Encountering Theology of Mission: Biblical Foundations, Historical Developments, and Contemporary Issues

Written by Craig Ott and Stephen Strauss, with Timothy Tennent Reviewed By Andy Draycott

Ott and Strauss (I’ll come to the ‘with Tennent’ below) give us an admirably usable text. Their stated aim is to provide biblical clarity and global awareness to the church’s practice of mission. In my mind they achieve the biblical clarity exceedingly well in their organized introductory presentation of the theology of mission. Global awareness, given the scope of the ambition, is harder to check off exhaustively, but certainly here is a missions text with awareness of the multi-contextual practice of mission by the church worldwide, and not just the Anglo-American. That said, as a survey of an academic field, the references are overwhelmingly Anglo-European.

Two key strengths of the text as a whole deserve immediate recognition: (1) the writers are unapologetically evangelical in holding biblical authority as ‘the North Star’ by which they navigate the contemporary missiological scene; (2) the book is designed as a teacher/student-friendly classroom textbook. Even without the theological affinity for readers of Themelios, this well-executed aspect of the publication would recommend it for introductory classes in theology of mission ahead of the now dated Transforming Mission by David Bosch or the more recent Constants in Context by Stephen Bevans and Roger Schroeder. Examples of its user-friendliness include highlighted quotes, distinctively laid-out sidebars on discrete themes, many of which suggest questions for ‘reflection and discussion’. Examples of sidebars include a glossary of terms, the preferential option for the poor, Roman Catholic theology of mission, and discipleship in East Africa. There are diagrams and tables aplenty. Most suggestive and fruitful are the four case studies which could excellently guide classroom discussion, situating the theological discussion in real-life contexts yielding empathetic exploration for testing and applying the material being learned.

The introduction does some important ground-clearing. It establishes how the authors helpfully and decisively navigate the claims of competing nomenclatures in the field between, for example, speaking of mission or missions. Ott and Strauss argue that theology of mission is an intersecting subset bridging broader fields of missional theology and missiology (see the helpful diagram on p. xx). That theology of mission must be biblical is the conviction driving Part 1 of the book, ‘Biblical Foundations of Mission’. Here Ott and Strauss survey the OT and NT, the doctrine of God in relation to the Missio Dei, the purpose and nature of mission, and the task of missions.

Part 2 addresses ‘Motives and Means for Mission’ and is careful to identify wrong motives alongside appropriate ones. Part 3 tackles Mission in Local and Global Context.

Necessarily for this type of book, controversies are more surveyed than settled. This enables teachers and students handling the text to draw their own conclusions. One example is how the authors observe critical theological problems with the popular term incarnational in relation to mission. Having done so, they continue to use the term in a qualified sense as pointing to the humble character of mission. My sense is that there would be less need for such burden to befall incarnational groundings of mission if the pneumatological character of mission were brought to the fore theologically. So it is unfortunate that the Holy Spirit’s substantial theological appearance is tactically delayed until the end of Part 2 in a chapter on ‘Spiritual Dynamics and Mission’.

The final chapter (‘The Necessity of Mission’) makes clear the authors’ convictions on the uniqueness of Christ in regard to salvation, the traditional doctrine of judgment and hell, and the urgency of proclamation in the light of the reality of fallenness. This discussion is addressed apologetically in reply to the question of God’s fairness to those who have never heard the gospel. Again, while I may agree with the sentiment, I am not quite sure what to make of the claim in relation to biblical and post-biblical historical accounts of direct revelation through dreams, that ‘[t]he justice of God assures us that he will not leave without a witness any person or people group whom he knows would respond to the gospel if it were preached’. What kind of just witness would it be (if not the gospel) wherein God’s justice is revealed? So here we have, appropriately if unintentionally, questions thrown out to readers for their own theologizing: questions of how to relate ‘witness’ and ‘gospel’, or perhaps the nature of the term ‘preaching’. What is unequivocally clear from the same chapter is this arresting assertion: ‘The true scandal of mission is not that evangelicals believe that Jesus is the only way of salvation but that many who claim to believe this are doing little or nothing to spread the gospel to lost people around the world’.

One final observation on the matter of authorship—a quibble that highlights strong praise, I hope. Whether Timothy Tennent is to be thought of as the rap artist or soul diva who guest features in track/chapter 12 on ‘Christian Encounters with Other Religions’, his chapter, while good in content, is aesthetically discordant. It just doesn’t fit the pattern of the book to that point in style or manner of exposition. This is a quibble not to be taken as criticism of his well-known expertise, but rather to commend enthusiastically the way in which the coauthored book as a whole manages a really well-integrated weaving of the main two voices. Ott and Strauss achieve a consistency of tone and pattern of exposition that further smoothes the reading of this important survey of a vital theological locus.

Andy Draycott

Andy Draycott
Biola University
La Mirada, California, USA

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