I suggested recently that in their book What is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert highlight some legitimate concerns regarding current “missional” thinking. There will be differences of opinion, but I think they are right to complain that, both in theory and in practice, the pendulum of mission has swung too far away from gospel proclamation in the direction of social transformation. The authors argue that it needs to swing back again: mission is fundamentally about making individual disciples of Jesus Christ, as defined by the so-called Great Commission texts. But here I disagree. I think that the narrative-historical approach offers us a way to get beyond the tired and unbiblical dichotomy of proclamation and praxis, though I’m not going to try to explain what I mean by that here.
In chapter 2 of the book the authors consider three passages which have been used by proponents of the missional paradigm to present a “different and fuller mission identity for the church”—in effect, mission as serving the world, the poor in particular, as an act of love and an exercise in social justice, or something along those lines. The first of these is Genesis 12:1-3:
Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (ESV)
DeYoung and Gilbert note Reggie McNeal’s view that “the people of God are charged with the responsibility and enjoy the privilege to bless everyone” and Christopher Wright’s suggestion that “Go… and be a blessing” would not be “an inappropriate slogan with which to grace all the church’s concept and practice of mission”.1 This line of argument, however, leads to an understanding of the passage not as a “revelation of God’s ultimate mission in redemptive history” but as a “command for the children of Abraham to help the nations experience all the good gifts that God longs for them to enjoy” (30). In other words, they maintain that the passage has missional value only insofar as it points towards Jesus.
They make their case, in the first place, on grammatical grounds. They think it is unlikely that Abraham is commanded actively and intentionally to be a blessing. There are two imperatives in the Hebrew text: “The Lord says to Abram, ‘Go from your land…. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; and be a blessing.’” DeYoung and Gilbert maintain that “be a blessing”, though formally an imperative, actually expresses the purpose or result of going, hence the ESV translation: “Go… and I will bless you, so that you will be a blessing.” They think that Eckhardt Schnabel gets the gist of the passage right:
Abraham does not receive an assignment to carry YHWH’s blessings to the nations; rather, the nations are promised divine blessing if and when they see Abraham’s faith in YHWH and if and when they establish contact with his descendants.
The argument gets a little lost at this point. They admit, to their credit, that they are “not experts in Hebrew grammar”, that the grammar is ambiguous anyway, and that it is not easy to distinguish between God blessing the nations through Abraham’s obedience and Abraham (and his descendants) being a blessing to the nations. But they are probably right to say that Abraham did not understand his call to leave his home as “a commission to go find ways to bless the nations” (33). The line of thought would appear to be: if Abraham and his descendants do what they are told, they will be blessed, and the peoples of the earth will be blessed because of them.
The point that DeYoung and Gilbert want to drive home is that, while there is nothing wrong with Christians being a blessing to others, this is not the mission of the church. Genesis 12:1-3 is a “glorious mission text announcing God’s plans to bless the whole world”, but we have to wait until Jesus for its fulfilment. As Paul says, it is those of have faith who are “blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (Gal. 3:9).
If there are missiological implications from Genesis, their emphasis is not “go and bless everyone” but rather “go and call the nations to put their faith in Christ”. (33)
So the pendulum of mission is back on the personal salvation and discipleship side of the equation, though perhaps with some acknowledgment that blessing the nations in practical ways is no bad thing. But we are still left with a very incomplete sense of how the Great Commission fits into the biblical narrative as a whole. Scripture doesn’t work with our modern binaries. It tells a story.
1. Because the expectation of blessing in the patriarchal narratives is repeatedly associated with the command to be fruitful, multiply and fill the land (Gen. 17:6; 22:17-18; 26:3-4, 24; 28:14; 35:11; 47:27; 48:4), I think it is clear that this is the original blessing of God’s good creation that is recovered (Gen. 1:28). If they are obedient to the creator, Abraham and his descendants will experience something of the blessing of a pristine creation, and the nations will experience the same holistic blessing through them. If we wish to insist now that this blessing comes through Christ, we cannot reduce it to a spiritualized notion of personal salvation. It touches on the whole of created life and therefore must have something to do, for example, with social and environmental justice. Wright is right to write that God’s blessing in Genesis “is manifested most obviously in human prosperity and well-being”, understood in both vertical and horizontal relational terms.2
2. The covenant with Abraham cannot be construed as a “revelation of God’s ultimate mission in redemptive history” in the sense that DeYoung and Gilbert intend. It does not anticipate either the coming of a future messiah or the inclusion of the nations in the covenant people. Whatever Paul may have concluded, it rests entirely on the obedience of Abraham and his physical descendants in the land that God will give them. As I argued in Re: Mission: Biblical Mission for a Post-Biblical Church, God’s people were always intended to be a new creation in microcosm, in a blessed land, in the midst of a world that has fundamentally and irremediably rebelled against the creator.
