2. The Gospel as Metanarrative

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Introduction

If you where to explain the gospel to someone, where are some places in Scripture that you might start? Maybe in one of the gospels or in Romans, what are your thoughts?

Would anyone begin in the Old Testament?

That is where we are going to begin. We are going to give an overview of this study by looking at the gospel in the Old Testament. If we were to look at each of the four gospels we would notice that Matthew begins by giving a genealogy from Abraham to Christ, Mark begins by quoting several Old Testament prophets concerning Jesus and John the Baptist, after the baptism of Jesus Luke provides a genealogy from Jesus back to Adam, and John begins with the creation of the universe. From this we can see the importance of the Old Testament to the writers of the four gospels and the early church.

Would someone read Luke 24:13-35 for us?

“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).

What does he mean by this? What does it mean to begin with “Moses and all the Prophets?”

Exactly, Jesus began in Genesis, which was written by Moses, and then explained everything written about Him in the Old Testament.

I. Metanarrative and Worldview Revisited

Thinking back to last week’s discussion on we need to look at five questions that every worldview must answer. These questions also form the basic outline for our study of the storyline of the Bible. They are as follows:

  • Creation — How did we get here?
  • Fall — What went wrong?
  • Redemption — Can it be fixed?
  • Consummation — Where is it going?
  • Application — What now?

So let’s have some fun here and answer these questions as if we were characters in The Lord of the Rings. Is someone a big Tolkien fan and wants to answer them all or should I divide up the questions?

  • Creation — How did we get here?

“Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.”

  • Fall — What went wrong?

“One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.”

  • Redemption — Can it be fixed?

Yes, by destroying the ring in the fires of Mount Doom.

  • Consummation — Where is it going?

I think this question varies depending upon the various races in Middle-earth so I am not going to attempt an answer.

  • Application — What now?

We must journey to Mordor and destroy the ring.

II. The Gospel as Metanarrative

Now if we take that same framework and apply it to the Bible we will see both the metanarrative, the grand story, of Scripture and the worldview it presents. Furthermore, we need to pay special attention to note how Jesus is the unifying center of the Bible.

A. Creation — How did we get here?

In what way does creation relate to Jesus?

In Genesis 1:26 God says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” So we see Jesus as a part of the Trinity in whose image man is made. If we turn to the New Testament we learn in Colossians that “For by him [meaning Christ] all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him” (1:16).

B. Fall — What went wrong?

Is Jesus related in any way to the fall and if so how?

Exactly, Jesus comes to redeem humanity from the curse of the fall. Jesus comes as the second Adam to give life where the first Adam brought about death.

C. Redemption — Can it be fixed?

1. Seeing the Gospel in the Garden

Continuing to look at Genesis 3 do you see the gospel mentioned there, perhaps in verse 15?

Yes, Jesus will conquer Satan and undo the curse.

2. Seeing the Gospel in the Flood

Can someone summarize the story of the flood? How would we see the gospel there?

God in His grace provided a way for Noah, and his family, to be spared from the wrath to come. In the same way we see that in Christ God has provided a way for us to be spared from the wrath to come.

3. Seeing the Gospel in the Calling of Abraham

Will someone read the calling of Abram in Genesis 12:1-3? How do we see the gospel in this account? Someone read Galatians 3:8 to see what Paul has to say about this event.

We see here that the gospel is proclaimed to Abraham and to the Patriarchs after him in the form of the Abrahamic Covenant whereby God promises to bless the nations through Abraham, specifically through Jesus a descendant of Abraham.

4. Seeing the Gospel in the Exodus

The narrative of the exodus is spread over fifteen chapters, which we do not have time to read, so will someone give us a synopsis? What are the key points? The exodus is rich with messianic foreshadowing what strikes you as the most vivid pictures of the coming messiah?

Clearly the Passover lamb points us to Jesus, the Lamb of God, through whom we have redemption. Even the Passover feast has been given new meaning in the Lord’s Supper, or communion, as it now reminds us of the death of Christ on the cross.

5. Seeing the Gospel in God’s Covenant with David

Someone read II Samuel 7:8-17. In what way do these promises point to David’s son Solomon and in what way do they point beyond Solomon to Christ?

