A Theologically-Driven Missiology (Pt. 3: The Triune God)

Note: This series of posts deals with the relationship between doctrine and practice in general, and between theology and missiology in particular. It argues that sound theology should provide the starting point, trajectory, and parameters for missiological practice. It seeks a “theologically-driven” missiology both for the United States and international contexts.

The doctrine of God is absolutely central to all of the church’s life. Ironically, however, we seem to have the most difficult time allowing this doctrine to drive our practice. How does such a lofty and majestic doctrine speak to concrete and even mundane practices? How do God’s Trinitarian nature, His creativity and His sovereignty affect our strategies and methods? To begin with, here are several:

God as Trinity

One of the central tasks of proclamation is to communicate the gospel across cultures and across languages. We are called to communicate the precious truth of a God who took on human flesh, who lived and died and rose again, and who will return and bring with him a new heavens and a new earth. And we are called to do so with people who speak different languages and who live in cultures far removed from our own.

This challenge lies at the heart of missiology. Entire forests have been chopped down to make way for the books, articles, and essays on cross-cultural communication and contextualization. But nearly all of these publications fail to recognize that the success of this enterprise rests squarely on the shoulders of the Triune God. In fact, the Trinity is a model of accomplished communication. The Triune God is God the Father (the One who speaks), God the Son (the Word), and God the Spirit (the one who illumines and guides and teaches); God the Father speaks through His Son and we as humans are enabled to hear and understand that communication by His Spirit. The Trinity is a demonstration, contra Derrida and others, that accomplished communication is possible.

God as Creator & King

It is God who created this world in which we minister and God who gave us the capacities to minister. As Creator, he gave us the world in which we now live, and it is a good world. It is ontologically good and-although it is morally corrupt-we ought to use any and all aspects of God’s world to bring Him glory. We are able, like Abraham Kuyper, bring the gospel to bear upon the arts, the sciences, and the public square. We may, as Martin Luther urged, bring the gospel to bear upon our multiple callings-workplace, family, church, and community. In short, we have the great opportunity to give God glory across the fabric of human existence and in every dimension of human culture.

Indeed, it is God who made us in his image, capable of being spiritual, moral, rational, relational, and creative. Although it is Jesus Christ who is Himself the image of God (Col 1:15), we human beings are made in the image of God. Moreover, salvation includes the conforming of sinful men to the image of the Son (Rom 8:29), in which we are remade into the image of our Creator (Col 3:10). The gospel, therefore, affects all aspects of man in the image of God, and further all aspects of man in the image of God ought to be used to minister in God’s world.

Furthermore, it is this same God who claims sovereignty over all of his creation, and directs His church’s mission to extend across all of creation. He is the Lord over every tribe, tongue, tongue, people, and nation-over every type of person who has ever lived across the span of history and the face of the globe. And he is the Lord over every facet of human life-over the artistic, the scientific, the philosophical, the economic, and the socio-political. “The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Ps 24:1).

God and His Name

The Scriptures describe how God does all that He does for the sake of His name, for His renown, for His glory. He created man for his glory (Is 43:7) and chose Israel for His glory (Is 49:3). God delivered Israel from Egypt for His name’s sake (Ps 106:7-8) and restored them from exile for his glory (Is 48:9-11). He sent our Lord Jesus Christ so that the Gentiles would give Him glory (Ro 15:8-9) and then vindicated His glory by making propitiation through His Son (Rom 3:23-26). He sent the Spirit to glorify the Son (Jn 16:14) and tells us to do all things for His glory (1 Cor 10:31). He will send his Son again to receive glory (2 Thess 1:9-10) and will fill the earth with the knowledge of His glory (Hab 2:14; Is 6:1-3). Indeed, all of this is so, “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10).

Indeed God in all of his blazing glory stands at the center of the universe. He is the fountainhead of all truth, all goodness, and all beauty. And it is the increase of His glory that is God’s ultimate goal and man’s ultimate purpose.

One implication of this for mission is that we have the great joy of proclaiming that God’s goal to be glorified enables man’s purpose, which is to be truly satisfied. The Psalmist writes, “O God, You are my God; early will I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh longs for You in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water” (Ps 63:1). Man’s deepest thirst turns out to be God’s highest goal-for man to bring glory to God in all that He does. The road toward pleasing God and giving Him glory and the road toward knowing deep happiness are not two roads; they are one. The message we bring to the nations is one that, for them, is profoundly good news.

