A Primer on Missional Theology §1: Exegesis
One of the great developments in recent years is the turn to theological interpretations of Scripture, in part because it seeks to rectify the modern split between systematic theology and biblical studies within the academy. While there are many positive consequences of this development, a key consequence has been, I think, the interest in missional theology. This is because when one looks at Scripture theologically and canonically, beyond the myopia of historical criticism, one sees the mission of God unfolding throughout history. This burgeoning field is called “missional hermeneutics,” which is the missional form of theological exegesis. Many scholars have already examined this field in depth, so I will not rehearse the exegesis here. One of the best efforts is by OT scholar, Christopher J. H. Wright, in his massive work in missional-biblical theology, The Mission of God. Works like Wright’s argue that from beginning to end, Scripture presents a missiological narrative. This mission occurs within the context of God’s covenantal relationship with humanity, beginning with Abraham and continuing through David to Jesus of Nazareth, who is the actualization of God’s mission of reconciliation and the covenant of grace. Jesus fulfills Israel’s call to be a blessing to all nations. In him, the mission of God finds its origin and telos.
Another virtue of missional theology in terms of biblical exegesis is that, unlike other theological frameworks, it highlights rather than ignores the role of Israel in the economy of grace. Israel is not just a sacred bypass on the way to Jesus. On the contrary, Israel’s raison d’être is grounded in God’s mission to the nations. The exodus from Egypt is a liberation from Pharaoh for the purpose of establishing Israel as a royal priesthood among the nations of the world. Israel is liberated by God for the sake of its mission as the covenantal community. The wrath of God is poured out whenever Israel loses sight of its mission and compromises its ability to witness to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The prophetic texts not only call Israel back to this mission, but they also describe the eschatological fulfillment of this mission in passages like Micah 4, in which we read about how all the nations will gather together at Zion in peace and worship.
While Wright focuses his attention on the OT texts in his missional interpretation of Scripture, others focus on the NT, for obvious reasons. Throughout the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus sends his disciples out on missions which correspond and reflect Christ’s own mission to the poor and the weak (cf. Luke 9-11). Jesus begins his ministry in Luke by identifying himself as the fulfillment of Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor . . .” (Luke 4:18ff.). The Synoptics present a Jesus who identifies himself with the hungry and the naked, and who calls his disciples to follow him in faithful obedience by “taking up their crosses” in radical discipleship (cf. Matt. 10:38, 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). Taking up one’s cross thus means living in mission: it is a life in via, a life that follows the way of the cross. And, of course, any account of mission in Scripture has to take account of the so-called “Great Commission” (Matt. 28:19-20), where Jesus sends the church out to baptize the nations. Those who are disciples of Christ are sent out to disciple others. We are called to be “ambassadors for Christ,” as Paul puts it (2 Cor. 5:20), which takes the doxological shape of baptism and eucharist. Most importantly, though, we are called to “love God” and “love others,” including both neighbors and enemies (cf. Matt. 5:44, 22:37-39 and par.). In this twofold commandment of love, the so-called “Jesus Creed,” we find the NT summary of our mission as God’s people.
In recent years, the Gospel of John has become the central text for grounding missional theology. Whereas the “Great Commission” was once the rallying cry for a theology of mission, now missiologists turn to John 20:21, in which Jesus declares, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (cf. John 17:18). The primal mission is therefore the one in which Jesus, the Son of God, is sent by the Father into the world. The Father is identified as the authoritative sender by Jesus himself throughout the gospel of John. The fact that the Father is the sender grants authority to Jesus as the one who reveals the Father and sends the church in his name. The divine mission has its basis in the Father’s missionary will to save the world rather than condemn it (3:17). Jesus, the one sent by the Father, is the one who then acts as sender of the church (cf. 13:20). In correspondence to his own mission, Jesus sends the church “into the world” (17:18). Just as Jesus is the plenipotentiary of the Father in the world, so too the church is the plenipotentiary of Jesus in the world. Jesus is sent in his Father’s name (5:43), while the church is sent in the name of Jesus (14:13, 15:16). Interestingly, Jesus speaks of the church as those “given to him” by the Father (17:2, 11-12), and because they are given to him, Jesus can then send them out as “his own” people, his own flock (10:14).
All of this is only a taste of the missionary material in the Gospels, which is itself only a taste of the missionary material in the rest of the NT. While missional theology finds plenty in the Gospels to exegetically substantiate its claims, no missional theology could possibly ignore the Acts of the Apostles. As the continuation of Luke’s Gospel, Acts narrates the incipient mission of the church. Together, Luke-Acts encapsulates the twin emphases in missional theology: the mission of God in Jesus Christ, and the mission of the church in pentecostal correspondence to Christ’s mission. It is one of the great failures of Jaroslav Pelikan’s commentary on Acts that he entirely ignores mission as a topic of discussion. Remarkably, he disregards Acts 1:8 altogether, which functions as the “thesis” of the book as a whole: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The Pauline and Johannine letters are no less missionary in nature, though to discuss them here would take far more space than we can allow. Suffice it to say that Scripture is a thoroughly missional text. In the narrative of Holy Scripture, we learn that God is a missionary God and the church is properly a missionary church.