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Engaging the Bible in Mission Theology Scholarship: A Biblical Theology of Mission or a Missional Biblical Theology? 2. Christopher Wright and a Missional Biblical Hermeneutic

Engaging the Bible in Mission Theology Scholarship: A Biblical Theology of Mission or a Missional Biblical Theology? 2. Christopher Wright and a Missional Biblical Hermeneutic

Christopher Wright’s The Mission of God[1] is one of the most significant works written on missions from a Biblical perspective.  Thus my own study will begin with his consideration of hermeneutical issues for engaging the Bible in mission theology.  Wright’s first two chapters of The Mission of God need to be read together in articulating a missional hermeneutic.  There is a sense in which the first chapter is a ‘missional hermeneutic’ for missions and the second chapter is a ‘missional hermeneutic’ for Scripture, but the distinction is not that clear.  While my own approach to the subject will be quite different, Wright’s observations are helpful.  The points listed here are my numbering, not Wright’s.

Chris Wright first argues that we must go beyond present approaches to mission and search for a better missional hermeneutic (ch. 1).  We need to go beyond simply looking for a Biblical foundation for missions, beyond multicultural perspectives, beyond contextual theologies and advocacy readings, and beyond postmodern hermeneutics.  In all this, he makes several points that might be listed as parts of his missional hermeneutic, which is further developed in ch. 2.

Thus, Wright’s initial points for a missional hermeneutic are:

1.  Avoid building a mission theology on a single text, such as the Great Commission (Mt. 28.18-20), or even several texts.  Rather, explore a missional framework for biblical theology itself (pp. 34-38).
2. The global Church, with its multiple perspectives and contexts, helps us see that the meaning of a text has a plurality of implications and significances (pp. 38-40).
3. The plurality of interpretation is restricted by the coherence of the Bible itself.  That coherence is Jesus himself, with the Old Testament read messianically, as pointing to Christ, and the New Testament read missionally, as leading on from Christ (pp. 40-41).
4. A missional hermeneutic operates with an interest and advocacy of God’s mission.  (This subsumes narrower, restricted interests, such as liberation theologies.)[2]
5. Missional engagement and reflection, like the Bible itself, involves articulating objective truth, or the story, in multiple contexts (pp. 41-47).

Wright offers two further points for a missional hermeneutic of the Bible in ch. 2:

6. The Bible is missional in that it is God’s self-revelation in his mission to wayward humanity (p. 48).
7. The processes by which Biblical books came to be written were often missional, representing the ‘events or struggles or crises or conflicts’ of God’s people trying to live according to ‘God’s revelation and redemptive action in the world’ (p. 49).

Put together, Wright says: ‘In short, a missional hermeneutic proceeds from the assumption that the whole Bible renders to us the story of God’s mission through God’s people in their engagement with God’s world for the sake of the whole of God’s creation’ (p. 51).

Wright then explores Biblical authority as part of a missional hermeneutic.  Scripture does (1) command, but it also (2) authorizes.  (In other words, do not try to talk about missions in Scripture merely from a single passage, like the Great Commission, or even several passages; rather, explore mission in numerous other ways—as follows.)  Its imperatives are typically predicated upon the indicatives we read in Scripture about (a) this God, (b) this story, and (c) this people, Israel, all brought together (d) in the person of Jesus Christ.  Thus the Great Commission and the Great Commandment of love are both based on the Great Communication in Scripture of identity and action in the world for all creation (p. 60).  This entails shifting our understanding of mission first in terms of what we do to understanding mission as first about God’s mission.  Indeed, a missional hermeneutic of the Bible will explore (1) God’s mission, (2) humanity’s mission, (3) Israel’s mission, (4) Jesus’ mission, and (5) the church’s mission (pp. 62-68).  Aware that not all the Bible will be explicated in these terms, Wright concludes by suggesting that what this provides is a hermeneutical map that does not have every detail but will nevertheless guide our reading of Scripture (pp. 68-69).

Looking ahead, I will suggest that a hermeneutic for mission studies can best be discussed in terms of four tasks of theology: the exegetical, the Biblical theological, the convictional, and the pragmatic.  The first two of these tasks have to do with engaging the Bible in missions directly, and the second two have to do with the authority and use of the Bible in the formation of Christian convictions and practices.  Wright’s comments can be brought into this four-fold discussion of hermeneutics.

[1] Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP, 2006).
[2] Wright approvingly quotes Carl Braaten: ‘Advocacy is what the church is about, being God’s advocate in the world.  The church must therefore begin its mission with doxology, otherwise everything peters out into social activism and aimless programs’ (p. 45).  See Braaten, ‘The Mission of the Gospel to the Nations,’ Dialog 30 (1991): 121.