A Primer on Missional Theology §3.1: Divine Attributes
3.1. The doctrine of the divine attributes: God is a missionary God
The central refrain of this paper is that God is a “missionary God.” Missional theology makes mission primarily about God, and only secondarily about the church. Missional theology’s most important contribution to theology, perhaps, is found in its radical re-conception of the divine being. While I will explore the implications of missiology for the doctrine of the Trinity in the next subsection, here I will suggest that one of the most significant contributions of missional theology is its addition of “missionary” as a divine attribute and its elevation of this attribute to central, even primary, importance.
Stephen R. Holmes, in his article, “Trinitarian Missiology: Towards a Theology of God as Missionary” (IJST 8, no. 1 : 72-90), presents the case for understanding God as a missionary God. Traditionally, as Holmes says, “God has a mission, but God is not missionary” (72). The reason is that, for theologians like Augustine (with whom Holmes interacts in his article), the sending of the Son by the Father is an economic action only without any significance for God’s inner triune life. Holmes thus asks the following question:
When Jesus says ‘As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you,’ is he speaking of a merely economic event, essentially foreign to the life of God, or is he linking the life of those who participate in the apostolic mission with the very life of God from all eternity? (79)
Holmes argues, on the basis of a theological exegesis of John 20:21, that the latter is in fact the case. As he states, “the apostolic mission is a reflection of God’s own nature and character, reflecting who God is from all eternity” (82). Clearly, we are already speaking about the doctrine of the Trinity, which is unavoidable. Here I only wish to point out that missional theology takes for granted an important biblical hermeneutic: the economic acts of God ad extra reveal and correspond to the immanent life of God ad intra. This is, of course, a thoroughly “Barthian” move. It’s no coincidence that missio Dei theology has an historical origin in a 1932 essay by Barth (“Die Theologie und die Mission in der Gegenwart”), in which he discusses the relation between mission and the Trinity.
The point here is that if we accept this hermeneutical move that identifies Jesus as God’s self-revelation, then it becomes clear that God is, within God’s own being, a God who sends and is sent, who commands and obeys, who witnesses and is witnessed to, who loves and is loved. As Barth puts it, God is the one who goes into the far country in Jesus Christ. And it is this concrete sending of God which is constitutive of the word “mission.” Our understanding of mission has to flow from God’s own mission in Jesus. God defines what it means to be missionary.