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Trinitarian Mission and Practical Theology: Conversations in Service of the Local.

The contextual dimension of mission remains both critical and relevant in understanding the nature and scope of the church with regard to its place and purpose. This is formed against the backdrop of the continual importance of the missio Dei in framing its engagement. Lesslie Newbigin's conception of trinitarian mission is one approach that can give specific focus to this understanding. A trinitarian missional ecclesiology can find common ground with practical theology in service of mission. Practical theology should be understood contextually and can be conceived missiologically. By bringing Newbigin's trinitarian mission into conversation with practical theology, an important conversation is generated regarding the contextual nature of both the discipline of practical theology and the missio Dei.

The Missio Dei

According to missiologists like David Bosch and Lesslie Newbigin, mission has often been seen through the lens of personal salvation or church expansion, or, alternatively, understood in cultural terms. All these aspects tend to place our efforts at the centre. However, in recent times, there has been a decisive shift toward understanding mission as God's mission. (1) Bosch comments that, in fact, it was Barth who first gave impetus to the idea that mission was to be derived from God's nature. (2) Today, it is important that we now see mission as an extension of God's very being. (3) Mission is firstly God's mission and is broad in scope.
Since God's concern is for the entire world, this should also be the
scope of the missio Dei. It affects all people in all aspects of their
existence. Mission is God's turning to the world in respect of
creation, care, redemption and consummation... The missio Dei is
God's activity which embraces both the church and the world, and in
which the church may be privileged to participate. (4)

Missionary activity, therefore, encounters a God who has secretly been at work. Hoekendijk, in his attempt to expand the limited nature of the term "mission," often meant it was understood in exclusion to that of the church and the swallowing up of the church in the world. Despite these overcorrections, mission ought still to be seen in the width with which Bosch has described it. Its source, though, remains God's being and heart: "Mission has its origin in the heart of God. God is a fountain of sending love. This is the deepest source of mission. It is impossible to penetrate deeper still; there is mission because God loves people." (5)

Graham et al. note with interest how the Trinity influences those within the emergent church and others in their corporate theological reflection with regard to mission. (6) Root has argued of the importance of a trinitarian understanding for practical theology and highlights the incarnation as central for leading us deep into the human situation. (7) In light of this renewed emphasis of a missional triune God, we need to ask how we can understand this trinitarian mission. In what way do the Father, Son, and Spirit participate in, and embody, the mission of God? One of the ways people have chosen to understand the triune God as missional is by seeing the three persons of the Trinity' in terms of certain roles--Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. We shall be using Lesslie Newbigin's trinitarian missiology to help us with this, but must first make a few comments regarding the gender of the Trinity. In today's world, we cannot simply speak of Father and Son without some form of explanation. A quote by Hans Kiing has been chosen to illustrate the perspective to which we hold:
that God is not male, that God is neither masculine nor feminine, that
God transcends masculinity and femininity, that all our terms for God,
including the word "Father", are only analogies and metaphors, only
symbols and ciphers, and that none "fixes" the symbol God, so that one
might, say, obstruct women's liberation in society and the ordination
of women in the church in the name of such a patriarchal God. (8)

Louw shows the power of God-images in people's lives. He challenges us to uncover the patriarchal dimensions of our view of God. (9) He also speaks of how the term "fatherhood" (or "motherhood," for that matter) could provoke negativity for many. (10) He proposes an understanding of God as soul friend. Taking these considerations into account here, a choice will still be made to work with the terms "Father" and "Son," noting their metaphorical nature and how they have arisen out of a patriarchal context. Would a better term perhaps be the "parental nature of mission"?

Newbigin believes that our understanding of the Trinity arises from the axioms of our culture, from the authority of revelation, and can provide practical wisdom for life. (11) It is worth mentioning that Newbigin's theology was not always trinitarian, but in fact was quite Christocentric. However, as Newbigin's concern developed for reality outside of the church, there was a shift from a Christocentric approach to mission to a trinitarian understanding of mission. (12) We will now examine how Newbigin understands the missional dimension of each person of the Trinity.

