The Mission of God

Many books have been written to provide a biblical basis for mission; few have ventured to argue that there is a missional basis for the Bible. Christopher J. H. Wright is one of those few. His thesis is that mission is “a major key that unlocks the whole grand narrative of the canon of Scripture” (17). Wright does not define mission as a noun, but as a verb, focusing on the missio Dei. God and His purposes in making himself known is the hermeneutical key.

In the first part of his work, Wright defends his missional hermeneutic as going beyond proof-texting and towards a unified, coherent understanding of the whole of scripture. Biblical scholars have sought a unifying theme for the two testaments for generations. To those, Wright posits the mission of God. In so doing, Wright makes a magnificent contribution, not just to missiology, but to biblical theology. For missiology, Wright recaptures the meaning and message of the Old Testament. More than one biblical theology of mission skims over or gives cursory treatment to the Old Testament; Wright goes so far as to encourage a reciprocal reading of the texts, New Testament through Old Testament, Old through New. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Wright’s conclusions, his efforts are laudatory.

Ironically, the big problem with Wright’s argument is not what he includes, but what he excludes. Overall, his argument lacks sufficient warrant, not that he is not thorough, only that he is selective and does not interact enough with other scholars. Regarding selectiveness, he gives a cursory treatment of the Law (short paragraph on 296) and the Holy Spirit (302–3) among other things. (Noteworthy, he has written other books on these topics.) Also notably absent is a thorough treatment of the Messianic expectation in the Old Testament. He states that Jesus encouraged his disciples to have a messianic/missional double focus when coming to scripture (29­–31), since Jesus himself “went beyond his messianic centering of the Old Testament Scriptures to their missional thrust as well” (29), as if they could not be one in the same. Thus, for the majority of the book, Wright lays down his messianic lens. Here Wright presents a false dichotomy. One may applaud Wright’s efforts for his avoidance of interpreting the Old Testament through the New, but to give scant attention to the missional aspects of the messianic expectation is a glaring omission. Also, Wright’s argument lacks thorough scholarly interaction. As such, the reader is left to trust Wright’s professional opinion. This is not enough to be persuasive. Only those who already agree will find the argument persuasive. As such, Wright falls victim to the same proof-texting phenomenon he deplores.

Granted, Wright acknowledges that any system of interpretation “distorts” (68) the text to a degree. Nonetheless, he claims that a missional hermeneutic distorts the text the least; it at least makes the most sense of the whole. Instead of proving this with diachronic examination of the text as it is presented, he opts for a synchronic systematic approach. As such, if one disagrees with the system, then the argument is debunked. Thus, by failing to interact with much scholarship, his system lacks sufficient warrant. One is left to trust Wright on his merit alone (however impressive it may be). As such, his argument is weakened severely (even if one agrees with his points!). Is this thesis noble? Yes. Is he right? Most likely. Did he prove it? No. But his work is a valuable starting point for evangelical understandings of mission (missio Dei) and missions (missiones ecclesiae).

Even so, his chapters on monotheism, idolatry, and the nations in both the Old and New Testaments are excellent. Also of note, though not necessary to his thesis, is Wright’s timely treatment of the ecological and AIDS crises. Furthermore, Wright’s understanding of wisdom literature provides an interesting paradigm for issues of contextualization. Therefore, even with its weaknesses, Wright’s book makes a valuable contribution to missiology.

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3 Comments

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  1. Good post on Wright’s book. It is indeed an excellent book but as you point out it is not perfect, but what book is? Even Bosch’s ‘Transforming mission’ has flaws such as a neglect of an O.T. basis for mission. This however allows students to write an essay on whether he is correct in doing this and in turn builds up their ego and critical faculties to be able to criticise such a giant!

    Back to Wright, the same might be applied to him. But in his defence, what size of book did you want him to write (especially as he already covered the areas you mentioned in other books)? Nevertheless I think it will be around for years to come.

  2. By the way I love your blog.I have one along a similar vein. We have also read many of the same books including those by Stott and Driscoll. May the Lord bless your work.

  3. Andrew,

    Thanks for stopping by! I checked out your blog and have added it to my Favorites, so I’ll stop by from time to time.

    I almost didn’t post this “critique” of Wright’s book. I wrote if for one of my seminars. I decided I would put it out so if someone came across my blog we could discuss it or something.

    There were places in Wright’s book where I was with him, there were other places that I disagreed. The book was long, maybe a little too long, but he was trying to cover all of scripture and he gave a lot of space to the Old Testament, something very much needed in the study of the Theology of Missions, as you pointed out with Bosch. The same could be said of other books. Even in other books that try to deal with the OT, the NT gets by far at least two or three times more treatment. I applaud Wright for giving the OT a hearing.

    I do wish Wright dealt more with the messianic expectation. I will soon post a summary of my growing understanding (I have a long way to go). But I think the most of my disagreements with Wright’s conclusions, like on the Law, the Jubilee, the Abrahamic Covenant, etc, relate to differences in my understanding of the messianic expectation of the Old Testament. He is admittedly avoiding a christocentric reading of the OT because he is trying to allow the OT to stand on its own two feet. This is laudatory, but I think there is a messianic reading of the OT that is equally as faithful to the intention of the Old Testament that is more than a Christocentric reading. I hope to elaborate on this more in days to come.

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