“Missio Dei” in historical perspectives, part 3

I started out with a brief history of the missio Dei concept from its origins in Karl Barth’s argument that mission is essentially an attribute of the Triune God, not an activity of the church, to the appropriation of the term by the missional church movement. I then suggested that as a matter of biblical interpretation it makes more sense to understand the mission of God in terms of the escalating conflict between the one good creator God of Israel and the gods of the nations that routinely threatened the political and religious integrity of the people of God, culminating symbolically in the parousia event of the victory of the suffering churches over the “Babylon” which was Rome. So then what?

The Christendom narrative

Historically speaking, the victory of Israel’s God over the pagan world through the faithfulness of Jesus and of those in him was the conversion of the empire under Constantine and Theodosius. This, I think, brings the driving narrative of scripture to an end. There remains a sketchy outer narrative about the continuing witness of the descendants of Abraham to the renewal of creation as the basis for the blessing of the nations. But the core narrative of how this people came to inherit the world (cf. Rom. 4:13), with all its crises of judgment and salvation, has been told (keeping in mind that a significant part of it has been told prophetically).

So what happened to the missio Dei under Christendom? I would suggest that in effect it took the form of the creation of a European Christian society, a politically underpinned assertion of the lordship or “kingdom” established at the end of the biblical narrative, with a coherent, rational and universalized Christian worldview, that would eventually be exported to the rest of the world, held accountable internally (as ancient Israel had been) by movements of dissent and renewal.

That may not be how we would now choose to characterize the mission of God during that period; and I would not want to suggest that the New Testament foresaw how the success of the witness of the early church would turn out. But I think it represents roughly how the European church from Constantine onwards would have formulated its understanding of the missio Dei.

Missio Dei after Christendom

Here is what we have so far. As a biblical people we must frame everything with a story of the God who created and who will re-create. Within that frame we have the response of YHWH to the rebellion of humanity in the form of the calling of Abraham to be the progenitor of a new humanity through which the original blessing of creation would be recovered. But that calling already has the seeds of the central biblical story about the defeat of the gods of “Babylon” in the end through the experience of redemptive suffering.

This dominant biblical narrative is then followed by the story of the development, expansion, and eventual decline of the European church—the troubled and glorious story of western Christendom. It is not a finished story, and there may be some pages, perhaps even chapters, still to be written. But I think that just as Rome put an end to second temple Judaism, so modern secular rationalism has put an end to the Christendom paradigm, and the people of God finds itself again in a wilderness of transition.

So how do we reformulate the missio Dei? How do we now speak about the engagement of the one good creator God with his creation through the family of Abraham, which is called always to be a new creation, renewed through the Spirit and under Christ as Lord? It seems to me that we have to take these three factors into consideration:

  • The fundamental responsibility to acknowledge and worship the one good creator God and to affirm the created nature of all things;
  • The seminal vocation of the family of Abraham to recover the original blessing of creation and be the means by which the nations are blessed;
  • The large-scale historical narratives that have brought us to the present situation of the church: the biblical narrative of the victory of the marginal God of Abraham over pagan empire; and the post-biblical narrative of the rise and fall of western Christendom.

The good news that we have in this time of eschatological transition is that in different ways the creator God, who made all things through and for Jesus, is still active in the world—that there are abundant signs of reformation and transformation, that the churches are beginning to rediscover the scope of their new creational mandate, that a vision is emerging of a concrete alternative existence, in dynamic relation to the creator, which will function credibly as a prophetic counterpoint to the weighty distortions and injustices of contemporary global society. A new story is beginning to be told.

The advantage of relativizing the missio Dei in this way is that it forces the church to think much more deeply and contextually about its present condition and the opportunities and challenges that this presents. For the most part we have no wish to reinstate the imperializing “mission” of the Christendom era—that is now history, and we may be happy to see the back of it. But by the same token, we are not now engaged in the drawn out and painful contest between the seemingly inconsequential God of Israel and the powerful gods of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē.

