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Excerpts from Rollin Grams' Rival Versions of Theological Enquiry, Chapter 5 (Part 4)

This is the fourth and final post presenting material from my (Rollin Grams') Chapter Five: Rival Versions of Enquiry into the Pragmatic Task of Theology' in Rival Versions of Theological Enquiry (Prague: International Baptist Theological Seminary, 2005).


V. Three Rival Versions of Contextual Missiology

What stands as a 'modernist' approach in mission theology and practice will for many be any approach that is colonial, that does not respect or appreciate the local context.  But a 'modernist' approach in mission theology would probably better be described in terms of the two 'totalising narratives' of which Francois Lyotard speaks, the idealist and the liberationist narratives.  If so, then colonial and postcolonial mission theologies would both function as examples of a modernist approach.  The one brings its pre-packaged 'ideology' to a new context and clears the land so as to establish what it brings without the slightest alteration.  The other looks not into the content of belief but at the process and reproaches anything that smacks of domination.  Both, for Lyotard, have been the totalising metanarratives of modernity to which the postmodern condition is now responding.  To the extent that a liberationist approach 'deconstructs' idealist, postcolonial options, it appears to be a postmodern mission theology.  But to the extent that its liberating narrative is a metanarrative for theology, it is a most modern theology indeed.

David Bosch remains significant for mission theologians for his challenge to the existing paradigms for mission and his call for a new, postmodern mission paradigm.  In what follows, I will review Bosch's argument and then explore how a deconstructive postermodernist type of enquiry has been applied to mission studies.  I will then offer an alternative through a narrative reading of the Bible for missions (Richard Bauckham).  Inasmuch as Bauckham's approach engages the Biblical text as authoritative and not as a collection of options, his suggestions stand within the 'tradition' approach to interpretation that I have been advocating in this book.

            A Postmodern Paradigm Shift for Missions

David Bosch spoke of an emerging 'postmodern' or 'ecumenical missionary paradigm' in his magisterial work Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, published in 1991.[1]  He offered a seven-fold description of this paradigm, familiar to us by now, which he saw bringing fresh challenges and possibilities for mission theology:[2]

1.                 Rationality entails more than human reason (modernism): it also entails
                   narrative and experiential forms of reasoning.[3]
2.                The Subject-Object dualism of modernity placed the human mind or will
above the physical world (a mere 'object' to be exploited), whereas postmodernity views the relationship holistically.
3.                The 'cause and effect' approach to scientific observation and the belief in
evolutionary progress has given way to affirming contingency and unpredictability, which Bosch describes as the rediscovery of a teleological dimension (the pursuit of goals is less certain than observing causes and their effects).
4.                The idea of evolutionary progress, such as through efforts in social and
economic development, entailed great respect for technology and management, but now the role of society and religion, and the need to transfer power to the objects of development is recognised.
5.                The radical distinction between facts and values in modernity has given
way to appreciating that knowing involves the observer's interpretation and appraisals.
6.                The optimism of the Enlightenment worldview has, in light of the above,
been chastened.
7.                The individualism and openness of modern liberalism is now challenged
by a concern for community, interdependence, conviction, and commitment.

Granted that such a postmodern paradigm is upon us, we must, once again, recognise that this shift may bend towards [either] a deconstructive or tradition approach to contextual missions.  An example of the former might be given with Walter Brueggemann once again.[4]  He affirms a deconstruction of 'old missional assumptions and practices.'  These include the scope of God's mission being extended outside the Church--a point made often enough by others.  But for Brueggemann, this does not mean that the Spirit goes ahead of the Church, preparing the hearts of those seeking God to hear the salvific message of Christ.  This would, apparently, be to conceive or practice the Church's mission in 'absolutist or triumphalist terms.'[5]  Instead, it means 'religious pluralism'.  'Mission' under such restrictions no longer has a Christological or ecclesiastical focus.  It is rather an action theology to redress the inequities in the world.[6]  Disestablishment of the Church (apparently this is as much Christian theology as any institutional Church) means being able to recognise ‘the companionable presence of many others … journeying in the same direction.'[7]  ‘Christian faith can never be satisfied with a theology of hope that is purely attitudinal, abstract, or ‘doctrinal’’—it must be hope in action.[8]  Mission, then, entails addressing the injustices resulting from global technology.[9]  It also entails ecumenical (inter-religious) dialogue: ‘We may also find, in such dialogue, points of commonality in both theology and ethics, and so expand our conception of the missio Dei.'[10]  This anthropological mission of hope, deemphasising Christ, conversion and Church, becomes a movement open enough to include others 'journeying in the same direction'.  Mission in action involves enacting hope by participating in the harsh realities of AIDS, subjugation (by Western powers outside the West), and ethno-religious conflicts.[11]

This deconstructive approach to missions fits Bosch's postmodern paradigm in three of his seven points in particular: abandoning a Subject-Object distinction by finding salvation to include the physical world over against the evils of technological, consumerist globalisation, a disavowal of evolutionary progress in history, and a chastening of Enlightenment optimism.

