This essay was originally published in Catalyst in 2010.
What is a Missional Hermeneutic?
A missional hermeneutic (MH) is an interpretive approach that privileges mission as the key to reading the Scriptures. MH works across the spectrum of approaches to the biblical text. It takes seriously the historical situation of the text (“behind the text”). It recognizes the influence of the reader’s social location (“in front of the text”). Yet it is fundamentally rooted in a close reading of the text (“the world of the text”). MH seeks to hear the Scriptures as an authoritative guide to God’s mission in the world so that communities of faith can participate fully in God’s mission.
At the 2008 meeting of AAR/SBL, George R. Hunsberger (“Proposals for a Missional Hermeneutic: Mapping the Conversation”) reviewed current proposals on missional hermeneutics and organized them into four categories: The Missional Direction of the Story, The Missional Locatedness of the Readers, The Missional Engagement with Cultures, and The Missional Purpose of the Writings. I have adopted Hunsberger’s categories for the purposes of this essay.
The Missional Direction of the Story
A missional hermeneutic recognizes that the biblical canon tells the story of God’s mission (missio dei) in and for creation. The story of God’s mission can be summarized as Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus the Messiah, Church, and New Creation.
The Bible opens with the creation of the heavens and earth by God. The human community is crafted in God’s image as the pinnacle of God’s handiwork. Men and women function equally as the image of God for the sake of the rest of Creation. From the beginning, humanity was created for God’s missional purposes to represent God before Creation by reflecting God’s character in community with God, with one another, and with the world.
Genesis 3-11 function in the story to explain the fundamental problem in the world. The “very good” Creation of Genesis 1-2 is shattered by human sinfulness. Sin infests every human person and institution as well as fractures creation itself. The stories and genealogies of Gen 3-11 describe the world in which we find ourselves this side of God’s New Creation. Yet in the midst of the chaos of sin and brokenness, Gen 3-11 presents a God who does more than pass the expected judgment—the God of the Scriptures begins to act to redeem a fallen world.
In Genesis 12, God calls a new humanity into being with a series of promises to Abram and his descendents. This people exist to serve as the agents of God’s blessings for the nations (Gen 12:3). The narrative of God’s new humanity runs uninterrupted through the Protestant canon from Gen 12 – Esther. God’s new humanity becomes the nation of Israel. It is decisively shaped through God’s liberation of Israel from Egyptian bondage and through the forging of a covenant at Sinai. Israel’s deliverance from Egypt is purposeful and is undertaken for the sake of the world. At Sinai, Israel is called to serve as God’s missional people, a holy community for the nations (Exod 19:4-6). The remaining books of the Pentateuch establish a polity for God’s people as they prepare to live faithfully in the Promised Land as a witness to the nations. Joshua to Esther narrate the potential and pitfalls of God’s people living in Canaan including the devastation of the Exile due to disobedience and the resilience of God’s faithful love shown through God’s restoration of Judah from Exile.
A large portion of the Old Testament is not set within a narrative framework. How do the Psalms, the Wisdom Literature, and the Prophets fit in the story?
The book of Psalms serves as the prayer and worship book for God’s people. The psalms reverberate with themes of God’s reign over the nations. Through lament, thanksgiving, and praise, the psalms encourage an expansive vision of the worship of God that ultimately climaxes in the concluding exhortation: Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! (150:6). The psalms root God’s people in a vital worshipping relationship with the Lord, the Creator of the World and Deliverer of Israel.
Israel’s Wisdom traditions serve God’s story by offering serious reflection on the God’s creation and the good life. Wisdom deals with questions that engage all of humanity. Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs have much in common with the wisdom of Israel’s neighbors. Wisdom is interested in navigating successfully through life. Since God created all that is, the wise can observe life astutely and deduce principles for living in God’s world. This focus on the human side of life makes it easy to connect Israel’s wisdom to culture. Yet, Israel’s unique contribution to the lore of the ancients is profoundly missional: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov 1:7). The implication is this: careful attention to the human condition may prepare persons for the truth about God (cf. Ecc 12:12-14).
