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

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

What follows are Millar’s concluding remarks, which come as a rapid fire summary, and because of what they are this last post will take the form of bullet points of his concluding synopsis with limited critique or development. There are, however, a few points which necessitate an extended rebuttal.

Chris’ Argument Throughout the Book Summarized

  • Mission is the mission of God.
  • Mission is central to the whole Bible as God is central to the whole Bible.
  • The Bible is written on mission, it is the product of God’s people on this journey to perform his mission.
  • We need to read Bible through a missional lens, a missional hermeneutic.
  • If all the Bible is about mission, then we need to allow the whole Bible to shape our mission, not just the great commission.
    He argues that sin is all-pervasive, between individuals, between generations, in countries.
  • The paradigms for mission are the Exodus and the Jubilee. Therefore, God’s mission is all-embracing, setting all nations and all peoples free from the all-encompassing sin that we encounter.

Thoughts on Clarity

Millar then concludes his summary of Wright’s argument stating,

I hope I have represented him fairly. It is a very sweeping vision, or re-visioning of the idea of the mission of God. That’s what he argues, ok. Now, if you’ve never read The Mission of God that’s as clear as I can make it. It is not the clearest book that has ever been written.

This is similar to Millar’s sarcasm in dealing with his inability to understand Wright’s missional hermeneutic, I addressed this in the third post. Again these remarks cast doubt upon the spirit of Millar’s critique and this is especially the case as he gives no evidence or examples of what makes this volume so incomprehensible. Is it the volumes length? The structure of Wright’s argument? His emphasis of the whole Bible and not just the New Testament? Quite to the contrary this reviewer finds Wright’s volume quite easy to grasp and this is due both to the effort he has taken to outline his thoughts, the book begins with a table of contents and then an eight page outline of the books major points and supporting points, as well as the way Wright goes about explaining and illustrating his entire argument.

Some Things Millar Loves

Millar begins the following three sections by stating; “now I am just going to talk about the things I liked and didn’t like.”

  • The God-centeredness of the approach. Millar says that the God-centeredness of Wright’s approach is marvelous.

This is The Story that tell us where we have come from, how we got to be here, who we are, why the world is in the mess it is, how it can be (and has been) changed, and where we are ultimately going. And the whole story is predicated upon the reality of this God and the mission of this God. He is the originator of the story, the teller of the story, the prime actor in the story, the planner and guide of the story’s plot, the meaning of the story and its ultimate completion. He is its beginning, end and center. It is the story of the mission of God, of this God and no other (533).

Millar expresses gratitude for Wright’s emphasis here stating,

Chris is certainly correct to say that all mission is God’s mission, rather than what we do even in the response of God’s command. And in that I think the book is a game changer that helpfully corrects an error that we can easily slip into and we need to thank God for that.

  • The defense of the uniqueness of Christ in the face of religious pluralism “winsome clear and powerful.”
  • His insights into key Old Testament texts.
  • The discussion of Old Testament missiological texts. Millar states, “This is the most complete, comprehensive, and theologically nuanced discussion of mission in the Old Testament I’ve seen. . . What he does in this area is really without parallel.”
  • He clearly articulates what God asks of us.
  • At points he affirms that evangelism is at the heart of mission.

This is really an underhanded compliment. Millar goes on to read and ultimately dismiss several quotes and while he is thankful that Wright made these statements he questions whether this is actually the case.

Jesus sums up the whole message and point of the Old Testament as leading to himself, the Messiah, and to the mission of his disciples to the world (Lk 24:44-49). And that mission, in the light of his death and resurrection, was the evangelistic task of preaching repentance and forgiveness in Christ’s name to all nations. All this is readily granted and is at the very heart of the whole case I am making in this book (303).

Millar the quips, “I’d quibble slightly with that last sentence, whether or not it is at the heart of the case he is making in this book, but up to that point it’s a hearty amen.” He then offers another quotation from Wright,

Mission may not always begin with evangelism. But mission that does not ultimately include declaring the Word and the name of Christ, the call to repentance, and faith, and obedience has not completed its task. It is defective mission, not holistic mission (319).

