Gary Millar’s Evaluation of Christopher J. H. Wright – Part One

Introduction

This is the second post in a series critiquing Gary Millar’s “A Biblical Theology of Mission: An Evaluation of Chris Wright” delivered at the 2013 Gospel Coalition National Conference.  This post will take one or more of Millar’s main sections, as outlined here, and further develop his content as well as offering critique when necessary.

Posts in this Series

Summary

Three Reasons this Matters

Millar begins by giving a brief biography of his interactions with Christopher J. H. Wright and why this has led him to feel reluctant to critique The Mission of God.  He then explains the three reasons why this book matters.

  • The Mission of God is now basically the standard evangelical work on mission.”
  • The Mission of God represents a strand of thinking about mission that’s almost universal in the evangelical world and I’ve noticed that it tends to be simply stated and taken for granted, rather than argued or defended.”
  • “I think that The Mission of God contains key flaws; which if left unchallenged will lead to the dilution of the missionary efforts of the evangelical church across the world.”

Regarding the last point Millar explains, “Now please do not mishear me today.  I am not saying that that’s Chris Wright’s intention that is simply not true.”  We will return to this at a later point in the discussion of Millar’s critique.  He then explains that Wright loves Jesus and is committed to the gospel and the Scriptures and because of this Millar approaches this with a sense of his own weakness and a prayer that whatever unhelpful things he says would be forgotten.

I would add to Millar’s three reasons a fourth, namely the renewed interest in biblical theology in both the church and the academy.  The number of biblical theologies written in the past decade is quite astounding and so this book arrives as a significant work for missiologists and theologians as well as pastors and their congregations.  There have been books and journal articles in the past which have attempted to approach missions from a whole bible or biblical theological perspective but nothing on this scale nor anything providing such an in-depth analysis of the Old Testament on this subject, a point Wright makes very early on in this volume.  The renewed interest in biblical theology as well as this volumes breadth, depth, and timely arrival have and will continue to garner a wide reading.

Summary of Key Conclusions from The Mission of God

Millar then moves to summarize what he believes to be the four key conclusions drawn by Wright in The Mission of God.  He does so by reading several quotes from The Mission of God which I have included below.

  • Mission is the Mission of God

Fundamentally, our mission (if it is biblically informed and validated) means our committed participation as God’s people, at God’s invitation and command, in God’s own mission within the history of God’s world for the redemption of God’s creation (22).

  • Everything is Mission

A different way of thinking about mission would be to imagine a whole circle of all the needs and opportunities that God calls (or sends) us to address in the world (317).

Is the church, through the combined engagement of all its members, applying the redemptive power of the cross of Christ to all the effects of sin and evil in the surrounding lives, society and environment (322)?

He then reads this quotation for a second time adding an interjection, “applying the redemptive power of the cross of Christ [‘whatever that means’] to all the effects of sin and evil.”  This is one of the critical flaws in Millar’s argument that will be noted throughout this review.  At this point he feigns ignorance and at others he will argue that Wright lacked clarity or ample explanation of his thought when this is clearly not the case.

The quotation in question comes at the end of chapter nine which explores the jubilee as a model of restoration, this is intimately tied to the argument of chapter eight which examines the exodus as a model of redemption and the two chapters preceding that which examine God’s chosen people.  The jubilee is closely tied to the exodus because what the exodus embodies as a singular event the jubilee embodies in an ongoing commitment (289-90).  Wright works through the social, economic, and theological aspects of the jubilee both in its original context and then demonstrates how it “lies behind our practice of mission” (300).  He then examines how Jesus both proclaims and embodies the jubilee and how the church, in both her proclamation and practice, is both a Spirit empowered echo of the jubilee and a foretaste of the age to come.  Before explaining how this is to be applied within the church he must first relate the jubilee to the cross.  Wright begins,

Any theology of mission that claims to be biblical must have at its core that which is at the very core of biblical faith – the cross of Christ.  So if we are to establish that a truly biblical understanding of mission is holistic, integrating all the dimensions we have been surveying hitherto, then we must ask how all of that coheres around the cross (312).

Holistic mission is cross-centered mission because “in all forms of Christian mission in the name of Christ we are confronting the powers of evil and the kingdom of Satan—with all their dismal effects on human life and the wider creation” (314).  After all,

Only in the cross is there forgiveness, justification, and cleaning for guilty sinners.  Only in the cross stands the defeat of evil powers.  Only in the cross is there release from the fear of death and its ultimate destruction altogether.  Only in the cross are even the most intractable of enemies reconciled.  Only in the cross will we finally witness the healing of all creation (315).

If the cross is the answer to all of these varying issues then how does the church go about “applying the redemptive power of the cross?”  He answers this question using night blindness as an example.  Night blindness is caused by a vitamin A deficiency, which is usually the result of malnutrition that can be traced to social injustice which has its roots in the human heart in the form of greed.  Along this string of relationships and events the redemptive power of the cross is applied from the alleviation of present suffering, to the reconciliation of the oppressed to their oppressors, and the reconciliation of individuals to God.  Beyond night blindness he returns to the exodus and reminds the reader of how redemption was applied in that context as God addressed a range of social and economic issues working towards the end that all peoples, but specifically Israel, know and worship Him.  This is how Wright expects the church to apply the redemptive power of the cross by proclaiming and demonstrating how the cross radically confronts the powers of sin and evil and provides a future eschatological hope that has been inaugurated in the present. These concepts should not be lost on the reader nor should it be lost on a reviewer such as Millar.

  • The Great Commandment is as Important as the Great Commission in Seeking to Reach the World

Conversely, a missional hermeneutic of the whole Bible will not become obsessed with only the great mission imperatives, such as the Great Commission, or be tempted to impose on them one assumed priority or another (e.g., evangelism or social justice or liberation or ecclesiastical order as the only “real” mission).  Rather we will set those great imperatives within the context of their foundational indicatives, namely, all that the Bible affirms about God, creation, human life in its paradox of dignity and depravity, redemption in all its comprehensive glory, and the new creation in which God will dwell with his people (61).

  • The Exodus and the Jubilee form the Key Paradigms for Understanding our Mission

So although the exodus stands as a unique and unrepeatable event in the history of Old Testament Israel, it also stands as a paradigmatic and highly repeatable model for the way God wishes to act in the world, and ultimately will act for the whole of Creation.  The exodus is a prime lens through which we see the biblical mission of God (275).

There are certainly other conclusions that can be drawn from Wright’s work that are equally important as the ones pointed out by Millar.  Central to the argument of this volume is Wright’s understanding of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, between the indicative and the imperative.  I will further explain this key conclusion later as it is clear that Millar does not understand the significance of this in Wright’s thinking.

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