Missio Dei is the name given by theologians to the conception and practice of mission in a post-colonial world. Proposals related to missio Dei have appealed to and coincided with a rebirth in trinitarian theology. The present essay traces this conversation from Barth and Rahner to recent revising directions represented by Moltmann and Pannenberg, proposing that the way forward for understandings of missio Dei are tied to the reality of God constituted by dynamic, reciprocal, and open relations.
I am a self-professed “missional church” guy. I lead a graduate program in missional leadership, and I try to hang out where the missional church gang hangs out. I am in the finishing stages of a PhD in Congregational Mission and Leadership. Craig Van Gelder and Patrick Keifert are my professors. If there was a missional church lunch box and decoder ring, I would own them.
While I am happy with my new academic denomination, it is not without its problems. My computer’s spell-checker does not recognize the word missional. Nor do some of my colleagues who see it either as the latest buzzword, like seeker-sensitive and purpose-driven, or a curious conversation to which only missiologists must attend. Compounding the trouble surrounding this word is its less than disciplined use in the marketplace of churches where it can mean anything and everything. Everyone, it seems, is missional these days. This ubiquity threatens to stretch the word beyond its ability to mean anything substantive.
I am convinced, however, that this conversation is still worth attending despite all of its conceptual difficulties. The issues it addresses—an increasingly pluralistic North American culture, the social location of the church, the nature of the kingdom of God, practices of congregational leadership—are here to stay. Moreover, the resources used to respond to these issues go to the heart of Christian identity. Take, for instance, the statement of the authors of the seminal book Missional Church:
The basic thesis of this book is that the answer to the crisis of the North American church will not be found at the level of method and problem solving. We share the conviction of a growing consensus of Christians in North America that the problem is much more deeply rooted. It has to do with who we are and what we are for. The real issues in the current crisis of the Christian church are spiritual and theological. That is what this study is about.
The theological medicine prescribed by these writers begins with recognizing that mission belongs not to the church but to God. Missio Dei, or mission of God, is the name given to this theological impulse at the heart of the missional church conversation. This emphasis has in turn situated conversations about mission smack dab in the middle of trinitarian and eschatological concerns—the life of God and God’s ultimate intentions for all of creation. This conversation is not a still stream moving slowly by but a roaring river full of implications for the life of the church.
Missio Dei Matters
Missio Dei is more than an abstract exercise that allows missiologists to pass go and move on to strategic concerns. It is a response to real problems in the practice of mission. Missio Dei, it is hoped, forms a different kind of imagination for mission rooted in particular understandings of God, church, and world. This shift in imagination, in turn, offers a way past imperialist notions of mission for a post-colonial world.
The significance, then, of defining the church in mission in relation to missio Dei is two-fold. First, it keeps the church from seeing its life as an end in itself. The church does not exist to propagate its own life or a particular cultural expression of Christianity, but to serve the interests of the inbreaking kingdom of God. The church is called always to give its life for the sake of something bigger than itself. Missio Dei, therefore, guards against a triumphalist church possessing an imperialist mission.
Craig Van Gelder makes this distinction nicely. The move to missio Dei “represents a fundamental reframing of God’s primary location in relation to the world. When one starts by focusing on the purpose of the church, the church tends to become the primary location of God, which makes the church itself responsible to carry out activities in the world on behalf of God.” Missio Dei, in contrast, makes the Spirit of God the active agent of mission in the world, not just mission to the world. Additionally, mission is more than just an activity of the church. Mission is the church’s identity. The authors of Missional Church describe this identity as a “people sent.”
Second, missio Dei makes theology, not strategy, the first task of a missional church. More particularly, this theological priority has turned the church’s attention more fully to God as triune. Making the trinitarian nature of God the condition of possibility for the church’s engagement with the world has the potential to bring fresh resources to notions of mission, especially in a Western Christianity trying to shake the lingering effects of Christendom. Missio Dei matters.