Proclaiming the Kingdom of the Father

Newbigin places the proclamation of God's reign over the whole of the cosmic universe as the starting point for mission:
God is the creator, and consummator of all that is. We are not talking
about one sector of human affairs, one strand out of the whole fabric
of world history; we are talking about the reign and sovereignty of God
over all that is, and therefore we are talking about the origin,
meaning, and the end of the universe. We are not dealing with the local
and temporary disturbance in the current cosmic happenings, but with
the source and goal of the cosmos. (13)

The particularity of the election of Israel in the biblical story must be seen in the light of a blessing for the nations. This is not an other-worldly promise or a means of escape; it has to do with the here and now. (14) Newbigin has been cridcized for making this--instead of the creadon--the starting point for his reflection on the Father. (15)

The calling for God's dream to become manifest in the world is not a way of triumphal Utopia, through the conquering and captivity of the world, but the way of the cross, through suffering, pain, and humility. (16) In the same way that the benefits of election for Israel were not for themselves, neither is the benefit of the resurrection for those who receive it but for others. (17) This story of God's reign and the Father's proclamation will not be a straightforward ride to victory, but one of "tribulation and faithful witness, of death and resurrection." (18) The logical outworking for mission is what Newbigin states as faith in action, where "It is the acting out by proclamation and by endurance, through all the events of history, of the faith that the kingdom of God has drawn near. It is the acting out of the central prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to use: 'Father, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.'" (19)

Sharing the Life of the Son

In Jesus, the kingdom becomes present and manifest. The kingdom was not a distant hope, but now has a human face. A shift from proclaiming the kingdom became, for those after Jesus, one of proclaiming Jesus who was the embodiment of the kingdom. (20) Of course, part of God's reign involves the forgiveness of sins and the reality of judgement. The reality of the kingdom calls for decisive action now. We ought also to embody the life of the kingdom in ourselves with the same commitment to action for God's kingdom. Newbigin further believes that, as Christians, we cannot lose the concept of God's wrath toward sin--correctly understood and appropriated. (21)

Despite this, questions regarding the cross, the wrath of God, and the atonement seem to find scant reference in Newbigin's works. Goheen notes that this might be due to his ecumenical tendencies that often led him "to frame controversial theological issues in terms that would challenge familiar divergences between traditions." (22)

For Newbigin, it is important to realize that we cannot escape the fact that Jesus called to himself a community to be witness to the arrival of his reign--the church. (23) We need to be wary of the tendency to equate the kingdom with the church. Despite this, one must still attest to the reality that, in some way, the kingdom should be uniquely manifest in the church as it serves the world. Yet, this must always remain in tension with affirming that the kingdom is broader and, in some senses, exists without the church.

In speaking about the church's relationship to the kingdom, Newbigin notes,
The church represents the presence of the reign of God in the life of
the world, not in the triumphalist sense (as the successful cause) and
not in the moralistic sense (as the righteous cause), but in the sense
that it is the place where the mystery of the kingdom present in the
dying and rising of Jesus is made present here and now so that all
people, righteous and unrighteous, are enabled to taste and share the
love of God before whom all are unrighteous and all are accepted as
righteous. (24)

Bearing the Witness of the Spirit

Newbigin speaks of the Father as the proclamation of the kingdom, and the Son as the presence of the kingdom. He now refers to the Spirit as the prevenience of the kingdom. For Newbigin, the Spirit's role is prior to, and necessary for, the church's work: "Mission is not just something that the church does; it is something that is done by the Spirit, who is himself the witness, who changes both the world and the church, who always goes before the church in its missionary journey." (25)

Newbigin calls it "the very life-giving presence of God himself." (26) It is God's Spirit that launches the mission of the church at Pentecost and it still remains the Spirit's mission. It is the Spirit that shapes, changes, moulds, and moves the nature and shape that mission takes.

The church's witness is secondary to the witness of the Spirit and to where the Spirit leads us. The Spirit further brings a powerful witness to the reality of God's reign in the world. (27) The future of God's great dream for the world is caught up in the clash between the Spirit's work in the past and the movement of the future into the present:
The Spirit brings the reality of the new world to come into the midst
of the old world that is. It is the proof that we are heirs of the
coming kingdom. And it is thus that the Spirit is witness--the
recognizable presence of a future that has been promised but is not yet
in sight. It is thus, also, that the Spirit is the source of hope--not
just hope for ourselves, but hope for the completion of God's whole
cosmic work. (28)

Reflecting on a Missional Triune God

I believe that the church, and practical theology in service of the church, finds its basis and task in serving the triune God's mission in the world. It indeed draws its theological reflection from God's activity in the world while, at the same time, is committed to participation in its ongoing missional activity.

If practical theology, and the church, are committed to seeing God's reign reflected upon, and demonstrated in, the real world--the stuff of life--they must ask themselves the missional question. They ought to be committed to missional reflection and activity, because the triune God is committed to missional activity. Theological reflection ought to emerge from within faith communities and those who are involved in the local, real situations of life.

