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

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

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, of parts two through four, both to develop his content and offer critique when necessary. Part one was covered in the previous post, available here.

  • 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.

Millar explains that part two of The Mission of God, “is much more straightforward and offers really helpful engagement both with the biblical text and along the way with some key methodological and missiological issues.” In what follows Wright argues that there are two key locations where Israel comes to know their God, the exodus and the return from exile. Millar notes that Wright then builds on much of his previous work to deliver “an excellent defense of biblical monotheism, a really helpful treatment of idolatry, and a critique of religious pluralism. In doing this Wright is working out a radical God-centered vision of mission in the church and in the world.”

  • 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.

Before diving into part three, which Millar describes as generally very helpful, he begins with a few quibbles as he puts it. The first of these is on page 195. Where Wright describes the fall saying, “the soil comes under the curse of God and the earth no longer responds to human touch as it should.” Millar goes on to say that Wright’s explanation, “makes the fall sound like a minor inconvenience for market gardeners than anything else.” He goes on to explain that these quibbles are the exception and explains that Wrights link between the Tower of Babel and the call of Abraham is brilliant. Again this is another misleading and dismissive remark that must cause the review to seriously question the validity of Millar’s critique.

If that was indeed all that Wright said about the fall then Millar would be correct in pointing out that this description fails to capture the pervasive and devastating effects of the curse. Within its immediate context it is clear that Millar is painting a less than accurate picture for the hearers of this lecture.

The result of this human seizure of moral autonomy is radical fracture in all the relationships established in creation. Human beings hide from God in guilty fear. Men and women can no longer face one another without shame and blame. The soil comes under the curse of God and the earth no longer responds to human tough as it should (195).

So indeed Wright has a very comprehensive understanding of the effects of human rebellion upon all of mans relationships. Man is at enmity with his creator, his fellow man, and the creation. This reviewer would have preferred stronger language here, as well as an explanation of man being at enmity with himself, but it is not as inadequate of a description as Millar would have us to believe.

Moving on, Wright’s argument in part three is the primacy of mission in the election of Israel, meaning that Israel was chosen for mission. Wright argues that this is the controlling idea in the Old Testament. Millar responds that these arguments sound thin and lack exegetical support. Specifically Millar is concerned with Wright’s view that the Exodus shapes our approach to mission and would rather us see it as a spiritual reality fulfilled in Christ. Millar explains, “He argues that a model of exodus which sees it simply foreshadowing the redemptive work of God in Christ, it’s not so much unbiblical it’s not biblical enough.” As an example he quotes Wright,

It would seem more appropriate to link the exodus to the cross not so much in terms of release from slavery to our own sin (which of course is gloriously also part of this reality) but in terms of release from slavery to all that oppresses human life and well-being and opposes God (278).

Millar then concludes, “So if we are to be involved in the mission of God, which began in some sense at the exodus, we don’t simply need to deal with people’s sin we need to deal with ‘all that oppresses human life and well-being and opposes God.’”

Wright then, in similar fashion to the Exodus, argues that the Jubilee encapsulates the heart of God’s missional agenda serving as another repeatable paradigm for mission. Furthermore, the priesthood of Israel is also a controlling idea in the Old Testament. Wright does a fantastic job defending all of these points and establishing why the cosmic effects of human rebellion and sin are met with an equally cosmic redemptive mission from God and he does so by addressing the issue biblical theologically. Millar however moves quite quickly through this summary and while offering some critique he does not take time to counter Wrights supporting arguments.

  • 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.

Millar finds this to be the most problematic section of the entire work. Here Wright asserts that we need to operate with an understanding of the relationship between God, humanity, and the earth. The Genesis 1:27 mandate to work and serve the earth is ecological and mission to the non-human part of creation is still mission. Millar explains this later in his evaluation but it is important to note here that according to Wright mission must include evangelism and the declaring of God’s Word, a call to repentance, faith, and obedience. If one were to engage in a purely ecological mission then Wright would consider that kind of mission to be incomplete and defective.