Missio Dei and Trinitarian Theology
The term missio Dei has not been around forever. It arose among missiologists in the Twentieth Century. As indicated above, it was offered by some as a corrective to imperialistic forms of mission associated with Christendom. Karl Hartenstein, to whom many attribute introduction of the term missio Dei, played a prominent role in “The Missionary Obligations of the Church” working group at the International Mission Conference at Willingen, Germany (1952). The group produced a theological statement related to mission notable for its trinitarian grounding:
The missionary movement of which we are a part has its source in the Triune God Himself. Out of the depths of His love for us, the Father has sent forth his own beloved Son to reconcile all things to Himself, that we and all men might, through the Spirit, be made one in Him with the Father in that perfect love which is the very nature of God.
According to David Bosch, after Willingen, “Mission was understood as being derived from the very nature of God. It was thus put in the context of the doctrine of the Trinity, not of ecclesiology or soteriology.” Thus, the conversation about missio Dei became a trinitarian conversation.
This is a significant shift given the fact that trinitarian conversations had fallen on hard times among theologians in the wake of the Enlightenment. Catherine LaCugna suggests that this lack of interest is attributable in large part to its separation from the life of the church. Trinity simply didn’t matter to the everyday practice of the faith. And this lack of practical meaning, for LaCugna, owed to the fact that trinitarian theology had increasingly become preoccupied with immanent (God’s inner life) rather than economic (God’s saving work) aspects. Trinitarian thought was too often abstract speculation about a reality distant from everyday experience.
Karl Barth is often cited as the figure who brought trinitarian perspectives back to the forefront of theological conversation. For Barth, theology rests on the prior action of God in revelation, and what God reveals is God’s self. The starting place, therefore, in Barth’s massive Church Dogmatics is the revelation of God, and that God as triune. Trinity becomes central to his project—prolegomena—not simply a dogmatic topic at the end of a list of other dogmatic topics. From this starting point, Barth reduces the distance between the immanent and economic Trinity since what God reveals is God’s self.
Barth’s voice was not alone in this respect. As Stanley Grenz suggests, the theologian most often associated with closing the gap between immanent and economic notions is Karl Rahner. Rahner, a Roman Catholic theologian, is known for “Rahner’s rule,” which declares that “the ‘economic’ Trinity is the ‘immanent’ Trinity and the ‘immanent’ Trinity is the ‘economic’ Trinity.” The relations between Father, Son, and Spirit are not stuck in some distant heaven but displayed in God’s saving action on creation’s behalf. While Barth and Rahner display impressive differences, “both sought to recast the doctrine of the Trinity in a manner that could open vistas for theological engagement in a modern world.”
Early statements related to missio Dei reflected the impressive efforts of Barth and Rahner. The implications of their work for theology and mission were significant. For Barth, this gave the “work of God” priority over the work of the church. In turn, the church could no longer confuse its own life with God’s mission, including its cultural and national identities.
The achievement of these trinitarian statements, however, was not complete with regard to mission in a post-colonial world. Notice how Bosch summarizes the trinitarian thought that characterizes Willingen: “The classical doctrine on the missio Dei as God the Father sending the Son, and God the Father and Son sending the Spirit was expanded to include yet another ‘movement’: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit sending the church into the world.” What Bosch identifies as “classical doctrine” represents Western trinitarian thought, emphasizing the unity or oneness of God. This might be contrasted with Eastern or Orthodox views that begin not with God’s unity but with the three persons of Father, Son, and Spirit and their inter-relations.
These differences represent an important story related to both theology and mission. The trinitarian formulations represented by Nicea and other early Christian councils emerged in dialogue with Greek philosophy. The burden of these statements about God were related in part to the concerns of classical theism. In other words, before any descriptions of God’s life and work as found in Scripture, attributes related to a philosophical understanding of God needed to be accounted for. From this starting place, God must be undivided, simple, free, and impassable. God must be an absolute subject, all reality deriving from this undivided source—from the one to the many.
In Western theology, this meant starting with God as a unity of substance or being (ousia). However one understood the “threeness” of God, this unity of being was given priority. God was, therefore, expressed in the Johanine language of sending, as in Bosch’s summary above. Father sends the Son; Father and Son send the Spirit. All the arrows point in the same direction, the many proceeding from the one.
