“Missio Dei” in historical perspectives, part 2

Read time: 7 minutes

In The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative Chris Wright follows David Bosch’s analysis and comes to the same basic conclusion—that the phrase missio Dei remains valuable because it expresses a major biblical truth: “The God revealed in the Scriptures is personal, purposeful and goal-orientated” (63). He sums up the overarching mission of God in these terms:

…from the great promise of God to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3 we know this God to be totally, covenantally and eternally committed to the mission of blessing the nations through the agency of the people of Abraham.

This commitment of the missional God may then be located within a biblical metanarrative that moves from creation, through human rebellion, to the extensive “story of God’s redemptive purposes being worked out on the stage of human history”, culminating beyond history “with the eschatological hope of a new creation” (63-64). In other words, the mission of God from Genesis 11 through to the end of history is the blessing of the nations, by which is meant the redemption of humanity.

The problem with this conventional construction is that not only the bulk of the biblical narrative but also, in effect, the whole of human history is placed under the single heading of “redemption”. There are two assumptions entailed here that do not normally come up for discussion in missiological conversations. The first is that the mission of God never changes—that the living, dynamic God of history always engages with humanity with fundamentally the same objective in mind. The second is that this unchanging objective is always and simply to be understood as a work of redemption.

Neither assumption is simply false, but as far as the interpretation of scripture is concerned, both are overstated—they have been inflated to the level of absolute and total definition, and in the process a narrative theme of critical historical, theological and, I would argue, canonical significance has been squeezed out.

It is correct to state i) that the mission of God in scripture is worked out, as Chris Wright says, under the rubric of the blessing of the nations through the agency of the family of Abraham, and ii) that this mission at a certain juncture and in a certain sense included the “salvation” of both Jews and Gentiles. But there is a thick, but neglected, narrative seam running right through scripture, which needs to be written back into our missiology and our account of the mission of God—and, for that matter, into our understanding of the authority of scripture. This narrative determines in an unexpected way the conditions under which the promise to Abraham would be fulfilled; it also contains within itself the core biblical argument about salvation. But as a historical narrative it has a beginning, a middle, and an end; and this opens up the possibility that subsequently the missio Dei may need to be stated in different forms under different circumstances.

Every knee shall bow: the victory of YHWH over the nations

The main storyline in scripture, I would argue—the storyline that best accounts for the shape of scripture, that best holds its disparate materials together—is not the redemptive one. It is rather the story of the conflict between YHWH and the gods of the nations, which is concretely a conflict between the people of YHWH and the nations, culminating in the acknowledgment of the rightness of Israel’s God throughout the pagan world. According to this storyline the missio Dei would be the struggle of Israel’s God—that is, of the one good creator God—to establish his sovereignty over the nations. It is grounded in the intention to bless the nations, and it includes the “salvation” of people from the nations; but it is constitutive of the biblical narrative in a way which these other elements are not.

The story begins with the response of God to the presumption of the builders of Babel, which is a precursor of Babylon: first, judgment on the large-scale self-aggrandizement of humanity, then the calling of Abraham to be the father of a new creation. Israel emerges as a nation by way of an intense conflict with the gods of Egypt. The rivalry between YHWH and the Canaanite and other regional deities escalates throughout the period of the kingdoms, and reaches its climax in the Babylonian invasion and the exile as YHWH’s judgment on an idolatrous people. Isaiah expresses the hope that Israel will be restored, but more importantly this act of salvation will be a demonstration to the nations that “there is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Saviour”. “To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance” (Is. 45:22-23).

So Paul’s argument in Philippians 2:6-11 is that it is through the faithfulness and obedience of Jesus that this conversion of the pagan world will come about: “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”. I made the point in The Coming of the Son of Man that the parousia motif, the symbolic account of Jesus’ “coming”, is a prophetic statement regarding the final vindication of Jesus and of those “in him” in the context of the church’s struggle with Greek-Roman paganism. It defines the moment when Jesus will defeat the “man of lawlessness”—the arrogant and blasphemous pagan ruler who makes himself equal with God—and will deliver the church from its afflictions (cf. 2 Thess. 2:1-12). Finally, we have the account of divine judgment on Rome in Revelation, when the “kingdom of the world” becomes the “kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ” (Rev. 11:15).

