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Seminal Review: David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission

Author: Monte Cox
Published: August 2010

MD 1

Article Type: Review Article

Seminal Review

David J. Bosch. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1991.

Does this much-reviewed missiological classic, now nearly twenty years old, really deserve another look? As a professor of the theology of mission for nearly all of the last twenty years, I say “yes.” No one since has done what Bosch does in his magnum opus. The breadth and depth of (a) his treatment of historical theology as it relates to missiology; (b) his perspectives on the ever-evolving missionary paradigms from the First through the Twentieth Centuries; and (c) his organization of the current trends in missiology (under the heading “Elements of an Emerging Ecumenical Missionary Paradigm” in the all-important twelfth chapter, the heart of the book), combine to keep me coming back to Bosch again and again, despite the deficiencies. Other Bosch admirers like me (such as Norman E. Thomas in Classic Texts in Mission and World Christianity [Orbis, 1995] and Willem Saayman and Klippies Kritzinger in Mission in Bold Humility: David Bosch’s Work Reconsidered [Orbis, 1996]) highlight weaknesses in Transforming Mission, among them his omission of the work of women in missions and his mostly indirect engagement with theologians in the developing world. But no other book has taken its place.

One might think that it would not be difficult to find an outline of the key issues in the theology of mission that is more accessible to undergraduate students than Bosch’s somewhat unwieldy ”thirteen elements.” But alternative proposals have not impressed me as much. Christopher Wright’s The Mission of God (IVP Academic, 2006) is perhaps the most attractive challenger to come along lately. Wright’s approach, grounded in the Old Testament, more than makes up for Bosch’s scant attention (less than five pages) to mission in the Old Testament. Wright also addresses contemporary issues—such as the theology of ecology—that Bosch neglects (though surely he would have much to say on such matters were he alive today to revise the book). But Wright’s tripartite outline—“The God of Mission,” “The People of Mission,” and “The Arena of Mission”—doesn’t do it for me, maybe because parts two and three overlap so much. (On the other hand, Wright’s Chapter Five, “The Living God Confronts Idolatry,” is profoundly relevant.) The collection of essays edited by Andrew Walls and Cathy Ross (Mission in the 21st Century, Orbis, 2008) is organized around “The Five Marks of Mission”:

  1. To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
  2. To teach, baptise, and nurture new believers
  3. To respond to human need by loving service
  4. To seek to transform unjust structures of society
  5. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth. (Walls and Ross, xiv)

I like the outline, but the essays that flesh it out are uneven. Timothy Tennent’s brand new textbook, Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century (Kregel, 2010) is promising but ambitious. Tennent hangs the major features of an introduction to missions—including historical and strategic elements—on the framework of the theology of mission, which I appreciate. But I would still feel like I was cheating my students if I did not introduce them to Bosch’s more complete “thirteen elements,” presented as they are in the context of a rich and responsible historical theology.

It could be that the more accessible outline I seek is right under my nose, in Bosch’s concluding chapter in which he outlines the mission of God in terms of “six salvific events” in the New Testament: the incarnation, the cross, the resurrection, the ascension, Pentecost, and the Parousia (512-18). Each of those moments in and beyond the earthly ministry of Jesus illustrates a key feature of the mission of God from Genesis to Revelation. For example, the embodiment of the Word in the person of Jesus puts the “new” in New Testament, but the presence of God is a theme of the mission of God from the Garden of Eden to the Tabernacle and beyond. Likewise, the cross communicates the self-sacrificial love of God that ought to inspire and characterize his representatives as we pursue the same mission. Perhaps it would be better to organize a theology of mission course around these six touchstones rather than around the “thirteen elements.” I will have to think about that possibility. Either way, for the time being, I’m sticking with Bosch.

Monte Cox

Dean of the College of Bible and Religion

Harding University

Searcy, Arkansas, USA

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