Doctrine, Story, and the Question of Missiological Foundations
When engaging in any theological activity, the place in which one starts tends to have a surprisingly decisive impact upon what follows. Therefore, any theological exercise, like sketching a missiology, must begin by pausing to search for the proper starting place. When one does pause to do this, one is struck by the variety of doctrinal foundations that have been employed in missional documents. Although it is currently popular to root missiologies within trinitarian theology, a significant number of missiologies are still rooted elsewhere: in a theology of creation, in christology, in pneumatology, in soteriology, in ecclesiology, or in eschatology. Initially it may seem like an impossible task to choose to elevate one of these doctrines over the other. Indeed, this is part of the current appeal of the trinitarian perspective, it seems to cover the most ground. However, the trinitarian approach is also somewhat problematic as creational, christological, or pneumatological biases are regularly present. Therefore, in order to resolve this issue, I believe that one must not root missiology within any one particular doctrine. Rather, missiology must be understood as rooted in an event. It is the historical event of the resurrection of Jesus that is the true foundation of the Christian mission.
The resurrection of Jesus is the true foundation of a Christian missiology because it is the resurrection of Jesus that is the true foundation of Christianity. Recognizing this unity in his climactic chapter on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians, St. Paul writes, “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” Paul realizes that, apart from the resurrection of Jesus, there is no point in engaging in Christian proclamation, for there is no point in maintaining the Christian faith. Paul is followed quite closely in this regard by significant representatives of both Protestant and Roman Catholic theology. Thus, Jurgen Moltmann argues that “Christianity stands or falls with the reality of the raising of Jesus from the dead by God” and that “in the New Testament there is no faith that does not start a priori with the resurrection of Jesus.” Similarly, Hans Urs von Balthasar writes that “[w]e are Christians because the Lord is risen; else would our faith by empty and meaningless.” The notion of grounding a Christian missiology in the event of Jesus’ resurrection is further strengthened once one realizes that, in addition to Christianity’s total dependence upon the resurrection, all the Christian doctrines listed above – doctrines of the trinity, of creation, of christology, of pneumatology, of ecclesiology, and of eschatology – are themselves entirely dependent upon the resurrection.
Beginning with the doctrine of the Trinity, reflection leads one to the conclusion that, apart from the resurrection of Jesus, no such doctrine is imaginable. Knowledge of the trinity is not something that precedes the Easter-event; rather, the resurrection of Jesus becomes the decisive revelation of the trinity. In the raising of the Son by the Father through the power of the Spirit, the trinitarian nature of God as Father, Son, and Spirit is revealed. It is because of the resurrection that Christians to speak of one God in three persons.
Secondly, this event is also the key to understanding each of the individual persons of the trinity within the Christian doctrine of God. Consequently, it becomes the foundation for understanding creation theology, christology, and pneumatology. First of all, the resurrection voices the most emphatic No! to any forms of deism, which only know God as a distant creator. The resurrection reveals that the one God is known not simply as Creator but as Father. Thus, in the climax of the resurrection account recorded in John’s Gospel, Jesus, who always spoke of God as my Father, meets Mary in the Garden and says to her, “I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Furthermore, the resurrection is the climactic event of the Father’s creation activity. Therefore, any creational theology or missiology is fundamentally deficient if it is not rooted here. Secondly, all of christology is absolutely dependent upon the resurrection. If Jesus was not raised then he was not vindicated by God. If Jesus was not raised, he could not have been the Christ, he would have only been another failed messianic pretender. It is only in light of Jesus’ resurrection that any wondrous significance can be attached to the crucifixion, death, and burial of Jesus. Jesus could not be Lord, and he certainly could not be divine, apart from this event. It is here that Jesus is revealed as God’s Son. Indeed, the resurrection is the climax of Jesus’ life, and it is the climax of his proclamation of the in-breaking kingdom of God and the end of exile. Therefore, it is the resurrection that reveals Jesus’ “three offices” – that of king, priest and prophet. Because he is raised, Jesus is Lord; because he is raised, Jesus accomplishes the priestly task of forgiving sins; and because he is raised, Jesus’ prophetic witness becomes the hermeneutical key to reading all the prophets. Lastly, the Christian approach to pneumatology begins with the resurrection because it is the resurrection that precipitates the general outpouring of the Spirit of God. The resurrection is the necessary (and sufficient) condition for the Spirit’s inbreaking.
Thirdly, the resurrection is also the root of Christian soteriology and of the universality of the gospel proclamation. Salvation, although won by Jesus on the cross, is confirmed by the resurrection. Without the resurrection there would be nothing salvific or victorious about the cross. Furthermore, because the resurrection reveals Jesus is the source of the world’s salvation, the gospel is proclaimed to all. The witnesses to the resurrection become witnesses to the ends of the earth. As Tom Wright argues, it is the affirmation of Jesus as the resurrected Lord that prevents Christianity from turning into an internal, private, or individualistic cult; the resurrected Jesus lays claim to and affirms the entire cosmos and all areas of life. It is also the resurrection that confirms the subversive nature of the Christian gospel, for the resurrection is not only the triumph of Jesus over Satan, sin, death, and godforsakenness, it is also the triumph of Jesus over Rome and all the structural socio-political and economic powers of might and violence.