The Prophets (Isaiah – Malachi) contribute to the Israel’s story in three ways. First, Israel’s prophets continually call God’s people back to their roots as a missional community that embodies God’s holiness before the nations. The Prophets take Israel to task for failing to live as God’s people. Second, the Prophets maintain an international focus. The God of Israel is the Lord of the nations and as such the prophets speak words of both judgment and salvation to the nations. Provocatively Jonah audaciously announces God’s love for even the most committed opponents of God’s people. Last, the Prophets envision a new future work of God’s salvation (e.g., Jer 31:31-34, etc.).
It is against the backdrop of Israel’s Scriptures that Jesus the Messiah enters the story. Jesus lives as the ultimate human being who fulfills in his life, death, and resurrection God’s Creational intentions for humanity and everything that God had envisioned for Israel as God’s new humanity. Jesus’ death is for the totality of the Fall and his resurrection declares the ultimate victory of God. The Gospels narrate Jesus’ life and ministry to teach future generations of disciples what it means to follow Jesus. The core of Jesus’ message is the announcement of the arrival of God’s kingdom and his call to realign our lives in light of this reality (Matt 4:17, Mark 1:15 cf. Luke 4:16-21).
In the aftermath of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, the Risen Jesus sends out the Church to announce and extends God’s salvation to the nations. The Church is unleashed in the power of the Holy Spirit. The New Testament witnesses to the spread of the Gospel across the 1st century Mediterranean world. The Scriptural story goes forth from the land of Israel to the nations in fulfillment of the Israel’s mission. The New Testament epistles serve as teaching documents for fledgling missional communities around the Mediterranean world.
The Scriptural story ends with Revelation’s portrait of God’s future New Creation (Rev 20-21).
Learning to understand the big story of the Scriptures is more than a descriptive task. The story of the Scriptures seeks to convert its readers/hearers to its perspective. The Scriptural story invites its readers to understand their lives as part of its narrative.
The Missional Locatedness of the Readers
An interpreter’s social location serves a crucial role in the reading process. It may provide a fresh perspective for reading a text or it may distort a text’s meaning. Michael Barram (“The Bible, mission, and social location: Toward a missional hermeneutic.” Interpretation 61 (2007): 42-58) has argued that readers must locate themselves in mission. The biblical texts were written in a missional context. Participating in God’s mission enables contemporary readers to find common ground with the ancient text’s perspective.
Moreover, engaging in missional activity in the world creates new questions with which to engage the Bible and is crucial for learning to hear the text for both church and world. A practitioner of MH learns to listen to a text on behalf of the people to whom s/he serves as a witness. Missional engagement unleashes the interpreter to read a text through the eyes both of Christ followers and of unreached persons. The wise interpreter learns through missional praxis the sorts of questions that an outsider to the faith may raise when hearing a biblical text. Thus, the practice of reading the Bible from a missional locatedness trains us to read and hear the Scripture from contested spheres in the marketplace and not only in the realm of the sanctuary where we “preach to the choir.”
The Missional Engagement with Cultures
A third line of inquiry in the field of MH is the manner in which the biblical materials themselves model engagement with culture. We gain new insights about 21st century incarnational ministry by studying the ways in which biblical texts communicate to their context. For example, how do the Creation stories of Genesis engage and subvert the dominant worldviews of Israel’s neighbors? How do the similarities between the narrative structure of Exodus 15:1b-18 and the Baal Epic serve to promote Israel’s understanding of reality to their Canaanite context? How does Paul use existing modes of communication in the Greco-Roman world to enhance the persuasiveness of his writing?
The Missional Purpose of the Writings
MH recognizes that the Scriptures exist to convert and shape their hearers. Most of us have been trained to read the Bible as the basis for doctrine and individual piety. MH reminds us that Scripture is concerned with shaping communities of God’s people into outposts for the advancement of the Gospel. Darrell Guder has been on the forefront of emphasizing this aspect. He writes concerning the New Testament documents (“Missional Pastors in Maintenance Churches” Catalyst: Contemporary Evangelical Perspectives for United Methodist Seminarians 31.3 (2005): 4.):
… NT communities were all founded in order to continue the apostolic witness that brought them into being. Every NT congregation understood itself under the mandate of our Lord at his ascension: “You shall be my witnesses.” …To that end, the NT documents were all, in some way, written to continue the process of formation for that kind of witness. They intended the continuing conversion of these communities to their calling—and that is how the Spirit used (and still uses!) these written testimonies.
