A Missional Hermeneutic: Initial Thoughts

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…

12 Responses to “A Missional Hermeneutic: Initial Thoughts”

  1. [...] Gorman has posted some good initial thoughts on A Missional Hermeneutic. This is definitely a perfect followup to his previous posts on a theological interpretation of [...]

  2. Libby says:

    Sheesh, Dad, you blog like a maniac! Only your second full day back and already three posts. I am enjoying reading short forms of your academic work–this’ll hopefully help me build up momentum to tackle one of your books!

  3. MJG says:

    Libby: :-)

  4. Tim Davy says:

    Hello Michael,
    I enjoyed your post which Brian Russell put me onto. I’ve just edited an issue of Encounters Mission Journal on the subject of The Bible and Mission, which you may find interesting: http://www.redcliffe.org/bibleandmission09
    Blessings,
    Tim

  5. [...] has posted an essay “Missional Hermeneutic: Initial Thoughts” in which he sketches out the necessity of reading the Bible from the perspective of [...]

  6. MJG says:

    Tim–

    Thanks so much! It was good to read the Wright essay and learn about your school and journal. Great stuff! I hope others follow the link; I will mention it again in an entry.

  7. bruce hamill says:

    This is interesting to hear… I am doing a study leave project in which your most recent book provides the kick-off point for questioning whether an Irenaean-style soteriology might reestablish the place of ‘church’ in the missio dei – church as socio-political embodiment of the justice of God. Thanks so much for the book. Maybe my project will become a book one day

  8. [...] Gorman has published some short reflections on the topic of missional hermeneutics on his Crosstalk blog. The following is a brief response to some of his main points. I find myself in broad agreement with [...]

  9. Jason Fetherolf says:

    Michael, Thanks for the clarification and witness about the true missio Dei.

    Participating in the missio dei is hard for the church to see and feel when we are constantly doing everything indoors, behind a building which does house the Spirt of God but in a post-mission atmosphere, it is where a Christian now worships God. In the community is where we find the mission of God working in full force and I guess we can say the Holy Scriptures are our pre-mission handbook. From my recent mission trip to Niagra Falls I found that out of 11 churches in the area there was only one that was commited to taking Jesus to the streets. I have thought this for awhile but I think our church has gone AWOL. The fact is, when we commit to doing God’s already-in-progress work we find an amazing thing–what it means to be a Christian.

  10. MJG says:

    Jason–

    You make an excellent point. It is really, really hard to do ministry in an indoor mode or indoor culture. When I was in Cameroon, where everyone is always outdoors, I was amazed to see how much ministry goes on constantly. I’m sure part of my experience was due to my naturally gregarious host, but I did conclude that indoor issues relate not just to the doors of the church but also more generally to a couch-potato lifestyle.

    Bruce–

    All the best on your project. It sounds very promising. Email me offline and I will send you a paper caleld Justification and Justice: Paul, The Church, and the Salvation of the World.” It build on chapter 2 of “Inhabiting….”

  11. MJG says:

    Brian–

    Thanks for the interaction and for the good insights. I like conversion (in the broadest sense)–transformation, participation/theosis, with a missional thrust–as the goal of biblical interpretation. I look forward to more conversation and to your book. Are you part of GOCN? They have focused a lot on post-Christendom mission.

  12. [...] See also “mission as hermeneutic of the Gospel”.. [...]

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