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

Introduction

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

Posts in this Series

Summary

The Mission of God Overview

Summarizing Millar’s overview. Millar mingles overview with critique so it is helpful to begin by distilling his overview into a positive summary of the four sections contained within Christopher J. h. Wright’s The Mission of God. This is both helpful in understanding Wright’s work and the broader context into which Millar’s critique fits.

  • Part 1: The Bible and Mission – The main argument here is that mission is God’s mission, mission is central to the whole Bible, the bible was written on mission, we need to read the Bible with a missional hermeneutic, and the whole Bible should shape our mission.
  • Part 2: The God of Mission – There are two key locations where Israel comes to know their God, the exodus and the return from exile. He defends monotheism, discusses idolatry, and critiques religious pluralism.
  • Part 3: The People of Mission – Here he argues for the primacy of mission in the election of Israel, this is the controlling idea in the Old Testament. He then demonstrates how the Exodus and the Jubilee encapsulate the heart of God’s missional agenda. Finally, the priesthood of Israel is also presented as a controlling idea in the Old Testament.
  • Part 4: The Arena of Mission – Here he begins to spell out how this affects how we do mission today particularly as it pertains to creation, the image of God, and the nations.

Examining Millar’s overview. Now we will work through Millar’s summary, of parts two through four, both to develop his content and offer critique when necessary. Part one was covered in the previous post, available here.

  • Part 2: The God of Mission – There are two key locations where Israel comes to know their God, the exodus and the return from exile. He defends monotheism, discusses idolatry, and critiques religious pluralism.

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

  • Part 3: The People of Mission – Here he argues for the primacy of mission in the election of Israel, this is the controlling idea in the Old Testament. He then demonstrates how the Exodus and the Jubilee encapsulate the heart of God’s missional agenda. Finally, the priesthood of Israel is also presented as a controlling idea in the Old Testament.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Part 4: The Arena of Mission – Here he begins to spell out how this affects how we do mission today particularly as it pertains to creation, the image of God, and the nations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“How long, O Lord?” — Isaiah Models Missional Prayer

My friend Todd recently posted on Isaiah 6 as it pertains to the order of salvation in “Confronted by Glory- What Isaiah 6 Teaches Us About the Process of Salvation” and then as it pertains to repentance and salvation in “Confronted by Glory- Two Practical Questions from the Experience of Isaiah.” I would commend his posts to you. While Todd focused on Isaiah’s immediate response to this vision I want to focus on the later part of this passage as it also has much to teach us.

After Isaiah beholds the glory of the Lord, responds to it in broken humility over his sin and the sin of Israel, the atoning sacrifice is applied to his guilt and sin, and then, in verse 8, the story continues:

And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.” And he said, “Go, and say to this people:

‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’
Make the heart of this people dull,
   and their ears heavy,
   and blind their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
   and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
   and turn and be healed.”
Then I said, “How long, O Lord?”
And he said:
“Until cities lie waste
   without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
   and the land is a desolate waste,
and the LORD removes people far away,
   and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.
And though a tenth remain in it,
   it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak,
   whose stump remains
   when it is felled.
The holy seed is its stump.”

Isaiah hears the intertrinitarian conversation as the Lord asks Himself “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Having just seen the Lord upon His throne and experiencing His atoning sacrifice for sins Isaiah exclaims, “Here am I! Send me.” The prophet cries out, “I will tell of your glory, I will make your gracious atonement known!” The Lord’s reply is devastating as He exhorts Isaiah to proclaim, “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive” and command him to “Make the heart of this people dull . . . [lest they] turn and be healed.” Isaiah, having just experienced the Lord’s atoning sacrifice for sins, would not be proclaiming that great salvation to his people; no, his message was one of judgment and its purpose was to harden Israel’s heart so that she would not turn to the Lord in repentance.

Upon hearing this Isaiah replies asking, “How long, O Lord?” There are two primary ways in which Isaiah’s question has been interpreted; first, “how long must I proclaim this message?” and second, “how long will their hardness persist?” or “how long until you save your people?” Based upon Isaiah’s emphasis upon the fulfillment of YHWH’s covenant promises and subsequently his understanding of the blessings and curses of those covenants (cf. Deuteronomy 28; 30:1-10) the later understanding of his reply best fits within the context of his ministry. In this sense Isaiah cries out “How long until your people repent and you restore your blessing to them?” The Lord’s reply glimmers with the same hope promised in the covenants, though Israel will be scattered in exile and the Promised Land laid to waste a stump, a remnant, will remain. A remnant of which Isaiah later prophecies, “And the surviving remnant of the house of Judah shall again take root downward and bear fruit upward. For out of Jerusalem shall go a remnant, and out of Mount Zion a band of survivors. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this” (Isaiah 37:31-32).

We must regain Isaiah’s missional understanding of the Lord, his missional zeal for his people, and his missional petition on their behalf. We must come to view God as Isaiah did; as a God who sends and saves, who graciously self-discloses Himself, and who makes atonement for His people. We must be broken over our sin and over the sins of our culture responding in humble obedience. We must not respond triumphalisticly as a politicized evangelicalism seeking moral legislation nor as an incensed evangelicalism in protest of sin. No, we must respond in broken intercession crying out “How long will our cities be ravaged by the worship of idols? How long will this people persist in self-reliance? How long will they perceive your invisible attributes and continue to suppress the truth in unrighteousness? How long will they harden their hearts against you? How long will they keep on hearing, but not understand? How long will they keep on seeing, but not perceive? How long will you make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes? How long until they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts? How long until you turn them to yourself that they may be healed? . . . How long, O Lord?