Again Millar quips that the vast amount of biblical literature covered makes this book difficult to understand and to critique. While he made the assertion earlier that Wright’s arguments were thin and lack clear exegetical support Millar now moves to complain that this section’s abundance of exegetical support make it difficult to grasp. The continued use of such dismissive statements, while failing to dissect Wright’s actual arguments, is not helpful in any sense. If Wright is incorrect please do not dismiss his argument take the time to demonstrate its error.

Wright is concerned that we must develop “a radical and comprehensive understanding of sin and evil” (429). Which Wright goes on to explain, “Sin spreads horizontally within society and sin propagates itself vertically between generations. It thus generates contexts and connections that are laden with collective sin. Sin becomes endemic, structural, and embedded in history” (431). Millar concludes that while Wright can express himself beautifully he doubts whether or not there is biblical warrant behind these formulations. Again Millar has reduced Wright’s argument for the sake of a quick dismissal. Wright devotes an entire chapter to the topic of mission and creation and demonstrates the validity of this assertion by describing how Scripture describes sin as spreading horizontally, vertically, and how it “becomes endemic, structural, and embedded in history.” Furthermore, he then counters arguments against this position and provides the example of AIDs to show how “only a holistic missional approach [can] even begin to address the issue” (439). Millar has left the audience with the impression that Wright has not done the exegetical leg work to support his thesis and is relying upon his eloquence to support his point when this is not the case.

He then moves to explain how Wright understands of the connection between God and the nations; quoting Wright, “The nations of humanity preoccupy the biblical narrative from beginning to end” (454). Millar then attributes the following quote to Wright, which was actually taken from Duane L Christensen’s definition of “Nations” in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, “The nations are the matrix of Israel’s life, the raison d’être of her very existence.”

In the end Millar concludes that while this section is very helpful, “there is a sense in which Chris is putting a positive spin on a wealth of fairly negative material. He does have a tendency to view all passages regarding the nations as intrinsically positive.” He notes that Wright’s treatment of this topic is not proportionate to that of Scripture as he devotes one page, in a fifty page section, to the judgment of God upon the nations while Scripture seems to spend far more time on the topic. “To put it bluntly when the judgment of the nations is mentioned it is either skimmed over or relativized by going straight to the judgment of Israel too.”

As at other points Millar is being profoundly reductionistic here as well. Wright divides his section on the nations into two chapters “God and the Nations in Old Testament Vision” and “God and the Nations in New Testament Mission.” Within the chapter on the Old Testament Vision he begins by addressing “The Nations in Creation and Providence” where he begins by working from creation to new creation explaining how the nations and all of their diversity is a glorious reality that will be carried over into worship before the throne of God. After establishing the glorious reality of this diversity and God’s sovereign control over the nations he moves to explain how all nations exist under the judgment of God and the Old Testament reality that any nation can be the agent who carries out God’s justice. This takes several pages rather than the one page that Millar describes in his talk. And from this Wright concludes “the overwhelming message is consistent. All nations are in the hands of YHWH, the living God” (460). “Against such a bleak background, God’s mission to bless the nations and the mission of God’s people as the vehicle of such blessing constitute very good news indeed” (458). This is not a skimming over of judgment but a vivid description of the imminent judgment of God. The rest of the material is positive as he looks toward the fulfillment of the covenant promises as the nations witness the good and bad of Israel’s history, as the nations partake in Israel’s blessing, as the nations worship Israel’s God, and as the nations are included in Israel’s identity. All of this before he begins to look at the nations in the New Testament mission. This reviewer agrees the tone here is positive. But why wouldn’t it be? God is sovereignly bringing about his purposes through judgment and mercy, blessing and curse, God is redeeming a people for Himself and removing the curse from the whole of creation; this is indeed good news. It is a wonder why this disturbs Millar.

This concludes Millar’s overview of The Mission of God. His closing summary and remarks will be the subject of the next post.

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