SBL 2009 (3) Missional Hermeneutics

One of the most exciting developments in the theological interpretation of Scripture is missional hermeneutics, intrepretation in which the mission of the Church is the primary concern. GOCN, The Gospel and Our Culture Network, has been leading the charge in this field, and they have now gained affiliate status with AAR and SBL.

At SBL this year, GOCN will host a session, described as follows (links to the paper abstracts are given):

GOCN Forum on Missional Hermeneutics
Sat., 11/21/2009
1:00 PM to 3:30 PM
Room: Room TBD – Hotel TBD
Theme: Missional Readings of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians
Through paper presentations and group discussion, the Forum will explore Paul’s letter to the Philippians in view of the missio Dei and the way the letter calls a people to participate in God’s mission to the creation, as well as questions about the community’s interpretive readings and the ways in which it relates the received tradition to a particular context.

George R. Hunsberger, Western Theological Seminary, Presiding

Michael Barram, Saint Mary’s College of California
Reflections on the Practice of Missional Hermeneutics: ‘Streaming’ Philippians 1:20-30 (20 min)

James C. Miller, Asbury Theological Seminary
Mapping Philippians Missionally (20 min)

Stephen E. Fowl, Loyola College in Maryland, Respondent (15 min)
Discussion (15 min)

Michael J. Gorman, Saint Mary’s Seminary and University
The Apologetic and Missional Impulse of Philippians 2:6-11 in the Context of the Letter (20 min)

Rob Elkington, First Baptist Church, Whitby, Canada
The Communal Mission of God and the Missional Community of Philippians (20 min)

Stephen E. Fowl, Loyola College in Maryland, Respondent (15 min)
Discussion (15 min)

The abstract of my paper follows:

“The Apologetic and Missional Impulse of Phil 2:6-11 in the Context of the Letter”

The rich poetic or hymnic text found in Phil 2:6-11 has been the subject of many diverse investigations and interpretations. This paper, taking a cue from John Reumann’s recent Yale Anchor Bible commentary on Philippians, argues that the hymn/poem, which is Paul’s master story, summarizes the gospel that Paul wants the Philippian assembly to (continue to) proclaim and (continue to) embody, in spite of opposition. In so doing, the Philippians will both hold forth and defend the basic Pauline claims about the crucified Jesus as the self-giving, life-giving Son of God and sovereign Lord, in fulfillment of Scripture and in contrast to Caesar. These claims have been vindicated by God in exalting Jesus, and they will soon be acknowledged by all creation. Paul’s words speak to the contemporary church about the coherent form and content of its missional life and message.

I am very much looking forward to this event and hope it draws a large crowd.

17 Responses to “SBL 2009 (3) Missional Hermeneutics”

  1. simon jones says:

    Will you be publishing this paper? I’ve found what you’ve written so far on Philippians 2 – notably in Inhabiting the Cruciform God – very enlightening and helpful. It seems to me that this passage is a key missional as well defining theological text because it gives shape to our lives. Thanks for your thinking and writing in this area

  2. Sean says:

    This is excellent stuff! Mark Keown, our NT lecturer, has just published his doctorate on this topic: Congregational Evangelism in Philippians – The Centrality of an Appeal for Gospel Proclamation to the Fabric of Philippians.

    Will these papers be published? How do we access them? I’m currently working on a Master’s paper on Philippians and these would be excellent to engage with!

  3. MJG says:


    I’m glad my work has been helpful; the preface to the work on Phil 2 in “Inhabiting” is in “Cruciformity.”


    Can you provide publication info on Dr Keown’s book? There are a number of people who would be interested in it, including all in this session.

    Simon and Sean,

    As for publication, I don’t know the plans at the moment. I certainly intend to publish my own essay in the future, but we have not talked about the publication of this session per se–though online at the GOCN site is certainly a temporary possibility. I will talk to the convenors and see if there are any thoughts.

    I can tell you both (and others) that there is a lot of energy around the publication of high-level biblical interpretation that is missional in orientation. All I can say for now is, “Stay tuned.” but also–keep us posted on what you know about.

