“Jesus existed as God the Father, sir. Then He ceased being the Father and became God the Son. Finally, He ceased being God the Son and now in the world today He is God the Holy Spirit.” Innocently, a new disciple of my former student was trying to express his carefully reasoned understanding of three in one, the tri-unity of the Christian Godhead to whom he committed his life and possibly someday his death.
Emerging from a Muslim background, diligent study and consistent practice were not new to him. Even before believing Christ, he studied and memorized the Qur’an and faithfully practiced the pillars of Islamic belief. Qur’anic study brought him to other literature like the Torah, Zabur, Injeel and increased curiosity about the Prophet Isa. He and two diligent friends met foreigners with very pure lives that became fast friends and gave them the very books they were so curious about in their language. This Isa was similar but different from the one in the Qur’an. He seemed less distant, more personal, and real. Soon he and his friends trusted Jesus alone as savior.
Taught to study the Bible, they grew in Christ. Bit by bit the framework of an ingrained Islamic pre-understanding was transforming into a biblical one. The Trinity now became clear and simple to understand. The young missionary recognized their joyful new understanding of it they had just expressed to be an ancient heresy known as modalism. Biblical Tri-unity of God is three persons in one God, simultaneously and eternally, with no divisions of nature or being. How to suggest this to three new eager disciples without dampening their desire to learn was the question.
The missionary told them he was intrigued by their ideas and wanted to study this thoroughly along with them. He realized if he didn’t do this, other outsiders would lead them further astray. They began an intensive three-month Bible study. The missionary usually posed questions that guided the group study, his three young disciples, like Bereans long ago, searched the Scriptures, and together they came to a very different outcome of belief months later, one very akin to Chalcedonian Christology of 451 A.D. In cross-cultural, change agent roles sometimes knowing what questions to ask is even more important in the communication processes than knowing the answers to provide. After many cultural faux pas, usually missionaries learn this.
My former student, now a missionary, recalled that at that moment when his three former Muslim new believers joyfully explained their original formula for the Trinity, his reasons for attaining a seminary education all came into focus for him. Most of a three-year curriculum in seminary he found very useful. He had needed bits and pieces of it at different times, but nearly all of it coalesced into one sequence addressing this set of needs.
Boldness of witness developed as he shared his faith as part of his evangelism classes and became acutely aware of people’s lostness without the gospel. God had long been preparing these three Muslim men and intersected their lives with the young missionary’s who was prepared to be bold enough to lead them to Christ. Now, as they came to this theological crossroad in their growth, the missionary needed historical and systematic theology to recognize the problem of modalism. A course in Islamic studies shed light on why his disciples formulated modalistic solutions from residual ideas in the Qur’an they memorized as boys. His seminary studies in Old Testament, New Testament, Hebrew, and Greek assisted him in studying the concepts for the Godhead more in depth and his cross-cultural communication, anthropology and other missiological studies guided him in knowing how to bundle these things together. Because of the time he spent earnestly studying these things, he could assist them in doing their own self-theologizing without damaging their desires and drive to grow in Christ and to lead Christ’s church in the underground witness among other new Muslim background believers in that place where there were growing levels of persecution and threats.
If someone wants to get on a plane, land in a country, live there, learn some of the language and witness to a few neighbors, then perhaps they don’t need seminary training, at least for very long. What will they do if they pray diligently to see a culture radically changed for Christ, for deep transformation to transpire? That is when a spiritual neurosurgeon is needed who can be an instrument in the Holy Spirit’s hands to “renew the mind” Romans 12:1-2. Missionaries should be prepared, to prepare others, as they in turn prepare yet others for eternity with Christ! Substantive biblical, theological, and missiological study found in seminary prepares us for spiritual “neurosurgery.”