Reading the Bible Missionally
A Denver Journal Review by Denver Seminary Professor Dr. Scott Klingsmith
Book review of Goheen, Michael W. ed., Reading the Bible Missionally. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016. ISBN: 978-0802872258
I well remember my first retreat as a doctoral student at Trinity International University. Tite Tienou, the incoming professor of the theology of mission, had spent two days cogently making the case that mission needed to be located at the center of the theological curriculum. At the end of his final session, a doctoral student in systematic theology stood up and said (I’m paraphrasing slightly), “We all know mission is just the practical ministry stuff that is done after the serious work of biblical studies and theology has been done.”
I recently talked with one of my students who had just finished an exegetical paper on a passage from Colossians. I asked him whether any of the authors he had consulted included mission anywhere in their analysis. His response was, “only the ones you gave me.”
I wish my Trinity colleague and the authors of the Colossians commentaries could read Reading the Bible Missionally, edited by Michael Goheen. It is an attempt to bridge the gulf between missiologists and biblical scholars who approach the scriptures in differing ways. Goheen has brought together a Who’s Who of scholars who have been together developing a “missional hermeneutic”, which Richard Bauckham describes as “not simply a study of the theme of mission in the biblical writings, but a way of reading the whole of Scripture with mission as its central interest and goal…A missionary hermeneutic would be a way of reading Scripture that sought to understand what the church’s mission really is in the world as Scripture depicts that mission, and thereby to inspire and inform the church’s missionary praxis” (28f). Goheen and his contributors are hopeful that a growing conversation will yield positive fruit for both biblical studies and missiology. Darrell Guder, one of the pioneers in the missional church discussion, describes the movement this way. “The working hypothesis of the missional hermeneutics discussion of these last years, at least within the circle of the Gospel and Our Culture Network (GOCN), has been that the biblical witness is not only inbreathed by God’s Spirit but also empowered by that Spirit to form and equip the gathered community for its vocation to be witnesses to Christ in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth…We are seeing a theological grassroots movement in which complementary questions and concerns are emerging and merging into a challenging conversation that bears the marks of what Avery Dulles would call ‘an emerging theological consensus’” (285). That growing consensus is that mission is a significant theme of the Bible which affects the very identity of the church. It is founded on the mission of God, missio Dei, and is rooted in the character of God. It is not just an added activity that the church can engage in, or not, as it has the finances, personnel, and desire.
The authors, who include a number of well-known biblical scholars, build on the foundational work of David Bosch and Lesslie Newbigin, who called for a recognition of the fact that the West is no longer Christian and is in fact a mission field. This situation calls for the church and the theological academy to move beyond a Christendom mindset and find ways to speak the gospel to contemporary culture. The Gospel and Our Culture Network has been the setting for many of the discussions of Missional Church. This book, which is part of the Gospel and Our Culture Series (GOCS) in some ways serves as a current resume of the discussion. A number of the authors reference journal articles by other authors in the book, who make many of the same points as those presented here. So it’s a way to put in one place much that has appeared spread around elsewhere. Some familiarity with that conversation could be helpful in coming to the book, but the issues are discussed in such a way that an intelligent reader can enter without difficulty.
The book is built in five sections. The first section, “A Missional Hermeneutic” with chapters by, among others, Goheen, George Hunsberger, and John Franke, lays out the shape of the conversation, defining and describing a missional hermeneutic and setting it in a biblical and theological context. The second section, “A Missional Reading of the Old Testament” has chapters on reading the Old Testament generally by Christopher Wright, as well as treatments of Deuteronomy and a couple of Psalms. Section three, “A Missional Reading of the New Testament” again looks at the New Testament generally, by N.T. Wright, and then examines the books of James and Colossians, by Joel Green and Dean Fleming respectively. The final two sections, “A Missional Reading of Scripture and Preaching”, and “A Missional Reading of Scripture and Theological Education” deal with specific ministry applications of a missional hermeneutic, asking what is the practical use of scripture in the equipping of leaders for the church on mission and the implications of a mission-centered approach to theological education.
At this point, in discussing a multi-author work, it is customary to make the comment that in a work of this kind the contributions are uneven. This is true here as well, but it is unfair to imply by this that some of the chapters are less helpful than others. In fact, it is true only in the sense that some chapters are even more helpful than others. But I found all of them very well done. In a number of cases I immediately started thinking of the person I wanted to share that chapter with. Goheen’s and Sheridan’s chapters on preaching, for example, will resonate with my local church pastor. And I would love to discuss the chapters on theological education with our Denver Seminary faculty, because we have been wrestling for the past ten years with what it might look like for mission to shape our curriculum. (In this regard, my eyes perked up at Goheen’s comment “It is troubling to see how many seminaries have removed missiology from the required core of their curriculum under various pressures to trim curricular hours” (306, fn17), because this has been our case as well.
A number of reviewers have pointed out that, for a work that promotes a diversity of hermeneutical approaches, it is a bit ironic that all of the contributors are white, western males. It would be helpful in this regard to hear the voices of women and others from the majority world, in order to understand how their specific mission contexts influence their own reading of Scripture. But otherwise, I have few quibbles.
I use this book as a supplemental text for my course Mission and Culture. If I had the space I would use it as a primary textbook, but for now I can highly recommend it to my students and to the readers of the Denver Journal. It isn’t the final, or only, word, on how we should read the Bible, but it makes a strong contribution to that discussion.
Scott Klingsmith, PhD
Missiologist in Residence