I suggest that the missio Dei for the church in the age to come will have to be increasingly defined in creational terms as a response to the globalization of the challenges confronting humanity: damage to the environment, food and energy shortages, population growth, the struggle of incompatible cultures to co-exist in shrinking and depleted social spaces, and so on. It is now the creator God and the Son who is firstborn of all creation, through whom and for whom all things were made, and the re-creative, inventive Spirit who send the church into the world to embody—both actually and prophetically—the possibility of renewed humanity in the midst of the peoples of the earth.

peter wilkinson | Fri, 01/14/2011 - 17:33 | Permalink

You are making some huge claims here, Andrew. I don't know what you have said in 'The Future of the People of God', apart from your references to it on this website, but I think we must at least be reading Romans 3:21 to the end of Romans 4 very differently. I see Paul espousing a gospel which intentionally embraces the Gentiles, through what Jesus had done in bringing the history of Israel to its surprising climax and conclusion. Abraham is "the heir of the world" in the sense that the promises he had been given 2000 years previously are now being fulfilled, and continue to be fulfilled to this day.

What did (and does) this fulfilment look like? If there was a victory of God over the pagan gods of Rome, and a victory of God's people over the powers that oppressed them, what would this have looked like, according to the pictures supplied in the NT, gospels and letters, and what did it look like?

It is an extremely sweeping assertion to speak of the conversion of the Roman Empire under Constantine and Theodosius. It may be true to say that Christianity was tolerated, and then became the official religion of the Roman Empire, but when we look at what kind of Christianity this entailed, it is a very mixed picture, and one which was constantly subject to critique and dissent, from the very earliest times.

For instance, the church became something of a department in the Roman civil service. To cope with the numbers now flooding into the church, which would have included many who were simply following the way in which the winds of political change and advantage were blowing, discipleship was replaced with church attendance. The Cathars were one of the first groups who objected to this trend, in particular to the acceptance in church government  of Bishops whose faith had been compromised under persecution. The Cathars by contrast claimed to represent those who had not compromised. The Cathars were the first dissenting group to be officially put down by force, and so the cycle of persecution which had been a feature of pagan Rome began all over again.

It's a complex picture, but the idea of a 'Christendom' which represented European Christianity needs so many qualifications that it becomes less than useful as a descriptive term. Dissenting movements were widespread throughout Europe from earliest times The Paulicians, Waldeneses, Bogomils were mass movements across large parts of Europe, and it was eventually out of these groups that a church with a missionary character was formed, and not with the intent of setting up a 'Christendom' look-alike in parts of the world beyond Europe.

History is written by the victors, and the official history of the church routinely presents dissent as heresy. The complicating factor is that even within the official church, there were renewal movements, and radical expressions of mission - with some of which we might have problems identifying today. What I do not think it is possible to do is to generalise about 'Christendom' as the story of the western church throughout the last 1700 years, and think of it as a uniform system, when the real picture is so variegated, not least amongst those who thought that 'Christendom', in its various manifestations, was far from the picture of the NT church as contained in the NT scriptures.

I think we have to ask then what the 'victory' of Christ over the pagan Roman empire looked like. I would argue it looked very similar to the 'victory' of Christ over the corrupted church of empire which followed pagan Rome. There would always be those who attempted to reflect the teaching of Christ, and who demonstrated in their lives and communities an alternative to the lives of those living in a dying world around them. The 'holy nation' of God's people scattered across the earth would always be a counter-culture to the values and lifestyle of the nations in which they found themselves. There would always be a contrast between those whose 'citizenship is in heaven' and those whose citizenship is merely in a nation of the world.

