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John Franke’s Missional Theology: A Review Essay

Author: Greg McKinzie
Published: Winter-Spring 2022

MD 13

Article Type: Text

An earlier version of this essay was presented at The Forum on Missional Hermeneutics, Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, San Antonio, TX, November 20, 2021.

What makes biblical hermeneutics missional? I believe the answer must ultimately be: missional theology. Of course, that sort of answer defers comment on the substance of the matter, but it also signals the significance of John Franke’s introduction to missional theology for the development of missional hermeneutics.1 For someone like me, who believes missional hermeneutics is a type of theological interpretation of Scripture in which missional theology uniquely shapes our readings, this book stands to meet a basic need. That is, unless we gain greater clarity about how to do missional theology, the constructive work from which missional hermeneutics should proceed will remain elusive.

On a personal note, I should also observe the significance of the volume’s publication for those of us who have come of age theologically with the missional conversation. I began as a freshman missions major in 2000, with the legacy of Lesslie Newbigin looming almost hagiographically over the theology of mission, the impact of David Bosch’s Transforming Mission still generating aftershocks, and the publication of Darrell Guder’s edited volume Missional Church catalyzing hope for a new era of Western mission. In other words, I undertook the study of mission history, practice, and theology at the advent of the missional turn. My ensuing experiences in mission and scholarship have been marked by the conviction that a paradigm shift, as Bosch would put it, is underway. In the last two decades, a vast array of articles, books, conferences, and curricular revisions have evinced the manifold transformations that such a shift entails. But paradigm shifts are not quick and tidy. They are chaotic and contested, advancing in fits and starts, and subject to methodological disarray. Missional theology’s development has been no exception. Twenty years is not long in the scheme of theological history, and we might have expected to wait longer for a consolidated articulation of missional theology from one of its leading exponents, so the publication of Franke’s introduction is a highly anticipated milestone on a journey well begun but far from complete.

Franke writes with the express purpose of offering a concise, accessible introduction. He opts for a discussion of essential elements—not a reduction but an identification of missional theology’s core constituents as he sees them: a theocentric, Trinitarian point of departure; a participatory ecclesiology; an ecclesially located practice; a pluralistic epistemology; and a teleologically relational synthesis. Each chapter, then, contributes to a five-part argument that represents both where missional theology has come from and what it presently is. The first two chapters recapitulate the influence of Bosch and Newbigin, elaborating the consensus commitments that uniquely shape missional theology. The third chapter is the book’s hinge. It indicates what doing theology with these commitments entails, focusing especially on the nature, task, and purpose of missional theology. The last two chapters address the essential methodological issue of pluralism and the concomitant problem of unity that follow from the commitments and practice of missional theology.

It is important that the book begins with theological commitments rather than methodological prolegomena. These commitments—the missio Dei and ecclesial participation—are the presupposition, not the product, of missional theology. In other words, as Franke presents it, the divine purposes called the Triune mission of God and the agency of the church in relation to them are confessional assumptions without which the practice of missional theology cannot proceed. This complicates his subsequent distinction between first-order commitments and second-order reflection in interesting ways (76–77). I will return to this point below. For now, I note my agreement: missional theology is essentially (though not foundationally!) teleological and participatory.

Those familiar with Franke’s work will recognize his concern with epistemological foundationalism and the advocacy of pluralism that unfolds in Chapter 4.2 But this is not idiosyncratic. Franke identifies a defining methodological component of missional theology. His claim is not only that plurality is a theological given but that a principled pluralism is axiomatic for missional theology. Moreover, he correctly locates interculturality in relation to the broader issue of epistemic pluralism. I note as well that Franke has been the leading advocate of intercultural considerations in missional hermeneutics, foregrounding a commonly neglected contribution of missiology in a discourse that has been especially concerned with Western culture.3

Franke’s move beyond principled pluralism to relational unity in the final chapter is a significant advance. To be frank, no one reviewing the literature of missional theology would likely conclude that unity is among its driving interests. Further, I find Franke’s discussion of unity to be the most provocative part of his argument. Taking a deep dive into christological waters, he claims that doctrinal agreement about even the person and work of Jesus is not the basis of theological unity. Rather, the presence of Christ in relation to which the church participates in God’s mission constitutes the church’s “solidarity” (160–61). From this perspective, it is the reality of Christ, not our second-order understandings of that reality, that ensure unity. This brings us back to the question of what counts as first-order commitment and second-order reflection. The remainder of my review considers this issue as it bears on missional hermeneutics.

