglobalcenter.org Essentially, the article explains why many western missionaries may be perplexed by spiritual phenomena in non-Western cultures. The article has influenced many missionaries and missiologists.
What is the Flaw of the Excluded Middle?
As a missionary in India, Hiebert observed spiritual activity that his functional worldview could not analyze. Indian villagers regularly consulted magicians or saints to help them when they were sick, infertile, or experiencing some misfortune. These spiritual practitioners used magical charms, chants, or amulets to address these problems. However, those who became followers of Jesus now took these problems to the missionaries. But missionaries often did not know how to deal with questions about curses, black magic, or witchcraft.
Consequently, Hiebert recognized that his Western two-tiered view of reality did not have a category for spiritual activity in everyday life. Additionally, he acknowledged the influence of Platonic dualism and materialist naturalism on his outlook. He writes:
The reason for my uneasiness with the biblical and Indian worldviews should be clear: I had excluded the middle level of supernatural this-worldly beings and forces from my own worldview. As a scientist I had been trained to deal with the empirical world in naturalistic terms. As a theologian I was taught to answer ultimate questions in theistic terms. For me the middle zone did not really exist. 2Paul Hiebert, “The Flaw of the Excluded Middle,” in Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues, 1994, p 196.Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues, p. 196
What did Hiebert Propose as a Response?
In his 1982 article Hiebert calls for developing “holistic theologies that deal with all areas of life.”3Hiebert, p.198. Specifically, he calls for theology on three levels:
On the highest level, this includes a theology of God in cosmic history – in creation, redemption, purpose, and destiny of all things. . . .
On the middle level, a holistic theology includes a theology of God in human history – in the affairs of nations, of peoples, and of individuals. This must include a theology of divine guidance, provision, and healing; a theology of ancestors, spirits, and invisible powers of this world; and a theology of suffering, misfortune, and death. . . .
On the bottom level, a holistic theology includes an awareness of God in natural history – in sustaining the natural order of things. 4Hiebert, p 198,199.Hiebert, p. 198-9.
What Cautions Does Hiebert Raise?
Hiebert did not approve of some of the ways people applied his thesis. For example, John Wimber, founder of the Vineyard Movement, often referred to this article by Hiebert in defending his position on the miraculous. Subsequently, Hiebert co-edited a book critiquing John Wimber and the Vineyard movement.5James Coggins and Paul Hiebert, Wonders and the Word, 1989 available at https://archive.org/details/WondersAndTheWordORCopt
A secular response
In particular, Hiebert mentions two dangers in developing responses to the “excluded middle.” First, there is the danger of a secular response that denies the reality of the spiritual realm in human life. We need to avoid purely materialistic explanations of the middle level.
Hiebert advocates that we do not exclude the middle from our worldview. However, we should not expand it to the point where the other levels become subservient.
A Christian animist response
Second, explaining everything with a spiritual cause is equally dangerous. Essentially, this second danger amounts to forming a Christian animism. Hence, we should steer clear of the spiritism and magic we find in animism. Hiebert saw the latter as a greater danger as Christians react to modern scientism.
Along the same lines, Scott Moreau notes:
For some, however, the pendulum has swung so far that the danger is a flaw of an expanded middle in which every strange event is thought to have a middle domain explanation. This is especially significant in the contemporary discussion of territorial spirits. Using the middle domain to explain all such events is taking Hiebert’s analytic model beyond its intention, which was to address the ways events are explained in differing cultures rather than to give an ontological picture of explanations behind such events.6A. Scott Moreau, “Flaw of the Excluded Middle”, Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, 2000, p 363.Scott Moreau, Evangelical DiCtionary of World Missions, p. 363.
A worldview based on Scripture
In Scripture, Hiebert saw a middle road that adequately addresses the “excluded middle without moving into animistic tendencies.
Scripture offers us a third worldview that is neither secular nor animistic. It takes spiritual realities very seriously. In contrast to secular writings, it is full of references to God, angels, Satan, and demons. However, it takes the natural world and humans very seriously. In contrast to the Greek and Roman mythologies, and other great religious texts such as the Avesta and Mahabharta, the Bible does not focus its primary attention on the activities of the spirit world. Rather, it is the history of God and of humans, and their relationship to each other. Humans are held responsible for their actions. They are tempted, but they choose to sin. God calls them to salvation, and they must respond to his call. The Bible also presents creation as an orderly world, operating according to divinely ordained principles.7Hiebert, 200.Hiebert, p. 200
Resources for Further Study of the Excluded Middle
There are a number of good sources for further study on this issue. A good place to start is the article by Robert Priest on “Paul Hiebert’s ‘The Flaw of the Excluded Middle” in the Trinity Journal.8Robert Priest, et. al. Paul Hiebert’s “The Flaw of the Excluded Middle.” Trinity Journal, 30:2( Fall 2009), p. 189. Also, in Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues (1994) you can find two other Hiebert articles, “Biblical Perspectives on Spiritual Warfare” and “Healing and the Kingdom”. I would further recommend Understanding Folk Religion (1999) which Hiebert wrote together with Daniel Shaw and Tite Tienou. Finally, the Evangelical Missiological Society’s monogram, Spiritual Power and Missions: Raising the Issues, (1995) is worth reading.
3 thoughts on “Paul Hiebert’s “Excluded Middle””
Very helpful overview, thank you!