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Introducing Missio Dei and John Flett’s The Witness of God

September 26, 2011

I’ve just finished reading John Flett’s The Witness of God, a book about Karl Barth, Trinitarian theology and the study of the church and its mission in the world. Since I found the book rather compelling (and germane to my project) I would like to put some of it out there for your comments. It touches on everything from the church’s relation with culture to the role of the doctrine of God in shaping our self-understanding as Christians and communities.

This is a book about Missio Dei (the mission of God). For those unfamiliar with it, the Latin term names not only a theological concept but also a particular paradigm shift in the study and practice of missions which began in the 20th century and is still sorting itself out today. To give a bit of background, according to the Routledge Companion to the Christian Church by the early 1990s David Bosch had come to best describe Missio Dei as a post-colonial re-definition of missions as primarily an ‘initiative and action of God, the Holy Trinity, rather than as a task initiated by the church’ (629). Following Barth’s impulses (and possibly Aquinas before him), the thinking was that because God’s being and act are one, we have to see mission is a part of who God is from all eternity: ‘Thus the mission of the church is rooted in the Trinitarian missions of the Son and Spirit from the Father.’ This might seem like a no-brainer, but it seems to be easily forgotten. We’ll talk about that in more detail tomorrow, but for now I’ll mention some potential ramifications.

Missio Dei reminds us that church identity and activity are unified. Mission is a not secondary, optional and derivative thing that churches (or their delegates) do once they have the main thing down. When we pull apart God and mission Christian life and mission can get pulled apart too. Sharing the gospel can end up being more like propaganda than the sharing of the gospel (28). When the church is one thing, and its re-creation in other places (i.e., church planting) is another, you can have church planting strategies that draw more from the business models of Western capitalism than their very own theological commitments because the means and the message are not intrinsically tied.

An unhealthy church could grow rapidly because it knows how to advertise and open ‘chains’. A seemingly healthy church could yet sit on its hands because it doesn’t see multiplication as part of its identity. The bifurcation eats away at both the mission and the church either way. And as Leslie Newbigin put it: ‘An unchurchly mission is as much a monstrosity as an unmissionary church’ (71).

To get a sense of the potential connections between theology and practice here, consider what happens when you run Missio Dei up against a couple of our evangelical clichés. I’m sure many of us have heard the well-meant expression that we’ll have eternity to worship in heaven, so we better get down to missions now. Well, one of the things fundamental to Missio Dei is that mission, or sharing Christ, is part of who God is from eternity past to eternity future. As John Flett puts it, ‘if mission is an attribute of God, then it bespeaks something of God’s nature and of reconciled human existence with God’ (75). So it is that not only worship but mission will characterize the heavenly reality. In ‘glory’ we do not retreat from mission into an eternal chorus-line but continue to be sent to one another in the sharing of what Christ has brought to humanity. 

Another clichéd evangelical norm is that missions tends to be something we relegate to the halls of conferences and to the parachurch organizations that can best attract our giving. One of the suggestions of Missio Dei thinking is that there may something detrimental about having missions a step removed from the constituent elements of a local church or denomination. If mission is left up to prayerful individuals and their donations then there may be a problem with the worshipping community’s life as such.

We can return to those issues, but we’re only just getting going. John Flett argues that a disconnect takes place between Barth’s theology and the trajectory of Missio Dei which actually prevents the latter from tapping into some of its most profound ramifications. Put as succinctly as possible, the problem is this: While Missio Dei is right that the ‘church is called to “echo” in time the communion that is God’s life in eternity’ (27), in both the unfolding of the theology and the subsequent practice the movement has too often found a way to short-circuit this. I’ll unpack that a little bit before we move on to part two tomorrow.

The most proper critique that Missio Dei proponents raise is the one which questions the tendency to let the notion of ‘echoing’ God’s triune life validate an ingrown enclave of believers. What Missio Dei rightly indicates is that there isn’t just communion but also sending in the Triune life. Thus as a community of Christ the church is ever-eccentric; always oriented toward sharing of the love and grace of Jesus with not only brothers and sisters but also neighbours and even enemies. As my own denomination’s emphasis puts it, the church is about following Jesus into both deeper life and missions. If you take away one you lose the other. Jesus heals our lives and our communities, but part of that healing entails rescue from narcissism toward self-giving love.

