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Engaging the Bible in Mission Theology Scholarship: A Biblical Theology of Mission or a Missional Biblical Theology? 3. Towards a hermeneutic for missional Biblical theology

Engaging the Bible in Mission Theology Scholarship: A Biblical Theology of Mission or a Missional Biblical Theology? 3. Towards a hermeneutic for missional Biblical theology

Hermeneutics has to do with how one approaches interpretation in the various tasks of theology.  In this posting, I would like to present in outline form how I believe we should approach a hermeneutic for missional Biblical theology.  While my proposal will actually offer a perspective on hermeneutics beyond the task of Biblical theology itself, this is necessary if we intend to relate mission theology and practice to Biblical theology.  While this may read somewhat theoretically, it is intended to guide the practice of interpretation for missional Biblical theology.

The Four Tasks of Theology

A fairly standard way to consider the tasks of theology is to see them in terms of two tasks of Biblical interpretation and two tasks of construction.  I suggest labelling these tasks as follows:[1]

1. the exegetical task, which interprets texts in their context to understand their original meaning to the author/s and their original audience/s;
2. the canonical task, which interprets the Scriptures in their unity and diversity to understand its theological and authoritative voice for believers;
3. the convictional task, which interprets the Christian faith according to its Biblical and historical expressions in order to define beliefs for the Church in a given context;
4. the pragmatic task, which interprets Christian life according to its Biblical and historical convictions in order to guide the practice of the faith in a given context.

Rival Versions of Enquiry

These tasks can be approached in one of three ways, which might overlap in terms of methodologies used but which are fundamentally incommensurable:[2]

1. a Modernist, Enlightenment way;
2. a postmodern, deconstructive way;
3. a postmodern, tradition way.

While a full description of the differences between these three approaches requires considerable discussion, one might associate the first approach with the anti-supernatural, scientific, encyclopaedic notions and methods of Western, Biblical scholarship from the end of the 1700s to the present.  The second approach came into prominence towards the end of the 20th century and shares some assumptions and methods of interpretation with what came before.  However, it’s orientation is not construction but deconstruction.  It champions diversity, is tentative or even playful with the use of methods of interpretation, finds the locus of meaning more with the interpreter than the author or text, and views truth as itself a construct of a particular community rather than as uniform and universal.  Finally, a postmodern, tradition approach shares much in common with pre-Enlightenment interests in interpretation, yet it now conducts itself in a postmodern world.  It approaches interpretation from the perspective of faith seeking further understanding.  It does not see reason as autonomous; rather, it functions within the framework of pre-understandings, convictions, and tradition.  It denies both objectivity (Modernism) and diversity (postmodernism), seeking rather to teach and explore further the received tradition.

Interpreters are pre-disposed to one of these rival versions of enquiry.  These versions of enquiry show up in each of the four tasks of theology.  Hermeneutics entails recognizing one’s presuppositions in interpretation when engaged in the tasks of theology.

The Exegetical Task

Biblical theology, the second task of theology, is built upon solid exegetical work.  The interpretation of texts involves (a) behind-the-text studies, such as historical-cultural, grammatical, and literary research, (b) in-the-text studies that explore meaning within the text and according to the genre of the text, and (c) in-front-of-the-text awareness, such as the history of the use of passages and what presuppositions interpreters have as they engage in exegesis.  Each of these three angles for viewing texts involve hermeneutical matters, from exegetical method to our understanding of meaning with respect to the author’s intention, the text itself, and readers’ use of texts.  If we are to speak of Biblical authority, our methods of interpretation need to work towards hearing the text in this exegetical task. 

While this gives preference to the original meaning of the author, we need to be aware of three things.  (a) First, interpretation geared towards describing the meaning of texts will be helped if we keep in mind that there are different kinds of meaning: (1) the author’s original, intended meaning; (2) the implications of an author’s meaning that may or may not be spelled out by the author or even apparent to the author; (3) the significance of the author’s meaning for the audience or individuals in the initial context; and (4) further adaptation of the original meaning of a text (e.g., typology, analogical reasoning, applications).[3]

One might, for example, examine the meaning of Mt. 28.18-20 in terms of the grammar (what type of adverbial participles are these?) and vocabulary (what is the meaning of ‘ethnoi’—nations, people groups?).  One might further examine the implications of the text theologically, such as by noting that Jesus as Emmanuel at the beginning of the Gospel (Mt. 1.23) continues to be with his disciples to the end of the age in this text.  One might also examine implications intertextually.  In my view, the primary text behind the Great Commission is Isaiah 66.18-23, a text that also concludes a book of the Bible and focusses mission on the inclusion of the Gentiles as part of the restoration of Israel from exile.  One might further explore the significance of this text for the disciples, and the final question is whether this can be extended from being a word to the eleven surviving disciples to the Church in general.