This text is first fulfilled in Solomon and ultimately fulfilled in Christ. In I Kings 10:23-25 the wealth and wisdom of Solomon are recorded and so we see that God does establish Solomon’s kingdom. In I Kings 6-9 we see the building of the temple and so we see that he indeed does build a house for God’s name. However, this is not the ultimate fulfillment of this prophecy because we read of the descent and death of Solomon in I Kings 11, the division of the kingdom between Judah, the Southern Kingdom, under Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, and Israel, the Northern Kingdom, under Jeroboam I in I Kings 12, and then eventually both kingdoms fell and were carried off into exile; Israel in II Kings 17 and Judah in II Kings 24-25. So at this point we are left with a fairly dismal picture for what was promised to be an everlasting throne.

6. Seeing the Gospel in the New Covenant

In Jeremiah 31:31-34 we read of the promise of a New Covenant where God will write His law upon His people’s hearts and remember their sins no more. In Hebrews 8-9 we read of how the old covenant, specifically the Mosaic Covenant, which we did not discuss, has been superseded by the New Covenant because Jesus has secured our redemption, a redemption that was anticipated and foreshadowed by the Mosaic Covenant and its sacrificial system.

D. Consummation — Where is it going?

Where is all of this going? We read of man’s creation, his fall into sin, and the various covenants which God has established in anticipation of their consummation. If we would turn to Revelation 22:1-5 we will see the great end which all of these covenants anticipate.

Will someone read that for us?

Let us think back through our notes for tonight and see how this section of Scripture points us to the fulfillment of all that we have studied. Looking back to the fall of man and the cursing of creation we read in verse 3 that “No longer will there be anything accursed.” Also in verse 3 we see that man’s relationship with God has been restored as “his servants will worship him.” Looking back to God’s covenant with Abraham we see that indeed the nations are blessed as verse 2 tells us of the tree of life whose leaves are for “for the healing of the nations.” Thinking of God’s covenant with David and the promise of an everlasting kingdom and throne we read of “throne of God and of the Lamb” in verse 1 and verse 5 closes with the promise that God with His people “will reign forever and ever.”

E. Application — What now?

We stand between the giving of the New Covenant, in Christ, and the consummation of the covenants at His return. “We stand.” Did you catch that? This is not just the story of Israel or the church. Yes, it is God’s story, but it is also the story in which we dwell. So a critical aspect of application is discovering what it looks like to live out this story and discerning where we have read contradictory aspects of false stories in.

John 20:21 helps us answer the question “what now?” Will someone read that text for us? How does this text answer our fifth worldview question?

There is a lot to be learned from this text and we will devote a significant amount of time studying it at the end of this series. But now at the risk of extreme oversimplification we will look at Christ’s paradigmatic statement, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). If we are sent by Christ just as Christ was sent by the Father then we must be about the task of seeking and saving the lost. Looking back to the title of this series we see that not only must we indwell God’s story but we must also embody His mission to seek and save the lost.

Conclusion

Are there any other questions before we conclude? That was a very brief overview of the metanarrative of Scripture. We will spend the rest of our time breaking that story down into smaller narratives and seeing how they fit into the larger whole. Next time we will be diving into the story of creation and looking at both its message and its context within the history of God’s people. Take time to familiarize yourself with Genesis 1-2 as we will spend the next two sessions studying this text.

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1. Biblical Theology, Metanarrative, and Worldview

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Introduction

I want to begin with a question. How would you to describe a typical Bible study or sermon? Specifically how do you think they would organize the content of the teaching? If you have never been to a Bible study or heard a sermon I have a question for you in just a second.

I think that most of what we experience is organized in several ways. First, you may have experienced biographical studies concerning a particular person, or group, in the Bible or in church history. Second, you may have experienced a study through a particular book of Scripture. Finally, most of what you have experienced probably revolves around a particular topic or series of topics.

Is this a fairly accurate assessment? Has anyone experienced anything that I have not covered here?

Now let me say that I think biographical preaching is very helpful. It is a tremendous blessing to see how individuals in the past have applied God’s Word, have carried forth His mission, and have struggled with the crippling effects of sin. At the same time a diet of entirely biographical preaching would shift our focus from the infallible Word of God to fallible man. Topical studies, when properly focused on what the text of Scripture has to say about a given subject, are also very helpful. However, Scripture comes to us in the form of poetry, wisdom literature, songs, narrative, epistles, and theological treatises. So we do the form of Scripture a disservice when we treat it as an encyclopedia or topical index. It would be best if your experience has been with expository studies through individual books of Scripture that aim to expose the meaning of the text and apply it in such a way that is appropriate for its meaning.

