Beyond Bosch: The Early Church and the Christendom Shift

Article excerpt

David Bosch's Transforming Mission is a great book. (1) Its scope is comprehensive; it is, as Lesslie Newbigin put it, a summa missiologica. It is in three parts. Part 1, which reflects Bosch's deeply committed study of the New Testament, develops his first paradigm: "the apocalyptic paradigm of primitive Christianity." Part 3, which deals with the contemporary world, explores his sixth paradigm: "an emerging ecumenical missionary paradigm." (2)

Between Bosch's parts 1 and 3, between the New Testament and the contemporary world, lies part 2, "Historical Paradigms of Mission," which I consider in this article. In his part 2 Bosch proposes four epochs in the history of mission, each of which has its own characteristic "paradigm": the missionary paradigm of the Eastern church, which he calls "the Greek patristic period" (p. 190); the medieval Roman Catholic missionary paradigm; the Protestant (Reformation) paradigm; and the modern Enlightenment paradigm.

Bosch acknowledges Hans Kung as originator of this sequence of paradigms. He also recognizes that there are other ways of subdividing the history of the church (p. 188). He refers appreciatively to James P. Martin, who in 1987 proposed a three-epoch periodization: "precritical" ("vitalist," including Kung's Eastern, Roman, and Reformation paradigms), "critical" or "mechanical" (the Enlightenment), and "postcritical" (holistic and ecumenical). (3)

Here I evaluate Bosch's treatment of the early church, which he deals with in his second and third historical paradigms. Having assessed Bosch's chapters on the early church, I propose to join James Martin in suggesting a different, three-paradigm approach to the history of mission.

Bosch's Second and Third Paradigms

David Bosch's paradigm 2, "the Greek Patristic period," extends from the late first to the sixth century. In it, Bosch observes, the Christians in the Roman Empire had begun to accommodate themselves to life in the world. They were an illegal religion (religio illicita) and hence were liable to periodic bouts of persecution. But their conduct was exemplary, as a result of which they continued to grow, even without the apparent active involvement of missionaries. Bosch's main interest is theological. He traces the developing theology of the Eastern church as it distanced itself from the vivid apocalyptic expectations of primitive Christianity and as it charted its course through the Hellenistic religious environment. Bosch honors the decisions that the theologians of late antiquity made and salutes them for developing theology as a rigorous intellectual discipline. Mission, according to the Eastern Orthodox traditions, emanates from the life of the church as a "sign, symbol and sacrament of the divine" (p. 212). The heartbeat of mission, its very core, is worship--specifically, the Orthodox liturgy. On this point Bosch quotes the twentieth-century theologian Karl Rose: "The light of mercy that shines in the liturgy should act as [the] center of attraction to those who still live in the darkness of paganism" (p. 207). Bosch states what he finds to be limitations in the Orthodox traditions--uncritical inculturation, nationalism, and abandonment of the eschatological urgency of primitive Christianity. But ultimately, Bosch expresses deep respect for the Eastern missionary paradigm, finding at its heart God's love incarnate; for him, John 3:16 is its quintessential missional text.

Paradigm 3, in Bosch's scheme, is "the medieval Roman Catholic missionary paradigm." For Bosch the Middle Ages extends from approximately 600 to 1500. But Bosch finds the roots of the Roman paradigm beginning earlier, with Augustine of Hippo (d. 430) (p. 215). Augustine led the Western church theologically as it shifted the focus from Christ's incarnation to his cross and began to emphasize predestination and original sin. The alliance of the church with the Roman state, begun under Emperor Constantine I early in the fourth century, offered new possibilities for the church in its mission. …