Bosch, Witness to the World (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1980)
Missio Dei is an oft used phrase in popular missiology. It can be hard, though, to pin down its significance. The ‘mission of God’ is definitely repeatedly as an introductory justification that missiology should be an essential topic of conversation for the Church and that the practice of mission should be an essential action of the Church. Used in this manner, it is treated as a form of theological shorthand. The actual workings that lay out why these things are so are left unexplained. Such has been my experience, anyway.
Bosch offers a fairly compact ten pages, the conclusion to the book, on this topic. The context of his thoughts is a two pronged correction to both evangelical and ecumenical missiology. He argues first (Ch. 19) that evangelical missiology has risked using an unhelpful dualism where salvation history is divorced from world history. This has led to a passivity in the face of injustice meted out to others. In contrast, the Church must realize that Christ is the head of the Church and the cosmos, and following the example of her saviour must take up her cross in identification with the outcast. Against ‘ecumenical’ theology, he insists on the distinctiveness of the Church from the world (Ch. 20). The Church can only be apostolic if she is different in her being from the world. She must maintain that God’s judgement is not ours, that the cross remains at the heart of our life together and our proclamation, that our political actions will be fallible and that the kingdom will be made present to the world in signs and not in fullness until Christ returns. Mission is therefore an eschatological event (Ch. 21), seeking to see the kingdom come on earth now, aware that our actions can only provide signs of that kingdom. Communal church life in the present is a life filled by God’s presence (Ch. 22), waiting and witnessing, identifying with the hopeless while yet never losing hope.
Bosch’s explanation of missio dei is set out as an alternative to these two limited approaches. It is worth reflecting on this. Although Bosch’s presentation of missio dei ostensibly comes from first principles, so to speak, he is still offering his alternative to two failed approaches to missio dei. Given this, simply importing missio dei as presented here should be done with caution, until we’re convinced that we are not, in doing so, responding to a problem (evangelicals and ecumenical missiologies at loggerheads thirty-five years ago) that is not our pressing concern.
In outline then, Bosch offers missio Dei (God’s mission) because mission begins with God. The Word and Spirit are ‘missionaries’ of God in creation and redemption, being sent to the world.
Although Aquinas (?) may have used missio with respect to the sending of the Son by the Father and the Holy Spirit by the Father and the Son, this is not obviously the basis for the modern use of the term. Only in the early to mid- twentieth century did mission become explicitly linked to trinitarian theology. Having said this, I should add, the precise link is rarely explicated.
Barth’s connection to all of this is important. He is frequently argued to be an advocate for this form of theology but, again, rarely with a description of what he said. Bosch here is not guilty of that. There is to be no ‘speculative interpretation of a foundation of mission on the Trinity’. Instead, Incarnation, Cross and Resurrection are events of particular historical involvement. It is in these events that we learn of the nature of the Trinity, and indeed that God is ‘a missionary God’. [A curious phrase, monotheistically speaking.]
In Christ’s actions we discover a new dimension to God’s concern for the world, and his actions are therefore to be definitive for ours. Here our saviour is revealed, and we are not to look elsewhere for alternative revelations of God’s will. The role of the Spirit does not diversify our missiology, providing an alternative mode of God’s concern for the world, but rather further specifies that the Church’s life, in the Spirit of Christ, is to be shaped by Christ: “As the Father sent me…” (Jn 20:21). The Spirit’s role is two-fold, inward and outward, setting us apart that we might then be witnesses to the world.
Bosch complains of a diluting of missio Dei. Mission does not now become a human responsibility to the degree that it ceases to be God’s work. The kingdom remains God’s work, wrought by him. Missionary ‘success’ is therefore never to be the criterion by which we judge mission. To the extent that we view the world as perfectible through our actions, we lose sight of the missio Dei. But equally, we cannot be passive. Because God’s kingdom has dawned, we cannot be resigned to the way things are. We are to pray, ‘thy kingdom come’, and therefore we are to act, believing we can make difference, knowing we must wait for the final day.
Bosch concludes by claiming that the Church owes the world faith, hope and love. She is to be herself, faithful to her head, and so she will worship, live and serve as Christ did for her.
As a brief postscript, I can see nothing dramatically wrong with Bosch’s presentation. At the same time, the basing of missiology in the Trinity and therefore in the revealed acts of God in Christ leads us directly to considering ecclesiology in direct connection with missiology. We are not at liberty to speculate about the life of the Trinity and to see analogy in political action, nor are we justified by this bare statement to claim to see God in the world and to pursue these things with scant regard to the Church. Instead we are directed to the ascending Christ, and the sending of the Spirit upon the Church. Missiology and ecclesiology can not, responsibly, be considered apart from one another. Both are to be derived from Christology and Pneumatology and therefore (and only therefore) from the Trinity. This is not presuppose a particular ecclesiology. It is not to advocate for a reactionary attitude towards our institutions. What it is is many things, not the least of which is that the life of the kingdom in the Spirit of Christ is communal.