A Primer on Missional Theology §5: Conclusion

5. Conclusion: Why Missional Theology?

This essay has explicated why I think missional theology could be a revolutionary force in modern theology. But why is this the way forward? A theology can be radical but still be unhelpful and even wrong. In this concluding section I will briefly explain why I think missional theology is the future of theology.

First, missional theology upholds many of the key dogmatic insights of the so-called “radical Barthians” (Bruce McCormack, Robert Jenson) while augmenting their positions with a far more robust ecclesiology. Barthians tend to be weak on the church, primarily because of their emphasis on natural theology, the divine attributes, election, christology, and soteriology. Jenson, in particular, separates the church from the gospel. For him, the church receives the gospel as an act of cultural interpretation, which constitutes the task of theology, and then the church engages in the mission of witnessing to this interpretation of the gospel in the world. As a result, mission takes the form of diffusion and replication of a gospel wedded to a particular culture. The church exists, in Jenson’s theology, to pass on the old word in new forms, but these forms are determined by the “culture” of the church before the church ever engages in the task of mission. Consequently, Jenson upholds the doctrine of apostolic succession, which creates a split between the apostles in the past and those who simply carry on the word of the apostles in the present. Even more surprising is Jenson’s identification of the risen Jesus with the body of the church, the totus Christus. But this christological identification of Christ with the church makes sense in light of his own non-missiological ecclesiology. When the church replicates and interprets Jesus to the rest of the world, the church becomes the authority, instead of standing with the rest of the world under the authority of Jesus Christ. Against Jenson’s disjunction between worship and mission, between church and gospel, missional theology carries through the actualistic ontology of these “radical Barthians” into every dogmatic loci, including ecclesiology. Moreover, missional theology offers a possible solution to the current debate between “radical Barthians” and “traditionalist Barthians” regarding the relation between Trinity and election. In short, missional theology is the future of Barthian theology.

Second, missional theology rescues mission and evangelism in a post-colonial era. It is commonly felt that the entire topic of missiology is inextricably linked to colonialism, and sadly much of what passes for missiology in conservative American circles, at least, still amounts to the same Christendom rhetoric. What missional theology attempts to do is redefine “missionary” from the ground up, neither dispensing with the notion (as the so-called “liberals” advocate) nor assuming that it involves the replacement of a “pagan” culture with a properly “Christian” culture (as others advocate). To engage in mission is to do the work of translation, and that involves attending with care to cultural particularities and seeking to proclaim the gospel in the context of each unique cultural community. This approach offers a new future for mission beyond the shackles of colonialism and Western imperialism.

Third, missional theology can help mend the divisions between more “conservative” and more “liberal” approaches to the task of theology. The former take a more so-called “biblical” approach, grounding theology in the exegesis of Scripture. The latter take a more “contextual” approach, in which the reading of Scripture takes place within particular cultural contexts—hence giving rise to the term “cultural hermeneutics.” Both sides are fundamentally mistaken in their one-sidedness. The “biblical” method (for lack of a better term) is naïve to think that a reading of the Bible can somehow stand outside of any cultural context. Moreover, their approach results in a divinization of the Bible—parallel to a Catholic or Orthodox divinization of the church—and fails to see that the Bible itself is a product of cultural contexts. The “biblical” approach fails precisely because it does not begin with the contextual nature of the incarnation, but instead begins with quasi-divinized text in which all cultural particularities, whether on the part of the text or the interpreter, are disregarded.

The “contextual” camp, by contrast, fails to hold the “pilgrim principle” in dialectical tension with the “indigenizing principle.” While contextual theology is correct in its acknowledgement of our cultural frameworks and their significance for biblical exegesis, it fails to see that these frameworks are not ultimate. The contexts within which we articulate the gospel are subordinate to the eschatological reign of God actualized in the mission of Jesus Christ. The gospel comes as an interruptive presence in the midst of our cultural communities. We need both a “cultural hermeneutic” and an “apocalyptic hermeneutic,” together grounded in a “christological hermeneutic.” Jesus Christ is the unity between human culture and apocalyptic in-breaking. Our interpretation of Scripture thus needs to start from God’s self-revelation in Jesus of Nazareth, not by finding a via media in the “conservative”-vs.-“liberal” debate, but by transcending that debate altogether. Against both sides, missional theology holds out the promise of a theological hermeneutic which takes Scripture and culture into constructive consideration. By sublating both positions into the missional event of Jesus Christ, we discover a way of thinking theologically which recognizes the gospel as both self-indigenizing and pilgrimizing, both embracive and disruptive.

Fourth, missional theology is thoroughly ecumenical without sacrificing theological distinctives or dogmatic concerns. Missional theology was born in the age of the World Council of Churches and twentieth-century ecumenism. While the ecumenical movement has largely faded from view, missional theology is still growing and maturing. It suggests that we might see a renewed passion for ecumenism, one that acknowledges denominational and theological particularity while finding its starting-point in the universal missio Dei.

Fifth, missional theology takes pneumatology with utmost seriousness. I might have given some the impression in the third section of this paper that pneumatology is somehow marginal, but just the opposite is the case. I did not add a section on pneumatology here only because there is nothing particularly unique about how missional theology approaches the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, other than the obvious point that the Spirit empowers and sustains the mission of Jesus Christ and the mission of the witnessing church. In the Spirit, the mission of God is held together. The Spirit is the future of God and the future of the church, and in the power of the Spirit, God and the people of God are propelled toward their common future in the covenantal communion of the new creation. If missional theology adds anything to our pneumatology, it is that we cannot think about God or the church without attending to the Holy Spirit.

These are only five of the ways missional theology represents the future of modern theology. I have attempted to be thorough but not exhaustive in my treatment of this subject. While it might be hyperbolic to suggest that theology should become missional or die, I do think that missional theology provides a way of addressing most of the major theological problems that we face today. Moreover, if Barth was right that all theology is church theology, in that theology must serve the mission and witness of the church, then we can hardly do better than to adopt the insights of modern missiologists and missional theologians. This will involve rejecting false dichotomies between being and act, worship and mission, clergy and laity, sacred and profane, time and eternity, God and humanity, as well as others. Most importantly, however, it begins by recognizing that we serve a missionary God—the God who was, is, and always will be the sending and sent God—and we serve this God as a missionary church sent by the Father to witness in faithful obedience to the incarnate Son in the power and love of the Holy Spirit.

[Series introduction and outline]