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Jesus and Christology: mission and the paradox of God's reign.

As far back as one can go--despite the word "mission," as we use it today, dating only to the Jesuits in the sixteenth century--the church has felt itself charged with spreading the good news of the Gospel. This charge has been carried out in a multitude of ways. Celtic and Benedictine monks in Britain and northern Europe used different models, which themselves contrast greatly with those used in the spread of Christianity along the Silk Road from Mesopotamia to China. In his "Culture and Coherence in Christian History," Andrew Walls reminds us of how pluriform is the church that has carried on that mission now for over 2,000 years. (1) The unifying theme of Stephen Bevans and Roger Schroeder's Meisterwerk is that "constants" in mission interact with quite different historical and cultural "contexts." (2) Nevertheless, I wonder if the radical nature of these insights is sufficiently internalized and appropriated in light of today's challenges to the notion that the Christian Gospel is, indeed, of universal and vital importance.

For the most part, the Gospel being spread was that which was crystallized by St. Paul and which revolves around the radical nature of God's action and promise in Christ Jesus. The claim for the universality of that action and promise--as retrieved in our own day in a particularly convincing manner by N. T. Wright (3)--is eschatological: a promise rooted in the several covenants made with Israel from the days of Abraham to those of Moses, David, and the prophets. The Christian covenant as explicated by Paul expresses what occurs in Jesus as the "grafting" of the Gentiles into the life-giving "root" of Israel (Rom. 11:17-36). The Second Vatican Council's Nostra aetate (Decree on Ecumenism), [section] 4, retrieves that Pauline insight, while insisting on the centrality of the suffering and death of Christ "because of the sins of all human beings, so that all might attain salvation." The Council goes on to say, "It is the duty of the Church, therefore, in her preaching to proclaim the cross of Christ as the sign of God's universal love and the source of all grace" (ibid.). The proclamation of this teaching was stressed again in 1990 in Pope John Paul's encyclical Redemptoris missio (Mission of the Redeemer): On the Permanent Validity of the Church's Missionary Mandate, [section] 44. The theme returns once more in Pope Francis's 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium (The joy of the Gospel), with an emphasis--citing St. Irenaeus of Lyon--on the eternal "newness of the Gospel":

With this newness [Christ] is always able to renew our lives and our communities, and even if the Christian message has known periods of darkness and ecclesial weakness, it will never grow old. Jesus can also break through the dull categories with which we would enclose him and he constantly amazes us by his divine creativity. Whenever we make the effort to return to the source and to recover the original freshness of the Gospel, new avenues arise, new paths of creativity open up, with different forms of expression, more eloquent signs and words with new meaning for today's world. Every form of authentic evangelization is always "new" (EG, [section] 11).

Identity of the "New"

Can we be more specific about what this "new" element is in a Europe and North America that seem tired of the old? I take it as self-evident that, for some time now, ordinary Christians, missiologists, and church leaders in the Global North--be they Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox--have known that the places to which they are sending missionaries and financial assistance in the Global South are often in better spiritual shape than are the churches in the homelands of traditional missionary societies and church mission boards. Given the rapidity of secularization and the rapid waning of religious observance there, the re-evangelization of the North is more difficult than in the Global South. Why? Not least because of a condition in our spiritual health that Leslie Weatherhead observed with this oft-quoted diagnosis: "The trouble with some of us is that we have been inoculated with small doses of Christianity which keep us from catching the real thing." (4) What "the real thing" is, however, is self-evident neither for those of us who consider ourselves "evangelical" nor for those who consider themselves more "liberal" or "modern."

Today we are perhaps watching the weakening of the evangelical and Pentecostal church families in the North in the face of challenges that a generation or more ago hollowed out the mainline denominations that over the past century took modernization most seriously as a goal. My own Roman Catholic Church is undergoing the same hollowing out in Europe and North America. Present debates over same-sex marriage, homosexuality, and the plasticity of gender appear to me to be the dynamic equivalent of the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925.

