John R. Franke’s missional theology: understanding church, image, and kingdom

Read time: 11 minutes

John Franke’s Missional Theology: An Introduction starts with the idea associated with Karl Barth and the missiologist Karl Hartenstein that the biblical God is in his very nature a missional God. Mission is not primarily what the church does; it is what God does, expressed most fully in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Through the Spirit the church participates in the missio Dei—the “mission of God”—as its social, historical, and cultural embodiment, and is fundamentally defined by that participation. The church is not missional in one or other of its activities—doing evangelism, planting churches. It is missional at its core and in its entire purpose.

The nature of the missio Dei is defined in relational-Trinitarian terms and as the outworking of God’s love for the world, and this naturally determines the practical involvement of the church. “The love that characterizes the mission of God from all eternity is the compelling basis for the extension of the divine mission to the world” (18).

This can then be translated into the language of “salvation,” but not in the narrow modern sense of the salvation of individuals for a heavenly future. “God’s actions are on behalf of the whole created order so that it will be set free from its bondage to decay” (22). So also the “missional church” must embrace the full extent of God’s interests and actions. “This type of all-encompassing, interdependent, individual and communal formation is precisely what is called for in the New Testament as participation in the mission of God” (29).

The church as image of God and sign of the kingdom

So far the argument has been developed, for the most part, on a theological basis: God is missional, therefore the church is missional; the mission of God is social and creational, therefore the mission of the church is expressed in the life of a community, in its various social and environmental relations.

Now Franke attempts to expound this in terms of two biblical concepts—the “image of God” and the “kingdom of God” (42-46).

Theological anthropologies, he says—ah, we are starting out on theological grounds again!—have usually been constructed around the idea that humanity is in the “image of God.” The concept has been interpreted in different ways. Traditionally, it has been supposed that the image of God consists in those properties that mark us out as distinctively human—basically, our capacity for reasoning and our moral nature. The Protestant Reformers are credited with having extended this definition in two directions, relationally and eschatologically: humanity’s relationship with God was broken by sin but is being repaired through Christ, and this process will culminate in a final and perfect restoration of the image of God when we attain eternal life.

From this perspective, the creation of human beings in the image of God is an ontological status, a relational and vocational calling, and a destiny toward which human beings are moving. (43)

Franke then argues that in Genesis 1:26 this theological construction is connected with the concept of “dominion”: humanity is made in the image and according to the likeness of God and is directly given dominion over all living creatures. How is this dominion to be understood? Not in “modern industrial” terms but according to the “royal theology of the Hebrew Bible.” Just as kings in the Ancient Near East set up images of themselves in remote parts of their territories as a substitute for their personal presence, so too “human beings are placed upon the earth in God’s image as God’s sovereign emblem or image to represent God’s dominion on the earth” (44). Therefore, we are to infer that humans are called to “reflect God’s loving care of creation.”

In the New Testament, however, the concept of the divine image is applied especially to Christ as the “clear representation of the character of God (cf. 2 Cor. 4:4-6; Col. 1:15), and those who are joined to Christ “share in his role as the image of God.” In fact, the proper end for all humanity is to be conformed to Christ as the likeness of God (Rom. 8:29; 1 Jn. 3:2).

In short, the entire biblical panorama may be read as presenting the purpose of God as bringing into being a people who reflect the divine character and thus fulfilling the vocational calling to be the image of God. (44)

The next stage in the argument is to connect this account of the image of God with Jesus’ announcement about the kingdom of God. Franke takes this to be a statement about the kingdom as a “present reality in the person of Jesus” (45). So what the Gospel writers are saying is that “after long and often difficult years of anticipating the reign of God in the world, in Jesus of Nazareth God’s kingdom has come near in a new and decisive way that calls for actions among those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.”

The church, therefore, is sent into the world as a “sign”—and to teach people how to live as a sign—of this new reality, which is basically the fact that God is changing the world through love.

This leads to the formation of a new community, a welcoming and inclusive community that lives the love of God for the world and transcends the divisions that are so often used to exclude people from the blessing and peace of God’s kingdom.

The missional hermeneutic

I did a three part critique of the missio Dei thesis and specifically of its relation to the biblical narrative some years back. I won’t go over all that again here, but the basic conclusion holds, I think, for Franke’s account: the missio Dei storyline of the loving God who is intent on restoring his creation fails to register the central and controlling force of the historical—or history-like—narrative that runs from the construction of Babel, through the period of Babylon’s hegemony, to the overthrow of Babylon the great in Revelation 18.

Franke’s approach properly locates the individual in social and cosmic contexts, but as a hermeneutic it fails in two respects.

First, scripture gives us a story about Israel, in which individuals—mostly prominent, representative individuals such as prophets and kings—participate. Modern theologies such as Franke’s typically struggle to do justice to this dynamic because they still begin with the individual and rarely get beyond acknowledging that individuals are embedded in social matrices—a point which, to be fair, Franke makes well (36-42).

