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Missio Dei and John Flett’s The Witness of God (Part 3)

September 29, 2011

Having introduced the history and meaning of Missio Dei in parts one and two I would now like to conclude this review of John Flett’s The Witness of God by reflecting on the second problem that arose in the disconnect between Missio Dei and its initial impulses in the theology of Karl Barth. We already discussed the crucial point that God is a missionary God, and now we turn more specifically to the practical fallout of keeping that in mind.

The Mission is God’s

On Flett’s account, one ramification of the undue separation of the Trinity’s inner life and eccentric activity is that Christian life and mission get pulled apart too. As a result missions, when it does happen, can easily end up being more like propaganda than the sharing of the gospel (28). The means and the message are no longer intrinsically tied. As an immediate example: 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. An unhealthy church could grow rapidly because it knows how to advertise and open ‘chains’; a seemingly healthy church could sit on its hands because it doesn’t see sharing Christ as part of its identity. And in either case the bifurcation eats away at both the mission and the church. As Leslie Newbigin put it: ‘An unchurchly mission is as much a monstrosity as an unmissionary church’ (71).

Emil Brunner and Karl Barth were the central figures in the debate about a 'point of contact' between God and creation

One way Missio Dei gets short-circuited is when we reckon that God is a sending God and then depart from this locus of thought in order to develop practical strategies for follow through. The classic example of this, for Flett, is the 20th century missological obsession with a ‘point of contact’. Without a grounding for missions in the new-creation of God missologists would clamour for an old-creation ‘point of contact’ between the preaching church and the receiving culture in order to properly mediate the gospel. As any examination of history will tell you, this effort can be relatively harmless in some cases (e.g., translation) and absolutely devastating in others (e.g., oppression of aboriginals in the name of ‘civilization’). Of course, this latter problem is precisely what Missio Dei proponents wished to correct and avoid, but more often than not the corrective was to find a different point of contact in culture rather than to go back to the theological drawing board.

Flett says it is one thing to carefully and receptively communicate the gospel with a host culture, and it is another thing to feel the need to be ‘establishing or massaging cultural conduits as a necessary precondition for receiving the gospel’ (91). With a focus like the latter the crux of missions becomes the cultural medium and not the living Christ. As J.C. Hoekendijk put it, ‘God is recognized in an almost deistic fashion as the great Inventor and Inaugurator of the Mission, who has since withdrawn and left the accomplishment of the mission to His ground personnel’ (45). The interim between Christ’s ascension and return is understood in terms of Christ’s absence rather than in terms of the presence He means to have (135).  On Flett’s account, however, this is where Barth’s theology is so helpful: By attending to the prophetic office of Christ at the end of Barth’s Church Dogmatics we get what he’s been driving at all along: If Christ is not risen and present not only our faith but our activity is futile.

As was stated at the Willingen missionary conference itself: ‘There is no participation in Christ without participation in His mission in the world. That by which the Church receives its existence is that by which it is also given its world-mission. “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you”’ (155). However, after the conference Missio Dei continued to execute this sending on Emil Brunner’s terms rather than Barth’s, hearing in the latter’s polemic against the ‘point of contact’ something closer to a disregard for missions entirely. Missiologists focussed on tapping into ‘a pattern of God’s activity in creation,’ thus endangering the gospel-driven dynamic of the mission at  every step (161).

Translation and intercontextuality were important to Barth, of course, but there was for him no fixed thing or pattern in nature that was necessary for the transition of the gospel from one culture to the next. All creation is the appropriate sphere for Christian faith, but for Barth it is always so in its ‘relativity’ rather than as a given (117). The problem for him was not the interaction of Christianity and culture, but the tendency to put a hyphen between any cultural element and the Christian faith, even making that hyphen into something of a ‘shibboleth of orthodoxy’ (117). In this the churchly mission can easily take a back seat to the propagation of one cultural norm (which the missionary thinks indispensable to the gospel but which it turns out is not). As Flett says: ‘Propaganda occurs when those who “think that in bringing their particular Christianity, they are bringing Christianity itself, and thus the gospel itself”’ (63).

What Flett recommends is that we remember (1) God’s aseity (which does not necessitate His independence), (2) God’s otherness (which doesn’t restrict Him from taking on humanity), (3) God’s choice to be with us, and (4) the corresponding missional movement of the church caught up in God’s movement to the world (201-203). The first two points may not seem to us as relevant as the second two, until we consider all that Barth gets out of them. The backdrop of His aseity and otherness give God’s choice to be with us the continual character of an asymmetrical and dynamic relationship. So the ‘divine-human fellowship’ that is made by God is real, but as such it is not a ‘static connection’ but an ‘active encounter’ (216). Thus there is no missionary formula born out of a perceived point of contact between cultures. Missions is all about following Jesus among us in the world.

Final Comments

When it comes to the details of missional activity there are more correctives than constructive proposals here. To be fair that is probably what Flett wants to encourage rather than prescribe. Nonetheless, it bears mentioning that a question I’m left asking is what this missionary church looks like in the world. To put a sharper point on it, I would like to have seen some mention of Barth’s differentiation between ‘missions’ to those who know nothing of Christianity and ‘evangelization’ to those who are already nominally associated with it. Often it is the case that witness to Christ means the refining of a nascent faith or the reconciling of a broken gathering.

Leslie Newbigin’s suggestion is that there is something wrong with a ‘missionary zeal which is forever seeking to win more proselytes but which does not spring from and lead back into a quality of life which seems intrinsically worth having in itself’ (278). Perhaps Barth’s distinction between mission and evangelism indicates his willingness to return to the topic of the church’s quality of life once he has its eccentric orientation clearly defined. I think that Flett wants us to see the inner and the outer life of the church as all one motion, and I agree. It is the event of its participation in Jesus’ reconciliation of the world to God. Certainly Barth gives us more to say about the character of that event, and this book compels me to seek that out further.

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