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Cover Image: Bible and Mission

Bible and Mission:
Christian Witness in a Postmodern World

Richard Bauckham (Paternoster/Baker, 2003)

Blurb Review by Anthony C. Thiselton

Review by Anthony C. Thiselton

Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World. Richard Bauckham. Carlisle: Paternoster Press, and Grand Rapids: Baker Academic 2003, xi + 112 pages, £5.99, 15BN: 1-8422-7242-X.

Richard Bauckham, Professor of New Testament Studies in the University of St Andrews, has deployed his massive expertise in both NT studies and in the history of Christian doctrine to produce an admirable, small book on postmodernity in the context of a hermeneutic for mission. The material was originally delivered as public lectures at All Nations Christian College in 2001 and then in the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology in Addis Ababa. Even earlier, they grew from a lecture in Cambridge in 1999. The various revisions and four years of reflection have led to a model of clarity, succinctness, and accuracy in presenting the leading ideas of the book.

The first chapter rightly presents hermeneutics as engaged in the dialectic of particularity and universality. Professor Bauckham illustrates the theme with reference to global capitalism, the absorption of the particular and local by the Internet, and the dialectic of the particular and the universal within the Bible. Scripture 'in some sense encompasses all other human stories, draws them into the meaning that God's story with the world gives them' (5), but on the other side openness and particularity also characterise the Bible. No such dialectic characterises postmodernity. Postmodernity is "reaction against, rejection of all, metanarratives" (6). By seeking to absorb the particular into a universal (e.g. Marxism, Darwinism, global capitalism) a "metanarrative" becomes authoritarian and oppressive. Hence postmodernism opts for the opposite: diversity, localism, and relativism.

A biblical hermeneutic of mission, however, does embody "a kind of movement from the particular to the universal", albeit in qualified ways (11). God's purposes for the whole of creation are explicated as a temporal narrative and a dynamic movement. The parable of the mustard seed (Mark 4:30-33) provides one example of this movement. Nevertheless the Bible is not a "closed" system. There is a hint of eschatological fulfilment, but in principle "everything is left unconcluded" (24). Here a second dialectic emerges: "a dialectic of anticipated closure and permanent openness" (25). Professor Bauckham illustrates these principles with reference to God's call to Abraham, then Israel, then David, and from Israel to all nations under the king who rules to the ends of the earth. This is not by worldly power, but by the way of Jesus Christ.

The role of Jerusalem and the spread of the kingdom to the limits of the Gentiles would play a geographical role in the movement of the gospel. "Mission takes place between the highly particular history of Jesus and the unusual goal of God's coming kingdom" (84). Is the Bible then "a single interpretative framework ... a ‘totalising' framework"? (87). The author incisively and convincingly answers "Yes and no". Lyotard aimed his rejection of "grand narrative" against Enlightenment rationalism and the ideological tools of the West, not explicitly against the Bible. "The biblical story is decidedly not one of human mastery" (91, my italics). The Bible does not present the kind of closed "finality" that some systematic theologians seek, and that would collapse the dialectic into a timeless, abstract, universal.

Nevertheless in the end Christians cannot accept the unqualified "preference for diversity over truth" that postmodernism commends (98). The coercive "totalizing" of global capitalism may be oppressive, but the narrative of the Bible liberates. The Bible conveys "no dreary uniformity or oppressive denial of difference" (110). This is a splendid discussion: balanced, judicious, clear, convincing. It would be out of place to suggest as a criticism that only one key aspect of postmodernity has received full attention. Within the limits of such a short study the most important points make an incisive impact.

This review first appeared in Themelios 30.2 (2005), 84 and is used here with permission. No part of this review may be copied or transmitted in any form without the prior permission of the author and the publisher.

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