So if you have never been to a Bible study before, or if you have just pretend you have not, let’s say we are going to study this book called the Bible how would you think you would study it? Or better yet if you were going to join a book club how would you expect them to work through the book?

Exactly, you would read the book cover to cover. You would not break it down by topic or systematically examine the attributes of each character; rather you would learn all of these things in the context of the story that the author is telling. That is what we aim to do with the Bible over the course of the next two semesters; we are going to work our way through the narrative of scripture viewing it as a complete and unified whole. In short we aim to take in the whole panorama of Scripture as we trace the story it tells from beginning to end.

Realizing that our time together is limited we will not be able to read and discuss the entire Bible during this study so there is a lot that will not be covered, in some cases entire books will be skipped. But our goal is to trace the key events in redemptive history that will lead us from the creation account in Genesis to the new creation promised in Revelation. Feel free to ask any questions you want along the way and I will try to answer what I can within the confines of our study and I will post answers to lengthier questions on the website so that we can stay focused on this particular study.

For the rest of our time I want to explain some of the key terminology that we will be using and briefly explain the benefits of studying the Bible in this way.

I. Biblical Theology

The first of these is the term “biblical theology.” By this we do not mean theology that is biblical or correct but rather as author Graeme Goldsworthy explains that, “Biblical theology is concerned with God’s saving acts and his word as these occur within the history of the people of God. It follows the progress of revelation from the first word of God to man through to the unveiling of the full glory of Christ.”[1] This definition points to several important aspects of biblical theology:

  • First, biblical theology is concerned with the action undertaken by God to redeem rebellious humanity; in this sense it is synonymous with the phrase redemptive history.
  • Second, it deals with, and when codified takes the form of, process; “its principle of organizing the Biblical material is historical rather than logical.”[2] Unlike systematic theology which organizes biblical material thematically and topically biblical theology is organized chronologically as it follows the narrative of Scripture.
  • Third, its content is the self-revelation of God, while its form may resemble that of a historical narrative its chief interest is God’s progressive revelation of Himself and His purpose over the course of history. Just as you will learn the characteristics or attributes of a character over the course of a film or novel in the same way God’s actions in the story of Scripture demonstrate His characteristics.
  • Fourth, biblical theology deals with God’s word and so it is exegetical in nature; “its goal is the correct exegesis of the entire Bible so that each part of the whole is understood as it was originally intended to be.”[3]
  • Finally, its central focus is “the unveiling of the full glory of Christ.”[4]

Within the field of Biblical Theology different individuals have taken various themes within Scripture to be the one theme which unifies the Old and New Testaments and the whole of redemptive history. Some of the proposed unifying themes are promise, covenant, the kingdom of God, and relationship with God. While all of these themes are important they all ultimately point to or are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. With this in mind Willem VanGemeren writes, “all blessings, promises, covenants, and kingdom expressions are reflections or shadows of the great salvation in Jesus Christ that is to come at the end of the age. In other words, the Old and New Testaments together witness to the great salvation as restoration.”[5] He continues to explain that, “Old Testament saints and Christians share the common experience of receiving the grace of God in Christ Jesus. The enjoyment of the experience of salvation increases as God’s revelation clarifies the nature of the Messiah and the messianic age.”[6] What we learn from this is that Scripture is telling one story and that story is about Jesus.

II. Metanarrative

The second term we need to define is the word “metanarrative.”

Here is a simple question. Can someone tell us what a narrative is?

Yes, it is a story.

Ok so from that does anyone know or can someone guess what a metanarrative would be?

A metanarrative is an all-encompassing grand-story within which all other stories exist. Our world has no shortage of metanarratives; naturalism and evolution provide a metanarrative as do the major world religions. We even have fictional metanarratives like those found in Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings. Stating the profoundly important role of narrative Alasdair MacIntyre writes, “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question “Of what story or stories do I find myself apart?’”[7] Whether we find ourselves within the metanarrative of naturalism where everything is the result of naturally occurring processes, or the metanarrative of Hinduism where everything is an illusion created by an impersonal reality, or the metanarrative presented in Scripture where everything is created by, through, and for Jesus Christ radically affects the way we understand and conduct life. These are not mere belief systems or ideologies these are profoundly different ways of living life.