Millar’s critique here has been adequately handled during Part One after the bullet point “Everything is Mission.” Specifically, the section on night blindness summarizes Wright’s understanding of holistic mission and explains why evangelism is always at the heart of mission, despite what Millar is underhandedly insinuating at this point in his summary. There is a very helpful section in Wright’s work on “social action without evangelism” that further refutes Millar’s challenge. Speaking from Israel’s history Wright explains,

To think that social action is all there is to mission, while failing to lead people to the knowledge, worship and service of God in Christ, is to condemn those whom we may, in one way or another, “lead out of slavery” to repeat the history of Israel. For the Israelites experienced the political, social and economic effects of God’s redemption, but many of them failed to enter into the spiritual requirements of the God who redeemed them. They would not acknowledge him as alone God. They repeatedly went astray in the worship of other gods. . . Without covenant faith, covenant worship and covenant obedience, Israel stood as much under the severity of God’s wrath as any other nation (286-287).

Wright has clearly outlined, using the history of Israel as an example, that social action, even when undertaken by God, will leave men condemned if they are not lead into ” the knowledge, worship and service of God in Christ” this does not match Millar’s description of an author who is belittling the importance of evangelism.

Some Things Millar Noticed

  • Confusing Terminology

“I was not ultimately convinced by his use of the term a missional hermeneutic. Nor am I still entirely clear what a missional hermeneutic is. I am not sure if it means any more than reading the Bible with an awareness that mission is important.” Millar’s criticism of Wright’s use of “missional hermeneutic” was addressed at some length in Part Two please reference that post for a rebuttal of Millar’s argument. Millar says more to emphasize his point here but again he offers more dismissive commentary which need not be handled here as his tone has been addressed at several points in this series.

  • A Tendency to Overstate the Case

One of the unfortunate characteristics of this book is that it elevates relatively minor themes at times to a status that the text itself doesn’t appear to warrant. So for example Chris does speak as if the missional nature of Israel is absolutely everywhere in the Old Testament.

Millar then offers several quotes and statements of summary as examples of this elevation of minor themes “to a status that the text itself doesn’t appear to warrant.”

First, “This universality of God’s purpose . . . is a recurrent theme and a constant theological challenge” (65). This first example is a rather peculiar choice. It comes in the context of the call of Abraham in Genesis 12. It is hard to imagine that any biblical scholar would consider the call of Abraham and God’s purpose in it a minor theme and yet this is exactly what Millar does at this point. In the immediate context of this quote Wright explains, “Israel’s election [in the call of Abraham and subsequent covenant] was not a rejection of other nation but was explicitly for the sake of all nations” (65). Millar’s claim that this is a minor theme elevated beyond the status of the text is completely untenable.

Second, “The exiles had a task, a mission no less, even in the midst of the city of their enemies” (99). This too is an interesting example. This statement comes near the end of a section where Wright explains the echoes of the Abrahamic Covenant in Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles (Jeremiah 29). Contrary to their fears that they would die out in exile Jeremiah echoes the Abrahamic Covenant as he exhorts them to “multiply there, and do not decrease” (Jeremiah 29:6). Jeremiah then writes, “And Seek the shalom of the city to which I have exiled you, and pray on its behalf to YHWH, for in its shalom there will be shalom for you” (Jeremiah 29:7, Christopher J. H. Wright’s translation). Wright then correctly concludes; “So they were not only the beneficiaries of God’s promise to Abraham (in that they would not die out but increase), they were also to be the agents of God’s promise to Abraham that through his descendants the nations would be blessed” (100). As with the first example attempting to argue that the Abrahamic Covenant and its application to the exile is a minor theme is simply not a defensible position and yet this is precisely what Millar is claiming.