This understanding of Trinity is not without problems. Beginning with the one divine substance leads almost inevitably, according to Wolfhart Pannenberg, either to modalism or subordinationism. In other words, Father, Son, and Spirit are either seen as three modes (not persons) of the one ousia, or Son and Spirit are seen as subordinate to the Father. For Jürgen Moltmann, this philosophical understanding of God leaves theology susceptible to monism, everything proceeding from one source. If everything proceeds from one source, then there are only two options—subject or object, with us or against us, good or evil. Mission, in light of this understanding of God, is susceptible for both Pannenberg and Moltmann to imperialist strategies and methods.
Eastern trinitarian thought, in contrast, followed more closely the lead of the Cappadocians, who innovated notions of ontology related to God. The achievement of the Cappadocians, according to Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas, was to redefine personhood in relation to community. Persons are only persons in community. Being itself is not related to a persisting single-subject or substance (ousia), but being is a being-in-relation. According to the Cappadocians, it was not a single, shared substance (ousia) that constituted deity, but rather the three persons (hypostasis) in relation. God is, therefore, social and is defined by the communion (perochoresis) of three persons.
While this marks a substantial shift in the classical understanding of God, the Eastern tradition does not fully escape the pressures of philosophical theism. As Pannenberg points out, Eastern theologians retained a single source concept of God by identifying the person of the Father as the one source of deity. What ties both classical trinitarian traditions together is a God defined by relations-of-origin. All the arrows, in relation to creation, still point in one direction.
This history is important related to current discussions of missio Dei. Both classical trinitarian traditions fit well a church identified with empire. The relationship between theology and social structure is complex and cannot be reduced to simple cause and effect formulas. But at the very least, there was a good fit between notions of God defined by relations-of-origin and missions flying under the banner of Christendom. The trinitarian imagination of the church did not provide an obvious critique to notions of mission that were colonial or imperialistic.
The question then related to Barth and the revival of the trinitarian tradition is, Would recovering classical understandings of God generate a new imagination about mission that avoids colonial or imperialistic tendencies? Barth and Rahner moved away from a preoccupation with the immanent Trinity and returned the actions of Father, Son, and Spirit revealed in Scripture to the center of trinitarian discourse. But they accepted other fundamental assumptions of “classic,” Western theology that had sponsored mission under Christendom in the first place. Recovering classic notions of God might not fully overcome the seeds of imagination related to colonialism.
The accomplishment of Willingen failed to sufficiently clarify the relationships between God, world, and church. In fact, divisions over the relationship between church and world deepened after Willingen. A “sending” Trinity left two basic options: (1) to see the church on the side of God, over/against the world or (2) to see the God-world relationship as primary, severely limiting the church’s place in God’s missional intent. A “sending” Trinity tends to limit the engagement of church and world to sender-receiver, or subject-object, which ultimately doesn’t deliver a church in mission from an instrumental relationship with world, even if that mission is seen as God’s mission. As I have written with others elsewhere:
The straight-line logic of either God-church-world or God-world-church finds a theological accomplice in straight-line Trinitarian thought, where all the arrows point in the same direction. Trinity conceived exclusively in terms of relations of origin lacks both the capacity to deliver a more dynamic, participatory God-world-church relationship and the imaginative capacity to fund mission in a post-colonial situation.
While we might applaud the intention of Willingen and subsequent attempts to reposition understandings of mission in trinitarian theology, it is not enough simply to update classic trinitarian understandings that gave warrant for the very kind of mission we hope to avoid.
New Trinitarian Directions
Fortunately, the trickle that began with Barth and Rahner has become a mighty trinitarian stream. From Grenz’s perspective:
Whenever the story of theology in the last hundred years is told, the rediscovery of the doctrine of the Trinity that sprouted and then came to full bloom during the eight decades following the first World War must be given the center stage, and the rebirth of Trinitarian theology must be presented as one of the most far-reaching theological developments of the century.
While Barth and Rahner remain pivotal figures in this story, Gary Simpson points beyond them to suggest a “revisionary direction proposed in some recent trinitarian thinking that will make an apostolic difference in the life and practice of today’s Christian congregations.”
