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
The Mission of God Overview
Summarizing Millar’s overview. Millar mingles overview with critique so it is helpful to begin by distilling his overview into a positive summary of the four sections contained within Christopher J. h. Wright’s The Mission of God. This is both helpful in understanding Wright’s work and the broader context into which Millar’s critique fits.
- Part 1: The Bible and Mission – The main argument here is that mission is God’s mission, mission is central to the whole Bible, the bible was written on mission, we need to read the Bible with a missional hermeneutic, and the whole Bible should shape our mission.
- Part 2: The God of Mission – There are two key locations where Israel comes to know their God, the exodus and the return from exile. He defends monotheism, discusses idolatry, and critiques religious pluralism.
- Part 3: The People of Mission – Here he argues for the primacy of mission in the election of Israel, this is the controlling idea in the Old Testament. He then demonstrates how the Exodus and the Jubilee encapsulate the heart of God’s missional agenda. Finally, the priesthood of Israel is also presented as a controlling idea in the Old Testament.
- Part 4: The Arena of Mission – Here he begins to spell out how this affects how we do mission today particularly as it pertains to creation, the image of God, and the nations.
Examining Millar’s overview. Now we will work through Millar’s summary both to develop his content and offer critique when necessary.
- Part 1: The Bible and Mission – The main argument up to this point is that mission is God’s mission, mission is central to the whole Bible, the bible was written on mission, we need to read the Bible with a missional hermeneutic, and the whole Bible should shape our mission.
Millar begins by explaining that the first part of the book is where “he [Wright] justifies his approach and introduces his key terms and conclusions.” Here Wright begins with a brief autobiography, and Millar makes emphasis of their shared Northern Irish origins, explaining what it was like to grow up with the understanding that only proclamation evangelism can be considered mission and that only when done outside of your homeland. From this Millar concludes that this book is reactive not proactive.
Wright then moves to define what he means by “mission,” “missionary,” “missional,” “missiology and missiological.” Without any explanation regarding Wright’s definition of “mission” Millar quips,
Which, if you were listening this morning, you will see is rather different than the one that uh that John offered. Chris quickly identifies the mission of God is the driving force behind all that we do. The engine room of the whole book and actually a helpful insight is the quotation we have already seen a couple of times that fundamentally our mission is participation in God’s mission.
Earlier that morning John Piper, in a sermon entitled “The Heart of God in the Call to Proclaim: A Joyfully Serious Courage in the Cause of World Missions,” gave the following definition of mission,
Missions is the great and glorious calling of Jesus for the church to make disciples among the remaining unreached peoples of the world. Local evangelism and frontier missions are not the same. Frontier missions is the specialized calling to plant the church in a people group where the church hasn’t yet taken root. (This is the wording given in the transcript, available here. It has been slightly altered from the exact language of the conference but expresses the same thought.)
With that definition of missions in mind Millar dismisses Wright’s definition of mission without any examination or counterarguments. He simply implies that Wright does not define mission the same way Piper does therefore Wright’s definition is to be dismissed and he moves on to define Wright’s key terms. Now, is this actually the case? Does Wright define missions all that differently than Piper does? Beyond that is Piper’s definition so universally accepted and argument so airtight that there is no room for critique? In his book Let The Nations be Glad! The Supremacy of God in Missions John Piper defines missions in strikingly similar terminology to that of Wright.
Piper argues with Wright that mission belongs to God and that our mission is participation in God’s mission as demonstrated by the following three quotations from Let the Nations be Glad.
Missions flows from the fullness of God’s passion for God, and it aims at the participation of the nations in the very passion that he has for himself (cf. Matt. 25:21, 23; John 15:11; 17:13, 26). The power of the missionary enterprise is to be caught up into God’s fuel and God’s goal. And that means being caught up in worship.
God’s goal is that his Son’s name be exalted and honored among all the peoples of the world, for when the Son is honored, the Father is honored (Mark 9:37). When every knee bows at the name of Jesus, it will be ‘to the glory of God the Father’ (Phil. 2:10-11). Therefore, God-centered missions exists for the sake of the name of Jesus.