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. It unfolds between the judgment of God against Babel which was Babylon to the overthrow of “Babylon” which was Rome. The background or overarching story of creation and the renewal of creation shows through in places, but in the foreground is the drawn-out conflict between YHWH and the gods of the nations.

This narrative, however, is enacted not at a mythical or metaphysical level. It is enacted in the historical existence of a people, which is where the salvation motif comes into play. Plan A for Israel was that it would keep the Law, that it would be blessed by YHWH, that its prosperity and political integrity would be safeguarded, that it would be a model of righteousness, a blessing to the nations, a light to the Gentiles, and that YHWH would be acknowledged amongst Israel’s powerful neighbours as the one true God.

Plan A failed because Israel proved to be as much the helpless slave of sin as the rest of humanity, so Plan B came into effect. Plan B was that the victory of YHWH over the gods of the nations would have to be achieved by way of a protracted narrative of failure, judgment and suffering—a theme that runs at least from the Song of Moses (Deut. 32), through Isaiah 53, Daniel 7 (and the stories of the Maccabean martyrs), through the cross of Jesus, the crisis of second temple Judaism, to the sufferings of the apostles and of the churches persecuted by Rome.

So what is actually achieved in the biblical story—from the first emergence of Babylonian-style empire to the victory of the suffering people of God over the “Babylon” which was Rome—was the acknowledgment of YHWH as the one good creator God. A crucial part of this story, of course, is told by the writers of the New Testament prospectively or prophetically—the New Testament is a work of eschatological hope. But it is told in a way which makes it clear, I think, that this foundational missio Dei comes to an end in history; and this naturally raises the question of what comes next….

Why does everything have to turn out to be Christian?

Why are the 3000 year old tribalistic writings of a tiny cult binding on all of humankind in 2011?

Especially in a world where 4 billion living-breathing-feeling human beings are not Christians.

And in which all of the Sacred Texts of the entire Great Tradition of humankind are freely available to anyone with and internet connection.

There are now more Christians on the planet than ever before. More Bibles and Christian literature of all kinds. More theology being done and studied.More Christian TV, radio, websites, Dvd"s and CD's than ever before.

And yet the world is becoming more insane every day. Indeed some of the strongest vectors of this ever growing insanity are right-wing Christian religionists.


El Dios Creador se ha revalado y ha escogido su forma de hacerlo de modo soberano.
La cantidad de material de difusión solo le sirve a aquellos que han aceptado la soberanía de Dios en sus vidas. No se llega a Dios a modo humano, se llega a Dios como el lo ha dispuesto. Por eso todo tiene que ser “cristiano”, no de forma religiosa y por formas humanas, sino de acuerdo a la manera de Cristo.
Los millones de humanos que dicen “a mi manera” se oponen a Dios que ya decidio cual es la manera de llegar a Él y vivir de acuerdo con Él.

Did you ever meet Jesus up close and personal so that he could have instructed you in how to live the spirit-breathing Spiritual Way of Life that he taught and demonstrated?

Did you ever meet "Paul" up close and personal?

Of course "Paul" never ever met Jesus up close and personal either. He invented a  power and control religion about Jesus.

Did you ever meet up close and personal the various authors of the Old Testament?

Did you ever meet up close and personal the church fathers who fabricated the Bible as an essentially POLITICAL document to consolidate THEIR worldly power?

Did you thus ask them why they included and/or excluded the many Christian writings which were available to them at the time. Why they heavily edited the ones they did choose, and why they FABRICATED some/many/all of the stories in the "New" Testament". For instance the "reports" of the supposed conversation between Jesus and Pilate? Who could have possibly written that "report" down?

What then are you really talking about or promoting?


Have you ever met Abraham Lincoln?

Have you ever met Thomas Edison?

Have you ever met George Washington?

What about Christopher Columbus?