Third, Millar explains that in The Mission of God, “The nations are portrayed in the Old Testament as apparently waiting eagerly for the knowledge of the living God.” Millar is here objecting to what the Westminster Confession describes as the chief end of man “is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Wright explains that,

by confining ourselves to the human dimension: it is crucial to emphasize the point that knowing God to be God is the supreme good and blessing for human beings made in God’s image. Refusing or suppressing that knowledge lies at the root of all other kinds of sin, argues Paul in Romans 1:18-32. Conversely, knowing God in love and obedience is the source of all human well-being and good (Deut 4:39-40) (128).

This is the chief end of man, of the nations, and indeed the entire creation is eagerly anticipating the redemption of humanity.

Fourth, “The motivation for God’s people to live by God’s law is ultimately to bless the nations” (380). Wright makes this assertion near the end of a section discussing the giving of the law in Deuteronomy. Wright specifically highlights Deuteronomy 4:6-8,

Keep them [the law] and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?

There is a sense in which Wright may have worded his statement too strongly after all the text of Deuteronomy lists numerous reasons as to why Israel should live by God’s law but as evidenced in Moses’ opening address the nations are clearly in view as the law is given. For a further treatment of the law please see this.

Fifth, “The nations of humanity preoccupy the biblical narrative from beginning to end” (454). Again here is the larger context of this statement:

When they [the nations] are not in the foreground, they are there in the background. When they are not the subject of great international events, they are the object of divine inspection or accusation. When they are not the direct focus of God’s attention, they remain the surrounding context (for good or ill) of the life of God’s people. The obvious reason for all this is that the Bible is, of course, preoccupied with the relationship between God and humanity, and humanity exists in the nations. And where the Bible focuses especially on the people of God, that people necessarily lives in history in the midst of the nations (454).

From there Wright traces the theme of the nations throughout the entire narrative of Scripture from creation to consummation. Wright’s work here has demonstrated that the nations are not a minor theme and indeed do “preoccupy the biblical narrative from beginning to end.”

Sixth, “It is God’s mission to the nations more than any other single theme that provides the key that unlocks the biblical grand narrative” (455). There are countless biblical theologians who offer some kind of unifying theme for the whole of Scripture. To a massive list including covenant, redemption, the glory of God, and countless others one can now add the nations as a proposed center for biblical theology. In this reviewer’s summation the majority of proposed unifying themes moves beyond the status given in the text. This would have been a helpful point for Millar to provide an adequate alternate unifying theme for biblical theology. With the myriad of proposed themes there is no reason why the nations, and Wright’s supporting arguments, should not be considered as a plausible unifying theme.

Millar then concludes,

Now do I have sympathy with every single one of those statements? Yes. Are the overstating the case? Yes. Similarly, the insistence that both the Exodus and the Jubilee have primarily a symbolic function or that the return from exile is one of the major movements of the Old Testament are going further, I think, than the Old Testament text itself claims.

Wright’s work in this area is absolutely fantastic as he traces these themes throughout the Old Testament and into the New Testament demonstrating how they are intimately tied to the mission of Jesus and His church. There is much work done here in terms of both biblical references and external references that corroborate his position. It is interesting that Millar confines his critique to the Old Testament’s claims. Jesus’ ministry is filled with references to the Jubilee from his reading of Isaiah in Nazareth and the beatitudes to his teaching on forgiveness and debt. This is mirrored by ample New Testament themes that echo the Exodus and return from exile.

  • A Strange Aversion to the Idea of Going Anywhere

I know we’re all shaped by our past but it seems that Chris’ past has left him with a real discomfort for the idea of going anywhere to make disciples. He consistently argues that the Great Commission isn’t as important as we make it out to be and doesn’t really tell us to go anywhere, other than to the nations in some sense like Abraham. He seems oddly preoccupied with Matthew 28 and insists that it be relativized. However, he barely mentions Acts 1 verse 8, with its similar dynamic, driving people out to the furthest parts of the earth with the gospel. In fact the silence is deafening, in this book on the Mission of God, with the whole issue of relocating in the interest of gospel ministry. “It [the Great Commission] is not referred to as an explicit driver for the missionary expansion of the church in the New Testament after Acts 1.” He consistently underplays the Great Commission.

