missio Dei – Part 1 of my growing understanding of a theology of mission

“So Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you'” (John 20:21).

So begins the Christian mission. A mission rooted in the Trinitarian nature of God, in the sending of the Son by the Father, and, as in the entire Gospel of John culminating in the in the next verse, in the sending of the Spirit by the Father and the Son. Thus, in Acts chapters one and two, the coming of the Spirit empowers the church to boldly proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ beginning in Jerusalem, on to Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth. Thus, Christian mission is modeled, initiated, and empowered by God; this is what most call the missio Dei, or the mission of God.

Thus begins a set of posts aimed at discussing my understanding of the missio Dei. As you read books on theology, mission and missions, you will find that the concept of the mission of God is central to emerging understandings of missionary theology. I think we need greater clarity on this subject. As I post bits and pieces of my understanding, please critique me and challenge me, point out places in scripture I miss or places where my social and religious culture has blinded my understanding. I need your input. Also, I’m going to ask you questions. Feel free to answer as much or as little as you like.

My first questions are:

  • Is there such a thing as the mission of God? Why or Why not?
  • Is there a missional  focal point in scripture? If so, where?
  • Do you think that the missio Dei is the hermeneutical key to the grand narrative of Scripture? Why or Why not?
  • What does it mean to be incarnational?

Here’s Part 2



Add yours →

  1. These are good questions. I’ll try to give them a shot:

    (1) Yes, I suppose there is such a thing as the mission of God. I think we can find plenty of places throughout Scripture where God reveals his heart for all the nations (see Jonah, for example).

    (2) I would think that the missional focal point in Scripture is in the Incarnate Christ. He very literally changed history.

    (3) Properly defined, the missio Dei may be a hermeneutical key to the grand narrative of Scripture. I would want to see a lot of Jesus in there.

    (4) I have struggled with this language of being “incarnational.” I suppose people mean to say that we are supposed to be God’s ambassadors everywhere we go.

    I am excited to read your posts on this topic, as I think it will be greatly beneficial for our reading of Scripture.

    (I would also like to talk to you some time about network theories of conversion and what that means for mission. We read some of Rodney Stark yesterday for our Life of Paul class and I found him largely convincing. I see very serious implications for present mission as well. I think I may try to blog about it in a couple of weeks.)

  2. Matt,

    Thanks for the response. I hope you continue to give input on my ensuing posts. Since your answers to my questions are very, very similar to my current thinking. I am pleasantly suprised by your fourth response–you are in good company since Andreas Kostenberger argues in his published dissertation on the gospel of John that incarnational language should be reserved for Jesus, the apostles and disciples, viz. the church, are ambassadors, or representatives, of Christ in the world. Kudos! I agree!

  3. Wes, I’ll be posting my answer on my blog soon. 🙂

    But to the last two questions:

    1) No, I do not believe it is the hermeneutical framework for the Bible. I believe the Bible is very Messiah focused. I do believe that what we call the Missio Dei is an important aspect of the Messiah, but I do not see it as the main theme. If the Missio Dei is the hermeneutical key someone, once again, has to explain how the law fits in.

    2) What does it mean to be incarnational?

    That is my response. Why don’t you tell us.

    Okay, to answer the question…I think it has a lot to do with us completing the misison of Christ. How can we not be incarnational if we are a Christian? We exist, we are already incarnate. So what’s all the confusion with this? 🙂

  4. Cool! I am happy to hear that such a fine scholar as Kostenberger has made sense of my reservations. That is helpful.
    This is one of those points where I think the SBC gets things so right: RAs = Royal Ambassadors. I love it.

  5. Dougald,

    Yeah, I think we need to redefine how missio Dei language is being used. It comes across as being separate from what God is doing in history through Jesus. But I would still argue that the messianic theme of scripture is the foundation for the missional understanding of the Bible. In other words, I think the two go hand in hand. But I need to show this.

    Are you kidding with your answer about incarnational? Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not trying to make fun of you. But I think if we talk about incarnation, we have to reserve it for the God-man. From then, though God indwells us by His Spirit, scripture speaks of us as being in Christ. Incarnation implies the opposite. I think it is an area of much needed theological precision. Otherwise, as you read more missiological literature, everybody and his mama talks about incarnational ministry and everybody disagrees with everybody, even with their mamas, as to what this means. It has become a catch word with very little meaning. Thus, ambassador language, or representational categories, speak more accurately of our station in the world as Christians. What do you think?

