Title: Katolicheskaia Missiologiia: Istoriia, Teoriia, Germenevtika (Catholic Missiology: History, Theory, Hermeneutics)
Published by: St Tikhon’s Orthodox University Press (Moscow, 2021)
Language: Russian
ISBN: 978-5-7429-1363-4
Pages: 384

A new contribution to Orthodox missiological scholarship is an event worthy of celebration by a wide audience. Despite the title of Aleksei Maksimov’s book, Catholic Missiology: History, Theory, Hermeneutics, the author uses Catholic missiology as a springboard to open up wider-ranging issues which have confronted all Christian churches as they have witnessed to their faith cross-culturally and globally. Defining missiology as the “global self-reflection of the Church in this world, cognitive entry into the sacrament of her incarnation in the realities of earthly life” (12), Maksimov’s book is a plea that mission should not be cast aside as redundant in today’s world, and that missiology should not be a hobby for the interested few, but rather “global, all-embracing reflection on a Church which is missionary by nature” (317-318).

Aleksei Maksimov has been a priest for over a decade in a Russian Orthodox parish in Rome, where he has made the most of the wealth of Catholic educational institutions and resources. Although the book has arisen out of courses on Catholic and Protestant missiology taught in Moscow, it is much more than just a textbook. While he provides the non-specialist with useful summaries of key ideas, events, and personalities, the main text is accompanied by a vast bibliography and footnotes referring to primary and secondary sources in an impressive range of languages.

In the first part of the book Maksimov discusses the factors which led to the emergence of various models of what he refers to as “Western” mission down through history. He divides these broadly into the “religio-political” model and the “monastic” model, both of which he considers to have arisen in the early Middle Ages. He traces how these models mutated from the 11th–15th centuries into the “crusading” model and the new monastic orders of the Franciscans and Dominicans, and later emerged as the “Conquista” model of the New World, and the broad range of Catholic monastic congregations established in later centuries. The alternative models of Catholic mission that emerged in the Asian context as missionaries adapted to local cultural forms, and the reframing of Christian teaching in the categories of Confucian and Hindu philosophy, are of particular interest to the author.

Writing “Western” missionary history for an Orthodox readership is a task fraught with potential interpretative hazards, especially at a time when most Catholic and Protestant missionary historiography is being written from a highly critical post-colonial viewpoint. Maksimov manages to avoid adopting a tone of Orthodox superiority and writes sympathetically of the key role played by such towering figures as St Dominic and St Francis, Bartolomeo de Las Casas, Matteo Ricci, Roberto de Nobili, and Charles de Foucauld. He nevertheless slips too easily, it seemed to me, into facile categories of East and West, making a separate Roman Catholic Church too early a phenomenon and giving little sense of the unity of the Church and much common ground in missionary methods during the first millennium, and indeed in later centuries.

Maksimov’s task has required a wide-ranging knowledge of both the history and theology of the Catholic and Protestant Churches, and while his interpretations show evidence of reliance on recent classics of Catholic and Protestant missiology such as David Bosch’s Transforming Mission and Bevans and Schroeder’s Constants in Context, there is also much detailed discussion of source texts such as papal encyclicals, the Decrees of the Second Vatican Council, and commentaries on their content by Catholic and Protestant theologians. His use of the wide range of archival and ethnographical case studies of specific missions which have appeared in recent years gives the book a richer texture. It would have benefited also from more nuanced interpretations of the entangled relationship between East and West, and less rigid divisions between different models and motivations of mission, such as those provided by Richard Fletcher’s The Barbarian Conversion and Andrew Louth’s Greek East and Latin West.

Later sections depict the late 19th and early 20th-century transformations as the Catholic Church struggled with issues such as the entanglement of mission with colonialism; the transition from temporary missionary structures under European patronage to permanent Local Church structures with indigenous clergies, hierarchies, and religious orders; the role of the laity in mission; and attitudes to indigenous cultures and other world faiths. It was this period that witnessed the birth of Catholic missiology as an academic discipline: the creation of the first university chairs and academic journals, and the various missiological schools of Muenster, Paris, Louvain, and Spain. Maksimov makes the significant point that while missiologists of these schools provoked debate on theology and praxis of mission, it was the writings on the nature of the Church of mainline Catholic theologians such as Charles Journet and Henri de Lubac which triggered radical changes in Catholic ecclesiological consciousness, particularly new understandings of the Church’s catholicity and universality, with far-reaching consequences for missionary motivation and praxis.