Thus, we need to ask specifically how each text was intended to form God’s people into a missional community. Moreover this is not merely a NT perspective. As shown above, the thread of mission runs across the biblical canon. Both OT and NT texts can be read profitably in terms of how they seek to form the people of God for the sake of God’s mission to all Creation.
In his recent essay “Prophet to the Nations: Missional Reflections on the Book of Jeremiah,” Christopher Wright raised a related question: What does this text teach about the missional cost to the messenger? Wright expands the dimension of a biblical text’s teaching. Wright shows that the book of Jeremiah explicitly displays the personal cost to the prophet of participation in God’s mission. Raising the issue of missional cost is crucial as we seek to create a missional ethos in our congregations.
The Potential of a Missional Hermeneutic for Preachers and Teachers
1) MH provides a context and direction for preaching/teaching. Learning to read discrete texts within the grand narrative of God’s mission as described in Scripture provides a crucial angle for communicating the Gospel. The interpreter recognizes that every text in the Bible helps to shape the people of God to serve as a missional community that embodies the character of God in/to/for the world.
In preparation for preaching and teaching, ask questions such as these:
How does this text help us to understand God’s mission in the world?
How do we need to change in order to live out this text corporately and individually?
How does this passage serve as an invitation to the world to join God’s mission?
What kind of persons does this text call us to become?
2) MH connects worship explicitly with life in the world by establishing a missional ethos for the community of faith. Learning to read the Scriptures through MH keeps God’s mission on the front burner for all aspects of the community. Most profoundly it keeps the worship of the Triune God grounded in God’s missional intentions for humanity and all creation. Biblical worship at its core is profoundly missional. The aim of God’s mission is worship. Humanity was created to serve as God’s missional community before creation. As God’s new humanity, the Church worships as a bold and daring testimony to the world of the greatness of God and as an invitation to unreached persons to become part of God’s new humanity for the sake of the world.
3) MH establishes a new framework for learning. As communities of faith struggle to break the grips of the paradigm of serving as inward-focused dispensers of religious goods and services to serving as outposts for the sake of God’s Kingdom, MH provides a different outcome for learning. “Christian education” is no longer merely learning facts about the stories of the Scriptures or grasping the basics of the historical creeds of the church. The goal of learning in the Church now becomes a constant conversion to the message of Scripture so that each disciple can be shaped into the sort of person that s/he needs to become in order to participate fully in God’s mission in the world. All learning can now be set in the context of the missional reality of the 21st century Church.
Barram, Michael. “The Bible, mission, and social location: Toward a missional hermeneutic.” Interpretation 61 (2007): 42-58.
Bauckham, Richard. The Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004.
Beeby, Harry D. Canon and Mission. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1999.
Bosch, David J. “Towards a Hermeneutic for ‘Biblical Studies and Mission’” Mission Studies 3.2 (1986): 65-79.
Brownson, James. Speaking the Truth in Love: New Testament Resources for a Missional Hermeneutic. Christian Mission and Modern Culture. Continuum, 1998.
Guder, Darrell C. (ed). Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. Gospel and Culture Network. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.
Guder, Darrell C. “Missional Pastors in Maintenance Churches” Catalyst: Contemporary Evangelical Perspectives for United Methodist Seminarians 31.3 (2005): 4.
Hunsberger, George R. “Proposals for a Missional Hermeneutic: Mapping the Conversation” Gospel and Our Culture Network Newsletter eseries 2 (2009): cn.org/resources/newsletters/2009/01/gospel-and-our-culture
Russell, Brian D. (re)Aligning with God: Reading Scripture for Church and World Cascade, 2016.
Wright, Christopher J.H. The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006.
Brian D. Russell (Ph.D.) is Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary-Florida Dunnam Campus and John Wesley Fellow. His new book on missional reading (re)Aligning with God: Reading Scripture for Church and World is now available.