Archive for June 8th, 2009

Some Basics of a Missional Hermeneutic

Monday, June 8th, 2009

A missional hermeneutic is a type of theological interpretation of Scripture. In theological interpretation, we give priority to the witness of Scripture as summons to faith, hope, and love—what are we to believe, hope for, and do? A missional hermeneutic integrates all of these with a focus on doing in the light of faith and hope. In fact, as I will suggest in another post, a missional hermeneutic is fundamentally inspired and guided by hope.

Practitioners of missional interpretation specifically read the biblical text as witness to God’s purposes in the world and as invitation to participate in that divine activity. Hunsberger’s taxonomy (see last post) reminds us that there are different specific approaches to a missional hermeneutic, some focusing more on the text, some focusing more on the readers. Of the four approaches he describes, I find all of them useful, though I would be hesitant to ascribe an explicit missional purpose per se to every biblical writing (“identity-shaping” always; “equipping” less often). Rather, I believe that we now read the entire Bible in light of the gospel, and in particular in light of the telos of salvation, broadly understood, that is narrated for us in diverse ways in the NT, culminating in the Bible’s climax, the book of Revelation. (More on this to come.) We must therefore have an accurate and comprehensive biblical understanding of salvation if we are to participate appropriately in the missio Dei. (More on this to come, too. I have written about it at length for volume 5 of the NIDB and will summarize in a later post. For a starter, see this previous post.)

Because a missional hermeneutic acknowledges the Bible as a word from God that bears special witness to the very purposes of God in the world, it invites questions (and responses) appropriate to the subject matter. These questions emerge from an ongoing dynamic interaction between (1) text and (2) located, contextualized reading community. We can summarize this, perhaps a bit simplistically, as the dynamic interaction between the Bible’s witness to the missio Dei and our responsive participation in it, or between message and mandate. The former shapes the latter, of course, but also the latter shapes our perception of the former. Those who are already participating in God’s salvific activity in the world are more likely to read the Scriptural witness appropriately.

In the revised and expanded edition of Elements of Biblical Exegesis, I suggest that there are perhaps five key questions that readers operating with a missional hermeneutic will want to ask of the biblical text and themselves:

• What does this text say, implicitly or explicitly, about the missio Dei and the missional character of God?
• What does this text reveal about humanity and the world?
• What does this text say about the nature and mission of God’s people in the world, that is, about the church understood as an agent of divine mission rather than as an institution, civic organization, or guardian of Christendom?
• How does this text relate to the larger scriptural witness, in both testaments, to the missio Dei and the mission of God’s people?
• In what concrete ways might we deliberately read this text as God’s call to us as the people of God to participate in the missio Dei to which it bears witness?

Because for Westerners a missional hermeneutic always has the danger of becoming a revision of the narrow, individualistic, colonizing theology of the not-too-distant past, it may also be helpful to keep in mind some additional critical questions that deal with the need for imagination, transformation, and witness as key components of missional thinking and participation: How does this text call us to imagine and envision the world?

• What does this text call us to unlearn and then learn afresh?
• What powers that could deceive, seduce, and harm the world or the church does this text unveil and challenge—or call us to unveil and challenge?
• How does this text call us as God’s people to be both different from and involved in the world?