The victory over paganism and its gods is based in the changed lives and lifestyles of those who were followers of Jesus. 'This is the victory that overcomes the world, even our faith' - 1 John 5:4. It is in the first place a victory which is one of demonstration, lived out in the lives of all God's people, where the character and values of Jesus are a living reality. The 'anti-Christ' may be a person, but it is also a spirit, already at work in the church when John's letters were written, which denies the character and values of Christ. In John's day it was a spirit which denied that Jesus had come in the flesh. The flesh/spirit contrast was always one which encouraged licentious attitudes and behaviour as the liberty of the people of God.

The issues facing the world today, which are mentioned in your final paragraph, such as damage to the environment, food and energy shortages, population growth, the struggle of incompatible cultures to co-exist in shrinking and depleted social spaces, are hugely important, and must be faced as part of the church's mission. But  where I find myself in a continuity of purpose and community with the church of gospels and letters, the primary need is not for us to make a better world, important as that is to the church's mission, but to provide the world with better people to populate it. That is where the gospel remains constant, from the time of Abraham (in the unpacking of what 'blessing' to the nations meant), to today, with Christ as the centre of that gospel, its focus and content.

The biblical narrative is a surprising one, and many of Andrew's observations are undeniable and have to be engaged with. From my perspective, the worldwide intention of the narrative remains its mainspring, with the issue of gods versus God always bearing on the intended character of the people of God as contrasted with the character of those who espoused pagan gods. There are many aspects of the story which are difficult to reconcile. The overall harmony of the story seems to me to be surprisingly clear.

I did find the summary of the history of Missio Dei in your first article very helpful, though there seems to be some disagreement about whether Barth introduced the concept. 


It may be true to say that Christianity was tolerated, and then became the official religion of the Roman Empire, but when we look at what kind of Christianity this entailed, it is a very mixed picture, and one which was constantly subject to critique and dissent, from the very earliest times.

So what? That’s just normal. Israel was constantly subject to critique and dissent; the modern church has been subject to critique and dissent; so too the postmodern church…. The people of God is always a deeply flawed community, conditioned by culture, constrained by its place in history. Historically speaking the church was Christendom for 1700 years—it worked from the assumption that Europe and its worldview were essentially Christian. Of course, the history of dissent is a complex one—just as the history of dissent in Israel was a complex one. We look to the prophets for an authentic articulation of YHWHism, but the prophets were for the most part marginal and unsuccessful figures. I think that we are too easily distracted by our theological idealism from the messy compromised historical reality of the people of God. Abraham was the father of a people not of a set of ideals. Ideals don’t need grace, people need grace.

"Historically speaking the church was Christendom for 1700 years—it worked from the assumption that Europe and its worldview were essentially Christian."

Which church? Which churches? Which essential Christianity? I agree that Europe has encouraged a kind of imperialism which went with some missionary activity, but by no means all, and it's inevitable that some cultural baggage accompanies much missionary activity.

I think there is an ecclesiological idealism which goes with your view of the history of the European church. It suits your argument. But don't tell me, for instance, that 18th century Moravians selling themselves into slavery in the West Indies to reach the slaves was Christendom imperialism.

So what happened to the missio Dei under Christendom? I would suggest that in effect it took the form of the creation of a European Christian society…

"In effect" here seems to imply that in the context of Europe, this is as far as the missio Dei got (i.e. would have gone further if it could've?)… which allows us to maintain that it was always larger than that effect—God's mission was larger than the 'European Christian society,' even if evidentially we cannot point to much else, beyond reforming movements (though see Walls, below)

That said, this allows us to recognise that, in the context of Europe, we need to rediscover how we, Europeans, called into covenant partnership with the Creator God, called to intentionally participate in, co-operate with the missio Dei, are now called to behave: as Peter wrote in one of his epistles, in the light of all these things, what kind of people ought we to be (my paraphrase)?

However, it also allows us to recognise that as well as the demise of "European Christian society" (Christendom, wedding of state and structured church) in the face of the forces of secularisation there are now other contexts in which the gospel is now embedded, ie. the global south of Africa, Asia, America. 