  4. This looks excellent. I celebrate the rise of missional hermeneutics and I hope it gains a wide hearing.

    But I have a question. I’m working on a review of your latest book, and while there is much that I like about it, I am unsettled by the total absence of mission from your exegesis. This is apparent in many places where you speak about the faithfulness, holiness, and cruciform love of the community – but you never once mention witness, proclamation, or mission. As far as I can tell, you never connect the sending of the Son by the Father with the sending of the community through Word and Spirit. For the most part, this wouldn’t be hard to fix: you could simply clarify that when you talk about faith, hope, and love you intend this to be inclusive of the community’s life of missional obedience.

    The problem becomes especially apparent in the chapter on holiness. A lot of what you say here is excellent, except for the lack of mission. But this is key. You speak about holiness as cruciform and communal love for the other. Where is the act of proclamation and witness to the gospel? If holiness is defined by Christ, then holiness is not about being “set apart” from the world but about being “sent into the far country,” as Barth would put it. Holiness is precisely to be sent into the world, to be in concrete solidarity with the poor and persecuted. I don’t think you deny any of that, but the focus on holy sex and holy politics makes it seem like holiness is something that can be accomplished “internally,” so to speak. I would rather define holiness in terms of our “going out,” our centrifugal activity as a community of faith.

    Another important issue has to do with ontology and what constitutes the being of the community. And here is where I think the lack of mission connects with your thesis on theosis. The lack of any discussion of ontology is maybe the one thing most missing from the book, and it’s almost a death-blow to your main thesis — in part because theosis has always implied some kind of ontology, and you can have ontological participation in God without theosis (see Barth). But that aside, the question is whether there is any “gap” between being and act in your ecclesiology, which is then a question of whether there is a “gap” between being and act in your doctrine of God. Missional theology defines God’s being in terms of mission (act), and the same goes for ecclesiology. I feel like, in your book, you come up to the point of saying that the being of the church is in act, but you never actually say it. You say that the obedience of faith is “inherently a participation in the being . . . of God” (p. 93), but you don’t make the crucial reverse move: that participation in God is inherently (and we ought to add, solely) our obedience of faith. Your account needs an actualistic ontology in order to be suitable for a missional hermeneutic. Otherwise there is a substance that participates in God apart from mission. I don’t think you want that, but it isn’t explicitly clear in the text.

    All in all, though, it’s a fine book. But the lack of mission is conspicuous and troubling.

  5. MJG says:


    I appreciate much of what you say, and I admit that much of my thinking on missional hermeneutics is developing–literally–day by day. But I think you may have missed some of the at least implicit (and even explicit) missional language in the book. I will try to write more about this when it’s not 1 a.m., but the most important dimensions would be (1) the inseparability of the vertical and horizontal in justification, with the stress on justice (chap. 2) and (2) nonviolence, which is of course about being and action vis a vis the world constituted as real or potential enemy.

    Furthermore, even in the chapter on holiness, I speak of participation and theosis as other-centered love, and I do not restrict that to the Christian community. Is that not missional? And is not “holy politics” outwardly oriented? See especially p. 128.

    AS for ontology, I hope I make it clear that being and act in God are inseparable (chap. 1) and therefore at least imply the same for the church and ecclesiology.

    I think there is more centrifugal movement in the book than you have noted, and I would hope you could look again before publishing the review!

    Oh–one other thing. Pls remember that as a sequence to Cruciformity, this book is taking a rhetorical stab at scholarship that divides participation in Christ from particiaption in God, and at piety that divides faith from obedience.

    I am grateful for you compliments and critique.

  6. MJG says:

    Two other quick thoughts, David.

    1. As you probably noted, Richard Hays blurbed the book, concluding his endorsement with the words “Gorman’s book points the way forward for understanding the nonviolent, world-transforming character of Paul’s gospel.” If the missional dimension is really conspicuously absent, then Richard completely misread the book. But I don’t think so. On the other hand, his phrase “points the way forward” suggests that a direction has been set yet there is more work to do, and I indicate as much in the book’s introduction.

    2. When I speak about theosis and/or participation, I am understanding those terms narratively, as the book’s subtitle conveys. Again, there is much more to say, but it seems to me that a narrative approach to Pauline soteriology (which I think is absolutely essential to understanding Paul) is inherently missional. Or, in the words of Brian Blount quoted in chap. 2, justification is “kinetic.”

