Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World
The pastoral context in which I teach and minister is downtown Honolulu: a multi-ethnic, travel-destination, military-operations-center, and global metropolis in the middle of the Pacific Rim. Its denizens almost always occupy the hybrid spaces between several overlapping cultures and languages, a kind of postmodern and postcolonial Babel of tongues and tribes. Here the memory of missionary contact has become conflated with the dark legacy of imperialism, consumerism, and subservience to foreign influence and investment. The underlying question I face from the people I live among and minister to is one of deep suspicion: “How is the Gospel of Jesus not just another universalizing story of domination and suppression of local cultures?” Or, to put it another way, “How can Christianity claim to be universally true in the face of so many different beliefs and peoples and customs?”
In his Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World, New Testament scholar and hermeneut Richard Bauckham responds to such questions by examining what the Bible says about the mission of God himself. It is a short book of clean and elegant prose. Don’t be confused: “This book is not an account of what the Bible says about mission or a biblical theology of mission,” Bauckham tells us (11). Instead, his concerns are more “hermeneutical. . . . It is about how to read the Bible in a way that takes seriously its missionary direction” (11). In doing so, Bauckham focuses on one prominent feature of the narrative shape of the biblical Story and the biblical God authoring it: “its movement from the particular to the universal” (12).
Bauckham begins this discussion by drawing upon an article written by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade center, utilizing Sacks as a kind of interlocutor. Bauckham focuses his attention on Sacks’ declamation of “universalist cultures”—those cultures which consider themselves as possessing a universal truth which legitimizes their quest to convert the world or impose upon it their dominating order. What happened on September 11, 2001, in Sacks’ account, was the clash of two universalist cultures: Islam and Global Capitalism. In light of those events Sacks’ conclusion is the same as those I interact with on a daily basis on the streets of Honolulu, that “universalism is the cultural counterpart of imperialism” because “not all truth is universal” (7). Sacks justifies this claim by explaining that “there is a fundamental difference between God and religion. God is universal, religion is particular” (7).
Bauckham responds by suggesting that, while there is no denying the savage violence perpetrated by certain cultures who have made universalist claims about the world, we need to pause and carefully question the postmodern antipathy towards any kind of universality. For, while this line of thinking is “highly appealing to many people in the contemporary west at least, it is hard to maintain without lapsing into sheer relativism” (9). Bauckham turns us, then, to the mission of the God of the Bible, for here (contra Rabbi Sacks’ hard division between universal God and particular religion) “is a universal direction that takes the particular with the utmost seriousness” (11).
The rest of chapter one lays a framework for understanding the way the advancement of God’s kingdom demonstrates this narrative movement from universal to particular by taking a preliminary look at the three dimensions of biblical mission: temporal, spatial, and social. This threefold pattern “puts the church in its missionary situation in a dialectic of anticipated closure and permanent openness” (25); which is to say, a position constantly inspired by the promise of the coming Kingdom while also acknowledging the incompleteness of our current position in that advance. Christ alone is the one who says from the position of eternity, “It is finished!” (Jn. 19:30), and not the claim of a particular part of the church at a particular place in history.
This humble posture, while full of longing and hope, keeps the church faithful to its Story and resistant to the allure of other metanarratives (e.g. the Enlightenment, Industrial Progress, etc.) which foreclose the horizon of the kingdom’s advance. It “puts all its readers where its first readers stood—between the church’s commissioning by Jesus and the future coming of Jesus” (25). The church in its mission must resist the secular doctrine of progress which (albeit amidst the catastrophic demonstrations of its failure) pretends at narrative finitizability —the ability to name the end of the story of the world apart from the divine revelation of God. “This secular doctrine of progress” must be recognized for what it is: “a secular substitute for biblical eschatology” (20).
Chapter 2 extends this hermeneutic, developing four types of missional movement “from the one to the many” by examining “four different strands in the biblical narrative” (28): Abraham, Israel, David, and “the Least.” Each of these strands “has its own distinctive theme, one aspect of God’s purpose for the world” (28). The trajectory that begins with Abraham goes from him, one childless man, to the nations of the world. The movement here is from one particular (Abraham) who is called-out, or elected, from the international chaos of post-Babelic nations in order that God’s creative word of blessing might be established universally over all his creation.
Likewise, God’s election of Israel is also a call from the one (Israel) to the many (the gentiles). In this case, however, that call is not primarily concerned with blessing, but with the knowledge of YHWH, the saving God; the revelation of the God who reveals himself in identification with the children of Jacob; the God who is mighty to deliver. His acts proclaim who He Is. Thus, God’s saving act on behalf of his chosen people eventually proves “to be also salvation for all the peoples” (40).
David as king, as well as the particular location of Zion as palatial center, manifests the third trajectory: that of God choosing a particular place in which to place his Name. The city of Jerusalem and Mt. Zion itself are God’s special habitation, but with a clear view towards the nations and the redemption of all his creation. The purpose here then is not about merely securing a small locality. No, it is that from Zion the Lord might extend his kingship, that world would not only have the knowledge of YHWH, but that at the Name of Jesus “every knee should bow” (Phil. 2:10).