Arguably, it is yet to be determined what these relatively new "contextualisations" of the gospel will give rise to. Jenkins (2002) says a New Christendom, but many disagree with the appropriateness of that pseudonym. According to Miller and Yamomori (2007) a new Global Pentecostalism is missiologically redefining our understanding of Christian faith and its operation in a global context.

Moreover, missiologist such as Walls (2006:79) suggests that historically there exists a multi-coloured tapestry of different, overlapping Christians faiths, incarnated amongst myriad ethnicities such that he even feels confident to suggest that Western Christianity should be viewed in a broad historical matrix where it is marginal and "exceptional." It turns out, in that perspective, that we Europeans have never been as close to the centre of the missio Dei as we imagine.

And that does highlight a cultural, missiological difficulty with your exegesis, Andrew: it's Euro-centric to say the least. 

Another issue with it is that the final re-creational / globalisation focus does not necessarily lead on from your theological / missiological argument: these aspects could be induced from other missiological perspectives—which is not a criticism, only an observation.

The other issues is that having set out your stall in part one, in terms of the victory of YHWH over the idols and gods of the nations…this heavenly perspective seems to be abandoned within the final schema, which could be perceived to capitulate to the forces of Enlightenment rationalism…

Enough, I'm off for a sandwich and then the pub! Happy New Year to you and yours—and to you to Peter (it's your old mate, Andy, with whom I'm off t'pub.) Shalom!

John, it’s late here, but this stuck out:

And that does highlight a cultural, missiological difficulty with your exegesis, Andrew: it’s Euro-centric to say the least.

Exegesis doesn’t have to answer to the expectations of modern missiologists. Certainly, Christianity today is a global phenomenon. But how much of global Christianity is not the product of European mission, directly or indirectly? Not much. And how widespread was Christianity beyond Europe in the centuries between Constantine and the age of European exploration and expansion. Not very. The New Testament is the story of how the good news got from Jerusalem to Rome. Paul effectively laid claim to the oikoumenē in the name of Jesus Christ. The New Testament is very Euro-centric.

I’ll have a look at the rest of your comment tomorrow. Thanks for taking the trouble over it.

Andrew, Great series on missio Dei, wish it would continue. At any rate as you know, mission defined by Frost and Hirsch is stated this way, "Our Christology informs our missiology, which in turn determines our ecclesiology. If we get this the wrong way around and allow our notions of the church to qualify our sense of purpose and mission, we can never be disciples of Jesus, and we will never be an authentic missional church".image.jpegIt may be that many missional leaders bought into this construct, but for me, using this "formula" seemed to create a repeat of the Jesus movement without the eschatological horizon that necessitated it. It seems to detach mission from its historical/narrative context, universalizing the interpretation of Jesus’ teaching. You said, "As soon as we begin to ask how this language works historically, it becomes apparent that the core biblical story, the story that determines the missio Dei, is not open-ended. It is contingent, it is constrained, it is contextualized".I think mission presupposes an eschatological framework. With that in mind, (and with me hopefully not obsessing on formulas) would you say the "formula" would look more like "our eschatology informs our ecclesiology which in turn determines our missiology"? 
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I agree both your analysis of the Frost-Hirsch formula and with the statement that “mission presupposes an eschatological framework”. Your proposal is similar to NT Wright’s formula, though I think his went from eschatology to missiology to ecclesiology. The following paragraph is taken from an old review of The Forgotten Ways:

But then we face a different type of question, because I have the strong impression that the emerging church is eager to follow NT Wright in shifting its eschatological orientation from the escape of the faithful to heaven to the renewal of the whole of creation and the coming of God from heaven to dwell in the midst of his remade world. There is a real tension here between, on the one hand, this expansive hope and the spectrum of missional activity that it inspires and, on the other, Hirsch’s overt reduction of mission to the multiplication of communities of Jesus followers. I understand his concerns about syncretism (98); and his insistence that it is Christology, and in particular the primitive, unencumbered Christology of the NT church, that lies at the heart of the renewal of the church at all times and in every age’ is compelling (99). But I’m not convinced that this in itself constitutes an adequate missional response to European post-Christendom, secular pluralism. I would argue, as NT Wright does, that in the final analysis mission should take its bearings not from christology but from eschatology – or at least, from a christology that, in keeping with passages such as John 1:1-3; 1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:15-16; Heb. 1:2; 2:10, embraces the full new creational (and trinitarian) shape of Christ. I want to encourage people to discover – practically, prophetically and proleptically – the fulness of the new creational blessing that has been recovered in Christ.

