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Engaging the Bible in Mission Theology Scholarship: A Biblical Theology of Mission or a Missional Biblical Theology? 1. Introduction

Engaging the Bible in Mission Theology Scholarship: A Biblical Theology of Mission or a Missional Biblical Theology? 1. Introduction


In the previous post, I raised doubts about whether we can, let alone should, attempt to speak of a ‘Biblical Theology of Leadership.’  One of the issues with such a project is whether ‘leadership’ is even the right word to use when speaking of ministry.  Another issue is whether the Bible engages certain topics—like leadership, as well as others—sufficiently for us to articulate a ‘Biblical’ theology for that topic.

When we turn to the subject of ‘mission,’ the situation may be exactly the opposite.  We may actually be understating the issue if we are merely developing a ‘Biblical theology of mission.’  Mission may actually be the unifying concept for Biblical theology itself.  At least, this suggestion has come from two noted scholars, one an Old Testament scholar and the other a New Testament scholar.

Two Proposals:

In The Mission of God (2006), Chris Wright introduces his subject by explaining how he came to the point of wanting to change the name of his standard missions course from ‘the Biblical Basis of Mission’ to ‘the Missional Basis of the Bible.’ He wanted his students to see not just that

the Bible contains a number of texts which happen to contain a rationale for missionary endeavor but that the whole Bible is itself a missional phenomenon.  The writings that now comprise our Bible are themselves the product of and witness to the ultimate mission of God.  The Bible renders to us the story of God’s mission to God’s people in their engagement with God’s world for the sake of the whole of God’s creation.  The Bible is the drama of this God of purpose engaged in the mission of achieving that purpose universally, embracing past, present and future, Israel and the nations, ‘life, the universe and everything, and with its center, focus, climax, and completion in Jesus Christ.  Mission is not just one of a list of things that the Bible happens to talk about, only a bit more urgently than some.  Mission is, in that much abused-phrase, ‘what it’s all about’.’[1]

In his New Testament Theology, I. Howard Marshall suggested the following:

The subject matter [of NT theology] is not, as it were, Jesus in himself or God in himself but Jesus in his role as Savior and Lord.  New Testament theology is essentially missionary theology.  By this I mean that the documents came into being as the result of a two-part mission, first, the mission of Jesus sent by God to inaugurate his kingdom with the blessings that it brings to people and to call people to respond to it, and then the mission of his followers called to continue his work by proclaiming him as Lord and Savior, and calling people to faith and ongoing commitment to him, as a result of which his church grows.[2]

With these two scholars, we not only have two experts in Old Testament and New Testament studies.  We also have a scholar, Christ Wright, who sets out to write a book focussed on missions and ends up writing a Biblical theology, and a scholar, I. Howard Marshall, who sets out to write a Biblical theology and ends up focusing on mission.  The challenges that they both leave us are (1) to explore whether ‘mission’ really provides for us the organizing category for Biblical theology and (2) to explore in what ways the Bible is a missional book.  The academic approach to these two issues will require both a knowledge of Biblical theology and a study of missional themes in Scripture.  The first issue involves seeing how ‘mission’ can ‘solve’ the points of discussion and debate in Biblical theology.  The second involves studying the mission of God and His people in Scripture.

My Project

On this blog, studies in the series entitled ‘Why Foreign Missions?’ are meant to work through Scripture to see what the Bible says about mission theology.  The approach taken is to begin with the New Testament and the mission of Jesus and the early Church.  The Old Testament is, at least for the time being, studied through the New Testament writings.  This is an appropriate way to approach the Old Testament even if not a sufficient approach at the end of the day.  For the time being, Chris Wright’s The Mission of God can stand as a corrective to any inadequacies in this approach, since his primary focus is the Old Testament.  Another limitation to these blog studies is that only mission theology is being explored, whereas the Bible addresses other issues as well.  For example, in Paul the Missionary, Eckhard Schnabel explores the work, task, message, goals, and methods of Paul’s mission, as well as engages what this study means for missions in the twenty-first century.[3]  His work is, therefore, more than a Pauline mission theology.

In the series on this blog ‘Engaging the Bible in Mission Theology,’ I intend to do two things.  First, I will offer some thoughts in the coming months about how ‘mission’ might address some of the questions and debates in the field of Biblical theology itself.  This will involve getting behind both Wright’s and Marshall’s demonstration of missional Biblical theology in the books of the Bible by looking at hermeneutical questions in Biblical theology (and we can start with Chris Wright, who addresses this question directly).  Second, I will explore the actual content of a missional Biblical theology in several writings, including those of Wright and Marshall.  My own work at this will continue to appear, from time to time, in the ‘Why Foreign Missions?’ series of this blog.

My intention is to contribute to various issues in Biblical and missional scholarship.  My contribution to mission studies at colleges and seminaries is through work as a Biblical scholar.  Mission studies is often approached through the social sciences, such as anthropology.  It can also be approached as a sub-category in systematic theology or as a subject in Church history.  We do need to appreciate a multi-disciplinary approach to the subject of missions.  However, readers will undoubtedly sense from time to time my own frustration with the status of mission scholarship in its failure to engage Scripture adequately.  I would go so far as to say that, as some Biblical scholars are discovering the importance of mission for their studies, no seminary mission programme is complete without a Biblical scholar on the team.[4]  Perhaps the best way to make this case is by engaging in missional Biblical theology.

[1] Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (IVP, 2006), p. 22.
[2] I. Howard, Marshall, The New Testament: Many Witnesses, One Gospel (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2004), pp. 34-35).
[3] Eckhard J. Schnabel, Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies and Methods (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008.
[4] Note one effort at bringing Biblical studies and mission studies together is underway at the Centre for the Study of the Bible and Mission at Redcliffe College in England.