Despite the fact that we live in a world where there are numerous competing metanarratives we must realize while “creation, fall, and redemption are the story of the Bible, but they are also the story of the world in which we live.”[8] We see this fact most powerfully demonstrated by the sermons in Acts. We could look at Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 where he describes the relationship between Jesus and David; or at his sermon in Acts 3 where he relates Christ to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; or at Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7 where he gives a sweeping overview of the entire Old Testament story as it relates to Christ; or we could turn to Acts 17 where Paul explains the history of the world from its creation to the final judgment. In all these cases we see that the early church understood that despite the various metanarratives used to explain the world in which they lived only one actually told that story and that was the story they proclaimed.

III.Worldview

A third term we need to define is “worldview.” In his book, The Universe Next Door, James W. Sire defines worldview as:

a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story in a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true, or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being.”[9]

From this definition we see that worldview is similar to metanarrative but is much more as it also deals with ones entire system of understanding and thought. Amazingly though everyone has a worldview one may or may not be aware of what that worldview is, the worldview may be false, and one may even operate out of several contradictory worldviews.

IV. Goals for this Study

Speaking on the subjects of biblical theology, metanarrative, and worldview D. A. Carson explains,

“the fact remains that the Bible as a whole document tells a story, and properly used, that story can serve as a metanarrative that shapes our grasp of the entire Christian faith. In my view it is increasingly important to spell this out to Christians and non-Christians alike—to Christians, to ground them in Scripture, and to non-Christians as a part of our proclamation of the gospel.”[10]

Later in this volume he continues,

“the good news of Jesus Christ is virtually incoherent unless it is securely set into a biblical worldview. . . . [By] tracing out the rudiments of the Bible’s plot-line . . . One is simultaneously setting forth a structure of thought, and a meta-narrative; one is constructing a worldview, and showing how that worldview is grounded in the Bible itself. One is teaching people how to read the Bible.”[11]

From this several clear goals for such a study become apparent.

  • First, we gain an appreciation and understanding of the unity of the Bible and God’s mission in human history.
  • Second, we will see how important this metanarrative is, and all metanarratives are, in giving shape to our lives.
  • Third, this better equips us to study the Bible as it guards against various abuses by giving us a grasp of how individuals books and texts fit within a unified whole.
  • Fourth, this equips us for the task of evangelism as we begin to move beyond our understanding of evangelism as the explanation of competing truth-claims to an understanding that evangelism is a clash between competing metanarratives and worldview systems. N. T. Wright explains that “when we read the Bible in its own terms, as an overarching story, we soon discover that this metanarrative challenges and subverts several other world views.”[12] Even more I would argue that the biblical metanarrative challenges and subverts all other worldviews.
  • Fifth, we live in a world in which various metanarratives and narratives are presented “so steadily and so relentlessly that is pushed us into agreement without our even noticing we are being moved.”[13] Stories are profoundly powerful and we must be able to discern how they shape us intellectually and emotionally or we run the risk of reading our biblical convictions into a contradictory worldview system.

Conclusion

That was a lot for our first session. Next time we will be briefly overview the entire Bible beginning in creation and concluding at the new creation. There will be much more opportunity for discussion so come prepared to talk.

[1] Graeme Goldsworthy, According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1991), 32.

[2] Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1948), preface.

[3] Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 35.

[4] Ibid., 32.

[5] Willem VanGemeren, The Progress of Redemption: The Story of Salvation from Creation to the New Jerusalem (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1988), 26.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 216.

[8] J. Mark Bertrand, Rethinking Worldview: Learning to Think, Live and Speak in This World (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2007), 103-4.

[9] James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog, 4th ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2004), 17).

[10] D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 194.

[11] Ibid., 502.

[12] N. T. Wright, “The Book and the Story,” The Bible in Transmission Summer (1997).

[13] David Mills, “Enchanting Children: Training Up a Child Requires a Well-Formed Imagination,” Touchtone Magazine December (2006).

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.

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.

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

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 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.[1]

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.[2]

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.[3]

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.[4]

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.


[1]John Piper, Let The Nations Be Glad! The Supremacy of God In Missions (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 36.
[2]Ibid., 38-39.
[3]Ibid., 43.
[4]Ibid., 194-95.