Reviewing A Biblical Theology of Missions

Peters, George W. A Biblical Theology of Missions. Chicago: Moody, 1972.

George Peters was born in Chortitza (Zaporozhye), Ukraine, in 1907, migrating to Canada in 1928, nine years after the murder of his father. By 1947, he had earned his Ph.D. from the Kennedy School of Missions, Hartford Seminary, after which he was appointed chief administrator of Pacific Bible Institute, and eight years later appointed academic dean of the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary. He is considered an American Mennonite Missiologist, though he served 14 years as the head of the department of missions at Dallas Theological Seminary. After retiring from DTS, he taught missions in Germany, helping to establish the Freie Hochschule für Mission. Throughout his educational career he served 25 years on the Board of Foreign Missions of the Mennonite Brethren Church.[1] A Biblical Theology of Missions is one of Peters’ major works.

In this work, Peters spreads eight chapters, with introduction and conclusion through three major divisions. Part one, comprised of four chapters, covers the “Biblical Foundations of Missions.” Here, he treats, in order, missionary theology and (1) Jesus Christ, (2) the Nature of God, (3) the Old Testament, and (4) the New Testament, respectively. In part two, Peters devotes two chapters on the “Biblical Delineation of Missions”: (5) The Missionary Task and (6) The Church and Missions. Finally, in part three, he concludes with chapters on (7) The Instruments of Missions and (8) The Dynamics of Missions. The volume also includes a two brief but helpful indices and a lengthy bibliography, perfect for the inquisitive scholar. The preface is also a must read because there he introduces his methodology, presuppositions, and some preliminary definitions of terms.

From the outset, Peters informs the reader that his intentions are not to provide a critical reading of biblical theology, but to “deliberately [avoid] all conflict” (10). In other words, this book is what he thinks about the biblical theology of missions based on years of study and experience. He takes an Heilsgeschichte (or holy history, holy story, salvation history) approach reflected in the chronological ordering of his biblical selections. This approach deserves a fair bit of critique, which will come later. Also, he sets out that he does not use mission and missions synonymously. His distinction between the two could be made clearer (he relates both to the ministry of the church) but the distinction is noted. Finally, one cannot but help note the thoroughgoing dispensational and anti-Calvinistic flavor of the book. While the missiologist should appreciate Peters high regard for scripture, the interpretation according to his systems of belief may not be as helpful for the cause of missions, in the long run. For instance, increasingly, Dispensationalism is waning in influence while Calvinism may be waxing and yet neither system is absolutely necessary for the missionary enterprise! Not that one should look for a Calvinistic reading of the text, or disparage the Dispensational, but a rewrite (of the extent of Peters’ treatment) of a biblical theology of missions is sorely needed. Köstenberger and O’Brien have written a very scholarly, critical biblical theology of mission Salvation to the Ends of the Earth, but, as NT scholars, one wonders if something more could have been said regarding the Old Testament, (though their work is still highly recommended!!). Before continuing to identify the weakness of Peters’ work, some strengths should be identified.

First, he begins where Christopher Wright, in The Mission of God also begins (though 34 prior!): “the Bible is not a book about theology as such, but rather, a record of theology in mission.” Peters labors well to demonstrate that missions oozes from the binding of every page in the Bible. In so doing, Peters he exalts the authority of scripture. Second, even though he presents a dispensational view of missions in the OT, he dedicates a very significant amount of work towards describing the universal-particular movement in the OT, from the universal promise to all nations, to the particular choosing of Israel as a mediator of God’s salvation to the nations. Peters arrangement of material stands out here. Chapter one begins with Christ, not the OT, then there is a chapter on God followed by the OT and NT chapters respectively. In that sense, his approach is more systematic- rather than biblical-theological. This makes his omission of the biblical theology of the gospels more frustrating once coming to the fourth chapter. To the sensitive reader, it appears that Dispensationalism negatively affected Peters’ biblical theology.

The problems with part one aside, in part two, the reader finds two excellent chapters on the great commission and the relations of ecclesiology to missiology. Though one wishes that the fifth chapter tied together the whole canonical impetus for the great commission, rather than focusing primarily on the gospels, his defense of the Great Commission as primary in missions is appreciated. Then, in the conclusion of the sixth chapter, Peters includes a timely discussion of partnership in missions between missionaries and planted/receiving churches which is instructive for the contemporary situation in Majority World Missions. He identifies the necessity of Holy Spirit empowered mutuality and equality in the ongoing partnership to reach the lost world.

In the final part, the seventh chapter, Peters discusses the biblical foundation of the missionary office and he also makes the case for the church as the primary sending agency for the missionaries. Missionaries do not “go”; they are “sent”. He also has a lengthy but excellent discussion of the missionary call. His conclusion is very informative and seems to have been overlooked. Missionaries are not called to places, but to work. It is the work of the ministry of the gospel, which can be done in either home or foreign context. He only pleads that missionaries consider the vast lostness of the world and go minister where there is the greatest need. In the final chapter, though he begins well with a discussion of the role of the Holy Spirit in missions, the remainder of the chapter seems out of place, like he was looking for a place to include the broader science of missions in his biblical theology. The information is not useless, but seems out of place.

