Archive for June 3rd, 2009

A Missional Hermeneutic: Initial Thoughts

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009

While many of us have begun to wrestle once again with the meaning of theological interpretation, some of us have also become interested more particularly in the relationship between the study of the church (ecclesiology) and the study of Scripture, with a renewed emphasis on mission becoming integral to each of these disciplines and to their interrelationship.

This development is not a move toward a new colonialism in which the more powerful and “Christian” West and North missionizes and colonizes the weaker and “pagan” East and South. Rather, taking its cue from the leading Western theologians of mission (missiologists) from the past half-century, as well as from Christian voices from the two-thirds world, this development takes a decidedly postcolonial approach and, for Western practitioners, a post-Christendom approach to mission and to biblical interpretation.

This new approach is grounded in the theological principle of the missio Dei, or mission of God. This term summarizes the conviction that the Scriptures of both Testaments bear witness to a God who, as creator and redeemer of the world, is already on a mission. Indeed, God is by nature a missional God, who is seeking not just to save “souls” to take to heaven some day, but to restore and save the created order: individuals, communities, nations, the environment, the world, the cosmos. (This implies a certain understanding of salvation, which I have put forward in the forthcoming NIDB article on that topic and will summarize in a later post.) This triune God calls the people of God assembled in the name of Christ—who was the incarnation of the divine mission—and empowered by the Spirit to participate in the missio Dei: to discern what God is up to in the world, and to join in. This means also, then, that mission is at the heart of theosis (participation in God and transformation into Godlikeness) and theosis at the heart of mission.

This way of understanding mission has many implications, only a few of which may be mentioned here briefly:

1. Mission is not a part of the church’s life (represented locally by a small line item in the budget) but the whole, the essence of the church’s existence; mission is comprehensive.

2. Mission is not the church’s initiative but its response, its participation in God’s mission; mission is derivative.

3. Mission is not an extension of Western (or any other) power, culture, and values; rather, it is specifically participation in the coming of the kingdom of God. It is therefore critical of all attempts to coerce Christian mission for implicit or explicit political purposes other than the “politics” of the reign of God—the realities of new life, peace, and justice (shalom) promised by the prophets, inaugurated by Jesus, and first spread to the world by the apostles. For Christians in the West, it is crucial that they recognize the failure of Christendom as something to be welcomed, and that they see the church appropriately and biblically as a distinctive subculture within a larger, non-Christian culture. Mission is theo- and Christocentric.

4. Mission is not unidirectional (e.g., West to East) but reciprocal.

5. Mission must become the governing framework within which all biblical interpretation takes place; mission is hermeneutical.

My recent experience in Cameroon especially solidified for me the connection between mission and theosis. When the church participates in any aspect of the mission of God (e.g., healing the sick), it is more and more transformed into the likenesss of God even as it acts, by grace, as an agent of that transformation in others. To read Scripture from within a missional hermeneutic is wonder how a text both manifests and mandates mission.

To be continued…


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