Ambiguity of Christianity's "Real Thing"

What the real thing in Christianity is, is not so easy to define in doctrinal language and dangerous when one does so--even when there is strong backing in Scripture and Tradition for making such determinations. My reluctance to define is rooted in a set of interlocking, profoundly scriptural elements that lead me to call the search for such answers in the past a deeply ambiguous exercise. Despite my great reverence for Scripture and the doctrinal formulas of the early ecumenical councils, I advance the notion that the search for adequate Christologies and soteriologies--ones that are valid always and everywhere--needs to take into account the ambiguities and paradoxes intertwined in God's reign (or kingdom) as we catch glimpses of it in the life of Jesus and in the parables that the four canonical gospels put on his lips. Moreover, I have come to believe that what the historian Paul Johnson says in the following quotation is intrinsic to Christian identity because it is intrinsic to the life, person, and message of Jesus.
   The teaching of Jesus is ... more a series of glimpses or matrices,
   a collection of insights, rather than a code of doctrine. It
   invites comment, interpretation, elaboration, and constructive
   argument, and it is the starting point for rival, though
   compatible, lines of inquiry. It is not a summa theologica, or
   indeed ethica, but the basis from which an endless series of summae
   can be assembled. It inaugurates a religion of dialogue,
   exploration, and experiment. Its radical elements are balanced by
   conservative qualifications, there is a constant mixture of
   legalism and antinomianism, and the emphasis repeatedly switches
   from rigor and militancy to acquiescence and the acceptance of
   suffering. Some of this variety reflects the genuine bewilderment
   of the disciples, and the confusion of the evangelical editors to
   whom their memories descended. But a great deal is essentially part
   of Jesus's universalist posture: the wonder is that the personality
   behind the mission is in no way fragmented but is always integrated
   and true to character. Jesus contrives to be all things to all men
   while remaining faithful to himself. (5)

A Thought Experiment

To see how the present reality of Christianity is very much what Johnson says characterized its beginnings, let's engage in a thought experiment. In it we drop down and sample worship services, homilies, and sermons over the course of a year in a thousand randomly selected local congregations (a goodly percentage of which follow the common lectionary) on a given Sunday in places as widely dispersed as Karachi, Lima, New York, Rome, Guangzhou, Sao Paulo, Panama City, Lisbon, Capetown, Xian, and Nairobi. Let us also select services, homilies, and sermons that take place in villages that surround these megacities. And then let us attempt to discern what is common to them all.

I believe we would find warrant for saying something like what Paul Johnson says has been true from the first years of the Christian movement. Of course, a reader could say that his or her church and its 600,000 members are alone and truly the genuine church of Christ and others are false. If that is persuasive to any readers, they need go no further.

While I do not know that Jonathan and Jean Bonk, the persons we honor in the essays in this special number of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, would agree with what Johnson says or what I make of his insights or will say below, the arc of Jon's own life illustrates what Johnson is recommending that we consider. Jon's life trajectory moves from being a child of strongly evangelical missionary parents in Africa to embracing an Anabaptist identity in adulthood, while worshipping, at least occasionally, in the rich liturgical traditions of Anglicanism. And he is very nervous about the centralizing of authority in Roman Catholic popes and bishops. He has never given me an account of his inner journey, but the spirit of Jon and Jean's household and the way they directed the Overseas Ministries Study Center (including Jon's incredibly creative way of launching and shepherding the cloud-based Dictionary of African Christian Biography) speak loudly of a couple that is more interested in being Christian than in arguing about who is most right in defining its essence or defending dogmas that purport to encapsulate that essence.

More Fundamental than Boundaries

In many ways Jon and Jean's ecumenically orthopraxial life reminds me of something I observed among theological students in Papua New Guinea in the mid-1970s. Whether they were Catholic, Anglican, United Church, or Lutheran, their confessional identity was more a marker of their way of being and of understanding Christianity than a boundary that needed to be defended.

