Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Missional Implications of Hearing the Bible's Big Picture

The biblical narrative tells the story of Creation — Fall — Israel (God’s New Humanity) — Jesus the Messiah — Church — New Creation. See my essay God's Mission and Scripture's Story to review this framework.

1) Mission is the common thread that unites the Old and New Testaments into the Christian Bible. Seeing the Big Picture is essential for understanding the Holy Scriptures. This is not a call for a reading of Scripture that erases tensions.[1] Rather the differing voices in Scripture point to the missional dimension of the Canon.  Beeby argues that “mission rarely occurs without conflict.”[2]  Tensions within Scripture serve as witnesses to God’s call on people in various contexts to live faithfully.  Different times, contexts, and cultures call for different emphases.  Beeby writes:

This biblical parliament includes wisdom books which differ greatly from the prophets.  Within wisdom Job does not agree with Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes is out of tune with almost everybody.  The prophets include Jeremiah and Isaiah who concur on much but differ considerably…No wonder that some deny to [Scripture] any unity.  But it has a unity: a unity in tension, a harmony of conflicting forces that can speak to all sorts and conditions of humanity, in all sorts and conditions of human joy and anguish.  At times we must hear one voice more than others.  In affluence we must hear the vocation to poverty, in strength we must be conscious of the power of weakness; severity must temper goodness and law nourish grace lest it become cheap.[3]

Think about some of the more famous tensions in Scripture: differences in created order in Genesis 1:1-2:3 and 2:4-25 or the different perspectives on faith and works found in Paul’s letter to Galatians and the writings of James. Does not reading these in the larger framework of God’s mission place the relationship of these texts in a new light? Rather than seeing the Bible as hopelessly diverse and without any center, an emphasis on the mission of God serves as the light that brings out of the true beauty and unity of the kaleidoscope of Scripture.

The review of the Big Picture of the Old and New Testament suggests that Scripture forms a story. It is the story of the Mission of God from Creation – Fall – Israel – Jesus – Church – New Creation in which the Creating and Redeeming God invites humanity to live as the people of God for the world.

Theologian Robert Jensen observes:
Scripture’s story is not part of some larger narrative; it is itself the larger narrative of which all other true narratives are parts. And so do not when reading Scripture try to figure out how what you are reading fits into some larger story; for there is no larger story.[4]

2) All of Creation matters to God. God’s ultimate mission is the full redemption of all creation. As we saw the Bible begins with a Creation which God himself evaluates as “very good” (Gen 1:31). This “very good” Creation is undone in part by human sin (Genesis 3-11, note specifically the cursing of the earth in the aftermath of the disobedience of Adam and Eve in Gen 3:17-19, cf. Romans 8:18-23). Likewise, the New Testament ends with a testimony of a New Heavens and a New Earth, including the creation of a New Jerusalem which functions as the focal point of God’s ultimate reign.
God’s love for creation implies a sufficient ground for a missional theology that is worldly in at least three respects:

First, humans remain God’s stewards over creation – creatures, plants, and inanimate material. It is contrary to Scripture to participate in the abuse of Creation. The care of God’s creation is part of the missio dei.

Second, in the post-Genesis 3-11 reality in which we find ourselves, the world remains the context in which the present mission will occur. The tension in Scripture involves the issue of the universal love of God for the world and his particular election of Israel to serve as God’s distinct people “his treasured possession” (Exod 19:4-6; Deut 7:6 cf. Titus 2:14 and 1 Pet 2:9). To some, the particular election of Israel is a theological problem around the issue of fairness. What about the rest of the world? Does God only care for Israel? The Old Testament confronts this head on by beginning the way that it does. Scripture opens up with a universal scope. Genesis 1-11 is not about Israel but about the world. The call of Abraham in Genesis 12 is a move from the universal to the particular in terms of the narrative, but not in terms of its intent. The call of Abraham is to a single family, but it is ultimately a call to servanthood as the agents through whom God will bless the nations. Genesis 12:3b reads, “…all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

The Mosaic Torah serves to function as the authoritative core of the Old Testament witness. It fundamentally serves as a polity for the people of God. This polity includes living in harmony with God’s creational intentions which involves humanity’s mission to share God’s blessings with all creation. As Christians, we may find the word sacrament to be helpful here. God’s desire for the people of God is for them to serve as a sacrament, a means of grace, to the world. Paul seems aware of this necessity in his great chapter on reconciliation in 2 Corinthians 5. After writing, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a New Creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (v. 17), he immediately turns to role that the “new creation” has for the rest of creation – “All this is from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (v. 18). In other words, God’s response to Fall has been to call a people to serve the world (especially other humans) on behalf of the Creator. This is a worldly vocation.

Last, mission began at creation, and not merely after the Fall. Even before human sin entered the world, there was mission. God’s creative acts in Genesis 1 serve as a model of this. God’s actions are purposeful. He creates the “very good” ordered world out of the raw material described as in Hebrew as tohu wabohu “formless void” (Gen 1:2). Even humanity is giving a missional function at creation. Humanity, forged in the image of God, is to reflect God’s character in its vocation of care over Creation and in its filling of Creation (Gen 1:26-31).

3) Rather than talking about a “biblical basis for missions” we should affirm, as Chris Wright suggests a “missional basis for the Bible.”[5] Scriptures through the power of the Holy Spirit continues to call the Church today to participate in God’s mission. Mission is the reason for which the Church continues to exist. It is the role of each individual church and each individual Christian to find his or her vocation in light of this reality. Ostensibly, mission will continue on even in the New Heavens and the New Earth as humanity returns empowered by the Holy Spirit to fulfill God’s original creational intentions.

4) We need to learn a new way of reading the Bible that reemphasizes the missional center of Scripture. It can no longer function primarily as a source of private piety. We need to relearn to read Scripture through a missional lens in which those who already follow Jesus are shaped into missionary witnesses and those who are not following Jesus are invited to full participation in the only community that truly exists for the benefit of the world.

© 2015 Brian D. Russell

For more information, see my book, (re)Aligning with God: Reading Scripture for Church and World (Cascade, 2016).

Need a curriculum or guide to learn the Bible's Big Picture? Check out Invitation.

[1] For an excellent study on the diversity within the OT see John Goldingay, Theological Diversity and the Authority of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987).
[2] Harry Daniel Beeby, “A Missional Approach to Renewed Interpretation” in Renewing Biblical Interpretation, eds Craig Bartholomew, Colin Greene, and Karl Möller (Cumbria and Grand Rapids: Paternoster and Zondervan, 2000), 279.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Robert Jensen, “Scripture’s Authority in the Church” in Art of Reading Scripture, 34.
[5] Mission of God, 22.

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