At the same time, if all we are is mission we shallow-out pretty soon, turning ourselves into a propaganda machine for an empty shell. Missio Dei reminds us that conversion ‘applies to the whole of life, including social and cultural institutions’ (51). The problems come in when we conceive of God in distinction from His mission, and when we take missions to be more our job than God’s. In the next post I will return to Flett’s book in more detail in order to flesh out his assessment of those problems and his suggested correctives in the theology of Karl Barth.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. September 26, 2011 2:14 pm

    Jon, I’m getting ready to read this book soon with a couple of friends, so it’s nice to have a preview of it here. My concern when reading Flett is that he takes (at least in other work) a certain line against the robust ecclesiologies of Hauerwas and H’s students, that then gets picked up by certain “apocalyptic” theologians/thinkers who use it (among other things) to accuse Hauerwas & Co. of “ecclesiocentrism,” of wrongfully emphasizing the cultural/formative aspects of the life of the church. The church then just becomes an “event,” only ever manifesting itself in certain types of activities and is nothing in and of itself. There seems to be within that a dichotomy (that appears already in this initial review) between worship and mission, where the gathered congregation seems somehow incidental. What do you make of all that, if anything?

  2. Kelly permalink
    September 26, 2011 2:50 pm

    Looking forward to tomorrow’s post!

  3. September 26, 2011 3:55 pm

    Okay here’s my question – and forgive me if I’m trying to punch above my weight class and and am missing something otherwise obvious:

    If mission is a core part of who God is from eternity past to eternity future, then who or what becomes the target or receiver of mission in the eschaton? If our common evangelical concepts of post-resurrection eternity with Christ in a state where we know fully even as we are fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12) – who is left to share the gospel with in glory?

  4. September 26, 2011 4:45 pm

    Great stuff Jon. Looking forward to tomorrow’s. I have another question along the line of Chris’s, so if he needs to be forgiven for missing something obvious, forgive me as well.

    Does the notion that mission contributes to God’s eternal triune life confuse the divine missions and processions? My understanding is that the Word’s and Spirit’s eternal processions from the Father are movements ad intra which stand behind but are still distinct from their redemptive missions to us. It seems to me that keeping this distinction still gives us the payoff of shaping the church’s identity and life according to God’s movement of forming it by his Word and Spirit, so I’m not sure why we’d want to push a parallel between God’s ontology and the church’s. It seems basic to me that though God has undertaken the ad extra movements of creation and redemptive mission, these movements do not contribute to his being – otherwise we’d have to understand these movements as necessary to God rather than gracious – while the church, on the contrary, would not and could not be itself apart from its participation in the divine mission. That distinction between God’s being and the church’s being reinforces the centrality of mission in the church, I would think.

  5. September 27, 2011 1:51 am

    Thanks for those questions, they are all good ones. I’ll give a brief answer to each but hope that you’ll track with me and come back to them either here or in the post(s) to come.

    Brad A: I don’t know about Flett’s other work. Here I don’t see him ragging on Hauerwas and co. although he definitely seems to espouse something of the ‘event’ notion of the church over against the ‘fixed status’ notion. I’m pretty okay with that, as long as it can include the gains of talking about the things that make up the church’s common life and practice. I’m not sure why we’d want to say the church was something ‘in and of itself’. If anything isn’t the church the one thing on earth that isn’t ‘in and of itself’? (Not trying to ramp the rhetoric there, just couldn’t resist the play on words. I’m pretty much with Barth here, so long as we understand that Barth is happy to talk about the church’s ongoing ‘character’ in a certain way.)

    I hope my view will rightly reflect Flett’s apparent desire precisely not to dichotomize worship and mission. I think he thinks that ecclesiocentrism is a problem, for sure, but I suppose it is an open question whether he goes all the way in the other direction. I don’t think he wants to, although the book is on mission so by emphasis he might make us think he’s dichotomized them and put the weight on the other foot. I’m definitely left by this book wanting more, but I’m not sure it was in the scope of this book to provide it. I’d love to hear other opinions of it though.

    Chris: I guess the short answer to that might be that the gospel is intrinsically shared, and God’s glory is in sharing it, and so “who is left to share the gospel with in glory?” Those who receive it share it forever. With sin and death gone the sharing of Christ goes on, and the heavenly city flourishes unhindered. Something like that. It may be a startling thought, and there might be some problems with it, but at this point I’m finding it a fruitful one. I’m curious about further reflections.

