I’ve begun a new series on Mondays that will focus on the church’s mission. Last week, we looked at Andreas Köstenberger and Peter O’Brien’s Salvation to the Ends of the Earth, which provides a summary of the Bible’s teaching on mission from a salvation-historical viewpoint.
Today, we’re tackling Christopher Wright’s The Mission of God, an ambitious project with an expansive missiological vision intended to transform one’s hermeneutical approach to the Scriptures.
In other words, instead of searching the Scriptures with a flashlight hoping to shine light on “mission” wherever it may be found, Wright believes mission is the flashlight that illuminates the whole Bible. Along these lines, he offers a novel way of reading the Bible, an approach that sees the mission of God as the key that “unlocks the whole grand narrative of the canon of Scripture” (17). The Bible is simultaneously a witness to and a product of the mission of God. Therefore, the text of Scripture ought to be read as having originated in issues and controversies confronted by the people of God seeking to fulfill their mission.
“The text in itself is a product of mission in action” (49).
Reading the Bible Missionally
Wright urges Christians to read the Bible as a missional text. Many believe the Bible should to be read in light of Christ’s person and work (messianically), but Wright also recommends we read the Bible in light of Christ’s mission (missionally).
“Jesus himself provided the hermeneutical coherence within which all disciples must read these texts, that is, in the light of the story that leads up to Christ (messianic reading) and the story that leads on from Christ (missional reading)” (41).
At one level, this emphasis on mission is simply another way of saying that the Bible needs to be read within the framework of its grand narrative. Wright is clear that the story of the Bible is about God, his people, and the future of the world. At another level, Wright’s proposal is fresh in that it establishes the mission of God as the hermeneutical engine that drives the grand narrative.
What is the Mission?
If mission is the key to unlocking the Bible, it is important to define what the mission is. Wright gives priority to God’s mission and then places the church’s mission within that framework:
“Fundamentally, our mission (if it is biblically informed and validated) means our committed participation as God’s people, at God’s invitation and command, in God’s own mission within the history of God’s world for the redemption of God’s creation” (23).
Since the mission of God is central, Wright warns against reducing the church’s mission to the explicit commands we find in the New Testament (such as the Great Commission). Mission imperatives divorced from their “foundational indicatives” (the truth about the world as affirmed by God’s revelation) will lead to a shrunken understanding of redemption that fails to do justice to the “comprehensive glory” we find in Scripture (61). This theme of expansive mission is one that arises often in Wright’s work, and we will evaluate it below.
The Strengths of the Grand Narrative Approach
The strength of Wright’s proposal is his focus on the grand narrative as the true story of the true God. Against the postmodern turn that deconstructs meta-narratives, Wright grounds all mission activity in the reality of the biblical God, the reality of the Bible’s overarching story, and the reality of God’s people who are called out for the sake of the nations.
Also beneficial is the way Wright ensures that the person and work of Christ is continuously connected to this mission. In Jesus we meet the one true God, have the climax of the biblical story, and become part of his people.
God’s Mission to Be Known
The mission of God is to be known. God’s desire to be known is observed most clearly in two Old Testament events: the exodus and the exile.
In both occasions, in salvation and in judgment, we see God’s passion to make himself known to the world through his interactions with his chosen people. Ultimately, both events point forward to Jesus, who will fulfill the mission of the God of Israel.
“The God of Israel, whose declared mission was to make himself known to the nations through Israel, now wills to be known to the nations through the Messiah, the one who embodies Israel in his own person and fulfills the mission of Israel to the nations” (124).
Mission in Light of Human Idolatry
Idolatry is the root sin that best corresponds with Wright’s missional understanding of the Bible. Wright sees idolatry as humanity’s rejection of the Godness of God and a failure to submit to his moral authority.
The consequences of idolatry are devastating, producing disorder in human relationships and turning upside down God’s original intention for humanity to worship him as Creator instead of worshipping creation.
The mission of God, then, in light of human idolatry and its effects, is to restore all of creation so that it will be ruled by redeemed humanity to the praise and glory of God.
“Our mission, in participation with that divine mission, and in anticipation of its final accomplishment, is to work with God in exposing the idols that continue to blur the distinction, and to liberate men and women from the destructive delusions they foster” (165).
Mission in the Old Testament
Mission in the Old Testament is launched through the calling of Abraham, whom God chose to be the channel for his blessing to flow to the nations. Abraham was called to obey God, a calling that plays an important role in our understanding of how God’s mission goes forward.
God chooses to involve people in his plan. His intention to bring blessing is not separate from human obedience in being the agent of blessing. This blessing is not only spiritual in nature, but includes all the good things that God provides for his people in this world. Wright goes so far as to recommend Christians consider the call to Abraham in Genesis 12 as the Great Commission (214).