(b) Second, interpretation is text-dependent.  That is, for Scripture to function authoritatively in the Church, interpretation must not be guided by readers’ agendas.[4]

(c) Third, authority is genre-dependent.[5]  Some genres are ‘closed’ in the sense that meaning is intended by authors to be restricted to what they intended to say.  Examples would be historical texts and letters.  Other genres are ‘open’ in the sense that the authors intended to let readers/hearers into the process of meaning formation.  Examples would be proverbs and poetry.  The reader must decide whether this proverbial saying or that one is applicable to a given context.  Poetry is better the more a reader can locate his or her own significance in the poem’s words—the author’s meaning is open to the reader’s discovery of significance without understanding the original use of the poem.  Thus communication can explore an author’s meaning without imagining what was in his or her head but in terms of ‘speech-acts,’ which are made up of:
(a) locution, what is actually said,
(b) illocution, the action that the words perform (e.g., urging, promising, testifying, commanding), and
(c) perlocution, the purpose of the communication (e.g., to persuade, teach, correct)

The Canonical Task (or Biblical Theology)

Without advocating what is known as canonical Biblical theology, the canon is the assumption and focus of the second task of theology, or Biblical theology.  The canonical task presumes exegetical work and is a synthetic effort that seeks to explore the unity and diversity of the Scriptures.  It involves addressing hermeneutical issues in Biblical theology, such as:

(a) the role or relation of history to theology,
(b) the relation of events in history to the interpretation of events,
(c) the nature of synthesis (historical reconstruction, thematic syntheses, narrative synthesis, canonical shaping by communities of faith and the final form of the canon, or dogmatic convictions guiding the reading of Scripture),[6]
(d) the unity and diversity of and nature of the relationship between individual texts, authors, communities (e.g., Jewish Christian and Hellenistic Christian), the corpora (e.g., Pentateuch, Synoptic Gospels, Pauline epistles), and canons (Old Testament and New Testament) of Scripture,
(e) the incorporation of the entire canon in a Biblical theology (e.g., what do we do with the Wisdom literature in the Old Testament and the smaller General epistles in the New Testament),
(f) the possibility of change (e.g., food laws, circumcision) and development (e.g., doctrine of the resurrection) in Scripture, and
(g) the continuing significance and authority of theology and practices in Scripture for the Church today (e.g., Old Testament cultic practices and New Testament regulations regarding hair and dress).

The Convictional Task

This task is not to be identified as necessarily a systematic theological or dogmatic task.  Some will want to conceive of it in that way,[7] but this is one choice among others.  Both a missional and a Biblical theological interest will naturally be wary of any theological task that is conceived as contextless ideas that are systematically related to one another around a central dogma.  Both mission scholars and Biblical scholars emphasise the importance of understanding and appreciating the context of thought and practice.

The convictional task explores how convictions have been and are developed or maintained.  Hermeneutically, this task involves questions of authority, the nature of doctrine, the use of Scripture and tradition, and historical theology.

            Authority and Convictions

Often, authority is discussed in terms of the three legged stool of authorities for Anglicans or the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, which differ only in whether the fourth item is included or not: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.  A Protestant approach to this ought to emphasise the primacy of Scripture over other authorities, but this is clearly no longer the case in practice in mainline denominations of Protestantism today. 