Brueggemann is helpful in that he does not hide his agenda.  His enthusiastic endorsement of a deconstructive version of postmodernity provides a clearly defined alternative version of enquiry in contextual missiology.  The importance of 'context' in missiology for Brueggemann easily fits his views on Old Testament theology's dialogical, pluralistic character.  The Bible and contemporary theology both offer a variety of theologies.  They cannot be reconciled, but the dialogue is rewarding, and whatever direction emerges from the discourse it is to be cast in liberationist and deconstructive terms.

Less clear is the approach in contextual theology that affirms context without comment on the place of the Bible in the exercise.  There is at times such enthusiasm for contextual theology that the conversation takes place apart from any serious reckoning with how this relates to canonical authority.  Contextual theology can be seen as a way to avoid secularisation, if the latter is understood as a type of globalisation.[12]  This is possible if by 'globalisation' is meant the liberal, modernist approach to theology that seeks to work in universal categories without reference to the distinctives of Christian faith (where 'the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ' becomes 'the Wholly Other', a 'Divine Presence', the 'Absolute', 'Love', etc.).  Yet such universalising translation of the Gospel is so good an example of Modernist, Western theology that we must recognise it as a local theology.  It will not do to champion the construction of local theologies over against Western theology when the latter is itself an example of a local theology.

Underlying Bosch's historical-traditional interpretation of missions is the idea that a plurality of Christian mission traditions or paradigms have come into being and are now on offer.  Each is said to base its understanding of mission on a particular Scripture.  Bosch does not try to fix past paradigms of mission that Church traditions have produced but turns with hope to an emerging, new paradigm.  This leaves the end of his work somewhat disconnected to the beginning, with its focus on interpreting the New Testament texts' perspectives on mission.  This approach suggests that the Scripture can support a multitude of perspectives, and so communities may pick and choose what suits them in their context.  Like liberation theology, this approach is not a radical reader-response approach: both seek to hear the Scripture.[13]  But there is little direction other than the needs of the community to determine which of the many Scriptural voices to heed at any given time. 

This is the attitude or approach of Robert Schreiter, who proffers a post-liberationist missiology primarily on the grounds that we need something less violent in today's world.  Schreiter advocates a mission theology of reconciliation as the new paradigm.  He too can turn to specific texts, such as 2 Cor. 5.20, or new Biblical symbols--instead of the exodus as liberation, the rebuilding of Jerusalem after exile or the rebuilding of the household of God (Eph. 2.11ff).  For Schreiter, there is enough need and enough possibility in Scripture to put on offer a new, reconciliation paradigm for Christian missions.[14]

Schreiter's earlier work on constructing local theologies[15] is an example of theology as theological reflection, where the context can latch onto latent Biblical and theological alternatives available for development when necessary and relevant.  The theologian first needs to listen to a culture in order to construct a local theology.   This can be done in the following ways:

1.      Functionalist way: determine how the parts fit together to form the whole;
2.      Ecological way: determine how society relates to its physical environment;
3.      Materialist way: determine how the physical environment affects the culture’s worldview, needs and response to social change;
4.      Structuralist way: determine the unconscious patters that shape the culture;
5.      Semiotic way: listening to the culture’s signs, messages and codes expressing meaning for the culture.  This is his preferred way.  To get at this, one might listen to the narration of an insider (which affirms identity) and an outsider (which examines and analyses cultural experience).  One might also attend to the speaker concerned to transmit the message clearly and to the hearer, for whom it is important to relate the message meaningfully within the culture.  The semiotic approach always seeks ‘to analyze the signs, messages and codes that express and convey, even enforce, meaning in a culture.'[16]  One looks particularly for root metaphors that describe meaning and semiotic domains for a culture (e.g., the cross for Christianity, the marketplace for capitalism).

