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Engaging the Bible in Mission Theology: Scholarship Review, Richard Bauckham

Engaging the Bible in Mission Theology: Scholarship Review, Richard Bauckham

The previous blog offered a negative example of exploring the Bible and mission.  The following book review of +Richard Bauckham's Bible and Mission was originally published in Transformation 21.3 (2004): 204-207.  Bauckham offers a solid way forward for exploring the interface between the Scripture and the Church's mission.

Bauckham, Richard.  Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World.  CarlislePaternoster Press and Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2003.

This little book constitutes lectures delivered by Richard Bauckham on two occasions: the 2001 Easney Lectures at All Nations Christian College in Hertfordshire, England and the 2002 Frumentius Lectures at the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  The book is divided into four chapters.  While Bauckham's wide reading and gifts as a Biblical scholar and theologian are evident throughout the book, this constitutes mostly his own interpretation and argument.  Yet the lack of detailed interaction with mission scholarship allows Bauckham to present his narrative reading of the Bible for missions today in a brief and cogent argument.  It is an opening for further discussion in which many will want to engage.

Chapters one and four address the contemporary situation.  In chapter one, 'A Hermeneutic for the Kingdom of God,' Bauckham begins by following the argument of the Chief Rabbi of Britain, Jonathan Sacks, on the post-9/11 world.  What we saw then and continue to see is a clash between two universalist cultures: that of globalisation and that of Islam.  Sacks' own position deplores universalist culture per se for its presumptions, imperialism, and institutional powers, which threaten anything local, traditional and particular.  Universalist cultures represent worldviews that involve a 'metanarrative'--one narrative to rule them all--whereas postmodernity is said to entertain an incredulity towards metanarratives.  But this is precisely where Bauckham comes into the argument: is there an alternative to this 'hermeneutic' of culture?

Bauckham suggests that Christianity based on the Bible offers a hermeneutic for moving from the particular to the universal.  'Christian communities or individuals are always setting off from the particular as both the Bible and our own situation defines it and following the biblical direction towards the universal that is to be found not apart from but within other particulars.  This is mission' (p. 11).  A  Biblical hermeneutic must be canonical in its scope and entail a synthesis that is narrative.  The narrative hermeneutic is temporal, spatial, and social (pp. 13-15).  Bauckham explores this in chapter two, primarily with regard to the Old Testament, but in ch. 1 he notes that this also provides us with a hermeneutic for missions: temporally Christians anticipate the Lord's return, geographically Christians proclaim the Gospel throughout the world, and socially Christians see the Gospel proclaimed to every creature.  Bauckham further notes that there are 'already' and 'not yet' aspects to each of these three notions already within the New Testament, such that no Christian church in history can locate itself in a salvation or mission history progressing towards the end.  '…the New Testament puts the church in its missionary situation in a dialectic of anticipated closure and permanent openness' (p. 25).

Chapter two, 'From the One to the Many,' explores the movement from the particular to the universal in three Old Testament narratives that set up trajectories running throughout the Old Testament, and in one theme running through both Testaments:

                *The Story of Abraham, producing a trajectory of blessing
                *The Story of Israel, producing a trajectory of God's self-revelation to the world
                *The Story of David, producing a trajectory of rule, i.e., God's kingdom over all creation
                *The theme of 'to all by way of the least'

Yet Bauckham also notes that the New Testament has a particular narrative that picks up each of these particular Old Testament narratives, focuses them, and provides a way to move from the particular to the universal.  This is the Story of Jesus.

In Abraham's being 'singled out' by God from the nations, the theme of 'blessing' is key: he will be blessed, the nation from him will be blessed, and all families of the earth will be blessed (Gen. 12.2-3; 18.18; 22.18; 26.4; 28.14).  This idea appears later in four important OT passages (including Ps. 72.17; Zech. 8.13).  Bauckham discusses two others.  Jer. 4.1-2 makes the point that Israel's covenant obedience would lead to this universal blessing of the nations.  Is. 19.24-25 envisions an extension of Israel's covenant status to Syria and Egypt--Israel's arch-enemies.  Bauckham pursues this trajectory into the New Testament, such as in discussing Matthew's setting of his narrative in the context of a genealogy beginning with Abraham and concluding his Gospel with the Great Commission to all nations, or in noting that the opposite of blessing--curse--follows Israel throughout the Old Testament, with Jesus becoming this curse to bring blessing (Gal. 3.13f).