  7. Thanks for the responses. I certainly recognize everything you’ve said. And I am in complete agreement with you on basically all of these points, esp. the issue of politics and justice. But I think a properly missional theology has to recognize that our political witness cannot be divorced from the ecclesial act of witness to Jesus Christ. Of course, our political witness is itself an act of witness, but the language of witness and proclamation and discipleship is, from what I can tell, wholly absent from the book. There is also no language of the church “being sent.”

    I have an essay in the Journal of Theological Interpretation (2.2, 2008) on the trinitarian shape of faith in Galatians. I make the missiological element central. I think you’ll find a lot to agree with, especially since I too stress the participatory element.

    I do have other critiques on the theosis issue, but that’s separate from the question of mission. I’m happy to discuss those issues as well.

  8. Most of my critiques of your book can all be found in some form on p. 93, and I’d like to quote one section that demonstrates the conspicuous lack of mission:

    “For Paul theosis takes place in the person and especially the community that is in Christ and within whom/within which Christ resides, as his Spirit molds and shapes the individual and community into the cruciform image of Christ. But this process of transformation takes some human cooperation, including especially contemplation of the exalted crucified One (2 Cor. 3:18). For Paul, this is not merely a form of ancient, perhaps vacuous, mysticism, but a sustained reflection on, and identification with, the narrative pattern of Christ crucified and of its paradoxical power to bring life out of death (2 Cor. 4:7-12), all enabled by God himself at work in the individual and community (Phil. 2:12-13). This sustained reflection and identification begin in the public act of faith and baptism and continue throughout one’s life in Christ …”

    Setting aside the issue of cooperation which raises problems regarding the relation between divine and human agency, the biggest concern for me is how you define the process of transformation. The words you use are “contemplation of,” “reflection on,” and “identification with.” While I know you want to define these acts in terms of our active life in the world, what is implied here is that we are transformed first through an inner process of contemplation and reflection which then (and only then) plays itself out in a life of obedience and love in the world. There is an implicit separation here between our vertical participation and our horizontal obedience, despite your rejection of this separation. The fact that you even have to say that this isn’t “merely” mysticism is telling. Furthermore, the lack of mission is all too apparent.

    I think you should have dropped the language of cooperation (without heavy qualification), and then replaced the language of contemplation with something like: our identification with the crucified Christ is actualized in our active witness and correspondence to his life of faithful obedience to the Father through the Spirit.

  9. MJG says:


    Thanks for the ongoing critique. I think, however, that mission is implicit in your quote from p. 93, though it could have, and indeed should have, been more explicit. I cannot avoid the “contemplative” character of a text like 2 Cor 3, although for Paul and his communities this contemplation is embodied in cruciform personal and communal public existence. I am afraid that perhaps you go too far in neglecting the aspects of Paul’s thought and experience that might be called mystical (e.g. revelations and visits to heaven) and doxological (hymns, worship). These are for Paul foundational to and formative of the practices in the world that you term “faithful obedience.” Paul sees Jesus as the true glory of the true God and worships him as such, inviting others to do the same and then (using your words) actualizing that reality and its inseparable narrative in the world. To use contemporary terms, there is a difference between contemplation/worship and action (vertical and horizontal) though they are inseparable; this is spiritually and doxologically based witness/mission.

    My mistake on 93 was to stop at Phil 2:13 instead of going on to the following verses that imply a mission in the world (though the tone of my sentences suggests that). I certainly also could have/should have been more explicit about the church’s task of proclamation, but to say that the call to discipleship, and the content of discipleship, are missing from this book is a puzzle to me.

    I hope that my SBL paper on Phil 2 will make more explicit what was sometimes only implicit (not missing) in the book.

  10. Just to note one more example: there is no discussion of 1 Cor. 9:19-23 anywhere in the book. You cite v. 19 in reference to Paul’s “enslavement” as an example of a Christlikeness (p. 23), but you nowhere connect this self-enslavement to Paul’s life of witness to the Gentiles, his pursuit of becoming all things to all people in order to “win” them to Christ, the translation of the gospel to other cultures, and other such missional themes.

    This is what I mean by the lack of discipleship, even though you are right that discipleship as such is not missing. The book is all about “being a disciple,” but I don’t see anything about “making disciples.”