    Adam: That’s a good question too. I’m frankly not totally sure what to do with it, and wish I was more up on my Trinitarian technicalities. To make matters foggier, I’m not sure what carries the weight of the proposal: (1) the processions, (2) the union of God’s being and act, or (3) the Christological point (i.e., “as I am sent so are you”). Surely those are all related, but Flett seems to lean on them in approximately that order. I’m curious whether this breaks down somewhere. Frankly I find the latter point the most solid. I’m not sure whether Flett is relying on an analogy so much as allowing the economic Trinity to go all the way back into our understanding of God, and then following that through to ramifications for what we think our purpose in this world might be. Is that an analogy? I don’t think he wants to run it as such, but via Christ and the Spirit who are involving us in God’s decided action in history. God does not need that history, but it is continuous with his nature to give it. (Am I even close to answering your question? It was buzzing around in my head too. I was sort of hoping I could find some help in parsing it out and deciding whether it was a good one.)

  6. September 27, 2011 1:43 pm

    I think this quote from Barth, which Flett uses in his book, is extremely helpful:

    “If [The Church’s] inward service is not to become an institution for private satisfaction in concert, or a work of sterile inbreeding, it must accept the priority of its sending to the world, of its task in relation to those without. Yet for the sake of the execution of this task, in order that the missionary community may be the living and authentic Christian community which is able and willing to execute it, its witness must also be directed inwards to its own members. In this respect we may think of the diastole cycle of the heart which, in order to pump blood through the whole organism, certainly returns in the systole – however, to return there, it must first go out again in the renewed diastole. In this relationship of outward and inward action, the service of the community will be and remain the true service of God, and so the true service of humanity. Little needs to be said about how seldom this relationship between her outer and her inner service has been correctly perceived, understood, and achieved by Christianity in our hemisphere up even to the present day. It is to be hoped that the existence and example of the so-called “young” churches in Asia and Africa can lead her into a new awareness of this, provided that the latter do not too quickly become “old” with their service reduced to a decisive inward, with only an occasional outward, orientation.” – Barth, CD IV/3.2, 833.

    This analogy, while helpful, gives the impression that it’s about having a balance – that the church simply has to balance its inward and outward movement. Yet on the page earlier, Barth is clear that there is a specific order, whereby the inward movement exists for the sake of the outward.

    “As concerns its definiteness more specifically as service of man, it is to be noted that there can be no doubt that it is true service of man if it is true service of God. It may be pointed out, however, that as true service of man and therefore true ministry of witness it will be addressed first and supremely to the men who do not share the knowledge of the community and are thus strangers to it, but then necessarily in this connexion to those who do share its knowledge and thus belong to it. It is thus a ministry both ad extra and ad intra, and the two in a very definite order.” – Barth, CD IV/3.2, 832.

    To use the schema of volume IV, the Church is gathered (IV/1) and upbuilt (IV/2) for the sake of its sending (IV/3).

  7. September 28, 2011 1:43 am

    That’s very helpful Chris. Thanks.

  8. September 28, 2011 3:15 am

    That is helpful, Chris. Thanks very much.

  9. September 28, 2011 3:22 am

    That said, Chris and Jon, I still think there’s an unhelpful dichotomy even there in Chris’s Barth quote between inward and outward. Is not worship before a watching world itself a form of mission, a very public praise and thanksgiving and proclamation? Perhaps this is not what Barth means by “inward action,” but I find that sort of dichotomy at least implied in appropriators of both Barth and Flett.

  10. September 28, 2011 6:07 pm

    I think that we need to be able to speak of the ‘inward’ and ‘outward’ in their differentiation even as they are one motion. So I am with you that worship (and by this I’d mean almost everything but singing) before the watching world is not only ‘a form of mission’ but part and parcel of that mission. Thing is, I think Barth and Flett agree with that. They certainly aren’t after a dichotomy but a union that has too long been neglected. There may be an asymmetrical relationship between the two, and therein I think Barth wants to put mission on top whereas Hauerwas might put church on top. I think this depends on what you are talking about, personally, but I think logically Barth’s emphasis is right, and I also think that church is healthier and more sensical within the movement of mission rather than the inverse relationship where mission is but an extension of church with the connection points unclear. I wish the relationship between the two were spelled out more in this book, but I appreciate the impulses of it and consider any correctives or further theological groundwork to be more in line with Flett’s basic proposal than in contradiction to it. I’m not sure one needs to use the divine processions to do it, mind you, but Trinitarian backing is a real rhetorical and theological ‘win’ these days and so here we have it laid on pretty thick.

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