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Review of Ross Hastings, Missional God, Missional Church: Hope for Re-evangelizing the West

Ross Hastings. Missional God, Missional Church: Hope for Re-evangelizing the West. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012. 333pp. $24.00.

“Mission is the mother of theology.” These words, penned by Martin Kähler, have provided a framework for missions for the past century. Yet, in his new book Missional God, Missional Church, Ross Hastings argues that mission and theology are corollary, for “theology (specifically that of participation) is the mother of mission” (249).

Hastings serves as an associate professor of pastoral theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. Hastings’s work serves as a missional theology for the role of the church in the mission of God. The foundation of Hastings’s book is John 20:19–23, which he terms “the Greatest Commission” (81). He locks on a few key points from the text, showing how the church is commissioned by Jesus and empowered by the Holy Spirit to disseminate peace and forgiveness in the world, fully participating in the missio trinitatis. For Hastings, the mission of the church is directly related to the mission of God. He argues that mission is at the heart of the trinitarian community and that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit can best be described as “Sender, Sent, and Sending” (77). Thus, the very character of God is wrapped up in God’s mission to the world, and the church participates fully in this mission. This mission is not just one of the activities of the church among many, but rather this mission “constitutes its very essence” (78).

As a result, Hastings hopes to inspire the church to approach its gathering and its world in a different way. His thesis is that the church should be a missional community that reflects the trinitarian nature of God by bringing shalom to one another and to the world. Hastings draws upon the Eastern Orthodox idea of perichoresis, the mutual indwelling of God, in his understanding of the church. Christians are fully indwelled by the Spirit, and through fellowship and communion Christians can indirectly indwell one another. This mutual indwelling empowers ministry to one another and to the world. The church, as persons-in-communion through the Spirit, participates in the life, love, and mission of the Trinity when it experiences shalom with one another and extends that shalom to others.

Too often, however, the Western church falls short of this ideal. For Hastings, the Western church has lost its distinctiveness. The church has become too enculturated by the world, and as a result cannot effectively inculturate the gospel in ways that make it distinctive yet attractive. Thus, Hastings seeks to inspire the church to a different way of life than was typical of Christendom. Our conduct, purpose, and identity must change to reflect the character of the triune God. He writes, “Reevangelizing the West first means reevangelizing Western Christians with the good news of who God really is in order that we might reflect who he really is, and not projections of our psyches” (107). The Western church can only hope to re-evangelize its culture if it begins to reflect the trinitarian nature of God, lives in openness to human relationships, lives and works incarnationally, and reflects the oneness of the Trinity. Hastings calls the Western church to be a countercultural, relevant entity in our post-Christendom Western society.

Hastings echoes the contemporary call for the church to be missional in nature. He commissions the church to be both deep and wide in its theology and practice: deep in its theological practices and reflection, and wide in its outreach to the world, drawing people to God and into the community. For Hastings, the church is at its best when it reflects the missional nature of the Trinity through its worship, reflection, and practices, both within the Christian community and within the world at large.

Like much of the missional church material, Hastings’s book is excellent theologically but lacking in practical application. Hastings intends to provide a theological foundation for the discussion of the role of the church in contemporary society. Ultimately, however, the book could provide more of a catalyst for individual reflection. A series of questions at the end of each chapter, or a summary “so what” chapter at the end that seeks practical integration of the theories with the context of the reader would have been a helpful addition. Even a series of contemporary examples of churches applying missional theology into their everyday practices would allow the reader to imagine the practical application of Hastings’s book in their own church setting.

The book is nonetheless a wonderful addition to the missional church discussion. It would function well as a primer on missional theology in an academic setting relating to systematic theology, missiology, or missional ecclesiology.

Daniel McGraw

Community Life Minister

West University Church of Christ

Houston, TX, USA

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Cultural Issues in Translation: The Thai Easy-to-Read Version

This article compares various Thai translations of the Bible and calls upon translators to pay closer attention to five aspects of culture. The author argues that not only the original meaning but also the original mood of passages should be translated. He illustrates the need to identify honor/shame passages and to translate them accordingly. He appeals to translators to avoid as much as possible insider vocabulary, including many of the specialized Thai divine/royal terms.

Easy to ready is hard to write, says Tanapon Saowatarnpong, the editor of the Thai Easy-to-Read Bible. The more literal translations are easier to produce. You just plug in the words and shift them around until the sentence is grammatically intelligible. Often a word is translated the same way throughout the text with little effort to capture nuances of its meaning in various contexts. The result of such an approach here in Thailand has been that Bible characters do not sound very Thai. Those of us on the translation team for the Easy-to-Read Thai version knew from the start that we were aiming for a translation that preserved the original meaning of the text and was also easy to read, both in terms of grammatical flow and vocabulary. In doing this we faced challenges regarding royal vocabulary, translating emotion, honor/shame language, and strong loyalties to insider lingo.

Divine/Royal Vocabulary

Until the twentieth century the king of Thailand was proclaimed to be the incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu (Pra Narai). Even though the king no longer claims to be a god, all the divine/royal terminology pertaining to the king remains. Earlier Bible translations used this large body of specialized vocabulary when referring to Jesus, who is both a king and divine.

For the sake of intelligibility, brevity, and historical accuracy we often chose to use normal human vocabulary when referring to Jesus and, occasionally, God. For instance, in John 11:34 the people say, “Come and see, Lord.” This phrase requires 27 spaces in the older Thai translation and Standard Thai translation (revised in 1998), in which the people address Jesus as if they already recognized his royal/divine status, which is unlikely. In general we do not have Jesus’ followers addressing him with divine/royal pronouns until after his resurrection.1 In the Common Language Bible (CL 1995) and our version (ERV 2001) these same words from the people require only 9 and 14 spaces respectively.

The next verse, John 11:35, says, “Jesus wept.” We use the common word for crying (rong-hai), rather than the divine/royal term (song pragansang). We corrected similar problems with obscure royal vocabulary in regard to Jesus sweating (sayto) in Luke 22:44, and God grieving (songglaphuanprataitomana) in Genesis 6:6. Few Thais know the name for God’s nose (pranasik) in Exodus 15:8. Only Thais who are already Christians would recognize the divine term for lamb (pramaysabodoke) that appears in John 1:29, 36 as well as 30 times in the Book of Revelation. Sometimes the other translations offer explanatory footnotes; sometimes they do not. When these verses appear in evangelistic tracts I have noticed that they are always explained. We reason that since God loves the common people, we are honoring God most when we use common language to communicate his word to common Thais.

Royal vocabulary can potentially obscure not only the original meaning, but also the original mood of the text. Consider the following scene in 2 Kings 9:30–37. Jehu charges off to Jezreel to kill Jezebel. After trying to make herself look pretty, Jezebel shouts down from her window, “Why did you come here, you murderer? To kill a king? You’re no better than Zimri!” Jehu looks up and calls upon anyone who wants to side with him to throw her down. Jezebel’s servants comply. Her blood is splattered on the wall, and her body is trampled by the horses. She is not given a proper burial. Later, those who would bury her manage to find only her skull, hands and feet, but the rest of her has been eaten by dogs, and she has become like dung in the field—in fact, very much like it. The point of this gory story is to highlight the shameful fate of Jezebel. The old version uses the royal vocabulary for face, hair, and window, so that it becomes unclear what Jezebel is doing in her tower (dtangpak wee gesa dtang suay yiam praglang ladoo). The translators honor Jezebel using royal vocabulary for her blood and boney parts when the point of the passage is to dishonor her.

Some Thai Christians welcomed the ERV version because it was easier for outsiders to understand. It was deemed useful for evangelism but not for teaching in the church. To our surprise, the point of contention for many Thai believers was the pronoun we used for Jesus’ references to himself. We reasoned that since Jesus was a teacher, he would refer to himself with the normal pronoun used by male teachers (pome). Many Thai Christians complained about this, so in the second printing we switched to an exalted pronoun (row). No Thai teacher or even the king of Thailand uses this for himself, but it is intelligible. Although our target audience is the 96% of Thais who are not Christian, we have tried, if possible, not to offend the 4% who are Christian.2 The Thai church is certainly part of the delivery system for the Scriptures to reach the Thai people.

Translating Emotion

Translators have a long history of altering Scripture to make it more acceptable or safer for their readers. In order to avoid misusing Yahweh’s name, the Greek-speaking Jews who translated the Bible into Greek in the second century BC (the Septuagint Version, LXX) substituted the word “Lord” (kurios) for the name Yahweh. Ulphilas (ca. AD 311–ca. 381) invented the Gothic script and became the first person to put an oral northern European language into writing. The Goths were an aggressive tribe, so he thought it best to omit the books of Samuel and Kings from the Gothic Bible because of their many stories of battle. The translators of the Geneva Bible (printed in 1560) were scandalized by the passage which says Adam and Eve sewed “aprons” out of leaves, so they had them make “breeches” which would be more modest. Consuming alcohol is a violation of one of Buddha’s five basic moral laws. Thus, to avoid implicating Jesus and his apostles in this sin, the translators of the old Thai version produced the only Bible, as far as I know, in which Jesus created and consumed grape juice.

Sometimes translators revise and tone down Scripture in more subtle ways, perhaps without even being aware they are doing so. Thais are surprised when they read for the first time about Jesus crying or getting angry. Jesus is referred to as a holy man or monk (pra), but in Buddhist thinking an enlightened holy man would not cry or get angry. The Greeks also regarded emotion as unbefitting of the Divine, and this view has been widely accepted throughout church history.3 This negative view of emotions explains why many portraits of Jesus and various church leaders lack emotion, like images of Buddha, and their portrayals in Scripture are often toned down emotionally.

For example, in most Thai translations John the Baptist calls the Pharisees and Sadducees “You (jow) brood of vipers” (Matt 3:7). We use an angrier form of “you” (ga). When Paul in anger says, “I wish those who are throwing you into confusion would castrate themselves!” (Gal 5:12), we use an angry third person pronoun (mun) rather than a neutral pronoun (kow). We also have Paul use this angry pronoun rather than a neutral one in referring to the “false apostles and servants of Satan” in 2 Cor 11:15.

Translators have even made those who oppose God more polite. When Jesus overturns the tables of the moneychangers and drives them out of the temple with a whip, the Jewish leaders address him quite respectfully as “you, sir” (taan). We use a more disrespectful form of “you” (ga; John 2:13–20). Similarly, the chief priest at the trial inquires of Jesus, “Will you not, sir, respond?” (Matt 26:62) before the leaders politely cast their votes for capital punishment. The crowds use a neutral pronoun when they shout, “Crucify him!” (Luke 23:21; John 19:15). The leaders use a neutral pronoun when they sneer and taunt him on the cross (Luke 23:35), while soldiers politely suggest, “If you, sir, are the King of the Jews, then deliver yourself” (Luke 23:37). In these angry, violent scenes we use angry pronouns. I could multiply examples from the Old and New Testaments of how emotion-laden dialogue has been made more temperate through such use of linguistic sedatives by Thai translators. In reading previous translations of the Old Testament, I noticed that not only do the prophets not sound very Thai but that they often do not sound very upset either.

My intention here is not to drum up support among Thai Christians for our translation and say that the other translations are inadequate. Those Thai Christians who have called our version gruff or rude (yapkai) will probably never read this English article. My point is that Bible translators should seek to convey not only the original meaning but also the original mood of a text. Emotions, whether they be negative or positive, should not be removed from biblical narratives and speeches.

For instance, at the baptism of Jesus, God says, “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22; NRSV). In the older Thai, Standard Thai, Daughters of St. Paul, ISB, Thai King James, and CL versions, the Father addresses the Son with the formal and respectful “you” (taan) and does not use the usual spoken pronoun for addressing a son (luke). The CL version has even less feeling in using “with whom I am quite satisfied/content” (pawjai mak)” rather than “pleased” (chawbjai mak or chunchome). In all these versions the sentence is intelligible, but, because of the words chosen, it does not sound like a father talking to his son.

We asked a rather unusual question: “How is God the Father feeling at this point, and what is the feeling of these words he is communicating to his Son?” We came up with a somewhat different translation; “You are my dear son, and I am so proud of you.” Our pronouns are the intimate pronouns of a father speaking to his son, and our verb for “pleased with/proud of” is natural and full of feeling. I love my son like crazy, but I have never told him that I am “well pleased,” “content,” or “satisfied” with him. If we translators, though we are sinners, know how to express affection toward our children, how much more should we allow our Father in heaven to express deep-felt love toward his children?4

Honor/Shame Language

What issue is present in every book of the Bible and in nearly every chapter? Sin? Christ? God’s love? The answer is the issue of honor and shame. It is not always the content of the message, but it is frequently the context of the message. Most Westerners overlook this. Within the past several decades there has been an explosion in the number of books and articles that have addressed the honor/shame context in Scripture. However, lexicons have been slow to incorporate this research. English Bibles have been even less affected by it. Thai culture is very attuned to issues of honor and shame, but Bible translators working with Western tools have not always highlighted this issue in Scripture.

Here is but one example. The Greek word makarios which occurs in all its forms 55 times in the New Testament is related to honor.

It is a great honor to be citizens in God’s kingdom (Matt 5:3, 10; Luke 6:20), to inherit the world (Matt 5:5), to behold God (Matt 5:8), to be called God’s son or daughter (Matt 5:9), to suffer side by side with Christ and the prophets (Matt 5:11–12; Luke 6:22–23; 1 Pet 4:13-14), to receive a revelation from God himself (Matt 13:16–17; 16:17; Luke 10:23), to participate in the resurrection of the righteous (Luke 14:14); to speak to the king (Acts 26:2), to join the feast in the kingdom of God (Luke 14:15), to be invited to the royal wedding banquet (Rev 19:9); to be fed by the Master (Matt 5:6; Luke 6:21; 12:37, 38, 43); to be appointed to look after the Master’s estate (Matt 24:46–47), to receive the victor’s wreath (Jas 1:12), to die and receive the reward for one’s good deeds (Rev 14:13), to be one of God’s priests (Rev 20:6), and to reign with God and Christ (Rev 20:6), to be granted the right to eat the fruit of immortality and enter the New Jerusalem (Rev 22:14).

As is evident from this list, some honors begin now, but in many cases our honor will be vindicated and made evident to all only in the future when Jesus returns (Titus 2:13).5 Sometimes the specific reward or form of honor is not mentioned, but the person is honored just in being pronounced honored.

To whom does God extend honor? God honors especially those whom the world does not honor. God honors the poor, the hungry, the downcast, and the outcasts (Luke 6:20–21), not those who have got their act together but those who realize their desperate need for God (Matt 5:3), not those who have clawed their way to the top but those who refuse to join this world’s frenzied battle for power and prestige (Matt 5:5), not those with titles of status and positions of prominence but those who humbly serve fellow believers (John 13:13–17), not those brimming with righteousness but those who are hungering for it (Matt 5:6).

God honors those who grieve the present state of God-forsaking humanity (Matt 5:4), who faithfully serve their Master in his absence while being prepared for and eager for his return (Matt 24:46; Luke 12:37, 38, 43; Rev 16:15), who are merciful and compassionate (Matt 5:7; Luke 14:13–14), who are single-minded in their devotion to God (Matthew 5:8).6 God places in high regard those who are peace-makers (Matt 5:9), who are generous (Acts 20:35), who take God at his word (Luke 1:45; John 20:29), who endure and go the distance (Jas 1:12; 5:11; Rev 14:12–13), and who hear God’s word and obey it (Luke 11:28; Jas 1:25; Rev 1:3; 22:7).

The scripture declares as worthy of honor those who follow their conscience (Rom 14:22), who join Christ and the prophets in being disrespected, despised, slandered, and persecuted by society (Matt 5:10–12; Luke 6:22–23; 1 Pet 3:14; 4:13–14). Such people do not take affront or offense when Christ does not fit their preconceptions (Matt 11:6; Luke 7:23).

God’s honor is not reserved for the perfect, but is extended to those who, rather than boasting of their own good deeds, trust in his grace and receive his pardon and acceptance (Rom 4:2, 5–9; Matt 5:7). It is not reserved for those with spotless reputations, but is granted those who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb (Rev 22:14; 7:14). Of course, the Lamb and God himself are pronounced most honorable of all. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen (1 Tim 1:11; 6:15–16).

It is a mistake to translate makarios in these verses as “fortunate” or “lucky.” Those terms do not fit the context of the fifty-five instances we have just listed. The writers of Scripture did not even believe in a power called fortune or luck. Most English Bibles prefer to translate makarios as “happy” or “blessed,” failing to notice the role that honor plays in each context where this word is used.7 Sadly, the Thai Easy-to-Read version is the only Thai translation that brings this out.

Insider Lingo

The language of faith and worship is one of the most conservative elements of a culture. Thai Christians have been very resistant to any changes in sacred Christian vocabulary, and there is less variety in word choice among the nine Thai translations than among English translations.

Prior to our printing of the complete New Testament in 2001, the Thai Common Language Bible was the translation most likely to use the common vocabulary of those outside the church. We went even further in translating the Bible’s vocabulary into common Thai. We translated many terms that previous translations transliterated: baptism, sabbath, Pentecost, Passover, etc. In some passages we translated “Christ” as “great king.” I suggested we translate “Amen” as satoo, but several of the Thai Christians felt that term was too Buddhist.

We tried to speak as Thais speak. Thais rarely use the interjection “O,” except when they jokingly borrow the English phrase, “O my God” or invent the phrase, “O my Buddha.” We saw no reason to add this English interjection at Matt 23:17, 33, 37 or 1 Cor 15:55. It even sounds a bit hokey in English.

O ye translators, let us translate from Greek.

O ye translators, let us put common Greek into common Thai.

Thais generally use the English word “tent” when referring to tents, so we transliterated that. We transliterated the word “mustard” seed, which some earlier translations had translated as “chinese cabbage” seed. We used the word “gay” which Thais use when referring to male homosexuals. Years ago when I was teaching a Sunday morning Bible class on the Book of Galatians, a visitor in the back row raised her hand to ask what a sunat ceremony was. When I started describing circumcision, she blushed and didn’t ask any more questions. Our Bible now uses “clip ceremony,” the term used by most Thais in referring to circumcision. In keeping with common Thai practice we also used universal numbers rather than Thai numbers for numbering Bible verses.

If the Thai language did not have a word for some term in the Bible we could usually use a brief description. For instance, Thais are not familiar with aurochs (Job 39:9). This is not surprising since that animal never lived in this area and has been extinct since 1627. We used the term “giant wild bovine.” The rock badger (Prov 30:26; Lev 11:5) was more difficult to describe briefly, so we transliterated the Hebrew term chafan and described it in a footnote. Previous Thai translations said it was a type of small deer or a mole rat. These obscure verses are not likely to raise much attention or opposition within the Thai church.

Thai Buddhism uses a vast number of specialized terms, and many Buddhist ceremonies are still performed in the ancient Pali language. This may be part of the reason why Thai Christians feel justified in having an impressive body of specialized vocabulary. New Christians are taught to speak this arcane dialect. At the language school I attended there was an entire module devoted to teaching new missionaries how to speak Christianese.

Our translation is written for the 96% of Thais who are not yet Christians. If a term in the Thai Bible had little or no meaning for outsiders, such as the terms “pastor,” “priest,” or “prophet,” we searched for clearer options. The term other translations have been using for “priest” (burohit) refers to a Brahamin adviser to the king. We opted for a more general term for someone who has been religiously ordained (nakbuat).

We felt that some of the words that had been borrowed from Buddhism were too narrow in their meaning. We translated the word “deacon” as “special servant” rather than a “temple warden” (makanayoke). The word namasagan means “to invite the monks to perform a religious ceremony.” In most cases we used a different term for worship, like grabwaiboocha, which means to bow in reverence. I suspect this term would have been used more widely in earlier translations if early missionaries from the West had bowed down in worship. As it is, bowing down is still considered rather Buddhist or Islamic by Thai Christians.

The other Thai Bibles have five different terms for “saints” (witsootachone, sitichone, tumikachone, saksitchone, and banda pooborisoot), none of which is particularly easy or accurate. Our version translates this term as “people belonging to God” or “people belonging especially to God.” “Holy” is a difficult term to translate, but in most cases we thought we could find something better than the word “pure” (borisoot). We left “Pure Spirit” alone, the Thai Protestant term for “Holy Spirit,” because it seemed too late to change such a basic term. Plus, we did not have another term that we felt was much better.

Occasionally, our translation is more literal than previous translations. For the Greek word ecclesia we use a literal translation that means “assembly” rather than “kingdom of Christ” (kristajak). However, at other times our translation is less literal. Instead of saying “unclean spirit,” we say “evil spirit.”

On one occasion I was scolding a brother in Christ for sinful behavior, and received the excuse, “I am still in the flesh,” i.e. “I am still in a body. What do you expect?” There is nothing innately sinful about human flesh, so our translation does not woodenly translate the Greek word sarkos with a Thai word for flesh (nuanang). Our translation of this Greek term varies according to context. Sometimes we use terms referring to the physical body, and sometime we use a term for “bad character” (sandan). In deciding how literal our translation should be, we tried to be guided by the question, “What term will best communicate the original meaning to the average listener?”

Concluding Comments

The question of how and when to use royal vocabulary is more peculiar to the Thai context, but the other issues discussed in this article have wider applications.

In communicating the emotion of biblical texts translators should be careful that the medium not morph the message. The general tendency has been to gather all the authors of Scripture into a single book, and give this religious book a distinctive black cover with the word “Holy” written upon it in large, shiny gold letters. The Christians read from this book when they are all dressed up and on their best behavior, and they expect all the people in that book to likewise behave themselves in church. The Christians will not tolerate any snide comments or cutting sarcasm in their holy religious book. Bible characters have not been permitted to say anything that today’s believers might find crude or earthy. Anything that might come across as faithless despair, disrespectful bellyaching, unseemly ranting, or undignified pleading has been toned down. Translators should beware this tendency. Let God be God. Let him be who he has revealed himself to be. God is a real person with real feelings, and so are the other Bible characters. If translators truly believe that all Scripture is God-breathed (2 Tim 3:16), then they should stop trying to give God a breath mint scented according to their own standards of etiquette.

The problem of translating recent findings regarding honor/shame vocabulary points to a bigger question. When will Bible editors and publishers listen to the Bible scholars? I appeal to the former group as gatekeepers of knowledge. When there is general scholarly consensus about the meaning of a word, that knowledge should be passed on to the people. People may prefer to say “blessed” rather than “What an honor!” They may prefer the word “woe” to “How shameful!” New translations of words in areas not related to honor and shame may also not be initially popular. People may not like hearing about a land flowing with milk and fruit syrup. Some may want to keep calling God “Jehovah” or “LORD” rather than Yahweh. Some may want Naaman to have leprosy, rather than just some serious skin disease (2 Kgs 5). Some may be offended at passages where “feet” is actually a euphemism for male genitals. Nevertheless, the voice of the people is not the voice of God. Tell them what the Bible really says.

Finally, I appeal to translators and Christians in general to stop using quirky, churchy words. Do not, for instance, try to “evangelize” the “heathen” or “edify” the “saints” by “beseeching” them to receive “justification, sanctification, and redemption.” Invite them to be “set right with God, set apart for God, and set free by God.” As the Apostle Paul asks in 1 Cor 14:8, “If the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?”

Sean Todd received a BA in Bible and an MS in Doctrinal and Historical Studies from Abilene Christian University. He has lived and worked in Thailand for most of the time since 1987. In addition to his work in church-planting, Sean has served since 2000 as a language consultant and back translator for the Thai Easy-to-Read Version. He and his wife, Pat, presently live in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Bibliography

Hanson, K. C. “How Honorable! How Shameful! A Cultural Analysis of Matthew’s Makarisms and Reproaches.” Semeia 68 (January 1994): 81–111, http://www.kchanson.com/ARTICLES/mak.html.

1 Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Great King in Matthew 16:16 is one of the exceptions.

2 This government statistic includes Catholics, Protestants, and all who claim to follow the Christian religion. Many of them are not ethnically Thai, and some do not attend religious services weekly or even monthly.

3 Greek philosophy regarded passions and emotions as unenlightened and even evil. As a result Jesus’ passions were (and often still are) attributed to his humanity as opposed to his divinity. The Greek notion that God is incapable of suffering has persisted within Christianity. Many have refused to allow God other feelings such as anger. Note what is said about emotions in the following quotes:

  • “Son of Mary, and Son of God, first able to suffer and then unable to suffer, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Ignatius of Antioch, d. AD 110, Epistle to the Ephesians 7.2, shorter recension)
  • “The spirit performed its characteristic works in him (miracles, mighty works and signs), while the flesh similarly underwent its characteristic experiences (being hungry when tempted by the devil, being thirsty when meeting the Samaritan woman, weeping for Lazarus, being sorrowful even unto death and finally actually dying).” (Tertullian, ca. AD 180–ca. 230, Against Praxeas 27)
  • “If you hear of God’s anger and his wrath, do not think of wrath and anger as emotions experienced by God. Accommodations of the use of language like that are designed for the correction and improvement of the little child. We too put on a severe face for children, not because that is our true feeling, but because we are accommodating ourselves to their level.” (Origen, ca. AD 185–ca. 254, Homilies on Jeremiah 18.6.7)
  • “At times he shows his sharing of our passions; at other times he lets the divine Word show through by performing miracles and wonders as God. . . . The sufferings of mortality did not affect the essence of the impassible. A musician can hardly be said to suffer if his lyre happens to get damaged or its strings get broken.” (Eusebius, ca. AD 260–ca. 340, Demonstration of the Gospel 4.11, 13)
  • Bible passages which show God’s emotion were dismissed as mere figures of speech that did not portray the true nature of God: “My heart is troubled in my regret” (Hosea 11:8). “God is troubled! Let not one even think of it! God forbid! The Divine is unconfounded; rather, what I said occurs. He imitates our speech.” (John Chrysostom, ca. 345–407, On Repentance, homily 8.18)
  • “So You, O God, robed in our flesh with Your Son, died for our sake on that Good Friday, at high noon—though neither You nor Your Son felt any sorrow in death, for the anguish was felt only in our human flesh, and Your Son overcame it.” (William Langland, AD 1379, Piers the Plowman, passus 5)
  • “One taking the sense too literally might pervert the truth and conceive blasphemies, and give God feet, and hands, and eyes, and human affections, such as anger.” (Galileo Galilei, AD 1564–1642, “The Authority of Scripture in Philosophical Controversies”)

4 Some might argue that the Father’s words to Jesus at his baptism is not an affectionate father-son moment but rather a divine proclamation of Jesus’ royal identity which requires high language. They would say that in constructing this scene the writer of Q combined a royal psalm (Psalm 2:6–7) with the Song of the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 42:1). Luke and Matthew later drew upon this material to bolster the faith of their respective communities.

Personally, I believe God actually said this about Jesus (Matt 3:17) and/or to Jesus (Luke 3:22). These words encouraged the faith of Christ as well as faith in Christ. The gospel events produced the Christ community even before that community produced gospels. Certainly in Luke’s Gospel this text is both a father-son moment and a christological claim. Yet even if the translator regards these scenes from the gospels as “cleverly invented stories” (2 Peter 1:16), the translator still has a responsibility to tell those stories well. Telling the story well involves communicating the feelings of the characters within the story.

5 To cover all 55 uses of the term makarios, we must mention a few that do not fit neatly into this list above. It was an honor for Mary to be raised from her lowly status to become the mother of the Messiah (Luke 1:45–48; 11:27). When the Galatians first met Paul, they did not despise him but rather honored him (Galatians 4:14–15). It is not immediately apparent how being comforted is an honor (Matt 5:4), but perhaps it is because God himself is the one who does the comforting (divine passive in Matt 5:4, see also Rev 7:17; 21:4). It is not clear how it is an honor to laugh (Luke 6:21) until we examine the meaning of laughter in the Scriptures. Laughter is not usually a response to something comical, but must be understood in terms of honor and shame. It is usually disrespectful, scornful, mocking or scoffing laughter, especially when some self-exalting person is brought low. A laughing person is usually showing disrespect for someone else, and a laughed at person is shamed. Sometimes laughter was joyful, especially when one’s honor, reputation, or status was vindicated or restored (Gen 21:6–7; Job 8:21–22; Ps 126:1–2). Probably both meanings are present in Luke 6. Those who are scoffing at and belittling others will grieve, while those who are grieving now will laugh at the complete reversal of roles (Luke 6:21, 25). For further discussion see K. C. Hanson, “How Honorable! How Shameful! A Cultural Analysis of Matthew’s Makarisms and Reproaches,” Semeia 68 (January 1994): 81–111. This article is also available online at the author’s website: http://www.kchanson.com/ARTICLES/mak.html.

6 Paul considered it more honorable for widows to remain single and serve the Lord with undivided attention than for them to remarry (1 Cor 7:40, 34).