My contention is twofold. First, the commitment to participation in God’s mission that ostensibly constitutes solidarity is a function of prior interpretive conclusions, not least regarding the identity and work of the Christ whose presence accompanies the church in mission. Second, the hermeneutical generativity of participation in God’s mission not only entails the church’s ongoing reflection on and expression of that theological commitment but reconstitutes it. In short, certain theological commitments drive missional theology, and those commitments are hermeneutically determined.

On the one hand, participation in God’s mission follows from a particular, hermeneutically determined understanding of God and the church. This is evident in the first two chapters of Missional Theology, whose affirmations are hardly shared by the church catholic. In particular, the Trinitarian, soteriological, ecclesiological, and anthropological implications of Franke’s basic commitments represent a missional reading of the biblical narrative, not a pluralistic account of God’s purposes and the church’s role in them. Thus, to say that all the church shares a commitment to “primary stories, teachings, symbols, and practices” is to say too little (76, 77) because these mean nothing apart from interpretation. Indeed, one wonders what this list might include. In any case, the conceit of missional theology as a whole is that Christendom’s non-missional embodiment of these commitments is wrong. In this sense, the idea that one might come to Franke’s Trinitarian affirmations without the ecumentical creeds is, I think, doubtful. But more to the point, the “teachings” and “practices” of the Christian faith are far from given, and the “stories” of Scripture have been told millions upon millions of times with conclusions that Franke would apparently reject.

This is not to deny that local, culturally contextual interpretations of Scripture and the rest will issue in plurality, much less to say that missional theology is a sectarian endeavor. Rather, the unity of the missional church with the rest of the non-participatory church is a prophetic solidarity. The affirmation of pluralism does not cover over the judgment of missional theology: the Western church largely fails to participate in God’s mission. This fact necessarily leaves the notion of theological unity based on participation in God’s mission in doubt. Franke is right: “the texts of Scripture should be read in community from an explicitly missional point of view as a means of forming communities for discipleship and participation in the mission of God” (93). Hence, there is a proper, if underdetermined, exegetical direction for any local, culturally contextual interpretation that would issue in missional solidarity. The missional direction and purpose of Scripture are not the determinations of an abstract or neutral exegesis but rather of a theologically committed reading in which the Trinitarian and ecclesiological doctrines expounded in Franke’s first two chapters already guide missional interpretation.

On the other hand, the theological commitments of missional theology are hermeneutically determined in two additional ways. One, participation itself is constitutive of missional hermeneutics. Two, participation shapes the ongoing interpretation of missional theology’s basic commitments.

As for hermeneutically constitutive participation in mission, Franke rightly affirms Newbigin’s claim that the church is the hermeneutic of the gospel (29). I have argued elsewhere that this is as true for the church as for everyone else.4 In other words, the church learns from its own embodiment of the gospel what the gospel means. Embodiment is not a linear consequence of interpretation but an encounter with the Triune God in the world through which the church deepens its own understandings of Scripture’s meaning and, so, returns to the text anew, theologically formed by participation. Moreover, this return provokes a reconfiguration of the church’s basic commitments. Both the Trinitarian teleology and the ecclesial participation with which missional theology begins are subject to revision because of the church’s experiences of participation in the Triune mission. Indeed, this is arguably the source of the missional reconfiguration of Trinitarian theology and ecclesiology that began in the World Council of Churches in the mid-twentieth century.5