  6. Matt,

    David Hesselgrave is a missiologist by trade who tracks on these same lines. In fact, he quotes Kostenberger often on this, so much so, Kostenberger wrote the forward for his latest work Paradigms in Conflict

  7. How I understand the Missio Dei is that we are not busy with something new. Wherever we are working, God is already present, which makes us merely co-workers of God. This is at the same time challenging to know that we are co-workers and also humbling, because whatever “success” we think we may have, has got little to do with us but much more to do with God. Although we never read in the Bible specifically about the Missio Dei, the context in which I understand it is often implied, eg in Matthew 20:18-20 where Jesus says: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
    Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” You could have a look at some exegesis on this passage at http://missionissues.wordpress.com/2007/09/20/the-great-commission-of-matthew-28-1/ and http://missionissues.wordpress.com/2007/09/21/the-great-commission-of-matthew-28-2/

    A missional focal point? The Bible in its whole is missional! God is focussed on people and mission is focussed on people. God created people. Abraham is called to become a blessing for all nations. Israel is saved in order to reach the nations of the earth (Romans 9-11) and so we can go on. More and more missiologists say that we should not speak of the Biblical foundation for mission but rather the missional foundation for the Bible!

    I am wary to speak of the Missio Dei as the key to Scripture. Most theologians consider the kingdom of God as the key. Others consider the covenant as the key. The Missio Dei would also be part of whatever key we use, but I don’t think that this in itself is the key.

    In mission theology incarnation has to do with presenting the gospel within a culture in a credible manner. In short, this has to do with the communication of the gospel.

    I hope this helps.


  8. Arnau,

    Thank you so much. I’m sorry that your comment went into moderation (I think because I have my blog programmed to catch posts with two or more links).

    My next post is going to begin with the doctrine of God’s providence. Being Dutch reformed, I assume you may agree. For my MDiv, I studied Bavinck and Berkouwer, two viewpoints on the matter that were very influential for me (as were Aquinas and Edwards). So I am in total agreement with your statement “because whatever “success” we think we may have, has got little to do with us but much more to do with God.”

    I also like your distinction between a missional foundation for the Bible and the missio Dei as its hermeneutical key. When I read Christopher Wright’s book The Mission of God I was very wary of his, if I understand him correctly, equation of the missio Dei with the missional foundation of the Bible. I lean towards a messianic hermeneutical key (to try to distinguish my understanding from a Christological reading).

    I’m just thinking, as I present more of my (truly) growing understanding of a theology of mission, or missional theology, I need some challenges. I wish I had the mind of Bosch or Newbigin or some other great missionary or theologian, but I don’t…even so, I don’t think theology is meant to be done in isolation, but in community. At least for now, the blogosphere is my critiquing community. I know this is very rudimentary, but its a beginning. Hopefully, I may be able to participate with my local church community as well.

  9. Good questions bro, with all of these great minds in this forum I’m a little intimidated to share my thoughts but here goes.

    1. “Is there such a thing as the Mssn of God? Why or why not?”

    I would have to say yes. In all of scripture our Father is driven with a purpose or mssn. All that He does is purposeful for the accomplishing of His mssn. Our Father does not make mistakes nor does He stray from His mssn. If we said that there was no Missio Dei then we would really have to strongly rethink our evangelical understanding of scripture.

    2. “Is there a mssnal focal point in scripture? If so where?”

    Yes, and it must be the Messiah. He is prophesied of in the earlier writings of scripture and realized in the latter. It is He that all must look to if salvation is to be had at all. No matter what point in history an individual is born it is the Messiah who must be looked to for salvation. Therefore I would say that the Messiah is this focal point.

    3. “Do you think that the Missio Dei is the the hermeneutical key to the grand narrative of scripture? why or why not?”

    I think that the focal point of the missio dei is the hermeneutical key. But because the Messiah is the focal point of the missio dei then the two are intertwined to a point that the missio dei must be a major part of our understanding of the grand narrative of scripture. All of scripture hinges on the Messiah, if there is no Messiah in scripture then there is no point, scripture then becomes alot of really nice stories or a nice historical account with cool poetry. But the Messiah holds all of scripture together and therefore I would say that He is the hermeneutical key we must look to for understanding.

    Gotta run and meet with a friend i’ll answer number four when I get back.

    Talk to you later bro,

  10. J

    I’m glad to hear from you! Thank you for your comments! We are praying for you!

    I look forward to your answer to question 4.

  11. Wes,

    We talked about this but for those listening…I am joking about being incarnational. Personally I haven’t read enough to know what missionaries mean by that term. Sometimes, I don’t know if they know what they mean. But moving on…

    I may be splitting hairs here, and this is just my struggle with the whole Missio Dei term, is that I don’t see the purpose of the Bible as God being on mission to redeem humanity (or creation) as if he had some purpose, meaning and if this is not accomplished his meaning is lost. Redemption is a very important part of what the Bible teaches and that we should be spreading the glory of God (mission). But, I think that the hermeneutical key for me is God (trinitarian=Father, Son/Messiah, Spirit). In the end (heaven), we will not be extolling the Missio Dei, we will be extolling God and who he is. If Piper is correct and mission exists because Worship doesn’t, then how does this play into the whole discussion. Or does it? Am I just a rambling idiot? 🙂

    I don’t even know right now what implications this would have for the whole discussion.