God is pursuing with omnipotent passion a worldwide purpose of gathering joyful worshippers for himself from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. He has an inexhaustible enthusiasm for the supremacy of his name among the nations. Therefore, let us bring our affections into line with his, and, for the sake of his name, let us renounce the quest for worldly comforts and join his global purpose.
Millar’s dismissal of Wright’s definition of mission, because it is different from Piper’s, is without basis as both Piper and Wright argue that our mission is participation in God’s mission, in God’s global purpose.
There are distinctions to be drawn between the missiology of Piper and Wright; however, these distinctions have nothing to do with Wright’s definition that Millar so quickly dismisses. The distinction lies between their understanding of the similarities and differences between missions and evangelism; this is evident in the excerpt from Pipers sermon above. However, in Let the Nations be Glad Piper takes a less polarized stance and even admits to the difficulty of drawing distinctions between these two tasks. He explains,
The task of evangelism is not the same as missions. Missions is what moved Paul away from the peoples of Asia Minor and Greece (even from those who were still unconverted!) and pressed him toward the unreached peoples of Spain (Rom. 15:24, 28). . . there are not two clearly distinct tasks (domestic evangelism vs. frontier missions) but rather graduations of cultural distance from the Christian community. Where that distance becomes so great that we start calling its penetration “missions” is not always clear.
So while Piper maintains a distinction between missions and evangelism, which Wright does not do, he does so admitting that these tasks are not distinct and delineating points of distinction is a difficult if not impossible task. Whereas Wright would not draw a distinction between missions and evangelism Piper draws a distinction while admitting the difficulty of and lack of clarity in doing so. Millar’s dismissal of Wright’s definition is therefore unwarranted.
This unwarranted dismissal is quite unfortunate in terms of Millar’s central argument. If Millar truly believes his concluding thought, that this book will result in the end of mission, then he should not be dismissing Wright’s definition so casually. This is a major support structure for Wright’s entire argument in The Mission of God and therefore Millar should be dealing with it accordingly. He should demonstrate why this definition is incorrect, unbiblical, and cannot support the weight of the argument which it serves to support. While this reviewer disagrees with Millar’s fears if there is any merit to them then they necessitate a far more serious examination of Wright’s definition than the one given in this talk.
After defining what he means by “mission,” “missionary,” “missional,” “missiology and missiological” the reader is introduced to Wright’s concept of a missional hermeneutic. Millar explains two ways that Wright uses “missional hermeneutic.” First, “that the mission of God is the central idea in biblical theology.” Millar notes that this would simply put Wright’s work in the realm of other biblical theologies which argue for a central unifying theme in the biblical narrative and the reader would simply be tasked with evaluating whether or not this is indeed the case. Secondly, Wright uses this to describe a method of reading the Bible. Millar argues this is confusing as he never adequately explains this. Millar asks “is this then the only way of reading the Bible? Is it one of many ways of reading the Bible? Is this the best way of reading the Bible?” He then argues that Wright has likely set aside the doctrine of Scripture due to much conversation with missiologists who have a lesser view of Scripture than himself.
Before addressing Millar’s critique of Wright’s missional hermeneutic, as he has more to say about it, this accusation must be addressed. This accusation is misleading and without support as the discussion of a missional hermeneutic takes place within a larger explanation of biblical authority where Wright urges the reader to move beyond proof texting and recognize the larger authority structure of Scripture. He begins by explaining the importance of the authority of the commands of Scripture, and then moves to explain how reality has an authoritative structure. Within reality we are confronted with the reality of God, the reality of the biblical narrative, and the reality of our identity as the people of God. Finally, he concludes with the authority of Jesus, where all of the previous structures find their authoritative climax. As the word of God the commands of Scripture are the commands of Christ, in Christ we meet God, the entire biblical narrative finds fulfillment in Jesus, and our identity as the people of God is defined in Christ. Wight explains how this works using the giving of the law. “The narrative expresses the indicative: Here is what has happened in your history, and these are the things that YHWH your God has done. Then the law expresses the responsive imperative: Now then, this is how you must behave in the light of such facts [in the light of reality].” Nowhere is there any hint of Wright setting aside the doctrine of Scripture; rather he upholds it and presents the reader with a robust theology of biblical authority in the process.