Where you there? Then why do you believe in them?

Because it was written and recorded, just like the bible — except the bible was written by God,through man, perfectly. To say that it was fabricated is a strong statement.

If you dont believe that what was written is true then how can you believe that important topics where kept out of the Bible… you must have read that somewhere.

The purpose of the Bible was exactly opposite then your statement of governmental power and control. The Bible offers freedom and choice, isn’t that awesome.

So now you have a choice… you can deny the infallability of the Bible and the truly free redemption it offers, or you can speak against it; resulting in a life of true sorrow and no future.

I find that a fairly useful articulation and I do think the idea of spiritual conflict with the other gods and idols of the nations provides a richer tapestry of understanding (you've read Boyd's trilogy which leans towards this sort of perspective, I presume?).

It provides a significant address to idolatry, which is surely at the heart of the gospel message—and this, perhaps, provides a way in which to discuss what 'salvation' means in each context: it depends upon which idols, which gods are in the ascendency within the nations, cultures, societies that the gospel seeks to penetrate…

I don't think it's necessary to state it in terms of plan A and B. Israel's calling was to be a covenant partner (e.g. Ex. 19.5ff etc). The covenant / torah / the Teaching (never "the Law" Jewishly-speaking) incorporated an adequate way of dealing with sin(s), so it really wasn't an issue of sinfulness, per se (i.e. in the same way as with the nations).

It was a lack of faithfulness to covenant. Israel proved to be an unfaithful, unproductive covenant partner and this is the reason why YHWH had to discipline them and bring them through such a humbling cycle of failure and exile. They could not co-operate with the missio Dei until the issue of faithfulness was dealt with. In this sense, their enslavement to idolatry was a stumbling block to covenant faithfulness. They needed deliverance from that.

The new covenant provided a new way of being fundamentally delivered from the idolatry of self (as well as the gods we selfishly serve), that the former covenant did not. The way of the Spirit.

[In case it's not clear, this is not intended to critique of what you are positing, rather, to use a musical metaphor, an attempt at harmonising with it, from another perspective…]

@John (e/p):

I’m not sure I’ve got this right, but the distinction I had in mind between plan A and plan B was not so much that one dealt with Israel’s sinfulness and the other didn’t. Deuteronomy 28:1-14 describes a way of obedience and blessing (without actually mentioning the sacrificial system); verses 15-68 describe the outcome of disobedience and unfaithfulness in terms of extreme affliction. If Israel had been obedient, then presumably the “curses” would never have come into force. What plan B does is find a way forward towards restoration and life through the experience of judgment, suffering and destruction. I totally agree that this entailed the liberation of the self and of the community from idolatry.

@Andrew Perriman:

To be sure, I don't think it's a matter of being right or wrong…I simply prefer a narrative that focuses upon covenant faithfulness, as a broad but central biblical concept, based upon Torah as covenant charter… rather than "Law"-based interpretations that tend to confuse covenant partnership with legalism and end up seeming to imply that God set Israel up for an inevitable fall, just to expose their sinfulness as the same as that of the nations.

I'm not saying you have put it that way, Andrew—I recognise you are wanting to draw us all out into a larger narrative perspective (if only to ask us to zoom back in again variously). I merely suggest that identifying the two articulations above (accepting that one is something of a characterisation) may be helpful to any missiological recasting of broader narrative. 

Put another way: If Plan A = blessing and B = cursed for faithlessness, they are arguably one and the same: one covenant, two paths. I.e. Rather than a second plan on God's part. 

However, if by Plan B you refer to the New Covenant, inaugurated by Jesus and representing the New Way of the Spirit that entails Glory through Suffering, Life through Death, Liberation through Deliverance from the Idolatry of Ascendant Cultural Gods, then I agree…

Except that I would want to suggest that each of the biblical covenants is a necessary precursor to the following one. So again, not so much another plan, because the first one failed, because Israel failed, but rather a convoluted journey through the consequences of covenant partnership, within all these different historical, social and cultural—and covenantal—contexts.

Don't know if that's helpful or not… Onto Pt.3