Bauckham's examination of the story of Israel entails a look at Old Testament geography and the view that occasionally surfaces that the nations will come to Zion (see ch. 3), a notion that is 'fundamentally about the knowledge of who God is' being made known to all (p. 37).  Thus deliverance of Israel from the nations in the Exodus and again in the Return from Exile has a wider or universal purpose in the Old Testament narrative than just Israel's separation and deliverance from them.  God's acts for Israel bear witness to the nations of who He is (Josh. 4.24; 1 Kgs. 19.19; Is. 37.20; Ez. 36.22-23; 36.38; 38.23; 39.7; Ps. 67.1-3; Ps. 22.21-27; etc.).  This knowledge of God might entail judgement or salvation, but it includes all peoples of the earth.  In particular, Is. 40-66 bears this message in terms of a new exodus from captivity, YHWH's return to Zion, and the consequent revealing of His identity (cf., e.g., Is. 45.22-23; 52.10) (p. 39).  This trajectory is picked up in the New Testament.  The apostles'  commissioning as witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1.8; 13.47; cf. 13.47) echoes Is. 49.6 (p. 40).  Other significant passages are 1 Th. 1.9; Acts 17.23-29; Rev. 14.7; 15.4; and Phl. 2.10.

The trajectory of YHWH as King has a very particular dimension to it in David's dynasty or in Zion as the place of either's throne.  But the Old Testament is ambivalent about any king ruling Israel other than YHWH, and the theme finds its universal fulfilment not in Israel but in God's reign over all peoples.  Bauckham examines four key OT passages (Ps. 72; Zech. 9.10; Mic. 5.4; and Ps. 2), and the trajectory can again be found in the New Testament (Heb. 12.22; 2 Pt. 1.18; Rev. 15.1; 21.10; Gal. 4.26)., but not in its geographical dimension (see ch. 3).

The New Testament first focuses the Old Testament trajectories in another particular narrative--'Jesus the Jew from Nazareth' (p. 48).  Through Jesus, the particular narratives become universal.  Powerfully drawing together the particular Old Testament narratives and the narrative of Jesus is a theme in both Testaments: 'to all by way of the least' (p. 49).  This theme is the basis of Paul's argument in 1 Cor. (cf. 1.26b-29).  Bauckham interprets this trajectory as follows: '…the church's mission cannot be indifferent to the inequalities and injustices of the world into which it is sent' (53).  This is one of the very concrete concerns that appears throughout the book.  But Bauckham does not endorse the notion that the Gospel is somehow the property of the poor and powerless per se.  He writes: '…God singled out the poor and the powerless, choosing to begin his work with them, not because God's love does not extend to the cultural and social √©lite, but actually for the sake of the wealthy and the powerful as well as for the poor and the humble.  God's love has to reach the strong via the weak, because the strong can receive the love of God only by abandoning their pretensions to status above others' (p. 50).

Chapter three turns more specifically to the spatial dimension of the Biblical narrative: 'Geography--Sacred and Symbolic.'  Here Bauckham examines Old Testament geography, place names, and symbolic numbers, as they are relevant, in various passages.  Gen. 10's list of seventy (seven and multiples of seven symbolise completeness) descendants from Shem, Ham, and Japhet intends to represent all nations (so also Lk. 10).  Other OT texts similarly use seven to represent the nations of the earth (Ez. 25-32 has oracles spoken to seven nations; cf. Ez. 38).  Also, some OT texts use names of distant nations to represent the ends of the earth (e.g., Ps. 72).  Is. 66.18-19 lists seven nations which are probably to the north and west of Israel as the places to which survivors will go.  In Acts, Luke narrates a similar movement of the early Church's mission to the nations, thus representing a mission to all nations of the earth.  Also, over against Greek ethnocentricity, Israel's chosen status is just that, God's choice, not their inherent superiority over others.  Israel's story persistently keeps other nations in view.  This all comes together in a text like Acts 2, where representatives from fifteen nations where a significant Jewish diaspora could be found are mentioned as the initial conduit through which the Gospel was to be taken to the ends of the earth.

Some OT texts envision a centripetal movement of the nations to Jerusalem (Zech. 8.20-23; 14.16), whereas others of a centrifugal movement from Jerusalem to the nations (Is. 2.3; 66.19; Mic.4.2).  One centripetal movement entails Jews returning from the diaspora to Jerusalem (Zech. 8.7-8; Is. 11.12; 43.5-6; 49.12; Ps. 107.3); another entails Gentile nations returning with the diaspora Jews (Is. 49.22-23; 60.1-9; 66.20; Zech. 8.23).  Jesus also envisioned a centripetal movement (Mt. 5.14 (cf. Is. 2.2; Mic. 4.1); 8.11; Lk. 13.29), but the usual NT view is of a centrifugal movement (e.g., Acts 1.8).  Both movements are indicated with the image of Zion as a light of God's glory (Is. 60.1-3; cf. Mt. 5.14-15; Phl. 2.15) or with the idea of an individual being sent (especially in the NT).

Yet Jerusalem and the temple become a metaphor: the church is the new temple, the community God's eschatological presence (e.g., Eph. 2.12, 21), and, in John, the temple is Jesus himself, who draws all people to himself.  Related to these geographical images is the notion of God's people as exiles among the nations, not an otherworldly religion but a counter-cultural movement (cf. Hebrews, 1 Peter).  In all these ways, geography functions symbolically in the NT.

