PET III: Missional Theology

Problems in Ecclesiology Today III:
Missional theology—in vogue or indispensable?

The last decade has seen a meteoric rise in interest in “missional theology.” Much of this interest can be directly traced to the seminal works by Lesslie Newbigin (The Open Secret; The Gospel in a Pluralist Society) and David Bosch (Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission). Some of the current major names in the field of missional theology and missional living include Darrell Guder (The Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America), George Hunsberger (The Church Between Gospel and Culture: The Emerging Mission in North America), J. Andrew Kirk (What is Mission?), Alan J. Roxburgh (The Missional Leader), and Michael Frost (Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture).

The term “missional church” is often thrown around in “emergent” circles, but the theological weight of the concept is much more extensive than its current “in” status might suggest. Rather than construct my own missional theology—a small attempt at which you can read in my ‘Spirit of the Lord’ series—I will outline the central features of missional theology and then examine a few problematic areas in current missional literature that require more careful explication.

First, the two central features of a missional theology:

1. God is a missionary God. Missional theology often begins with the Latin term missio Dei (“mission of God”), a term coined by German missiologist, Karl Hartenstein, in 1934. The theological term missio Dei underscores the fact that mission is antecedently a divine event before it is ever a reality within the life of the church. Mission is essential to the very nature of God as a being-in-act—a being-in-mission, so to speak. Mission properly belongs to the triune life of God; only because God is a God of mission is the church a community of mission. In other words, mission is first and foremost an attribute of God, not an activity of the church. Furthermore, the missio Dei is defined by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as the missionary God incarnate. In him, the mission of God becomes a concrete reality ‘for us and our salvation.’

2. The church is a missionary church. Because God is a missionary God, the church commissioned by Jesus Christ is a missionary church. God is missional by nature; so, too, the church is missional by nature. The eternal missio Dei precedes, grounds, and sanctifies the missio communionis (“mission of the community”) as the creaturely embodiment of and witness to the eschatological kingdom of God. By framing the mission of the church within the prevenient mission of God, missional theology seeks to redress the missiological faults of the past—viz. viewing mission as the work of the church in converting the world, rather than viewing mission as the work of God in reconciling the world in which the church is called into being as God’s creaturely agents for the fulfillment of Christ’s apostolic commission. The church is a missionary community, but its missional character is encompassed by the work of God. The work of the church is always preceded, accompanied, and followed by the work of the triune God. Moreover, the church’s missional identity is not one part of its identity among other parts; on the contrary, its missional character is definitive of the church itself as a whole. Its being and act as the ekklesia is missional from beginning to end. The church is missional without remainder.

These two very simple axioms are the foundation for any missional theology. Despite their brevity, a lot of important theological work is accomplished in these two axiomatic principles. The benefit of missional theology to missiology is immense: it grounds the work of the church in the antecedent work of God; it provides a christological basis for the church’s involvement in culture; it offers a relational-communal account of mission rooted in the triunity of God. A missional framework benefits systematic theology by offering a way of connecting the being-in-act of God with the being-in-act of the church; that is, missional theology connects the doctrine of God with ecclesiology in a way that does not collapse the one into the other.

The potential problems with missional theology arise when we seek to understand the relation between the first and second axioms above. What is the material connection between the missionary God and the missionary church? Obviously, we would want to begin by speaking about Jesus Christ. But what then is the connection between Christ and the church? In other words, even though missional theology provides an important and very helpful way of speaking about the connection between God and the ecclesial community, the relation between dogmatic loci cannot be merely semantic. This is where the seams begin to appear in contemporary works of missional theology. My goal here will be to point out the problem areas and offer a few thoughts about how we might approach a more coherent and consistent theology of mission.

1. Participation. Most theologians concerned with missional theology connected the first and second axioms through an appeal to the concept of participation—viz. participation in Christ (participatio Christi). There is certainly a long tradition here, but what do we mean by participation? Most of the same theologians will say that we participate in Christ through the power of the Spirit. But when does this participation occur? And how? Do we participate in Christ through the sacrament of baptism, as classical theologians would suggest? Is our participation a result of the Logos assuming human nature in the incarnation? Or is our participation a moment-by-moment reality, always actualized in the present through the Spirit of Christ? Must we pick only one? And if there is a way of affirming all of these and more, how do we understand the relation between them?