7 Jesus’ statement that it would be an honor to be barren is, I think, to be understood as irony (Luke 23:29). It was considered a shame to be barren (Luke 1:25; Gen 30:23), but during the nightmare to come at the fall of Jerusalem being barren would actually become the preferred status among women.

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The Mystery and Mirage of Equivalence: Bible Translation Theories and the Practice of Christian Mission

Since the era of Eugene Nida, evangelical Bible translation has been revolutionized by his notion of dynamic or functional equivalence. Powerful theological and theoretical concerns, however, call into question its usefulness and its catholicity. This article explores and questions the usefulness of the equivalence model of translation in Christian mission from the standpoint of incarnation.

God wanted to possess the earth so much that he sent his only son so that whoever was deceived by him would not perish but would become a wandering ghost forever.
–John 3:16 (First draft, local translator, Ziga translation, Burkina Faso)1

“If politics is the art of the possible, translation is the art of the impossible.”2 In an article with great significance for Bible translation theory and Christian mission, Andrew Walls described translation in exceptionally clear terms:

Exact transmission of meaning from one linguistic medium to another is constantly hampered not only by structural and cultural difference; the words of the receptor language are pre-loaded, and the old cargo drags the new into areas uncharted in the source language. In the end the translator has simply to do his best and take risks in a high-risk business.3

A translation like the Ziga of John 3:16, “incorrect” in one sense, nonetheless, represents what the biblical text “meant” in the cultural milieu of Ziga translators. Like any translation, it is provisional. All translations are provisional in that they look forward to a better translation that is already and always yet to come. In this case, the cultural mismatches between modern tribal Africa and the ancient Mediterranean make the translated words of the Greek text of John sound more like a version of hell rather than “eternal life.” Worst of all, Jesus and Father God take on strange, grotesque characteristics. Translation has this capacity to provoke the uncanny experience of the strange in the familiar—what is known as “contained alterity.”4 That is, through a limited encounter, we experience the uniqueness of our enculturated selves in the presence of the culture of the other. Perhaps this is a place for the extension of hospitality5 or of hostility. We read and perhaps we laugh but then perhaps look forward to the translation’s future perfection when, through careful editing, and with the help of a consultant, the text achieves “equivalence” with the meaning of the original text, even if that perfection is unattainable. For translation—as imperfect in practice as unrealizable in theory—brings diplomats together in ongoing discussions, extends hospitality in family settings, and mediates street-corner debates and cross-cultural encounters in cafés, hospitals, churches, court-rooms, and schools. Translation is at the heart of constant interchange in urban centers as well as remote areas. Yet translation becomes weaponized in the interrogation cells of Guantanamo, in the streets of Damascus, and in the mountains of Tibet.6 Translation is not only possible; it is necessary to human life in its intercultural processes as we know them.

Translators know7 that to facilitate audience understanding they must make major and minor adjustments for differences between languages.8 Semantics, information structures, social pragmatics, and basic cultural assumptions vary greatly from one language to another.9 Such adjustments often make translators suspect, as if they betray the original. Indeed, translators are caught in an intractable double bind of fidelity and betrayal. As Friedrich Schleiermacher said it: “Either the translator leaves the writer alone as much as possible and moves the reader toward the writer, or he leaves the reader alone as much as possible and moves the writer toward the reader.”10

The ancient Talmudic conundrum on marriage betrothal illustrates this rock-and-hard-place position. In ancient Judaism, ideally only a man who was able to read Scripture (Aramaic: karanaya) could become betrothed to a woman. But what does it mean to “read Scripture?” In the Aramaic-speaking Jewish community of Babylon, “reading Scripture” also meant translating the Hebrew text into Aramaic, and translating is inherently dangerous!

Our Rabbis taught: “On condition that I am able to read the Scripture,” once he has read three verses of the Pentateuch in the synagogue, she is betrothed. R. Judah said: “He must be able to read and translate it. Even if he translates it according to his own understanding!” But it was taught: R. Judah said: “If one translates a verse literally, he is a liar; if he adds to it, he is a blasphemer and a libeler.” Then what is meant by translation? Our translation!11

The Talmudic escape from the double bind was to prescribe the translation and carefully define “reading.” The obvious problem would be, if the “reader” memorized both the Hebrew text and the Targum, could he be said to “read?” The answer to that was to specify two different kinds of “reader”: one casual (Aramaic: karanaya) and one professional (Hebrew: kara). Double binds require creative solutions.

Beyond the well-known saw “translator is a traitor,” the translator may experience a sense a self-betrayal. A translator re-reads his or her translation after the passage of time and thinks, “How could I have done this?” For as the translator moves on and changes, the original text also seems to change. In this case, the earlier self betrays the later self, or vice versa. Recently I experienced this sense of self-betrayal as I worked with some translators on a pilot project for a French language translation. After having spent years working on a Creole translation, I hoped my experience would facilitate consulting with the French language translators. I began with great excitement to consult with them, thinking the Creole experience would make my work easier. However, the previous translation proved to be a straitjacket at times from which I had to design an escape. Here is back-translated Creole John 1:16–17:

Yes, he was so full of the love and the truth for us,

we all receive a blessing in his hand one after another.

for God had given us only the law through Moses,

but love and the truth come only through Jesus Christ.

Of the several translation issues raised by this passage, the most salient at the time seemed to be the lack of a coordinating conjunction in verse 17 in the Greek text. The natural relation between the two clauses seemed to be a contrast. Providing the passage with a “but” (men) was the solution. The giving of the law was in stark contrast with “grace and truth” that come through Jesus Christ. Indeed, verse 18 confirmed our understanding: “No one has ever seen God”12 indicated a fundamental flaw with the Law of Moses. Perhaps Paul’s opposition of “law and grace” also guided our translation. Popular translations like the NIV and the NRSV simply put a semicolon between the two clauses, thus leaving an apparent ambiguity. Of course the Greek text had no punctuation and, indeed, the addition of a semicolon is also a translation.

Further work on the same text, this time translating into French, proved our previous translation woefully inadequate. Verse 16 took on a new light, especially the phrase: “we all receive grace after grace.” Once we put aside the influence of Paul, we could see verse 17 as describing two instances of the succession of gracious gifts mentioned in verse 16 rather than a stark contrast of the ungracious (or somewhat gracious) Law of Moses followed by truth and grace in Jesus Christ. The resulting translation was:

The Word was so rich that he has given us all

one blessing after another.

For God gave the Law through Moses,

then love and the truth came by Jesus, the King sent by God.

Like the NIV and NRSV translators who put a semicolon between the clauses of verse 17, we were forced by French grammar to translate a nothing into a something, whether a comma or a puis or a mais. Whichever “something” we put in its place turns out to be very significant. Just as John 1:1 is an invitation to re-enter the reading of the Law of Moses from a new perspective, so this passage continues that invitation to re-read the Bible and all of life through a new entry point: the life of God revealed in the person of Jesus. Perhaps both the Creole and French translations are “equivalent” to the Greek text; however, neither translation is equivalent to the other. If the original text is equivalent to two translations not equivalent to themselves, the notion of equivalence becomes problematic. This is true even if we accept a careful caveat about “equivalence”: that perfect equivalence is impossible. What we really have is polyvalence with a certain correspondence. Is the text’s ambiguity the point? Would an ambiguous translation of the passage, then, be an equivalent translation? We have no way of knowing.

Despite its problematic nature, translation has also served as a model for Christian mission.13 A “translation model” of mission is rather common and usually depends upon a notion of textual equivalence between original texts and their translations.14 The “meaning” is assumed to be stable and functions as a sort of tertium quid, like a textual version of the logos of John 1:1. Somehow and somewhere that meaning exists independently of any translation. Sometimes the meaning is thought to be “in the text” or “in the mind of God” or perhaps available in the consensus of the community of scholars. In our minds, meaning’s ghostly presence functions to endorse the equivalent value of the text. But it is not really possible to separate “the meaning” of the text from any person’s interpretation of the text. The meaning is always an understanding: always, already an interpretation.

For mission, the “unchanging message of the gospel, in other words, is regarded as ‘translatable’ into non-Western cultural categories without being compromised. But such efforts . . . needed to be done with extreme caution. Such ‘ethno-theology’ might easily be trapped in syncretism and become instead expressions of ‘Christopaganism.’ ”15 It seems that a translational model of mission that depends upon a notion of equivalence would have the same problems as equivalence in translation. And here the introduction of the term equivalence bedevils clear thinking. Charles Kraft, following Eugene Nida, opposed “formal correspondence” with “dynamic equivalence.”16 Nida and others like Kraft could well have used “dynamic correspondence” as a match for “formal correspondence” of the literalists. Both Kraft’s and Nida’s practical ideas about audience-oriented translation have been robust and proven in the field. Yet, the theory of equivalence is a stone of stumbling. One suspects that Nida’s introduction of “equivalence” was a tactical move against literalists. Equivalence claims authority over against literal translations. Since that time, so-called literalists matched dynamic equivalence with a formal “equivalence” of their own.17

Walls reframed translation as a metaphor for mission by grounding all translation in the incarnation, not by seeing translation merely as a metaphor for mission. “Incarnation is translation.”18 The Christian Scriptures, then,

are not the Torah with an updating supplement. The translation of the speech of God, not just into human speech but into humanity, implies a different type of encounter with the divine. Much misunderstanding in Christian-Muslim relations has occurred from the assumption that the Bible and Qur’an have analogous status in the respective faiths. But the true Christian analogy with the Qur’an is not the Bible, but Christ.19

But translation, whether linguistic or divine, is always culture specific:

When Divinity was translated into humanity, he did not become generalized humanity. He became a person in a particular locality and in a particular ethnic group, at a particular place and time. The translation of God into humanity, whereby the sense and meaning of God was transferred, was effected under very culture-specific conditions.

The implications of this broaden if we take the Johannine symbol of the Word made flesh along with the Pauline symbol of the Second Adam, the Ephesian theme of the multi-ethnic New Humanity which reaches its full stature in Christ, and with Paul’s concern for Christ to be formed in the newly founded Gentile churches. It appears that Christ, God’s translated speech, is re-translated from the Palestinian Jewish original. . . . In other words, national distinctives, the things that mark out each nation, the shared consciousness and shared traditions, and shared mental processes and patterns of relationship, are within the scope of discipleship. . . . The first divine act of translation into humanity thus gives rise to a constant succession of new translations. Christian diversity is the necessary product of the Incarnation.20

The process of Bible translation reflected in the diversity of its products, then, is at the heart of the Christian faith. “Perhaps no other specific activity more clearly represents the mission of the Church.”21 This means the issues of Bible translation theory and practice are the issues of incarnation.22 The process breeds diversity so that new translations, by taking the biblical word about Christ into a new culture and applying it to new situations, have the potential to reshape and expand the Christian faith.23 Such a view of translation depends not upon equivalence but upon creative difference, even if the translation process must always proceed with the originals at hand, in correspondence to them and in the light of both past and present readers’ understandings of them. Therefore, correspondence is not one-sided but is a relationship of creative tension within a tradition.

Walls points to the translational activity when Jewish followers of Jesus missionally provoked “the first real encounter of the Christian faith with the pagan world” as “one of the most critical events in Christian history.” The text hints at the radical nature of what happened in Antioch in several ways. The first hint is that the gospel was presented to non-Jews in terms of the “Lord Jesus” (Acts 11:20). In previous proclamation, says Walls, the significance of Jesus was expressed by the use of the Jewish title “Messiah,” which translates literally in Greek as christos. However, the anonymous Cypriots and Cyrenians spoke to Antiochene Gentiles in terms that they could better understand. Jesus was Lord (kyrios), “the title Hellenistic pagans gave to their cult divinities” and, we should add, to Caesar. Such a move was as radical as it was vital. It was radical because, for the first time, the gospel message was presented in terms that moved beyond the boundary of Judaism. It was vital because it is doubtful whether the Gentiles to whom the gospel was preached “could have understood the significance of Jesus in any other way.” The substitution of a word (not an equivalent) symbolizes a quantum leap beyond equivalence into missionary significance.24

Eugene Nida popularized the phrase “dynamic equivalence” along with “functional equivalence,”25 as opposed to “formal correspondence,” however, to indicate something more than a relationship between texts. Rather, the translator seeks equivalence between the experience of the current receptors of the translation and the first receptors of the original message: a lofty goal. Some might say, a mirage. The translator must determine what the first readers and hearers thought and felt and then seek to recreate that impact on the intended audience. Nida used the phrase “closest natural equivalent” to define translation: “From the viewpoint of the Bible translator the most satisfactory definition of translation seems to be the ‘closest natural equivalent,’ first in meaning and secondarily in style.”26 While this definition of translation served more than a generation of scholars as either foundation or foil, the lucidity of Nida’s copious examples of linguistic and cultural adjustment necessary for communication through translation radically changed the theoretical debate between “free” and “literal translation.” In response to criticism and new understandings in linguistics, Nida developed the theory of equivalence with considerable sophistication and finesse beyond “the closest natural equivalent” as a way of mediating between literal translation and the free translation of ideas.27 In practice the golden mean between literal and free translation created a gap between form and content. Water poured into different shapes of containers is still water. Meaning, Nida argued, was in the content rather than the form.28 However, it is important to consider the rhetorical29 and performative move in creating the very category of “equivalence” (instead, say, of “correspondence”) for acts of communication in translation in the first place. Equivalence is a metaphor borrowed from mathematics. For example 2+3+2 = (2+12)/2 = 7. Equivalence in that sense is established abstractly and may be supported by concrete observation. In the realm of translation (and mission), however, the category may create as many problems as it solves.30 Correspondence, on the other hand, is a more open and flexible category, which might have led to a different outcome than the double bind of equivalence: translators are usually aware of their failure to produce translations that are in a semantic sense equivalent to the original. However, audiences desire translations with authority equal to the original and often appreciate the label “equivalent” because it means equal meaning and authority. The label “equivalence” effaces (either by neglect or by unwarranted veneration) the very human participation of the human translators.31

The overall positive effect of Nida’s theory was to dislodge the notion of “faithfulness” as a translation desideratum from its moorings in literal translation and associate “faithfulness” with dynamic or functional equivalent translations. The principles and practices associated with dynamic or functional equivalence liberated translators from a nagging sense that “faithfulness” meant adherence to a rigid system of word-by-word consistency, especially in relation to biblical and key theological terms.32 Theorists have continued to use “equivalence,” extending and subtly enriching it. Anthony Pym, for example, suggests that the “assumed similarity between source text and translation” is what distinguishes translations from all other kinds of texts.33 While it appears undeniable that “assumed similarity” between source text and target text is a distinctive feature of translation, this is a far cry from equivalence. Pym attempts to rescue equivalence by introducing “directional equivalence” as opposed to Nida’s natural equivalence.34 Directional equivalence, then, is an oxymoronic “asymmetric equivalence.” This approach has not been very convincing.35 What is the value of an asymmetric equivalence? Better to drop equivalence altogether and speak of “asymmetric similarity and difference” or perhaps “dynamic substitution.” Nida himself did not believe perfect equivalence was achievable. Rather, he recommended “the closest natural equivalence” or “functional equivalence.” The first indicates that equivalence must always remain approximate—more or less equivalent. The second phrase suggests that equivalence might depend upon the assumed purpose the equivalence is to achieve. In either case, borrowing the word equivalence from mathematics as a metaphor for translation has the effect of creating the expectation of a more dependable kind of outcome than translation can achieve. As Dave Brunn recently wrote, “The term ‘dynamic equivalence’ (also called functional equivalence) is potentially misleading in the same way that the term ‘formal equivalence’ is. It would be more accurate to call it dynamic (or functional) approximation.”36

The practice of translating sacred texts has been a constant source of theoretical reflection from the earliest times. Indeed, “the practice of translation remains a risky operation which is always in search of its theory.”37 The writers of the New Testament do not appear to have given much thought to equivalence as criterion for their choice of sources for Old Testament quotations. For example, Isaiah has, “The people who walk in darkness” (Isa 9:2), while Matthew has, “The people who sat in darkness” (Matt 4:16; cf. Psalm 107:10). These can only be roughly equivalent. Neither Augustine nor Jerome, Christianity’s first real theorists of language and translation, thought equivalence with the original was necessarily desirable. Augustine counseled that Latin translations should conform to the Greek Septuagint because (repeating the legend of the Epistle of Aristeas) the inspired Septuagint translation was superior to the Hebrew original and had thus replaced it.38 Jerome, in his Letter to Pammachius, coyly defended his translation practice, saying, “Indeed, I not only admit, but freely proclaim that in translation [interpretatione] from the Greek—except in the case of Sacred Scripture, where the very order of the words is a mystery—I render not word for word, but sense for sense.”39 That is, wherever necessary to maintain a mystery of the church, Jerome would translate in accordance with the preservation of the mystery. For Jerome, differences in translation “are harmonized” or “atoned” for by “oneness of spirit”40 (or the unity of the Spirit).41 Indeed, such concord in the unity of the Spirit demands difference rather than equivalence. Without difference, harmony of spirit is impossible. While it is clear that equivalence is an evangelical ideological notion, it is equally clear that it is not theologically catholic. That is, as the notion of textual equivalence becomes stricter in translation, it may allow proportionately less creative diversity, diversity that is necessary according to Walls’s understanding of the translation process in Christianity. And while the translation of Christianity’s sacred texts has proceeded along with its missionary advance, it has often been bold translation moves that have fractured previous frozen consensus, disseminated Christianity, and provoked its growth. Sometimes written translation has lagged behind missionary expansion; at other times, written translation has preceded expansion into new territories.42

One should pause to honor Nida and all the good that his theoretical contributions made to translation theory and practice. His constituencies were broad and diverse, and he created a welcoming and hospitable space for healthy dialogue. His evangelical constituency might not have been able to receive new ideas about translation without “equivalence” to support departures from literalism. But it remains an ideological formulation. For Christians it should be no surprise that ideology motivates and shapes Bible translation and that translation produces asymmetric similarity and difference in its products. Bilingual individuals have always recognized that something is inevitably lost and found in translation. Translation changes the original text. Whether ideology is at work consciously or unconsciously is no matter. After all, mission may be seen as a sort of ideological promotion, whether of the reign of God or the incarnated life of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Or, if we prefer, we may see Bible translation rooted in the ancient church’s practice of including the other by translating in the earliest liturgical practice, “Abba (Aramaic), ho Pater (Greek)!” (Mark 14:36; Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6). In that context, “Maranatha!” (1 Cor 16:19) cries out for translation, to borrow a phrase from Derrida,43 even though, ultimately, for Paul an equivalent translation without self-betrayal might not have been possible at the moment he wrote it. From this perspective translational practice is an extension of the liturgical life of the saints, which in all its messy, embodied presence expresses the mission of God.

But difficulties arise in the ethics of motives mixed with cultural imperialism. Further complicating this issue, Christians often forget that Bible translations are all-too-human products. “Translation is as much a problem as a solution.”44 Perhaps this is why a thick fog often surrounds translation. Many consumers of Bible translations around the world are not aware of the fog, but simply read their translations as The Bible or The Word of God with negligible human intervention. In other words, insofar as they are aware their Bible is a translation it is—in a potent sense—equivalent to the original. However, where Bible translations have proliferated—each one for a different purpose, market, or audience—the very significant differences between the translations provoke the nagging question of the unstable relationship between the original and the various translations. This difference is healthy. A multiplicity of versions in prolific mimicry of the original45 serves the vitality of the church in the postcolonial situation by provoking resistance to the false, imperialistic notion that only one translation (or interpretation) of the gospel is possible. Where possible, more translations are better than one.

Translational equivalence, as envisioned by Nida as both a stable and objective relationship between texts, cannot stand careful scrutiny. Indeed, the more carefully one questions stable and objective equivalence, the more ideological it appears. Many have attempted to salvage equivalence as a category in translation theory by the addition of the adjective dynamic to equivalence, with a nod to the fact that perfect equivalence is not possible. If we substitute “more or less” for dynamic, we get closer to the truth. A dynamic equivalence, more-or-less equivalence, approximate equivalence, however would seem to beg the question whether equivalence is the appropriate notion. It is far better to speak of “dynamic substitution” of one text for another or “correspondence” with similarity and difference between texts—or, rather, similarity and difference between interpretations of texts, since all translation is interpretation.46 Indeed, translation without interpretation is a rudderless ship. Nevertheless, equivalence could yet be a useful notion for translation theory. One may think of equivalence in economic or community terms. That is, it functions by social convention and by performative declaration. For example, “the US dollar is trading at 101 yen.” Such a notion of equivalence may well be objective but unstable. In that sense a translation may be considered equivalent to the original for certain purposes and not for others, by consensus and agreement. However, there can be no guarantee that such equivalence will be long-lasting. This is more or less the view of Theo Hermans, who, following Gideon Toury in a systemic approach to translation, agrees that norms give objective substance to equivalence. “In his view, if a text is accepted as a translation, it follows axiomatically that the relation of equivalence between the translation and its original obtains; norms determine the concrete shape of that equivalence relation in specific instances.”47 In this sense all translations would be “functional equivalents” of their originals as long as the consumers or publishers perceive them as such.

Nida is not alone among theorists who define translation in terms of equivalence relations;48 it remains a central concept in translation theory. However, in the aftermath of criticisms of Nida’s brand of equivalence, many theorists have ostensibly moved away from it49 to more functional, negotiated, target-audience centered ideals of translation like Skopos theory.50 Some theorists like Mona Baker use the notion of equivalence “for the sake of convenience—because most translators are used to it rather than because it has any theoretical status.”51 Others reject the theoretical ideal of equivalence, claiming it is either irrelevant or damaging to theoretical reflection on translation. Mary Snell-Hornby, for example, rejects equivalence as “an illusion of symmetry between languages which hardly exists beyond the level of vague approximations and which distorts the basic problems of translation.”52 For many translators, the goal of semantic equivalence forever recedes from the realm of attainability, although it may for a time serve as an impetus for hard work. As Miguel de Unamuno so eloquently said in the introduction to J. E. Crawford Flitch’s English translation of his Tragic Sense of Life, “an idea does not pass from one language to another without change.”53 Thus, equivalence is variously regarded as a necessary condition for translation, an obstacle to progress in translation studies, or a useful category for describing translations.

Whatever the vicious distractions or sterling virtues engendered by the ideal of equivalence in various paradigms of translation theory, Christian theology and mission need not be dependent on Nida’s theoretical formulation of it. At the same time, it should be recognized that the practical, audience focus of dynamic/functional equivalence theorists is an enduring strength of this approach. A more fruitful idea for mission is to consider, following Barth, the function of Scripture as God’s word written in its witness to the Word become flesh. That witness is one, not least, of correspondence. Insofar as Scripture translations bear witness to the Word who is full of grace and truth, they may be equivalent in value and principally derive their value from the effectiveness of that witnessing function. But this notion of equivalence is strictly theological and ecclesial. Faithfulness in translation, then, is best judged as faithful witness in such audience-related terms. A Bible translation, in these terms, functions properly as an extension of the canonical, liturgical life of the church. Certainly, however, many other types of Bible translation are possible, for Christians do not own the Bible. However, Christians do well to consider the Scriptures as a sophisticated gift of grace to the church to introduce people to the life of God revealed in Jesus Christ by helping “to bring them to faith, to make them wise for salvation, to make them struggle with awkward questions about violence and the poor, to comfort those in sorrow, and to nourish hope for the redemption of the world.”54 These functions will be accomplished best in any population by a variety of types of translations in the service of the church.

Yancy Smith is a former church planter for Churches of Christ in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He later planted Emmanuel Fellowship Church in Sweetwater, Texas. He has been a Bible translation consultant for 15 years and currently is the Senior Director, Global Translation Services for Bible League International. He was the primary consultant for the easy-to-read translation into Spanish: La Palabra de Dios para Todos. He is married to Lanette Smith and they have four children: Jennifer, Heather, Matthew, and Kara. Yancy is an elder at Christ Fellowship Church, Fort Worth, a member of the Antioch International Movement of Churches. He holds an MA in New Testament from Abilene Christian University and a PhD in Biblical Interpretation from Brite Divinity School, Texas Christian University.

Biblography

Abraham, William J. Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology: From the Fathers to Feminism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Arduini, Stefano, and Robert Hodgson, eds. Similarity and Difference in Translation: Proceedings of the International Conference on Similarity and Translation. New York: Guaraldi, 2004.

Baker, Mona. In Other Words: A Coursebook on Translation. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Bevans, Stephen B. Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today. American Society of Missiology Series. Kindle ed. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011.

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. Routledge Classics. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Boer, Roland. “The Dynamic Equivalence Caper.” In Ideology, Culture, and Translation, edited by Scott S. Elliott and Roland Boer, 13–24. Society of Biblical Literature Semeia Studies 69. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012.

Brunn, Dave. One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal? Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013.

Catford, J. C. A Linguistic Theory of Translation: An Essay in Applied Linguistics. Language and Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965.

De Unamuno, Miguel. Tragic Sense of Life. Translated by J. E. Crawford Flitch. New York: Cosmo Publishers, 1953.

Derrida, Jacques. “Des tours de Babel.” In Difference in Translation, edited by Joseph F. Graham, 165–207. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Ehrlich, Arnold B. Genesis und Exodus. Vol. 1 of Randglossen zur Hebräischen Bibel: Textkritisches, Sprachliches und Sachliches. Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1908.

ESV Bible. “Preface to the English Standard Version.” About. http://about.esvbible.org/about/preface.

Hermans, Theo. “Norms of Translation.” In The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics, edited by Carol A. Chapelle. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. http://researchschool.org/documents/Hermans_Norms%20of%20Trl.pdf.

Isidore Epstein, ed. Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Kiddushin. Student Manual/Study Guide ed. Translated by H. Freedman. Brooklyn: Soncino Press, 1966.

Jerome. Letter to Pammachius. Translated by Kathleen Davis. In The Translation Studies Reader, edited by Lawrence Venuti, 3rd ed., 21–30. New York: Routledge, 2012.

________. To Pammachius on the Best Method of Translating. In The Principal Works of St. Jerome. Translated by W. H. Fremantle, G. Lewis, and W. G. Martley. Vol. 6 of A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. New York: The Christian Literature Company, 1893. http://ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf206.v.LVII.html.

Kenny, Dorothy. “Equivalence.” In Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies, edited by Mona Baker and Gabriela Saldanha, 2nd ed., 96–99. New York: Routledge, 2011.

Kraft, Charles H., and Marguerite G. Kraft. Christianity in Culture: A Study in Biblical Theologizing in Cross-Cultural Perspective. 25th Anniversary Kindle ed. New York: Orbis Books, 2005.

Levine, Michelle. “Maimonides’ Philosophical Exegesis of the Nobles’ Vision (Exodus 24): A Guide for the Pursuit of Knowledge.” The Torah u-Madda Journal 11 (2002–2003): 61–106.

Monson, Jordan. “A Fun Look at a Strange Bible Translation.” Missions Untold. http://missionsuntold.com/a-fun-look-at-a-strange-bible-translation.

Nida, Eugene A. Bible Translating: An Analysis of Principles and Procedures, with Special Reference to Aboriginal Languages. New York: American Bible Society, 1947.

________. Message and Mission: The Communication of the Christian Faith. Rev. ed. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1990.

Nida, Eugene A., and Charles R. Taber. The Theory and Practice of Translation. Helps for Translators 8. New York: American Bible Society, 1974.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “Translations.” In The Translation Studies Reader, edited by Lawrence Venuti, 67–8. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Nord, Christiane. Translating as a Purposeful Activity: Functionalist Approaches Explained. Translation Theories Explained 1. Manchester: St. Jerome Publishing, 1997.

Perelman, Chaïm. The Realm of Rhetoric: Philosophy. Translated by William Kluback. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990.

Pym, Anthony. Exploring Translation Theories. New York: Routledge, 2010.

Rafael, Vicente L. “Targeting Translation: Counterinsurgency and the Weaponization of Language.” Social Text 30, no. 4 (2012): 55–80.

Ricoeur, Paul. On Translation. Translated by Eileene Brennan. Thinking in Action. Kindle ed. Florence. KY: Routledge, 2006.

Roberts, J. J. M. “An Evaluation of the NRSV: Demystifying Bible Translation.” Insights: A Journal of the Faculty of Austin Seminary 108, no. 2 (1993): 25–36, http://bible-researcher.com/roberts1.html.

Rowe, C. Kavin. Early Narrative Christology: The Lord in the Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009.

Sanneh, Lamin. Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture. American Society of Missiology Series 13. New York:
Orbis Books, 1989.

Schleiermacher, Friedrich. “On the Different Methods of Translating.” In The Translation Studies Reader, edited by Lawrence Venuti, 43–63. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Smalley, William A. Translation as Mission: Bible Translation in the Modern Missionary Movement. The Modern Mission Era, 1792–1992. Macon, GA: Mercer, 1991.

