The Mission of God:
Unlocking the Bible's Grand Narrative
Christopher J. H. Wright (IVP, 2006)Blurb Review by Michael J. Glodo
Review by Michael J. Glodo
Christopher J. H. Wright, director of international ministries for the Langham Partnership International (John Stott Ministries) has set about to "develop an approach to biblical hermeneutics that sees the mission of God (and the participation in it of God's people) as a framework within which we can read the whole Bible" (p. 17). He does so in four major steps: (1) The Bible and mission; (2) the God of mission; (3) the people of mission; and (4) the arena of mission. "Mission" refers to "a long-term purpose or goal that is to be achieved through proximate objectives and planned actions" (p. 23). Whatever our mission is as the people of God, it "flows from and participates in the mission of God" (i.e. God's long-term purpose as revealed in Scripture). "Fundamentally, our mission (if it is biblically informed and validated) means our committed participation as God's people, at God's invitation and command, in God's own mission within the history of God's world for the redemption of God's creation" (italics original). Wright strikes a clear note of biblical authority in his definitions and initial orientation.
In Part I, "The Bible and Mission." Wright defends the legitimacy of "mission" as a hermeneutical approach, arguing for its status as part of the Bible's grand narrative: "Mission is what the Bible is all about; we could as meaningfully talk of the missional basis of the Bible as of the biblical basis of mission" (p. 29). We must read the Bible as much "missionally" as we do messianically (p. 30). Wright is not simply tracing mission as one of many themes in the Bible. He asserts that revelation itself is the consequence of God's mission. Scripture itself is testimony of God's purpose to make himself known. The foundation of the Bible is God's mission. As a grand narrative, a missional reading of the whole Bible will keep us from selectively proof texting our own projection of what we want God's mission to be, the tendency to "find what we brought with us—our own conception of mission, now comfortably festooned with biblical luggage tags" (p. 37). He goes on to say, "Rather than finding biblical legitimation for our activities, we should be submitting all our missionary strategy, plans and operations to biblical critique and evaluation." The opening section concludes with Wright's assertion that Christianity has anticipated experientially and is prepared to offer coherence within the seeming impasse between locality and universality presented by postmodern hermeneutics (p. 45).
Part II, "The God of Mission," examines Israel's monotheism within its historical context. God's acts and his law bind Israel to God while distinguishing her from the nations. Along the way, Wright engages debates pertaining to the nature of Israel's ethical monotheism. Yahweh did not simply claim to be Israel's God, but the God above all gods. His rule over history is not merely Israel's history, but that of the entire world. In Israel's exodus, exile, and return, God's reputation among the nations was a chief theme because it was God's intention that his name be universally known (p. 88). The revelation of God's name is ultimately achieved in Jesus (chapter 4).
Part III, "The People of Mission," traces how the people of God are enfolded into God's mission. Mission does not begin with Pentecost and the church. Rather, it begins with the Abrahamic covenant in which God promised not only to bless Abraham but the nations through him: "Arguably God's covenant with Abraham is the single most important biblical tradition within a biblical theology of mission and a missional hermeneutic of the Bible" (p. 189). Moreover, "the story of Abraham looks both backward to the great narrative of creation and forward to the even greater narrative of redemption" (p. 219). Israel's election, therefore, must be seen in continuity with this story. Israel was redeemed not simply for her own sake, but for the sake of the world, "that [God's] name might be proclaimed in all the earth" (Exod 9:16). As national in character as the Mosaic covenant might seem, Israel's status as a kingdom of priests was ultimately for her priestly mediation of God's blessing to the nations (Exod 19:5-6). The monarchy of Israel as well must be seen in light of God's mission. In it God's universal kingship is anticipated, not simply his reign over Israel, and is ultimately realized in Jesus (p. 233). Israel's king would rule over the nations and build a house for the Lord for all nations (Isa 56:6-8).
Rather than pit Abraham against Moses, Wright demonstrates that the law was in keeping with God's missional purpose begun with Abraham. Abraham's faithfulness to God's commands would effect the blessing of the nations that God had resolved to pour out through Abraham (Gen 18:18-19). Obedience was profoundly important under Abraham. Conversely, God would become renowned because of the laws he gave Israel (Deut 4:6-7). The Mosaic covenant was not to focus on Israel's national identity to the exclusion of the nations. Chapter 11, "The Life of God's Missional People," develops the premise that "there is no biblical mission without biblical ethics" (p. 190). Israel's disobedience needed remedying not only for its own sake, but for the sake of God's mission (p. 241). The church similarly has a missional responsibility to reflect the reign of God in its corporate life (pp. 387ff.; cf. 1 Pet 2:9).
As with his previous treatments of OT law, Wright develops the economic and social implications of life under the covenant. This leads logically into what may be the most timely portion of the book—the relationship between evangelism and social action in carrying out God's mission. He urges the reader to see that what Christ did on the cross "goes far beyond (though of course it includes) the matter of personal guilt and individual forgiveness" (p. 314). He argues for a cross-centered holistic view of mission because the cross had cosmic implications.