Yet, it is my conviction that faith communities, with an incorrect understanding of the all-encompassing nature of mission, remain at present largely handicapped in their ability to respond to the challenges at hand. Therefore, a broader focus on mission as conceived in the trinitarian understanding of mission just as articulated by Newbigin would enable Christians within faith communities to see all of life as ready for missional engagement. It is based on the belief that all of life is redeemable and within the orbit of Christ's Lordship and is open to the reality of the gospel's message and change. Simply stated, God is missional, and therefore the church is missional. A quote from John Franke perhaps best illustrates this:
The church is entrusted with the missional task of proclaiming and
living out the gospel and its implications in the world. The nature of
the church and its missional calling are tied up with the church's
relationship with God and its role in the missio Dei. As suggested, God
is social and missional in character, and these aspects of the divine
nature have implications for the church and the task of theology. (29)

If the church is missional, it therefore gives itself in mission--and this has implications for its theology, as Franke notes. This means that the shape and task of the church should be related to its unique missional calling. We do not ask what a church should look like, but rather: What is the mission for this specific church? Once the mission has been clarified, the "type," "model," or "structural questions" can be discussed. This would imply that our churches (and indeed theological reflection) would be vastly different according to the unique nature of the mission in which one is engaged. (30) The gospel (the good news that Jesus is Lord of the whole world), as it breaks into each unique situation as a result of God's missional activity to which the church has responded, would lead to different expressions of church life: unique mission--unique location--unique church--unique theological reflection. Vincent Donovan, who worked among the Masai, reminds us, "While the general outline of the church is certainly present in Scripture, the specific details of the church, the response to the good news, will just as certainly have to be as free and diverse as all the separate cultures of the human race." (31)

Not only is the church (and practical theology) missional by nature, but it also finds itself in a unique missional environment. The close relationship that the church enjoyed with the state, and all its benefits, has collapsed. This Christendom model resulted in what Shenk describes as a "church without mission." (32) Traditionally, Christian societies no longer view themselves as Christians. This reality has its roots in the Enlightenment, but has only really borne fruit during the last century. Ganzevoort has argued that the church finds itself in a deinstitutionalized situation and on the fringes of society. (33) The Western world is indeed a mission field. (34) Christianity's precarious position within much of the world is further heightened by the huge shifts that have taken place in epistemology. The rejection of the modern Enlightenment project has created a uniquely challenging missional reality for the church. Hiebert comments that, in a "postmodern world we need to re-examine our epistemological foundations to see how they affect our relationships to other people, cultures, theologies, and religions in a pluralistic world... I am also convinced it is the approach we must take in a postcolonial era in missions." (35)

This missional reality is one that theological reflection in general will need to take account of in its service to the church. Practical theology as a discipline within theology in general is well placed to do this: particularly a practical theology that is conceived as missional.

The Missional Church and Practical Theology

James Fowler is perhaps best known for his work Stages of Faith. It is, however, perhaps his chapter written on practical theology entitled "Practical Theology: The Shaping of Christian Lives" that has had a significant influence on the development of modern-day practical theology. Fowler states, "Practical Theology is theological reflection and construction arising out of and giving guidance to a community of faith in the praxis of its mission. Practical Theology is critical and constructive reflection on the praxis of the Christian community's life and work in its various dimensions." (36)

Therefore, practical theology, and its reflection, does not take place in a vacuum. It arises out of, and gives guidance to, the community of faith and the individual Christians who comprise that community. If this community is stated to be missional by nature, derived from God's missional nature, its reflection should also be missional. Therefore, it discovers its mandate in the unique missional reality in which it finds itself. Practical theology is at the service of God's mission, and God's mission is local.

Essential to understanding the local nature of theology is to admit from the outset that an applied practical theology--a theology from above that is trans-historical and simply downloaded onto a local situation--is indeed a thing of the past. For, as Hendriks notes, "If Christianity really wants to engage the hearts and minds of believers, it must seriously regard the context that shapes their lives and in which their communities are rooted." (37) By arguing for the starting point of theology in the local, we reject "theological debate which proceeds as if abstracted from the total situation in which reflection takes place." (38) By arguing for the local nature of theology, we agree with Segundo that there is no "autonomous, impartial, academic theology floating free above the realm of human options and biases." (39) Theology does not begin in the academy, but in reality--in the experiences of "individuals and communities." (40) It resists a form of abstract theology. (41)

This means that theological reflection must begin with the "stuff" of people's lives. The word "praxis" is controversial. Bevans sees praxis as "action in reflection" and defines it in the following manner:
It is reflected-upon action and acted-upon reflection--both rolled into
one. Practitioners of the praxis model believe that in this concept of
praxis they have found a new and profound way that, more than all
others, is able to deal adequately with the experience of the past
(Scripture and tradition) and the experience of the present (human
experience, culture, social location, and social change). (42)