The other point to make, I think, is that New Testament christology (as distinct from Jesus-ology) is essentially eschatological: it is the eschatological arc of the story of the resurrected Jesus that determines the future of the church and the direction of its “mission”.

This is a very thought provoking series--much appreciated.  I have a couple of questions arising from this exchange with Jim.  

One, are you saying that Hirsch's formula stands as long as the Christology is properly eschatological--i.e., is actually biblical Christology?  

Two, it strikes me that the "eschatological arc of the story of the resurrected Jesus that determines the future of the church and the direction of its 'mission'" is precisely the biblical narrative that is not historically ended with the rise of Christendom.  That is, what you seem to be recognizing in that biblical "arc" as determinative is the very thing you are saying is not "the primary storyline" in your second post in the series.  Am I understanding you to draw a distinction between the "actual" story and the "arc" of the story?  In the end, you are coming to a place in your third post that makes sense to me without making that distinction in the first place.  So, in a sense, I'm wondering what you gain by such a distinction (if I am in fact reading you correctly).

Greg, thanks for the comment. I think I see what you’re getting at—at least, I think I see how my statement about the “eschatological arc of the story of the resurrected Jesus” is confusing. But you may need to come back to me on this if it doesn’t make any sense.

My contention is that the main story told in the New Testament has to do with the renewal of the people of God and, through that, the “victory” of YHWH over the nations of the oikoumenē. Jesus is the central figure in this story, and his significance, both in “earthly” and in exalted, post-resurrection terms, derives from this narrative. He is, therefore, determinative both for the mission of the pre-vindication church (ie. the pre-Constantinian church), which was essentially a way of the cross, and for the subsequent existence of the post-vindication church (ie. the post-Constantinian church) as a people under the publicly confessed lordship of the Son of man who suffered and was vindicated by YHWH.

The way of the cross determined both the core experience of the churches through whose life and witness YHWH would gain victory over paganism and established the conditions for the subsequent existence of the people of God in the age to come.

The problem this creates for Hirsch’s model is that it means we are called to play a part in a narrative that is not strictly ours. There are ways in which this might be justified analogically—the circumstances of the church today are like the circumstances of the church in the period between Jesus’ death and the conversion of the empire. But I don’t think it helps, generally speaking, to obscure the narrative-historical contingency of the New Testament.

The “eschatological arc”, however, is part of a larger story about the socially constructed witness of the family of Abraham to the renewal of creation, which I think is ultimately determinative for the mission of the church today.

This story does not exclude the story about Jesus. In fact, it is impacted by it in two critical ways.

First, the “eschatological arc” fundamentally changes the nature and status of the family of Abraham. Secondly, it seems to me that the role of Jesus as firstborn from the dead for the sake of the renewal of Israel, as first “martyr”, is overlaid with the “larger” role of firstborn of all creation: he becomes a critical figure for both the inner New Testament story and the outer story of the renewal of creation.

In other words, Jesus remains the eschatological end-point both for the New Testament church and for the people of God throughout history.