Snell-Hornby, Mary. Translation Studies: An Integrated Approach. Philadelphia: Benjamins, 1988.

Sommer, Benjamin D. The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012.

________. Outside in the Teaching Machine. Routledge Classics. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Toury, Gideon. In Search of a Theory of Translation. Meaning and Art 2. Tel Aviv: Porter Institute for Poetics & Semiotics, 1980.

Walls, Andrew F. The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996.

Wendland, Ernst.Exploring Translation Theories—A Review from the Perspective of Bible Translation.” Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages 38, no. 2 (2012): 89–128. http://wendlandsite.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/wendland-jnsl-38-2-nr2.pdf.

Yoder, John Howard. Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community before the Watching World. Kindle ed. Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2001.

Zogbo, Lyonell. “Bible, Jewish and Christian.” In Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies, edited by Mona Baker and Gabriela Saldanha, 2nd ed., 21–7. New York: Routledge, 2011.

1 Jordan Monson, “A Fun Look at a Strange Bible Translation,” Missions Untold, http://missionsuntold.com/a-fun-look-at-a-strange-bible-translation.

2 Andrew F. Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996), 26.

3 Ibid. See also Lamin Sanneh, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture, American Society of Missiology Series 13 (New York: Orbis Books, 1989), 174–75.

4 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Outside in the Teaching Machine, Routledge Classics (New York: Routledge, 1993), 181.

5 “Linguistic hospitality, therefore, is the act of inhabiting the word of the Other paralleled by the act of receiving the word of the Other into one’s own home, one’s own dwelling.” Paul Ricoeur, On Translation, trans. Eileen Brennan, Thinking in Action, Kindle ed. (Florence, KY: Routledge, 2006), Kindle loc. 219.

6 Vicente L. Rafael, “Targeting Translation: Counterinsurgency and the Weaponization of Language,” Social Text 30, no. 4 (2012): 55–80. See also Friedrich Nietzsche, “Translations,” in The Translation Studies Reader, ed. Lawrence Venuti, 3rd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2012), 67. Commenting on translation during the Roman imperial period Nietzsche says: “Indeed, translation was a form of conquest.”

7 From ancient times; see Jerome, Letter to Pammachius, in Venuti, 21–30.

8 Eugene A. Nida and Charles R. Taber, The Theory and Practice of Translation, Helps for Translators 8 (New York: American Bible Society, 1974), 103–19.

9 Charles H. Kraft and Marguerite G. Kraft, Christianity in Culture: A Study in Biblical Theologizing in Cross-Cultural Perspective, 25th Anniversary Kindle ed. (New York: Orbis Books, 2005), Kindle locs. 1503–2643. See Dave Brunn, One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal? (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013), for a clearly written explanation of how both so-called “literal” and “free” or “dynamic equivalence” translations make many more of such adjustments than is commonly supposed.

10 Friedrich Schleiermacher, “On the Different Methods of Translating,” in Venuti, 43–63.

11 Adapted from Isidore Epstein, ed., Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Kiddushin, Student Manual/Study Guide ed., trans. H. Freedman (Brooklyn: Soncino Press, 1966), b. Qiddushin 49a. “Our translation” refers to the Aramaic Targum Onkelos.

12 Quite a few biblical authors and characters express surprise that humans saw God without dying or fear that they would die because of seeing God; see Gen 32:31, and particularly Exod 24:10–11; Judg 6:22–23; Judg 13:22; Isa 6:1–5; also perhaps Gen 16:13, according to a likely emendation (viz., “So she named the LORD who spoke to her, ‘El-roi’; for she said, ‘I have seen God and remained alive after seeing him.’ ”) suggested by Arnold B. Ehrlich, Genesis und Exodus, vol. 1 of Randglossen zur Hebräischen Bibel: Textkritisches, Sprachliches und Sachliches (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1908), 64–65. It did not seem obvious to us that John’s denial might be referring to this well-known Jewish conundrum of translation in Exod 24:10: “and they saw the God of Israel.” The translation of this verse was discussed in the medieval Tosafos of b. Qiddushin 49a (opposite Rashi’s commentary on the Babylonian Talmud) and, given John’s denial, much earlier. From the Rabbinic point of view, the literal rendering “they saw the God of Israel” conveys a lie, as God cannot be seen, while the added words in the rendering “they saw the angel of the God of Israel” (as in the Targum) involves a blasphemy. For the important discussion of Exod 24:9–11 in Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, see Michelle Levine, “Maimonides’ Philosophical Exegesis of the Nobles’ Vision (Exodus 24): A Guide for the Pursuit of Knowledge,” The Torah u-Madda Journal 11 (2002–2003): 61–106. John’s denial is part of an increasing discomfort with this degree of anthropomorphism. For example, the LXX of Exod 24:11, “καὶ τῶν ἐπιλέκτων τοῦ Ισραηλ οὐ διεφώνησεν οὐδὲ εἷς· καὶ ὤφθησαν ἐν τῷ τόπῳ τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ ἔφαγον καὶ ἔπιον.” “And of the chosen of Israel there was not even one missing, and they were seen in the presence of God and ate and drank.” The LXX of 24:10a shows a similar trait. Instead of beholding the “God of Israel,” the elders “καὶ εἶδον τὸν τόπον, οὗ εἱστήκει ἐκεῖ ὁ θεὸς τοῦ Ισραηλ,” seeing only “the place where the God of Israel stood.” But John’s denial highlights the anthropomorphism of the incarnation. See also, Benjamin D. Sommer, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

13 E.g., “The translation model regards culture somewhat positively but focuses more on the faithful transmission of the gospel message. It therefore regards culture as a means, as a vehicle of transmission, rather than something good and revelatory in itself.” Stephen B. Bevans, Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today, American Society of Missiology Series 30, Kindle ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), Kindle locs. 1432–35. See Kraft, Kindle loc. 2643: “The forms of culture are (like water pipes) important not for their own sake but for the sake of that which they convey.”

14 See Kraft, Kindle locs. 6761–7266.

15 Bevans, Kindle locs. 1463–65.

16 Kraft, Kindle loc. 6279.

17 Notice the posturing between dynamic and formal equivalence in the introduction to the English Standard Version: ESV Bible, “Preface to the English Standard Version,” About, http://about.esvbible.org/about/preface.

18 Walls, 27.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid., 27–28.

21 Ibid., 28.

22 Ibid., 29.

23 Ibid. This is the ancient Christian practice of the Rule of Christ in Matthew 18 known as “binding and loosing” using “discernment.” See John Howard Yoder, Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community before the Watching World, Kindle ed. (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2001), Kindle locs. 164–365.

24 Walls, 34–35. This is not to say that mar (Aramaic for Lord) was not previously used for Christ, but that both mar and kyrios take on significant freight outside of Jewish circles. The picture in Luke-Acts is considerably more complex than Walls details at this point, but it is well taken that the message of Jesus as Lord is particularly significant in the Gentile mission. Cf. C. Kavin Rowe, Early Narrative Christology: The Lord in the Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 218. The phrase found in Acts 11:20 is characteristic of Luke’s narrative of the risen Lord (Luke 24:3; Acts 1:21; 4:33; 8:16; 11:17, 20; 15:11; 16:31; 19:5, 13, 17; 20:24, 35; 21:13; 28:31).

25 See Eugene A. Nida, Message and Mission: The Communication of the Christian Faith, rev. ed. (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1990), 137–56.

26 Eugene A. Nida, Bible Translating: An Analysis of Principles and Procedures, with Special Reference to Aboriginal Languages (New York: American Bible Society, 1947), 12–13; Nida and Taber, 14, 22–24.

27 Nida, Bible Translating, 12.

28 Nida and Taber, 57–98.

29 See Chaïm Perelman, The Realm of Rhetoric: Philosophy, trans. William Kluback (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), 50–51, an operation known as “liaison” or “thickening” that essentially borrows the assumed authority from one discourse and applies it to another surreptitiously or unconsciously.

30 See Roland Boer, “The Dynamic Equivalence Caper,” in Ideology, Culture, and Translation, ed. Scott S. Elliott and Roland Boer, Society of Biblical Literature Semeia Studies 69 (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012), 13–23.

31 See J. J. M. Roberts, “An Evaluation of the NRSV: Demystifying Bible Translation,” Insights: A Journal of the Faculty of Austin Seminary 108, no. 2 (1993): 25–36, http://bible-researcher.com/roberts1.html.

32 Lyonell Zogbo, “Bible, Jewish and Christian,” in Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies, ed. Mona Baker and Gabriela Saldanha, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2011), 24.

33 Anthony Pym, Exploring Translation Theories (New York: Routledge, 2010), 6.

34 Ibid., 26.

35 Ernst Wendland, “Exploring Translation Theories—A Review from the Perspective of Bible Translation,” Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages 38, no. 2 (2012): 95, http://wendlandsite.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/wendland-jnsl-38-2-nr2.pdf.

36 Brunn, 130.

37 Ricoeur, 33.

38 Augustine, De doctrina christiana 2.15.22.

39 Jerome, Letter to Pammachius, in Venuti, 23.

40 According to Jerome, To Pammachius on the Best Method of Translating 5, in The Principal Works of St. Jerome, trans. W. H. Fremantle, G. Lewis, and W. G. Martley, vol. 6 of A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (New York: The Christian Literature Company, 1893), 291, http://ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf206.v.LVII.html.

41 Jerome, Letter to Pammachius, in Venuti, 25:

Let us give another example of the same sort from Zechariah, which John the Evangelist takes from the Hebrew truth: “They will gaze upon him whom they have pierced” [John 19:37]. For this the Septuagint reads: “They will look upon me, because they have mocked me,” which the Latin version translates [interpretati] as “And they will gaze upon me because of those things they have mocked” or “insulted.” The Evangelist, the Septuagint, and our Latin translation of Zechariah each differ, yet the various modes of expression unite in one spirit.

Here, the Latin implies more of a dynamic relationship: spiritus unitate concordat, i.e., “they harmonize together in the unity of the Spirit.”

42 William A. Smalley, Translation as Mission: Bible Translation in the Modern Missionary Movement. The Modern Mission Era, 1792–1992. (Macon, GA: Mercer, 1991), 21–38.

43 Jacques Derrida, “Des tours de Babel,” in Difference in Translation, ed. Joseph F. Graham (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985), 165–207.

44 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 259.

45 On the notion of mimicry as resistance in the postcolonial situation, see Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture, Routledge Classics (New York: Routledge, 1994), 85.

46 See Stefano Arduini and Robert Hodgson, eds., Similarity and Difference in Translation: Proceedings of the International Conference on Similarity and Translation (New York: Guaraldi, 2004).

47 Theo Hermans, “Norms of Translation,” in The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics, ed. Carol A. Chapelle (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), http://researchschool.org/documents/Hermans_Norms%20of%20Trl.pdf.

48 Among others, see J. C. Catford, A Linguistic Theory of Translation: An Essay in Applied Linguistics, Language and Language Learning (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965); Gideon Toury, In Search of a Theory of Translation, Meaning and Art 2 (Tel Aviv: Porter Institute for Poetics & Semiotics, 1980); Pym, 6.

49 Dorothy Kenny, “Equivalence,” in Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies, 94.

50 For an accessible introduction to functional translation theory and practice, see Christiane Nord, Translating as a Purposeful Activity: Functionalist Approaches Explained, Translation Theories Explained 1 (Manchester: St. Jerome Publishing, 1997).

51 Mona Baker, In Other Words: A Coursebook on Translation (New York: Routledge, 1992), 2–6.

52 Mary Snell-Hornby, Translation Studies: An Integrated Approach (Philadelphia: Benjamins, 1988), 22.

53 Miguel de Unamuno, author’s preface to Tragic Sense of Life, trans. J. E. Crawford Flitch (New York: Cosmo Publishers, 1953).

54 William J. Abraham, Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology: From the Fathers to Feminism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 6.

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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Missional Hermeneutics Lived Out in Burkinabe Villages

I am blessed to live and minister among the Dagara people of southwestern Burkina Faso. They are an animistic people group with a syncretistic religion so varied they often attract European tourists who seek New Age or pagan experiences. God’s Spirit is mightily at work among them, though, as over 100 village churches have been planted with approximately 11,000 Christians among them since 2004.

While I love most aspects of my job (excluding, of course, the power outages and distance from air-conditioned restaurants), one of my favorite parts is diving into applied theology alongside my Dagara brothers and sisters. I get to walk with these new Christians as they encounter God’s word, discern what it says, and attempt to apply it to their lives and culture. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, and sometimes ugly, working out the nuts and bolts of hermeneutics in a young church planting movement is always interesting! I will share three instances of these young Christians discerning what Scripture means in their context.

The Ugly

Romans 5:12–21

We’ll begin with The Ugly, an instance in which a young preacher obviously made some glaring errors in his interpretation and application of a text. At the urging of a local leader I’d been training, I headed out to a new church plant in a village I had never before visited along with our summer interns (it’s always nice to have an audience for these kinds of moments). This fledgling church had been planted by a third-generation student—the student of my student’s student.

Worship began in typical Dagara-church fashion. After an hour or so of waiting, several different people attempted to start singing before things finally took off when one of the usual song leaders arrived. We enjoyed a mixture of singing, praying, and Bible reading for well over an hour before they asked to hear from me. I shared with them the thoughts I had prepared and more singing began, this time even more raucous than before (perhaps in celebration of my sermon being over?).

About then, the young evangelist who had planted the church came puffing up on his bike, having repaired a flat en route. Since we had only been meeting a couple hours and only heard a few chapters of Scripture read and only one sermon, there was obviously plenty of time for one more! He asked another local leader to read Romans 5, and then began his exposition of the second half of that chapter.

He opened by reminding us what Paul meant when he said that all sinned. His recap of the fall story from Genesis 3 seemed a little heavy on Eve’s guilt over and against Adam’s but was otherwise an effective summary. He then moved on to discuss how Jesus is the New Adam in opposition to the Old Adam. He reiterated Paul’s language in saying that although we all died in the Old Adam, we can all live in the New Adam.

He then hung his head in defeat, and said, “All but for Eve . . . we could all live but for the women in our lives who continue to lead us to sin.” He went on to explain that Paul’s main idea is that, just as Eve led the Old Adam to sin, so our Eves lead us to sin today, even under the New Adam. He went on to tell of a friend who would be a Christian but for the fact that his wife keeps telling him not to. He even added that he was late today because his wife had borrowed his bike, gotten a flat tire, and left it for him to fix.

At this point, my main question was when exactly to interrupt. Should I let him finish first and then offer my thoughts, allowing him to save some face? Should I interrupt immediately and ask what other people think? Or maybe I should leap off my chair and shout down the false prophet? Fortunately, as so often happens, the decision was taken out of my hands.

A younger woman in the church, sitting among several other young mothers who were getting more and more fidgety, finally jumped up and told him that he was wrong, that more often than not it is Dagara husbands refusing to allow their wives to become Christians. She asked him to look around and count how many women had come in defiance of their husbands because their Adams were not yet convinced of the truth in Christianity.

The young evangelist seemed a bit taken aback by her willingness to speak out in opposition to his message in front of everyone but, while not being rude in any way, refused to budge from his interpretation. He pointed out that he wasn’t sharing his own words, but those of God.

At this point the whole crowd got a little rowdy as conversations broke out all around the circle. An older Christian woman finally commandeered the floor. She explained in no uncertain terms that this was not the point of the reading. She said that the point was that even though we are all—men and women—guilty, Jesus has come to make us all new. Death enters when we sin once; life comes through one sacrifice. It has nothing to do with marriage or what men and women do to each other. It is entirely about what Jesus has done for us all.

As is so often the case, truth was spoken in community.

The Good

The Peace of Christ

Despite having been a textual major as an undergraduate, I am compelled to confess that I usually skip the introductions and conclusions to the epistles in the New Testament. To-whom’s and from-whom’s seem to my hurried ears only to get in the way of the meat of the letter.

This is the same kind of thinking that damages the witness of many western missionaries serving in the majority world. For my Dagara friends, the hello’s and the goodbye’s and the please-greet’s are just as important in a conversation as the so-called meat. I live and minister in a relationship-oriented rather than a task-oriented society. With whom and for whom one lives today matters more to them than how many items are checked off the to-do list.

Consequently, for my Dagara brothers and sisters, the introductions and conclusions of the letters are vitally important passages. They establish relationship and are the grounds upon which the writer can speak into the recipients’ lives. When Paul opens with “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” and ends with “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit” (Phil 1:2; 4:23), never does he sound more Dagara!1

The Dagara live out these scriptural greetings daily (probably hourly), but never more clearly than on Sundays. No matter what is happening at worship or how late you have arrived, you are expected to greet every member of the church upon your arrival. At the end of worship, we greet each other with the Peace of the Lord (Soore yawn-maaro), at once a prayer, a challenge, and a blessing.

The beautiful thing about this lived-out hermeneutic is that it goes beyond mere words. Bringing peace into a troubled life is one of the main benefits of becoming a Christian for Dagara believers. More specifically, almost every Dagara man, when asked to deliver his testimony, will at some point speak of the peace God brought into his life. My dear friend Maal-kono, one of the gentlest West African men I’ve ever had the privilege to know, says this:

Before I became a Christian, I was unkind and loved to fight. Like everyone else, I thought nothing of hitting my wife when she made me angry. I used to get angry so fast and never felt peace in my heart. Now, thanks be to God, I have peace. Jesus has brought peace into my life. I am now a person of peace and bring a blessing rather than a curse to those I meet.

While I might still be tempted to skip over them occasionally, I thank God that he, in his infinite wisdom, allowed the greetings at the beginnings and endings of New Testament epistles to remain to this day.

The Bad

Marriage

Referring to this final instance of missional hermeneutics as “The Bad” is a bit of a misnomer. What I mean is that the discussion was difficult, took a good deal of work, prayer, and reflection, but was ultimately successful. It is only ‘bad’ in the sense that it was challenging—and still is!

The Dagara are traditionally polygamists. This occurs for a number of reasons:

  • a levirate marriage upon the death of a brother;
  • infertility;
  • a bride returned to her husband after having been called home by her family, and him having taken another wife in her absence;
  • the first wife urging her husband to take a younger second wife to help with housework as she ages;
  • or a man simply wanting another wife.

Regardless of how they arrive at the situation, many middle-aged and most older Dagara men are polygamists.

As one can imagine, this almost immediately presented a challenge to the nascent Dagara church movement. As polygamists come to know Christ, can they be baptized? Can their wives? What about their children? Must they divorce all but one wife? If so, which wife? What is then to be done with the divorced woman and her children? These questions and others were running throughout the network of the first few Dagara churches.

About this time, our team began encouraging area-wide leaders’ meetings. We wanted to provide opportunities for leaders who might otherwise never see each other to interact. They would be able to encourage each other, share ideas and new songs, and discuss sticky topics like polygamy.

Our first leaders’ meeting was set around the theme of family: What does a Christian Dagara family look like? We took Ephesians 5:21–6:4 as the basis for our discussion. The leaders present readily acknowledged that, in general, the number one desire for a man is to be respected by his wife, and that for a woman it is to be loved. Children obeying their parents and fathers not exasperating them also resonated. That, of course, was the easy part.

As the conversation then turned toward polygamy, our team stepped more into the role of resource people, that is, living concordances, pointing them to passages throughout Scripture that might speak into their discussion.

  • We looked at creation, what the world was meant to be, and the fall, what it wound up being.
  • We considered the patriarchs, of whom two of three were polygamists, and for whom their polygamy caused all kinds of problems.
  • We looked at what Jesus had to say about marriage. His interaction with the Sadducees found in Mark 12:18–27 (and its parallels), while not explicitly about polygamy, particularly struck our brothers and sisters. They noted that Jesus did not take this opportunity to condemn levirate marriage, but rather accepted it and used it to address another point.
  • We also considered Paul’s (the Single Guy) discussion of marriage in 1 Cor 7. This was ultimately the decisive passage for our leaders. When Paul said, “Each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him,” (7:17) they interpreted that to apply to polygamists.

Having considered these passages and discussed the issue in what seemed to us an endless circular fashion, the leaders arrived at several decisions. First, they asserted that monogamy—one man with one woman—is God’s original and best design for marriage and what we should all strive for. Second, they decided that those who are already polygamists when they come to know Christ ought to remain so, for to divorce their other wives would definitely be a sin. They have their work cut out for them, trying to die to themselves for each of their wives as Christ did for the church, but that is their assigned place in life. Third, they are to take no more wives (that is, monogamists should remain so, and polygamists should not add any further wives). Fourth, they are to teach their children God’s original design for marriage so that, with the passing of time, Dagara marriages will come to resemble what God would have them be.

After a challenging two days, a reasonable decision was reached that acknowledged and dealt with the present reality while planning for a better, godlier future. Was this the end of Dagara reflections on Christian marriage? Absolutely not, and rightly so! The Dagara are still working out in their homes and within their churches what authentically Dagara Christian men, women, and children should do on a daily basis. Their original hermeneutical discussion has given them a good foundation upon which to build, but much of the structure remains to be built.

Concluding Thoughts

I thank God on a regular basis that my salvation does not depend on always being right; were that the case, no one would stand a chance of seeing heaven. Rather, our salvation depends upon the righteousness credited to us because of what Christ did for us. That said, working by the Spirit to interpret the word of God within our lives is a vital part of what it means to be the people of God. Walking alongside my Dagara church family as they learn, both by instruction and intuition, the basic principles of exegesis and hermeneutics is one of the great privileges of this missionary life. I am grateful for all that the Spirit is doing as the Dagara press on through the good, the bad, and the ugly of missional hermeneutics.

Andy Johnson has been privileged to serve among the Dagara tribe of Burkina Faso since 2002. Married with three children, he holds degrees from Abilene Christian University. He can be contacted at almjjohnson2002@yahoo.com.

1 Scrpture quotations are from the New International Version.

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NT Scholars Discuss Missional Hermeneutics

This discussion was originally an email exchange moderated by the editor.

Prompt

Missional has a variety of meanings in the current literature.  The discussion of missional hermeneutics therefore begins with some ambiguity.  How do you understand missional hermeneutics as a New Testament scholar?  Is it ultimately just another reading strategy alongside those such as liberation, black, or feminist perspectives?  If not, why not?  If so, what might a missional reading contribute that other hermeneutical options do not?

Tommy Givens

When the Messiah sends his twelve apostles on the mission of the kingdom of God to the rest of Israel in the Promised Land, he sends them as beggars (Matt 10 and pars.). This posture of material dependence is key to mission in the Bible and what makes me somewhat nervous about “missional hermeneutics.” The modern history of Christian mission, which is of a piece with the development of modern biblical scholarship, is one of racist colonialism that has been as destructive as it has been pious, and I think we are a long way from taking account of this. Our missionary ways of violent conquest, as opposed to the Christian vulnerability on display in Jesus’ apostolic missionaries, have been habits of both mind and body, so that we cannot separate our biblical hermeneutics from the devastating impact Euro-American Christianity has had on the communities of people, animals, vegetation, and landscape of its mission fields. 

I don’t mean to imply that there is nothing to celebrate about modern Christian mission, only that any celebration tends to subtly excuse, conceal, or obscure the gravity of our missional sins and their continuing repercussions. This needs to be noted, I think, in any discussion of “missional hermeneutics.” Missional hermeneutics must therefore emphasize what modern Christian mission seems largely to have forgotten, namely, that Christians read the Bible not as its owners who must assimilate others to us as the authorities of its story but as ourselves the vulnerable objects of the mission of God to which it bears witness. There is no Christian missionary who is not being missionized, just as there is no Bible reader who is not being read. It is true that Jesus’ apostles bore the power of the kingdom of God as his missionaries but only as they were able to be observably dependent on others and to receive from them (i.e., those to whom they proclaimed the gospel). And we know from the Gospel stories that they hardly knew what they were doing when Jesus sent them out in Matt 10 (and pars.) They were learning the kingdom of God themselves as they were sharing it with others. Similarly, missional hermeneutics must be about how God is calling to us and only thus how God is calling to others through us. 

Besides reading the Bible primarily with an eye to how we are being confronted by God in Christ through its words and through those with whom we share them, missional hermeneutics must mean that we, whoever we imagine ourselves to be, refuse to claim for ourselves a master frame of reference for making sense of Scripture. This goes for “theological interpretation” as much as it does for historical criticism. Being theologically oriented as readers or being historically responsible (which ought to be understood as inextricable given the historical nature of God’s self-revelation) does not imply a stable set of terms or questions that will generate good readings and are our possession. Healthy theological and historical orientation may enable us to compensate somewhat for problematic tendencies that have shaped certain traditional or established patterns of reading, but they are not formulae for authoritative exegesis. It is precisely our penchant for supposedly owning or embodying a master frame of reference that has made biblical hermeneutics the tool of a larger Christian colonialist project called “mission.”

One may surmise from my worries about “missional hermeneutics” that historically privileged sectors of the Christian church (like mine) can read the Bible missionally only with tiresome apologies and claims that die the death of a thousand qualifications. Not so. While such sectors should surely be mindful of the debts we carry, the answer is not to convey the mission of God as attested in the Bible with embarrassment. Instead, we must work at the art of missional reading that implicates the reader(s) in the Bible’s storied words of judgment and salvation (which go together) and invites corrective readings from others, however unpalatable that correction may seem. Such an exegetical art can nourish missional habits of reading that convey the prophetic authority of Scripture without shame.

This is where liberation, black, feminist, and other voices are not merely intriguing perspectives to be considered or so many other hermeneutical “strategies” but crucial partners and teachers in a discourse historically dominated by white men. Such voices can expose what the master frame of reference of Euro-American biblical scholarship (as “history,” “theology,” or whatever) has tended to suppress. They are not necessarily good witnesses, for past abuses can lend a voice representing the oppressed more authority than it deserves, just as those abuses have shielded the work of white men from thorough criticism. But given the history of Christian mission and biblical scholarship, such voices should not be quickly dismissed and should be handed the mic consistently. They are an integral part of missional hermeneutics because of the sort of mission we find the God of Israel on throughout the Bible, crying out from the blood and suffering of those silenced and subjugated by the ruling classes of both Israel and Gentile societies, finally from the broken body of his Son. In my experience, this sort of shared, if not altogether common, hermeneutical space is not a way to be sanctimoniously embarrassed about Christian mission. It is indeed the occasion of grief and frustration but often the impetus of joy—what can be described as the presence of the Holy Spirit who convicts and heals.

Missional hermeneutics names for me something important and easily forgotten about the words of the Bible, that is, that they are living words that touch and transform the reader. In Biblical Studies, many of us have gotten into the bad habit of imagining that the words of the Bible are locked in the past, dead like the pieces of a museum, supposedly waiting for a priesthood of biblical scholars to bring them to life. We often do this, of course, in an effort to read the words in a way that does justice to the seemingly distant context of their composition and early reception. But to treat them as locked in the past somewhere is in fact to do them an injustice, to misunderstand the sort of words they are. That we find ourselves reading them all these years after they were written and deeply concerned about what they mean is itself a testimony to their living nature, conveyed to us across time and space by diverse communities of people both alive and dead. Being responsible about key moments in their reception should not lead us to locate their meaning primarily “back there,” and reading missionally reminds us that in the very act of reading and studying them, even as ancient words, they are exerting a pressure on us accumulated across time, the missionary pressure of the God who creates and redeems, who continues to call out to us through the words of the Bible. As the missional words of this God, the Bible should be read as the peacemaking power of God, which makes a peacemaking people out of us. Here I introduce what any talk of “missional hermeneutics” must specify if it is to be true, that is, the nature of the mission that this hermeneutics aims to discern and fulfill, but elaboration will have to await another occasion.

James Thompson

I must confess that I had to consult a couple of articles on missional hermeneutics before I responded to the prompt because the expression was new to me. I am not familiar with the term in the standard works on exegesis and hermeneutics. There may be a section at SBL on missional hermeneutics, but it did not catch my eye. I have, however, read some of the missional church literature, beginning with Missional Church.1 I first read these proposals with appreciation, because I saw in them an important challenge to the marketing strategies of evangelical churches. Yet, the more I read the literature, the less I know about what the word “missional” means. As Alan Roxburgh said, “The word ‘missional’ seems to have traveled the remarkable path of going from obscurity to banality in one decade.”2 Hence my response to the question of missional hermeneutics.

I have always liked Robert Morgan’s statement that the meaning of a text depends on the question we are asking. For three hundred years, the question has been historical: What did the text mean to the original recipients? The historical question was an attempt to place controls on the meaning of the text and to free it from the control of the church. Although other approaches emerged in academia in the late twentieth century (reader response, postcolonial, etc.), the historical paradigm is still dominant. A review of the program at SBL indicates the continuing dominance of the historical set of questions. Despite the weaknesses of this method, its attempt at objectivity provides a context in which people from many backgrounds (including unbelievers) can know the rules of the game.

