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Book Review in Ecclesiology: John Flett’s The Witness of God

February 5, 2014

A book review I previously worked toward on this blog has now been published in volume 10 of Ecclesiology. I’m grateful to the journal for allowing me to share it with you below, but by all means get a hold of the entire volume if you can–there’s good stuff in there.

John G. Flett, The Witness of God: The Trinity, Missio Dei, Karl Barth, and the Nature of Christian Community (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010) 328 + xv pp. ISBN 978-0-8028-6441-3 (pbk). $36.00. (Emphasis added for blog).

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Despite the fact that the twentieth century missiological renovation known as Missio Dei picked up its traction at the 1952 International Missonary Council in Willingen through the work of Karl Hartenstein, because of personal connections and thematic resonances the movement’s initiation is commonly attributed to Karl Barth’s paper at the Brandenburg Mission Conference twenty years earlier, in 1932.

John Flett’s The Witness of God does not dispute this relationship, but argues by way of an historical and theological analysis that from the beginning there was a growing disconnect between them which is overlooked to the detriment of one more than the other. So it is that with a qualified affirmation of Missio Dei and a provocative identification of its shortcomings Flett provides a compelling presentation of the ways that Barth’s theology might yet be delved for its best correctives and most constructive missiological-ecclesiological benefits.

In the Introduction and Chapter 1 The Witness of God begins by sketching the ‘problem’ of Missio Dei and tracing its origins before proceeding in Chapters 2–4 to detail the historical relationship between Barth and the movement. Having established significant discrepancy between them it then works its way forward in Chapters 5–7 by leveraging Barth’s more prominent theological
gains toward a constructive revisitation of Missio Dei to close the book in Chapter 8.

In the first half’s historical analysis Flett weaves conference reflections and personal correspondences together to form a genealogy of Barth’s severance from Missio Dei that is as interesting as it is convincing. In the theological analysis the focus narrows and lands most squarely on natural theology and the issue of a ‘point of contact’ in Chapter 5, the Triune shape of Christian life and mission in Chapter 6, and the integration of salvation and missionary vocation in Chapter 7. This book has hints of repetitiveness but, like Barth’s own work, Flett covers a lot of ground within these spiralling themes and in the process builds up a rather forceful and compelling proposal.

Missio Dei alerts us to the recognition that Christ reveals not just communion but also mission in the Triune life. Flett thinks this point has missiological and ecclesiological power to it, but finds this considerably diminished when God’s being and act are held apart too widely. He suggests that Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity is ‘illustrative of the problem,’ in that his argument for
‘the divinity of the Son and Spirit’ ended up ‘ascribing the economy only epistemological significance’ (p. 19). It might be contested whether this accusation is truer of Augustine or of his legacy, but it does illustrate well the impetus of Flett’s argument:

With an inordinate gap between God’s inner life and external operations we tend to render the latter loosely derivative and secondary, and with the overblown bifurcation of the immanent and economic Trinity the tearing asunder of church and mission is not far behind. We might take missiological insights from the doctrine of God and still fall back on anthropological insights to do the leg work for practical theology.

In Flett’s view, what Barth enables us to do is to let Christ’s revelation of God’s activity so inform our understanding of God’s being that it challenges us to integrate more closely the being and act of the church. Some will be deterred by the shades of actualism here, but these need not detract from the thrust of Flett’s analysis of both Barth and of contemporary missiology and ecclesiology. Those careful to avoid rendering the earthly mission constitutive of God can still benefit from considering the extent to which this mission is fitting for him and thus imperative for us.

Flett suggests that with an anaemic Trinitarian theology we tend to make missions an optional aside or else clamour to fulfil the imperative under our own steam (p. 229). Holding God’s being and act apart, we either put the inner life of the church and the eccentric impulse of mission into competition or we conflate them to the detriment of one or the other. In Flett’s view, faith in a
missional Trinity enables a coherent protest when the vita contemplativa is inordinately exalted over the vita activa or when proclamation becomes a matter merely of ‘propagating those cultural elements’ deemed ‘essential to growth’ (pp. 21, 178).

It might be contested whether one can get much practical traction out of the intricacies of doctrinal arrangement, but the challenges for church practice drawn out in this book do seem apt to hit close to home. One example is when Flett calls into question the frequent delegation of missionary work to para-church organizations, suggesting that this may be symptomatic of one of two forms of ‘monstrosity’ named by Lesslie Newbigin: The ‘unchurchly mission’ or the ‘unmissionary church’ (p. 71). Flett wisely stops short of criticizing para-church trends across the board (after all, such missionary organizations tend to link denominations that might otherwise be divided), but he does give appropriate pause for critical reflection.

Following up on this, one thing that begged for more elaboration in this book was Newbigin’s quarrel with ‘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’ (p. 278). Given Barth’s attention to this in The Doctrine of Reconciliation we might have seen further delineation of the relation between the church’s mission and its common life.

In Chapter 5 Flett confronts us with what may have been the most explicit point of departure between Missio Dei and Barth; the issue of natural theology. When Barth famously warned against Emil Brunner’s recommendation of a ‘point of contact’ between the preaching church and the receiving culture, Flett reckons that missiologists were confounded by what they took to be an opposition to mission itself. Barth’s point was that no cultural element could be asked to mediate the gospel, but they heard in this a diminishment if not a denouncement of translation and gospel-communication altogether.

By arguing that there is no ‘point of contact’ but Jesus himself, however, Flett thinks Barth issued a still-relevant warning against the tendency to place a hyphen between some part of culture and the Christian faith and then to make that hyphen a ‘shibboleth of orthodoxy’ (p. 117). In this construal, he argues, the interim between Christ’s ascension and return is understood in terms of Christ’s absence rather than His presence and the crux of the mission becomes the cultural media and not the living Christ (p. 135). The result is more often than not the subtle replacement of witness with propaganda (p. 63).

Flett finds a corrective for this in Barth’s emphasis on the prophetic office of Christ at the end of Church Dogmatics, which he says highlights the Church’s call to be caught up in God’s gracious movement to the world not only as its recipients but inherently as its attentive participants as well (pp. 201–203).

In this book John Flett argues that the church’s mission and its common life are part of one gracious motion of God that goes back to eternity past and continues to eternity future. This is a motion carried out in time primarily but not exclusively by the Son and the Spirit, since they summon and enable our participation in mission by the mercy of God. These are evocative rubrics for ecclesiology today and for that reason The Witness of God makes for a very worthy read.

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