Biblical Repentance

In light of the current discussion of Lordship Salvation at Ignite UK, I have decided to provide a semi-exhaustive definition of Biblical Repentance here.

Prior to defining repentance within its New Testaments context, it is important to understand it within its Old Testament context, this is especially true because the first calls to repentance in the New Testament (Matthew 3:2; Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3) are Old Testament calls to repentance and indeed the two are synonymous and thus defining one defines the other.

Repentance in the Old Testament

The meaning in these verses is clear and as such need no explanation.

I Kings 8 46 “If they sin against you—for there is no one who does not sin—and you are angry with them and give them to an enemy, so that they are carried away captive to the land of the enemy, far off or near, 47 yet if they turn their heart in the land to which they have been carried captive, and repent and plead with you in the land of their captors, saying, ‘We have sinned and have acted perversely and wickedly,’ . . . 49 then . . . their prayer and their plea, and maintain their cause 50 and forgive your people who have sinned against you, and all their transgressions that they have committed against you, and grant them compassion in the sight of those who carried them captive, that they may have compassion on them.

Psalm 78 32 In spite of all this, they still sinned; despite his wonders, they did not believe. 33 So he made their days vanish like a breath, and their years in terror. 34 When he killed them, they sought him; they repented and sought God earnestly. 35 They remembered that God was their rock, the Most High God their redeemer.

Isaiah 1 27 Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness. 28 But rebels and sinners shall be broken together, and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed.

Jeremiah 5:3 O Lord, do not your eyes look for truth? You have struck them down, but they felt no anguish; you have consumed them, but they refused to take correction. They have made their faces harder than rock; they have refused to repent.

Jeremiah 34 15 You recently repented and did what was right in my eyes by proclaiming liberty, each to his neighbor, and you made a covenant before me in the house that is called by my name, 16 but then you turned around and profaned my name when each of you took back his male and female slaves, whom you had set free according to their desire, and you brought them into subjection to be your slaves.

Ezekiel 14:6 “Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: Repent and turn away from your idols, and turn away your faces from all your abominations.”

Ezekiel 18 30 “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. 31 Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32 For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.”

Repentance in the New Testament

Building upon the clear presentation of repentance as a change in both mindset and lifestyle the New Testament concept of repentance now begins to unfold. First, it is important to understand its use in the New Testament. In Matthew chapter three, John the Baptist cries out “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” He is calling Jews to prepare for their Messiah, their King, by living according to his rule, this is further expressed in the quotation from Isaiah, which describes John as the voice, which cries in the wilderness “Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.” This concept remains true to this day whenever a ruler or political official is going to make an appearance preparations must be made prior to their appearing. This allusion was especially true in ancient times when roads had to be cleared of debris to allow quick and safe travel for royalty and one would most definitely incur punishment if he failed to heed such a warning. John was calling them to prepare themselves spiritually and physically to be in the presence of their King. When the king comes one does not merely change his mind concerning the King’s Lordship and yet make no physical preparations, nor does one merely feel remorse for his failure to live in submission to that Lordship and yet make no change in action. Nor can such a definition of repentance be imposed on this text, the historical situation does not allow it, rebellion is rebellion and regardless of ones “feelings of remorse” such rebellion would not be tolerated by worldly powers nor would it be tolerated by Israel’s Messiah.

And ultimately it was not tolerated in Matthew 12 Israel rejects her Messiah and He abandoned her to give hope to the Gentiles. Stephen speaks of this event in Acts 7:51-53 51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. 52 Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, 53 you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”

Are we to impose our self-serving understanding of repentance on that? Is Christ unjust? Is He simply ignorant for not understanding that true repentance is merely a mental consent to His Lordship that requires no tangible fruit?

I think repentance is clear by this point but if you are still having trouble by an exhaustive concordance and read every Bible verse on repentance and its meaning will become indisputably clear, you can also search the Bible for “repentance” at Bible Gateway.

To look briefly at the word itself in the Greek there is both the verb “repent” (μετανοέω/metanoeo) and the noun “repentance” (μετάνοια/metanoia). It is a combination of two Greek words the preposition meta, simply translated with or after, and nous which is used in reference to one’s mind, understanding, or comprehension. Taken together they can be strictly translated “to comprehend afterward.” It is also important to note that when used in combination they imply change therefore leading to the understanding of repentance as an understanding after-the-fact and the subsequent correction of future action based upon this newfound knowledge.

Concluding Thoughts

True repentance necessitates both a change in mind and a change in lifestyle neither the historical context nor the etymology of the word allows any other rendering. Furthermore the view that repentance is simply a change of mind apart from a change in walk is predicated upon an unbiblical understanding of the Lordship of Christ and as such it is important that the root issue there is addressed, namely that Christ is Lord and He was Lord both prior to and regardless of His role as Savior. The Lordship of Christ has been adequately addressed elsewhere and will not be further discussed here. However it is also important that one understand repentance as both a one time event leading to salvation (Acts 11:18; II Corinthians 7:10) and a perpetual practice through which we are daily conformed to Christ (Luke 22:32; Acts 3:19).