Therefore, I am reluctant to grant Franke’s distinction between first-order commitments and second-order reflection. Commitments are the instantiation of reflection through embodiment, without which the solidarity of participation in God’s mission ceases to be the visible unity that Franke advocates (145). Yes, embodiment is inescapably plural, and Franke’s programmatic development of a principled theological pluralism that makes sense of this fact is necessary. Nonetheless, missional theology contends that plurality is a function of contextualization—as Franke puts it, a “critical awareness of the role of culture and social location in the process of theological interpretation and construction” (133)—not a break in the circle of commitment and reflection. If I am rightly detecting George Lindbeck’s influence on Franke, then another way of stating this critique is that postliberal theology’s distinction between the first-order story of Scripture and the second-order doctrinal plurality of reflection on that story is useful for explaining the major historical differences between Christian traditions, but it is not a particularly missional account of difference. For postliberals and postconservatives alike, the difference of difference-in-unity is an accident of sociocultural finitude in relation to first-order claims, therefore the unity of difference-in-unity is a function of sharing first-order claims (whichever those may be). By contrast, for missional theology, the difference of difference-in-unity is purposive. Contextualization is a positive hermeneutical agenda, not a historical accident. Indeed, I would argue that for missional hermeneutics, there is no first-order commitment except embodied contextual commitment; therefore, missional unity is not located in the identification of a class of “primary stories, teachings, symbols, and practices” that precede the effects of pluralism. Instead, missional unity is located in the shared hermeneutical agenda of “a community sent into the world by God through Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit” (155). So, I think Franke is right to say that the church’s unity is “found through participation in the mission of Jesus” (161), but I wish to highlight the hermeneutical nature of this “finding,” lest we conclude that the missional church is united by participation but still divided by interpretation. It seems to me that participation in God’s mission just is our shared hermeneutical endeavor. This interpretive existence as participants in the missio Dei—this hermeneutical ontology—constitutes our theological union, not despite difference but for the sake of difference. The same hermeneutical purpose that engenders plurality is what makes the church one. And given Franke’s fairly extensive interaction with Michael Gorman’s Becoming the Gospel, I underline that this hermeneutical existence is properly ontological, for the union of the church is ultimately a function of her union with God—theōsis.6

In conclusion, I think the structure of Franke’s introduction is highly instructive. The practice of missional theology (ch. 3) takes place in the tension between the God-church dialectic (chs. 1–2) and the plurality-unity dialectic (chs. 4–5). And Franke is to be commended especially for his representation of the nature, task, and purpose of missional theology. Only, I would add the caveat that together these represent the missional church’s essentially hermeneutical existence—not a method but a spirituality of participation in the life of the Triune God that manifests, in purposive solidarity, a pluriform witness to the manifold grace of God.

Greg McKinzie is an adjunct faculty member of the College of Bible and Ministry at Lipscomb University (Nashville, TN). He served with his wife, Megan, as a missionary in Arequipa, Peru, from 2008–2015, where he helped launch the Christian Urban Development Association ( He is also the founder and executive editor of Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis and the manager of In addition to numerous contributions to Missio Dei, Greg has published articles in Stone-Campbell Journal, Restoration Quarterly, and The Journal of Theological Interpretation, as well as Catalyst and Missio Alliance. He is a coauthor with Mark E. Powell and John Mark Hicks of Discipleship in Community: A Theological Vision for the Future (Leafwood, 2020).

1 John R. Franke, Missional Theology: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020).

2 See Stanley J. Grenz and John R. Franke, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001); and John R. Franke, Manifold Witness: The Plurality of Truth, Living Theology (Nashville: Abingdon, 2009).

3 See esp. John R. Franke, “Intercultural Hermeneutics and the Shape of Missional Theology,” in Reading the Bible Missionally, ed. Michael W. Goheen, The Gospel and Our Culture Series (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 86–123.

4 Greg McKinzie, “Missional Hermeneutics as Theological Interpretation,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 11, no. 2 (2017): 157–79.

5 See Darrell L. Guder, Called to Witness: Doing Missional Theolgy, The Gospel and Our Culture Series (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), ch. 2, for a rehearsal of this history in relation to contemporary missional theology.

6 Michael J. Gorman, Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission, The Gospel and Our Culture Series (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015).

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