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Engaging the Bible in Mission Theology: Scholarship, Walter Brueggemann

Engaging the Bible in Mission Theology: Scholarship, Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann, ed., Hope for the World: Mission in a Global Context (Louisville/London/Leiden: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001).

The need to engage the Bible in mission theology is acute.  The need to engage the Bible properly is even more acute.  Just what is a 'proper' engagement of the Bible for mission theology?  I intend to turn to this question from time to time.  In this first posting on the subject, I will present a fine example of how not to engage the Bible in mission theology.  I have in my sights the postmodern Old Testament scholar, +Walter Brueggemann (and those participating with him in the seminar noted, below).  +Francois Lyotard has defined 'postmodern' as 'an incredulity towards metanarrative' (The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. G. Bennington and B. Massumi (Manchester University Press, 1984), p. xxiv).

Brueggemann's approach to the Old Testament involves an argument against its unity--even an argument for competing voices (e.g., see his ‘Biblical Theology Appropriately Postmodern,’ Biblical Theology Bulletin, Vol. 27 (1997): 4-9; Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997).  His philosophical inclination is to emphasise the obscure, the marginal, the dissonant, and plurality.  Not surprisingly, he finds his own bias both in the Old Testament and in mission theology.

What follows is a description of Brueggemann's (and the seminar's) contentions about mission theology.  This presents the very kind of argument that I am countering in my own work on a Biblical mission theology.

According to Brueggemann, ‘It is clear from any critical reflection that old missional assumptions and practices are no longer credible or productive, but the way ahead is not yet clear. The reality of religious pluralism, moreover, requires that mission be reformulated to recognize that God’s mission is much larger than the horizon of the church and that consequently the church’s mission cannot be conceived or practiced in absolutist or triumphalist terms.  Recognition of the larger scope of God’s mission and acceptance of a nontriumphalist posture for the church mission, moreover, may free the church for a generous agency in the world as a hope-bearing, hope-generating servant people’ (9).

This book is the product of a seminar held at Columbia Theological Seminary (Decatur, Georgia).  The seminar produced a statement, written up in ch. 2, ‘Hope from Old Sources for a New Century’:

‘One of the most significant developments in recent theology has been the recognition of the contextual nature of all Christian thought’ (16).  Yet the seminar believes that the ‘prevailing mood of humankind, globally considered, must be named ‘despair’’ (16).  More to the point, ‘there is a clear connection between the hidden despair of those who ‘have’ and the open despair of those who do not’ (16).  ‘The greatest test of the Christian message in our time is whether it is able to engage and transform that despair’ (16).  ‘In both its Marxist and its capitalist expressions, modernity assumed that the redemptive factor was inherent in the historical process as such—that progress for all was inevitable.  But biblical faith does not regard divine Providence as a synonym for historical progress’ (17).  Christian hope must become hope in action and must have to do with this world, not only the ‘transcendent dimension’ (17). 

This then leads the writers to affirm a mission beyond the Church: ‘Christian Mission is Not First Christian Mission but God’s Mission (Missio Dei)’ (17).  Quoting +Paul Lehmann (with no reference), ‘the triune God, Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier, is ‘at work in the world to make and to keep human life human’’ (17).  ‘We believe that the Christian movement is indeed one of the vehicles of God’s transforming work in the world, and we call all Christians to believe and appropriate this with all their hearts, minds, souls, and physical abundance.  Yet we know, as well, that the church is an imperfect witness to God’s reign, and our experience of the Holy Spirit is such that we know that we are not alone in seeking to participate in the providential labor of God’ (17f).  Disestablishment of the Church helps the Church to recover its NT ‘fellowship’ understanding of itself—that it is a movement—and this in turn helps it see ‘the companionable presence of many others … journeying in the same direction’ (18).  ‘Christian faith can never be satisfied with a theology of hope that is purely attitudinal, abstract, or ‘doctrinal’’—it must be hope in action (18). 

Noting the demise of the Church’s knowledge of the Bible and its doctrinal traditions, as well as that the Church is often indistinguishable from the social strata to which it belongs, they conclude not that there is a need to reeducate Christians in the Bible and its theology but: ‘In the church tell the story, in the world live the story’ (19).  Western churches can challenge the values of the West: ‘The affluent nations have embraced a lifestyle that places unreasonable and dangerous demands upon the biosphere, entails the endless and often pointless technologization of society, and is driven by a market ideology that excludes and oppresses the vast majority of the planet’s human and extra-human inhabitants.  In particular, the events of history have conspired to fashion of the United States of America the only remaining ‘superpower,’ an imperium from which profit-driven systems emanate, including a technologically sophisticated popular culture that supplants indigenous cultures and ancient traditions’ (19f).  Thus Westerners need to address the injustices resulting from global technology (20).  Theological education must also prepare students ‘for ministry to the worldwide character of the Christian movement today and to the faiths of other people’ (20).  There needs to be dialogue with other religions.  (Rather than talking about conversion!, they say) ‘We may also find, in such dialogue, points of commonality in both theology and ethics, and so expand our conception of the missio Dei (20f!).  There needs to be an ecumenical stewardship of Christian resources, meaning sharing wealth with Christians in the south (21).  ‘With exceptions, it would appear that churches of the south do not need more ‘missionaries’ from the north; rather, they need the wherewithal to educate their own missionaries and to support the missions they have themselves put in place’ (21).  Mission in action involves enacting hope by participating in realities of AIDS, subjugation (by Western powers outside the West), and ethnoreligious conflicts (21).

All in all, the approach advocated by Brueggemann, et al., begins with a philosophical orientation (postmodernism) and a view (formed from where?) of the needs in the world.  It neither begins with an understanding of Biblical mission theology nor, as it turns out, a clear understanding of the Church.  'Mission' is located beyond both.  It is more about interfaith and global dialogue, and dialogue itself supercedes convictions formed through Biblical interpretation and the Church's orthodox tradition.  Such non-foundational approaches always break down when conflicting positions are encountered and cannot be understood apart from mere preference.