God’s Providence – Part 2 of my growing understanding of a theology of mission

The following is a continuation of this post.

missio Dei as God’s Mission

What is the best way to understand the word “mission”?

Mission is a word chosen to describe actions driven by a purpose or end. Furthermore, NT scholars (see works of Köstenberger and Schnabel) of mission note both the implication of intentionality and movement in the term. So while mission will inevitably involve “going” or “sending”, I believe the best theological category for understanding God’s mission is His providence. Theologically, God’s providence has been understood in terms of sustenance, concurrence, and governance. In other words, God actively sustains the world by His power (Heb 1:3) in that all things are dependent upon God for both their very existence and their designed end. Also, God works concurrently as the primary cause (in Aristotelian/Thomistic categories), thus establishing human freedom while directing all of history according to his own purposes, so that He is “at work in us both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Phil 2:13).  Finally, God governs all of history through created order (natural law) and special revelation so that he, as in concurrence, is the first and, as in governance, the final cause of everything. Thus, scripture affirms that “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28) and “from Him and through Him and to Him are all things” (Rom 11:36). As such, God is in complete control of every action and He directs all of history through a combination of primary and final causation toward His end. The origins and teleology of the universe is found in God; everything begins and ends with God. Moreover, God reveals through scripture that the movement from origins to eschaton is accomplished through and by Jesus. The incarnation and all its implications, then, is the center of God’s mission.

The Woman’s Seed, obscurely then foretold,
Now amplier known thy Saviour and thy Lord,
Last in the clouds from heav’n to be revealed
In glory of the Father, to dissolve
Satan with his perverted world, then raise
From the conflagrant mass, purged and refined,
New heav’ns, new earth, ages of endless date
Founded in righteousness and peace of love,
To bring forth fruits joy and eternal bliss.

This quote from Milton’s Paradise Lost gives poetic image to the truth that the center of scripture, and arguably all of life, is the Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, understandably, the messianic expectation is the framework for the missio Dei throughout the canon of Scripture.

The canonical story begins where the canon begins, with creation. Arguably, Jesus is the personification of Wisdom (“Prov 8”) through whom the world was created. The New Testament clarifies the role of the Son in creation (John 1:3; Col 1:15-17; Heb 1:2). Thus, the triune God (cf. role of Spirit in Gen 1:2) acts through creating by the word of his power a good world ruled by good men and women (Gen 1:27-8). Mankind, then, is the pinnacle of God’s very good creation. After creating man, God rests (Gen 2:2-3). The man and women he created, though, chose to rebel against their good God. As a result, God cursed the man, the woman, the serpent, and the earth. The rest of the story of scripture is the story of God’s love in overcoming the sin of mankind. Thus, God is at work again. So Jesus can say, “My Father is working until now, and I myself am working” (John 5:17). And thus Jesus frames his ministry as doing His Father’s work (John 4:34; 17:4). This work is not completed until Jesus rests upon the throne exclaiming once again in victory “It is done!” (Rev 21:6; see Rev 21-22).

Thus, the narrative of scripture from Genesis to Revelation is explained in terms of the divine activities of the Triune God, specifically in the role of the Son both in redeeming the fallen human race and in renewing (recreating) the fallen world and finally reigning over his redeemed New Creation. In the ensuing posts, I will trace out further implications of the messianic expectation.

Questions:

  • Missio Dei touches every Christian doctrine. Agree or Disagree? Why?
  • To question God’s sovereign providence over His creation is to compromise mission. Agree or Disagree? Why?
  • What are the implications of a biblical theology of mission, or a missional theology of the Bible, for the exercise of the Christian mission?

Here’s Part 3

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2 Comments

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  1. I had been waiting to tackle these questions until someone else commented, but I have given up. I don’t really have a lot ot say, and this is why I was waiting. Anyway, here goes:

    (1) I think we have to start by asking what every Christian doctrine is. What is doctrine? What version of doctrine? For example, a purely ‘substitutionary’ atonement reading of the cross may not be as missionally significant as a Christus Victor account. Or maybe it is, I’m not sure. I do think we need to be wary of reading everything though the lens of our suggested version of the missio dei.