We have recently learned the weakness of the historical-critical method, which I do not need to elaborate on here. I will mention what, for me, is the primary weakness. The benefit of the approach—the bracketing of the subjective, ecclesial issues that allows scholars to come together despite their different beliefs—is also the weakness. Many of us do not know how to move from the academy and interpret Scripture for the benefit of the church. Thus the church has its own “reader response” approach in the ecclesial reading of Scripture. We have learned that the church fathers have something to teach us about the reading of Scripture. The historical meaning is not the only meaning. I am very sympathetic with the contributions of Richard Hays and Stephen Fowl on the ecclesial reading of Scripture.

Now to missional interpretation. Just as one can bring a variety of questions to the text (feminist questions, post-colonial questions, etc.), I have no doubt that one can read the text with an interest in mission (i.e., how do I, with my interest in mission, engage the text?). I prefer a more holistic set of questions: How do we, the believing community, engage this text? How does it correct us? How do we see ourselves in the story? But to maintain that mission is the key that unlocks the nature of Scripture is reductionistic. In fact, I am struck by how rare the terminology of missions (“mission,” “sending”) is in Scripture and in the early church. As an observer to the discussions of mission but not a specialist, I do not know when “mission” entered the vocabulary as a separate topic. I am told that missio Dei entered the vocabulary with Barth. At any rate, my point is that the mission is not the key for unlocking the meaning of Scripture, even if it is a question that we expect Scripture to answer.

Redirect for James

Tommy contrasts “the mission of God” (i.e., “the sort of mission we find the God of Israel on throughout the Bible”) with the historical tendencies of Christian missions. This suggests that missional hermeneutics should be more critical of the church’s interest in missions (comparable with “my interest in mission” in your response) and more concerned about God’s interest in mission. Among your holistic questions, you advocate asking “How do we see ourselves in the story?” and in God’s Holy Fire you have similarly promoted a narrative approach.3 If, as Tommy proposes, “the art of missional reading . . . implicates the reader(s) in the Bible’s storied words of judgment and salvation,” then “the mission of God” would be a way of describing the biblical story’s plot.  What do you make of this idea of missional hermeneutics in comparison with a reading that is focused on the church’s (or the reader’s) interest in missions?

James Thompson

I am fully convinced that we come to the Bible with a variety of questions. James Sanders, my teacher long ago, used to say that the Bible is a “mirror for identity” that we read prophetically—as a word of judgment on the reader, or constitutively, as a word of encouragement to communities needing encouragement. I still find that assessment helpful, and it is in line with what I wrote in God’s Holy Fire—that we still see ourselves in the story. Of course, that is consistent with an ecclesial reading, as we read in community. While we can learn from various reading strategies (postcolonial, feminist, etc.), I find that they do not provide mechanisms for critique on the reader. While historical criticism has limits, it is still indispensable for our reading.

Again, I don’t know why missional—a neologism of the past century—should be a privileged hermeneutic, either as a way to offer critique of our own missions (as Tommy suggests) or to support it, unless, of course, we are using different terms to mean the same thing. In addition to historical-critical readings, I am interested in the ecclesial reading by which the church looks for both critique and support. Again, I think missional is reductionistic. Missio Dei was not a category until Barth, as I understand it, and it has never been used widely. Hence we can read with the church’s mission in mind, but that is one of many questions that we can put to the text.

Redirect for Tommy

Feel free to respond to any of James’s thoughts so far. Since we’ve sharpened the issues somewhat, though, I’ll highlight a few points for further discussion.

1. Do you understand missional hermeneutics to be a strategy in which the church reads with the church’s mission in mind, or do you mean something else?

2. James observes that mission-related terminology is strikingly rare in Scripture and the early church, that missio Dei is a relatively new category, and that missional is a neologism. How do these observations bear upon “missional reading” as you conceive it?

3. You state that missional reading “invites corrective readings from others, however unpalatable that correction may seem.” But James states that reading strategies such as he understands missional hermeneutics to be “do not provide mechanisms for critique on the reader.” Do you see a difference in this regard between the hermeneutical commitment to God’s mission and the hermeneutical commitment to feminism or postcolonialism?

Tommy Givens

I am sure that “missional hermeneutics” means different things in the different conversations where it is used. I don’t want to pretend to nail it down by arguing for what “missional hermeneutics” must mean. But I do want to discourage certain tendencies that are unfaithful to what mission is according to the Bible (and I realize this last prepositional phrase is complex and fraught). Specifically, I want to insist that reading the Bible to nourish the modern project called “missions” is problematic, to put it mildly, for reasons I mentioned in my first response. This is not to deny that the church should read the Bible with its mission in mind, however. That would be tantamount to trying to eat without tasting the food. It is to say that the mission of the church as we encounter it in the Bible must be allowed to judge the way the church understands itself as missional and engages in its mission.

I understand the church to be a missional community that reads a missional canon as the critical measure of its words about its history, its ongoing life, and its future as part of the people of God and the creation of God. As a result, to conceive of “missions” as a department of church life and the activities of that department as informing a strategy for the reading of Scripture is misguided, I think. It perpetuates a tendency of the church to exempt its self from its mission and to imagine that mission is something the church does “out there” rather than also what and who the church community is called to be in its own ongoing life. Precisely this self-exemption enables us to ignore the ways in which the mission we have been given empowers us for service to others only as it judges us, only as it places before us our own inadequacies and moves us to work on them in relationship with others. The church’s mission involves the ongoing conversion of the church in its intimacy with other communities and persons.

Without the above sense of mission, the church tends to read the Bible as the story and truth that it possesses and embodies completely. The recipients of its mission must conform to the (often unspoken) image of the church’s supposedly complete self and serve as the trophies of the church’s false sense of efficacy and triumph. In so doing, the church tends to define mission as an exotic and romantic frontier, allowing it to overlook the needy on its own doorstep, who are often the byproduct of the church’s way of living, and to ignore its internal strife and injustice in the steady march to “winning the world for Christ.” Then “missions” is simply stoking and exporting the church’s sins, as it oppresses people within it, around it, and well outside it, discursively, politically, socially, and economically. But to paraphrase the Apostle Peter, “judgment begins with the household of God” (1 Pet 4:17, where the context of the church’s discipline and hospitality is key); mission always concentrates on the church’s own embodied life in the midst of its surrounding human community in the flesh and delivers Christ’s redeeming presence to others as this mission spills out of its life and delivers needed criticism from both near and far.

Perhaps James’s worries about the terms missio Dei, mission, and missional have something to do with this Christian tendency to distill something from the Bible as the subject of a department of the church’s life. If so, then I resonate with his concerns. Neologisms may serve dubious impulses of abstraction and reductionism in the Christian imagination. But language is an aging organism, and neologisms may also recover something important that the church’s patterns of speaking, remembering, and seeing in its contexts have begun to eclipse. So the question is not whether the term mission occurs in our English translations of the Bible or even if there is some Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek antecedent for which mission might be an appropriate rendering. The question is whether the term mission enables us to read the Bible more faithfully than we might without it. This has to do with both the texture of the canon and the related texture of current languages in which the term mission is used.

I am of the mind that mission, despite the systemic abuses to which I have already pointed, and with those abuses in view, is a term that the church should use and cultivate in its reading of Scripture in relation to the rest of its life (specifically in relation to the way the people of God is sent to the world and the Son of God is sent into the world). I suppose there are contexts where the abuses are so overwhelming and the apparent gains so paltry and prone to misuse that the term should be avoided or abandoned for the time being, but those are not contexts that I know most directly. The ones in which I move are often saturated with talk of mission, which I think should be engaged and reformed rather than simply discouraged. Key to this engagement and reform, in my view, is listening to the voices systemically suppressed by so much of the church’s historic “mission.” For this reason, I take feminist, postcolonial, and other related approaches to be crucial to a more faithfully missional reading of Scripture. Moreover, their criticisms must be lived with as we read Scripture and share life with one another, as opposed to pretending to “solve” quickly the problems they bring into intelligibility and view. Because they indicate historic and systemic problems, there are no easy solutions, and reconciliation requires the slow work of listening, often repenting, and growing together. Listening, repenting, and growing must take place, for Christians, in conversation with the storied words of Scripture and especially at the level of our patterns of speech, whether in the way we remember the past, the way we analyze conceptual difficulties, or in our other everyday discourse.

I am a bit puzzled by James’s remark that such critical approaches do not provide mechanisms for critique of the reader, since they are all about criticizing the reader. I may just need some clarification. Perhaps James means that such approaches are always criticizing others and not themselves. I suppose there is some of that in that literature, but in my engagement with it I have often found it to be consistently self-critical. Nevertheless, I am not as concerned that it be self-critical, though I think that that is healthy, because I don’t take the people producing it to need quite the same criticism that they are rightly directing to the dominant voices of theological and political discourse that have historically monopolized the interpretation of Scripture. It is certainly right to insist that there is more to Christian mission than what feminist and post-colonial voices may convey, but I am convinced that there is not less.

In closing this second response, I wish to emphasize that “mission” attempts to name the way that God is in relation to all of God’s creation and therefore particularly the way that the people of God is in its internal dynamic and in relation to others in the world. As both Luther and Bonhoeffer highlight, to know this God is to know God as pro me and pro nobis, not as an additive feature of God but as simply who God is, the God who is for us and, thus, with us. There is no way of pursuing the knowledge of this God from a safe distance. Christians should name this missional nature of God in relation to creation, including us, in christocentric terms, I think, but not without describing or imagining Christ as disembodied from his Jewish place in the history of God’s people in the flesh (most directly through the Spirit and his mother) or from his relation to animals (not least those used in the food and sacrificial economy) and to vegetation and land (not least the Promised Land). Christology that leaves these dimensions of revelation out—and they require sustained attention to the Israelite law of the covenant—will be poor and inform an atrophied and irresponsible sense of mission. At the heart of the mission of God to which the church should bear witness, as I read Scripture, is the formation of a peacemaking people of “all the nations,” a people promised to Abraham as part of his growing inheritance of the whole cosmos (Rom 4:13). As a key witnessing part of this people, the church must learn as community by the power of the Spirit of resurrection to love God and to love one another and other neighbors. This learning is conformity to the self-giving death of the Messiah on the cross, and this storied sense of mission should be hermeneutically key as the church reads Scripture.

James Thompson

I must confess that I remain confused over the terminology of missional and missional hermeneutics. As an outsider to the missional church movement, my impression is that these are very slippery words that are used in a variety of ways. As to missional hermeneutics, someone needs to make the case that this is the lens for reading Scripture and show us how it works in practice. One who takes the position that missional hermeneutics is the primary—if not only—approach to the text should make the case. I am willing to grant that it may be a reading strategy, especially for those who come to the text with “missional” questions.

I wonder if we talk past each other. I am definitely in agreement that God calls us to be a cruciform church, a new humanity, and the anticipation of the ultimate new creation. Hence transformation rather than mission is the dominant image for me as I ask, “What is the story all about?” Perhaps we are giving different names to a very similar idea. I believe that it is significant that transformation (and its synonyms) is a more dominant image than mission(al) in Scripture. Nevertheless, at some point we agree but use different terminology.

Again, we can learn from reading the Bible with missional eyes. I am not sure how that is different from an ecclesial reading in which we find a living word that stretches across the centuries and speaks to us.

Of course, my outlook comes from the fact that I am a Pauline scholar, and that I am shaped by the reading of Paul, whose ambition was a sanctified and transformed church. I have noticed, incidentally, that Paul does not play much of a role in the missional literature that I have read.

As a NT scholar, I see no alternative to the use of historical criticism, despite its limitations. After the Protestant Reformation resulted in the rejection of the Catholic teaching office, historical criticism provided a means for interpreting the Bible across confessional lines. By attending to linguistic and historical context and placing interpretation on a common basis, a conversation among different confessional groups was possible. While historical criticism is a child of the Enlightenment, forms of it have been practiced since antiquity. Attention to linguistic and historical matters has a long history. And there is nothing racist about insisting on asking what words mean in their original context!

Even the harshest critics of historical criticism usually bring some form of it in through the back door. In fact, in our discussion, passages have been cited with the assumption that we know what the words mean and that they support our point of view. A case in point is the pervasive use of the word kingdom—as if we all knew what the word meant. When Tommy recalls that Jesus sent disciples out to speak of the kingdom, he is making historical critical judgments in his characterization of what was going on—judgments that I find questionable.

Historical criticism has often helped me to be self-critical. That is, I discovered from the original context of the passage that it did not support my understandings but challenged and corrected them. While the various ideological criticisms can open up insights that we had not seen before, they can also be read as self-serving texts for those who read to support their ideology. That is what is meant by the need for self-criticism.

As a Christian, I am acutely aware of the limits of historical criticism. Students who are experiencing disorientation quickly discover that historical criticism is, in some sense, atheistic, because God and the supernatural do not have a place in the paradigm. Thus, while I believe that historical criticism places some controls on what a text meant to the original author and audience, it does not yield the only meaning of a text. We can, in fact, learn from the biblical authors and early church fathers as they appropriated ancient texts.

Now to the issue of missions and cultural imperialism raised by Tommy earlier. Yes, missionaries have done bad things, and we can tell many horror stories. I do not, however, believe that the non-European people who were objects of the missionary work were living in a paradise when the missionaries came. They were not living free from conflict, poverty, and disease prior to the arrival of the missionaries. One need only to think of the mission schools that educated Mandela and a host of others, while bringing literacy to many others.

I’m sure I have not answered many of the questions that have been raised. I appreciate the emphasis on mission, even if I am reticent to get on board to suggest that it is the dominant image for the interpretation of Scripture.

Tommy Givens

As far as the terms mission and missional, I think we all acknowledge some instability and difficulties. As I said before, the question, as I see it, is whether such terms help us get at something thematic the Bible is telling us, and I think they do. I’m also motivated to attempt to redeem the terms hermeneutically because of their currency in the Christian community today as well as their abuse by various powers today (e.g., “Mission Accomplished” in reference to the recent war in Iraq).

I agree with James that self-implicating “transformation” is a helpful synonym for how I understand mission and what mission might mean as a way of understanding Scripture. In this connection, perhaps it is helpful to point out the ways in which the revelation of God in Scripture is a matter of “calling,” “setting apart,” “anointing,” and “sending” with a purpose, from Abraham, to Moses and Israel as a whole and various priestly offices, to King David and then the prophets, to the Jesus movement in Israel, the apostles of Acts, and so on. We might add the verb evangelize and the noun gospel to the above family of terms. Mission, I think, attempts to name the nature of this manifold theme of God’s movement in and through a particular and messy human community, and particular people in that community, to make God known in the world and thus to spread God’s promised blessing throughout the world. Not surprisingly, commission appears in standard translations at certain moments in the biblical story to name key parts of this movement. In short, I find it hard to make sense of what we find in Scripture apart from some sense of God’s being on a mission through time to save the world and God’s empowering a community of people in manifold ways to carry out that mission. Part of this is the way, say, Jesus gives his power to apostles and sends them to proclaim and enact the kingdom of God in Israel and then beyond (in “the Mission Discourse” of Matthew, which culminates in “the Great Commission,” though there is much to question in these designations).

But does all this constitute a basis for “mission” as a particular hermeneutical lens? I think James is right that the proof is in the pudding. In other words, it depends on the quality of readings and living that emerge from the use of that lens, and we have pointed out that such a lens is fraught with a number of likely missteps or astigmatisms (to stick with the visual metaphor). Nevertheless, I would argue that “mission” is thematic for Scripture and for the Christian life and that our readings of Scripture will lack something if they do not consistently direct an eye to how the Bible is calling us to service, which I understand to be at the heart of the mission of Jesus and therefore of the church. Still, given the vexed nature of mission, I share what I perceive to be James’s skepticism about its being pursued as a primary, much less the only, approach to the Bible. It simply cannot provide the richness and diversity needed for the healthy use of Scripture and would variously mislead if given such primacy. It needs to be complemented and corrected by a variety of other approaches, by important sensibilities that practices of “mission” or talk of “mission” have ignored or undermined. So James is right, I think, to say that Paul is concerned with a transformed and sanctified church, but I would add that this concern cannot be understood apart from Paul’s being sent by the risen Jesus as apostle to the Gentiles (i.e., missionary) or as part of God’s mission to bring the healing of peace to the entire world through the rule of Christ.

I don’t think that anything I have written previously implies the wholesale repudiation of historical criticism, so there is no need for me to justify “letting it in through the back door.” I may not be as enthusiastic about historical criticism as a paradigm as James is, but I certainly agree that it has provided needed correctives and was anticipated in diverse ways prior to the modern crisis of authority that precipitated it as a sort of paradigm. In many ways it has loosed the text from certain conceptual strangleholds by which much of the church had domesticated the Bible and co-opted it for its often corrupt purposes and practices. Asking about historical context can render the text helpfully strange to us (and thus aid in self-criticism, as James says). But I don’t think that the construction of “the original context” or the meaning of words in such a thing, the limits of which are defined arbitrarily, is as innocent as James does. “The original context” cannot help but be in part the product of the human imagination, language, patterns of thought, and so forth of those reconstructing it, and the various systemic and particular evils of which we are a part and product (some of us more than others) will therefore find their way into those reconstructions and the institutions that exert influence through those reconstructions. This is not a counsel of despair but a plea for an adequately communal approach to history, one that attends carefully to the different and sometimes contrary ways that others imagine the past and make sense of its analogy or relation to the present. It is also a warning that an a priori (rather than ad hoc) commitment to reconstructing “the original context” sets the hermeneutical game on (theologically) questionable footing.

I can understand why James balks at my insinuation that a certain prioritization of “original context” is part of a racist, specifically White supremacist, intellectual heritage. This is certainly not a dominant theme or consensus in Biblical Studies today, and it requires a much more developed concept of race and racism than is common or than I can offer here. I can only give a sketch, building on what I’ve said in previous responses. Racism should not name merely a latent or conscious prejudice against certain groups of people but a historically developed regime of knowledge and of knowledge production with massive and far reaching ramifications, one which claims a master frame of reference, whether for analysis of particular human phenomena in the present or the reconstruction of a historical past. The frame of reference claimed is that of “any reasonable person” or even of “human reason” and is naive to the fact that scholars or other people do not speak or think as “any” people but as particular people and that no person or community is in possession of some universal cognitive process or knowledge called “human reason.” Modern Western attempts to shed certain traditional constraints and prejudices in favor of more compelling “scientific” modes of analysis and understanding have produced various correctives, as I said above, but they were also part of the establishment of a paradigm that has overreached and claimed too much for itself. One example of this is consigning the demonic in the Bible to the exotic and enchanted mentality of ignorant people of antiquity and “translating” it to the concepts and language of certain modern social sciences. This is parallel and related to the way Euro-American Christian societies (who knew themselves precisely as White relative to the peoples they were colonizing) have engaged the practices, structures, language, and so forth of those populations and their descendants, namely, by assimilating and translating them to what Euro-American Christian societies find “reasonable.” Thus, what is done to “the demonic” is not an isolated hermeneutical feat that can be corrected while leaving its underlying paradigm intact but part of an entire hermeneutical imaginary. So any claim to a master frame of reference is suspicious to me, even with respect to something as apparently innocuous as “original context.” We cannot ignore the fact that historical-critical concepts like that, along with the rest of the paradigm of historical criticism, arose in the heart of European Christian colonial power during a most ambitious phase of its Christian “mission” to “civilize” the world. I have other theological (esp. ecclesiological) concerns about historical criticism as a paradigm, but those would take us too far afield, I suspect.

Whatever our enthusiasm or concerns about historical criticism, I imagine that James and I agree that in fact historical criticism does not name a uniform or entirely consistent hermeneutic but a variety of often competing commitments that share a certain sensibility, much of which I don’t know how to do without (nor do I necessarily desire to do without). There is no turning back the clock on the modern critical approaches to the Bible—they’re now part of the imagination of many readers of Scripture and in some ways not easily replaceable. There is only a kind of tactical moderation of these approaches in the service of coherent theology, Scriptural reading, and living. One thing I do want to claim is that the canons of historical criticism do not have a monopoly on history. In other words, historical criticism does not account for all the ways that we can read historically (or even the ways that I am reading Jesus’ sending his apostles to proclaim and enact the kingdom). The problem is precisely the claim that a singular “historical criticism” does so. Here one sees how historical criticism can be as ideologically self-serving as the other modes of criticism about which James expresses understandable worries.

I hope by this point I have made it clear why Christian colonialism and imperialism is relevant to this discussion. It is often thought, as James has apparently inferred from my previous responses, that the denunciation of these implies the innocence of those colonized. It doesn’t. But any pejorative description of those colonized plays too easily into the game of minimizing the atrocities of post-medieval Christian colonialism and “mission,” subtly justifying it and refusing to assume responsibility for its ongoing effects in the present. We can certainly point to good things that Christian missionaries have done, but they should not be described in isolation or used as tokens to downplay such massive Christian injustice and betrayal of Jesus. There is simply too much at stake in the way the world is ordered today, the way people are treated, and the related way the Bible is read.

Redirect for Tommy

If the problem historically is that the way the church has engaged in mission demonstrates a failure to let the Bible judge that engagement—much less that engagement itself led the church to judge its own practices—then why should we expect a missional hermeneutic to be self-critical? If it cannot be self-critical, is it not ultimately just another vantage point necessarily placed alongside others? Are you claiming that mission is, in a sense, self-correcting?

You state that feminist, postcolonial, and other approaches are crucial to a more faithful missional reading. This seems to take such perspectives as corrective or balancing components of a larger hermeneutic, which you identify as missional, rather than merely placing them alongside a missional reading. Is a missional hermeneutic, therefore, defined as much by the church’s historical failures in mission as by its ongoing cruciform engagement?

Ultimately, the tensions in this conversation seem to be a matter of whether—and specifically how—mission can serve as a hermeneutical framework that encompasses other ways of reading the text. In other words, you state that the question is whether the term mission—and presumably the idea of God’s mission—enables us to read the Bible more faithfully than we might without it. But biblical hermeneutics might find mission to be an aid to faithful reading, just as it finds feminism to be, without it being “hermeneutically key.” What justifies the church defining its hermeneutics as essentially missional rather than just adding mission to its array of reading strategies? If the answer is that mission is a way of talking about “the way that God is,” then can we just as well speak of “godly” hermeneutics? Or if conformity to the self-giving death of the Messiah on the cross is the storied sense of mission that should be hermeneutically key, then is the hermeneutical framework really just “cruciform”? Do we gain something more by “missional,” or is it synonymous with these more generic ideas?

Tommy Givens

Yes, I’m claiming that mission, if it’s faithfully Christian, is self-correcting. This is primarily because it meets God in Christ beyond itself, not only in itself (and not always in a way the church knows how to name). Part of this involves the embodied intimacy with others in the church and near it, as well as the inevitable difficulty that characterizes Christian mission. Another part of it is the internal tensions of the church as a diverse body of people, tensions by which the church can learn to embody a more abundant hospitality by the Spirit. Nevertheless, there are no guarantees about the efficacy of any hermeneutic, and that is why no hermeneutic should be deemed a silver bullet or the primary or only one. But I think a missional hermeneutic, if we want to call it that, can be self-critical insofar as it attends to the ways the covenant community is rendered vulnerable throughout the Bible precisely as it fulfills its mission according to God’s calling. If Jesus is the mission of God and humanity in the flesh, culminating in the cross and resurrection, then a missional hermeneutic will keep before readers the ways that fulfilling the Christian calling is a matter of surprise, scandal, and extreme cost, particularly to Christians. What is discipleship in service of the mission of Jesus in the Gospels (that for which he was “sent”) if not being continually confronted and corrected by Jesus (often through those by whom we do not wish to be corrected)?

I also think that a missional hermeneutic can be self-critical precisely because of the way Christian mission has failed. Much as Israel was moved to remember its history as repeated failure that future generations might remember that they live and hope but by the grace of God and that they might avoid the sins of their ancestors, so Christians today (particularly some of us) might remember how we have come to the present by God’s grace through deep and abiding failures in Christian mission and so learn to avoid the sins of our more recent ancestors.Yet, that an eye to the mission of the people of God can be self-correcting does not privilege a missional hermeneutic, I don’t think. While mission might provide a somewhat more comprehensive framework (e.g., an articulable telos) than other approaches, it can hardly do without other vantage points, as I’ve suggested in previous responses. I don’t want to make such other approaches “components” of a missional hermeneutic because I don’t want to co-opt them, but I do want for a missional hermeneutic to be able to integrate their insights and correctives and even be substantively changed by them if need be.

I have not endeavored in this conversation to establish “mission” as a “hermeneutical key”—these are terms somewhat imposed by the conversation. But I have claimed that mission is thematic to Scripture and that ignoring this will usually result in poor readings of Scripture. The difficulty, I think, is how the hermeneutical question is begged by the rightly contested meaning of mission. So I don’t want to overreach here. My hermeneutical claim is predicated on my claim about the thematic nature of mission and its meaning according to the Bible. This theme does not deliver a hermeneutical “strategy”—I’m not a big fan of a bunch of hermeneutical “strategies” that we try on like sets of clothes. Hermeneutics should not be quite so consumerist but more the result of how particular Christian communities live and read together as part of the historic body of Christ. Saying that “mission” is a theme of the Bible is a way of trying to discern how Scripture hangs together, from creation to God’s being all in all. The debate, I think, should not be about whether to use a “missional strategy” but whether mission names an important theme of the Bible and what it means according to the Bible. To the extent that we’re engaged in addressing these latter two questions, we will be giving mission a sort of hermeneutical authority but not making it some kind of discrete strategy.

The reason we cannot reduce missional to godly is the same reason for which we cannot reduce ecclesiological to theological or education to school or why it is unwise to grow certain plants by themselves rather than in a garden with other plants. The overlap in these terms does not imply one’s comprehending the other. Some words reach farther than others in their use, but words seldom if ever comprehend other words entirely within themselves. The living nature of language is such that certain words grow tired, shallow, or sterile with time and a variety of circumstances, and words have healthy power as families that share a burden rather than as relatively isolated terms or terms that are stretched too thin in an effort to cover more than they actually can. Godly simply cannot convey some of the needed nuances of biblical testimony and the Christian life, nuances that, in some cases, mission helps to express (especially because godly has grown not only generic but stuffy). Similarly, cruciform requires a context that mission can help to provide (and vice versa). Such terms are related and of overlapping significance in their use, but they are not merely or exactly synonyms—no two words are, else there would not be two. So we do gain something by mission, missional, and so on, I think. I have gestured toward what we gain in my responses. As readers of the Bible in communities where mission is a term with great currency and history, we gain ways of describing how God has moved toward us to judge and save us—in time, in community, in place, in Christ—and how that movement is of a piece with our moving toward one another and others in love.

James Thompson occupies the Onstead Chair for Biblical Studies at Abilene Christian University.

Tommy Givens is Assistant Professor of New Testament Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary.

1 Darrell L. Guder, ed., Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, Gospel and Our Culture Series (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).

2 Craig Van Gelder and Dwight J. Zscheile, The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation, The Missional Network (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 1.

3 Kenneth L. Cukrowski, Mark W. Hamilton, and James W. Thompson, God’s Holy Fire: The Nature and Function of Scripture, Heart of the Restoration Series 2 (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 2002), ch. 4.

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Currents in Missional Hermeneutics

Recent contributions to the development of missional hermeneutics are significant, though they indicate that a great deal of unexplored territory remains. This essay offers a model for plotting current themes and emphases among missional interlocutors, on which basis the author proposes an integration of key dimensions of missional theology. In conversation with current missional hermeneutical proposals, the author then develops five theses that signal a trajectory for revisioning the hermeneutical spiral.

Plotting Current Themes and Emphases in Missional Theology

The scholarly pursuit of a missional hermeneutic is presently beleaguered by the ambiguity of the term missional. This is not merely a matter of popular misappropriation; scholars’ diverse uses of missional also obscure its meaning. The resolution of this problem cannot be a condition of the development of missional hermeneutics, since it would undoubtedly become an albatross. Yet, it seems counterproductive to proceed with the discussion of missional hermeneutics when so many remain uncertain about the definition of missional in the first place. An understanding of missional theology in terms of two intersecting continuums—missiological–missional and theory–history—suggests a multidimensional understanding of missional and, in turn, signals the need for a full-orbed missional hermeneutic to develop as a revision of the hermeneutical spiral. Therefore, I begin the discussion of missional hermeneutics by plotting various themes and emphases on the landscape of missional theology.