The central problem here is, of course, christology. We want to affirm that there is a participation in Christ, but we also need to articulate this in a way that carefully attends to the various theological issues at stake. Unfortunately, there is a distinct lack of such attention in a vast majority of current missional literature. In particular, there is a lack of attention to christology, despite the interest in Jesus Christ as the concrete incarnation of the mission of God. For example, our participation in Christ cannot and must not infringe upon Christ’s utter uniqueness and his perfect work of reconciliation, in which we only participate as faithful recipients, never as agents. In our explication of the participatio Christi, we must be very careful to distinguish between the person and work of the Mediator and the being and life of the church. No affirmation of the church as the corpus Christi can ever allow us to blur this all-important distinction. Missional theology tends to speak about the church’s participation in Christ in an active sense, because it is focused on the missional character of the church’s existence. But here is one place where we must not allow the interest in the church’s work to obscure the unique, antecedent, and all-sufficient work of Jesus Christ. These are the kinds of theological questions that tend to be ignored or overlooked.

2. Social Trinitarianism. A second area of major missional interest is the doctrine of the Trinity. Since missional theology focuses on the relational dimension of both God and church, it generally follows that many (most?) missional theologians hold to a social doctrine of the Trinity. I suspect a couple things contribute to this: (1) the assumption that only a social doctrine of the Trinity can sustain a relational theology of mission; and (2) a poor historical and systematic education which tends to see the doctrine of the Trinity in terms of a binary opposition between an Augustinian-psychological model and an Eastern-social model. Neither of these are accurate.

Space and time permitting, I would offer a more systematic account of the doctrine of the Trinity, one that would fulfill the central interests of missional theology while also doing justice to the complexities and distinctions at stake in the doctrine of God’s triunity. Instead, all I have time to say here is the following: (1) Barth offers a third model which is neither tritheistic nor modalistic, and which fully sustains a relational ontology; and (2) because of its faulty notion that we can read off human relations from the intra-trinitarian relations, social trinitarianism opens the door to hierarchicalism (since there is clearly submission and hierarchy within the Trinity). We do not need a God who models our ideal vision of human relationality in order for such an ideal to be authorized by the gospel. We need, rather, to look toward Christ and confess, with Paul, that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Paul offers a relational ontology that is far more radical than any social doctrine of the Trinity. This one verse from Galatians affirms unity and equality in terms of social, racial, national, economic, political, and biological identity. We do not need a social trinitarianism; instead, we need a radical christocentrism.

3. The Immanent and Economic Trinity. Here we begin to wade into more abstract territory; the theological air surrounding this subject is much more rarefied. To put the question as simply as possible, what defines the mission of God in eternity, i.e., in the immanent Trinity? Is it defined by the economic event of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit? Or is it rather defined by a larger concept (e.g., love) which encompasses the missio Dei as a whole, in both its immanent and economic manifestations? Is the mission of God a mission of love that is then contingently embodied in Jesus Christ in relation to the cosmos? Or is the mission of God from all eternity a mission of reconciliation constituted by the event of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection?

I leave these as questions, but not because they are less significant. Their importance is related to the other problems already mentioned. For example, how we define the mission of God directly relates to how we conceive of the church’s own mission. If the mission of God is to love the other (whether an other within the Trinity or outside in creation), then this makes it easy to unite the work of God and the work of the church. But if the mission of God is to reconcile the world to God in Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 5:19)—i.e., if the immanent is defined by the economic—then we are forced to distinguish between the two much more carefully. Of course, I do not mean to suggest that love and reconciliation are somehow irreconcilable. I only mean that it makes a difference where we begin in understanding the missio Dei.

4. The Kingdom of God. Missional theologians love to speak about the kingdom. But there is a noticeable lack of attention to the relation between church and kingdom. On the one hand, the church is clearly not the eschatological kingdom of God: we are radically disunified, we are plagued by sin, and the world remains a broken and fragmented place. On the other hand, the church is quite clearly the eschatological kingdom of God: when Jesus sent out the “seventy” (Luke 10:1-12), he told them to say to the people wherever they went, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” There seems to be a lack of eschatological reservation in the mind of Jesus. Where his disciples are, there the kingdom is present.

So how do we understand the relation between church and kingdom? Clearly, the church is not a stop-gap between Jesus and New Jerusalem. But neither is the church we encounter here and now the final manifestation of the promised new community. What then is the relation? What is the connection between ecclesiology and eschatology?