For many in the tradition of Western theology, this means paying greater attention to Orthodox trinitarian thought. This move usually begins with an appreciation for the theology of the Cappadocians, emphasizing the priority of the three persons. This is sometimes referred to as social trinitarianism. God doesn’t just have relationships, God is relational. The significance of a social understanding of the Trinity for many is that it provides warrant for a more communitarian ontology. In other words, God exists in community for the sake of community. Community, therefore, takes precedence over the individual. Reality rooted in the life of God is more fundamentally relational than instrumental. This is certainly a move forward.
The question is, how would social trinitarian perspectives impact understandings of mission? Put another way, how would a social Trinity alter our understandings of God, church, and world? Van Gelder illustrates the attempt to take cues from both “sending” and “social” trinitarian thought in defining mission. His approach is to merge the two perspectives. When brought together, “we begin to understand the church, through the redemptive work of Christ, as being created by the Spirit as a social community that is missionary by nature in being called and sent to participate in God’s mission in the world.” This certainly adds a social dimension to our understanding of God as a sending God. It does not necessarily, however, change the fundamental relationships between God, church, and world.
The Cappadocians did give priority to three persons (hypostasis) over the single substance (ousia) prioritized in Western theology. But, as we noted above, they were still concerned to preserve the impassability and subjectivity of deity by protecting the monarchy of the Father, a different way of naming a concept of God defined by relations-of-origin. Everything has its origin in the Father. The Father is eternally begetting the Son and spirating the Spirit. The Father is distant from creation, a massive ontological gulf separating them. Like Western theology, all of the arrows still point in one direction. Though Zizioulas updates this tradition in impressive ways, if anything the church recedes more deeply on the side of God in a God-world relationship marked by an impassable ontological gulf.
It is not enough to augment “sending” with “social.” Notions of God, church, and world must be more fully participatory and mutually implicating to avoid the specter of paternal or imperialistic mission strategies. If all the good stuff is fully decided on the God side of the God-world relationship, and if the church is seen as mediate between God and world, then all that is left the church is a strategic relationship with the world. A more robust, participatory relationship between God, church, and world offers a new range of potential relations. And this begins with a more participatory view of the Trinity.
Moltmann, Pannenberg, and a Participatory Trinity
I find more hope for a post-colonial missiology in the work of theologians whom Grenz groups under the heading “The Trinity as the Fullness of History.” I want to focus particularly on the work of Moltmann and Pannenberg in these respects. These important theologians diverge at significant points, but they hold in common three emphases that are promising for understanding missio Dei.
First, by choosing a biblical starting place as opposed to philosophical, they establish the priority of three persons without the encumbrances of an exclusively relations-of-origin viewpoint of God. God’s identity is not defined beforehand in relation to speculative attributes or characteristics, but precisely through the activity of Father, Son, and Spirit within history. God is not a persisting subject over against creation as object. God is revealed as a character in the drama of history. For both, the three persons of the Trinity are revealed as differentiated and related through the “history of the Son.” As Pannenberg puts it, “The persons simply are what they are in their relations to one another, which both distinguish them from one another and bring them into communion with one another.”
Second, the relations of Father, Son, and Spirit are seen most clearly in relation to the kingdom of God. For Pannenberg, the drama of the kingdom reveals a much richer set of relations in the Trinity than relations-of-origin:
The Father does not merely beget the Son. He also hands over his Kingdom to him and receives it back from him. The Son is not merely begotten of the Father. He is also obedient to him and therefore glorifies him as the one God. The Spirit is not just breathed. He also fills the Son and glorifies him in his obedience to the Father, thereby glorifying the Father himself. In so doing he leads into all truth (John 16:13) and searches out the deep things of Godhead (1 Cor 2:10-11).
In similar fashion, Moltmann demonstrates that at various points in the history of the kingdom we find Father, Son, and Spirit in manifold and reciprocal relations to one another. The sequence of relations changes from one kingdom scene to another.