Another implication of this for the missional Christian is that if our ultimate goal is God’s glory, then we are set free from unbridled pragmatism. Our ultimate goal is to please God, not to manipulate or coerce professions of faith, church growth, or church multiplication. And so, we are directed away from the temptation to engage in evangelism and discipleship that subverts the gospel or the health of the church, and are free to proclaim the gospel God’s way and leave the results to God.

God’s Mission

Finally, and this point will be expanded upon at a later time, mission finds its origin in God. Mission is God-centered rather than man-centered, being rooted in God’s gracious will to glorify Himself. Mission is defined by God. It is organized, energized, and directed by God. Ultimately, it is accomplished by God. The church cannot understand her mission apart from the mission of God.

Book Recommendations: The History of Christian Mission

One of the things we hope to do at Between the Times is provide readers with helpful introductory bibliographies on topics we consider to be important. We hope these bibliographies will be a valuable resource for those who desire to live rightly before God between Christ’s first and second comings.

The following is a list of recommended books devoted to the history of Christian mission, one of my areas of scholarly interest. Though this list is just beginning to scratch the surface, I believe it is a good starting place for those interested in the topic. It is officially a “top ten” list, though you will see that some of the recommendations are multi-volume works. I have also recommended one whole series in addition to the list itself. No single-volume missionary biographies are included in this list; I will save those for a separate bibliography in the future.

Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity, 7 vols. (New York and London: Harper, 1937-1945). This is the most extensive history of mission published to date, though the work is obviously a bit dated. This is still a great place to look to fill in details about specific periods, and it builds upon the work of late 19th and early 20th century scholars like Harnack. The series is out-of-print, but can still be purchased online from a number of used booksellers.

Stephen Neill, A History of Christian Missions, 2d ed. (New York: Penguin, 1986). This is the best one-volume introduction to this topic. Neill’s interpretation is strongly influenced by mid-20th century ecumenism. If you only puchase one book for your personal library, this should be the one.

David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in the Theology of Mission (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1990). Bosch’s work is arguably the most significant constructive work in missiology published in the last quarter century. Part 2 of the book, covering over 150 pages, is a helpful introduction to the dominant missiological paradigms that reigned during different periods of church history. Highly recommended.

Ruth Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004). This book is a wonderful popular introduction to the history of mission written from an evangelical perspective. As the title indicates, Tucker’s book is actually a collection of several dozen short biographical essays of key mission leaders. This would be the perfect book to use in a small group context in a local church.

Eckhard J. Schnabel, Early Christian Mission, 2 vols. (InterVarsity, 2004). The history of Christian mission actually begins with the first century. Schnabel’s highly acclaimed work addresses mission in the New Testament era. Written from an evangelical perspective.

Andrew F. Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission and Appropriation of Faith (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2002). See below.

________, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1996). Both this work and the above book are collections of essays written by one of the leading historical missiologists in the world. Walls is especially strong on matters of the history of contextualization. Written from a perspective that is generally friendly to evangelicalism.

Dana Lee Robert, American Women in Mission: A Social History of Their Thought and Practice (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1996). This is a very helpful work on the contributions of American women to cross-cultural mission over the last 200 years. Robert helpfully surveys evangelical, mainline Protestant, and Catholic mission efforts.

Lamin Sanneh, Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007). Sanneh is another one of the leading historical missiologists in the world today. This book, his most recent, is a helpful introduction to Christianity as a world movement, an increasingly popular theme among historians and various types of social scientists of religion.

William R. Estep, Whole Gospel, Whole World: The Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1845-1995 (Nashville: B&H, 1994). Because my own ecclesiastical home is the Southern Baptist Convention, I would recommend you read the institutional history of our denominational mission board. Far from a dry history, Estep’s volume is written with great passion for the topic and will point readers to dozens of helpful books and dissertations related specifically to the history of Southern Baptist mission. Out-of-print but still widely available from used booksellers.

See also the fine series Studies in the History of Christian Missions, published by Eerdmans. Sixteen volumes have been published thus far, most of which relate to mission in the modern era. Highly recommended.