Hope some of the following is helpful… [Again, I reiterate, overall I seek not to critique your thesis, per se, rather to explore how far it is possible to harmonise it with my own, missiologically informed perspective, and vice-versa]

Initially I excused your dismissal of the charge of Euro-centricism, because of the lateness of hour that you claimed ;) however

Exegesis doesn’t not have to answer to the expectations of modern missiologists

Indeed… At the risk of sounding dismissive myself, as soon as you begin to discuss the missio Dei in historical terms, you've moved beyond exegesis onto grounds now covered by the discipline of missiology, a discipline which now largely insists that praxis and theory must be continually appraised in a critical dialectical / hermeneutical cycle—and which teasingly places academic theological exegesis as a marginal, historically often sterile practice on the margins, at best, of the missio Dei (Van Engen, 1996). 

how much of global Christianity is not the product of European mission, directly or indirectly? Not much

This sounds uncannily similar to a kind of modernist, victory-is-written-by-the-winners, why-look-beyond-the-historical-narrative talk, does it not? It sits not well with a post-modern perspective that insists we look beyond those narrative in particular. What about the Ethiopian church that predates the European one? The Saint Thomas Christians of India? The extraordinary Nestorian movement, which was hardly European at any point, starting in Constantinople, linking early with Persian Christians and heading Westwards. 

And how widespread was Christianity beyond Europe in the centuries between Constantine and the age of European exploration and expansion. Not very.

In examining narratives-obscured-by-the-Euro-centric-meta-narrative, Peter has mentioned European movements, many of which could come broadly under the Anabaptist. We could also mention the Celtic movement and the way it was also snuffed out by the Roman sect. 

I do appreciate that these can be incorporated under the banner of Europe, but the point is what these movements tell us, in practice, about the nature of the missio Dei and—in the context of your thesis—whether it is appropriate to make the kind of equation you are doing with the broad brush stroke of European Christendom / Christian society.

The (kind of) examples above indicate to many of us that European Christendom was, by and large, a hindrance to the missio Dei. Thus, whilst I do understand the overall thrust of your argument and recognise some of the merits of it, by not including a more affirmative recognition of this practical recognition, I don't think your argument is compelling enough, because in the form it is it appears to make too strong an equation between Euro-Christendom and the missio Dei.

Walls suggests consideration of the significance of three axiomatic AD Christian movements, rather than the single one that you have associated with the missio Dei. Firstly the transition from Jewish to Gentile, at Antioch "a massive movement of people nurtured in Hellenistic civilisation to worship the God of Israel…the Messiah presented as the Lord of the Greeks". 

Secondly, the conversion of the "barbarians" (as thought by the Greeks) of the north and west—this more-or-less equates to Euro-Christendom. Thirdly, the massive movement towards Christian faith in all the southern continents. In fact you drew this out in another of your beautifully crafted diagrams in this post, I refer to the last diagram in particular. Consideration of how this fits with your missio Dei thesis could make it a significantly more compelling articulation.


Now, to actually progress the argument you have begun with your main thesis: we do not discount the incarnation of the missio Dei within Europe as invalid—in all its messiness, its human-ness, it corruption, its militancy, its myopic, self-absorbtion etc. as you reposted—as not being in some measure an indication of the missio Dei. It does represent that. 

However, the argument that the Global South presents is that "what Europe made of the missio Dei is a shadow of the reality—and a thin one at that." So today we look not to its declared norms and standards of orthodoxy, the theologically-neo-colonialistic presupposition of Euro-centric Evangelicalism, but we look to all the other streams of Christian faith as equally valid incarnations of Christian faith.

So, to us in the West, again, as your diagram (above) suggested, we have one eye on the emerging churches struggle with the neo-faith of secular humanism and another on the global southern church's emergence and grappling with what it means to be Christ-centred human beings in a globalising world of the twentieth century. It is unhelpful, to conflate these two trends.

Too early to be categorical, yes, but research is already suggesting that Global Pentecostalism (Miller and Yamomori, 2007) is engaging with the missio Dei in ways that strongly challenge, not only Euro-Christendom, but also the emerging church, with its hint of compromise with / intimidation by secular-humanism. Certainly, the challenge is not only one way, but it does seem that any implication that secular humanism will itself not have to adapt and shrink back from its idolatrous claims akin to divinity, needs reexamining in the light of these things.