Bevans rejects an understanding of praxis that equates it simply with practice. He notes its roots in Marxism, the Frankfurt school, and Paulo Freire. For Bevans, it is rather a method and model of thinking. (43) It seems that others would agree. (44) De Kock views praxis as the interaction and tension between theory and practice where true knowledge lies. Kim has noted the roots of praxis in Aristotle's thinking, where theory and practice are intertwined, and where praxis referred to a "purposeful and reflective action initiated through engagement in social situations." (45) Clodovis Boff also argues for a tension between theory and practice. In fact, he argues that even though they are to be differentiated, it is artificial when one tries to separate the two. (46) Yet, it seems that despite Boff speaking of praxis as "human activity to transform the world" (which includes a theoretical dimension), he still uses praxis in a "practical sense" as the starting point for theological reflection. (47) In the following quote, Boff argues for praxis as holding primacy as a starting point for theology:
It must first of all be acknowledged that praxis holds the primacy over
theory. This primacy is of an analytical, not an ethical, character. It
is not to be understood as one of mechanical causality, but precisely
of dialectical causality. It defines how the one factor is the prime,
material condition for the existence of the other. Praxis is de facto
the comprehensive element of theory; as such it constitutes the space
where theory is localized and defined, the space where it arises,
develops, and comes to completion. (48)

Although affirming the importance of the local for theological reflection, Boff cautions against equating the local situation as truth. Practical effectiveness, or a pragmatism that rejects theoretical reflection, is rejected. For Boff, the local practice of something does not assign a "moral qualification" to it. (49) He argues that taking local practice into account at the expense of theory is to the detriment of praxis itself. (50) The starting point begins with the practice of real life. It cannot start by taking abstract ideas and seek to work them out in local realities.

Practical theology must begin its dialectical process by listening to the "emerging questions" that arise out of the daily cultural realities of human beings and the church. (51) It takes seriously the current issues of the day. (52) Praxis "prepares the agenda, the repertory of questions, that theology is to address." (53)

We have realized that by arguing for the local nature of theology, we argue for a contextual theology. Bevans points out the importance of contextual theology today. (54) He notes the dissatisfaction and suspicion of the third world toward first-world theology, which has overpowered them and forced them to deal with realities irrelevant to their daily lives. Along with the growing identity of local churches, the oppressive nature of the older approaches that neglected and, in fact, attacked legitimate cultural expressions has also been rejected. (55)

Bevans also reminds us of the theological underpinnings of a local theology in the idea of the incarnation, as well as the affirmation of the sacramental nature of theology (where all of life is seen as a locus of God's presence and activity). (56) The importance of the broad dimension of mission in practical theology, as mentioned already, has obvious parallels in discussing theology's sacramental nature. The nature of divine revelation as present in believers' daily lives, the catholicity of the church in championing the local, and the triune God's active, present, and dynamic role in day-to-day realities are all affirmed as important. (57)

The importance of contextualization for theology is worked out in the pastoral cycle. Segundo describes this as the hermeneutical circle that begins with experienced reality--a real context. (58) When discussing contextualization, Bosch also refers to this dialectical relationship between theory and practice that has its roots in praxis, or experience. (59)

However, Bosch cautions contextual theologians about viewing God as totally wrapped up in the historical process. (60) Further dangers involve uncritical celebration of a variety of often exclusive theologies, which can often lead to absolutism. When taking these concerns into account, one must not allow the contextual and local realties to be all-determining. Theology, though, that is divorced from local realities remains irrelevant and is also subject to potential ideological captivity. To realize God's presence in history and to begin with local issues means that we can begin the process of dialogue from the correct starting point. However, for a theologian to be local, he or she must identify, participate in, and give voice to the experience of the local situation out of which his or her theology arises.


Practical theology as a discipline can be, and should be, conceived from a missiological standpoint. One can indeed speak of a "missional practical theology." This is because practical theology by definition starts with the local and contextual nature of its method in service to the church. Newbigin has sought to affirm the trinitarian nature of the mission of God. A practical theology that is in service of the local finds itself responding to the missio Dei from a trinitarian perspective, being attentive to the kingdom, Jesus, and the leading of the Spirit. Continued dialogue between mission and practical theology can offer fruitful avenues for both in service to the church in mission.

Brian Macallan

Brian Macallan is a lecturer at Stirling Theological College, University of Divinity, Australia.

(1) David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1991), 389.

(2) Ibid., 390.