A Theologically-Driven Missiology (Pt. 2: Revelation)

Note: This series of posts deals with the relationship between doctrine and practice in general, and between theology and missiology in particular. It argues that sound theology should provide the starting point, trajectory, and parameters for missiological practice. It seeks a “theologically-driven” missiology both for the United States and international contexts.

For three decades now, the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention have united over their belief in the inspiration of Holy Scripture. Unlike those, such as Freud or Russell, who see the Scriptures as human constructions devoid of supernatural revelation, we believe that Scripture is given supernaturally by God. Indeed, it is the very breath of God (2 Tim 3:16). And differing from those, such as Barth or Brunner, who see the Scriptures as a merely human witness to divine revelation, we believe that Scripture is ipsissma verba Dei, the very words of God.

If the Christian Scriptures are indeed the very words of God, then we will want to mold our strategies and methods according to the words of God. And while this might seem to be a yawningly obvious observation, we must pay careful attention in light of the fact that we often do not allow the Scriptures to drive our methods of evangelism, discipleship, church growth, and church planting. Our tendency is to shout very loudly about inerrancy, while undermining that same conviction by our practices.

Instead, we must consciously, carefully, and consistently seek to understand the Grand Biblical Narrative and its implications for church practice, and in particular for our missiological method. This is hard work because (1) as our global, national, and cultural contexts change from era to era, our missiology must be re-worked and re-written afresh for every generation; and (2) proof-texting will not do. Many of the particular challenges that we face are not addressed explicitly by Scripture. Rather, we must call forth the deep-level principles in the Bible and allow them to speak with propriety and prescience to the issue at hand.

This is not to say that we may not learn from extra-biblical sources. In fact, it pleases God for us to use the full faculties of reason and observation as we minister. We ought to read widely in history, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, psychology, marketing, and other disciplines. It is God who created us with the capacities for reason and imagination and who allows us the great privilege and responsibility of using those for his glory. Theologians have spoken of God’s “two books,” the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature. In the Book of Scripture, God has provided us a special knowledge of, for example, the Trinity, the Incarnation, and salvation by grace through faith alone, while in the Book of Nature he has provided us a general knowledge of man and the rest of the created order.

God is the author of both books, and they are not in conflict with one another. When properly interpreted, they agree. How, then, might a missiologist view such disciplines as history, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, and marketing? Of what use are such disciplines? How are they positioned in light of Christian Scripture?

Among the ways that they might be helpful, here are five:

First, they may be helpful in recognizing God’s existence and some of his attributes (Rom 1). We may make ontological, teleological, cosmological, and moral arguments for the existence of one God, based upon what we may learn in philosophy, anthropology, or sociology.

Second, they may be helpful for fleshing out, or applying, biblical theology. For example, the disciplines of cultural anthropology and sociology are helpful in fleshing out the doctrine of man and man’s relationship to God, himself, others, and the rest of the created order. The psychological and pedagogical disciplines are helpful in teaching us about learning styles and the process of changing a person’s view of the world and life.

Third, they may be helpful in illustrating biblical theology. We often are able to illustrate such concepts as God’s love and fatherhood, or man’s sin and its consequences, through the use of insights gleaned from anthropology and sociology.

Fourth, they may be helpful in subverting false theologies. We may use philosophy and the social sciences to defend the truth, goodness, and beauty of the gospel, in response to those who would attack us. Further, we may use them to, in Schaeffer’s words, “take the roof off” of opposing salvific systems, showing them to be false saviors, lacking in logical coherence, empirical adequacy, and existential viability.

Fifth, they may be helpful in understanding those to whom we proclaim the gospel. Reading widely in history and current affairs, for example, helps us to understand the civilizational, cultural, and social contexts of those to whom we minister.

This, then, is a very limited exploration of how the doctrine of revelation comes to bear upon the church’s practice. In riveting missiological practice to the doctrine of revelation, we must beware of at least two dangers. The first is to allow the insights gleaned from general revelation (in particular, anthropology, sociology, and business marketing) to take the driver’s seat in missiology. The second danger, however, is to give theology the driver’s seat and demand that no other discipline be allowed a seat. To do so, I believe, is to reject the great gift that God has given us in allowing us to study and interact with His good world. game download