Fourthly, the resurrection is also the foundation of the formation of the new covenant people of God and of ecclesiology. It is perhaps stating the obvious to say that, just as there would be no Christianity with the resurrection, there would also be no Christian community without the resurrection. For this reason, von Balthasar decisively rejects the theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher, which removes the resurrection from its position of centrality in all things related to Christian living. As von Balthasar says: “Without the living presence of the Lord, initiated by Easter, there is no Church… it is in the Resurrection that all ecclesial theory has its starting-point.” Indeed, although Jesus had begun to form a community of faith around himself, the true Christian community is not really founded until after the resurrection. After all, the community that Jesus had begun to gather fled and scattered when he was crucified. It must also be noted that it is the resurrection that requires the essential missional nature of the Church. The Church exists not for itself but for the world. As Moltmann says, the church “is the Church of God when it is a Church for the world.” This essential link becomes clear once one understands the relationship between Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension. Jesus’ resurrection appearances are intimately connected with his departure, and this makes mission an Easter motif. Therefore, “the appearance of the Risen One always issues in mission.” In the current state of Jesus’ physical absence, the Church exists in order to the physically presence of Jesus for the world. The accomplished work of Jesus needs the Church in order to be manifested within the contemporary situation. Therefore, ecclesiology, because it is premised upon the resurrection, is essentially missional.
Finally, the resurrection is also the foundation of Christian eschatology. Indeed, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and the transformation of Jesus’ body into a new form of physicality, is the eschatological event. With the raising of Jesus from the dead, the new age begins, and the old age begins to end. This is why the Spirit is poured out only after Jesus is raised. The Spirit was to be poured out on all flesh when the end of the old age arrived, and so the arrival of the Spirit confirms that the new age did indeed begin in the resurrection of Jesus. Therefore, the event of the resurrection is the climactic event of history. History ended when Jesus died, and a new time began when Jesus was raised. Apart from the resurrection this Christian conception of time and history would be impossible, and because Christian eschatology is rooted here it should be thoroughly missional. As Moltmann argues, it is only through missional praxis that the Church is faithful to this foundation and to its call to move forward into the future of Jesus’ lordship.
Therefore, it should now be clear that rather then rooting a Christian missiology in any given doctrine, a Christian missiology should be rooted in the event of the resurrection of Jesus. This completely unique event is the foundation of all Christian faith, action, and doctrine. Much is gained by rooting missiology here, and nothing is lost – for rooting a missiology in the resurrection of Jesus means that that missiology will simultaneously be trinitarian, creational, christological, pneumatological, soteriological, ecclesiological, and eschatological.
It is necessary to stress the resurrection early in this paper because much of the later discussion will focus on issues of suffering, cruciformity, and godforsakenness. Too often a theology rooted in the notion of Jesus as the resurrected Lord leads to a triumphalistic, condescending, and even forceful or violent missiology. It is the desire of this paper to show that an emphatic founding of missiology upon the resurrection should lead to exactly the opposite type of missiology. The missional Church is marked by suffering, humility, and godforsakenness, not despite the fact that Jesus is the resurrected Lord, but because Jesus is the resurrected Lord. For, as James Dunn stresses, the resurrection of Jesus is the resurrection of the crucified. Thus, any followers of the resurrected one must be cruciform. However, I am skipping ahead. At this point, there is one more necessary introductory point to be made before we can move into the body of the paper.
A Narrative Missiology
That the resurrection of Jesus is an event and not a proposition, that it is an historical occurrence, and not a doctrine, suggests that a Christian missiology should be more than a collection of propositions, doctrines and ideas. Furthermore, when one speaks of the resurrection of Jesus as an event, one must realize that it is not an isolated event. It is the climactic event of the Jesus story, and of the whole biblical narrative. Therefore, a truly Christian missiology must be a narrative missiology. Consequently, Stanley Hauerwas’ insightful comments on Christian ethics apply mutatis mutandis to reflections on mission. A prolegomena to a Christian missiology should not begin by emphasizing rules or principles, rather it should begin by calling attention to God’s story as it is related in the biblical narrative. There is no more foundational way to talk about God than in a story, and there are no points that can be separated from the story. Indeed, as Tom Wright argues, all of human life is grounded in stories, and stories are the means by which life is explored and transformed. Therefore, it is only through an examination of the Christian story that Christians will learn to rightly envision themselves and the world in which they live – and only then will they know how to act appropriately within the realm of mission (or any other area of life). Therefore, instead of offering a set of missiological principles or rules, this paper will first reflect upon the story of God, and then reflect upon how one is to live within God’s story.
Sources (sorry, I'm not putting my footnotes into the lj format):
Hans Urs von Balthasar: Mysterium Paschale and Prayer.
James D. G. Dunn: The Theology of Paul the Apostle.
Stanley Hauerwas: The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics
Jurgen Moltmann: Theology of Hope, The Crucified God, and The Way of Jesus Christ.
N. T. Wright: The New Testament and the People of God, and The Resurrection of the Son of God.