Archive for the ‘Missional hermeneutic’ Category

SBL 2009 (3) Missional Hermeneutics

Friday, August 7th, 2009

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.

Crux probat omnia (The cross probes everything)

Monday, July 20th, 2009

The Latin verb probare means to test, examine, evaluate, probe, prove, approve. Luther wrote, “crux probat omnia,” usually translated “the cross tests everything” or “the cross puts everything to the test.” I like to use the cognate verb “probe,” as in “scrutinize.”

On this blog and elsewhere, especially over at Daniel Kirk’s Sibboleth, people have been wondering how the so-called violence of God in Judges and elsewhere, including Revelation, squares with the kenotic, cruciform, restorative love and justice of God revealed in Christ, especially in his cross.

At root, this is at least as much a hermeneutical issue as it is a theo-logical (doctrine of God) one. That is, what will determine our reading of such difficult texts? The answer, it seems to me, is crux probat omnia.

Though we have no right to dispense with certain parts of the canon, we do have the right (and the obligation, as Christians) to read such texts through, and in light of, the cross. The cross does not delete them, but the cross provides the lens through which we consider them, the framework within which we understand them. That is, if we believe in the incarnation and if we believe Paul’s claim that the cross is the definitive theophany, the self-revelation of divine love, wisdom,power, justice, etc. (1 Cor 1-2, etc.)

In reference to Revelation, this problem of problematic images seems particularly acute. But some interesting things happen, especially an ordering of the images. That is, not all apocalyptic images in Revelation are created equal. As Christian readers of this ( I believe) Christian text, we have to order our images Christianly or, better, align our ordering of them with the ordering of the book of Revelation itself. That is to say, images of God as liberator, warrior, judge, etc. have all been re-imaged and reconstituted by the coming, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The slaughtered Lamb is the central and centering image of the book, and through it we see God’s liberation, warfaring, and judgment quite differently, to put it mildly, than we would without it. Similar controlling images appear elsewhere in the NT.

In Revelation, this means that the conquering Jesus is a warrior who sheds his own blood, not that of others. He conquers with words, not literal swords. And his disciples are expected to follow suit on both counts.

Thus as Christians we affirm God as liberator, warrior, and judge, but only as those images are scrutinized by the cross. That is because we believe with Paul that the cross is in fact the ultimate theophany and, with the early church, that crux est mundi medicina: the cross is the medicine of the world—and of the church. Which is why the church’s mission and its cruciform existence—or its misguided belligerent crusading—always go hand in hand.

God’s Mission: Righting or Writing the World?

Wednesday, July 8th, 2009

A few months back I gave a major public lecture on Paul called “Justification and Justice: Paul, the Mission of the Church, and the Salvation of the World.” In the lecture I picked up on NT Wright’s theme of God’s “putting the world to rights.” Deciding to avoid the British idiom, I said (perhaps several times) that according to Paul God is “righting” the world, as in righting a capsized ship or setting right that which is out of alignment.

A journalist heard my talk of God’s “righting the world” as God’s “writing the world”—and was apparently quite taken by the idea. (OK, I confess: Yes, I am a closet process theologian. Just kidding. :-) ) In fact, it turned her on to Paul once again, and she wrote about that at length.

This little episode raises all kinds of interesting questions about hermeneutics, etc., but most importantly it raises the question, “Did the journalist have an unintentional brilliant insight into Paul and into God?” Is that what the missio Dei is in some sense? Writing the world? What might that mean?

The Nonviolent Missio Dei (again)

Sunday, June 28th, 2009

The discussion in the comments to the previous post is incredibly important, so I recommend them to all. Daniel Kirk has this to offer:

I really like the cosmic vision of Christus Victor, but if we miss that the victory part is attained by self-giving-love (so that others might live), it becomes a total disaster (cf. church history. :-) ).

One thing I say there is this:

The right question [regarding the appropriateness of Christian violence] might be, “Does the practice of violence cohere with or contradict the NT’s interpretation of what God has done in Christ—including his incarnation, teachings, death, resurrection, and exaltation as divine self-disclosure?”

The Nonviolent Missio Dei

Friday, June 26th, 2009

A number of people, not least John Howard Yoder and Richard Hays, have made the case that the NT does not give support to Christian participation in violence but, rather, leads us to practice nonviolence. Glen Stassen and others argue rightly that hearing the NT as a call to nonviolence alone is insufficient, and that we must also practice just peacemaking.

I am not disputing either of these claims and would in fact support them. Without going back and looking at each of their writings in detail, I would also add that each also says, implicitly or explicitly, that the mission or story of God is in fact a mission/story of nonviolent action centered in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. If we think, then, of participating in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—that is, of participating in the story and mission of God—as the goal of human existence and the meaning of salvation, then nonviolence is not a matter to discuss or debate as one of so many possible topics in Christian ethics. Rather, it is at the very heart of what it means to be Christian, to be saved, to be a disciple.

Over at Getting Free, T has a brief but excellent post about this very topic: “The Cross and the Plot-line of our Time.” He says:

If this is a Story that we’re in, then the plot of how good beats evil in this world must be central to it. From what I can tell from the New Testament, generous love for people who are (currently) agents of evil (even to the point of giving one’s blood or money in love) is the central strategy of God in this plot line.

