While the term “missionary statesman” is overused today, Ralph D. Winter, founder of the U.S. Center for World Mission, was all that and much more. Trained as an engineer at Caltech, Winter (1924-2009) was a bold theorist, a constant tinkerer, a tireless promoter of ideas, and a risk-taking institution-builder. Winter called himself a “social engineer” and looked at problems in new ways, asking questions that no one else had ever thought of, and proposing solutions that shook up the status quo.
Winter is perhaps best known for the paradigm-bursting insight he presented at the 1974 Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization. He called on the global missionary enterprise to focus not just on starting churches in each of the world’s 200 or so nation-states, but on reaching the then 2 billion “unreached people,” separated from gospel witness in hundreds of distinct people groups by barriers of language and culture.
In Winter’s later years, however, personal tragedy prompted him to turn his peripatetic mind to speculative theology and to the problem of evil. In his new biography of Winter, “The Ralph D. Winter Story: How One Man Dared to Shake Up World Missions,” author Harold Fickett describes how Winter’s first wife, Roberta, was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, or bone marrow cancer. In an interview, Fickett told me that the traditional framing of God and the problem of evil did not satisfy Winter, who could not believe his Lord had given his beloved Roberta this disease.
“Ralph understood that the absolute goodness and holiness of God must be the first proposition of a consistent Christianity,” Fickett said. “If God is the author of both good and evil, then God is not deserving of worship. He believed that evangelical Protestantism, for all of its vaunted orthodoxy, had succumbed to its own version of demythologizing, essentially ridding the gospel of the presence of Satan.”
So Winter began hypothesizing that perhaps Satan and his minions are more responsible for evil and disease than most contemporary evangelicals think, and that spiritual war is ongoing for believers. It is a controversial viewpoint, to say the least. Some would say it seeks to protect God’s reputation and character at the risk of His omnipotence. Certainly it is a view that believers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America would be more comfortable with, as documented by historian Philip Jenkins.
Winter sought to grapple with these questions in the USCWM’s magazine, Mission Frontiers. When Roberta succumbed to myeloma in 2001, Winter, who also contracted the disease, established the Roberta Winter Institute (RWI) in Pasadena to provide an institution devoted to exploring these issues and to encouraging Christians to see disease eradication as an essential calling from God. Winter was well aware of the historic Christian commitment to treating the symptoms of disease through hospitals and the like, but he saw a yawning deficit when it came to followers of Christ actually fighting disease on the microbial level.
As part of its work, the RWI hosts annual lectureships to disseminate and debate some of these ideas. The latest (and fourth annual) Ralph D. Winter Lectureship was held April 25 and 26 at the RWI. The keynote speaker was Gregory Boyd, senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church in Maplewood, Minnesota, and adjunct professor of theology at Bethel University. (I served the U.S. Center as a publicist for “The Ralph D. Winter Story” and was a panelist at this event.)
In Pasadena, Boyd, author of the controversial and provocative book “God at War,” strongly stated his “warfare worldview” as opposed to what he calls the “classical blueprint view,” which says God has a reason for allowing every act of evil—even if we don’t know what it is.
Christians have wrestled with the problem of evil for centuries, of course. It is often stated like this: If God is good, he opposes all evil; if God is all-powerful, He can prevent or put an end to it. But evil exists, so God is either not good or not all-powerful.
Orthodox Christians usually answer this argument by saying that God permits evil as part of His divine plan, using it ultimately for His glory. They might point to Joseph’s words to his brothers, who sold him into slavery. Joseph told them, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20). Another example would be the evil crucifixion of Jesus Christ, who was “slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8) and ultimately “raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25).
However, God’s Providence, Boyd argues, is moral and persuasive, not coercive—God wills, but He doesn’t force. This viewpoint gives wide rein for angels and demons to battle here on earth. Christians, he says, are also responsible to engage in spiritual war through prayer.
“There is a multiplicity of wills that affect what comes to pass,” Boyd asserts. “All evil ultimately originates in wills other than God’s. . . . All that doesn’t reflect the love of Abba Father comes directly or indirectly from Satan.“
Critics such as D. A. Carson have suggested that Boyd’s view is too close to open theology, which asserts that God does not know the future in regard to the free decisions of human agents. Carson says that Boyd emphasizes the anthropomorphic utterances of God in the Bible over the clear statements that speak of His omniscience. It’s Carson’s view that we need to keep both in balance.
If one emphasizes only the former, and utterly domesticates and ignores the latter, one lapses into fatalism or (with a couple of twists) some form of Deism—in any case, non-Christian theism,” Carson wrote in a critique in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. “If one emphasizes only the latter, and utterly domesticates and ignores the former, one lapses into some version of a finite or process God—in any case, non-Christian theism.”
Wherever Boyd lands on the theological spectrum, Winter no doubt would be pleased by events such as the lectureship organized in his memory. He was willing to take risks, and hosting Boyd is certainly a risk for the evangelical RWI. Ralph D. Winter probably wouldn’t have minded. He cared very little for labels—but he cared deeply about the glory of God.
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