The first distinction necessary for understanding the current discussion is the difference between missional hermeneutics and missiological hermeneutics. While much of the missional church movement is keenly attuned to the logic of mission, it is not especially missiological.1 Missional in its basic adjectival sense refers to anything having to do with mission, which makes the distinction between missional and missiological questionable. But in the context of the hermeneutical discussion, the concerns of missiology as a discipline on one side and the missional church movement on the other are distinguishable, though overlapping. This is somewhat puzzling, considering the fact that the thought of Lesslie Newbigin is ostensibly the primary impetus behind the missional church movement.2 Newbigin was accomplished as both a cross-cultural missionary and a theologian, and his work holds together elements that have become fragmented among his theological heirs. This fragmentation is partly due to the fact that Newbigin’s application of cross-cultural missiological insights to Western culture inspired intracultural reflection that did not sustain the same degree of cross-cultural acuity as Newbigin’s work. Much of what the discipline of missiology has to offer missional hermeneutics arises from its interest in cross-cultural dynamics. This cross-cultural perspective remains relatively marginal in missional church conversations that are particularly attentive to postmodern Western ecclesiological concerns.3

Because these are not by any means mutually exclusive dimensions, I place them on a continuum:


Figure 1

The missiological end of the continuum focuses more on church missions, which until very recently were typically cross-cultural, and concomitantly on anthropology. The missional end of the continuum concentrates on the theology of the missio Dei and, by extension, the local church’s nature as participants in God’s mission. By intersecting these tendencies with a second continuum, which characterizes another typical spectrum of interests in terms of theoria and historia,4 it is possible to plot a number of missional themes (Figure 2). Though current jargon makes it necessary to label one end of the continuum in Figure 1 “missional,” my intention is to advocate the whole collage represented in Figure 2 as an integrative conception of missional theology and, therefore, as indicative of a multidimensional definition of missional.5

The four quadrants this juxtaposition creates allow us to identify key emphases in different corners of the missional theology world, which I label Doctrine, Ministry, Witness, and Worldview. These, in turn, correspond to prominent missional themes: God’s nature (Trinity), God’s kingdom (purpose), God’s story (narrative), and God’s presence (creation). Finally, each emphasis reflects one of Christianity’s four well-known theological norms: tradition, experience, Scripture, and reason. This model intends to illuminate theological tendencies. Ideally, the missional theologian will live right at the theoretical center, where all themes, emphases, and norms inform each other mutually and thoroughly. And in fact, many missional thinkers work from near the center or even move from quadrant to quadrant. Yet, despite the model’s inability to portray the complexities of reality, I hope it will illuminate some real dimensions of missional theology.


Figure 2

Doctrine

Missional and theoretical concerns combine in the trinitarian theology of the missio Dei. Although much of the fruitful work in this area accentuates the biblical depictions of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit instead of the more speculative ontological concerns that have marked trinitarian theology, the missio Dei is nonetheless a deeply trinitarian doctrine and is therefore rooted in the tradition of the church.6

The aphoristic upshot of the emphasis on the missio Dei is that “the mission is God’s,” which the doctrine articulates over against the church’s often historically self-centered mission practices.7 Furthermore, the missio Dei sheds light on the nature and identity of the church as an extension of the missio. “The classical doctrine on the missio Dei as God the Father sending the Son, and God the Father and the Son sending the Spirit was expanded to include yet another ‘movement’: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit sending the church into the world.”8 Therefore, the church is missional by nature.9 Because missional signals a thoroughly trinitarian theology, the missional ecclesiology that emerges is also trinitarian. Newbigin’s The Open Secret establishes the architecture of a missional ecclesiology: “This threefold way of understanding the church’s mission is rooted in the triune nature of God himself. If any one of these is taken in isolation as the clue to the understanding of mission, distortion follows.”10

Working backward through the missio, the first way of understanding the church is in light of pneumatology: “It is thus by an action of the sovereign Spirit of God that the church launched its mission. And it remains the mission of the Spirit. He is central.”11 This is the “church in the power of the Spirit”:

In the movements of the trinitarian history of God’s dealings with the world the church finds and discovers itself, in all the relationships which comprehend its life. It finds itself on the path traced by this history of God’s dealings with the world, and it discovers itself as one element in the movement of the divine sending, gathering together and experience. It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfil to the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church, creating a church as it goes on its way. It is not the church that administers the Spirit as the Spirit of preaching, the Spirit of the sacraments, the Spirit of the ministry or the Spirit of tradition. The Spirit ‘administers’ the church with the events of word and faith, sacrament and grace, offices and traditions. If the church understands itself, with all its tasks and powers, in the Spirit and against the horizon of the Spirit’s history, then it also understands its particularity as one element in the power of the Spirit and has no need to maintain its special power and its special charges with absolute and self-destructive claims. It then has no need to look sideways in suspicion or jealously at the saving efficacies of the Spirit outside the church; instead it can recognize them thankfully as signs that the Spirit is greater than the church and that God’s purpose of salvation reaches beyond the church.

The church participates in Christ’s messianic mission and in the creative mission of the Spirit.12

Participation in Christ’s messianic mission is the essence of the second way of understanding the church in relation to the Trinity. Two areas of controversy are especially prominent among missional theologians in this regard. One is the nature of participation, which is vitally important because the doctrine of the missio Dei developed in the first place during the twentieth-century church’s agony over its history of ecclesiocentrism and colonialism. Newbigin speaks somewhat unreservedly of the “continuance of [Jesus’] mission.”13 The significance of this is twofold: (1) without the church, the mission “will otherwise remain undone,”14 and (2) the distinction between church and kingdom—which is the most important safeguard against ecclesiocentrism in missional thought—remains blurry. For Newbigin, the church is sent “not only to proclaim the kingdom but to bear in its own life the presence of the kingdom.”15 On the other hand, chapter four of the landmark book Missional Church blocks the over-identification of the kingdom with the church by adopting “representation” of the kingdom as its primary model.16 There is not a tremendous difference between these two careful renderings, but they do indicate a polarizing tension in the discussion of “participation,” which remains the fundamental concept in the missional articulation of ecclesiology in relation to Christology.17

The second dispute concerns the relationship between Christology, missiology, and ecclesiology. Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch set the board with the claim that “Christology determines missiology, and missiology determines ecclesiology. It is absolutely vital that the church get the order right.”18 David Fitch takes issue with this ordering because the epistemological function of the church logically gives ecclesiology precedence.19 But in subsequent work, Frost and Hirsch reconfigure the three topoi less linearly.20 Ed Stetzer and David Putman similarly advocate that all three be “in conversation and interaction.”21 Regardless of details, the point is to note that Christology plays a prominent role in missional ecclesiology, both in terms of participation in Jesus’ kingdom mission and in terms of Jesus and his mission being theologically determinative of the church.

The third and final way of understanding the church is in light of the cosmic purposes of the Father—“God who is the creator, upholder, and consummator of all that is.”22 The cosmic scope of this perspective propels two conversations. The first is about the relationship of God to the world. Mark Love, for example, urges a new understanding of the God–church–world relationship in light of social trinitarian understandings of the Father’s relationship to Son and Spirit:

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.23

Therefore:

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.24

While the christological viewpoint considers the church’s participation in Christ, this conversation focuses especially on the ecclesiological implications of God’s participation in the world.

The second conversation is an extension of the same idea, but here the trinitarian particulars fade into the background. It is about the work of God in the world outside the church, which moves two directions on Figure 2.25 Moving toward the Worldview quadrant are observations about cultures’ reflection of the imago Dei—the innate abilities of human societies to fulfill the cultural mandate through language, reason, and some measure of creative goodness. Within the scope of doctrinal concerns, I label this (Re)Creational Theology.26 Moving toward the Ministry quadrant are observations about some of the purposes of God, which we might label broadly as “human flourishing,” being fulfilled to an extent through social endeavors such as politics, with which the church may have more or less to do in any given situation (that is, the line between Trinitarian Ecclesiology and Political Theology is fuzzy). Once considered a relatively liberal view of the mission of God, there is now wider acceptance among conservative missional thinkers that God’s creating, sustaining, and re-creating relationship to the cosmos implies the advance of his kingdom purposes in the world, to some degree apart from the church. Trinitarian Ecclesiology therefore wrestles with, on one hand, the formation of a community made in the image of Father, Son, and Spirit who exist as a community in relationship with the world and, on the other hand, the creational relationship of God and world that exists prior to and apart from the church.

Ministry

As we move from the theoretical to the historical on the missional end of the spectrum, a shift of theological priority takes place. Here the accent falls on actualizing participation in God’s mission rather than understanding mission in terms of trinitarian theology. In this quadrant, the kingdom is the major theme, and the experience of participating in God’s kingdom purposes becomes the key theological norm. Praxis and participation converge to emphasize the church’s life in the world, which I label Ministry.27

The theological maxim that governs this perspective is that incarnation is the paradigm. Incarnational ministry models itself on the ministry of Jesus—it is the practical outworking of the christological priority discussed above.28 This means service to and sacrifice for the world—that is, one’s neighbors—which may take many forms but maintains a methodological commitment to relationships of solidarity and humility; hence, incarnation assumes cruciformity. The Ministry perspective understands God’s kingdom purposes especially in light of Jesus’ proclamation of good news to the poor (Luke 4:18) in word and deed through his ministry of healing, liberation, and social inclusiveness and his condemnation of institutional evil.

Such an understanding conceives of the inbreaking of the kingdom over against existing social structures, which leads to two varieties of political theology among missional thinkers. One follows the incarnational paradigm into identification with existing structures in order to transform them. Missional practitioners of this approach involve themselves in and confront existing communities and polities redemptively on their own terms from the inside, in light of Jesus’ teachings (risking syncretistic civil religion). The other variety follows the incarnational paradigm into embodiment of alternative structures. Missional practitioners of this approach establish distinct communities and polities that allow Jesus’ teachings both to contrast prophetically with distorted structures and to display the possibility of radically new forms of life (risking escapist sectarianism). As Craig Van Gelder and Dwight Zscheile state, “At stake is how culture and the world are to be viewed: are they to be viewed primarily in positive terms or in negative terms?”29

Either way, the proclamation of the good news of the kingdom is holistic in the Ministry quadrant. This comes to expression in a number of triadic formulas, which are summed up well in Missional Church: community, servant, messenger; kerygma, diakonia, koinonia; words of love, deeds of love, life of love; the truth (message), the life (community), the way (servant); and being witness, doing witness, saying witness.30 To these we should add Bryant Myers’s paradigm in his watershed volume on holistic developmental ministry, Walking with the Poor. Myers’s work with World Vision International in the majority world has a very different context than most of the American missional church conversation, and his cross-cultural developmental work occasions a sophisticated understanding of holism that complements and expands the formulas above. Myers states: “The gospel is not a disembodied message; it is carried and communicated in the life of Christian people. Therefore, a holistic understanding of the gospel begins with life, a life that is then lived out by deed and word and sign.”31

We must also remember that the gospel message is an organic whole. Life, deed, word, and sign must all find expression for us to encounter and comprehend the whole of the good news of Jesus Christ. Life alone is too solitary. Word, deed, and sign alone are all ambiguous. Words alone can be posturing, positioning, even selling. Deeds alone do not declare identity or indicate in whom one has placed his or her faith. Signs can be done by demons and spirits or by the Holy Spirit. It is only when life, deed, word, and sign are expressed in a consistent and coherent whole that the gospel of the Son of God is clear.32

The holism of the Ministry quadrant, whether in Western or majority world contexts, overcomes the spiritual gospel–social gospel dichotomy that plagued the last century. The closing of this gap owes much to the influence of majority world theologians such as Mortimer Arias, René Padilla, Samuel Escobar, and Orlando Costas, who brought liberation theology to bear upon the Western evangelical conception of mission.33 Through the meaning of praxis in liberation theology,34 the Ministry quadrant comes to life as a discrete theological locus—a place from which to talk about God as we come alongside God in solidarity with God’s creation. Distinct from the doctrinal context of tradition, participation in the kingdom of God creates the praxeological context of ministry experience.

Witness

The emphasis I label Witness is where the historical and the missiological intersect. The biblical story of God’s mission through his people here combines with the history of post-apostolic missiones ecclesiae. On the landscape of missional theology, this is where a narrative account of God’s mission stands tall. A variety of ideas converge in the category of Witness: the biblical authors’ witness to God’s mission in history, the particular stories about God’s witnesses (storytellers) in Scripture (i.e., prophets and apostles), the church’s subsequent role as witness (storytellers), and the church’s place in the ongoing story of God’s mission. Again, the intention of delineating quadrants in Figure 2 is not to suggest that “witness” should be limited to a purely verbal function, as though witness cannot be synonymous with “holistic proclamation” or as though the church’s mission practices have been completely detached from “material” concerns. I wish merely to emphasize the notably testimonial nature of the church’s historical mission practices, especially in relation to Scripture, because it bespeaks a distinctive theological emphasis: proclamation, kerygma, rehearsal of the Script itself.

In the exegetical corner of the quadrant, the chief concern is the historical exposition of what mission is in the Bible, in terms of (1) God’s will and work in the world and (2) his people’s participation in his purposes.35 In the church-missions corner of the quadrant the theological interest is twofold: (1) how the church’s missions cohere (historically and presently) with the biblical witness to mission36 and (2) how the church’s missions shape (historically and presently) its own witness to the biblical story.37 The realization that “mission is the mother of theology” is axiomatic for the Witness emphasis.38 Within the Bible this means both that God’s mission is the story’s plot and that biblical authors wrote as participants in God’s mission, forced to theologize from within the crucible of mission. Within the life of the church this means that the church’s own missional engagement must shape her theology. In this quadrant, the accent lies on the cross-cultural nature of witness as the church engages in God’s global mission, and therefore on missionary practices of translation and contextualization. Intracultural incarnational participation on the missional end of the spectrum (Figure 1) often fails to take into account missiological understandings of contextualization despite frequent discussion of culture.

Worldview

In the missiological and theoretical corner of the graph, anthropology and philosophy overlap in their concern about worldview, though the two fields of study have approached the concept in different ways. From a missional theological standpoint, what anthropologists and philosophers find in their studies is predicated on God’s design and presence in creation. Thus, as the trinitarian description of God’s nature is a reflection of God’s story in Scripture, so God’s self-testimony in creation, which is accessible to reason, is a reflection of God’s initiative in the world, which humankind may experience. God’s self-testimony (i.e., general revelation) is accessible to reason because God has made the languages and correlate worldviews that humankind develops to be adequate for that purpose (the effects of sin notwithstanding). His design of humankind and presence in human cultures (Acts 17:24–28) before the arrival of Christian witness is a prevenient grace that makes translatability the theological assumption of the Worldview quadrant.39

Natural Theology—what people might say about God by virtue of his presence in creation and without reference to Christian tradition or Scripture—is a first cousin of (Re)Creational Theology in the Doctrine quadrant. Here philosophy as a Western mode of discourse combines with other cultural varieties of wisdom, and we note that indeed biblical wisdom literature is steeped in creational theology and borrows wisdom from diverse cultures.40 Thus, Natural Theology in Figure 2 designates the products of the capacity of all cultures’ worldviews to perceive and speak about God.

Where (1) missiology’s concerns for translation of the Witness and the development of culturally indigenous theology combine with (2) this innate capacity, the emphasis falls on worldview transformation. The nature of worldviews as intercultural frames of reference, the products of worldviews as naturally theologically generative paradigms, and the transformation of worldviews in terms of conversion, discipleship, and local self-theologizing are the primary concerns of the Worldview quadrant of missional theology.

Dimensions of Missional Theology

If my plotting of missional theology is representative of actual trends and tendencies, then one major implication of the graph is the need for a more integrated view of missional. While there is certainly nothing wrong with a particular missional thinker developing a single dimension (e.g., cross-cultural communication) or working out of a limited frame of reference (e.g., Western ecclesiology), without reference to the bigger picture the result is often an inadvertently reduced portrayal of the meaning of missional. In the service of a full-orbed missional hermeneutic, therefore, I propose the following outline of dimensions of missional theology. For the sake of brevity, I will expand in footnotes only upon the more opaque ideas.

Missional theology should be:

1. Trinitarian (rooted in the missio Dei)

1.1. Narratively ontological41

1.1.1. Keyed to the relational nature of Father, Son, and Spirit as both community and creator

1.1.2. About participation in the sending (missio)

1.2. Narratively teleological42

1.2.1. Keyed to the purposeful plot of the story

1.2.2. About participation in the drama’s continuation

2. Eschatological (attentive to the already–not yet nature of the kingdom)43

2.1. Anticipatory

2.1.1. Keyed to real experience of the Father’s kingdom in Christ through the Spirit—God’s fulfilled purposes (“first fruits”)

2.1.2. About cruciform (humble, self-denying) participation in authentic transformation on personal, communal, and societal levels (experience of the already)

2.2. Teleological

2.2.1. Keyed to the ongoing inbreaking of the Father’s kingdom in Christ through the Spirit—God’s unfulfilled purposes

2.2.2. About cruciform (dependent, hidden) participation in and yearning for the kingdom’s advance (encounter with the not yet)

3. Cultural (attentive to the incarnation as the paradigm of God’s relationship to human particularity)

3.1. Contextualized

3.1.1. Keyed to translation

3.1.2. About participation in the local context

3.2. Intercultural

3.2.1. Keyed to dialogue

3.2.2. About participation in the global context

4. Praxeological (developed in solidarity with those among whom God is at work)

4.1. Experiential

4.1.1. Keyed to mission as the mother of theology

4.1.2. About spiraling reflection on participation

4.2. Holistic44

4.2.1. Keyed to the reconciliation (Col 1:21), consummation (Eph 1:10), and restoration (Acts 3:21) of all things, therefore to all of life (word and deed).

4.2.2. About participation in all dimensions of God’s mission

The State of Play in Missional Hermeneutics

Explicit mention of Scripture is notably missing from my outline of proposed dimensions of missional theology. Despite Scripture’s place on the graph of missional themes and emphases, I do not place it among the dimensions of missional theology because the analysis of the meaning of missional here only serves as prolegomena to the primary task of developing a missional hermeneutic of Scripture. For those who take Scripture, as I do, to be the ultimate theological norm, the articulation of a missional theology must happen under the authority of God exercised through Scripture, but the hermeneutical question is how this happens. In this section I consider trends in missional hermeneutics in relation to the dimensions of missional theology I have outlined above.

Streams in the Gospel and Our Culture Network

George Hunsberger’s recent mapping of missional hermeneutics is presently the primary point of reference.45 He delineates four “streams of emphasis” in the conversation that has developed among Gospel and Our Culture Network interlocutors:

The Missional Direction of the Story

Hunsberger identifies Chris Wright as the primary representative of this approach. The essence of Wright’s missional hermeneutic is the way in which the purposeful story that Scripture narrates as a whole gives meaning to the parts. This is a narrative model of biblical theology in which “God’s mission” is the plot of the story.

The Missional Purpose of the Writings

Darrel Guder is exemplar for this approach, which has to do with “the purpose and aim of the biblical writings, and the canonical authority by virtue of their formative effect.”46 The point is that the purpose of the original authors, identified as equipping God’s people for mission, provides hermeneutical traction by virtue of their function. The emphasis here is not what texts mean per se but how they equip the church for mission.47

The Missional Locatedness of the Readers

Michael Barram stands out as an advocate of this approach. He focuses on the way that the community’s participation in mission shapes the questions the reader brings to the text. Such missional questions allow the text to speak meaningfully to contextual concerns. But asking properly missional questions depends on the community’s missional identity and consciousness.

The Missional Engagement with Cultures

The final stream comes from the work of James Brownson. Hunsberger highlights Brownson’s interest in the hermeneutics present in New Testament authors’ appropriation of the Old Testament. The missional sense of Brownson’s interest in intertextual hermeneutics “springs from a basic observation about the New Testament: The early Christian movement that produced and canonized the New Testament was a movement with a specifically missionary character.”48

While I find this analysis helpful, I think it is possible to parse some of the various sources’ contributions differently. There are two areas that I believe are especially important to spell out more than Hunsberger’s article does. The first regards exegesis. In Michael Barram’s response to Hunsberger, he continues to push a point he has raised for some time: “In the end, I’m still wondering, I guess, how concrete exegetical methodology relates to the notion of a larger, robust hermeneutic.”49 Yet, in his 2007 Interpretation article, Barram has already spelled out the two most vital points for exegesis:

First, the communities to which NT documents were written owed their existence to a missional impulse in early Christianity. God was active in the world, and the fledgling Christian communities found themselves caught up in that activity. Of course, the doctrinal struggles we find would never have arisen apart from a process of early Christian outreach. Second, the NT texts themselves are in some real sense missiological, inasmuch as they equip their original addressees for the community’s vocation in the world.50

This is the exegetical aspect of the assertion that “mission is the mother of theology.”  The formulations of Scripture itself (1) were born of participation in the missio Dei and (2) intended to serve the people of God in that context. Therefore, to attempt to understand their original meaning outside of this “rubric,” as Barram calls it, is a methodological error.

I think it is helpful to distinguish point (2) from Guder’s identification of the purpose of the writings. There is a difference between (a) recognizing exegetically an author’s purpose in order to understand his meaning and (b) sharing an author’s purpose in order to reappropriate a passage’s function in new missional settings. There is a strong connection between the two, but it is still important to make the distinction because of “the value of methodological rigor” in biblical studies.51

For the same reason, Barram’s own “located questions” are beyond the scope of historical exegesis, even though it is true that the questions an exegete brings to the text cannot escape locatedness. That is to say, despite the recognition of locatedness, missional hermeneutics should still struggle to understand the author in his location before turning to the present reader in hers. In that sense, I think missional hermeneutics needs to recognize clearly the significance of the two exegetical points Barram makes but also needs to make it clear that in another sense the answer to his lingering question about concrete exegetical methodology is: Exegesis ought to relate to a robust missional hermeneutic as a part of the hermeneutical spiral (see below), not by becoming fundamentally different methodologically.

The second area that needs more clarity is cultural studies. Hunsberger associates Brownson’s interest in the New Testament authors’ multicultural hermeneutics with missiological models developed in recent years.52 Contrary to this comparison, Brownson himself states:

Missional encounters between people are, almost by definition, cross-cultural encounters. To the extent that this is true, then it follows that a missional hermeneutic is one that sees this cross-cultural encounter as the central context out of which interpretation takes place. This is most closely addressed in George’s third category, which focuses on the location of the reader.53

In other words, it is Barram’s “located questions” that come closest to missiological cross-cultural concerns, not the emphases that Hunsberger labels “engagement with cultures.” It is missiology’s struggle with cross-cultural dynamics that constitute its greatest potential contribution to missional hermeneutics. Barram observes:

Perhaps it should not be surprising that sensitivity to social location is evident in recent missiological studies concerned with the character and function of the Bible. Given the historic and geographic scope of missionary activity, practitioners have explored issues of contextualization and pluralistic readerships for years. For that reason, missiological conversations regarding the process of multilateral and intercultural dialogue may be significantly more developed and sophisticated than analogous developments in biblical studies.54

The point is that Hunsberger conflates two very distinct contributions to missional hermeneutics. One deals with exegetically illuminating biblical authors’ missional hermeneutics, whereas the other deals with the similarity between (a) biblical authors’ hermeneutics and (b) the hermeneutical implications of the cultural dynamics that missiologists have been exploring for some time. Therefore, one rich field of study is the missional hermeneutics of the biblical authors themselves. In other words, mission sheds new light on intertextual interpretation. A very different field of study is that of missiology, especially translation and contextualization.

Theses for Exploring a Fuller-Orbed Missional Hermeneutic

In light of the dimensions of missional theology, Hunsberger’s four streams are helpful but also indicate uncharted waters. As a basis for exploring a fuller-orbed missional hermeneutic, I propose the following theses:

1. Missional hermeneutics examines the listening community’s preunderstanding culturally in terms of worldview.55

In his article “Continuing Steps towards a Missional Hermeneutic,” Michael Goheen writes about the gulf between missiology and biblical studies:

Three developments offer signs of hope for a move beyond this impasse that might help to restore a missional hermeneutic: the development of a much broader understanding of mission that has been expressed in terms of the missio Dei; the challenge to higher criticism of new forms of biblical interpretation influenced by, for example, hermeneutical philosophy; and, the entry into the field of scholars who combined a sophisticated understanding of both biblical studies and missiology.56

Goheen represents the trend in missional hermeneutics of utilizing the theoretical construct worldview where these three developments converge.57 The problem of preunderstanding is basic for hermeneutics.58 It deals with the way that the listening community’s constellation of existing knowledge (both cognitive and embodied) and habits of knowledge-making determines the possibility and limits of new understanding—a discussion that takes its cues from postmodern epistemology.59 So much diversity has marked the conceptualization of worldview in philosophy that some doubt its usefulness. Nonetheless, this has been the case in large part because so many thinkers have found the concept to be useful for systematizing the range of concerns present in the idea of preunderstanding. The worldview concept has continued to evolve, and some of the earlier problems with its usage in philosophy are no longer characteristic.60 Like any proposal, worldview has its critics, but for the purposes of the present overview suffice it to say that worldview is still proving fruitful as a theoretical construct that brings together a number of postmodern epistemological concerns in a systematic way.

Since the rise to prominence of the philosophy of language, there has been significant overlap between philosophy and anthropology, and it is precisely in this area of overlap that missiological anthropologists also advocate the worldview concept. Cultural analysis sheds a different light on worldview, but the complementarity of the two disciplines’ usages ultimately produces an even richer model. Because missional hermeneutics attends to epistemic concerns with intercultural sensitivity, this complementarity becomes clear, and worldview emerges as the best model for examining the preunderstanding of particular communities.61

2. Missional hermeneutics attends exegetically to the nature and purposes of God revealed in particular passages. Particularity here is twofold: in relation to the whole of Scripture and in relation to a passage’s immediate context.

In relation to the whole of Scripture, missional hermeneutics pays close attention to “the reality and inevitability of plurality” already evident in the theology of biblical authors.62 This establishes a fundamental orientation for the listening community that forestalls the tendency to build unity upon uniformity and fosters openness to culturally diverse perspectives. Exegetical attention to particularity also prevents a facile synthesis of the whole of Scripture in terms of “mission,” requiring instead a nuanced approach to missional biblical theology that remains open to the dissenting voices of particular passages.

In relation to context, exegesis should naturally be attuned to language, culture, occasion, genre, style, composition, and the like (the study of backgrounds has always been consonant with anthropology). Yet, exegesis should especially take into account that Scripture’s authors wrote in the crucible of participation in God’s mission. Their own formulations are attempts at contextualization, albeit not, of course, in the anthropological mode of current missiology. But the exigencies of mission did compel biblical authors to perceive and draw out new theological implications and articulate them in contextually and situationally appropriate ways.63 This observation yields two distinct hermeneutical contributions.

First, exegesis that attempts to understand an author’s intention without observing the missional context of the writing will fall short in its descriptive endeavor. One facet of missional hermeneutics, thus, is attentiveness to the biblical authors’ participation in the mission of God in order to understand their meaning. Second, doing exegesis in this light renders the authors’ modes of operation as a paradigm for current missional theologizing. Specifically, (1) the authors’ original purpose was to form readers for mission, and (2) the authors make innovative yet cohesive articulations and determinations in imitable ways.64 Insofar as these modes are paradigmatic, exegesis can provide a hermeneutical direction rather than merely extracting prefabricated conclusions or principles. Hermeneutics should therefore be done in service to God’s mission, imitating as far as possible the interpreters par excellence canonized in Scripture.

Finally, a critical aspect of exegesis in missional hermeneutics is the reconstruction of worldviews represented in particular texts. Here especially there is reservation on the part of biblical scholars who have learned to doubt the validity of searching for a biblical author’s “intentions,” which ultimately falls into speculation about an author’s inaccessible psychology. This skepticism finds considerable support in the postmodern hermeneutical conclusion that texts do not give access to the author’s subjectivity. Together these doubts present a significant challenge to the idea that the worldviews of biblical authors can be reconstructed. Yet, we must note that a number of “criticisms” contribute to worldview reconstruction, often piecemeal, whether they intend to or not. This is because, as the anthropological angle makes clear, worldviews are only accessible through cultural analysis—and biblical studies is not shy about historical cultural reconstruction. For example, the New Perspective on Paul is largely a groundswell of exegetical insight based upon a reconstruction of Second Temple Judaism’s worldview. This amounts to understanding justification, for example, not in terms of Paul’s psychology or subjectivity as an author but in terms of his probable frame of reference as a culturally embedded person.