Enough—Sunday morning coffee and pancakes are calling to  me!

John, there’s much to think about here.

…a discipline which now largely insists that praxis and theory must be continually appraised in a critical dialectical / hermeneutical cycle—and which teasingly places academic theological exegesis as a marginal, historically often sterile practice on the margins, at best, of the missio Dei

I don’t have a problem with this argument in principle, but there is to my mind a complicating factor. The biblical text constitutes an intractable element in the dialectic between theory and praxis. No matter how responsive our theology is to the changing circumstances of missional praxis, scripture constitutes a fixed point of reference—the text itself does not change. So theory or theology is caught between a rock and the very unstable ground of practice, which is why I don’t think we ever move beyond exegesis.

It sits not well with a post-modern perspective that insists we look beyond those narrative in particular. What about the Ethiopian church that predates the European one?

Whatever it may sound like and whatever intellectual-political reasons we may have for looking beyond the dominant narrative, it seems to me still pretty much irrefutable that global Christianity is for the most part directly descended from European Christianity and therefore carries its theological DNA. I’m very aware that there are exceptions. That was the point of the “Not much”. The Mar Thoma church is historically very interesting but constitutes only a small proportion of the total Christian population in India, the rest being presumably the product of Western missionary activity. The Nestorians were extraordinary, but then so too were the Neanderthals.

I do appreciate that these can be incorporated under the banner of Europe, but the point is what these movements tell us, in practice, about the nature of the missio Dei and—in the context of your thesis—whether it is appropriate to make the kind of equation you are doing with the broad brush stroke of European Christendom / Christian society.

It’s not just that the Anabaptists, et al., come under the banner of Europe and share in the European worldview. They had a relationship at least of co-dependency with Christendom, and probably shared its presuppositions much more widely than is suggested by the antithesis that has been established here. When the dissenters got the opportunity to start over from scratch in a New World, what happened? America.

But the question of whether Christian Europe as such or the dissident movements within reflected the true missio Dei is a good one. It’s probably also unanswerable, but we could ask a similar question about ancient Israel. If we take the missio Dei in this context to have been encapsulated in the image of Israel as a light to the nations, where was that mission embodied? In a largely corrupt line of kings with their attendant elites? In the ordinary people, with all their petty acts of goodness and injustice and idolatry and sacrifice? Or in the very small number of nonconformist prophets who repeatedly called the nation back to its core identity and vocation?

The point is, it seems to me, that Israel’s mission was embodied in Israel as a people—the descendants of Abraham. That embodiment was conflicted and controversial, but it cannot be ascribed to any one sector of Israelite society. And whatever insight the prophets had that was denied to the majority, it was an insight for the sake of the nation as a whole.

So I wonder—not much more than that—whether it does not make better sense, both historically and theologically, to regard baptized Europe as a whole as the people of God and as the embodiment of the mission of God. After all, the bulk of what made up Christendom, so to speak, was ordinary people pursuing the religious routines of their lives under the umbrella of the sovereignty of Christ. We can censure the rulers and the elites; we can extol the integrity and courage of the dissidents and reformers. But the “church” was neither of these. The church was Christian society and understood its purpose to be the maintenance, development and extension of Christian society.

by not including a more affirmative recognition of this practical recognition, I don’t think your argument is compelling enough, because in the form it is it appears to make too strong an equation between Euro-Christendom and the missio Dei.

Well, this comes back to the question of what we mean by the mission of God. After all, it’s only in a rather narrow sense a biblical notion. I tend to think that the basic purpose of the people of God was to constitute an alternative humanity, a new creation, reconciled to God, its life organized around the worship of God, living in right relationship also to one another and to the land, and visible in the world as a witness to the rightness of God. If that is the missio Dei, then it must first find expression in the concrete development of human society. Prophetic critique and reform of that undertaking is a necessary but secondary activity.