(3) Jurgens Hendriks, Studying Congregations in Africa (Wellington: Lux Verbi, 2004), 25.

(4) Bosch, Transforming Mission, 391.

(5) Ibid., 392.

(6) Elaine Graham, Heather Walton, and Frances Ward, Theological Reflection: Methods (London: SCM Press, 2005), 6.

(7) Andrew Root, "Practical Theology as Social Ethical Action in Christian Ministry Implications from Emmanuel Levinas and Dietrich Bonhoeffer," International Journal of Practical Theology 10 (2006), 53, 63.

(8) Hans Kung, Credo: The Apostles' Creed Explained for Today (London: SCM Press, 1992), 29.

(9) Daniel Louw, A Pastoral Hermeneutics of Care and Encounter: A Theological Design for a Basic Theory, Anthropology, Method and Therapy (Wellington: Lux Verbi, 1998), 82.

(10) Ibid., 84-85.

(11) Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1995), 28.

(12) Michael Goheen, As the Father Has Sent Me, I Am Sending You. J.E. Lesslie Newbigin's Missionary Ecclesiology (Zoetemeent: Boekencentrum, 2000), 65.

(13) Newbigin, The Open Secret, 30.

(14) Ibid., 32-34.

(15) Goheen, As the Father Has Sent Me, 133.

(16) Newbigin, The Open Secret, 35.

(17) Ibid., 36.

(18) Ibid, 38.

(19) Ibid, 39.

(20) Ibid., 40-41.

(21) Ibid., 50.

(22) Goheen, As the Father Has Sent Me, 152.

(23) Newbigin, The Open Secret, 52.

(24) Ibid., 54.

(25) Ibid, 56.

(26) Ibid, 58.

(27) Ibid, 63.

(28) Ibid, 61.

(29) John Franke, The Character of Theology: An Introduction to Its Nature Task and Purpose (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2005), 120.

(30) Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost, The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century Church (Strand: Hendrikson, 2003), 30.

(31) Vincent Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered An Epistle from the Masai (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1978), 81-82. (32) Wilbert Shenk, Write the Vision: The Church Renewed (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock, 1995), 35.

(33) Ruard Ganzevoort, "Teaching Religion in a Plural World," in Christian Higher Education in the Global Context, Proceedings of the International Conference of IAPCHE (Granada, Nicaragua, 2006), ed. N. Lantinga (Sioux Center Iowa: Dordt College Press, 2008), 117-24.

(34) Newbigin, The Open Secret, 7.

(35) Paul Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1994), 51.

(36) James bowler. Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981), 149.

(37) Hendriks, Studying Congregations, 27.

(38) Jose Bonino, Revolutionary Theology Comes of Age (London: SPCK, 1975), 86.

(39) Juan Segundo, The Liberation of Theology (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1976), 13.

(40) James Cochrane, John de Gruchy, and Robin Peterson, In Word and Deed Towards a Practical Theology for Social Transformation (Pictermaritzburg: Cluster Publications, 1991), 17.

(41) Louise Kretzschmar, "Ethics in a Theological Context" in Doing Ethics in Context: South African Perspectives, Theology and Praxis, ed. C. Villa-Vicencio & J. De Gruchy (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1994), 4.

(42) Stephen Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis, 2002), 72.

(43) Ibid., 71.

(44) Hendriks, Studying Congregations, 22; Wynand de Kock, Out of My Mind: Following the Trajectory of God's Regenerative Story (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock, 2014), 140.

(45) Hyun-Sook Kim, 'The Hermeneutical-Praxis Paradigm and Practical Theology," Religious Education 102:4 (2007), 419-36, at 421.

(46) Clodovis Boff, Theology and Praxis: Epistemological Foundations (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1987), 213.

(47) Ibid, 218. (48) Ibid, 215.

(49) Ibid, 202.

(50) Ibid, 198.

(51) De Kock, Out of My Mind, 140; Darren Cronshaw, "Reenvisioning Theological Education, Mission and the Local Church," Mission Studies 28:1 (2011), 91-115.

(52) Rebecca Chopp, "Educational Process, Feminist Practice' Christian Century" Christian Century 112 (4), 115.

(53) Boff, Theology and Praxis, 200.

(54) Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology, 9.

(55) Ibid., 9.

(56) Ibid., 12.

(57) Ibid, 14-15.

(58) Segundo, Liberation of Theology, 9.

(59) Bosch, Transforming Mission, 425.

(60) Ibid, 427-28.

DOI: 10.1111/irom.12292
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Author:MacAllan, Brian
Publication:International Review of Mission
Date:Nov 1, 2019
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