3. The theme, however, recurs in the prophets, where it becomes part of the narrative of Israel’s restoration following divine judgment:
Their offspring shall be known among the nations, and their descendants in the midst of the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge them, that they are an offspring the LORD has blessed. (Is. 61:9)
If you return, O Israel…, and if you swear, ‘As the LORD lives,’ in truth, in justice, and in righteousness, then nations shall bless themselves in him, and in him shall they glory.” (Jer. 4:1-2)
And as you have been a byword of cursing among the nations, O house of Judah and house of Israel, so will I save you, and you shall be a blessing. Fear not, but let your hands be strong.” (Zech. 8:13)
If in Genesis the experience and mediation of the original blessing of the world was to be gained through the obedience of Abraham and his family, in the prophets it is regained through the disobedience of his family. The God who called Abraham in order to “bless him and multiply him” will make the waste places of Jerusalem “like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord” (Is. 51:2-3). If Israel returns to YHWH and acts in truth, justice and righteousness, “then nations shall bless themselves in him, and in him shall they glory” (Jer. 4:2).
Similarly, according to Zechariah, the vine will give its fruit, the ground will be productive, the heavens will give their dew, and a remnant of Israel will be a blessing among the nations (Zech. 8:12-13). This will happen when the nations “come to seek the LORD of hosts in Jerusalem and to entreat the favour of the LORD”, but the pilgrimage motif should not be taken as religiously reductive: the nations come to YHWH for the sake of their whole well-being.
So the full creational blessing of the nations, concretely and politically understood, comes about when Israel returns to YHWH and is forgiven.
4. Paul has reworked the idea to serve his polemic in Galatians 3:7-9. The blessing of the nations in Abraham corresponds to the justification of Gentiles and their reception of the Holy Spirit on the basis of faith rather than of works of the Jewish Law. This has to be regarded as something of a dead-end as far as the missional argument about the blessing of the nations is concerned. But I’m not sure it negates the broader point about mission.
What is happening in the New Testament is not simply that individuals are being saved, reconciled to God through faith in Jesus. Of greater narrative importance is the historical judgment and restoration of that people which was commissioned, from its inception in Genesis 12:1-3, to be God’s new creation in the midst of the nations of the earth. The pattern set in the prophets—and I would argue, carried through into the New Testament—is that such a restored community both is blessed in the fullest terms and mediates that blessing to peoples who come to seek the favour of the creator God.
The point of Paul’s argument in Galatians, in part at least, is that this happens through the Spirit rather than through adherence to the Jewish Law. But this is only a small part of the whole process. The problem with DeYoung and Gilbert’s response to the missional argument is that they move from Genesis 12:1-3 to Galatians 3:7-9, from Abraham to Jesus, and then stop there, with their narrowly interpreted Great Commission. The biblical story, however, demands that we then work outwards again to embrace the whole historical existence of God’s people as new creation, in dynamic engagement with the nations and cultures of the world. Although I would argue that Wright has misconstrued the “grand narrative” of the Bible as oriented towards salvation rather than “kingdom”, I think he is quite right to resist the sort of instrumentalism implied in DeYoung and Gilbert’s interpretive strategy:
So the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham comes about not merely as nations are blessed in some general sense but only as they specifically come to know the whole biblical grand story, of which Abraham is a key pivot. This is profoundly important for mission. One of the reasons for the appalling shallowness and vulnerability of much that passes for the growth of the church around the world is that people are coming to some kind of instrumental faith in a God they see as powerful, with some connection to Jesus, but a Jesus disconnected from his scriptural roots. They have not been challenged at the level of their deeper worldview by coming to know God in and through the story that is launched by Abraham.3