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Theology

Theology of Missions

Introduction

The concept of global mission requires a solid theological foundation so as to justify its practice. On the one hand, without such foundation, mission itself can become subject to criticism, for example, the notion that mission contradicts the very message of the Christian faith in the sense that placed outside of its theological context it may be considered as intrusive or hegemonic.

On the other hand, the practitioners of missionary work, obviously moved by a commitment to the Christian faith and the desire to spread the message of Christ, require such theological basis to guide their practice. A hermeneutics of the Scriptures, in which the centrality of the concept of mission to the Christian faith is brought to the fore, provides precisely such a basis. The aim of the following paper is thus to provide such a hermeneutics of the Scripture in which the centrality of mission is both presented and developed, focusing on its presence in Scriptures, as well as in Christian theology and contemporary missiology.

The Concept of Mission in the Old and New Testament

Mission is a recurring theme in both the Old and New Testaments; when developed, such scriptural references may provide an irrevocable basis for the practice of mission.

An explicit example of mission in the Old Testament is found in Isaiah 49:6: “he says: ‘It is too small a thing for you to be my servant, to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” Here, mission is introduced in contrast to other forms of the worship of God, according to which mission is granted a clear primacy over these other practices. Worship, expressed in terms of “servitude”, is deemed “too small a thing”, such that it is clear that there is a certain insufficiency of merely servitude communicated here. That is, it is not enough to adhere to a personal relationship with God, but one must also communicate with those who are not in communion with God: mission here is explicitly directed towards “Gentiles”, with the end goal of the salvation of the world.

In contrast to what appears to be an explicit call to mission in Isaiah 49:6, passages that are at first glance more ambiguous in regards to mission may also be cited: these passages which are seemingly more difficult to heremeneutically develop in terms of mission, when fleshed out in this direction, can help underscore the pervasiveness of mission in the Scriptures, thus making its foundational status all the more clear. For example, a passage such as Psalm 24, “The earth is the Lord’s” may at first glance be interpreted as concerning the relation of the Lord as creator to the created: God is the absolute, and not the world. However, there is also a character of mission in this context. For the Scriptures are precisely revealed texts, meaning that they are consistent with the Divine Lgos: there is a certain necessity for revelation itself, that is, for example, the apocalyptic prophets of Israel to be called upon by God to spread His Word. This means that it is not clear to the world that the “Earth is the Lord’s”: missionary work is here founded on a concept of making it known that the “Earth is the Lord’s” and only His. This passage is an invitation to participate in the spreading of the revealed word and thus participating in the work of the great prophets of the Old Testament.

Mission continues uninterrupted as a theme into the New Testament, arguably in an even more radical form, insofar as the incarnation of God that is the God-man Jesus Christ goes beyond the Old Testament, as God himself is a missionary. Christ for example proclaims in John 12:32 that “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” There is a necessity to bring men into communion with God that is announced by Christ himself: to strive to live as Christ lived upon the earth therefore entails trying to draw all men to Christ. Christ is the focus of the missionary practice, since the Son of God is precisely who the missionary intends to introduce others to. Christ remains open to this practice, desiring all to be gathered to him. The missionary is he or she who assists in this drawing of men to Christ.

Certainly, it can be argued that such a passage entails that missionary work is not necessary: is Christ not sufficient to draw men to Himself? Why is the missionary as finite created being required to perform this practice? Perhaps this can be clarified with a passage from the New Testament that also emphasizes the missionary practice of aspects of the creation as opposed to God. Hence, in Revelation 14:6 we read “the angel had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth – – to every nation, tribe, language and people.” Hence, a clear element of the creation, in this case the angelic order, is also called to missionary work, so as to make clear the eternal gospel: therefore, the creation also participates in missionary work. When combining such passages on the missionary work of the creation with passages stressing the centrality of humanity within creation, then the centrality of missionary work to humanity becomes lucid.

The Nature of God and Mission

It is in the Christian context of the New Testament that the centrality of mission becomes apparent, in a way that goes infinitely beyond the Judaic vision of God and its rejection of Christ: it is only in the Christian faith that God becomes man. Jesus Christ is God for Christians and Christians only. And here mission becomes as clear as the light of Christ on Mount Tabor: Christ becomes man to live with man, to show man God, and also, to provide an example for man. If Christ therefore is the epitome of the practice of missionary work, then the Christian must also aim to follow the path of Christ. That God became man means that the very Nature of God is inseparable from man: from this perspective, the missionary work is the communication of this message. Missionary work is the communication, in other words, of the very Nature of God, which is revealed to man in the form of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Missionary work here is the communication of the life of Christ which is a hypostasis of the Nature of God Himself.

Mission’s Relation to the Theological Concepts of Trinity and Apocalypse  

            Although the status of Christ as God-man is the very heart of the Christian faith, and thus the heart of missionary practice, from this it does not follow that the concept of mission is only found in Christ. It is found in all aspects of Christian theology, in all aspects of the tradition that arises from the Scriptures and doctrinally formulated by the Church Fathers. The Trinity itself, namely the triune hypostases of God, may be interpreted as the most profound symbol of the necessity of mission, as this very triune structure of the Godhead can be said to embody a movement that resembles the movement of mission. God is not merely the Father, although the Father is God: this means that God is not only some transcendent Being that exists entirely separate from the world. The hypsostasis of Christ is a profound symbol of God’s attempt to communicate with the world: here God becomes man, he is the Word made Flesh, so as to reveal Himself to humankind. Insofar as missionary work is grasped as an essentiallly communicative gesture, whereby what is communicated is Christ and God, God embodies the missionary concept through the embodiment of Christ that is clearly a communicative gesture to man. Not only in Christ, however, but also in the Holy Spirit is this same motif present, as the Holy Spirit is, in the words of Glasser as based upon Scriptural citation, “invariably described as participating in the mission of the post-Easter believers.”[1] The Holy Spirit continually shows the presence of God in the world, and thus continually invites the human being to communion with God. Two hypostases of the Triune God are thus clearly communicative aspects of God, which resonates with the very foundation of missionary practice itself: the Christian God, in this sense, is a radically missionary God.

