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.