The people of God in the Old Testament are not tasked with the centripetal mission we see in the New Testament. Still, there is an unmistakably missional orientation to their chosen status as a people, as well as their holy living.
God’s desire is to bless the world through Abraham’s descendants. He also desires that Abraham’s descendants obey God and walk in holiness. God’s choice of a particular person (Abraham) and a particular people (Israel) is the way God has chosen to accomplish his mission of restoring all creation. Particularity serves universality. Israel’s election is for God’s mission.
“In short, Israel’s identity (to be a priestly kingdom) declares a mission, and Israel’s mission demands an ethic (to be a holy nation)” (375).
Holistic Mission in the Old and New Testaments
One of the key features of Wright’s book is the push for a more holistic understanding of the church’s mission. He finds support for this view in the exodus event as a paradigm for mission.
Wright chides those who interpret the exodus merely in spiritual terms by marginalizing the political, economic, and social dimensions of the narrative. He also sees the other extreme as problematic: using the exodus to make a political statement without keeping in mind the spiritual dimension.
Wright musters additional support for a holistic view of mission by appealing to the Old Testament teaching on the year of Jubilee. He believes “the wholeness of the jubilee model” needs to inform the church’s mission so that evangelism and social ethics are done in light of our future hope (300).
“It is a distorted and surely false hermeneutic to argue that whatever the New Testament tells us about the mission of the followers of Christ cancels out what we already know about the mission of God’s people from the Old Testament” (304).
The New Testament extends deliverance to the spiritual root of our idolatry problem. It does not exchange a social message for a spiritual one.
In his reading of the New Testament, Wright again affirms holistic mission that goes beyond evangelistic proclamation. The content and scope of mission in the Bible must define the content and scope of mission for believers today. He urges Christians to take seriously the foundational elements of mission seen in the Old Testament.
“We pay no compliments to the New Testament and the new and urgent mandate of evangelistic mission it entrusts to us in the light of Christ by relegating the Old Testament and the foundations for mission that it had already laid and that Jesus emphatically endorsed. Whole Christian mission is built on the whole Christian Bible” (306).
Anticipating criticism that a holistic mission necessarily leads to a lack of focus on the cross, Wright argues the reverse – that the blood of Christ is what makes possible every dimension of the good news. Christ’s work provides grace that is big enough to restore all that has been affected by sin.
The Ultimacy of Evangelism
When it comes to evangelism, Wright shies away from the terminology of “priority” because missional engagement may not always begin with evangelism. Wright is concerned that “priority” is understood in temporal terms, and the complexities of mission needs rarely lend themselves to presentation in this way.
Instead, Wright chooses the term “ultimacy,” meaning that the ultimate purpose for all mission activity is evangelistic proclamation of the gospel. Mission that does not include evangelism is defective, not holistic. Biblical mission must have the proclamation of the cross of Christ at the center. The cross accomplishes and fulfills the mission of God in its entirety: dealing with human sin, defeating the powers of evil, destroying death, removing the barriers between Jew and Gentile, and healing and reconciling all creation.
Wright’s project is certainly ambitious, and its strengths are numerous. It is helpful to read the Bible as a project of missional reflection and within the grand narrative, which focuses on Jesus Christ – the Sent One from the Father.
Still, there are weaknesses in this approach, primarily in Wright’s advocacy for holistic mission. While I agree there is more than one dimension to the mission (proclamation of the gospel through words must be accompanied by demonstration of the gospel through good deeds), the way Wright makes his case is often flat instead of textured.
In arguing for a both-and approach to applying the exodus paradigm, Wright seems to put political and social ethics on one side and spiritual needs and solutions on the other, as if they are two equally weighty things side by side. In his terminology, the spiritual need is the deeper one and the social needs are implications. He is right.
But if eternal suffering in hell is one of the motivations for evangelism, then it should follow that evangelistic outreach is of the utmost importance. Political and social activity will be of eternal significance only insofar as they demonstrate the truth of that evangelistic message.
In other words, the weight of eternal suffering ought to make ultimacy pulse with passion for proclamation and demonstration – not as if they are two equal planes that need to be kept upright (one temporal and one eternal), but in seeing everything related to mission as ultimately designed to proclaim the gospel that relieves all suffering, especially eternal hell.
Therefore, it is not enough to say that mission is deficient if it does not contain gospel proclamation. We ought instead to say that mission is non-existent if our deeds are ever disconnected from the motivation and intention of proclaiming the gospel verbally.
Next week, we’ll be looking at a scholar who comes down differently than Wright on some of these issues – Eckhard Schnabel and his book Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies and Methods.