Boundaries do have a role to play, but they are ambiguous and dangerous. As Mary Douglas reminds us, without boundaries societies begin to disintegrate and are in danger of anomie. She notes that, paradoxically, as "disorder spoils pattern; it also provides the materials of pattern." (6) The very rituals that define any given community, Christian or otherwise, constitute a recognition of the dangers of disorder and the human fear of it. Indeed, a social body that has no sense of boundary does not have long to live. Still, the attempt to define Christian doctrine and enforce its boundaries can become an imposition that impedes free expression and necessary development. Over the course of two thousand years, religious dis-order has prompted the defenders of Christian orthodoxy to use power to restore order, and they could not have done so without the consent of the masses. Among the by-products of secularization is that, in the contemporary West, that consent has vanished. No matter how large a religious body may be, no matter how great its internal consent to its doctrines and rules, religiously based rules cannot become civil law.

Bounded Sets and Fuzzy Sets

The late Paul Hiebert devoted careful attention to what happens when mission and Christian identity are thought of in terms of a "fuzzy-set" worldview versus a "bounded-set" epistemology. (7) I will not go into the richness of Hiebert's thought, but I do wish to observe that although their chosen boundary markers differ, churches and mission societies in the so-called Global North tend to have both healthy fiscal balance sheets and a bounded-set mentality. By contrast, peoples formed in the traditional cultures of Africa, Asia, and Oceania tend to be more "fuzzy" and to place their emphasis on other aspects of Scripture, aspects that give warrant for expecting God to help them heal illnesses and attain prosperity. Yet both Northern and Southern groups know the many Scriptures that stress that God alone knows the human heart. Likewise both know at some level that we understand the mystery of salvation the way we grasp reality--by looking through a dark glass (1 Cor. 13:12). Many in the Global South can be as insistent as fundamentalists in the North regarding the literal truth of texts such Acts 4:12 ("Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved," NIV) and in the Gospel of John (3:5, 16, 18-19, 36), where God sends the Son to save the world, but woe to those who do not believe in him. We all know these texts, but if they are read in a Kenyan or Sepik River village, questions about whether one's ancestors are "saved" are what is really important. Africans or Melanesians take their Bible fully seriously, but because they live in a world where the dead are still alive and close, their understanding of such texts will seem fuzzy to a fundamentalist.

Though Hiebert does not resolve such questions; he does observe: "Clearly, we must study our own hidden worldview to see how it biases our understanding of Scripture. By bringing our biases to light, we are freed from their subtle control over our thoughts. We can read Scripture with new eyes and let it speak to us in new ways. We can begin to reshape our worldview and make it more biblical." (8)

Openness to Change

What Hiebert speaks of as becoming "more biblical" can quite correctly include understandings of the world that are open to both paradox and irony. A world of ironclad dogmas derived from biblical verses and distilled into confessions and catechisms (whether large or small, including ones written in Trent, Geneva, Augsburg, Westminster, or Rome) needs to make room for the fact that the preaching of Jesus himself abounded in riddles, ironies, and even paradoxes, which is why I think we are wise to recognize that the unity of the Christian movement and church involves diversity and plurality--including clashes over what "the real thing" is.

We have entered an era in which most "missionary" work is being done in a way that several years ago I characterized by distinguishing between missio inter gentes and missio ad gentes. (9) The distinction is important. The era of modern mission that began with Jesuit missionary efforts in Asia and Latin America was based on the idea that Europeans would go out "to" the "pagan" nations (i.e., ad gentes) and convert them to Christianity. The era we are in today is one in which, if a sense of mission is to be realistic, local Christians globally (including in the Global North) are going to be engaged in mission with their family members, neighbors, and colleagues in a dazzling array of social locations (i.e., the missionary lives "among" nonbelievers, skeptics, and agnostics; in Latin, inter gentes). The level of missionary and missional ambiguity rises exponentially.

In no small measure, mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic missionary societies have learned from and internalized the many valid insights of historians, anthropologists, and sociologists of religion. They may not accept the validity of everything that critics label as "colonial" or "postcolonial" missionary enterprises aimed at colonizing the minds of villagers and inhabitants of the burgeoning urban centers of the Global South. But they know that much of that critique is accurate. Moreover, the impressive transition, from 1974 to 2015, in leadership of the Lausanne Covenant Movement from North to Global South Christians is an example of a move beyond the colonial-era missionary paradigm. While Lausanne members are heavily engaged in ad gentes mission, their commitment to that and inter gentes work is predicated on the realization that the most effective mission is carried on among one's own people, which demands new strategies.

