Book Review: Reading the Bible Missionally*
This is an important and challenging book of fifteen essays. It is one that requires careful reading, taking sufficient time to reflect on the implications of a missional reading of the Bible for biblical studies, preaching, and theological education. The book calls for a missional hermeneutic.
What is a missional hermeneutic? It is a reading of Scripture based on the recognition that fundamental to the biblical story is the action of God to redeem creation and humanity, supremely through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and carried out through the life and witness of God’s people, who are represented by Israel in the Old Testament, and Christian disciples and the Church in the New. Mission is the action of God through the people of God for the sake of the world.
The book is divided into five sections. In the first, “A Missional Hermeneutic”, the editor, Michael Goheen, begins by outlining the relationship between biblical studies and missiology, and the way in which there is a growing awareness of the importance of mission within biblical scholarship (and the reasons for this), before stating the “contours of a missional hermeneutic”. Richard Bauckham follows with a chapter on the plot of the biblical narrative as a movement from the particular to the universal, which involves temporal, spatial and social aspects. Along the way he raises the question of whether the biblical metanarrative is totalising, and imperialistic in nature.
George Hunsberger maps the conversation around missional hermeneutics, and sees four emphases which surround the development of such an hermeneutic, and how they relate with one another. One is that the biblical story of God’s mission provides the framework for biblical interpretation, another that the scriptural writings themselves equip and shape for mission and the aim of biblical interpretation is to winkle this out; a third focuses on the specific missional context in which the texts are read, while the fourth examines the way the gospel is the dynamic which shapes a missional engagement with culture. Hunsberger seeks to determine whether these four work together or against each other in forming a missional hermeneutic.
Craig Bartholomew argues for a balance between a missional hermeneutic and theological interpretation as mission does not account for all of the biblical story. Nevertheless, a missional hermeneutic has been valuable in highlighting the importance of mission to the biblical story, an aspect long neglected. John Franke writes that postmodernism and aspects of intercultural hermeneutics (e.g. hybridity) lead us to adopt a “non-foundational” approach to mission theology. We must learn to accept a plurality of cultural expressions of Christianity and of mission, and so our hermeneutic must be radically contextual.
A second section, “A Missional Reading of the Old Testament”, begins with a chapter by Christopher J. H. Wright on a missional reading of the Old Testament. Here he brings out the missional origin of the Old Testament texts which provide a missional revelation of God (YHWH as supreme over the nations, and their idolatries), the missional task of humans in caring for creation, the missional thrust of the texts to bring universal blessing to all nations, through the particular election of Abraham (and Israel) as the vehicle of that mission. He outlines the missional aspect of redemption, that is the sharing of the good news of God’s redemptive action with the nations: a redemption that has political, economic, social and spiritual aspects. Also treated is the missional shaping of the community (God’s people) through a distinctive, ethical obedience.
Two chapters follow that apply a missional hermeneutic to particular texts. Mark Glanville explores Deuteronomy, highlighting four distinctive characteristics of YHWH’s community; these characteristics form a counter-cultural community within the world by which renewal is brought to the world. Carl Bosma, meanwhile, mines Psalms 67 and 96 for their missional function in displaying God as a God of all nations, to be praised by all, and who blesses all.
N. T. Wright introduces the third section, “A Missional Reading of the New Testament”, by stating that the New Testament understands mission as going in the name and power of the Triune God to bring in the (already planned) kingdom. We are to work towards the fulfilment of a recreated world. Acts, John and Paul are analysed to see how each develops its mission theology. Joel Green then applies a missional hermeneutic to the letter of James. The letter places God’s people in the story of God’s mission. God’s people embody the gospel as an embrace of the exilic life, recognising God’s gracious character, on a journey marked by God’s good gifts and living an integrated life.
Dean Flemming shows that Colossians speaks to the place of creation in God’s redemptive mission of reconciling “all things”. The letter also functions to unite Paul’s apostolic mission to God’s mission, providing an instrument by which Paul seeks to bring “everyone to maturity in Christ” (224). To this end, Colossians provides a way to shape his readers’ identity as a community in Christ which is “global”, multinational, part of a new humanity in which there is no longer Jew or Greek (227). Finally the letter outlines a lifestyle which, under the Lordship of Christ, affects the Christian household.
Two chapters form a fourth section, “A Missional Reading of Scripture and Preaching”. Goheen writes of how a missional preaching of scripture (which centres on preaching Christ) entails preaching that forms a distinctive community for the sake of the world. Timothy Sheridan places the model of “Christ-centred” preaching (advocated by Sidney Greidanus) in dialogue with “Gospel-centred” preaching (advocated by Timothy Keller), before bringing his own (third model) of “Missional preaching” into the conversation. This latter will place mission back into redemptive history so that the Scriptures are read from a perspective that is both messianic and missional (275); it will draw us back into the larger story of God’s people and call us to “missional practices” of being and doing that engages missional role and vocation in local contexts.
The final section, “A Missional Reading of Scripture and Theological Education” examines some of the implications of a missional reading for theological education. Darrell Guder, arguing that theological education has been “captured” by the Christendom model creating an education system of silos, intellectually driven but not practically based, and not designed for forming leaders who will “equip the saints” for witness and service to the gospel. We must reclaim a missional edge by foregrounding scripture (through biblical studies), and highlighting the mission dimension throughout Church history, and bringing together theology and praxis. Goheen, in a final chapter, agrees with a number of these points, but highlights in particular the examination of a missionary encounter between gospel and each culture’s story as a core task. I found this the least satisfying section, partly because both chapters attempt to encompass too much material, in a fairly concentrated form.
The above survey of the fifteen chapters scarcely does justice to each, for each develops its argument at some depth, often covering a range of topics. I appreciated Bartholomew’s sympathetic, but not uncritical critique of David Bosch’s work (Bosch arguably one of the twentieth century’s leading missiologists). Glanville and Flemming provide particularly rich readings of Deuteronomy and Colossians respectively, while Bosma and Green bring particular aspects of their texts into sharp focus. Certain themes (missio Dei as foundational in scripture, the call for God’s people to be a distinctive community, to name two) reverberate through the chapters, while a missional hermeneutic is itself shown to be multifaceted (and perhaps awaiting further sharpening of definition). Pastors, biblical scholars, preachers, theological educators, and all who see themselves as disciples of Jesus Christ should read and reflect on the material in this book.
Derek Tovey is the book review editor for Stimulus.
*To see the publishing details and ways the book is available please click on the image below