The theologian concerned to construct a local theology has essentially three options to consider, each with merits and deficiencies but the last of which is to be preferred, according to Schreiter:

Translation of one cultural expression of faith into another.  Here what is translated remains little changed as the content is not altered by the context.

Adaptation of one cultural expression of faith into the philosophical worldview/indigenous framework of another.  Here the context has a greater impact on the content of what is being conveyed.

Contextual construction focused on formation of cultural identity (ethnography) or alleviation of oppression and social ills (liberation).  Here the context plays a major role in the construction of a local theology.

The resources for a local theology include popular religion, but the challenges are syncretism and dual religious systems.  The goal of a local theology, to affirm Christian identity within a given culture, is helped by five criteria: (1) the cohesiveness of Christian performance (how a local theology fits together with scripture and church tradition); (2) the experience of the Christian performance in the context of worship and (3) in the context of the community's practices; (4) accepting the judgement of other churches, and (5) a willingness to give judgement to other churches.[17]

Schreiter's approach to local theology tends to see theology as a response to and for social change within a given cultural context.  The culture more than the Biblical text is exegeted, even if Schreiter would appreciate exegetical insights into the Biblical text and the commendable goal of getting to the 'heart' of the Christian message.  His subsequent thoughts to Constructing Local Theologies certainly emphasise the need for both a local and universalising (not totalising) voice in theology, but by 'universalising' he means paying attention to our global culture--another context for theology.[18]  That is, theology is not a first order but second order exercise, a response to what is taking place in our local or global (understood with respect to politics, economics, technology) context--a 'reflection'.  Schreiter notes that a contextual approach to theology was innovative and revolutionary in the 1970's, it is now taken for granted.  What seems to drive Schreiter's work in mission theology is the question, 'What do we need here and now?'

Similarly, Jürgen Moltmann advocates that after an authoritative mission paradigm of God the Father and Lord, and then the familial, community building mission paradigm of Christ, we now need a 'life' mission paradigm of the Spirit.[19]  Such approaches to Scripture represent reader construction rather than interpretation, even if the practitioners are interested at some level to hear, not just use, Scripture.  'Paradigm' seems to be a word which includes both hearing the Scripture (thought to offer a great variety of possibilities) and a use of Scripture for our present purposes and contexts.

Thus for Bosch, Schreiter and Moltmann, the notion of a 'paradigm' for mission undergirds the idea that theologies are local, historical, and shift or should be shifted to meet present circumstances.  This is postmodern in the deconstructive sense that theology is not understood as overarching, unchanging, totalising, and universal.  But it is most modern in the sense that theology is understood as a humanly constructed enterprise and involves sub-plots to the metanarrative of liberation.

Alternatively, the 'mission of God' can be understood as beyond the Church but still as something that maintains a Christological, ecclesiatical, and evangelical (Gospel) focus.  J. Andrew Kirk defines mission theology as 'a disciplined study which deals with questions that arise when people of faith seek to understand and fulfil God's purposes in the world, as these are demonstrated in the ministry of Jesus Christ.  It is a critical reflection on attitudes and actions adopted by Christians in pursuit of the missionary mandate.  Its task is to validate, correct and establish on better foundations the entire practice of mission.'[20]  Kirk explains what he means by this last sentence: mission theology

tests theory and practice against the apostolic Gospel and history read eschatologically (i.e. from the perspective of the full realisation of God's rule on earth).  The testing is carried out in the midst of the attempt to implement the new order of relationships, structures and attitudes which spell out life in the kingdom in detail.  It is also measured against all known alternatives, be they religious, secular or ideological.  Needless to say, theology of mission is a continuous task, as it seeks to point the Christian community in the right direction in its response to the mission to which it has been called.[21]

Kirk understands the task of mission theology to be a part of the hermeneutical spiral.  It has to do with interpretation, and for this its theory and practice need something to interpret.  Thus the Gospel, history read eschatologically, attempts at implementation in the Church's history, and alternatives to Christian mission are the 'texts' by which current mission theory and practice might be interpreted.  Mission theology, then, on tradition terms, is an interpretive discipline, not to be reduced to liberating action[22] and dialogue with other faiths over shared values of liberation.