Originally in Anglicanism, reason was understood as functioning within a given tradition, which in turn was seen as submitted to Scripture’s authority.[8]  These were not three equal legs to a stool!  Today, postmodern interpreters, whether deconstructive or tradition interpreters, would insist over against modernist scholars that there is no such thing as independent reason.  Moreover, science is really ‘reasoned experience;’ it is the articulation of a theory based upon observation. Yet ‘experience’ might also be understood in terms of how one’s experience affects one’s perspectives.  A Western Evangelical may be convinced of Cessationism (the teaching that miracles have ceased after the apostolic era or, in some versions, where the Church is no longer encountering cultures for the first time), whereas a third generation African Christian may regularly encounter spiritual forces and God’s working of signs and wonders.  Their contexts may lead them to interpret the Biblical text differently.  Thus, neither reason nor experience are absolute, and they might rightly be spoken of as authoritative only in a subordinate role to Scripture and tradition.

At times, the authority of Scripture and the Church’s tradition or traditions have been seen as ‘totalizing,’ as within colonial expressions of the faith and mission practice.  There is sometimes, instead, a celebration of the diverse cultures, traditional religions, and practices, as though the liberation spoken of in Scripture is somehow the liberation to be experienced from Western colonial powers.  Here we simply note that this is a hermeneutical issue that has surfaced in postcolonial and postmodern hermeneutics to be explored in mission hermeneutics.[9]  It can also be explored Biblically as one sees how God’s people engaged alternative religions and peoples within Scripture.[10]

            The Nature of Doctrine

The nature of doctrine has come under discussion in recent years, thanks to George Lindbeck.[11]  He asks whether doctrine should be construed as (a) cognitive-propositional, (b) experiential-expressivist, or (c) cultural-linguistic?  One way to grasp the difference between these options might be to ask whether there was an historical Adam.  The first approach would answer that what the text says about Adam reflects what was objectively true about a real Adam.  The second approach would seek the meaning of the text in terms of an experience of reality, such as the struggle of humanity with its will to power (so Reinhold Niebuhr).[12]  A cultural-linguistic approach would speak of Adam as history-like, shifting interest away from whether or not there was an historical Adam and being content to see Adam as a character within the Biblical story.  Prior to such distinctions, the Biblical theology of Gerhard von Rad explored Biblical theology as salvation history (Heilsgeschichte), using the word ‘history’ in terms of the interpretation of history rather than the events (Historie).[13]  Biblical theologians have since debated where the actual history is critical for the interpretation.  The three distinctions of Lindbeck should not, in my view, be taken as exclusive, although that is what he intended.  Rather, one should ask whether the Biblical text intends to convey one or the other doctrinal view.  The historical claims within Scripture may be as strong as the theological claims, as in the case of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead (cf. 1 Cor. 12.12-14).

Mission is itself enacted within history, and a missional reading of Scripture will be concerned with both history and theology in the text.  When the Gospel is proclaimed, it is a ‘real’ Gospel of the transformed existence that God offers, not just through a powerful narrative but through God’s power in human lives.

            The Use of Scripture

A third matter in the convictional task is how we actually use and should use Scripture.  A tradition approach to Scripture through most of Church history preferred an allegorical reading of the text.  This allowed readers to find the theology of the Church in the text—even texts such as the Song of Songs.  A proof-texting use of Scripture has not, however, been restricted to theology as, all too often, the ministerial fields have also used Scripture this way or merely as an illustration of some point derived on some other basis (perhaps from a social scientific field).

Ethicists often list four ways to use Scripture, although the various types often differ.[14]  I have  suggested the following for ethics and believe that the same categories might apply to mission theology as well:
(a) the specifying use of Scripture, such as individual texts, rules, norms, actions, etc.
(b) the warranting use of Scripture, such as in the use of principles, values, and virtues to warrant behaviour.
(c) the witnessing use of Scripture, such as the stories and characters that offer a analogies for practices today.
(d) the world-view use of Scripture, which uses the Bible to describe God, humanity, the world, moral vision, and so forth.

If we are to apply this to mission theology, we might suggest that, in addition to specific texts of mission such as Mt. 28.18-20, there are warranting texts, such as the Old Testament covenants that direct God’s people to a missional existence in the world, and missional values and virtues that override the specific application of rules, such as mercy versus sacrifice (Hos. 6.6; Mt. 9.13; 12.7).  Another example might be the use of Jubilee as a missional practice in Is. 61.1ff and various New Testament texts and practices.  The third, witnessing use of Scripture focuses largely on narratives.  An obvious example would be the book of Acts, telling the story of the early Church engaged in mission.  Andreas K√∂stenberger and P. T. O’Brien suggest, alternatively, that Jonah does not provide a missional narrative.  Finally, the fourth use of Scripture would involve a description of the character of God and His missional purposes, the plight of humanity and God’s redemptive purposes, and the missional role of God’s people in the world would provide a missional view of the world.