Most significantly, leaders have risen up all over that Global South, and their priorities are not those of the North. Indonesia and Korea, to give just two examples, are sending missionaries around the world. As are Kenya and Bolivia. Korean churches, in fact, are now among the largest "missionary-sending" churches in the world. Of the 6,000 members of the Society of the Divine Word, the Catholic Church's largest missionary order, 20 percent today are Indonesians.

Decline of Mission from the Global North

Meanwhile among many churches in the North, focused engagement in mission has declined. The list of reasons for this decline of interest in what can be called mission ad extra (i.e., mission beyond the borders of the churches) are many. The Roman Catholic Church is beset by lay-clergy antagonism sparked by priests' being sexual predators and bishops' covering up for them. In Protestant denominations conflicts exist between "conservative" and "liberal" members of many churches on gender issues, on how or whether to take sides on political issues, and on whether women should be ordained. These tensions are complicated by differences of opinion on whether Jesus is primarily a teacher, like other great founders of religions, or uniquely the Son of God and Savior of the world, the one in whom one must have faith to be saved--or be damned if one does not. (10) Churches engaged in major feuds over such matters are not likely to be highly interested in bringing the "unchurched" into their fold, whether the unchurched are the baptized who have fallen away or are followers of other religious traditions.

Adding to the realization that something is changing, a 2015 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts of long-range trends estimates that although the world population will grow by 35 percent between now and 2050, followers of Islam will grow by 73 percent in that same period. Meanwhile, Christians will grow by 35 percent, and Hindus by 34 percent. (11) If Pew is right, the Christian share of the world population will keep up with world population growth, while the Muslim share will increase, climbing at double the world's rate of population growth.

Statistics such as these are debatable and will be debated. Indeed, the estimates of the Center for the Study of World Christianity seem to clash with those of Pew. (12) What is clear is that when the 1910 Edinburgh World Missionary Conference adopted John Mott's call, enunciated in 1900, (13) to "evangelize the world in this generation," it failed to such a degree that standard interpretations of the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20 as a mandate to make all people Christians may need to be rethought--perhaps radically. The impressive collection of work embodied in the many volumes published by the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, as part of the World Missionary Conference's 2010 centenary commemoration, leave no doubt but that this reassessment is already under way and is being carried out to a very high standard. (14)

Toward Communion in Mission

The Great Commission rests on the New Testament's teaching that Jesus is, indeed, the Messiah and, uniquely, God's Son. For the clearest formulation of what the first generations thought that meant, we must return to the teachings of St. Paul, the oldest Scriptures we possess and the ones in which we find the first attempt to express who Jesus is by translating Aramaic and Hebrew concepts into Greek. Expressed concretely, the core issue in regard to Christian mission revolves around the following italicized words of the Great Commission: "go and make disciples [matheteusate] of all nations, baptizing [baptizontes] them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28:19 NIV). (15)

Those who know me also know that my Christology, soteriology, and missiology are both conservative and orthodox. I identify broadly with the postliberal theology mapped by Yale Divinity School's George Lindbeck and the insights of the early Paul Ricoeur on the possibility and need to recover a "second naivete" in the wake of the destruction, wrought by modern criticism, of humanity's "first naivete"--that is, an unquestioning dwelling of self and society in worlds mediated by traditions, sacred scriptures, and ideologies. (16) Hence my call for recognition of ambiguity, paradox, and irony. We work with earthen vessels; to believe that they are sufficient to our task of encompassing in full the truths of the Christ, the kingdom, and mission is to dwell in Ricoeur's first naivete. Being earthen vessels, our concepts and formulations crack, and containment eludes us. We carry out mission in the midst of ambiguity and under the sign of paradox: already, not yet, a bit of yeast, a mustard seed, a pearl hidden in a field, where no one would think to look for it.

