Dean Flemming. Why Mission? Reframing New Testament Theology. Nashville: Abingdon, 2015. 184 pp. Kindle ed. $14.99.
The dichotomy between theory and practice is, as Kevin Vanhoozer has put it, “a mortal fault line that runs through the academy and church alike.”1 Missiology has often stood across the chasm from theology, mission being stereotypically the realm of practitioners with little patience for the abstractions of academic theology. Yet, advocates of missional hermeneutics have begun exploring a space in which textual hermeneutics, ecclesial commitments, missional practices, biblical studies, and constructive theology converge. Even in missional hermeneutics, however, the theory/practice dichotomy tends to manifest in articles and books that discuss interpretive theory without practicing exemplary exegesis.
In this context, Dean Flemming’s slender volume Why Mission? is a welcome contribution. Aware that, to date, “no other study engages in a missional reading of a range of New Testament books within one volume” (Kindle loc. 177), Flemming showcases the application of a missional hermeneutic to a variety of New Testament texts. The book’s six chapters undertake missional readings of Matthew, Luke-Acts, John, Philippians, 1 Peter, and Revelation. Following closely on the heels of Michael Gorman’s watershed missional interpretation of various Pauline writings,2 Why Mission? widens the scope of the current discussion considerably.
As the fourth volume in the Reframing New Testament Theology series (ed. Joel B. Green), the book participates in the contemporary shakeup of the biblical theology movement. This “reframing” is driven by “a keen sense that scripture has in the past and should in the present instruct and shape the church’s faith and life”—challenging the theory/practice dichotomy from another angle.3 Flemming, who holds a PhD in New Testament Exegesis from the University of Aberdeen, is specially qualified to take up the question of mission’s particular contribution to this churchly engagement with the biblical text. He was a missionary for the Church of the Nazarene from 1987 to 2011 and is now Professor of New Testament and Missions at MidAmerica Nazarene University. By itself, the rarity of a New Testament scholar with long-term missions experience makes Flemming’s work an exciting addition to both the reframing of New Testament theology and to the missional hermeneutics movement.
The introduction briefly explains the premise of Flemming’s intention “to read scripture in light of God’s comprehensive mission” (Kindle loc. 189). He asserts: “Perhaps we can speak of two essential dimensions of a missional hermeneutic. One has to do with what the Bible is about. The other concerns what the Bible does. The former sees the Bible as a witness, the latter as an instrument” (Kindle locs. 204–6). Flemming accordingly structures subsequent chapters by examining each biblical text as both “a witness to God’s mission” and “an instrument of God’s mission”—the assumption being that every New Testament book can help answer “two foundational questions: ‘What is God up to in the world?’ and ‘What is the church’s role in what God is doing?’” (Kindle loc. 274). In this way, he clearly addresses the series’s concern with both New Testament theology (producing a multifaceted theology of mission rooted in whole books rather than proof texts) and the church’s life and faith (consistently highlighting the ways these texts send and shape the church in mission).
The exegesis itself is uncomplicated by technical issues and relatively readable—very accessible for seminary students and trained church leaders but probably heavy going for the average lay reader. Flemming works in broad strokes, connecting major themes to his guiding missional questions. Although every chapter deals with its biblical text’s role as witness and instrument, each one is different. The chapter on Matthew, for example, plays with the theological notion of recapitulation, whereas the chapter on 1 Peter deals narratively with the concept of identity. Occasionally, Flemming engages a scholarly dispute, such as J. Todd Billings’s critique of the term incarnational or Brian Peterson’s denial of the Philippians’ practice of verbal evangelism, characteristically taking a moderating position. More commonly, Flemming simply traces the missional contours of a body of mainstream biblical scholarship that has emerged in recent decades, providing ample footnotes for the studious reader. These missional readings, in other words, solidly represent critically engaged New Testament scholarship. They are concise, insightful, and well worth the price of the book.
The book’s primary weakness is that it gives priority to the “text itself” (Kindle loc. 203), as though the text alone, if read correctly, yields understanding of and participation in God’s mission. To his credit, Flemming’s epilogue states that “at the end of the day, we can only read scripture faithfully as communities of people who are actively engaged in God’s mission, in our various contexts and cultures, just as the original authors and readers of the New Testament were caught up in the missio Dei” (Kindle locs. 3415–17). Yet, his conclusion on this basis is that “a missional reading of scripture, then, seeks to bring about not only a clearer understanding of scripture but also a better grasp of what it means to live as a missional people today (Kindle locs. 3418–19). His hermeneutic still runs in one direction, from text to understanding to active engagement. This approach assumes that the bridge across the theory/practice divide is built from one side. Missional hermeneutics, however, cannot afford to ignore the interpretive implications of practice. Certainly, Scripture shapes the participation of the missional church, but if, in turn, participation in God’s mission shapes the reading church, then practice is not merely a result of the text’s formative influence. It is also a hermeneutical key.
Fuller Theological Seminary
1 Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 13.
2 Michael J. Gorman, Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission, The Gospel and Our Culture Series (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015).
3 Joel B. Green, foreword to Why Mission?, by Dean Flemming, Reframing New Testament Theology (Nashville: Abingdon, 2015), Kindle loc. 104.