I have sought to answer this question in my ‘Spirit of the Lord’ series. The next post, in fact, addresses this very problem (§10.6.3). My solution is to speak of a “threefold eschaton”—that is, three temporal modalities of the one eschaton. There is a past modality, a present modality, and a future modality of the eschaton. The past modality is Jesus Christ himself: he is the concrete embodiment and constitutive actualization of the eschaton. This is why we can say that the kingdom of God is identified in the New Testament with the person of Christ himself. The kingdom is near because Jesus himself is near. The present modality is the present ecclesial community: this is the mode of the eschaton under the form of shame, suffering, and death. The church here and now follows the path of the Suffering Servant, the Crucified One. Our journey is the way of the cross (via crucis). I call this modality of the eschaton the corpus Christi (“body of Christ”) in order to identify it with the Crucified Christ. The future modality is the coming eschatological kingdom: this is the mode of the eschaton under the form of glory, joy, and resurrection. The kingdom to come follows the path of the Resurrected and Ascended One. Their journey is the way of the New Jerusalem, the way of new life. I call this modality of the eschaton the regnum Dei (“reign of God”) in order to distinguish it from the present-tense modality of the eschaton and to identify it with God’s perfect and eternal reign over creation. The past-tense modality is definitive and basic for the other two; the present-tense modality is dependent and anticipatory; and the future-tense modality is final and unsurpassable.

My threefold conception of the eschaton (which owes a lot to George Hunsinger) accomplishes everything a missional theology seeks to affirm regarding the church’s embodiment of the kingdom. The advantage is that I have a way of carefully articulating the distinctions between each modality (see my post for fuller explanations) that can withstand theological scrutiny. It may not be the best way of articulating the distinctions, but it at least proffers one possibility for understanding the relation between ecclesiology and eschatology.

In addition to these four problematic areas in missional theology, one would need to consider many others. These would include the doctrine of the imago Dei, the understanding of the relation between Christ’s body and the Body of Christ, and the basic doctrines of justification and sanctification, which often seem presupposed or ignored in most theological works on mission.

In the end, is missional theology simply ‘in vogue’ or is it indispensable? I hope the latter. Missional thinking has much to offer the systematic theologian who is concerned about the concrete connection between system and community, between orthodoxy and orthopraxis. Currently, the term “missional” is in vogue, but it need not remain only a passing fad. Hopefully, in time, it will move out of the realm of pop theology and into the purview of serious theology.

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Anonymous said…
I'd like to hear more of your thoughts regarding social Trinitarianism. In a seminar on the Trinity last Spring I was working very hard to be a social Trinitarian. But later, when I began to feel the weight of Barth's critique of the analogia entis, I found myself far more reticent to affirm it. At the time I was trying to read John 17.23 in such a way that it served as a limiting concept on the kind of relationship the members of the Trinity could have. Barth didn't like that and I found myself agreeing with him.

I have also found the implicit hierarchalism social Trinitarianism seems required to affirm troublesome (being the good egalitarian that I am). This was unexpected and I find it hard to shake.

So, if I can influence the posting schedule at all . . .

(I realize you may have no idea who I am. I met you and your lovely wife at Princeton this summer. I was there for the Karl Barth Society Conference. Paul Metzger was kind enough to invite me to join you all at the pub the last or second to last night there. I believe I ate more than my fair share of cheese fries.)
Derrick said…
If the past tense modality of the eschaton as the proleptic expression of Christ is "basic for the other two" modalities (e.g. what you describe as present and future modalities of the eschaton) doesn't this make the ultimate eschatological reality not future-oriented (e.g. in the sense of an eschatological ontology) but still past oriented? E.g. moving towards the future rather than being shaped from the future? In other words, you say "the kingdom to come follows the path of the Resurrected and Ascended One," because the future modality of the eschaton is dependent upon the past modality of Christ. Perhaps this is so noetically. But maybe ontically the conception is actually reversed, so that the Resurrected and Ascended One follows the path of the coming Kingdom?

It seems to me (at least in an initial observation) that something like this is necessary if we are to maintain that the eschaton, namely a future reality, is proleptically occuring in Christ and actually shaping present reality. Hence the future state is occuring now proleptically. Otherwise does this not make the future state dependent on the present, rather than the present dependent on the oncoming future? (This is, of course, Pannenberg's--and to a lesser extent Moltmann's and Jenson's-- ontology talking through me :)

Just curious as to your thoughts

Good to hear from you! The problem with social trinitarianism is that once you make the three persons of the Trinity truly distinct persons with their own centers of consciousness and will (as Moltmann does, for example), then you either are knee-deep in tritheism or you have to come up with some sneaky way of keeping them together. The problem is, perichoresis cannot be a mechanism for making three persons into one. Perichoresis describes the nature of their unity -- a unity that is already presupposed.