As the West moves culturally beyond Christendom, the church is increasingly liberated to rethink its identity in post-Christendom terms—a freedom which the Pilgrims did not have. No doubt the global church will have a major say in that rethinking—perhaps a bigger say than the emerging church. I certainly do not think that the emerging church or emerging theologians are in a position to set the coordinates for the missio Dei in the age to come.

Brother Andrew,

Please forgive both my interjecting and replying years after this discussion has ended. I just wanted to make a quick comment in reply to your wondering if it makes sense:

” to regard baptized Europe as a whole as the people of God and as the embodiment of the mission of God.”

I have read your series (and much of your blog) and have landed somewhere between you and Barth. I do wonder if you are simply trading one (arguably) oversimplified single narrative for another. Regardless, let me more directly explain why I think your comment on Europe as God’s people is correct, but incomplete.

In short, I think you overstate the importance of Europe’s role/Christendom; or, perhaps more accurately, overstate Europe’s importance in comparison to the rest of the Gentile nations. Your history of the church’s growth is obviously correct (though I think you undervalue the role of the church in Ethiopia, India, and the other places previously mentioned), and I see that as natural progression given the context over those next centuries (taking into account the domain of the Roman Empire at the time, then the expansion of European values globally). So to this point I am in full agreement with you.

However, I fear your question becomes too narrow in scope and risks becoming too focused on your own people (Europeans) in the same way that the Israelites did (understandably given the narrative, of course) and now the Americans do. Yes, Europeans became God’s people as they became the center (and sender) of Christian culture/Christendom, but no more than the Americas did later, or East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa is becoming now. The Europeans were the vehicle for this narrative message, but were only the first after Christ (which, again, makes sense given the context and geographic spread over time). That question can also be asked of the Americas and the rest of the world, though; at least, over time.

So, in that sense—that I see Europe’s role similarly to the US’ over the last hundred years or so, and perhaps China’s or Sub-Saharan Africa’s in the future—I think Barth has a fair point still in saying that there is a larger narrative that involves bringing all Gentile nations under God’s reign through our witness and expression. Now, obviously some countries and regions will have greater roles to play—and may be more prominent for longer periods—but that is not exclusive to Europe or any other people as I see history unfold.

I hope my comment makes sense and expresses my thoughts clearly. I worry that it may sound combative or argumentative, which is certainly not intentional. I am wrestling through this idea of missio dei myself and your blog and books have been important in helping shape how I read scripture and understand the unfolding narrative.

Thanks, Andrew. I know this is very outdated, but I do hope you read it and have time to respond. Regardless, thanks for all you do.

Blessings, peace, and grace to you,


Pete H | Mon, 11/20/2017 - 01:24 | Permalink

It seems to me that this series is built on a flawed premise: that Missio Dei is always and only about redemption.

That premise assumes a rather late start to God’s purpose for His people.

What if…
Missio Dei began in the Garden, before the Fall? (Gen 1:28)
God’s purpose has always been to bless the nations?

If so, is there a need to “reformulate” or “revitalize” this? IMHO, God’s purpose remains consistent throughout historiy.

Pete, I’m not sure there’s much to be gained by pushing Missio Dei all the way back to Genesis 1. I feel there has to be an interventionist aspect to the term, which would presuppose that things have gone wrong.

However, I take your point in part. I would say that there has been a single Mission Dei from Abraham onwards. God’s purpose is to maintain an obedient priestly people for himself, to serve him and thereby bless the nations, throughout history.

But history is a long time, and a lot can go wrong. So at different stages God intervenes in different ways to get the project back on track. My argument has been that the overriding subplot in the Bible is the long story of YHWH coming to rule over the dominant pagan powers of the Ancient Near East, which must itself be broken down into discrete episodes, the mission of Jesus to Israel being critical. But historically this was a phase, lasting say from the exile to the beginning of the collapse of European Christendom in the 18th century. It is then a legitimate question, I think, to ask what God’s “sub-mission” might be now.