3. Missional hermeneutics perceives the unity of Scripture in terms of the metanarrative of God’s purposes.

Biblical theology finds its continuity (or cohesiveness) in the metanarrative of God’s mission. This is a story about a particular God moving the plot forward toward a particular purpose. Chris Wright, Michael Goheen, and Craig Bartholomew have been leading proponents of this assertion.65 Scripture per se is not a metanarrative; rather, it gives witness to and reveals one. Its range of genres and diversity of perspectives combine into a whole that implies the metanarrative. It is the job of biblical theology to render that metanarrative. Furthermore, the metanarrative engenders the “biblical worldview.” Yet, “the” biblical worldview assumes the pluralism and diversity that exegesis establishes. As a metanarrative of diversity, it addresses, at least to some extent, the concerns of postmoderns who reject totalizing narratives.66 Brownson states it well:

The challenge is to discover the implicit logic and assumptions that both drive and constrain that dynamism and diversity. If we can identify and render explicit that logic and those assumptions, we may be able to articulate a vision for the coherence of the New Testament that invites a variety of creative readings of the New Testament within a dynamic but coherent framework.67

The diversity of Scripture itself is a record of a variety of cultural worldviews in the process of transformation. The unity of Scripture implies a shared metanarrative among the diversity of cultural worldviews. It is not totalizing, but it is transformative, especially in its teleological nature. All cultures are enlisted in God’s mission from their particularity. The canon exists as an expression of this particular unity.

Though N. T. Wright has not (to my knowledge) identified his work as missional hermeneutics, it demonstrates many of the same operating assumptions and has been influential in the field.68 Specifically, his focus on worldview, narrative, and teleological eschatology suggest a missional hermeneutical sensibility.69 One recent book, Scripture and the Authority of God, is especially conscious of God’s mission.70 The book is an outworking of the now well-known hermeneutical proposal that the narrative thrust of Scripture be appropriated interpretively as a drama in which interpreters improvise an act for which the script is not available.71 Cast explicitly in terms of mission, N. T. Wright’s work suggests that one important facet of missional hermeneutics is the juxtaposition of the crucial missional concept of participation in the ongoing mission of God with the narrative hermeneutical logic of participation in the ongoing story of God’s purposes. Cast in terms of worldview, this narrative hermeneutical logic invites further exploration of the way metanarrative generates worldview and, therefore, culture. In this regard, the connection between Wright’s proposal and Kevin Vanhoozer’s The Drama of Doctrine is important, because Vanhoozer develops his hermeneutics in conversation with George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine—and therefore with key philosophical and anthropological interlocutors whose work informs worldview studies.72 These are connections that have yet to be thoroughly explored, but the result of that endeavor will be, I suspect, a more complete missional hermeneutics.

Finally, due to disciplinary divisions, biblical theology is usually inattentive to trinitarian theology as such. Nonetheless, the metanarrative is missional not only by virtue of its teleology but also in terms of its leading protagonists—Father, Son, and Spirit. Newbigin too found insight in early postliberalism.73 But he believed that narrative must be “the biblical narrative taken as a whole and in the context of a fully Trinitarian doctrine of God.”74 As a missiologist, though, Newbigin was anything but slavish about trinitarian formulations:

It has been said that the question of the Trinity is the one theological question that has been really settled. It would, I think, be nearer to the truth to say that the Nicene formula has been so devoutly hallowed that it is effectively put out of circulation. It has been treated like the talent that was buried for safekeeping rather than risked in the commerce of discussion.75

This is the point at which my earlier proposal of narrative trinitarianism informs missional hermeneutics. In the discursive, cross-cultural encounters of mission, new listening communities hear the story and speak of Father, Son, and Spirit in fresh ways. Yet, the story is still trinitarian. This is vitally important because the community’s life practices may cohere more or less with this particular story, and when they cohere less, the tendencies discussed above mar participation in mission. The incarnational community may embody a christomonistic, utilitarian story; the charismatic community a dualistic, escapist story; and so forth. A narrative trinitarian spirituality, by contrast, forms the basis for interpreting (performing) the story of God’s kingdom in cruciform and Spirit-led glorification of the Father, rather than triumphalism or ecclesiocentrism.

4. Missional hermeneutics brings the biblical worldview into conversation with the listening community’s worldview.

This thesis implies two fundamental iterations of the dialogical worldview encounter. The first iteration entails basic processes. One is the explication of the biblical worldview through the lens of the listening community’s worldview (preunderstanding), though in conversation with other listening communities involved in mission (diachronically through historical theology and synchronically through intercontextual and intercultural dialogue).76 The other is the explication of the listening community’s worldview (Thesis 1). Beyond the telling of the biblical metanarrative over against the community’s reigning metanarrative, beyond the “absorption” of the community into the biblical story and the improvisational theodramatic performance of the biblical script, missional hermeneutics attends analytically77 to the worldviews that the respective metanarratives generate. This requires a functional model of worldview, which is beyond the scope of this paper. At this point, however, the hermeneutical traction of missiological contextualization studies becomes evident. Nonetheless, there remains significant work to do in the further development of functional worldview models as well as the practical application of such insights in real communities. These tasks must be undertaken, because in order to ask hermeneutically useful located questions it is not enough that the listening community be located; it must discern its location.

The second iteration of the process happens in the listening community’s missional encounters in the world. Here missiological models of communication become relevant, though I am recasting the process in terms of worldview encounter rather than merely translation-communication. Translatability—the commensurability of worldviews—is the operative assumption,78 and linguistic philosophy provides a great deal of insight into worldview encounters, but the operative metaphor is dialogue. The dialogical encounter assumes mutuality, and therefore the goal of transforming worldviews according to the biblical worldview is not unilateral. Rather, the encountered community’s worldview becomes another lens that both provides perspective and requires transformation, and the original listening community finds new interpretive insight in the encounter through identification, empathy, and solidarity. In this sense, the incarnational impulse of Christianity rejects an imperialistic understanding of transforming worldviews and instead seeks to understand transformation mutually as living in dialogue and tension with the distinctiveness of each cultural worldview, while affirming the normativeness of the biblical metanarrative.79

5. Missional hermeneutics assumes that the listening community’s participation in God’s mission is epistemologically relevant.

The hermeneutical fruit of worldview transformation according to the biblical metanarrative is the development of missional forms of life. Forms of life, then, are both what we do in coherence with our worldview (determinations, applications, actualizations) and what we do in correspondence to the reality that our worldview presumes beyond itself. Participation in reality inevitably reforms a worldview. If the mission of God is “the true story, the true myth, the true history of the whole world,”80 it is not just “public truth”81 to be told but also truth in which the community can participate as it listens. This is the epistemology of praxis that missional hermeneutics learns primarily from liberation theology but expands to a wider vision of God’s mission than just solidarity with the poor. In short, forms of life specifically coherent with God’s purposes beyond the listening community reshape the community’s worldview and thereby focus its hermeneutical lens.

To say that missional questions are epistemologically privileged is not to say that they are determinative, nor is it to say that all missional experience coheres equally with the biblical metanarrative. Rather, it is to say that missional hermeneutics affirms that intentional engagement in mission can shed light on the meaning of the Bible’s story of mission. Stated more simply, missional hermeneutics assumes that because the story of the Bible is ongoing, the interpreter is able to participate in it and therefore understand it more completely from the inside rather than merely analyze it from the outside. But because the biblical story is the story of the missio Dei, only participation in the missio Dei as such affords that hermeneutical advantage.

For similar reasons, spiritual disciplines are vitally important to missional hermeneutics, not because they are a tool for accessing transcendental insight or short-circuiting the rest of the hermeneutical process through revelatory ecstasy, but because they are the historical church’s concrete practices of abiding in the Spirit of God—of living in the reality that the biblical metanarrative asserts. Narrative trinitarian spirituality assumes that the missio Dei is currently about God’s Spirit working before, in, and through the church in the world. Thus, if the question is not simply “What would Jesus do?” but “What is the Spirit doing?” then the church needs to reappropriate spiritual disciplines for mission and, specifically, for discernment through missional hermeneutics.82

Finally, ministry is not an end in itself, and the community is not a producer of goods and services—either for itself or “the other.” Service is a lifestyle of communion with God in the world, upon which the listening community reflects. One area of reflection is the experience of God’s redemptive presence (the actualization of human flourishing). Another area of reflection is the experience of God’s creational presence (the insights of cultural difference, in conjunction with Thesis 4). Therefore, the facilitation of practical involvement in mission is a hermeneutical commitment. This leads to practical questions about equipping and mobilizing community members as well as mediating subsequent community dialogue and discernment. Participation also spirals back to Guder’s question regarding passages’ functions in equipping the people of God for mission, providing another hermeneutical handhold.

Conclusion: Revisioning the Hermeneutical Spiral Missionally

The spiral has proven to be a helpful model for portraying the relationship between established aspects of the hermeneutical circulation. Specific versions of the model are not without their problems. For example, Grant Osborne’s The Hermeneutical Spiral, which presents probably the most influential version, utilizes Noam Chomsky’s transformational grammar in a way that reduces hermeneutics to the extraction and restatement of underlying universal propositions.83 The spiral model itself remains insightful, though, and the missional theses I have proposed here serve as a course correction for some of the major issues with Osborne’s use of transformational grammar, especially in his definition of contextualization.84 As the missional identity and consciousness of the listening community emerges through the transformation of its worldview, the hermeneutical progression assumes a missional direction. This looks something like Figure 3:


Figure 3

For simplicity, I enumerate a sequence of steps, though in the life of a community the hermeneutical spiral is never neat and sequential. It should, however, be progressive, cyclical, and take every part of the circulation to be theologically generative. Ultimately, missional hermeneutics is not sui generis. The missional church must place herself under the authority of God in Scripture, and many of the hermeneutical tools already at her disposal are indispensable to that calling. But the mission of God—the telos—is what determines the progression’s trajectory and, consequently, the hermeneutical means to that missional end. Therefore, I suggest that the hermeneutical spiral revisioned as essentially and thoroughly missional is a model worthy of further exploration.

Greg McKinzie (http://gregandmeg.net/greg) is a missionary in Arequipa, Peru, where he partners in holistic evangelism with Team Arequipa (http://teamarequipa.net) and The Christian Urban Development Association (http://cudaperu.org). He is a graduate (MDiv) of Harding School of Theology and the managing editor of Missio Dei.

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Van Rheenen, Gailyn. “Syncretism and Contextualization: The Church on a Journey Defining Itself.” In Contextualization and Syncretism: Navigating Cultural Currents, ed. Gailyn Van Rheenen, 1–29. Evangelical Missiological Society Series 13. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2006.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J. The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Doctrine. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2005.

Walls, Andrew F. The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996.

Willard, Dallas. The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Wright, Christopher J. H. The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006.

Wright, N. T. “Imagining the Kingdom: Mission and Theology in Early Christianity.” Inaugural Lecture. University of St. Andrews. St. Mary’s College (Faculty of Divinity). October 26, 2011. http://ntwrightpage.com/Wright_StAndrews_Inaugural.htm.

________. The New Testament and the People of God. Vol. 1 of Christian Origins and the Question of God. London: SPCK, 1992.

________. Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today. New York: HarperOne, 2005.

1 This is meant to be a generalization about tendencies. Notable exceptions can be found, for example, in chapters of George R. Hunsberger and Craig Van Gelder, eds., The Church between Gospel and Culture: The Emerging Mission in North America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996).

2 Craig Van Gelder and Dwight J. Zscheile, The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation, The Missional Network, Kindle ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 36–39.

3 Ibid., 168–69.

4 I do not intend this terminology to evoke the technical usages developed among the Church Fathers; theoria and historia here respectively denote “reflection” or “contemplation” and “event” or “actualization” in a basic sense, without promoting a “spectator” epistemology on the theoretical end or an empiricist epistemology on the historical end.

5 Adam D. Ayers, “In Search of the Contours of a Missiological Hermeneutic,” unpublished dissertation (Fuller Theological Seminary, May 2011), 18–19, perceptively distinguishes between “mission hermeneutics” (those done in mission), “missional hermeneutics” (those done conscious of God’s and the church’s “mission orientation”), and “missiological hermeneutics” (those done self-analytically through critical disciplines). Since my hope is that missional hermeneutics will become increasingly more missiological, I will use the term missional for the hermeneutics that intends to synthesize all three perspectives’ insights.

6 This sentence serves to highlight my caveat about the descriptive nature of Figure 2. The Doctrine emphasis in missional theology is not necessarily configured in contradistinction from the scriptural concerns of the Witness emphasis; the distinction is purely a description of where current interlocutors place their theological accents. Likewise, placing the theme God’s Kingdom in relation to the theological norm of experience does not serve to make a hard separation from the norm of Scripture. Kingdom is obviously a biblical category. Still, many who emphasize the kingdom in missional theology do so in terms of participation in God’s kingdom as it unfolds in the world beyond and before the church. The theological emphasis of the kingdom theme falls on the experience of participation in God’s kingdom purposes. This is not unbiblical—far from it—but it does reveal a different location on the continuum of theological emphases than that of the narrative theme.

7 Greg McKinzie, “An Abbreviated Introduction to the Concept of Missio Dei,” Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 1 (August 2010): 9–20.

8 David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, American Society of Missiology Series 16 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991), 390.

9 See variously: Decree Ad Gentes on the Mission Activity of the Church 2, http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decree_19651207_ad-gentes_en.html; Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995) 1; Bosch, 9, 390, 519.

10 Newbigin, Open Secret, 65. Van Gelder and Zscheile, 53–4, note that one issue in the seminal work Missional Church remains unresolved in much of the missional church literature:

One is left with a missional church that has two underintegrated views of the work of God in the world in relation to the missio Dei and the reign of God. One view posits a missional church shaped primarily by the message of Jesus and responsible for embodying and emulating the life that Jesus lived. The other view proposes a missional church shaped primarily by the power and presence of the Spirit, who creates, gifts, empowers, and leads the church into engaging in a series of ecclesial practices. Clearly all these authors understood these views to be complementary. But the argument in the book did not adequately integrate the sending work of God in relation to the work of the Son and the work of the Spirit.

The critique offered here does not argue that the authors did not have an understanding of the person and work of Christ or the person and work of the Spirit; evidence is clear that they did. Rather, the point being made is that utilizing primarily a Western view of the Trinity can lead to a functional modalism where the works of the three persons of God become separated from one another.

The point is well made. I suggest, in fact, that many of the themes and emphases I will plot here remain unintegrated or unappreciated, depending on the interlocutor, and should be brought together comprehensively. Taken as a whole, though, missional thinkers are an identifiable group, and between them the “underintegrated” ideas are present—including social trinitarian ideas that balance the Western view. Nonetheless, the authors make a helpful observation that I hope a return to Newbigin’s theological framework can help address.

11 Newbigin, Open Secret, 58.

12 Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit: A Contribution to Messianic Ecclesiology, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 64–65; see also 10–11.

13 Newbigin, Open Secret, 47.

14 Ibid., 48.

15 Ibid., 49.

16 Darrell L. Guder, ed., Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, Gospel and Our Culture Series (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), ch. 4. See Van Gelder and Zscheile, 56–59, for a nuanced account of the diverse views of the kingdom present in Missional Church, which is also relevant to the Ministry quadrant discussed below.

17 In a personal communication, Mark Powell suggested that it is better to speak of “participating in the ongoing ministry of Jesus” instead of “continuing Jesus’ ministry.” For a fuller statement, see Mark Powell, Centered in God: The Trinity and Christian Spirituality (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 2014 [forthcoming]). This distinction, which emphasizes the present activity of the resurrected Lord, is consonant with Newbigin’s comments on the present sovereignty of the Spirit in mission. Additionally, for Newbigin “continuance” is chastened in terms of cruciformity and therefore hiddenness (Newbigin, Open Secret, 52–55). See also Michael Gorman’s work on the connection between cruciformity, participation in Christ, and mission: Michael J. Gorman, “Participation and Mission in Paul,” Cross Talk ~ Crux Probat Omnia, http://www.michaeljgorman.net/2011/12/12/participation-and-mission-in-paul vis-à-vis Michael J. Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology, Kindle ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009).

18 Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st-Century Church, rev. and updated Kindle ed. (Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 2013), Kindle locs. 463–64.

19 David Fitch, “Missiology Precedes Ecclesiology: The Epistemological Problem,” Reclaiming the Mission, http://www.reclaimingthemission.com/?p=187.

20 Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, ReJesus: A Wild Messiah for a Missional Church, Kindle ed. (Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 2009), Kindle loc. 903.

21 Ed Stetzer and David Putman, Breaking the Missional Code: Your Church Can Become a Missionary in Your Community, Kindle ed. (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2006), Kindle locs. 853–97.

22 Newbigin, Open Secret, 30.

23 Mark Love, “Missio Dei, Trinitarian Theology, and the Quest for a Post-Colonial Missiology,” Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 1 (August 2010): 44–45; cf. Van Gelder and Zscheile, 111–14.

24 Love, 46; emphasis added.

25 This is somewhat different than, but related to, Van Gelder and Zscheile’s “generalized secular views of missio Dei and the reign of God,” which they make in distinction from “specialized views” and their preferred “integrated view,” 56–59. In the (Re)Creational direction, a missional interlocutor may focus more or less on the role of God through the Holy Spirit or the role of the church.

26 See Terence E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005), for an incisive biblical account of the relational dynamics between God and creation that pertain to a particularly missional creational theology. See especially pp. 10–13 for a correction to the overpowering redemptive concerns that mark much of the traditional doctrine of creation, thereby distorting a biblical vision of original creation, ongoing creation, and renewed creation.

27 In this usage of “ministry,” I have in mind diakonia according to Jesus’ understanding of his humble, sacrificial relationship to the world (Mark 10:35–45), which carries significant political implications regarding the church’s way of life in the world. For a similar use of diakonia, see Paul S. Chung, Reclaiming Mission as Constructive Theology: Missional Church and World Christianity, Kindle ed. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012), Kindle locs. 3536–44.

28 For a positive assessment, see Van Gelder and Zscheile, 114–15; but see pp. 106–7 for an important critique of christomonism “under the guise of an incarnational approach” and the instrumentalism that incarnational missional approaches often evince.

29 Van Gelder and Zscheile, 60. I agree that this is a major, perhaps the major, discrepancy among missional church thinkers. Very similarly to the point I make above, they state:

Newbigin had focused on the church’s role in the engagement of “gospel and culture,” a focus that was also the initial conversation for the first decade of the GOCN. An important implication of this perspective shift [away from culture] in Missional Church is that much of the missional literature today fails to adequately engage the complex interaction between the gospel and our culture(s). It tends to follow the logic of the approach of a sending God. This logic conceives of the world as something “out there” into which the church is being sent. The church’s embeddedness in culture is left unexplored, and the reciprocal interactions between church and culture are left unexamined. (61)

This is essentially the point of the distinction I draw between missional and missiological.

30 Guder, Missional Church, 102.

31 Bryant L. Myers, Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development, Rev. and exp. Kindle ed. (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2011) Kindle locs. 6316–18.

32 Ibid., Kindle locs. 6330–34.

33 Mortimer Arias, Announcing the Reign of God: Evangelization and the Subversive Memory of Jesus (Lima, OH: Academic Renewal Press, 1984); C. René Padilla, Mission between the Times, rev. and exp. ed. (Carlisle, England: Langham Monographs, 2013); Orlando E. Costas, Liberating News: A Theology of Contextual Evangelization (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1989); Samuel Escobar, The New Global Mission: The Gospel from Everywhere to Everyone, Christian Doctrine in Global Perspective (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2003), ch. 9.

34 Anthony C. Thiselton, Hermeneutics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 261, states the technical definition clearly and succinctly:

“Praxis,” Berryman urges, is not merely “practice” in opposition to theory, but theory and practical conduct based on theory. The term is often misused to mean merely “practice” in Christian circles, and its philosophical and technical origins in Aristotle, Hegel, Feuerbach, Marx, and Sartre are often forgotten. Richard Bernstein helps us to put the record straight. Marx uses the term when he observes in his eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it” (italics in original). In practice this involves a going out of oneself and a commitment to God and our neighbor.

35 The exemplar here is undoubtedly the bulk of Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006).

36 Roland Allen, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?, American ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962 [1912]), establishes this field of study. Recent works in the tradition of Allen’s work include Eckhard J. Schnabel, Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies, and Methods (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2008) and Robert L. Plummer and John Mark Terry, eds., Paul’s Missionary Methods: In His Time and Ours (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2012).

37 In other words, how the missionary contextualizes the message. A. Scott Moreau, Contextualization in World Missions: Mapping and Assessing Evangelical Models (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2012), presents a thorough picture of the field at present.

38 Martin Kähler, Schriften zur Christologie und Mission: Gesamtausgabe der Schriften zur Mission, Theologische Bücherei 42 (Munich: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1971), 190, quoted in Bosch, 16.

39 Lamin Sanneh, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture, American Society of Missiology Series 13, rev. and exp. ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2009), chs. 1–2; see also Andrew F. Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996), ch. 3.

40 Chris Wright, 441:

We turn now to a section of the biblical canon that is often neglected in books about the biblical foundations for mission (as it often has been in books on biblical theology in general also): the Wisdom Literature. For here we find within the Scriptures of ancient Israel a broad tradition of faith and ethics built on a worldview that employs the wide-angle lens of precisely this whole-creation and whole-humanity perspective.

We will observe, first, how Wisdom thinkers and writers in Israel participated in a very international dialogue, with an openness to discern the wisdom of God in cultures other than their own. In this respect it models the kind of bridging dynamic that is part of the missional task of contextualization. Second, we will observe how Wisdom takes its predominant motivation for its ethic from the creation traditions, rather than the historical redemptive story of Israel—thus again setting up a more universalizing tendency.

Cf. Fretheim, ch. 7.

41 By this I refer to a trinitarian theology that begins with the biblical story of Father, Son, and Spirit, thereby considering God’s nature on the basis of Scripture rather than speculative ontology. Love, 43–44, summarizes this point in relation to Jürgen Moltmann’s and Wolfhart Pannenberg’s theologies:

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. . . .

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.

42 Chris Wright, 63–64, describes “teleological monotheism,” a vital contribution to a narrative trinitarian theology:

The Bible presents itself to us fundamentally as a narrative, a historical narrative at one level, but a grand metanarrative at another.

  • It begins with the God of purpose in creation
  • moves on to the conflict and problem generated by human rebellion against that purpose
  • spends most of its narrative journey in the story of God’s redemptive purposes being worked out on the stage of human history
  • finishes beyond the horizon of its own history with the eschatological hope of a new creation

This has often been presented as a four-point narrative: creation, fall, redemption, and future hope. This whole worldview is predicated on teleological monotheism: that is, the affirmation that there is one God at work in the universe and in human history, and that this God has a goal, a purpose, a mission that will ultimately be accomplished by the power of God’s Word and for the glory of God’s name. This is the mission of the biblical God.

43 Regarding the primary tensions in missional theology, Van Gelder and Zscheile, 69, state:

The key issue, comprised of two closely related questions, is: to what extent are we simply dealing with human agency, and to what extent is God’s agency operative and discernible within human choices? This issue represents a significant distinction that allows us to discern several branches of the missional conversation. The dividing line between branches revolves around the extent to which one starts with the mission of the church and the extent to which one starts with the mission of God; when starting with the mission of God, it also has to do with how robust the trinitarian theology is. This dividing line around the issue of agency is related to the issue of theological imagination. The key question is: how do we understand God’s presence in the world, in general, and in the midst of the church, in particular?

The answer to the latter question, which also addresses the former, is: eschatologically. To borrow René Padilla’s phrasing, mission is essentially “between the times.” This robustly trinitarian affirmation deals with the questions of agency and presence in terms of the Holy Spirit, through whom alone the church participates in the already of the kingdom and by whom the church’s words and deeds may become a manifestation of the kingdom (Padilla, Mission, 204). If christologically centered incarnational ministry can devolve into mere human agency and kingdom building, it is because imitation of Jesus is not perforce tantamount to “the Spirit’s witness to Jesus Christ as Lord through the church” (ibid., 205).

44 For a thorough understanding of holism and the systemic nature of human wellbeing and poverty, see Myers, chs. 1–4; see also C. René Padilla, “Holistic Mission,” in Evangelical Advocacy: A Response to Global Poverty, “Holistic Mission” (2012), Papers, PDF Files, and Presentations, Book 9, 12–24, http://place.asburyseminary.edu/theologyofpovertypapers/9.

45 George R. Hunsberger, “Proposals for a Missional Hermeneutic: Mapping a Conversation,” Missiology: An International Review 39, no. 3 (July 2011): 309–21.

46 Ibid., 313.

47 That is, on their “formational” nature rather than their “propositional” nature. Darrell L. Guder, “Missional Hermeneutics: The Missional Authority of Scripture—Interpreting Scripture as Missional Formation,” Mission Focus: Annual Review 15 (2007): 113.

48 James V. Brownson, Speaking the Truth in Love: New Testament Resources for a Missional Hermeneutic, Christian Mission and Modern Culture (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1998), 14.

49 Michael Barram, “A Response at AAR to Hunsberger’s ‘Proposals…’ Essay,” The Gospel and Our Culture Network, Jan. 28, 2009, http://www.gocn.org/resources/articles/response-aar-hunsberger-s-proposals-essay; cf. Michael Barram, “ ‘Located’ Questions for a Missional Hermeneutic,” The Gospel and Our Culture Network, Nov. 1, 2006, http://www.gocn.org/resources/articles/located-questions-missional-hermeneutic.

50 Michael Barram, “The Bible, Missions, and Social Location: Toward a Missional Hermeneutic,” Interpretation 61, no. 1 (January 2007): 49.

51 Ibid., 51.

52 Hunsberger, 318.

53 James V. Brownson, “A Response at SBL to Hunsberger’s ‘Proposals…’ Essay,” The Gospel and Our Culture Network, Jan. 28, 2009, http://www.gocn.org/resources/articles/response-sbl-hunsbergers-proposals-essay.

54 Barram, “The Bible,” 45.

55 I refer to the listening community rather than the reading community fundamentally because listening is a richer biblical metaphor for the dynamics of hermeneutics and the posture of the community. From the initial “God said” (Gen 1:1), through the Shema (Deut 6:4) and the prophetic “I heard” (Isa 6:8), to Jesus’s exhortations, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” (Mark 4:9, 23, and pars.) and “Pay attention to how you listen” (Luke 8:18), the community is invited to listen and hear. Missional hermeneutics is not the strategy of the reading subject but the posture of the listening community.

56 Michael W. Goheen, “Continuing Steps towards a Missional Hermeneutic,” Fideles: A Journal of Redeemer Pacific College 3 (2008): 57.

57 From 1999 to 2012 Goheen was Geneva Professor of Religious and Worldview Studies at Trinity Western University. Chris Wright also works with the categories of metanarrative and worldview; see fn. 40 above. N. T. Wright, who is highly influential among missional thinkers (see below), likewise makes extensive use of worldview theory. Newbigin, as the father of missional theology, naturally sets the stage with his use of worldview; see, e.g., Open Secret, 25–29, where he explicitly interfaces worldview with Michael Polanyi’s theory of personal knowledge. Guder, Missional Church, 121, discusses the church’s alterity in terms of the “biblical worldview.” Searches of books such as The Shaping of Things to Come and Breaking the Missional Code demonstrate that missional church literature is rife with references to worldview. Likewise, if my model of missional theology is valid, it is appropriate to note that on the missiological end of the spectrum worldview is a working assumption. See, e.g., throughout all of the following: Robert J. Schreiter, Constructing Local Theologies (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1985); Stephen B. Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology, rev. and exp. ed., Faith and Cultures (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002); Paul G. Hiebert, Transforming Worldviews: An Anthropological Understanding of How People Change (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008); Charles H. Kraft, Worldview for Christian Witness (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2008); but cf. Moreau, 148–49.

58 Thiselton, 13–16.

59 See “Epistemological Trends in the West,” in To Stake a Claim: Mission and the Western Crisis of Knowledge, ed. J. Andrew Kirk and Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1999), 3–17, for a summary of issues in current epistemology.

60 See David K. Naugle, Worldview: The History of a Concept (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), and James W. Sire, Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2004), for a thorough understanding of worldview’s progressive development. For example, it is evident that the idea of Weltanschauung that Wittgenstein rejected (taking it to be basically synonymous with “philosophy”) is no longer in use, not least because his own thought radically reshaped the idea of worldview.

61 Ayers, esp. chs. 3 and 6, is a noteworthy synthesis of Hiebert’s and Kraft’s understandings of worldview with issues of preunderstanding in Hans-Georg Gadamer, Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, and Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann. As Brownson, Speaking, 10, says in reference to Gadamer’s use of “horizon,” “the very image of ‘horizon’ implies cosmos, a world that is in view. That world in turn implies a cosmology, a comprehensive and synthetic perspective that makes understanding possible at all and that enables meaning to take shape.” This is a very apt description of worldview.

62 Brownson, Speaking, 15; Brownson, “Response.”

63 See Dean Flemming, Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Mission (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2005).