There are several things occurring at this point that must be addressed. First, Millar is subtly, yet quite erroneously, using Wright’s upbringing as a theological attack. Second, he is not honestly representing the content of The Mission of God in regards to its stance on Matthew 28, Acts 1, and relocating in the interest of gospel ministry. Finally, he is quoting, sorely out of context, a sentence from another one of Wright’s works.

First, Millar’s use of Wright’s past as an attack against this present work is  without warrant. Millar has consistently spoken of Christopher J. H. Wright during his talk using his shortened first name Chris. This would lead those in attendance to believe that they are apparently on a first name basis, have some kind of relationship, and therefore Millar is somewhat qualified to make observations in regards to Wright’s childhood, beyond what anyone would know reading the beginning of The Mission of God. This is not the case. As evidenced from the Q&A near the end of the recording Millar did not even have the courtesy to contact Wright and discuss his critiques beforehand. This whole line of critique is therefore quite faulty. Beyond that claiming ” Chris’ past has left him with a real discomfort for the idea of going anywhere to make disciples” is quite inaccurate considering that Wright has relocated for the purpose of gospel ministry and worked to train and equip other missionaries.

Second, Millar’s critique is both a gross misrepresentation of the intent and content of Wright’s work. Beginning with the intent of this work;

My major concern has been to develop an approach to biblical hermeneutics that sees the mission of God (and the participation in it of God’s people) as a framework within which we can read the whole Bible. Mission is, in my view, a major key that unlocks the whole grand narrative of the canon of Scripture. To that extent I offer this study not only as a biblical reflection on mission but also, I hope, as an exercise in biblical theology. . .

I have tried to identify some of the underlying themes that are woven all through the Bible’s grand narrative—themes that are the foundational pillars of the biblical worldview and therefore also of biblical theology: monotheism, creation, humanity, election, redemption, covenant, ethics, future hope (17).

Wright aims to unlock the Bible’s grand narrative and he is doing to by using a missional hermeneutic. He later asks,

We talk about the problems of “applying the Bible to our lives,” which often means modifying the Bible somewhat adjectivally to fit into the assumed “reality” of the life we live “in the real world.” What would it mean to apply our lives to the Bible instead, assuming the Bible to be the reality—the real story—to which we are called to conform ourselves (534)?

Wright is laying out the biblical narrative and then confronting the reader with that reality. That is his intent.

The content of this work then is The Story. Which he defines as,

The grand universal narrative that stretches from creation to new creation, and accounts for everything in between. This is The Story that tells us where we have come from, how we got to be here, who we are, why the world is in the mess it is, how it can be (and has been) changed, and where we are ultimately going. And the whole story is predicated on the reality of this God and the mission of this God. He is the originator of the story, the teller of the story, the prime actor in the story, the planner and guide of the story’s plot, the meaning of the story and its ultimate completion. He is its beginning, end and center. It is the story of the mission of God, of this God and no other (533).

Wright’s primary interest is not in telling the reader to “go” because mission belongs to God, it is His mission and He calls His people to participate in His mission. Wright intends to give the reader a biblical theology of mission and he does just that. He explains “‘the whole counsel of God’—the plan, purpose and mission of God for the whole creation” (532). That narrative is about God and what God is doing to reconcile the whole of creation to Himself “through Christ by the Cross” (532). This has implications for redeemed humanity’s participation in God’s mission but the narrative of Scripture is fundamentally about what God has done, is doing, and will do. This is what Wright explains as being a biblical indicative. This expresses the reality of who God is and what He is doing. This then naturally leads to the biblical imperative “go, therefore and make disciples of all nations.” As Wright himself states, “we need, then, both a missional hermeneutic of the whole bible and its great indicatives as well as committed obedience to a major imperative text like the Great Commission” (60). By explaining the grand narrative of Scripture from creation to new creation Wright is setting forth the great indicative of redemptive history that forms the foundation of our obedience to Scripture’s missional imperatives. This does not underplaying the Great Commission this grounds the Great Commission in the identity and historical mission of our God. Millar seems to entirely miss Wright’s explanation of biblical indicatives and biblical imperatives; that relationship will be further explained in this series’ final post.