Even on the other extreme, in some of the darkest moments of the Christian faith, such as the apocalypse proclaimed in various Scriptures, the necessity of mission becomes apparent. For the apocalypse as a concept, which has never been formulated in Church doctrine because of its very apocalyptic nature, i.e., the sense that only God knows the time of the apocalypse, or as Tennett phrases it, it is entirely “God’s initiative in revealing the ‘signs’ that will accompany the end and the return of His Son”,[2] the parousia nevertheless serves as a constant reminder to the Christian of the transience of this world and the return of Christ. This necessity to communicate the transience of the world is found in the very etymology of apocalypse as something to be revealed. What is to be revealed is the transience of this world and the contrasting eternity of God; this revealing itself shows the necessity to communicate. Whereas the Christian remains here in an apocalyptic world, the Christian in a sense performs missionary work within the apocalypse by pointing towards this apocalypse and judgment itself, showing that this world is not the only world, which is precisely what apocalypse means.

Crucial Concepts of Mission Theology: Shalom and the Church 

            According to such a ubiquity of the concept of mission in the Christian faith, from the scriptures to the very nature of God and to the end of the world, it would perhaps even be considered redundant to refer to Christian theology as a mission theology: for it appears that mission is central to Christian theology itself. Nevertheless, stressing mission theology remains decisive, since by delineating this theology in a more precise manner, we highlight the essential missionary aspect of the Christian faith, which is perhaps at times overlooked despite its omnipresence. At once, mission theology or missiology has itself developed its own internal concepts, which aim to coincide with the Scriptures, while making such centrality of mission explicit.

This is clear in such concepts as “shalom”, which here do not find a precedent in Church tradition, although they are being formulated to elucidate mission: in this concept, according to Moreau et al., what is arguably crucial is a general aspect of “spiritual warfare”, as they note that “spiritual warfare requires that Christians be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.”[3] Citing scripture Moreau et al. note that missionary work is precisely this participation in a form of spiritual warfare, aiming to gain souls on the side of Christ against Satan and against sin. Certainly, this concept of “spiritual warfare” is present in the earliest traditions of the Church, such as Church Fathers, such as Saint Maximus the Confessor and Ignatius, suggesting why this notion needs to be communicated as “shalom.” Why such missiology does not return to the tradition is a question for another essay: but shalom here functions as this aspect of mission that shows that mission itself is the constant conflict of man within this world and in this sense every human being is in some sense involved in missionary work.

In light of the previous remarks on the problem of tradition, it is nevertheless important to note that missionary work also stresses the centrality of the Church, insofar as “God indeed works through the church.”[4] Yet Moreau et al. also note that “he also works where the church does not yet exist.”[5] This is interpreted as meaning that “mission is not confined to what the church does”,[6] and thus there is potential for missionary work outside of the Church context: Arguably, however, this is a weakness of the missionary concept, insofar as it moves against the tradition and the community of believers. Perhaps this can be reduced to Protestant individualism as opposed to the community, as noted by sociologists such as Max Weber: however, the crucial point here is that missionary work primarily emphasizes the necessary of a relationship between individuals, and the epitome of such a relationship is the community of believers such as the Church. Viewing the Church as central to missionary work should not be viewed, as Moreau et al. seem to imply, in terms of limiting the potentiality to perform such work, but rather as follows: the Church serves as a paradigm for how missionary practice is structured, as a community and loving relationship with Christ who is its head. (Col. 1:18)

Conclusion 

            Mission theology thus can be said to provide the conceptual and intellectual foundation for the actual practice of mission: it is the theoretical aspect, to which missionary work is the practical aspect. The former thus guides the missionary in terms of his or her perfomance of the latter. At once, the Christian faith, insofar as it may be understood as a missionary faith, finds this missionary concept by extension present in all its various aspects: it becomes an imperative to realize this missionary aspect to be a Christian. Here, church leaders are obviously crucial, as by guiding the faithful they must stress the importance of mission, since it is central to Christianity: therefore, mission theology provides a lucid conceptual background to communicate this same centrality to the lay-person. At once, the lay-person understands that mission is central to his or life as a Christian: to the lay-person missionary theology is the light that illuminates the path he or she walks

References

Moreau, A. Scott, Corwin, Gary R. & McGee, Gary B. Introducing World Missions: A

Biblical, Historical and Practical Survey. Grand Rapids, MI: 2007.

Glasser, Arthur F. Announcing the Kingdom: The Story of God’s Mission in the Bible. Grand

Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003.

Tennent, Timothy. Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first

Century. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2010.

[1] Arthur F. Glasser, Announcing the Kingdom: The Story of God’s Mission in the Bible, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 244.

[2] Timothy Tennent, Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2010), 136.

[3] A. Scott Moreau, Gary R. Corwin, Gary B. McGee, Introducing World Missions: A Biblical, Historical and Practical Survey (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007), 85.

[4] Ibid., 83.

[5] Ibid., 83.

[6] Ibid., 83.