In the sending, delivering up and resurrection of Christ we find this sequence:
In the lordship of Christ and the sending of the Spirit the sequence is:
But when we are considering the eschatological consummation and glorification, the sequence has to be:
The activity of the three persons in relation to the kingdom, therefore, reveals a robust interdependence. As Pannenberg describes it, Father, Son, and Spirit represent “a richly structured nexus of relationships.” The Trinity cannot be accounted for only in relation to the eternal begetting and spirating of the Father. The relationships of Father, Son, and Spirit are mutual, reciprocal, and diverse. All of the arrows do not point in the same direction, whether from a persisting substance (ousia) or from a monarchial Father.
This view of Trinity is social to be sure. The relations of the three precede any understanding of the unity of God. God is social, each person open to the other. But God is also open—open to history, open to creation, open to the stranger. The same kind of dynamic nexus of relationships that characterizes Father, Son, and Spirit applies to creation as well. The world constituted by a triune God is a participatory drama with multiple characters. As Father, Son, and Spirit, God is not only acting on the world, sending to the world, but God is also for the world, with the world, and through the world. God is no longer a series of one-way sendings in a straight line but a participatory God making room for the other with movement in all directions.
Moltmann is particularly compelling at this point. In contrast to Barth, who defines God’s freedom in relation to self-sufficiency (God did not have to create the world), Moltmann defines God’s freedom as the capacity to be true to God’s self. And in this case that means being true to God’s being as love. Creation is not incidental to God, but at the very heart of what it means for God to be triune. Creation is not merely an outward act of God external to God’s identity, but an act of making room precisely within the loving relations of Father, Son, and Spirit. God’s love demands an Other. “In his creative love God is united with creation, which is his Other, giving it space, time and liberty in his own infinite life.” Creation is more than simply the target at the end of all the divine arrows. Creation is constitutive of God’s identity as love. The world participates in the life of God as more than just an object to God as single-acting-subject.
This trinitarian theology of participation bears significant implications for notions of identity. God’s identity is established within history in relation to creation, not decided by a list of attributes that establishes God’s identity apart from history. God is righteous and full of steadfast love, not simple and undivided. In the same way, the church’s identity is an identity in time and space, not an essence constituting a pure church apart from the actual life of the church. The church’s identity, especially as a church in mission, is defined in relation to the world. The church does not know its identity apart from loving God and neighbor. In a trinitarian theology of participation, the church not only takes God to the world, but discovers God there in dynamic participation. The relationship between church and world is more than simply strategic—it is inescapably and always relational and theological.
Trinity and Mission
Simpson held out the promise that revising directions in trinitarian theology would make an “apostolic difference” in the life of the church. Is this indeed the case? And if it is the case, what is the difference? Wouldn’t it just be easier to say, “Stop being imperialistic!”? Is it really necessary to think this closely about the nature of the Trinity? Is this really practical?
Admittedly, the relationship between theological innovation and changes in practice is dynamic and cannot be reduced to a cause and effect relationship. However, it is also the case that a shift of the magnitude represented by a post-colonial missiology only comes with a deep shift in imagination. Such a shift requires a revision, not just an updating, of theological sources.
More to the point, the Trinity is not simply a theory that then dictates a certain set of practices. The Trinity is an actual social reality in which we participate. Theology, in this sense, is a practice, a particular way of engaging God’s world. God’s life as triune is something in which we participate and through our participation come to saving knowledge with and through others. This kind of understanding of theology would call into question theories of mission that reduce theology to some prior theory that eventually gives way to strategy—the real payoff of missiology. Instead, missiology is participation in the life and purposes of God, which are immediately implicated by the world. In other words, theology isn’t determined first and subsequently applied to the world. Theology is participating with God in the actual conditions of the world. Because of God’s participatory life, the world is a partner in theological discernment, not simply theology’s destination.
This understanding of theology is a major shift and requires extended attention. Martin Heidegger points out that the very same philosophical project that gave us classical theism is also deeply embedded in the thought structures and languages of Western civilization. Our language can hardly express anything other than a world defined by subjects and objects. An understanding of God as participatory will have to travel in relation to a different grammar. Christians learn their grammar in worship.