       Richard Bauckham: Narrative, the Bible and a Tradition Approach to
Mission Theology

A more narrative and Biblical approach to mission theology might be found in Richard Bauckham's brief treatment of the matter in Bible and Mission.[23]  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.[24]

A  Biblical hermeneutic must be canonical in its scope and entail a synthesis that is narrative, and this narrative hermeneutic is temporal, spatial, and social.[25]  Bauckham 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.  He further notes that there are 'already' and 'not yet' aspects to each of these three notions as early as 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.'[26]

Bauckham then examines three key Old Testament narratives and their movement from the particular to the universal along trajectories running throughout the Old Testament:

       *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 rule over
                   all creation.

He adds to these narratives a theme that binds Old Testament and New Testament: '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.

Jesus becomes a curse to bring blessing, takes on the role of Israel in the world, and picks up the role of king or divine rule.  The theme of 'to all by way of the least' binds these trajectories in both Testaments, but it goes beyond a Liberation hermeneutic.  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 élite, 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.[27]

It is interesting to compare Bauckham's approach to mission theology based upon such an interpretation of the Biblical narratives to Brueggemann, Moltman, Schreiter and others. Christian mission today, he too argues, must resist the new imperialism of (economic) globalisation, 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, avers Bauckham, has the following virtues.  (1) It answers the postmodern suspicion that a metanarrative is oppressive.  The content of the metanarrative makes all the difference and a metanarrative of the cross cannot, by definition, be coercive.  (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.'[28]  (4) Finally, witness can 'mediate the particularity of the biblical story and the universality of its claim.'[29]  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.[30]  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.'[31]  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.

One significant argument in Bauckham's Bible and Mission is his insistence that the Bible supports a metanarrative, but not of imperial or economic power obliterating everything in its way.  The metanarrative that picks up the theme of 'to all by way of the least' and finds its focus in the narrative of Jesus could not be such a metanarrative.  In seeing this, Bauckham shows a different way for mission theology: not alternative paradigms to be chosen as need be (Moltmann, Schreiter), not a multitude of Scriptural voices, not a principle of siding with the poor apart from the narratives that redefine such a principle (Brueggemann), nor for that matter a single central doctrine or Biblical text to systematise mission theology within paradigms (as in Bosch's account).  Rather, Bauckham shows, mission theology begins with narratives at the beginning of thematic trajectories which are bound together (for us Christians) by the narrative of Jesus.  This demonstrates a text-based approach to mission theology which is not so much 'reflective' as 'interpretive'.  The unifying theme and trajectories of Old Testament narratives, even apart from the New Testament, require our attention rather than choice among options, deconstruction or revision, even in light of the New Testament.  Bauckham offers a tradition version of enquiry that, by virtue of being narrative, is dynamic as well as under the authority of Scripture.  It does not let conflicting dialogue remain unresolved but seeks synthesis in order to shape the tradition of Christian mission, and so it is not a relativist approach but seeks authenticity and integrity for the tradition of Christian missions.


VI. Conclusion

As with the other tasks of theology, encyclopaedic, deconstructive and tradition versions of enquiry exist side by side and even seem to be confused in the pragmatic task.  A deconstructive version of liberation theology easily, in the end, becomes a totalising theology, privileging the poor or non-Western world, or tradition is defended on universal grounds.  This chapter calls for greater methodological clarity in the pragmatic task, beginning with a distinction between the three rival versions of enquiry.

In part two I will take the idea of 'practices' further.  It seems appropriate, however, to conclude this present discussion by noting that the pursuit of the pragmatic task is more than 'application' but is itself a productive good and is one that in some ways improves our pursuits of the other tasks of theology.  The Biblical scholar who's study of Scripture leaves him or her a skeptic, deprecating Scriptural authority, and on the outside of the Christian community (perhaps in the academy alone) has befouled the craft of theology.  The pastor whose ministry has made him or her a political pollster offering people what their itching ears wish to hear or an authoritarian overlord has somehow lost the connection between the activity and the inner good that is should produce.  The practice of Biblical scholarship should produce an ever greater love for the Scriptures, not an objective, scientific dissection of texts and not a reading against the text.  The practice of pastoral ministry should produce a more disciplined discipleship, a gift to speak the truth in love, a deepened faith and hope.  I have known people whose memorisation of Scripture has made them more argumentative, whose pastoral ministry has left them bitter, whose pursuit of spiritual disciplines has made them prideful, whose claims to possess more of the Spirit has made them more divisive, and, sadly, on the list goes.  There must be, alternatively, an integral relationship between the goal, means, and results of ministry, an account of which only the holistic perspective of a tradition can give.