Must evangelism always have priority? Wright notes in practice how often "the language of priority and primacy quickly tends to imply singularity and exclusion" (p. 317). Wright is determined to bring into view the broad scope of the gospel (and God) for those who are complacent to do evangelism only. Yet he is careful to distance himself from an approach that relegates evangelism to little or no importance for the sake of social action.
The final portion of the book, "The Arena of Mission," develops what earlier has been recognized as the creational scope of God's mission. Israel in the land typifies the future for humanity in the new creation. Through the expansion of his people, God will bring the whole earth under his reign. Wright's discussion of creation and our relationship to it resonates with increased environmental awareness among some evangelicals while giving caution about de facto deification of creation. The earth is God's, and we are stewards of it. It yields abundance for us, but ultimately exists for the praise of its Creator and is to be treated accordingly by humankind.
Wright's book is highly commendable for its hermeneutical approach, its biblical theological development, its treatment of contemporary missiological issues, and its drumbeat to form our concept of mission from Scripture itself.
In distinction from Richard Baukham's briefer Bible and Mission (Baker, 2003), which offers guidance for negotiating God's mission in the post-9/11 world, Wright's Mission of God is a comprehensive exegetical work. Similar to Andreas J. Kostenberger's and Peter T. O'Brien's Salvation to the Ends of the Earth (InterVarsity, 2001) Wright primarily develops the OT roots of God's mission as it emerges in Christ, while the former spends the greater proportion on second temple Judaism and the NT development of God's mission. Readers familiar with G. K. Beale's Temple and the Church's Mission (InterVarsity, 2004) will find a complement in Wright. While Beale uses the garden/ tabernacle/temple/church axis as a biblical-theological metanarrative, Wright devotes greater attention to other aspects of the law, the nations, and the subject of mission proper.
Wright could do more in connecting God's initial purpose in creation with what he does in redemption. While acknowledging there is a connection, the substantive development of his theme begins with Abraham. By contrast, Beale seizes upon the sanctuary aspects of Eden as foundational and traces the history of redemption primarily in terms of God's progressive establishment of an earthly dwelling with his people, ultimately in Jesus Christ and finally in the new heavens and earth. Beale's work has the pronounced eschatological contours of one who has been shaped by the eschatologically conditioned biblical theology of Herman Ridderbos, Geerhardus Vos, and Meredith Kline (none of whom are referenced by Wright or included in his otherwise excellent bibliography). As a result, Wright's work does not enjoy the full support of the Pauline eschatology nor the broader eschatological notion that "the eschatological is an older strand in revelation than the soteric" (G. Vos, Biblical Theology [Eerdmans, 1948] 140). Including this would only strengthen Wright's approach.
On a related note, The Mission of God would benefit from greater ecclesiological development. While appropriately refusing to sever the church's mission from what God had begun in Abraham and advanced through Moses, Israel, and David, Wright does not give full expression to the church as a sign of the new creation, the presence of the new creation in the midst of the old, and the means of extending God's kingdom. Had he done so, it would have given added support to his articulation of the "centripetal" as well as the "centrifugal" aspect of God's mission (pp. 523ff.).
On a further related note, there would seem to be some benefit in correlating Wright's treatment of mission with the concept of kingdom. At a time when kingdom is growing in popularity and finds itself attached to virtually any endeavor associated with Christians, Wright's call back to a biblical foundation for mission could be echoed with benefit for calling us back to a biblical concept of the kingdom of God.
Finally, it seems judgment on the nations is de-emphasized for the sake of illuminating God's purposes for the nations. There is only one tangential reference to hell, and the discussion on judgment is limited to judgment upon the gods of the nations. Since there are contemporary developments alongside and from within evangelicalism that are beginning to question the classic doctrine of eternal conscious punishment, some affirming or clarifying word would seem prudent.
These suggestions in no way detract from the enormous value of Wright's work in going beyond trying to trace a thin thread of a missions mandate in the OT until its full flowering in the NT.
Some readers will find great benefit in reading the epilogue first, which provides an overview of what Wright is attempting. There is also, in addition to a brief table of contents with page enumeration, a detailed outline immediately following. Though lacking page numbers, it is a helpful big picture of the book's argument for occasional reorientation for the reader.
Christopher Wright has truly laid a cornerstone in the edifice of mission, one on which a biblical theology of mission would be wise to build.
Review by Michael J. Glodo
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, FL
This review first appeared in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 52.2 (2009) 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.
- 1 Corinthians
- 1 John
- 1 Samuel
- 1 Timothy
- 2 John
- 2 Kings
- 2 Samuel
- 3 John
- Biblical Theology
- New Testament
- Old Testament
- Old Testament Theology
- Song of Songs
- Wisdom Literature