Chapter 4, 'Witness to the Truth in a Postmodern and Globalized World,' draws the Biblical studies in chapters 2 and 3 back to the matter of missions in our day.  Whereas Modernity's metanarrative has to do with progress through education, technology and imperial power, postmodernity has to do with deconstructing such metanarratives, revealing them for the projects of power and domination that they are.  Postmodernity appreciates 'particularity, diversity, localism, and relativism' (p. 88), whereas globalisation today represents another version of Modernity's narrative of progress, now focused on economics.  Yet postmodernity, inasmuch as it responds to Modernity's metanarrative, does not directly address the Biblical understanding of a metanarrative, which is not about progress through human mastery and achievement.  The Kingdom of God is 'not a matter of cumulative progress over time,' not humanly comprehensible apart from divine revelation (and that with much mystery remaining!), and not about human effort so much as God's purpose (p. 91).  The Bible, while it does have a metanarrative, does not thereby diminish or obliterate its particular narratives, which have an openness about their meaning and cannot be encapsulated in some system (pp. 92f).

Christian mission today, then, must resist the new imperialism of (economic) globalization but also postmodernity's challenge of relativism.  The biblical metanarrative is true, but in a way that opens up an alternative to modernity and postmodernity.  For truth to be claimed as true it must be claimed not by force but by witness.  The notion of witness has these virtues: (1) it answers the postmodern suspicion that metanarratives are oppressive because it is non-coercive (note the significance of witnessing to the cross); (2) it 'must be a lived witness involving the whole of life and even death'; (3) as a witness 'it can show itself to be not self-serving' (p. 99); and (4) witness can 'mediate the particularity of the biblical story and the universality of its claim' (p. 100).  In a postmodern age more than ever (but this was already true in 1 Corinthians), mission entails telling the particular stories of the Bible in such a way that they expose aggressive metanarratives, globalization in particular (pp. 101f).  The use of the Bible in such confrontation is made easier by the fact that the Biblical stories again and again confront the imperialism and power of their day, from Egypt to Babylon to Rome.  And 'what Jesus projects is a counter-metanarrative, an alternative to Rome's, a narrative not of coercive power but of witness' (p. 107).  Revelation, in particular, sees Christian witness of Jesus and of God's deity and kingdom as the alternative to Rome's military violence, tyranny and economic exploitation.  Moreover the Gospel does not homogenise diverse cultures but, like tongues in Acts 2, allows each to hear the Gospel in his or her own language.

Bauckham's Bible and Mission, then, searches for an alternative to 'Modernity' and 'Postmodernity' in a Biblical understanding of mission.  There is here an excellent example for doing Biblical theology by means of a narrative understanding and intertextual approach.  Bauckham's notation of the importance of Isaiah 40-66 for Biblical theology requires further attention, although the book offers several suggestions of the importance of this for mission theology (as his God Crucified did for Christology).  By giving greater attention to the Old Testament, Bauckham contributes a much needed study of the Old Testament for mission theology.

The book is significant for several other conversations in mission theology.  Bauckham does not discuss the significance of his argument for any dialogue with Islam as he does for Globalisation--the two metanarratives noted in the book.  Jonathan Sacks' postmodernity hardly offers a worthy Jewish perspective.  But the significance of Bauckham's arguments for Christian dialogue with Islam and Judaism calls for further consideration.  Secondly, the book functions as a critique of theologies that have greatly affected mission theology over the years, although Bauckham does not engage these. His emphasis on the Biblical theme of 'to all by way of the least' unravels any programme that seeks to use power to undo power, such as in some instances of Liberation Theology, Feminist Theology and Postcolonial Theology.  Thirdly, his affirmation of the particular and local affirms contextual theologies, but not ones which fail to listen to the Biblical witness or resist transformation by the universalising stories of Scripture.  On the other hand, fourthly, his emphasis on mission as witness cautions against approaches to mission that are imperialistic and complicit with globalization.  Fifthly, his comments on symbolic geography offer yet another challenge to Dispensationalist hermeneutics and Zionism.  With all this I thoroughly agree.  Where I would like to hear Bauckham clarify his argument further is on what he says--or does not say--about eschatology.  His undercutting of a Modernist metanarrative for history may be on the mark, but where does this leave Christian expectations that mission has a direction and conclusion?  How are the particular and universal not just existential perspectives but related to the movement of mission and God's future?

I highly recommend this book for reading lists for introductory courses on mission theology and possibly for a course on Biblical theology (both for the topic and as a demonstration of method).  The argument is accessible to laity and could be the basis for a series on missions in church Bible study groups.  This is another excellent book by Richard Bauckham, bringing together Biblical scholarship, theology, and missions.