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Missio Dei and John Flett’s The Witness of God (Part 2)

September 27, 2011

Having introduced Missio Dei in part one, I will now turn in more detail to the arguments in John Flett’s The Witness of God in the interests of encouraging further thought and discussion on the fundamentally interrelated matters of Christian life, community, and mission. Part history part theology, The Witness of God traces Missio Dei from instigation to popularization, paying particular attention to some of the disconnections that take place and assessing them in light of what he sees to be some properly Trinitarian corrections.

International Missionary Council, Willingen, Germany, 1952

A History of Missio Dei

It is often thought that Missio Dei thinking got going with a paper at the 1932 Brandenburg Mission Conference by Karl Barth called ‘Theology and Mission in the Present Situation.’ Barth didn’t use the term, but when it gained traction at the 1952 International Missonary Council in Willingen it was through Karl Hartenstein, who was influenced by Barth and was proposing things generally in line with what Barth had said 20 years previous. However, John Flett is at pains to show that the connections between Barth and Missio Dei (as it came to be understood) are looser than we might be led to believe – which brings us to the theological portion of Flett’s analysis. Despite the positive insights of Missio Dei, Flett finds that historical factors and theological commitments kept its proponents from carrying through to its best outcomes. In fact, they might have benefitted from tracking with Barth more closely than they did. Although in 1932 Barth was not as clear on the matter as he would be thirty years later, Flett proposes that the Trinitarian Christology and subsequent missiological ecclesiology of his Church Dogmatics offer much-needed correctives.

I am not in a position to assess the accuracy of Flett’s account of the history of Missio Dei but it is worth saying that he is rather scrupulous in his detail, having taken the opportunity to investigate everything from the later reflections of missionary conference attendees to the personal correspondences of Barth and some of the key players (including Hartenstein). There does not seem to be much of an argument to be had over this, and indeed it is helpful to note that Barth is more of a background figure than a shaper of what became of Missio Dei. When it comes to assessing this, probably the more important question is whether the theological disparities between the trajectories of Barth and Missio Dei are drawn in the right places and, more importantly still, whether the Barthian correctives are indeed all that Flett cracks them up to be. In order to analyze these I’ll break the thrust of it down into two parts, each of which springs from the logic of Missio Dei itself. In this post: God is in the mission. In the next: the mission is God’s.

God is in the Mission

One of the points basic to Missio Dei is that mission is part of who God is. Perhaps this seems like a no-brainer at first, but maybe that’s why we forget it so easily. When we get this wrong we open up whole vistas of mistaken thinking and activity. We treat the doctrine of God (who God is) as a things-we-affirm checklist that we tick off in one column and then leave behind when we move to the practicalities that overwhelm us in the next. We take guiding insights from the doctrine of God and then fall back on anthropological insights to do the leg work.

The thing is, Missio Dei did this too. Specifically, Flett says, it gathered from Trinitarian theology that God is three in one and then turned quickly to sociology to tell us how to duplicate that kind of ‘communion’ in church and world. Flett doesn’t blame this on the influence of culture but on a failure of Trinitarian theology in the first place.

To make this point he puts Colin Gunton and Lewis Ayres into a bit of dialogue and concludes that Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity is ‘illustrative of the problem’ in that his argument for the divinity of Son and Spirit ended up ‘ascribing the economy only epistemological significance.’ In other words, some disconnect took place between our understanding of God’s inner life and God’s external operations: ‘God’s movement’ is ‘merely a temporal reflection’ and a ‘second step alongside who he is from all eternity’ (19). I’d be interested to hear from Augustinian scholars whether they think this is true of Augustine or is more a problem of his legacy, or is it even a problem at all (cue Adam’s question from the last post about differentiating missions and processions).

The theological point seems to have some practical traction (although it is another open question to what extent the Trinitarian points can be applied ecclesiologically in this way). When the immanent and the economic are pulled apart the church and its mission can get bifurcated too. We see this at the level of spirituality with the exaltation of the vita contemplativa over the vita activa. In either the communal or the individual manifestation of this, Flett says the mission becomes about ‘propagating those cultural elements essential to growth in the … benefits’ of Christ as we’ve misconstrued them (178). Either that or it becomes a matter of propagating the benefit of belief, leaving the hoped-for work of Christ in this world as an optional aside (229). As it happens, ‘an invisible church becomes ontologically prior to the visible historical reality’ and this ‘means that the church’s witness in the world consists, not of this reconciled community’s life, but of replicating and maintaining the purity of the institution’ (21).

Thus far the first point. In Flett’s view if we see sending is a remedial work of God rather than fundamental to who God has declared Himself to be then we are susceptible to all sorts of misdirection when it comes to our own identity and activity in the world as well (212). As Stephen Holmes puts it, when we treat the sending of the Son and Spirit as merely ‘anomalous events’ in the life of God then they fail to inform our ‘expressions of who God most fundamentally is in his eternal life’ (29). Barth holds these things together in a way that can be very helpful. Hopefully I can flesh out how Flett thinks that is when I get into the third and final part of my review on Thursday. In the meantime, I am happy to hear your reflections on anything said thus far.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 30, 2011 2:49 pm

    Jon, thanks again for doing this. It will help as my little reading group moves into this book soon.

    I very much appreciate Flett’s argument about seeing mission as integral to God’s very nature, and not something subsequent and secondary. I, too, would be interested in the perspective of an Augustinian scholar (perhaps Michel Barnes at Marquette?) on that angle.

    It’s your next paragraph (“The theological point…”) that is most interesting to me. Can you clarify how Flett makes the connection between bifurcating church and mission (and exalting contemplation over action) and propagating cultural elements? Does he even define culture? What does he mean by it? And can we say with certainty that contemplation – which inevitably includes prayer – is, in fact, inactive or even opposed to action? And how is this then connected to invisible vs. visible church and to safeguarding institutional purity?

    Don’t mean to make you do my work for me – I’m sure I’ll get to this in the coming weeks.

  2. September 30, 2011 3:35 pm

    Yeah you’ll see. The connection is basically that the bifurcation between church and mission opens the door for inordinate focus on the propagation of cultural elements, I think. In other words: We think we get the gospel and the church right and then we look to mediate that to our world via loosely related means. The connection is weak and so the stuff that informs our understanding of gospel and church doesn’t necessarily have to inform the mission and the means as strongly. So we’ll take on a bunch of stuff that helps us sell the message and we’re a little less attuned to how those means might actually alter the message or disconnect the message from its telos in a newfound community of sorts.

    I don’t have my book on me today and won’t all weekend so I’ll leave your other questions for now. I don’t think he wants to divide prayer from action or anything, but to show that too often that’s what we do. And the Trinity and the being/act thing are giving him the horsepower to expose those disconnections.

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