A missional church, therefore, must make conscious efforts to practice its faith with trinitarian understandings in view. This sounds obvious, but in many congregations, especially those of the free-church tradition, this is hardly evident. This attentiveness to language, however, must go beyond merely mentioning Father, Son, and Spirit (though that would be an improvement for some); it must enact a sense of participation with and for the world. This enactment will lead in many directions. One shift, however, that might pay immediate dividends is to limit our language of “to the world” and increase our usage of phrases like “with the world” or “for the world.”
This kind of language is appropriate given our discussion of identity above. A missional church does not know its identity completely apart from its actual setting in time and space. It is not uncommon these days to see congregational “mission statements” written on bulletin mastheads or hanging from banners in our church buildings. Too often, these statements are written apart from any knowledge or input from the congregation’s immediate context. In a sending view of God and mission, this is unnecessary. Because God’s identity is determined beforehand in relation to persisting qualities, all the “good stuff” is taken to the world, not discovered in participation with the world. Because the church is imagined on the side of God in this series of arrows, the church does not need its neighbor to determine its identity in the world. All that is left in terms of the relationship between God and world is strategy.
In contrast, a missional congregation does not merely take God to the world, but participates in the life of the world expecting to find God more deeply. The nature and shape of mission is not already decided but must be discerned in relation to God’s participation in the world. The resources of the gospel are needed for this work of discernment. Clearly, not everything that appears in the world is an appearance of God’s redemptive concern for creation. Still, the church does not have the market cornered on God’s activity in the world. The church participates in the world to discern its life in mission precisely through giving its life away.
I work with several congregations in processes designed to lead them into missional innovation. It is rare to find a congregation that does not have an instrumental notion of the world around them. Strangers are prospects, bits of demographic data, to be turned into a plan of “outreach.” Beyond the barest demographic detail, most congregations have little idea who their neighbors actually are. There are massive untested assumptions about the lives and concerns of those around them. Not surprisingly, their neighbors seldom know anything about them either.
Some missional congregations are learning to see their neighbors as co-informants related to God’s missional intentions for the world. These congregations are becoming more adept at asking new questions. Instead of asking only the question, “How can we get these people to belong to us?” missional congregations learn also to ask, “How in the name of the Triune God do we belong to these people?”
Here the church mimics the life of God. The church’s life is a making room for the other. It is a life of hospitality. This life of hospitality is more than inviting others to church and treating them well. Because the church expects that the Spirit of God is already working in the world toward the final consummation of the kingdom of God, the church learns to expect God’s hospitality on someone else’s terms. As my colleague John Ogren has written:
Our view of participation suggests that the church is always the guest of God, missional churches will be ready to move outside the role of host and the comfort zone of home turf. Following the example of Jesus, missional congregations will be willing to assume the vulnerability of the role of guest, so that the world may share more fully the hospitality of God.
Practices of discernment with the world coupled with notions of hospitality rooted in the life of God are properly pneumatological. That is, they require a cultivation of the gifts and fruit of the Spirit to discern the leading of the Spirit in God’s mission. The fruit of the Spirit does not lead to self-sufficient agents who acquire their identity in relation to autonomy. Rather, the fruit of the Spirit requires both vulnerability and response, a being-in-relation.
These themes of mission rooted in participation in the life of the Triune God can be extended indefinitely, the proper subject of further reflections on Trinity and Mission. These few insights are offered to demonstrate that a theology of participation renders the world as more than the object of the church’s paternal concern. Understanding the world as constitutive of the church’s own participation in the life of God is a necessary move in overcoming the legacy of imperialistic mission. Missio Dei, to the extent that it moves beyond classical notions of the Triune God rooted in philosophical notions, serves as a vital impulse in the renewal of both theological and missional practice.
Dr. Mark Love is Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Mark served congregations in Texas and Oregon full-time for 17 years before finding his place in the academy. In addition to teaching courses in evangelism, missional ecclesiology, and congregational transformation, Mark works extensively with congregations pursuing missional innovation. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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________. Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church. London: T. & T. Clark, 2006.