Third, Millar cites a quotation that is not from Wright’s The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative rather it is from The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission. I will not speculate as to how this mistake was made but in regards to this reviewer’s position it is quite fortuitous as this quote, when understood within its larger context, completely undoes Millar’s assertion that Wright “has a strange aversion to the idea of going anywhere.”

Millar quotes Wright, “It [the Great Commission] is not referred to as an explicit driver for the missionary expansion of the church in the New Testament after Acts 1” (Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission, 36). and then immediately laments, “He consistently underplays the Great Commission.”  The quote comes near the beginning of chapter 2 entitled, “People Who Know The Story They Are Part Of” which sets out to outline the narrative of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation particularly as it informs the people of God about their mission. Wright then begins to establish a starting point for the chapter explaining, “It’s a natural instinct to start there [the Great Commission] because it chimes in with so much else that the New Testament has to say about Jesus and his followers, and about Paul and the early Christians” (The Mission of God’s People, 35). He then quotes N. T. Wright explaining how mission confronts the reader throughout the gospels and only grows in intensity through Acts and the epistles. But then he makes several important observations first asking, “Why? What was it that made Christianity a missionary faith from the very start? What made the first followers of Jesus so passionately, courageously and unstoppably committed to telling the world about him” (The Mission of God’s People, 35)?

He then begins to answer this question first with observations,

Well you might respond, because Jesus told them to. . . And that would be true, given the endings of Matthew, Luke and John . . . though we should remember that the Gospels were not written until well after the church’s mission had been going for many years. . .

If this simple obedience to the Great Commission were the major reason in the consciousness of the early Christians, it is surprising that it is never mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament. Don’t misunderstand me here. I am not suggesting for a moment that the Great Commission never happened, only that it is never referred to as an explicit driver for the missionary expansion of the church in the New Testament after Acts 1 (The Mission of God’s People, 36).

He then asks the reader a follow-up question, “So what compelled the first followers of Jesus, Jews as they were, to make the world their mission field” (The Mission of God’s People, 36)? With that he moves to answer his inquiry more directly and to establish a starting place for the reader to understand the story of Scripture and the mission of God’s people.

‘Jews as they were’ — I Slipped that in there because it is key to the answer. That is those first believers knew the story they were in. And they knew the story because they knew their scriptures. . . They understood the that the story had just reached a decisive moment in Jesus of Nazareth, and they knew what the rest of the story demanded (The Mission of God’s People, 36).

The rest of the story demands missions; the Old Testament narrative demands the active pursuit of fulfilling the Great Commission. Wright then provides three examples of this the Jerusalem Council, the ministry of Paul in Pisidian Antioch, and the emphasis of Jesus’ teaching after the resurrection.

After explaining the situation which led to the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 Wright exclaims,

One could easily imagine Peter standing up to say to the critics, “Listen, friends, Jesus told us to go and make disciples of all nations and that is what Paul and Barnabas are doing. So back off!” But instead, James settles the matter by reference to the prophetic Scriptures. He quotes from Amos 9 and affirms that what the prophet foresaw is now happening: the house of David is being restored and the Gentile nations are being brought in to bear the name of the Lord. That’s where the story pointed, and that’s what was now happening (The Mission of God’s People, 37).

Wright then notes how Paul entered into Pisidian Antioch in Acts 13 and began teaching through the Old Testament narrative in the synagogue. When the Jews became jealous and rejected Paul he rebuked them with Isaiah 49:6, “I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.” Wright then explains,

Paul could easily have said, “Jesus commanded us to bring this good news to you Gentiles.” He could even have referred to the specific missional command that he, Paul, had personally received in his conversion-commissioning encounter with the risen Christ on the way to Damascus. But instead, Paul points to the Scriptures and the story they tell—the story that leads inevitably to the gospel going to the nations. And he took that “story-yet-to-come” aspect of the words of the prophet and heard in them a command from the Lord himself (The Mission of God’s People, 37).