    (2) No, I do not agree that questioning God’s sovereign providence over His creation is to compromise mission. I think we all need to have serious conversations about what it means for God to be sovereign. Too many Calvinists seem to think that they have possession of this word, but every true Christian believes God is sovereign – they just disagree in which ways and how. Plus, I don’t think we do wrong by questioning things, as I think this is the path to learning.

    (3) I think this question is very important, and I think you are right on. I think we have to discuss the nature of mission in Scripture and apply that to the present. Too many of my classmates believe that true mission is only service. Giving money to a beggar is mission. Serving at a food kitchen is mission. These are good things (and may include part of what it mission entails), but I think there is much more involved here. Likewise, many of my classmates believe that Evangelicals conceive of mission only as “getting them saved.” I know that many Evangelical groups are much more sophisticated than this Americanistic colonialism model that some of my classmates accuse them of carrying.

    I look forward to hearning more of your comments on this subject. I cherish your thoughts on this subject, as I know that your heart is right, your knowledge is admirable, and your experience is a witness to your credibility. Thanks.

  2. Matt,

    Thanks for responding. I am surprised that many people did not respond to my statements because in tackling the subject of God’s Providence, I’m straying away from how missiology has been discussed, at least by evangelicals. (Noteworthy, Lesslie Newbigin defines theology of mission largely in terms of the doctrine of election).

    In response to your #1, I think you are asking good questions. I love how Mark Driscoll handles the topic–he gives a 12 part sermon series tackling every aspect of the significance of Christ’s death (see this post for a list of and links to the sermons). So he has a sermon of substitutionary atonement, on Christus Victor, etc, etc. We are all tempted to narrow in on one of the multifaceted dimensions of the work of Christ.

    Let me give my answer to number 1 from the post. I think at some level, varying in the respective doctrine, one’s understanding of mission or the missio Dei affects, or conversely is affected by, the respective doctrine. For instance, one’s eschatology is going to affect what one thinks about missiology, as will one’s soteriology, etc. I guess my point is that theology and mission is inseparable (with the understanding that theology and mission will vary from person to person, or school to school).

    My second statement was intentionally controversial. The obvious contention will be between calvinists and arminians. Even so, we have to admit that many folks from both persuasions have done tremendous work for God’s kingdom in every possible way. I hoped to provide an understanding of providence that couldn’t be claimed exclusively by either camp. For instance, I personally hold to “middle knowledge.” Dougald thinks I’m a heretic (lovingly), but I think it is consistent with my understanding of providence. Ultimately, I came to my understanding through Aquinas as well as through Edwards. Honestly, I still need to investigate other alternatives, even though I believe I have a good understanding as it is. But I’m open to discussion. I was hoping to get a good response to this question, I appreciate your warnings.

    Regarding number 3, I hope the ensuing posts will present a holistic view of mission that avoid the pitfalls of the colonial paradigm, even though I think I can make a good argument that the colonial paradigm is largely dismissed without being investigated. For instance, mission was much more holistic towards China in the late 19th century than anything today. Prior to the ecumenical/evangelicial split of the twentieth century, mission was both social and evangelistic. Unfortunately, those more inclined towards social ministry, and for the most part more inclined towards liberal theology, fell into the ecumenical camp while those more inclined towards evangelism, and for the most part fundamentalist theology, fell into the evangelical camp. But before the split, it was acceptable to be a missionary doctor, or school teacher, or relief worker, without compromising the necessity of the verbal proclamation of the gospel. I think mission is not either/or, but both/and. And I really mean both/and. One without the other is a misrepresentation of the holistic nature of the kindom of God and thus the gospel.

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