If T is right, and I think he is “spot on,” then the way Tom Wright and others tell the story of God in five acts (creation through recreation/redemption) needs to be more carefully articulated with an emphasis on God’s nonviolent, nonretaliatiory enemy love that is the central act of the story.

I wonder if Rev. Pagano and friends (see previous post) have thought about this? What’s the story of God they believe in and tell week in and week out?

T (and I) welcome responses there or here.

Revelation as the Key to a Missional Hermeneutic

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

I ended my lectures on Revelation at Duke this past term, in both my own class on the book and in Susan Eastman’s NT Intro, where I was a guest lecturer, with the following paragraph:

Revelation concludes the canon; it completes God’s story. It is the last book of the Christian Bible. Perhaps it would not be too bold to suggest that if the church of Jesus Christ is to be faithful to its vocation in the 21st century, the book of Revelation—especially its vision of the slaughtered, victorious, and coming Lamb—needs to become more central to our worship, our spirituality, our practices. Perhaps, in a profound way, the last book of the Bible needs to become the church’s first book.

What would it mean if Revelation were taken as the first book of Christian mission, as the key to a missional hermeneutic? As a working proposal, I think this makes a lot of sense. After all, as I suggest above, the book of Revelation is the telos of the Christian Bible, and it contains the telos of the divine story. In that sense, it is analogous in a way to Christ himself, who is the telos of the Law, according to Paul (Rom 10:4). In both cases, we should take telos to mean “end” in the sense of both conclusion and, more importantly, goal.

If Revelation reveals the goal of the divine, biblical narrative and thus the goal of human existence (salvation), then what we see at the end of the end–that is, in Rev 21:1-22:5 (and related texts)–gives us both a picture of the telos and the contours of Christian mission: bearing witness in the present to the future, the telos.

Revelation 7, one of my favorite NT texts, briefly depicts the

“great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ ”

This perpetual multicultural liturgy embodies the universal salvation brought in Christ: the reconciliation (one loud voice) of the peoples of the earth to one another and to their creator and redeemer.

In Rev 21:1-22:5 we find additional images of this salvation: the presence of God the absence of suffering and evil; the lush urban garden with beautiful walls and streets, and trees that have perpetual fruit and leaves for the healing of the nations.

What does it mean to bear witness, in advance, now, to this telos, this salvation? That is, it seems to me, the first, burning missional question that we must face. The answer will by necessity be both “vertical” and “horizontal.” That is, it will involve human-to-God and human-to-human relationships. And it will, I suggest, mean witnessing to the physicality and the beauty of the new creation, which has already begun (2 Cor 5).

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?

Missional Hermeneutics: Hunsberger’s Taxonomy

Friday, June 5th, 2009

George Hunsberger of Western Theological Seminary and the Gospel and our Culture Network (GOCN) is a leading missiologist and an ardent advocate of the missional church and of a missional hermeneutic. Last year, in meetings that met at both AAR (the American Academy of Religion) and SBL (the Society of Biblical Literature), George proposed a taxonomy of four distinct (though not necessarily mutually exclusive) approaches to missional hermeneutics.

1. The missional direction of the story. The framework for biblical interpretation is the story it tells of the mission of God and the formation of a community sent to participate in it.

This approach focuses on the Bible as one story, the story of God’s salvation, the missio Dei. The Bible offers us the true metanarrative. This view is associated with the names Christopher Wright (The Mission of God), Grant LeMarquand, Michael Goheen, and Richard Baukcham (The Bible and Mission). It is also largely assumed by the other approaches that place the accent elsewhere.

2. The missional purpose of the writings. The aim of biblical interpretation is to fulfill the equipping purpose of the biblical writings.

This approach focuses not on the Bible as a whole but on the individual writings, arguing that their purpose was and is to equip, or at least to shape the identity of, the missional church/people of God. It is associated especially with Princeton missiologist Darrell Guder (stressing equipping) but is visible in the work of others, notably Jim Brownson, also of Western Seminary (stressing identity; Speaking the Truth in Love: New Testament Resources for a Missional Hermeneutic).

3. The missional locatedness of the readers. The approach required for a faithful reading of the Bible is from the missional location of the Christian community.

This approach focuses especially on the general vocation and the specific social location of the church (as opposed to the nature of the biblical text). It has been advocated especially by Michael Barram of St. Mary’s College (“The Bible, Mission, and Social Location: Toward a Missional Hermeneutic,” a 2007 Interpretation article). This approach stresses concrete contexts for interpretation and mission.

4. The missional engagement with cultures. The gospel functions as the interpretive matrix within which the received biblical tradition is brought into critical conversation with a particular human context.

This approach is associated especially with Jim Brownson and also Princeton’s Ross Wagner. For them, a missional hermeneutic means allowing the gospel of God’s salvation in Christ to shape the way in which we interpret the text in a particular cultural context, allowing the gospel to shape us and address our specific culture.

I think it is fair to say that in this taxonomy we have two approaches that stress the character and role of the text and two that stress the character and role of the interpretive community. I hardly think these are incompatible.

For full text and responses, click here.

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…

Theosis and Mission

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009

Following up on the previous blog, I want to note that over at The New Exodus Chuck DeGroat has a nod to my book and (more importantly) insightful words on theosis and mission (well, he calls it theosis vs. neurosis). Great stuff. Churck is a pastor, professor, and pastoral counselor/psychologist.


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