But there is a fourth trajectory traced by Bauckham in which he notes the ways God moves to all by way of the least. Here, drawing from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (cf. 1 Cor. 1:26–29), Bauckham highlights “a consistent divine strategy, a characteristic way in which God works, to which the church at Corinth must conform” (51). God chooses the least significant in order to bring his kingdom. This finds its missiological crescendo in the scandal of the Cross:
That God’s universal purpose pivots on one particular human being (though that was stumbling-block enough for the philosophically educated of Paul’s day and the Enlightenment rationalists of our own), but, much worse, that God’s universal purpose pivots on this particular human being, the crucified one (52).
Chapter 3 focuses on the symbolic and sacred geographical and spatial patterns of mission in the scriptures. In what he terms “representative geography” Bauckham notes the way in which the kingdom of God both simultaneously draws people to a specific locality and sends them out to the ends of the earth (60). Several pages are spent in showing the way in which the symbolic geography of the scripture places God’s people always in the epicenter of ever-expanding circles of outreach, mission, and inclusion. “It is important to note,” however, that this process, “does not turn the specific peoples and places mentioned into mere symbols” (60). Far from it, in addition to being a symbol of the expansion of the blessing and knowledge and kingdom of God in Christ Jesus, they “retain their reality and their own real particularity” (60); Ethiopia and Scythia can act as symbols of the ever-new horizons of mission, while also remaining particular sites of local proclamation and evangelism.
The last chapter brings us back to the conversation inaugurated in the first chapter of the book concerning where Christianity fits in the scheme of contemporary globalization and postmodern suspicion. Here, Bauckham draws upon the insights of Lesslie Newbigin’s The Open Secret: Sketches for a Missionary Theology (1979), which anticipates many of the critiques of postmodernity[Office5] . Importantly, Bauckham cites Newbigin to demonstrate the divine relationship between election in the salvific sense and election in its missiological sense. While avoiding other discussions the use of the term ‘election’ engenders, we are reminded that “God’s way of universal salvation, if it is to be addressed to man [sic] as he is and not to the abstraction of a detached ‘soul’, must be accomplished by the way of election—of choosing, calling, and sending one to be the bearer of blessing for all” (85; citing Newbigin, 78–79).
The biblical story is therefore not one of egoistic coercion which subsumes the particularities of actual history into a homogenized vision of human mastery via mankind’s “immanent reason at work in the historical process” (91). While of course the biblical metanarrative does tell a story, which discloses the eternal and final meaning of God’s creation (as in the words of Revelation 21), it does not render the actual particularities of history “transparent to its divinely intended purpose” (91). Mission according to this biblical hermeneutic is therefore “not the imposing of predetermined patterns on to history, but openness to the incalculable ways of God in history” (92). Moreover, as it moves ever from the least, the biblical metanarrative is the only antidote to the kind of injustices resultant from all other metanarratives.
It is here that Bauckham would direct his western readers to the plight of the globally disenfranchised. Bauckham’s contention is that only in standing in solidarity with the particulars of the global “least” will our mission from the particular to the universal continue in a biblical pattern. Only that will ensure that our witness is not self-interested but reflects, rather, the story God has given the church, the mission to which he has called her. Our self-giving witness to the crucified one, Bauckham posits, will be “the contender for truth against the various manifestations of the will to power” (100).
Readers of Bible and Mission will find it a rich source of biblical theology for the local theologian and pastor. There is, though, a lack of clarity on Bauckham’s part when dealing with concepts such as “power” and “status” —concepts used on occasion equivocally in scripture or in close synonymy with good concepts like “might” and “authority.” An unqualified rejection of anything associative with “power” or “status” will trouble other rather biblical concepts such as “authority,” “headship,” or “govern.” Elders, parents, and rulers, for instance, have been given by God a measure of both position and power which we can carefully differentiate from egoistic “status” or “coercion.” The author could have done this work (with the same deft exegesis he displays almost ubiquitously throughout the rest of the book) in order to better define power and social roles.
With an eye to this small shortcoming, the book is itself a marvelous work. Bauckham’s closing pages are filled with salient calls to mission which, in closing-out the work of a renowned academic theologian, break from the usual staid voice of academic writing: “[W]hen Christians find their metanarrative in confrontation with an alternative, aggressive metanarrative—whether that of globalization or Islam or something else—nothing is more important than telling the biblical stories, especially that of Jesus, again and again” (100). It gives itself readily to both short readings, in depth reflection, and points us beyond its pages towards further theological, pastoral, and missiological work. Maybe most importantly, it helps lead us into an encounter with the God of Mission who sent His Son into the world for our redemption. After all, as Bauckham states, “It may be the power of the cross that can most effectively break through the corrosive cynicism of much of western culture” (102).