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NT Scholars Discuss Missional Hermeneutics

Author: James Thompson and Tommy Givens
Published: February 2014

MD 5.1

Article Type: Interview Article

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


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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