In conclusion, this review appreciates much of what Peters had to say. If one can ignore Peters dispensational presuppositions, then the book would be an excellent missions textbook. Certainly for those with a dispensational background, one would find very few qualms. Still, a true and comprehensive biblical theology of missions is much needed!

Chapter by Chapter Key Quotes


  1. It is my impression that the Bible is not a book about theology as such, but rather, a record of theology in mission (9).
  2. It is understood throughout the Scriptures that the end result of such Missio Dei will be the glorification of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In the presentation of the subject I have taken Christ as the center and starting point. It is my conviction that the Bible must be interpreted Christocentrically, as Christ Himself interpreted the Scriptures to His disciples (Lk 24:25-27, 44-49). Christ is the center of revelation and also the key to its understanding (9).


  1. Christian missions makes sense only in the light of an existing abnormality or emergency and in the conviction that an answer to and remedy for such a malady is available. Therefore I address myself first of all to the malady or emergency which exists and which, from the historical and eternal perspective, demands action. The emergency is the fact of sin in the world which has overpowered and infected the human race and which threatens the very existence of mankind (15).
  2. Missions is the practical realization of the Holy Spirit operating in this world on behalf of the eternal purpose of God and the actualization of salvation procured through Christ Jesus in the lives of countless individuals, families, tribes and people. Thus missions relates to the triune God (27).
  3. Missionary theology is not an appendix to biblical theology; it belongs at its very core (27).

Part I—Biblical Foundations of Missions

Chapter 1: Missionary Theology and Jesus Christ

  1. Christ Jesus in His basic theological concepts and presuppositions undeniably sets forth the implicit universality of salvation and the gospel. All His major theological concepts — kingdom of God, fatherhood of God, Son of man, sin and salvation or redemption, the purpose of His life, His commission to disciple all nations and judge all nations — lift Him above His own nation, culture and religion, and place Him into race relationships and make Him the Redeemer of mankind and the world. Christ, indeed, has world significance – not because Christianity has made Him such, but because biblical Christianity incarnates Him (47).

Chapter 2: Missionary Theology and the Nature of God

  1. The incarnation-cross-resurrection event is the fountain and foundation of the salvation of God, the only hope for mankind. It is the pinnacle of Christ’s self-giving love for mankind (62).
  2. As such, they demonstrate convincingly the missionary character of Christianity and put the cross-resurrection event at the heart of all missionary endeavor (63).
  3. 9 basic principles about salvation:
    1. Salvation is essentially divine in origin.
    2. Salvation is essentially Christocentric.
    3. Salvation is essentially cross-resurrection related.
    4. Salvation is essentially of grace.
    5. Salvation is essentially an organic unit.
    6. Salvation is essentially moral in content and purpose.
    7. Salvation is essentially by faith.
    8. Salvation is intentionally universal.
    9. Salvation is potentially cosmic (64).

Chapter 3: Missionary Theology and the Old Testament

  1. The Bible is a beautifully unified book (83).
  2. Universality in Protoevangelium and Noahic Covenant (86–8).
  3. Among all religions, Old Testament revelational religion constitutes the exclusive mission of God in the world in at least four ways:
    1. It is a divine movement, expressing disapproval of ethnically developed, humanly devised religions and heathen practices of the world.
    2. It is a divinely inspired ethical monotheism preserving man from utter lostness in polytheism, idolatry and spiritism.
    3. It is the creation of God to sustain the divinely inspired hope in the promised Redeemer (Gen 3:15) who would save mankind from the predicament of sin and destruction and restore his original glory, purpose and meaning.
    4. It is the calling unto God of a selective minority instrument for the purpose of making an effective missionary thrust into mankind with the intent of blessings and salvation to all mankind (88–9).
      1. The consistent emphasis upon monotheism in the Old Testament reveals God as the sole Creator and benevolent Ruler of the universe.
      2. The insistence upon God as the Lord of hosts who remains the Ruler and Judge of the nations and who actually uses them as His instruments for judgment in advancing His cause.
      3. The pronounced and condemning attitude toward the development and practices of religion outside the sphere of particularistic revelation.
      4. The clear pronouncements and inclusive promises of the Old Testament.
      5. The solemn and unique calling of Israel to be God’s witness and God’s priesthood as instituted under Moses and developed by the prophets (106–10).

Chapter 4: Missionary Theology and the New Testament

  1. The apostles were convinced that all that had happened was in perfect harmony with the prediction of Old Testament prophecy. Pentecost had transformed their vision (139).