[1] David Bosch, Transforming Mission, chs. 10 and 12.
[2] David Bosch, Transforming Mission, pp. 352-363.
[3] A key article expressing this point is: Stanley Hauerwas and David Burrell, 'From System to Story: An Alternative Pattern for Rationality in Ethics,' in Hauerwas's Truthfulness and Tragedy and Further Investigations into Christian Ethics (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1977), pp. 15-39; also in Stanley Hauerwas and Gregory Jones, Why Narrative: Readings in Narrative Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), pp. 158-190.  As Gavin Hyman puts it, 'As systems give way to narratives, so reason gives way to persuasion and refutation gives way to 'out-narration'' (The Predicament of Postmodern Theology: Radical Orthodoxy or Nihilist Textualism?  (Nashville, TN: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2001), p. 66).
[4] Walter Brueggemann, ed., Hope for the World: Mission in a Global Context (Louisville/London/Leiden: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001).
[5] Walter Brueggemann, ed., Hope for the World, p. 9.
[6] Walter Brueggemann, ed., Hope for the World, p. 16.
[7] Walter Brueggemann, ed., Hope for the World, p. 18.
[8] Walter Brueggemann, ed., Hope for the World, p. 18.
[9] Walter Brueggemann, ed., Hope for the World, p. 20.
[10] Walter Brueggemann, ed., Hope for the World, pp. 20f.
[11] Walter Brueggemann, ed., Hope for the World, p. 21.
[12] Cf. Ben Knighton, 'Issues of African Theology at the Turn of the Century,' Transformation 21.3 (July, 2004), p. 154.
[13] See Rowland and Corner's discussion of fidelity to the text (with reference to Clodovis Boff), Liberating Exegesis, pp. 66f.
[14] Robert Schreiter, 'Reconciliation and Peacemaking: The Theology of Reconciliation and Peacemaking for Mission,' in Mission, Violence and Reconciliation, Cliff College Academic Series, ed. H. Mellor and T. Yates (Calver, Hope Valley, Near Sheffield: Cliff College Pub., 2004), pp. 11-28.  Cf. Robert Schreiter, Reconciliation: Mission and Ministry in a Changing Social Order (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1992).  Cf. Charles Villa-Vicencio, A Theology of Reconstruction: Nation-building and Human Rights (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1992).
[15] Robert Schreiter, Constructing Local Theologies (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1985).
[16] The quote is from Robert Kinast's description of Schreiter's approach in What Are They Saying About Theological Reflection, p. 46.
[17] Robert Schreiter, The New Catholicity: Theology Between the Global and the Local (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997).
[18] Robert Schreiter, The New Catholicity, ch. 1.
[19] J. Moltmann, 'The Mission of the Spirit--The Gospel of Life,' in Mission: An Invitation to God's Future, ed. T. Yates (Calver, Hope Valley, Near Sheffield: Cliff College Pub., 2000), pp. 28f.
[20] J. Andrew Kirk, What is Mission?  Theological Explorations (London: Dartman, Longman, and Todd, 1999), p. 21 (italics mine).
[21] J. Andrew Kirk, What is Mission?, pp. 21-22.
[22] Fernando F. Segovia, Decolonizing Biblical Studies: A View from the Margins (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000) argues against Biblical 'interpretation' as any view that we simply hear the message of the text without our reading of Scripture being ideological.  The approach Segovia advocates is a simple example of one form of discourse analysis:
1.      Examine ancient texts with respect to the social situation of the opposition of empire (political, economic, cultural) and those subordinated or on the margin.
2.      Examine the reading of texts by the West with its imperial phases and its missionary movement, resulting in distinctions such as believers/unbelievers-pagans, godly/ungodly, religious/idolatrous-superstitious.
3.      Examine the reaction to (2) from outside the empire.
[23] Richard Bauckham, Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World (Carlisle:
Paternoster Press and Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2003).
[24] Richard Bauckham, Bible and Mission, p. 11.
[25] Richard Bauckham, Bible and Mission, pp. 13-15.
[26] Richard Bauckham, Bible and Mission, p. 25.
[27] Richard Bauckham, Bible and Mission, p. 50.
[28] Richard Bauckham, Bible and Mission, p. 99.
[29] Richard Bauckham, Bible and Mission, p. 100.
[30] Richard Bauckham, Bible and Mission, pp. 101f.
[31] Richard Bauckham, Bible and Mission, p. 107.