The Biblical Narrative of the Missio Dei: Analysis of the Interpretive Framework of David Bosch's Missional Hermeneutic

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This article examines David Bosch's missional hermeneutic, using it as an entry point into his understanding of the biblical foundation of mission. Until his tragic death in 1992 in a car accident, Bosch was chair of the Department of Missiology at the University of South Africa. He studied New Testament under Oscar Cullman at the University of Basel. The development of his theological thought was also shaped by his experience as an Afrikaner, as an ordained minister of the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC), and as a missionary in the Transkei. The sociopolitical and theological setting of South Africa during apartheid was, as it were, the anvil against which he hammered out his ideas of the vocation of the church within the world. His vision of missionary self-understanding and of the church as the "alternative community" is rooted in a strong conviction that the New Testament must be read as a missionary document.

Bosch follows the same general outline in both Witness to the World (1980) and Transforming Mission (1991): first, a discussion of mission crisis (this section is brief in the latter work), followed by a scriptural foundation of mission, an overview of historical perspectives on mission, a presentation of the emerging missionary paradigm, and development of a relevant theology of mission. A certain understanding, interpretation, and application of the Scriptures characterize each paradigm of Christian missionary history as it engages with its own particular context. Bosch is convinced that the task of each generation is to unlock, as if with its own time-conditioned key, the biblical foundation of mission and the biblical narrative of the missio Dei. He insists that, since the New Testament is "essentially a missionary document ... it is incumbent upon us to reclaim it as such." (1)

Missional Hermeneutics: An Ecumenical Task

While recognizing that there are "no immutable and objectively correct 'laws of mission' which exegesis of Scripture [can] give us," Bosch argues that a faithful reading of the New Testament prevents any church in any historical context from seeing itself apart from the missionary enterprise, for "the history and theology of early Christianity are, first of all, 'mission history' and 'mission theology." (2) If the theology of Karl Barth "offers a much-needed purification of Christian thinking," (3) given the liberal context to which he had to respond, Bosch offers in comparable fashion a rediscovery of missionary hermeneutics of the New Testament, in response to the postmodern missionary crisis. Bosch affirms Martin Kahler's famous saying that "mission is the mother of theology." He traces the roots of mission to the very person, life, mission, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the community that he established, as recorded in the New Testament. The life and agenda of Jesus of Nazareth is the standard for authentic Christian mission. The task of the church in every generation and in every sociopolitical and historical context, then, is "to test continually whether its understanding of Christ corresponds with that of the first witnesses." (4)

In formulating his case for the emerging postmodern mission paradigm, Bosch presents a missiological reading of Jesus and his followers as an absolutely necessary hermeneutical key to comprehensively unlocking the biblical foundation of mission.

A variety of missions can be found in the New Testament, but the authors spoke about the same Jesus to people within the specific contexts of their own communities. Likewise, our task, within our context, is to speak about Jesus--but not in just any way we might choose. The "speaking" is limited, not only by our own context, but also and "fundamentally by the community's 'charter of foundation', the event of Jesus Christ. The events at the origin of the Christian community--the 'agenda' set by Jesus living, dying, and rising from the dead--primarily established the distinctiveness of that community, and to those events we too have to orientate ourselves. …