            Historical Theology

Convictions are also formed by the Church’s teaching and practices.  Often, this is where a church or people begin: with the teaching and practices of their local community of faith.  Scripture is typically engaged secondarily.  While this is backwards hermeneutically for those espousing the primary authority of Scripture, it is not at all inappropriate to be aware of the history of the Church in missions.  Quite the contrary, this is an essential and exciting study for understanding the missional task at the present time.  A Biblical emphasis in this task would ask how the Scriptures have been used and should have been used in the Church’s history of missions.  One interesting example is the understanding the Great Commission, Mt. 28.18-20, by the Church at the time of the Reformation as Jesus’ word to his disciples, not to the Church in general.[15]

The Pragmatic Task of Theology

If the convictional task is not understood as a contextless system of doctrines, then the pragmatic task will not be understood as an application of (abstract) theory to practice.  Rather, this task will be approached as a faithful enactment of the Biblically founded convictions and practices of disciples or communities of Christ, including the extension of the early Church’s mission to the nations.

A challenge that developed in the 20th century for the Church was how the social sciences were to be used in defining the pragmatic task of theology.  How should Scripture be used and not used in Christian counselling or mission practice, for example?  Missions can be taught from an anthropological starting point, whether a focus on inter-cultural engagement or demographic studies.  It can also be understood first as a pragmatic extension of the convictional task of theology, with the focus of study being theology and Church history.  A missional Biblical theology offers a new approach for how to relate Biblical theology to mission theology and practice.


I have intended to lay out a broad outline in as short a space as possible for a hermeneutical study for missional Biblical theology.  The focus is, of course, on the second, Biblical theological task of theology.  Dimensions of this task have been listed, but its primary challenge is to see to what extent ‘mission’ helps clarify the unity of Scripture.

A hermeneutic for Biblical theology is directly related to the first, exegetical task of theology.  It should also be related to the constructive tasks of theology, that is, the convictional and pragmatic tasks.  To the extent that Biblical theology is understood as directly relevant for our convictions and practices today, it also needs to address hermeneutical issues for the convictional and pragmatic tasks of theology.

[1] This is a slight alteration of my approach in Rival Versions of Theological Enquiry (Prague: International Baptist Theological Seminary, 2005), where I labelled the third task as ‘dogmatic.’
[2] I adapted these three approaches in my Rival Versions of Theological Enquiry from Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984).
[3] This follows a fairly popular distinction of types of meaning in hermeneutics since E. D. Hirsch, Jr., proposed distinguishing meaning in the first three ways noted here.  See his Validity in Interpretation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967).
[4] This point was noted in the previous point.  See Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP, 2006), pp. 38-41.
[5] See, e.g., John Goldingay, Models For Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994).
[6] See Edward W. Klink, III and Darian R. Lockett, Understanding Biblical Theology: A Comparison of Theory and Practice (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012).
[7] See, e.g., Grant Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, rev. and expanded edition (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2010), pp. 374ff.
[8] See Christopher Seitz, Word Without End: The Old Testament As Abiding Theological Witness (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2004), pp. 83ff.
[9] See one discussion of this matter in Richard Bauckham, Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World.  Carlisle: Paternoster Press and Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2003. 
[10] Covering Paul’s engagement with other Jewish and Graeco-Roman cultures, I would recommend here Eckhard Schnabel, Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies and Methods (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008).
[11] George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (London: SPCK, 1984).
[12] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation  (1949).
[13] Gerhard Von Rad, Old Testament Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2001; orig. pub. 1962).
[14] Richard Hays, Moral Vision of the New Testament (New York: HarperCollins, 1996).
[15] David Bosch famously interpreted the history of the Church in terms of certain paradigms, each with particular Scriptural passages that guided the paradigm’s view of missions.  This is far too simplistic, both in terms of Church history and how Scripture has been engaged, but it does offer an example of exploring how Scripture has been used at different times in history to guide the Church in its mission.  See David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1991).