Moreover, as I mentioned briefly in the post, the major concern among social trinitarians is that a more traditional doctrine of the Trinity will lead to monarchical models of human life. Social trinitarians then posit their doctrine in order to buttress a more egalitarian model of human relations. But there are two major problems here: First, you can only have hierarchy when there are separate centers of consciousness. Therefore, hierarchicalism is only possible on social trinitarian ground. Second, we cannot reason from divine relations to human relations. Here is where Barth's critique is helpful. If you read people like Volf and Moltmann, they offer little to no explanation for how we are supposed to get from the intra-trinitarian relations to human sociopolitical relations. The move is assumed, but rarely explicated. And this is a huge problem for social trinitarians, because what they've done is basically to make God in their own image (in the image of what they think human sociality ought to look like) and then to reapply this image of God back onto humanity as a justification for egalitarian relations. But if God is triune (and God, for that matter), then there is no movement from divine to human relations. There is a fundamental distinction between the "persons" of the Trinity and human persons, which is why Barth uses the word "modes of being" instead of "persons."

Now, none of this means we cannot affirm egalitarian social relations. I made a brief remark about Gal. 3:28, but that is just one of many available options.

I hope this is helpful. I would definitely recommend reading my post "John Franke and Social Trinitarianism," which I have a link to at the bottom of my post. That explains things more fully.

Thanks for the commment. I'll be honest: I don't care much for Pannenberg's ontology. I find it to be nonsense, at least when goes on about the future having retroactive ontological significance for the past. This just doesn't make any sense. I like the sound of it, sure, but otherwise it just is not the way we experience reality. The past is the "past" for a reason.

That aside, I do believe that the eschaton is first and foremost a past reality in Jesus Christ. And it is only a future reality because Jesus is not only a past reality but is the same "yesterday and today and forever" (Heb. 13:8). I talk about this at some length in the upcoming post where I deal with this topic.

In other words, it is somewhat improper to speak of Christ as a "past" event. Hunsinger prefers to use the perfect tense, because the Greek perfect tense is past but it is also ongoing in the present. This is exactly right. The eschaton is grounded in the past event of Christ's death and resurrection, but it is an ongoing reality here and now, and in another sense (or mode) is still yet to come. The basis for the eschaton's futurity is the fact that Christ is the Ascended One who thus eternalizes the eschatological reality accomplished in his resurrection. His ascension is the basis for the present and future modalities of the eschaton.

All of this is to say, the eschaton is ontologically grounded in Christ, not in the past per se. Christ is certainly a reality in the past, but he is also a reality by definition in the present and the future. With Pannenberg, I can say that the eschatological kingdom comes "from the future" only because I affirm that Christ is already future by virtue of his ascension at the right hand of the Father. But the future itself does not have ontological priority in my view. That priority belongs to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, which is a past reality.

I do want to say that the church is the proleptic embodiment of the future kingdom, but prolepsis is only half of the picture for the church. The other half is anamnesis: a looking back to Christ. The church looks backwards as well as forwards. Christ is not proleptic, because he is the thing itself: he is the new life, the kingdom, the broken body and shed blood. The church looks back to him while it is also at the same time a proleptic realization of the future kingdom.

But the church's proleptic nature does not mean that it is a "part" of the future kingdom waiting to be completed. I think this is where things get complicated and significant. I want to say that the church here and now is a complete reality; it is fully a mode of the eschaton, just as the coming kingdom is fully a mode of the eschaton. The church is "proleptic" in the sense that all the eschatological promises in Scripture apply to it, but in a different mode — viz. the mode of the cross. The promises apply to the coming kingdom as well, but more directly, in the mode of the resurrection. This is where I bring in the concept of transposition. I want to speak of the eschaton as the piece of music, so to speak, and then speak of the present and future modes of the eschaton as two different "keys" of the same music. And so we transpose the music of the eschaton into the key of the church. Moreover, we can transpose between the modes, between the church and the kingdom. I explain this in much more detail in the coming post.

Basically, I want to affirm that Christ is fundamentally basic in all ways. He does not "follow" the kingdom, because he is the kingdom, in a proper sense. The church and the kingdom follow from him. The eschaton has a threefold temporal character. It is not primarily future, as most people think it is. It is not primarily present, as a lot of current missional leaders like to think it is. It is rather primarily and properly past, but because that past reality is Jesus Christ, it is also present and future - "yesterday and today and forever."