    In the are of OT studies we have issues with hermeneutical keys (centers/themes) because they don’t work all the way through. What I mean is, they don’t jive with what the text says. At some point these centers cannot fully explain the text. See Von Rad or for a better overview Hasel) The only hermeneutical key that helps read all texts without a pressuposition (perhaps) is that it is revealing God to us. Call this the Missio Dei if you like, but I feel that if we do, somehow, this takes away from what scripture reveals.

    I’m not negative about using the term Missio Dei. I just want some clarification. I agree with much that has been said. It is really a matter of semantics for me here and ontology. And when it all comes down to it probably has little effect concerning this whole matter.

    Continually splitting hairs, 🙂


  12. 4. “What does it mean to be incarnational?”

    I do agree with the sentiments of others in this forum that incarnational is a word that should be reserved to describe what Isa did, as John describes it “and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…” But in the same breath I believe I understand what m-ologists are trying to say when they use this term in reference to cross-cultural min. It seems to me that writers like Lingenfelter are calling for a type of min. which inserts the cross-cultural worker into the location, language and cultural context of the people he is trying to reach with the good news. This insertion means that to an extent the cross-cultural worker is being changed as he becomes a part of the people and culture where he resides for the sake of sharing the good news. But Lingenfelter (see Sherwood and Lingenfelters “Ministering Cross-Culturally”) rightly admits that this “incarnation” is not the same as Isa’s, it only goes to a certain extent. Therefore Isa was a 200% person, fully God and fully man, and we have the possibility to be 150% people as it concerns us culturally. While I don’t agree with his use of incarnational to describe this (I think he uses it because it’s catchy) I understand that he is calling for a witness that would insert himself into a foreign context, learn the language, learn the culture, become a part of the people to whatever extent that he can, and share the good news in that context. And Dougald is right, it does come down to semantics alot of the time. I wish we could all use language the right way all the time. But until heaven we must continue to have these discussions.

    Talk to you later bro, and we are looking forward to hearing news of our little niece soon!

  13. oops typo, I wrote

    (see Sherwood and Lingenfelter…)

    that is the same person it should be

    Mayers or Myers (don’t remember) and Lingenfelter I think???

    I don’t have the book with me but you guys know what I’m talking about.

  14. J,

    Yeah, I know the book of which you speak. I wouldn’t disagree with what you said about “incarnational”. But I’m going to give a lenghty response to your answer, don’t take it personally, I’m only explicating my view. Feel free to challenge me or disagree.

    The problem is that Mayers and Lingenfelter use “incarnational” differently that Kraft who uses it differently that Heibert who uses it different than the emergents/missionals who use it different than etc, etc. Something similar could be said of the term “contextualization” but at least in the discussion of contextualizing theology scholars are honest enough to recognize distinctions; so different models of contextualization exist, where different models of “incarnational” do not.

    Thus, the term gets redefined by everybody and they don’t make distinctions with others; people assume they are using it the same way. So what exactly does it mean? It becomes rather meaningless, or it becomes an emotional term used to show “we are doing things better than you are.”

    Thus, though I agree with Lingenfelter’s emphasis on immersing the gospel in the receptor culture, I still believe talking of it as “incarnational” is problematic. (What of the scriptural emphasis on the Spirit?)

    This is why I say leave it as a theological term referring to the coming of the God-man.

    Furthermore, Kostenberger argues that the theology behind speaking of missionaries as incarnational missionaries is incorrect. It implies a continuity with Jesus that blurs too many distinctions. As ambassadors, or representatives, the distinctions are maintained. Hesselgrave extends this to argue that incarnational models turn the missionary into a liberator, transformer, savior of the people and culture whereas representational models point to Jesus as the liberator, transformer, and savior while the missionary is an ambassador, evangelist, and church planter. Nonetheless, there is room for disagreement with his analysis.

    Ultimately, I think that we can make a good scriptural argument for “contextualizing” the gospel, which is really what Mayers and Lingenfelter are trying to advocate, I don’t think we have to thereby “theologize” the argument. In other words, it is wise to thoughtfully and critically employ the science of cultural anthropology in contextualization. I don’t think it is necessary to veil this process in theological language, such as “incarnational.” We do it the same way Christian scientists worship God in discovering cures to disease, the way Christian teachers worship God through teaching their students well. Christian missionaries worship God in removing barriers and building bridges for the gospel in their context so that the receptor people can own it as their own. It is an act of worship, not of theologizing.

  15. Thanks for expounding your view.

    I see no point of disagreement here. I also believe that the use of “incarnational” should not be used in reference to m’s and their ministry. Also thank you for pointing out that many m-ologists are using this word with their own particular m-ological thrust in mind. It is hard to have a clear understanding as to what they mean when everyone is using it differently.

    I appreciated your last two sentences. Thanks for your thoughts.


  16. J

    Its a good discussion, that sadly, few are having, except maybe Hesselgrave. But, hopefully that will change.

    Keep up what your doing brother!

  17. Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

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