I suggested in passing in a recent post on mission and blessing that in The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative C.J.H. Wright (not to be confused with N.T. Wright) ‘has misconstrued the “grand narrative” of the Bible as oriented towards salvation rather than “kingdom”’. JR Rozko, who is writing what sounds like an intriguing dissertation aiming to “develop a soteriological vision in light of the relationship between the missio Dei and the Kingdom of God”, asked in a comment what I meant by this statement.
Can you unfurl that a bit more? Qualitatively, how do you understand the difference here in Wright? How would you, briefly, reframe this…?
I’ll give it a go….
I think it’s a rather common misconstrual at the moment—a narrative compromise that allows evangelicals in particular to have their half-baked cake and eat it. The argument is that Abraham marks the beginning of God’s mission to save the world and that this redemption narrative comes to its consummation in Jesus. The mission of the church from Pentecost onwards is simply to implement and extend that salvation. The other Wright is equally at fault in this regard, in my humble and inconsequential opinion. I think the story needs to be told differently.
I have lost count of how many times I have tried to set out what I see as the basic narrative-historical shape of scripture and its relation to the continuing history of the people of God. My book Re: Mission: Biblical Mission for a Post-Biblical Church was one extended attempt. But I’ve taken numerous impulsive swipes at it on this site, most recently in “Narrative rules. But which one?” A number of other posts are listed below. So this is just one more attempt—it won’t be the last—to explain how the major plot elements of creation, new creation, election, salvation, kingdom, mission, etc., do not merely work together but remain responsive to the facts of historical experience.
Narrative #1: There is an overarching narrative about creation and new creation. It affirms three fundamental points: 1) that the one true living God has created all things; 2) that humanity—as a whole—is irremediably alienated from the Creator God; and 3) that the Creator God will finally make all things new—he will have the last word over sin, injustice, suffering, Satan and death. The third point features much less prominently in scripture that we might like to think—not at all in the Old Testament and only on the periphery of the New Testament.
Narrative #2: There is a second narrative according to which the Creator God has chosen a people for his own possession, beginning with Abraham but with an open-ended future. It is a story not of salvation but of election: Abraham is not saved, he is called. If there is a missio Dei at work here, it is that the original blessing of creation should be recovered and preserved in this chosen people, in microcosm, and mediated secondarily to the surrounding nations. But because this people shares in the “sin” of humanity generally, it turns out to be an extremely fraught and traumatic project.
Narrative #3: Within this second narrative, we might say, is a third, which has to do with the problematic historical existence of Israel, as God’s chosen people. Essentially, when Israel sins or rebels against the Creator, as humans always do, the nation becomes subject to other kingdoms and other gods: Assyria, Babylon, Greece, Rome. Because this is a political quandary, any action on God’s part to remedy the situation is both an act of salvation and an act of kingdom.
So the expectation arises in the prophets that the salvation of Israel from the consequences of its rebellion will necessarily entail the victory of YHWH over the empires that have dominated the Ancient Near East—this is the point of the apocalyptic vision of Daniel 7. The outcome will be that YHWH will be acknowledged as the one true living Creator God, not by his people only but also by the pagan nations which had formerly opposed him. To my mind, this is the overriding missio Dei in scripture, it is YHWH’s primary intention: to rule the nations.
Narrative #4: Jesus fits into this story within a story within a story. His death for the sins of his people saves the descendants of Abraham from a “final” destruction. But more importantly, he is raised from the dead, exalted to the right hand of the Father, and given the authority to judge and rule over the nations. So the outcome foreseen in narrative #3 is achieved through the faithfulness of God’s Son. This is the storyline of Philippians 2:6-11, culminating in the confession of Jesus as Lord by the pagan nations, as prefigured in Isaiah 45:22-23. This achievement can be viewed “missionally” insofar as God sent his Son ultimately for this purpose—and we can include the “salvation” of Gentiles as part of the process. But it is a narratively constrained mission, belonging to a particular moment in history.
My contention is that this extraordinary development should not be spiritualized or de-politicized. The story about kingdom has in view specifically the overthrow of idolatrous, pagan Rome and the establishment of YHWH’s empire, his rule over the nations of the ancient world through his Son and because of his Son. This is the concrete, historical vindication of the God of Israel and of the suffering churches. This finally is the coming of the kingdom of God, the climax to the long and arduous journey that began when Jesus entered Galilee, proclaiming to Israel that the kingdom of God was at hand.
This is as far as the New Testament narrative takes us, but history doesn’t stop there. Over the last couple of hundred years the nations that constituted Christendom have switched their ultimate allegiance. They no longer acknowledge the supreme authority of the one true living God but serve instead a modern pantheon of Reason, Secularism, Progress, Pluralism, Technologism, Consumption, and others.
Although Jesus remains seated at the right hand of God for the sake of his people so that the church does not need to fear for its future, to all intents and purposes we are in narrative #2 again. It remains the purpose of the one true living God to retain a people for his own possession, to bless them with the original blessing of creation so that, or with the result that, they might be a blessing to the nations and cultures of the world. In other words, the controlling motif after Christendom should be neither salvation nor kingdom but election for the purpose of being God’s blessed new creation people. God invites people indiscriminately to become part of that people, and if they accept the invitation, they are “saved” and share in the new creation blessing. I would happily call that the missio Dei, but it’s perhaps not what is usually meant by the term.