Finally he addresses the teaching ministry of Jesus and asserts that even Jesus views the Old Testament as the foundation of the Great Commission. Looking towards Luke 24 Wright explains how Jesus commissions his disciples after the resurrection by teaching through the Old Testament narrative.

What we find here is certainly not, as Millar claims, Wright consistently downplaying the Great Commission. Rather Wright sets the Great Commission within redemptive history, provides a robust foundation of Old Testament prophecies and promises upon which the Great Commission rests, and points to the tremendous emphasis which Jesus and the Apostles placed upon this Old Testament foundation in regards to: proclaiming the gospel, clarifying issues of praxis, silencing critics, and encouraging the church. This does not downplay the Great Commission it magnifies it!

  • An Annoying Habit of Using Straw Man Arguments

The final thing Millar noticed was Wright’s apparent use of straw man arguments. After reading several quotes Millar summarizes:

If you read through the book you gradually build the picture of someone who is obsessed with three verses in Matthew, insists that the gospel is only spiritual application, denies that the Old Testament says anything relevant, deliberately attacks little birdies, and refuses to lift a finger to help anyone other than to preach the Gospel. I think that’s a straw man. Perhaps Chris has met many people like that; but I have to be honest and say that I haven’t. In fact I’ve met far more people who would rather do anything in the name of Jesus than talk to people about Jesus. Rather than those who are trying to exclude everything under the sun from the category of mission other than personal evangelism.

Millar takes the numerous errors that Wright is attempting to correct, lumps them into one individual, and then declares that this is a straw man. And if this were correct that would indeed be a straw man, but that is not what Wright is doing. Wright is correcting a plethora of different errors advocated by different individuals and groups. If Millar’s critique here were true then every systematic theology in existence would be one big straw man argument, because of the countless heresies and errors they address.

As singular errors these are all realities that exist and must be corrected. First, there are those in both the church and the academy whose missiology is based solely upon a few New Testament texts and even those with a more robust New Testament theology of mission might not be capable of elucidating the Old Testament origins of mission. There is a real drought and lack of emphasis in this area and the church should be thankful for works like Wrights’ to function as a helpful correction.

Second and third, Millar’s critique of Wright’s claim that many simply spiritualize the gospel and deny its real world application and that others proclaim a spiritualized personal gospel without acts of justice and compassion is an ironic choice in Millar’s case as he has displayed a great deal of discomfort with Wright’s argument for holistic mission. He seems quite uncomfortable with mission that goes beyond evangelism and addresses a host of relational, social, and physical issues as well. Millar has consistently pressed for a spiritualized view focusing solely upon evangelism and now here he apparently changes his position and embraces holistic mission.

Fourth, there are several schools of thought that would see discontinuity between the testaments and cancel out much of what the Old Testament says on mission, among many other things, with New Testament teaching.

Fifth, the sparrow bit was quite funny and it is doubtful that anyone has “dissed sparrows.” The humor there misses Wright’s point as there are those who will reference passages such as II Peter 3:10 to deny the importance of creation care. Again creation care is a concept that Millar seems to be quite uncomfortable with, especially as he critiques the breadth of Wright’s definition of mission.

Millar concludes,

Perhaps Chris has met many people like that; but I have to be honest and say that I haven’t. In fact I’ve met far more people who would rather do anything in the name of Jesus than talk to people about Jesus. Rather than those who are trying to exclude everything under the sun from the category of mission other than personal evangelism.

This may very well be the case but this cannot become a battle of competing extremes. The response to those who would rather do anything than talk to people about Jesus is to correct them. What they are doing is not mission it is incomplete. It is equally incomplete and dysfunctional mission to proclaim the gospel and show no concern for environmental, relational, and social issues. Mission requires both.

This covered the first four sections of Millar’s concluding remarks. His final section and concluding summary will be the subject of the next post.

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