Part 2—Biblical Delineation of Missions

Chapter 5: The Missionary Task

  1. A genuine revival of missions, therefore, can come only from a genuine revival of biblical theology, properly interpreted according to the counsel of God. Missions not founded upon sound biblical interpretation will be sporadic and erratic (160).
  2. The Twofold Mandate—dangerous to confuse the cultural mandate with the Great Commission (166ff).
  3. The Great Commission does not make Christianity a missionary religion. The latter is such because of its source, nature and total design. The apostles became missionaries not because of a commission but because Christianity is what it is and because of the indwelling Holy Spirit who is an outgoing and witnessing Spirit. Christ Himself speaks of the mission of the Holy Spirit as a witnessing mission (Jn 15:26; 16:8-15). Thus, if the particular words of the Great Commission had never been recorded or preserved, the missionary thrust and  responsibility of the church would not be in the least affected (173).

Chapter 6: The Church and Missions

  1. Missions is not an imposition upon the church for it belongs to her nature and should be as natural to her as grapes are natural to branches that abide in the vine. Missions flows from the inner constitution, character, calling and design of the church (200).
  2. No one can study the symbolic presentation of the church without being deeply impressed by the truth of interdependence. While the Bible upholds the autonomy of a local assembly, it knows nothing of independence in the absolute sense of the word. Biblical independence is always balanced by absolute dependence upon the Lord and interdependence among the churches (202).
  3. From the teaching of the New Testament it is easily perceived that the church operates in three relationships: upward to God in worship and glorification; inward to herself in edification, purification, education and discipline; outward to the world in evangelization and service ministries (209).
  4. THE NEW TESTAMENT CHURCH AS THE MEDIATING SENDING AUTHORITY—In our consideration of the New Testament church as the mediating sending authority, we shall point to the centrality of the church in the New Testament and her relationship to the Lord who is the Head of the church, to the apostolic succession of the church, the interrelationship of the authority of the church and the individual priesthood of the believer, which includes a consideration of the significance of the rite of laying on of hands, and the relationship of some apostles to the churches (218).
  5. By the laying on of hands, the church and the individual missionary become bound in a bond of common purpose and mutual responsibility (221).
  6. The local assembly and the individual believer belong organically together, and they must function harmoniously if the full biblical truth is to be manifested. While there is governmental autonomy of the local church, there is no such governmental autonomy of the individual believer. Neither is there governmental autonomy of the individual missionary when it relates to his service. The missionary is always a sent one and remains under authority of the church or church-delegated agency (223).
  7. Partnership is a relationship which has its roots in our identification with the churches on the deepest levels and in our fellowship in the Spirit, in His suffering and in our mutual burdens, interests, purposes and goals. Partnership is not circumstantial; it is a matter of life, health and relationship. It belongs to the nature of Christianity, it is not optional; it is bound up in Christian fellowship and progress (239).
  8. In all things it behooves us to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace and demonstrate our mutuality and equality in Christ and in His cause before the world (241).

Part 3—Biblical Instruments and Dynamics of Missions

Chapter 7: The Instruments of Mission

  1. A missionary is a messenger with a message from God, sent forth by divine authority for the definite purpose of evangelism, church-founding and church edification (248).
  2. The missionary today is a “sent one” if he is a missionary in the biblical sense of the word. A missionary is not one who has gone out but one who has been sent out (252).
  3. 3 senses of calling in NT:
    4. Paul knew that he was called into a work. It was not a field — home field or foreign field, it was a work (275).
    5. The choice of the geographical area of service is a matter of individual leading, but not a matter of the call. The Bible does not distinguish between a call for the home field and a call for the foreign field (276).
    6. Too many are limiting the Lord in their appointments by setting geographical and cultural bounds. They want to be evangelists, Bible teachers, Bible institute and Bible college teachers, but it must be within a certain geographical and cultural area. They have never had a “call” to leave the homeland and go beyond certain geographical and cultural boundaries, so they say. This, indeed, is strange logic and peculiar interpretation of the Lord’s hand upon us. While evangelists are needed to herald the gospel, the “called” and qualified evangelist waits within geographical and cultural specifications, not heeding the wide open doors and whitened harvest fields because they are within a different geographical and cultural area (277).

Chapter 8: The Dynamics of Missions

  1. Pentecost becomes the watershed of a new type of world missions. As the outgoing God, the Holy Spirit transforms the centripetalism of missions into a dynamic and urgent centrifugalism.. The “Come!” is replaced by a “Go!” and the inviting voice of the priest at the altar is superseded by the herald rushing from place to place to call a people unto God (300).
  2. Man, however, is God’s moral, rational and responsible colaborer and collaborator. Man is more than just an instrument or tool. He is an agent who consciously, volitionally and voluntarily collaborates with God in the execution of the great drama of salvation upon this earth (303).
  3. Through this new creation the Holy Spirit was to execute and accomplish the purposes of God. Though the ministries of the church are manifold, no small portion of it must be devoted to world evangelism because the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of witness, restraint and conviction in the world (304).

[1] Hans Kansdorf, “Peters, George W(ilhelm)” in Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, ed. Gerald H. Anderson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 529.

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