64 Brownson, Speaking, 43.

65 Chris Wright, chs. 1–2; Goheen and Bartholomew collaborate on two complementary volumes. The first, The Drama of Scripture, presents the whole biblical narrative missionally. The second, Living at the Crossroads, brings the missional narrative to bear on a discussion of Christian worldview. Goheen authors a third volume, A Light to the Nations, which is effectively an exercise in ecclesiology along the lines traced in the previous two books. Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004); Michael W. Goheen and Craig G. Bartholomew, Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008); Michael W. Goheen, A Light to the Nations: The Missional Church and the Biblical Story (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011).

66 Richard Bauckham, Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), ch. 4; see also Ayers, 205–13, on the inevitability of metanarratives and therefore the need to critique them constructively rather than decry them.

67 Browson, Speaking, 36.

68 See especially Goheen and Bartholomew in both of their volumes and Goheen, “The Mission of God’s People and Biblical Interpretation: Exploring N. T. Wright’s Missional Hermeneutic,” A Dialogue with N. T. Wright, Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar Meeting, San Francisco, November 18, 2011, http://64.64.27.114/~mission/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Missional-Hermeneutic-A-Dialogue-with-NT-Wright.pdf.

69 N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, vol. 1 of Christian Origins and the Question of God (London: SPCK, 1992), passim; N. T. Wright, “Imagining the Kingdom: Mission and Theology in Early Christianity,” Inaugural Lecture, University of St. Andrews, St. Mary’s College (Faculty of Divinity), October 26, 2011, http://ntwrightpage.com/Wright_StAndrews_Inaugural.htm. For an incisive explanation of Wright’s methodology, see Edward W. Klink and Darian R. Lockett, Understanding Biblical Theology: A Comparison of Theory and Practice (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), part 3, “Biblical Theology as Worldview-Story.”

70 N. T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today (New York: HarperOne, 2005), ch. 8.

71 Ibid., xi.

72 Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Doctrine (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2005), esp. ch. 3.

73 Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture, Kindle ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), Kindle locs. 767–72; Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Kindle ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 99.

74 Ibid., Kindle loc. 1611.

75 Newbigin, Open Secret, 27.

76 J. Andrew Kirk, “How a Missiologist Utilizes the Bible,” in Bible and Mission: A Conversation between Biblical Studies and Missiology, ed. Rollin G. Grams, et al. (Schwarzenfeld, Germany: Neufeld Verlag, 2008), 251, refers to the world-wide church in mission as a “hermeneutical community.”

77 Analysis is not merely technical or scientific but also sapiential and artistic. The best practitioners of contextualization, perhaps especially at the level of worldview analysis, demonstrate that the process is as much art as science and is, thus, impossible to apply mechanically.

78 Paul G. Hiebert, Missiological Implications of Epistemological Shifts: Affirming Truth in a Modern/Postmodern World, Christian Mission and Modern Culture (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1999), 87–94.

79 In particular, contextualization needs to be reconceived in dialogical terms. Current models, concerned with syncretism, aim for “exchange of the worldview of Christian revelation for the worldview of this or that ‘other faith’ whatever it might be” (Hesselgrave) or assume the conflictual posture of challenging “competing worldviews” (Van Rheenen). Replacement and competition metaphors unfortunately paint worldview transformation in aggressive and totalizing rather than humble and dialogical colors. As veteran missionaries and consummate missiologists, Hesselgrave and Van Rheenen undoubtedly speak from experiences of radical difference, entrenchment, and conflict—which highlights the need for practical conflict mediation skills in the hermeneutics of dialogical missional encounters—but they unnecessarily portray worldview transformation in essentially contentious terms that undermine dialogue. Gailyn Van Rheenen, “Syncretism and Contextualization: The Church on a Journey Defining Itself,” in Contextualization and Syncretism: Navigating Cultural Currents, ed. Gailyn Van Rheenen, Evangelical Missiological Society Series 13 (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2006), 23; David J. Hesselgrave, “Syncretism: Mission and Missionary Induced?” in Contextualization and Syncretism, 78. See Michael W. Goheen, “Bible and Mission: Missiology and Biblical Scholarship in Dialogue,” in Christian Mission: Old Testament Foundations and New Testament Developments, ed. Stanley E. Porter and Cynthia Long Westfall, McMaster New Testament Studies Series (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2010) 226–30, for a helpful view of the basic tension between mission and culture that underlies this discussion.

80 N. T. Wright, New Testament, 471.

81 Ibid., 42.

82 See Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), xi–xii, for an understanding of the disciplines that I find to be essentially missional—that is, about the church’s life in the world rather than individualistic spiritual growth. Shawn B. Redford, Missiological Hermeneutics: Biblical Interpretation for the Global Church, American Society of Missiology Monograph Series 11 (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012), 100–32, makes the point quite forcefully that hermeneutics is “foremost a spiritual act.”

83 Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, rev. and exp. Kindle ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2006), chs. 4 and 17.

84 Ibid., Kindle locs. 9755–806.

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Contesting Culture: Contextualizing Worship in Northern Thailand

Contextualization has become a central topic within missiology over recent decades. Though the conversation has progressed, most theories and practices are still based on an insufficient understanding of how cultures function. This article first argues that contextualization is not so much about the act of communication between the missionary and the local community but the faith community’s contestation of the meaning of shared cultural symbols and practices, including those elements that supposedly lead to syncretism, as they are employed in service to the triune God. The article then narrates how the author’s mission team in northern Thailand has implemented this approach to contextualization in its communal worship practices.

“Christian practices are always the practices of others made odd.”1

This statement by Kathryn Tanner is both a guiding principle and an apt description of our efforts at contextualization among the people of Phayao, Thailand. Our mission team believes that contextualization is central to our ultimate goal of joining God in calling out communities of faith who embody the reign of God in northern Thailand. Thus, the manner in which we engage in contextualization is of utmost importance.

Contextualization as Contesting Cultural Symbols

Even though the conversation surrounding contextualization in missions has progressed over the past four decades, the practice in the field continues to follow methodologies dependent on a modern perspective of culture.2 Four primary characteristics of this view of culture are: (1) cultures are clearly demarcated and distinguishable entities, thus, we can speak in terms of American culture versus European culture or Thai culture as opposed to Laotian culture; (2) cultures are basically static, therefore, symbols and practices have established and firm meanings; (3) cultures are monolithic, so cultural symbols are employed in the same way throughout a particular culture; and 4) cultural material can be clearly divided into religious and non-religious elements.

With these operative assumptions in place, the basic strategy for missionaries has been to strip the gospel from one set of cultural forms and practices and redress it in the congruent local symbols, being careful not to utilize material from the religious sphere. This act of translation or adaptation supposedly maintains a “pure” gospel while fending off any threat of syncretism.3

The inadequacy of this approach to contextualization is twofold. First, the emphasis in the contextualization process is placed on the missionary’s ability to communicate clearly and safeguard against any distortions.4 This is too heavy a burden for the missionary.5 A more robust notion of contextualization

presupposes neither gospel nor culture—much less both gospel and culture—as preexisting, given realities that subsequently enter into conversation. Rather, in the interactive process both gospel (that is, our understanding of the gospel) and culture (that is, our portrayal of the meaning structure, shared sense of personal identity, and socially constructed world in which we see ourselves living and ministering) are dynamic realities that inform and are informed by the conversation itself.6

Thus, the weight of the contextualization process must shift from the missionary’s communication to the local community’s struggle to make meaning of cultural symbols and practices in light of the gospel and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Second, developments in cultural anthropology reveal how this view of contextualization does not accurately represent the way that people engage with cultural symbols, forms, and practices.7 The meanings of symbols (e.g., language, rituals, behaviors, etc.) are neither static nor monolithic within a particular locale. Instead, “culture is the outcome and product of social interaction. Consequently, people are active creators, rather than passive receivers, of culture.”8 Or, as Tanner states, “cultural forms have the force of social directives only by way of human agents struggling over their meaning and social import.”9 Symbols within a particular context do not have fixed meanings nor do they merely “symbolize” some universal meaning. Cultural symbols and their meanings are constantly contested, nuanced, and diversified as particular communities within the culture employ them in various situations and contexts.

Therefore, contextualization is not an act of translating some universal meaning from one set of cultural symbols to another. It is, instead, an ongoing process undertaken by the community of faith as it engages the surrounding cultural symbols and practices. Furthermore, contextualization is the church’s continuous effort to contest and reimagine the very purpose and meaning, in submission to the lordship of Jesus Christ and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, of this shared cultural material.10

This contest even includes material from the supposed “religious” domain. Utilizing “religious” symbols and practices has traditionally been frowned upon because it leads to syncretism—defined as the blending of symbols from more than one religious domain—thus an invalid expression of the gospel.11 The problem is that it is impossible to adequately delineate “religious” symbols from “cultural” symbols. It is a fairly arbitrary distinction. The reality is that our lives and cultures are not bracketed into distinct spheres (e. g., religious, political, familial, etc.). We are holistic beings living in fluid and interwoven networks of cultural symbols, forms, and practices.

Thus, the faith community’s concern is not eschewing local “religious” practices in an effort to uphold its distinct boundaries. Rather, as Tanner explains:

The distinctiveness of a Christian way of life is not so much formed by the boundary as at it; Christian distinctiveness is something that emerges in the very cultural processes occurring at the boundary, processes that construct a distinctive identity for Christian social practices through the distinctive use of cultural materials shared with others.12

The fact that the church is in a culture means that it will employ symbols and practices that are loaded with previously constructed cultural-religious meanings. The crux of the matter is how the community uses and negotiates the meaning of the relevant material in light of its faith in the triune God.

An example from northern Thailand will illustrate this dynamic. The most common word for “worship,” specifically in relation to occasions of corporate worship, used by churches in northern Thailand is namasagan. However, the most common understanding of namasagan for non-Christians refers to the act of inviting a Buddhist monk to perform a ceremony.13 Thus, the cultural symbol namasagan has been contested and no longer has a meaning. Rather, it means something unique for the church because communities of disciples are reimagining its significance as they engage in the practice of worshiping Jesus Christ within their context.14

In our evaluation of this usage, we could begrudge the fact that missionaries, years ago, chose a word that did not “mean” worship. Or, we could cry foul because a symbol associated with Buddhist monks was utilized by the Christian church. But, better yet, we could recognize that this is what happens in contextualization and continue to aid the local church in nuancing the meaning of namasagan as it is employed in submission to the Lord Jesus Christ.

In other words, the issue is not so much whether the church should use a particular symbol or practice but to whom the symbol or practice is in service. The truth is that syncretism is inevitable. Therefore, the potential danger is less a matter of which symbols and practices we utilize in worshiping, loving, and serving God and more about whether it is the God revealed in Jesus Christ who is the object of those symbols and practices.

The real threat is not syncretism but idolatry.

This is where the viability and effectiveness of contextualization is to be evaluated. Is the local community, in its use of cultural symbols and practices, being conformed more fully to the image of Jesus Christ, all the while relinquishing the various idols vying for their allegiance? And, ironically, the refusal to engage with material from any particular cultural sphere (e.g., religious, political, economic) creates opportunities for the idols in society and in people’s hearts to remain unchallenged by the lordship of Jesus Christ.15 However, employing such symbols and practices serves to highlight the fact that the call of the gospel is to bring everything under the reign of Jesus Christ—that is, “so that God may be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).

In Pursuit of Contextualized Worship in Northern Thailand

Our mission team has sought to implement this approach to contextualization over our four years in Phayao. We spent our first year dedicated solely to cultural research in order to equip ourselves for this endeavor. The insights we gained continue to fund our efforts at contextualization. I will narrate our journey, thus far, of contextualizing Christian worship in this locale. Though it would be helpful to examine other areas of our ministry, such as evangelism, discipleship training, and theological reflection, for this article I will narrow my reflection to the church’s communal worship practices.

One of the first attempts at incorporating local religious practices into our worship occurred while we were still meeting in homes on Sundays. Our desire for meeting in houses was to make the table central in our worship because communal meals are so important here. While there were advantages to gathering at homes, we soon noticed that performing religious practices (e.g., reading holy texts, praying, etc.)—defined as such by locals—in such an informal setting confused our visitors. Therefore, we tried to ease that tension by adopting a common element of local rituals and ceremonies.

Whenever Phayao people pray or chant, they always put their hands together, palms touching, in front of their chests (phanommuu). We noticed that visitors would often make this gesture whenever someone began to pray but quickly put their hands down once they realized it was not normative. Therefore, we decided to begin utilizing this practice in order to signify that this was indeed an occasion of worship.

Adopting this habit was certainly a positive change for our church, but it also revealed to us how much of our worship was not reflective of local acts of devotion and honor-giving. Though we enjoyed the hospitality and fellowship that occurred in our homes, we could not deny the significance of sacred space and ritual within the local culture. Thus, we set out to rethink our worship practices in order to draw upon devotion practices already deeply connected to the hearts and minds of our friends and neighbors.

We spent the next few months researching afresh temple practices and religious ceremonies and brainstorming ways in which to incorporate them into the body’s worship life. The first step in reimagining Sunday gatherings was to renovate a space to be used specifically for worship. We selected the large, empty room above the pizza restaurant that our team operates and began working to create an appropriate atmosphere.

The most significant elements to this were building a large cross to put in front of the sanctuary and setting up decorative tables, which are found in temples and other sacred spaces. We bought mats, as opposed to chairs, in order for people to sit on the floor, as they do at the temple and many other locations. We also set out to mimic the murals depicting stories and myths about Buddha that are painted around the interior walls of most temples. Though this is still a work in progress, our vision is to have multiple paintings illustrating various scenes from Jesus’ life on the four walls. The key to this, though, is for the style of art to reflect Thai sensibilities. For example, our first painting was based on Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The people lining the street are dressed in traditional, northern Thai garb and many of them are bowing with their hands above their heads (grapwai). The gates of the city look like ancient Thai structures and, most significantly, Jesus’ appearance is very similar to other depictions of past Thai kings and holy men.

As we readied ourselves to transition Sunday gatherings into a more sacred occasion, as determined by our particular context, we had a unique opportunity to experiment with incorporating a local ritual into our communal life. My wife gave birth to our third child, followed closely by the birth of our teammates’ son. We wanted to have a baby dedication ceremony for both of them, so we decided to utilize the custom of tying a string around one’s wrist, a common ritual in many parts of Thailand. This practice is enacted during periods of transition or uncertainty, such as weddings, moving homes, and births, as a sign of blessing and protection. Our church gathered one evening, along with many non-Christian friends, to read Scripture and pray for the newest members of our community. We then invited each person present to approach the children, tie a string around their wrists and offer a blessing. While it was odd for those of us who were foreigners, it was apparent that this act resonated with our Phayao friends. The difference was that this string-tying ritual was performed explicitly in the name of Jesus Christ.16

Soon after that initiation into contextualizing liturgy, we moved the assembly to our new space and began to incorporate various elements from the local culture, particularly components from the temple. Though we have adapted and altered some particularities over time, there are a few practices that remain consistent on Sunday mornings.

As people gather and spend time in fellowship downstairs, there is an invitation for individuals or groups to ascend upstairs and light incense before the cross. The norm at most temples is for people to light incense and offer prayers in the courtyard before entering the main temple. Incense sticks are also involved at funerals, when offering sacrifices to territorial spirits, and during various ceremonies. There is no one meaning connected to lighting incense, but it can be associated with giving honor, praying, and making sacrifices. We intentionally have never ascribed a specific meaning for lighting incense on Sunday mornings. Our intention is for the community of local Christians, over time, to reimagine and nuance the significance of this act in light of its use in relation to the triune God.

Also, we continue to phanommuu during prayers, though we now put our hands together in that manner whenever we read Scripture as well. Furthermore, once a passage is read, the leader will say, “The Word of the Lord.” The rest of the church then responds, “Satu,” followed by everyone slightly raising their hands and bowing their heads in order for their thumbs to touch their foreheads. Even though the meaning of satu is fairly close to amen, most churches in Thailand avoid using it in worship because it is associated with Buddhist monks. In order to connect to the larger Thai church, while also being culturally appropriate, we have chosen to incorporate both satu and amen in our liturgy.

One of the first non-Christians to visit on a Sunday after we had transitioned to this new style quickly picked up on the way we hold our hands during readings and say “satu” as a declaration of affirmation. During the service she leaned over to one member of our team and said, with a bit of surprise in her voice, “You do things just like we Thais do.” Her statement helped confirm that our worship was indeed becoming increasingly local.

In the midst of incorporating these “new” practices, which derived from the surrounding culture, we were also keenly aware of the importance of connecting local Christians to the larger Christian tradition. Thus, our worship is a mixture of local cultural material and practices performed in churches throughout the world and throughout history. For example, the Lord’s Supper continues to be a central element to our gatherings. Most Sundays we break bread and share the cup during a shared meal, though occasionally we do celebrate the Eucharist as a part of the ordered liturgy. Taking communion as a part of the communal meal resonates with local cultural values while also connecting it to the practice of the earliest churches. We also order our worship services around the common lectionary. Though we are not dogmatic in this practice, it does give us a concrete way to illustrate that our local congregation is a part of a global church.

Additionally, we have occasionally drawn upon the tradition of “passing the peace,” though we adapt it slightly for our context. Similar to many churches throughout the world, the leader asks for the peace of Christ to be upon the church and the church responds in kind. Then, members of the congregation turn to their neighbors and speak those same words to one another. Since this is a form of blessing, and words of blessing are extremely important in this culture, we adopted the local practice performed when receiving a blessing. This involves placing one’s palms together in front of the face while the blessing is spoken. Once the words have been uttered, the recipient then rubs her hands over the top of her head, as if washing the blessing over her.

Finally, baptism is a clear example of interweaving Christian tradition with local practices and symbols. Our church stands in the long tradition of Christian communities who stress the significance of baptism in the life of a new disciple and also for the life of the larger body. The baptismal ceremony begins with a confession of faith, followed by immersion. Upon exiting the water, most likely a nearby lake, one member of the church anoints the forehead of the new disciple with a paste created from water and powder. This ritual, known as jerm, is used among locals for new house dedications, in religious ceremonies, and other situations where protection and blessing are desired. We borrowed this act and combined it with the early church practice of anointing a new convert with oil. Thus, the new disciple receives the sign of the cross on her forehead to signify being marked for Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit.

The church then gathers around the new sister or brother, lays on hands, and prays over him or her. After sharing the Lord’s Supper together, each member of the church has the opportunity to bless the new disciple through the string-tying ritual, as described above. The mixture of contextual and traditional elements in the ritual of baptism enables the new disciple to reorient cultural symbols and practices into her new life of faith while also fusing her to Christ’s universal church.

Bowing to the King

Possibly the most significant cultural practice we adopted into our gatherings is bowing on the floor, or grapwai. Anyone who has spent time in Thailand knows how significant bowing is in Thai society. It is arguably the most important honor-giving action a person can perform, and yet, this practice is absent from the vast majority of churches.

Thais grapwai before people of high status and those who have shown extreme favor, such as parents or teachers. They also bow to territorial spirits, monks, images of Buddha, and the king. When we first began to worship in this new way, we intentionally utilized the form of bowing that locals perform towards the Buddha image as soon as they enter the main temple. This particular form involves placing one’s hands and forehead to the ground three times in quick succession. Because many of our practices derived from the temple and other religious ceremonies, we did not question whether or not this form was the best option. However, our eyes were opened to the significance of this choice only a few weeks after we had started.

One of our friends from a church in Chiang Mai came to visit on a Sunday and joined us for worship. We were anxious to hear what she thought about our new style since it would be vastly different from any worship she had experienced in her ten years as a Christian. After we finished and sat down for lunch, our sister shared her feelings with us, both positive and negative. Interestingly, her main feedback dealt directly with the manner in which we bowed. She explained that Thai people are taught from an early age the different forms of bowing and when exactly they should be employed. The manner in which we bowed as a congregation that morning is explicitly used for “sacred things,” which includes Buddha idols. The point of confusion for her was that all the texts we read during worship were about Jesus being king. She honestly and unassumingly asked us, “Why did you bow to a ‘sacred thing’ when you were intentionally making the claim that Jesus should be honored because he is our king?” We genuinely had not made that connection but knew this was something which we wanted to investigate deeper.

We asked our friend to show us how Thais would bow in the presence of the king of Thailand. The significance of her response cannot be overstated. As she imagined what would happen if Thailand’s beloved king entered the room, our friend’s entire demeanor changed. She was visibly overtaken by feelings of awe, joy, and devotion. She said that most people would be so overwhelmed by emotion that they would fall on the floor without much attention to correct protocol. She was so moved by imagining such a scenario that she never could show us the correct way to bow before a king.

We eventually did learn how to bow to a king and have since bowed in such a way every Sunday. However, the correct way to grapwai was not the most significant thing we learned that day. The big payoff came from observing how overwhelmed our friend became when thinking about bowing before the king of Thailand. The hypothetical scenario of falling down before the king evoked intense feelings of love and devotion, such as I have rarely seen in relation to Jesus. It is not that Thai Christians do not have deep love and devotion for Jesus. They certainly do. The problem is that the deepest way they can express those feelings is by bowing, a result of a lifetime performing this practice. Thus, when churches do not employ the act of grapwai in worship to Jesus, there is a huge section of the people’s hearts that are unable to connect to Jesus. And, conversely, their adoration and allegiance towards the Thai king and nation are less likely to be challenged by the lordship of Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

My narration of our efforts is not meant to prescribe a particular form of worship. It is intended to encourage intentionality in incorporating and negotiating the meaning of cultural material, in relation to the gospel, for every particular context.

Additionally, these choices we have made about worship are only the beginning of a long contest over the usage and meaning of various symbols and practices. Our desire, as missionaries, is to equip and empower Phayao Christians to continue doing contextualization as the church grows here. We hope that local communities of disciples will do the work of reorienting cultural symbols and practices towards the triune God. Our primary concern is not whether they continue using these forms, such as lighting incense or bowing, or decide to incorporate other cultural practices. It is, instead, whether or not the action is done in submission to God and God alone.

Ultimately, utilizing cultural symbols and practices, whether “religious” or not, can be truly beneficial because it puts the emphasis in the right place. It forces people to choose, first and foremost, not which practice they will engage in but which god they will call “Lord.”

May it be our king, Jesus Christ. Satu.

Derran Reese is a member of a mission team in Phayao, Thailand. He is blessed to serve alongside his wife Ann and their three wonderful children. He can be contacted at derranreese@gmail.com.

Bibliography

DeNeui, Paul Henry. “String Tying Ritual as Christian Communication in Northeast Thailand.” PhD diss., Fuller Theological Seminary, 2005. http://thaicrc.com/collect/MIS/index/assoc/D4890.dir/4890.pdf.

Eriksen, Thomas Hylland, and Finn Sivert Nielsen. A History of Anthropology. Anthropology, Culture, and Society. London: Pluto Press, 2001.

Grenz, Stanley J., and John R. Franke. Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.

Hesselgrave, David J., and Edward Rommen. Contextualization: Meanings, Methods, and Models. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989.

Hiebert, Paul G. “Critical Contextualization.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 11 (July 1987): 104–12, http://internationalbulletin.org/system/files/1987-03-104-hiebert.pdf.

Moreau, A. Scott. “Contextualization that Is Comprehensive.” Missiology: An International Review 34, no. 3 (July 2006): 325–35, http://mis.sagepub.com/content/34/3/325.full.pdf.

Priest, Robert. “ ‘Experience-Near Theologizing’ in Diverse Human Contexts.” In Globalizing Theology: Belief and Practice in an Era of World Christianity, edited by Craig Ott and Harold A. Netland, 180–95. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006.

Rose, Martin. “Names of God in the OT.” In Vol. 4 of Anchor Bible Dictionary, edited by David Noel Freedman, 1001–1011. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Russell, James C. The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity: A Sociohistorical Approach to Religious Transformation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Smith, James K. A. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Cultural Liturgies 1. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009.

Tanner, Kathryn. Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology. Guides to Theological Inquiry. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.

Van Rheenen, Gailyn. “Syncretism and Contextualization: The Church on a Journey Defining Itself.” In Contextualization and Syncretism: Navigating Cultural Currents, edited by Gailyn Van Rheenen, 1–29. Evangelical Missiological Society Series 13. Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2006.

Whiteman, Darrell L. “Contextualization: The Theory, the Gap, the Challenge.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 21 (January 1997): 2–7, http://internationalbulletin.org/system/files/1997-01-002-whiteman.pdf.

Zehner, Edwin Roy. “Unavoidably Hybrid: Thai Buddhist Conversions to Evangelical Christianity.” PhD diss., Cornell University, 2003.

1 Kathryn Tanner, Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology, Guides to Theological Inquiry (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 112–13.

2 See Darrell L. Whiteman, “Contextualization: The Theory, the Gap, the Challenge,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 21 (January 1997): 2–7, http://internationalbulletin.org/system/files/1997-01-002-whiteman.pdf, for a description of how the practice of contextualization is lagging behind the theory.

3 David J. Hesselgrave and Edward Rommen, Contextualization: Meanings, Methods, and Models (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989), 1, is a representative example of this approach to contextualization.

4 As late as 2006, A. Scott Moreau, “Contextualization that Is Comprehensive,” Missiology 34 (July 2006): 325, http://mis.sagepub.com/content/34/3/325.full.pdf, continues to define contextualization as “the process whereby Christians adapt the forms, content, and praxis of the Christian faith so as to communicate it to the minds and hearts of people with other cultural backgrounds.” Even Paul G. Hiebert, “Critical Contextualization,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 11 (July 1987): 109–10, http://internationalbulletin.org/system/files/1987-03-104-hiebert.pdf, while superbly critiquing the anthropological and philosophical problems with this approach to contextualization, still argues:

The leader must also have a metacultural framework that enables him or her to translate the biblical message into the cognitive, affective, and evaluative dimensions of another culture. This step is crucial, for if the people do not clearly grasp the biblical message as originally intended, they will have a distorted view of the gospel. . . . While the people must be involved in the study of Scripture so that they grow in their own abilities to discern truth, the leader must have the metacultural grids that enable him or her to move between cultures. Without this, biblical meanings will often be forced to fit the local cultural categories. The result is a distortion of the message.

5 This does not mean that linguistic and cultural proficiency is unimportant for missionaries. It is vital. See Robert Priest, “ ‘Experience-Near Theologizing’ in Diverse Human Contexts,” in Globalizing Theology: Belief and Practice in an Era of World Christianity, ed. Craig Ott and Harold A. Netland (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 180–95, for the benefits of intentional cultural research for missionaries. However, the weight of contextualization does not lie with the missionary’s capability in communicating accurately. Even with the best training, the missionary does not have access to the full spectrum of meaning associated with a particular symbol or practice. Furthermore, as argued below, the meaning will be renegotiated over time.

6 Stanley J. Grenz and John R. Franke, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 158.

7 Thomas Hylland Eriksen and Finn Sivert Nielsen, A History of Anthropology, Anthropology, Culture, and Society (London: Pluto Press, 2001), 162, explain that the idea of people possessing a “shared culture” began to be questioned as early as the 1960s, but it was not completely dismissed until the 1990s.

8 Grenz and Franke, 135.

9 Tanner, 50.

10 This is, in fact, the way it has always been. This is attested in the biblical witness by, among other examples, Israel’s use of various titles for Yahweh. Martin Rose, “Names of God in the OT,” in vol. 4 of Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1009, writes:

All the epithets and titles which in the course of its history, the faith of Israel combined with the name of Yahweh, cannot be referred to as original attributes of the Israelite worship of Yahweh; rather, they mirror—both together and individually—the history of the dialogue between the OT faith in God and the ANE world. In the course of history of this dialogue the movement of integration became gradually substituted by an opposite movement of demarcation and exclusivity.

Also, see James C. Russell, The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity: A Sociohistorical Approach to Religious Transformation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), for an historical example.

11 See Gailyn Van Rheenen, “Syncretism and Contextualization: The Church on a Journey Defining Itself,” in Contextualization and Syncretism: Navigating Cultural Currents, ed. Gailyn Van Rheenen, Evangelical Missiological Society Series 13 (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2006), 1–13. Interestingly, Van Rheenen provides multiple biblical examples of God admonishing his people for engaging in syncretism, yet the grievance in all the examples is actually about turning to other gods. In other words, the problem is idolatry—not syncretism—which supports the argument below.

12 Tanner, 114.

13 This is based upon findings during our team’s year of research. It specifically derived from a project in which we used pile sorting to analyze webs of meaning and associations connected to various Thai words related to the idea of worship.

14 Edwin Roy Zehner, “Unavoidably Hybrid: Thai Buddhist Conversions to Evangelical Christianity,” (PhD diss., Cornell University, 2003), 27–36, argues that this type of “hybridity” has always been the case in Thai Christianity.

15 It is important to note that there might be particular practices within a sphere that should be avoided for the specific purpose of protesting the dominant narratives within that sphere that call for people’s allegiance and devotion. But this should be done intentionally and explicitly as a community. See James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, Cultural Liturgies 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 208–21.