  11. MJG says:


    Thanks again for your input. Four quick points:

    1. You are correct that the book is primarily about being a disciple, not making disciples. But I would argue that that my focus is primarily what Paul’s letters are about, and my task in writing this book is to interpret the theology, etc. found in those letters.

    2. The debate is quite vigorous at the moment about whether Paul expected his communities to evangelize (however that is defined); I think he did expect them to do so, and I think they did (this will come out in my SBL paper)–but the word evangelize needs to be carefully defined. In any event, the task of making disciples (in the sense of converts) is not Paul’s primary focus in the letters, and therefore not in my book.

    3. It is important to note that this book, as the Introduction states quite clearly, is a sequel to my 2001 book “Cruciformity,” which is closer to a full-blown Pauline theology. “Inhabiting” in many ways presumes and builds upon “Cruciformity,” where lots of topics and texts not covered in “Inhabiting” are treated. Among these is 1 Cor 9:19-23, which figures quite prominently in “Cruciformity.” I treat Paul’s narrative missional posture and activity in that book, and I also have a discussion of “The Missionary Character of the Colony” (363-66) in my chapter on the church.

    4. Having said all that, I will be the first to admit that both I and the majority of Pauline scholars have a LONG way to go in reading Paul’s letters missionally. Let’s hope that this conversation contributes to that enterprise. I have written elsewhere that “theological interpretation” is insufficient if it does not lead to missional interpretation and thus mission. I very much appreciate your excellent JTI article on Galatians, which I have read on two occasions. It’s good to have a systematic theologian working so closely with the text of Paul and pushing all of us in good directions.

  12. That’s very helpful, thanks. Let me just state for the record that your book is really an excellent work that I have far more praise for than criticism. Thanks for engaging my questions so thoughtfully and kindly.

  13. [...] This [the missional hermeneutics program on Philippians at SBL] looks excellent. I celebrate the rise of missional hermeneutics and I hope it gains a wide [...]

  14. Sean says:

    Greetings Michael

    The refrence for the book is: M. J. Keown, Congregational Evangelism in Philippians: The Centrality of an Appeal for Gospel Proclamation to the Fabric of Philippians (Paternoster Biblical Monographs: Wipf and Stock, 2009).

    Book overview
    Did Paul want his congregations to pick up the ministry of evangelism or did he envisage himself and other ‘specialist’ proclaimers continuing the ministry of the gospel? Dr. Keown begins by outlining the contours of differing responses to this question ranging from exclusively ‘specialist’ evangelism to believers’ full participation in evangelic mission. He then explores the question through exegetical analysis of Philippians. He argues persuasively that one essential element of the rhetorical appeal of the letter is an injunction to the believers in Philippi to continue to preach the gospel with renewed unity and in the face of pagan opposition. He suggests that Paul envisaged ‘specialist proclaimers’ leading the evangelical mission and equipping ‘general believers’ to share the gospel as one dimension of living in the world.

    I’m currently taking a paper on Philippians with Dr. Keown and he is very interested in this discussion. So we would love to see this material published (my dissertation will be on mission in another letter).

  15. MJG says:

    Thanks, Sean. I will get this info out to the other people in the Philippians session and maybe blog about it later.

  16. Sean says:

    I would love to hear your thoughts on Mark’s book! I’m currently wrestling with it, and it’s very good. I’m assuming you’re also aware of John Dickson, Mission-Commitment in Ancient Judaism and in the Pauline Communities The shape, extent and background of early Christian mission (Mohr Siebek, 2003). I’ve found this to be an excellent discussion, even though I would part ways with some elements of his central thesis.

  17. MJG says:


    I have obviously not read it yet, but the subtitle and synopsis make me think I would find the thesis over-stressing the active evangelism/mission theme in Philippians, which is also more or less the conclusion of my good friend Jim Miller at RBL. From what I can see, Prof. Keown sometimes finds evangelism, or external witness, where internal Christian unity is the focus. This may, however, be a false dichotomy, as I will suggest at SBL, but we have to be careful about reading too much of an explicit evangelistic expectation in these texts.

    I know Dickson’s book and will be wrestling with it early this fall as I prepare for SBL.

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