In an attempt to support his critique Millar quotes a key summary statement made by Wright,
So a missional hermeneutic must include at least this recognition—the multiplicity of perspectives and contexts from which and within which people read the biblical texts. Even when we affirm (as I certainly do) that the historical and salvation-historical context of biblical texts and their authors is of primary and objective importance in discerning their meaning and their significance, the plurality of perspectives from which readers read them is also a vital factor in the hermeneutical richness of the global church (39).
Millar jests, “There you go if you can explain that to me I would be most delighted, come and tell me what it means after.” At this point a trend has emerged which causes this reviewer to seriously consider the spirit in which this critique is being given and casts suspicion and doubt upon the sincerity of Millar’s introduction pointing to their shared Northern Ireland origins and his fondness of Wright’s work.
For anyone remotely familiar with missiology and contextualization Wright’s point in the quote above is quite clear. After Millar feigns confusion he states, “I think he’s saying that a missional hermeneutic sometimes makes sure that we don’t assume our culture is the only one who can read the Bible properly.” While that is an important thought Wright actually goes further to state that the global church benefits from the plurality of perspectives from which we approach the biblical text. The global church benefits from the gleanings of collectivist cultures and individualistic societies. It benefits from those who read from a power and weakness worldview as well as from those who read from an honor and shame worldview. Wright is arguing that as we approach the text from these different perspectives we are able to see how one individual’s culture affects their reading of the text, for better and for worse, and they are able to do the same for us. Therefore, the global church is better able to arrive at a culturally unbiased reading of the text as we interact with one another then we could arrive at when left on our own.
Millar then makes another dismissive critique, “in fact at one point Chris argues that his missional hermeneutic, as he calls it, actually subsumes liberation theology, post modern readings, overcomes them all, but doesn’t become relativistic. Now, these are huge claims but they are not defended all that robustly.” Once more Millar offers no explanation of the weaknesses in Wright’s defense and paints no picture of what a more robust defense might look like. Wright’s thought here comes out as an implication of a missional hermeneutic. Because of “the multiplicity of perspectives and contexts from which and within which people read the biblical texts” the global church is able to learn from liberation and postmodern readings while recognizing and correcting the points at which their culture moves from illuminating the text to being imposed upon the text. Using postmodernity as an example he notes the importance of narrative within the postmodern mind and so we accept this correction but we do so while maintaining that the biblical narrative “is nevertheless actually the story” and all of our little stores make sense only within this larger story. So a missional hermeneutic allows for postmodernity’s correction of modernistic readings and allows the church to better balance truth as proposition (modernistic readings) and truth as metanarrative (postmodern readings). While Wright offers far more depth in his explanation that overview should be sufficient enough to demonstrate once more that Millar’s dismissive critique is without basis.
Wright then explains that the Bible is both about mission and a product of mission. Millar agrees and notes that this is particularly obvious in the New Testament epistles. Then Millar explains how Wright introduces the third major conclusion of this text that “the Great Commandment is as important as the Great Commission in seeking to reach the world.” This comes as Wright explores the relationship between mission and authority which Millar explains as summarized best by Wrights statement, “A missional hermeneutic takes the indicative and the imperative of the biblical revelation with equal seriousness, and interprets each in the light of the other” (61). Wright then concludes the first section of his book by drawing a hermeneutical map where, “not only do the major features of the landscape stand out clearly but also other less well-trodden paths and less scenic scholarly tourist attractions turn out to have surprising and fruitful connections with the main panorama” (69). The main argument up to this point is that mission is God’s mission, mission is central to the whole Bible, the bible was written on mission, we need to read the Bible with a missional hermeneutic, and the whole Bible should shape our mission.