16 See Paul Henry DeNeui, “String Tying Ritual as Christian Communication in Northeast Thailand,” (PhD diss., Fuller Theological Seminary, 2005), http://thaicrc.com/collect/MIS/index/assoc/D4890.dir/4890.pdf for a thorough examination of this ritual in Thai culture and how its meaning has been renegotiated within churches of the Northeast.

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“Mission and the Renewal of Restoration Movement Hermeneutics” (Editorial Preface to the Issue)

The house of Restoration Movement hermeneutics has toppled into ruins. Many in Churches of Christ (and similarly Enlightenment-born denominations) have chosen to live among the rubble, because vagabondage seems the only alternative. Others carry on, by denial or by obliviousness, heedless of their interpretive home’s plight. Still others contemplate leaving the family’s ancestral lands to build a different kind of house, though where and how it might accommodate the family is uncertain.

In congregations where these perspectives cohabit, confusion and disorientation afflict biblical interpretation. This is an intensely practical problem. At issue are forms of life—life together—because our ancestral lands are a place where the construction of a way of life must be “according to the Scriptures.” Yet, the practical outworking of this commitment is stymied. We know where we are committed to live, but we don’t know how to rebuild a home.

At this point, the allegory might seem to commend the Scripture-as-blueprint analogy typical of Restoration Movement hermeneutics. Confusing Scripture with a blueprint is, however, what led to our current dilemma. Scripture is instead the story about who we are and where we are. It explains our habitat. It tells us that we are in a tumultuous land and that we are a people who do not fear even when the earth moves beneath us; it does not tell us exactly how to build for earthquakes.

The Restoration Movement generally conflated Scripture and interpretation. By treating the text as the interpretation, restorationists took the Protestant belief in the perspicuity of Scripture to its devastating logical conclusion. The expression of this assumption was the interpretive formula Command, Example, and Necessary Inference (CEI). In it, the complex processes of determining how to infer and what is necessary became reductionistic and mechanistic. Scripture, rather than serving as the story, was made to function as a blueprint for building in the Enlightenment story, which falsely narrated a habitat of enduring stability. Furthermore, the story of Scripture naturally failed to provide instructions for building an earthquake-ready house. Much as pictures of a house cannot replace blueprints for building a similar house in a different part of the world, Scripture could not play the part that hermeneutics should have. When the ground shifted, the house collapsed around us.

Yet, as one of my graduate professors asked a group of MDiv students who were vigorously deriding CEI hermeneutics, “What is the alternative?” It is inadequate merely to point out that Scripture is not supposed to function this way or that: the congregation needs a practical approach to the authority of God in the text. Though the idea of an authoritative story has proven groundbreaking for theologians, it has remained vague for Christians in search of ways to be obedient to God in particular decisions. But granting that Scripture is best understood as narrative (rather than legal text, blueprint, or instruction manual), the burden to meet the need for interpretive practices shifts to hermeneutics. In other words, if my allegory is apt, the construction of concrete ethical and liturgical forms of life according to Scripture does require architectural design. The application of this discipline need not produce a single blueprint for all times; it must skillfully design a house for the present generation in light of the biblical narrative about where and who we are. This is the role of biblical hermeneutics: it provides specific approaches to the construction of a home for a family with particular goals, priorities, traditions, and rhythms inhabiting a particular climate, geography, and ecosystem. While the biblical narrative reveals a great deal about those particulars, it is hermeneutics that renders forms appropriate to them.

The essential claim of missional hermeneutics is that mission signals a way forward for those living among the rubble. This issue of Missio Dei documents some dimensions of missional hermeneutics that I believe to be especially important for Restoration Movement churches, because they reflect the foundational insight of missional hermeneutics: the lessons learned in mission must feed back to the whole church’s reading of Scripture. Anglican missionary Lesslie Newbigin is probably the greatest catalyst of missional hermeneutics. Having returned to Britain after mission work in India, he did a simple but revolutionary thing: he looked at his native Western culture with the eyes of a cross-cultural missionary. He was hardly the first missionary to do so, but as an articulate theologian he made his case in a way that became widely influential.

The point is this: the practices of mission should become key hermeneutical resources for the renewal of Restoration Movement hermeneutics. In fact, mission is the corner of the house that is still standing. Practices such as translation and contextualization are already what we do in one corner of the Restoration tradition. As we regroup and rebuild, these approaches need to become paradigmatic for the whole house, which requires two crucial design changes. One, participation in the mission of God must be the foundation of the whole house. This is the essence of the hermeneutics arising from the missional church movement, inspired largely by Newbigin. Congregations that understand their identities (goals, priorities, traditions, and rhythms) in terms of God’s mission inhabit the story differently than those who do not, which necessarily transforms their engagement with Scripture. Two, the insights of missiology must be applied to the design of the whole house. Congregations that rightly ask what can functionally replace traditional hermeneutics need only turn to their own missionaries’ and translators’ practices for concrete alternatives. These practices do not constitute a comprehensive hermeneutic, but they are already our practices and therefore offer an indispensable starting point for congregations that come to view their own climate, geography, and ecosystem as missionaries.

I commend to the reader these articles from the keyboards of missional leaders, missionaries, translators, and biblical scholars. Each one contributes to the formation of a hermeneutic built upon the mission of God. May God restore God’s household as a light to the nations. Soli Deo gloria.

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Missional Interpretation: The Encounter of a Holy God through a Living Text

This article reframes missional interpretation with questions about God’s identity and the nature of Scripture. The author examines the relationship between God’s holiness and the nature of Scripture as texts that correspond to God’s reality. On this basis, the author makes a case for communal reading practices that reflect the implications of God’s relationship to the text.

No one questions whether Scripture should be a primary source for the development of a missional imagination. In contrast to this consensus, a lively conversation is currently underway concerning how Scripture should be read or used in relation to Christian mission. Do hermeneutical approaches related to historical-critical readings of Scripture adequately nourish a missional imagination in Christian communities? Is the missio Dei a legitimate organizing impulse or theme in Scripture, or is it an intrusive overlay, shoe-horning Scripture into the service of a narrow range of ecclesial interests? Questions like these have become more intense as missiology increasingly has become a theological endeavor, as demonstrated notably in the missional church conversation. As a theological endeavor, the question of missional interpretation rises to the top of missiology’s concerns.

It is my contention that anything that passes for a missional hermeneutic should focus on the use of the text in communities pursuing the questions, “To what is God calling us?” and “With whom are we to share in God’s mission?” These questions are properly framed when hermeneutics is defined less around the relationship between reader and text, and more around the relationship between God and text. The biblical testimonies concerning the identity of God and the actual phenomenon of Scripture must be brought into meaningful relationship with each other. In other words, “Who is God?” and “How can this particular collection of texts correspond to God’s identity?” are the orienting questions that frame a missional hermeneutic.

A Detour on the way to a Missional Reading of Scripture

Something strange happened on the way to understanding the Bible as God’s word. It happened primarily when certain ideas about God became logically prior to the accounts of God we find in the Bible. In particular, I have in mind what Stanley Grenz terms onto-theology. As Grenz tells the tale, Greek conceptions of being (ontos) and related notions of deity (theos) increasingly came to inform Christian understandings of God. Put simply, God was taken a priori to be simple, unchanging, and existing outside of time. The irony is that over time ontos became more prominent than theos so that accounts of being no longer required an accompanying account of God. The story of being, divorced from theology, became a reductionist definition of life in terms of rationality and causation or of rational subjects and knowable objects. Theology, to play in the world created in the image of this ontos, found itself defending the faith on terms inimical to the view of God imagined in Scripture.1

Why is this story important to an article on missional interpretation? Simply put, understandings of Scripture and its interpretation came increasingly to be calibrated to notions of God as simple, unchanging, and eternal. In other words, if God is understood in these ways, then a collection of texts representing God must be the same. This can certainly be seen in the views of the Bible held by more conservative theologians who take great pains to defend the Bible in relation to terms like inerrancy or infallibility. The Bible loses divine authority if it does not speak with one voice in ways that transcend the contingencies of culture. The Bible has to be simple and unchanging to be God-breathed.

Though more liberal theologians avoided the traps of inerrancy, biblical scholars in particular justified their craft in relation to the standards of academic institutions committed to scientific rationality. The Bible became an object subjected to critical scrutiny. Its meaning resided in its production, not in its use, as seen, for example, in the quest for authorial intention. The meaning of Scripture for today could only be determined once the original meaning or message of the text had been wrested from its pages by use of a set of critical methodologies. To this way of viewing the interpretative enterprise, the “reader as subject” is active while the “text as object” (or message) is passive, yielding its treasures to the critical scrutiny of reading methodologies.

More importantly, the question of God was pushed to a secondary position. How might God be active in relation to a text? How is God implicated in the process of reading? Is God only involved as the “author” of a message, which must be coaxed from the text through the asking of the proper questions? When we have divined the original message, have we then wrung all the “God” out of the text? Often, these theological considerations are secondary matters for the church, separated from the tasks related to the academic study of the Bible (a set of tasks taught to seminarians, it should be pointed out).

The recent call for a “missional hermeneutic” is both symptomatic of the story sketched above, and an effort to justify itself in relation to other “critical” approaches.2 In other words, the missional identity of the church evidently is not sufficiently nourished by the critical approaches located in other readings of Scripture. Therefore, the way forward is to learn to ask a different set of critical questions that might wrest the missional impulse from the pages of Scripture.3

I would like to propose a different way forward that begins with a theological consideration of the phenomenon of Scripture. I want to begin with notions of God other than those found in Grenz’s description of onto-theology and ask how the phenomenon of Scripture corresponds to these understandings of God. Futhermore, I want to ask how a text functions and, therefore, how a text might serve the intentions of God in the world. I am proposing a hermeneutical shift that does not begin with the relationship of the reader and the text but instead with the relationship between God and the biblical texts as we find them.4

Before I move to a proposal, however, I want to say a few good words about critical approaches that have come to represent biblical scholarship in the past few centuries. What we have learned in the last 200 years about the Bible and the world of the Bible is extraordinary, and we owe a great debt to those who spent their lives in these pursuits. I am not proposing that this work has been fruitless or should cease. My life has been powerfully and spiritually transformed by the works of biblical scholars like Walter Brueggemann, Richard Hays, Luke Timothy Johnson, and others. In fact, as I will propose below, their work, just as it is, is vital for anything that might pass as a missional hermeneutic.

A Holy God and a Living Word

How is our view of the text changed if we begin with the notion that God is holy, rather than beginning with notions of God as simple, unchanging, and eternal? By God’s holiness, I mean principally God’s otherness as revealed in the stories and testimonies of Scripture.5 God is not like us. God’s ways are not our ways. And connected to this otherness are limits to our knowledge of God. God exceeds any understandings we might have of God. Consequently, any attempts to settle our understanding of God are idolatrous. Given this starting place, what kind of text, or set of texts, correspond to this reality? Such texts would have to keep the question of God alive.

Certain texts are designed to settle things, to yield one and only one meaning. Take a stop sign, for instance. It is always the same shape, the same color, the same font and font size. It can’t be subject to multiple interpretations. We do not want anyone rolling up to a stop sign and being confused about its meaning. A stop sign forecloses multiple meanings.

Very few biblical texts are like this, and, taken as a whole, biblical texts are more likely to disclose meanings—sometimes new meanings. The range of meanings produced by the biblical texts are not infinite. The Bible is not a Rorschach test, carrying only the meanings supplied by the reader. Texts have a certain stubbornness, using some words and not others, telling some stories and not others. Still, some texts have the power to continue to produce meaning. This is particularly true of poetic and narrative texts, which the Bible features prominently. Perhaps, no one has helped us understand this “generative” capacity of poetry and narrative more than Paul Ricoeur.

For Ricoeur, narratives and metaphors (poetic speech) are not simply more aesthetically pleasing ways of saying something. In fact, just the opposite is the case. Both create meaning otherwise unavailable through what Ricoeur refers to as a “semantic impertinence”—a striking use of language beyond conventional usage. In the case of metaphor this is done through combining both “similarity and dissimilarity,” and in the case of narrative through “concordance and discordance.” Any good narrative, in other words, requires a tension that gets worked out in a plot. This tensive character keeps the structures related to meaning or interpretation open. While these figures cannot be exhausted, they still produce understanding.6 These texts are living. They do work. And because they continue to produce meaning, they protect the notion of a holy God who evades our simple formulations.

So, now we have a holy God and a living text, and these features should determine how the text performs among us. It would be a violation of both a holy God and a living text to treat the text as a lifeless object, or simply as a container for meanings that we can excise through the surgical use of critical approaches. Missional hermeneutics, or biblical hermeneutics in general, should proceed on the notion that these living texts generate meanings. It is not just that we read these texts. It is possible that these active texts can read us and re-describe our worlds.7

Before talking about the use of a living text, it is worth noting another feature of the biblical testimonies that correspond to notions of God’s holiness. The biblical testimonies are diverse. They do not all say the same thing, even about the identity of God. This diversity is a problem if your view of God only allows things that are simple and timeless to represent God. But if you begin with a holy God who resists being reduced to our ideas, then diversity is a necessary feature of Scripture as a living word.8 Walter Brueggemann, for instance, suggests that it is precisely the disputed nature of Israel’s traditions through testimony and counter-testimony that gives the Old Testament its vitality.9 This matches James Sanders’ observation that Scripture’s diversity functions as a corrective to idolatry. Any attempts to make a “project” out of one perspective in Scripture is soon met with a challenging voice from within Scripture itself.10 So, diversity is not simply a problem to be explained or avoided, but a necessary feature of any set of texts that would represent a God who is greater than our understanding. This, in turn, requires that interpretation be seen as a discursive, or dialogical, endeavor.

Biblical diversity is in part the product of faithful communities reflecting on the presence of God in a variety of circumstances. In turn, this means that these circumstances are not just cultural trappings to be shed for the sake of timeless truths. Rather, these circumstances are necessary aspects of the spectrum that comprises the biblical testimonies about God. This is a vital insight for mission. Context is not simply a place where we dump truths abstracted from other contexts. Rather, context bears the potentiality of bringing deeper and richer theological understanding, and, in turn, broadening our understanding of what God is doing in the world.11 The word of God does not come to us in abstract form, or in a set of general truths, but precisely in relation to the circumstances of God’s people in the world. God’s people, therefore, are always listening for God’s word for “us,” not just discovering what God’s word meant to a historical “them.” In fact, as Sanders points out, it is precisely the ability of certain texts to speak beyond their original context—that is, their demonstrated usefulness in informing faithful communities in subsequent and changing circumstances—that gives them authority.12 The notion of a living word, therefore, includes the specificity of actual communities of faith.

By examining the relationship between a holy God and a living word, we have uncovered aspects necessary to the faithful use of Scripture among the people of God. Any use must honor its generative, or active, capacity. It must honor Scripture’s own commitment to a plurality of voices, and a priority to reading in and across interpretative communities. Knowing God as holy is dependent on an attendant ability to honor other voices as well. Finally, a use of Scripture that does not take the particularities of a community’s location seriously as the occasion for a word of God to be received fails to honor its living voice.13

The Performance of Scripture in Communities of Understanding

Interpretation should not be the exclusive purview of a solitary, expert interpreter working critical methodologies in the “clean room” of the academy (or the minister’s office). The point of interpretation is not simply to uncover the “message” of a text, but to discern God’s identity and the particular shape of the call of God on our life together. Scripture should perform in the context of a community.

Put another way, when Scripture is put between people, it is less likely to be viewed as an object to be scrutinized, and more likely to be perceived as a lively voice producing meaning in the context of people’s lives. Take, as an example, the reading practice advocated by Church Innovations in their process for congregations seeking missional innovation.14 “Dwelling in the Word” involves the following process: a text is read in the presence of all, usually the same text over a period of weeks or months. A moment of silence is observed to deepen the listening. Listeners are then instructed to find a “reasonably friendly looking stranger” and “to listen them into free speech.” Often, these pairs are encouraged to share a place in the text that grabbed their attention or captivated their imagination. After sharing in pairs, broader sharing takes place in the whole group. Each is to share, not what they noticed, but what they heard from their “reasonably friendly looking stranger.”

Notice what commitments are in place in this practice. First, the text is assumed to be both living and authoritative. The text is other than us. It has specificity. It says some things, and not others. It has the place of first voice in the gathered community, an emphasis underscored by the silence observed after the initial reading of the text. It is the text that creates the space for listening.

Ricoeur highlights this “space creating” aspect of a text. Once discourse is encoded, or becomes a text, it possesses a certain autonomy from both author and reader. In this way, a text creates a distance, or space, between users. Yet, a text also invites participation, or a drawing near. The text unfolds a world before us in which we participate in making meaning. A text, in its use, maintains both distance and proximity. Distance, in particular, creates room for something to happen in the space in-between.15 In this way, I would propose, Scripture “between us” leaves greater room for discernment of the movement of the Holy Spirit.

Second, alterity is emphasized in the instruction to find a “reasonably friendly looking stranger.” The partner in Dwelling in the Word, though she might actually be known to the one with whom she is paired, is described as irreducibly other—as a stranger. The other is not to be confused with one just like me. The possibility of a true hearing of the text is enhanced by the presence of the other. It is precisely the diversity of voices that is valued in the process of attending to this common text. This is underscored by the value of sharing not what was said, but what was heard. “Dwellers” are always being addressed in this process, by the voice of the text and by the voice of the other.

Third, the specificity of the lives of the readers are not bracketed in favor of some timeless message that comes prior to the understanding of the reader. Rather, all of the lives gathered are potential places for the word on the page to become a word in the life of the community. In fact, over time, the details of the life of the other produce new and fresh readings of the text.

A frequent complaint of this kind of performance of the text is that participants are simply pooling ignorance, or that we have exchanged the value of objectivity delivered by critical methods for subjectivity whereby the text can mean nearly anything. I will allow that this is possible, and poor readings are sometimes the result. Not all readings of the text are created equal. Some are better than others. And to this end, critical readings are often a key to better readings when they shed insight on historical meanings not readily available to the contemporary reader. A practice like Dwelling in the Word should not be the only reading practice of a community.

I want to uphold the importance of readings that come from deep knowledge of the “world behind the text.” In fact, I would assign its value precisely at the level of alterity. It’s not that historical-critical method can deliver the one intended meaning of the text (just compare commentaries), but that it reminds us that people other than us produced and first read these texts. As Brueggemann points out, it is the strangeness of the text that allows God to remain a stranger, the Holy One, who encounters and disrupts the worlds that we have conceived.16 These critical readings keep us from assuming too much closeness between our assumptions and the text.

But I would also argue against seeing Dwelling in the Word as a pooling of ignorance. First, these readings are happening among people who are performing the Christian life. To the extent that their lives are being lived on the “same plane” as the text, this gives them insight. Second, reading in community tends to produce better readings over time. Idiosyncratic readings are brought to the surface and usually give way to larger, consensus readings.17

The fact that both critical readings and communal readings produce “better” readings over time indicates a possible interdependence. Let me be clear, the standard for “better” is that a community is enabled to hear God’s voice in a world of competing voices with increasing clarity, not simply to identify the original meaning of the text. Sometimes this happens through critical approaches that interrupt our assumptions, and sometimes this happens when the text passes through the lives of others. Both are needed and serve a healthy ecology of the Word when each keeps meaning an ongoing enterprise subject to discernment.

“Dwelling in the Word” is offered only as an example of a performance of Scripture that brings values related to a holy God and a living word together. This practice underscores in particular the values of otherness, community, and context. These emphases are increasingly being proposed as a necessary feature of a missional hermeneutic. Two papers given at the missional hermeneutics session of the SBL 2013 Annual Meeting argued for approaches featuring the reception of the text among and between diverse readers. Hunsberger, for instance, calls for readings of Scripture that are set in the lively environs of congregations. “The work that is required,” he suggests, “must involve close companionship with local missional communities who are reading and learning to read texts, in, with, and for their contexts and their missional callings.”18 John Franke, pursuing the implications of a social view of the Trinity, sees otherness at the heart of any endeavor that represents God in the world, including the use of Scripture.19

Along these lines, Michael Barram proposes questions that encourage communities to locate themselves as readers in relation to a larger world. For example, when reading a text a missional community should be asking, “How does our reading of a given text demonstrate humility—recognizing that we see and understand only in part?” Or, “In what ways does this text proclaim good news to the poor and release to the captives, and how might our own social locations make it difficult to hear that news as good?” Barram’s questions serve to de-center the reader through a critical self-awareness so that the perspectives of others might come into view.20

Even one step beyond these proposals, John Ogren encourages new church developers to read texts together with those that will soon be their partners in the mission of God in that particular location, even if these readers are not yet Christian. The hope here is that these reading “communities” can help church developers understand their participation in God’s mission more clearly in relation to their neighbors.21

So, several are proposing uses of Scripture that stress the importance of alterity, community, and context as being central to missional hermeneutics. What these approaches share is a focus on the use of Scripture within missional communities, rather than on the production of Scripture. These approaches, also, better model a view of Scripture as a living word in the service of a holy God. This represents a shift in how biblical hermeneutics has traditionally been conceived, and hopefully a productive way forward for communities finding their calling within the missio Dei.

Dr. Mark Love is Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership, Dean of the School of Theology and Ministry, and Associate Professor of Theology 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.

Bibliography

Barram, Michael. “ ‘Located’ Questions for a Missional Hermeneutic.” The Gospel and Our Culture Network. Nov. 1, 2006. http://gocn.org/resources/articles/located-questions-missional-hermeneutic.

Brownson, James V. Speaking the Truth in Love: New Testament Resources for a Missional Hermeneutic. Christian Mission and Modern Culture. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1998.

Brueggemann, Walter. Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism: Living in a Three-Storied Universe. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993.

________. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997.

Ellison, Pat Taylor, and Patrick Keifert. Dwelling in the Word: A Pocket Handbook. Robbinsdale, MN: Church Innovations, 2011.

Franke, John. “Treasure Old and New: Considerations on the Future of Missional Hermeneutics.” Paper presented at the GOCN Forum on Missional Hermeneutics. “Assessing and Advancing Missional Hermeneutics.” SBL 2013 Annual Meeting, Baltimore, MD, Nov. 23–26, 2013.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. Rev. ed. New York: Crossroad, 1991.

Gibbs, Eddie. The Rebirth of the Church: Applying Paul’s Vision for Ministry in Our Post-Christian World. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013.

Grenz, Stanley. The Named God and the Question of Being: A Trinitarian Theo-Ontology. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.

Guder, Darrell. “Missional Hermeneutics: The Missional Authority of Scripture—Interpreting Scripture as Missional Formation.” Mission Focus: Annual Review 15 (2007): 106–21.

Hanson, Paul D. The Diversity of Scripture: A Theological Interpretation. Overtures to Biblical Theology 11. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982.

Hunsberger, George. “Convictions Formed and Futures Waiting: A Traveler’s Response to the Journey.” Paper presented at the GOCN Forum on Missional Hermeneutics. “Assessing and Advancing Missional Hermeneutics.” SBL 2013 Annual Meeting, Baltimore, MD, Nov. 23–26, 2013.

________. “Proposals for a Missional Hermeneutic: Mapping a Conversation.” Missiology: An International Review 39, no. 3 (July 2011): 309–21.

Ogren, John. “New Congregations, Neighbors, and the Mission of God: A Study of Theological Imagination in Local Discernment.” PhD diss., Luther Seminary, forthcoming.

Pickard, Nathan. “Engaging Scripture through Dwelling in the Word at the Newmarket Church of Christ.” DMin thesis, Abilene Christian University, 2011.

Ricoeur, Paul. Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences: Essays on Language, Action, and Interpretation. Translated by John B. Thompson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

________. From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics II. Translated by Kathleen Blamey and John B. Thompson. Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1991.

Sanders, James A. Canon and Community: A Guide to Canonical Criticism. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1984.

Wright, Christopher J. H. The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006.

1 Stanley Grenz, The Named God and the Question of Being: A Trinitarian Theo-Ontology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005).

2 I have in mind here the efforts of the Gospel and Our Culture Network sponsoring missional hermeneutics sessions at the annual Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) meetings.

3 This interdependence with traditional critical approaches is not true of every proposal offered at the SBL meetings for a missional hermeneutic. It is true, however, of approaches represented variously in the works of Christopher Wright, Michael Goheen, and Darrel Guder. For an example of missional hermeneutics, see Eddie Gibbs, The Rebirth of the Church: Applying Paul’s Vision for Ministry in Our Post-Christian World (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013). For a summary of the proposals toward a missional hermeneutics, see George Hunsberger, “Proposals for a Missional Hermeneutic: Mapping a Conversation,” Missiology: An International Review 39, no. 3 (July 2011): 309–21. At the 2013 SBL meeting, Hunsberger helpfully distinguished between those approaches that emphasize the “production of the text” (Wright, Goheen, Guder) with others that emphasize the “reception of the text” (represented by Michael Barram and James Brownson). George Hunsberger, “Convictions Formed and Futures Waiting: A Traveler’s Response to the Journey” (paper presented at the GOCN Forum on Missional Hermeneutics, “Assessing and Advancing Missional Hermeneutics,” SBL 2013 Annual Meeting, Baltimore, MD, Nov. 23–26, 2013). The latter approaches are more promising as a way forward in my estimation.

4 This shift distinguishes this and other proposals from definitions of missional hermeneutics more aligned with traditional, critical approaches. I have in mind here, in particular, the work of Christopher Wright and Darrel Guder who bring critical questions to the text as a way to produce a different yield of biblical meanings. It’s not that these approaches are without benefit, but they tend toward glossing the diversity of the biblical testimonies in favor of one orienting theme. Guder, “Missional Hermeneutics: The Missional Authority of Scripture—Interpreting Scripture as Missional Formation,” Mission Focus: Annual Review 15 (2007): 106–21. Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006).

5 For me, holiness describes God’s identity (a relational term), not God’s nature (or substance). Holiness, therefore, while making God distinct, does not place God distantly, across some massive ontological gulf.

6 Paul Ricoeur, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences: Essays on Language, Action, and Interpretation, trans. John B. Thompson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 165–70.

7 I could make this point in other ways as well. If space permitted, I would certainly want to show how vital “Word” is to the identity of God, and how a living Word is always at work beyond the words we find on the Bible’s pages. What I think I have done to this point is show how the words on the page serve this larger notion of the Word of God.

8 The book that did the most to bring this concept to expression for me is Paul D. Hanson, The Diversity of Scripture: A Theological Interpretation, Overtures to Biblical Theology 11 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982).

9 Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997).

10 James A. Sanders, Canon and Community: A Guide to Canonical Criticism (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1984). “Canonical criticism celebrates the pluralism of the Bible and stresses its self-critical dimension. . . . There is no program that can be constructed on the basis of the Bible which can escape the challenge of other portions of it: this is an essential part of its pluralism” (p. 37).

11 This is the strength of James Brownson’s proposal for a missional hermeneutic. Within the Bible itself, we see efforts at bringing the tradition into meaningful relationship with specific situations. Learning to read Scripture “missionally” means to learn from this dynamic internal to Scripture. James V. Brownson, Speaking the Truth in Love: New Testament Resources for a Missional Hermeneutic, Christian Mission and Modern Culture (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1998).

12 Sanders, 40–41.

13 On this point, I am echoing Gadamer who insists that understanding is not a subsequent move to description. It is not only impossible to separate these moments in interpretation, but it is unadvisable. Our “fruitful” prejudices should be allowed to do their work in producing new understanding. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, rev. ed. (New York: Crossroad, 1991).

14 For information on this practice, see Pat Taylor Ellison and Patrick Keifert, Dwelling in the Word: A Pocket Handbook (Robbinsdale, MN: Church Innovations, 2011).

15 Paul Ricoeur, From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics II, trans. Kathleen Blamey and John B. Thompson, Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1991), 68–73.

16 Walter Brueggemann, Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism: Living in a Three-Storied Universe (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), 10.

17 That Dwelling in the Word can produce better readings over time is supported by Nathan Pickard’s research. Nathan Pickard, “Engaging Scripture through Dwelling in the Word at the Newmarket Church of Christ” (DMin thesis, Abilene Christian University, 2011).

18 George Hunsberger, “Convictions.”

19 John Franke, “Treasure Old and New: Considerations on the Future of Missional Hermeneutics” (paper presented at the GOCN Forum on Missional Hermeneutics, “Assessing and Advancing Missional Hermeneutics,” SBL 2013 Annual Meeting, Baltimore, MD, Nov. 23–26, 2013).

20 Michael Barram, “ ‘Located’ Questions for a Missional Hermeneutic,” The Gospel and Our Culture Network, Nov. 1, 2006, http://gocn.org/resources/articles/located-questions-missional-hermeneutic.

21 John Ogren, “New Congregations, Neighbors, and the Mission of God: A Study of Theological Imagination in Local Discernment” (PhD diss., Luther Seminary, forthcoming).