Academic journal article International Review of Mission

Missio Dei: The Basis of Mission Theology or a Wrong Path? (1)

Academic journal article International Review of Mission

Missio Dei: The Basis of Mission Theology or a Wrong Path? (1)

Article excerpt

1. What is mission? The conflict surrounding the main concept

Mission is at one and the same time an essential but contentious theological issue. This is because it deals with the truth of the Christian faith in the face of other claims to truth. This fact will become clear straight away as we review two doctrinal statements that represent, respectively, a traditional view of missionary theology and a more recent view (or paradigm):

    If Christendom could breathe ... then it would experience ... both
the need to
    breathe in and the ability to breathe out as being the grace of God
without
    which it would not be able to live ... The Bible often speaks of
the Spirit of God
    as of a wind or a breath of air, that can be breathed in, with
which the Church
    has to be filled in order to be spiritually alive. The Church has
to go forwards
    on the basis of this spiritual breath in order to continually renew
itself as the
    Church. The Church does this mainly through its ... worship ...
Indeed ... if the
    Church wants to stay alive it also has to be able to breathe out.
It has to go out
    beyond itself, if it wants to remain the Church of Jesus Christ. It
cannot exist
    as the Church moved by his Spirit, if it is not, or does not become
again, a missionary
    Church. (2)

This is how Eberhard Jungel described the nature and priority of mission at the synod of the Evangelical Church of Germany (EKD) in Leipzig in 1999. The central concept in this interpretation is that mission is the sign of the life of a church which is sure of its source in the Spirit of God, and is, for this very reason, ready to open itself up to and turn towards strangers.

During Jungel's address many of those in the EKD who had been turned off mission gained renewed faith in the subject. (3) However, the main concept behind his words has long been a matter for argument in the worldwide debate on mission. Fourteen years ago, the Indian theologian, Stanley J. Samartha explained the task of mission thus:

    In a pluralistic religious world Christians and their neighbours
from other religious
    backgrounds are called to take part in God's continuing mission to
the
    world. Mission means continuing God's work through the Spirit, to
mend what
    is broken in the whole of creation, to overcome the destruction of
humankind
    and to heal the rift between God, nature and humanity. (4)

In contrast to Jungel's definition, this describes mission as a work of God that is common to all religions. Each religion has a share in it but only in common with others that are, as it were, "equally" called. According to Samartha, the church no longer has the explicit role of mediator of the Christian faith to humanity beyond itself.

Therefore, the debate about the correct central concept of mission is still in full swing. However, one thing has been symptomatic of mission theology over the last fifty years: both sides, those who support the first concept and those who support the second, trace their arguments back to the fifty-year-old mission theology concept of missio Dei (5) (God's mission) and yet draw different and in part opposing conclusions. It seems that everyone reads into and out of this "container definition" (6) whatever he or she needs at the time. Is such a term of any use at all, if it does not help us to establish a clear single interpretation of the central concept? Should we give up this formula altogether or, as is increasingly being called for, give up using it for the time being. (7)

Fortunately, as theologians we have a great deal of practice in dealing with terms that have several meanings. We know that we do not understand a term that has acquired a whole host of different interpretations (or derived meanings) until we have learnt its original meaning and established for ourselves why, in different circumstances, this original meaning is not shared by all specialists. …

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