The mission of Jesus as well as of his early followers takes its meaning in reference to what we translate into English as the "reign" or "kingdom" of God (in Greek, the basileia tou theou). But our understanding of the kingdom or reign of God is closely tied to Jesus' parables, and it is hard to make them cohere as a systematic set of insights. (17) Whatever else Jesus' use of parables may offer, we are not dealing with a straightforward explanation by him of what the kingdom is. Though his parables about the mysterious "now already present" reality of God and the "not yet" dimensions of God's relationship to the world are the keys to understanding both the mission of Jesus and that of the church, yet the paradoxes and ironies inherent in the parables open them to widely differing interpretations.

The theologian's "imagination," in David Kelsey's terms, of the reality of God's presence and activity grounds that theologian's vision of how the Bible is authoritative and orients the case the theologian makes for the church to be in this or that way or to carry on its activities in this or that fashion. Each family of churches (e.g., James's Jerusalem or Paul's Antiochian versions of the primitive church; later Greek or Russian Orthodoxy; Lutheran or Reformed Protestantism; Roman or Anglican Catholicism; Anabaptist or Baptist Protestantism; Pentecostal or Charismatic movements) has a certain unity in its vision of God's presence and activity; but there is also a great deal of disagreement both within each family and between the various families. As we live with--and embrace--that ambiguity, we become, paradoxically, both more deeply rooted and more deeply liberated. Enriched, we are able to enter more fully into mission and into the fellowship of communion with our brothers and sisters in Christ.


(1.) Andrew F. Walls, "Culture and Coherence in Christian History," in The Missionary Movement in Christian History (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1996), 16-25.

(2.) Stephen B. Bevans and Roger Schroeder, Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2004).

(3.) Among N. T. Wright's many books, I find the most accessible to be Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008), and Paul in Fresh Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005).

(4.) I have never succeeded in identifying the source of this quotation and would be grateful to be informed.

(5.) Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity (New York: Atheneum, 1976), 28.

(6.) Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (New York: Praeger, 1966), 94.

(7.) See Paul Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994), 110-36.

(8.) Ibid., 136.

(9.) William R. Burrows, "Response to Michael Amaladoss," Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America 56 (June 2001): 15-20

(10.) The work of the great Jacques Dupuis, SJ, was devoted to identifying what is the core of Christian teaching in regard to "other" religions and clearing space so that Christians could learn to take them seriously and learn from them. See his last book for insight into how both mission and dialogue are intrinsic to genuine Christian living, Christianity and the Religions: From Confrontation to Dialogue (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2002).

(11.) See Pew Charitable Trusts, "The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050," /04/02/religious-projections-2010-2050/.

(12.) See Todd Johnson, Gina A. Zurlo, Albert W. Hickman, and Peter F. Crossing, "Status of Global Christianity, 2015, in the Context of 1900-2050," International Bulletin of Missionary Research 39, no. 1 (2015): 29.

(13.) John R. Mott, The Evangelization of the World in This Generation (New York: Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions, 1901).

(14.) I refer to the massive twenty-five-volume series of books in the OCMS's Regnum Edinburgh Centenary Series, many of which are now available gratis on their website: /list.php?cat=3.

(15.) The Revised Standard Version translates matheteusate and baptizontes with the same words as the NTV, as does the Catholic New American Bible, while the King James Version has "Go ... and teach."

(16.) George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984); Paul Ricoeur, La symbolique du mal (Paris: Aubier, 1960), English translation by Emerson Buchanan, The Symbolism of Evil (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), 349.

(17.) See David Kelsey, The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975), 139, 163.

William R. Burrows, a contributing editor, is managing editor emeritus, Orbis Books, a former member of the Divine Word Missionaries, research professor of missiology in the World Christianity Program at New York Theological Seminary, and a fellow of the Andrew F. Walls Centre for the Study of Asian and African Christianity at Liverpool Hope University, Liverpool,
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Author:Burrows, William R.
Publication:International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Article Type:Essay
Date:Oct 1, 2015
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