The final section of the book delineates the profound ecclesiological debates of Vatican II and the Council’s pivotal significance in rethinking the nature of a Church which is missionary and dialogical in her essence. Maksimov provides an overview of contemporary Catholic theology, in particular ecclesiology, which could be a useful introduction for many, whether Orthodox or not. He enters into conversation with Yves Congar, Jean Danielou, Karl Rahner, and in particular Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), whose reflection has paved the way for and conceptualized the theology of religions and interreligious dialogue. Outlining fundamental missiological themes which have arisen post-Vatican II, Maksimov discusses the terminology and methodology of “new evangelization” and “dialogue,” and the new emphasis on “inculturation,” the incarnation of the Church in each new context and culture. Although he highlights a turning to Trinitarian theology as the foundation for mission understood as “participation in the love of the Persons of the Trinity,” he only refers in footnotes to the influence of Eastern theology, in particular the theologians of the St Sergius Institute, whereas Orthodox readers would undoubtedly have enjoyed more full-blooded discussion of this in the main text.

Despite the book’s vast bibliography, there are some surprising omissions. Maksimov highlights the 20th-century shift from a “eurocentric” view of the church and mission, to “Local” churches with their own contextualized theologies and voices. Yet these voices from the Global South are strikingly absent. For example, the influential Catholic missiologist from Gambia, Lamin Sanneh, who has been a key figure in the 20th-century emergence of “World Christianity,” or the Ugandan Catholic priest Emanuel Katongole and his works on political theology and integral ecology as mission. The inclusion of such significant figures would have given a more rounded picture for both a Russian and wider Orthodox readership.

While Maksimov has wisely not turned the book into an attempt to compare Catholic and Orthodox missiology, and he evaluates Catholic experience on its own terms, there is a curious absence in the book of an Orthodox voice. He frequently evaluates Catholic missiological debate on the basis of his Orthodox theological understanding, but without at any stage of the book making that understanding explicit. One reason Maksimov has undoubtedly adopted this approach is the very lack of scholarship on Orthodox missiology, a sad fact which he leaves on the whole buried in his footnotes. Nevertheless, as he introduces the fundamental issues of Catholic missiological reflection in today’s world, he is forced to admit: “The author hopes that such reflection will, in the end and despite everything, emerge in Orthodox theology. Unfortunately, it is an undisputed fact that currently there is a lack of a systematic Orthodox theology of mission on the academic plane, but also of serious theological reflection on the fundamental issues raised here” (232-233, note 585).

We can only agree that Orthodox missiology is indeed a greatly neglected subject and yet one that is key to many questions Orthodox Christians are facing at a global level. Many issues Maksimov tackles — Local churches as object or subject of mission; indigenous hierarchies and clergy; the relationship between “mother” churches, diasporas, and mission fields; the use of local languages in liturgical worship — are in essence missiological issues. Some of the major conflicts currently destroying Orthodox unity and conciliarity, from the war and jurisdictional conflicts in Ukraine, to African parishes and dioceses torn asunder between the Patriarchates of Alexandria and Moscow, might be more easily negotiated if there were a deeper grasp of missiology and willingness to benefit from the practical experience of others in thinking through ways forward for the Orthodox Church.

In conclusion, the bad news is that Maksimov’s book is for the moment only available to those who read Russian. A translation into another language would give a wider international audience the benefit of Maksimov’s insights. The good news is that this highly impressive, mature reflection on Christian witness and dialogue in the contemporary world has been published while Maksimov has been working on a doctoral thesis on missionary theology which he will soon be defending. So we can look forward to another sorely needed and undoubtedly stimulating contribution to missiology by an Orthodox scholar in the near future.

Alison Ruth Kolosova, PhD
Research Fellow in Church History
Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies
University of Tartu, Estonia