Secondly, if the salvation action of God extends beyond individuals to encompass communities and societies, we are bound to recognise that the existence of communities and societies has an inescapable historical dimension. Things change, sometimes quite dramatically, over long periods of time. This is why I stress the importance of the narrative-historical hermeneutic.

So Franke reads Isaiah 65:19-25 as a vision of a new world, neatly editing out the opening reference to Jerusalem:

I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days, for the young man shall die a hundred years old, and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed. (Is. 65:19–20)

Likewise, he says that Jesus commissioned his followers “to go to the nations and make disciples who will follow his way of life and create a new world, the realization of Isaiah’s vision, the kingdom of God—here and now, on this earth” (27). This entirely ignores the fact that Jesus’ “mission” in the Synoptic Gospels is tightly circumscribed. His prophetic focus is on a coming act of divine judgment within the lifetime of his followers which will have devastating consequences for Jerusalem and for his people. The mission of the disciples in the coming decades is, on the one hand, to tell Israel and the nations that these things are about to happen, and on the other, to form an alternative to unrighteous national Israel.

So despite his determination to encompass the whole of human experience, Franke overlooks precisely that aspect of human experience that shapes the entire biblical narrative—namely, the life of nations. To read the Old Testament as a source of prophecies of new creation—or even as the account of “long and often difficult years anticipating the reign of God the world”—is hardly any better than reading it as a source of prophecies about Christ.

The image of God is not the image of God

The attempt to connect the theological argument with the specific Old Testament concept of the image of God is also too broad-brush to be convincing. For a start, there is no basis in scripture, as far as I am aware, for the idea that the “image of God” was corrupted or lost because humanity sinned, and that it therefore needs to be restored. Wisdom of Solomon reflects the essentially Hellenistic notion that God created humans “for incorruption and made them as an image of his own eternality,” which was lost when death entered the world (Wis. 2:23). But that is a much narrower thought than is presupposed in Franke’s argument.

So what is happening with New Testament statements about Jesus being the image of God?

Paul says that “the god of this age” has blinded the minds of unbelieving Jews “in order that the light of the gospel of the glory of the Christ, who is an image of God, might not shine” (2 Cor. 4:4, my translation). This is also a “light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face (or presence) of Christ Jesus” (2 Cor. 4:6). But the prominence of light imagery here makes it unlikely that this is the “image of God” of Genesis 1:26-27. This image is a reflection of the glory of God (cf. Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3), and what Paul seems to have in mind specifically is the glory that comes about through suffering.

The apostles have this “treasure” in earthen jars; they endure the sufferings and dying of Jesus; but “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:7-18). This is what it means for them to be “conformed to the image of his Son,” so eventually to be glorified (Rom. 8:29-30). They are being conformed not to an ideal of universal humanity but to the pattern of obedient suffering required at this eschatological moment, and the “glory” to be attained is the eventual vindication of the apostles and of the persecuted churches.

The kingdom of God is not the presence of Jesus

We have a similar problem with Franke’s conflation—or confusion—of the “image of God” and “kingdom of God” motifs. The argument is disjointed. The link between the church fulfilling its vocation to be the image of God and Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God is not explained, merely assumed. The only “image” or eikōn in the Gospels is Caesar’s (Matt. 22:20; Mk. 12:16; Lk. 20:24).

The kingdom of God is present in the person and actions of Jesus only insofar as this anticipates and points towards a future moment or episode in the story of Israel, when God will intervene to punish wickedness and establish a new righteous régime and the Son of Man and his followers will be vindicated. The parables of the kingdom are stories of future crisis or judgment or harvest.

This means, I think, that it is misleading to say that love is the objective of the kingdom of God agenda in the New Testament. Kingdom is a matter fundamentally of government—of the administration of justice, of the defence of the realm, of the defeat of enemies. God acts as king in such ways not because he loves the world but in order to safeguard his own reputation and glory among the nations: “Hallowed be your name, your kingdom come….” True, part of the motivation for acting may be God’s love for his people and his faithfulness to the promises made to the patriarchs, but the purpose of kingdom actions is to put things right on the world stage.

The church is a “sign of the kingdom of God,” therefore, whenever by its existence or action it points to a future intervention of God to correct the course of history. Kingdom, as a theological construct, presupposes history, because kingdom is the management of the internal integrity and the external security of historical communities (cf. 1 Sam. 8:19-20). That might be now, if we believe that the living God is about to “judge” runaway global consumerism by means of a climate catastrophe. If not, then let us say that the church is a sign not of kingdom but of the final judgment of all people and renewal of heaven and earth—in other words, a sign of new creation.

If you’re interested in finding out more about “missional church,” why it’s a critical part of the church’s response to secularism, and how to go about doing it, check out the brilliant online course we are doing with King’s School of Theology here in the UK, starting February 24th.