Towards a Christological Missiology: T.F. Torrance on the Relation between the Missio Ecclesiae and the Missio Christi (Reformission Monday)

In my last post exploring T.F. Torrance’s missional theology, I proposed the possibility of a kataphysic, or scientific, missiology. Essentially what this means is that the church’s missiology — its understanding and practice of mission — must not be constructed primarily on the basis of pragmatic or cultural considerations but must be developed in strict accordance to its object, i.e. the reality and content of the gospel that the church is called to proclaim to the world. The reason for this, as I discussed in that post, was that the object of the gospel’s witness, Jesus Christ, is himself the Word of God in both its content and communication; he is both revealer and revelation, both God speaking to humanity and humanity answering God, and as such he determines not only the message but also the proper mode of delivery. Therefore, our testimony about him must conform to the testimony embodied in him.

kataphysic missiology is thus a christological missiology. From beginning to end, our understanding and practice of mission must be centered on and circumscribed by the doctrine and reality of Jesus Christ. The gospel of Christ is not merely the message that we can preach however we deem best or efficacious, for it imposes on us its own categories of relevance and its own proper means of communication. The theology and practice of the missio ecclesiae is determined by the theology and practice of the missio Christi.

Torrance provides further rationale for this approach by unpacking the implications of the New Testament conception of the church as the body of Christ. If the church is the body of which Christ is the head, then it is beholden to do only and nothing but that which Christthumbrns-faces-jesus-139-426x6401 himself does (though properly adapted to its position as ‘body’ rather than ‘head’). Quite simply, the body can do nothing of its own accord or creativity but must follow its head in all things. Torrance writes:

The New Testament uses the expression ‘body of Christ’ in two ways. On the one hand it is used in a comprehensive sense to speak of the whole Christ who includes the church within his own fullness, the new man in whom the new race is concentrated, the true vine that includes the branches. In this sense Christ is the church, for he embodied himself in our humanity and as such gathers our humanity in himself into oneness with God. He identified himself with us, and on that ground claims us as his own, lays hold of us and assumes us into union and communion with him, so that the church finds its essential life and being only in him. Christ is the church, but it cannot be said that the church is Christ, for Christ is infinitely more than the church although in his grace he will not be without it. Hence on the other hand, the New Testament uses the expression the body of Christ to relate the church to him in such a way that it is distinguished from him as the body of which he is the head, as the servant of which he is the Lord, and yet as his friend and partner upon which he freely bestows his own royal inheritance as the Son of God.

That the church is the body of Christ means that it participates in him, draws its life and nature from him, sharing in all he has done for it and sharing in his very life as the incarnate Son of the Father. Everything that the church is as church it owes to Christ an derives from his grace, so that everything that it does or says or thinks must be in the name of Christ and to his honour and glory alone. It is only through participating and sharing in Christ that the church is to be regarded as his body, as his image and likeness among mankind, as the expression of his love and truth, as the reflection of his humility and glory, as the instrument of his gospel, as the earthen vessel that holds his heavenly treasure and holds it forth for all humanity to share freely. Only on the ground of this participation in Christ is the church a community of believers, a communion of love, a fellowship of reconciliation on earth.[1]

For Torrance, the New Testament’s description of the church as the body of Christ is no mere metaphor but refers to the mystery of the church’s true nature as spiritually united to Christ as bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh, even as Christ has incarnately united himself to us bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. The church has its being not in and of itself but only insofar as it is participates in Christ, much like the branches have no life in themselves unless they are organically united to the vine. In this ontological and covenantal relation, the church literally cannot be or do anything unless it abides in Christ (John 15:4-5). For this reason, the church can only offer Christ and him crucified to the world, and it can only do so by following Christ in the way that he himself took in mission to the world. Only like this — proclaiming Christ as he himself demands to be proclaimed — can the church be “the instrument of his gospel” and “a fellowship of reconciliation on earth”.

Thus, we see once again that a kataphysic missiology is a christological missiology. Stay tuned as I continue to explore this theme in weeks to come!


[1] T.F. Torrance, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ (Milton Keynes; Downers Grove: Paternoster; IVP Academic, 2009), pp.362-3.