Casting Fire on the Earth: Mission as the Cause and Life of the Church (TFT Mission Studies)

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Chris Koelle, The Book of Revelation

As Jesus indicated in his final words as recorded in Matthew 28:18-20, his authority over the nations manifests largely in the sending out of his disciples as his witnesses to the nations. He is the Lord, and his disciples his servants who in obedience to his command go out into all the world to preach the gospel to every creature. As narrated therefore in the post-resurrection teaching of Jesus and the birth of the church at Pentecost through the descent of the Spirit and the preaching of the apostles, the church’s mission is not an afterthought to its existence. It is rather the very meaning and purpose of its existence. As the advent of Christ into the world was, as the Creed says, “for us and our salvation”, so also does the church sent by Christ live not for itself but for the world Christ came to save. T.F. Torrance explains:

[I]f the Church does recover the New Testament vision, she will see that the great task of the Church is the redemption of the world, and not a comfortable life in little religious churches and communities. The Church simply cannot keep alive unless her eyes are upon the farthest horizons of the world, unless she keeps herself in line with the master-passion and world-outlook of Christ who was the propitiation not for our sins only but for the sins of the whole world. It is for that reason that mission work does not arise from any arrogance in the Christian Church: mission is its cause and its life. The Church exists by mission, just as fire exists by burning. Where there is no mission, there is no Church. Of course, it is ultimately a secondary question whether we mean by mission Foreign Missions or preaching the gospel at home. Mission, gospel preaching, is the spreading of the fire that Christ cast upon the earth. He who does not propagate this fire shows that he is not burning. He who burns propagates the fire (Brunner). But to burn, the fire must have fuel to burn—that is why it must always be reaching out and out and out.

Jesus Christ came, he said, not to be ministered unto but to minister and to give his life a ransom for many. If the Church claims to follow this Christ, she most learn that she cannot claim to be Christian until her major effort is engaged in ministering to others after the pattern of her Lord. But think of any average church in this country you care—is it not true that the people’s main business is to gather together just in order to be ministered unto, instead of ministering themselves?… Thus the vitality of the Church is sapped by in-breeding, by in-growing. It is a major disaster that the Church has become introvert (i.e., turned in upon itself) when it ought to be extrovert (i.e., turned out toward the world). The Church has become static and self-regarding, instead of an army of conquest.

The major task of the Church in all ages is world mission. If the master-passion of Jesus was the redemption of the world, how is it at all possible for us to call our churches ‘Christian’ whose major purpose is certainly very far different from the passion of Christ? Our major emphasis is upon ourselves—and in so doing we have brought about in the Church a complete reversal of the will and command of Christ; we have betrayed the supreme purpose of the Cross. The Church of today appears simply not to believe that by losing her life for Christ’s sake and the gospel’s, she will find it, that the Church exists only by mission. Instead the Church tries miserably to cultivate her own strength, and becomes self-centred and soft, and impotent over against the ills of the world.

The Church needs to be turned inside out, her whole effort and life must face outwards, and only inwards so far as it is necessary in her effort to evangelize the world. Only if the Church determines to put this first and foremost in her life and work, and in the life and work of every single individual country church, will she begin to have the blessing she craves from God. Instead of trying to cherish a tiny quiver of flame, shielding it from all the draughts and winds that blow, let her fling it out into the storms of the world where it is meant to be, and it will become a raging fire radiating heat and light. If the Church exists by mission, just as fire exists by burning, then the Church at home will never be healthy and strong until she is bent upon consuming the world with the fire of the Cross.[1]

Torrance touches on something here that is of supreme importance both for the church and the world. If indeed it is true that the church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning, then a church without its mission is a dying, if not already dead, church. I have talked with pastors who seem to want their churches to reach a place of “stability” before throwing themselves into the task of mission both locally and globally. Their conception of the church is one in which mission is secondary to the church’s being, as if the church could attain a healthy and mature existence apart from being on mission! However, if Torrance is correct — and I am convinced that he is — then such churches are chasing after wind. The church will never become stable, healthy, or mature unless it renounces its quest for such things as ends in themselves and sacrifices itself for the sake of the world. What Jesus said about carrying the cross applies to churches too! A church that seeks to save its life will lose it, while a church that loses its life for the sake of Christ and his gospel will find it.

This will no doubt require great suffering and sacrifice on the part of the church. Yet this is part and parcel of the church’s calling. “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Phil. 3:29). As Torrance puts it, the preaching of the gospel is a casting of fire on the earth. Fire can provide warmth, but it can also cause burns. It can purify, but it can also destroy. To cast fire on the earth is to throw the world into foment and upheaval, and the church which does so will certainly face opposition and persecution. Nevertheless, this is a casting of fire without which the church fizzles out of existence, and it is only in the furnace of mission that it receives its true self.

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[1] T.F. Torrance, Gospel, Church, and Ministry, ed. Jock Stein (Eugene: Pickwick, 2012), 83-84.

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Bridging the Breach: The Humanity of Christ and the Mission of the Church

Though I have not yet finished it, John Flett’s book The Witness of God has been riveting. Flett argues that contemporary missio Dei theology is largely plagued by a series of breaches that torpedo a theologically-sound account of the church’s mission. One of those breaches is that which ostensibly exists between God’s saving activity and the world. It is thought that this breach must to some extent exist in order to provide space for the church’s role in redemptive history. If God does literally everything himself inJesus.-He-bridges-the-gap-between-imperfection-as-in-us-and-perfection-as-in-the-Triune-God.- overcoming the ontological and moral gap between himself and fallen creation, then it appears that no significant or meaningful place is left for the church’s involvement.

I have not reached the conclusion of Flett’s own proposal, but my increasingly Torrancean instincts lean immediately toward a possible solution that avoids both the practical Arianism of missio Dei theology and yet gives importance to the church’s role in the fulfillment of the missio Dei, namely the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ. T.F. Torrance, well-known for his strong emphasis on this doctrine, points toward such a solution in his essay on the meaning of order in the church:

Order is the co-ordinating of the life of the Church in its fellowship, worship, and mission in the service of the glory of God. The order of the Church’s ministry is the ordering of its life and work through participation in the obedience of Christ.

(1) In the biblical revelation the whole concept of order is viewed over against disorder and chaos. Apart from the ordering of God’s creative Word the world is without form or void, but into the ordered cosmos there has broken the disorder of sin. It belongs to the very nature of sin to divide, to disrupt, to be anarchic—sin is lawlessness, anomia….

(2) The biblical revelation does not work with a concept of natural law…. There is an order of creation (ordo creationis) but that is not discernible by observing the creation (cursus naturae) but only by observing the creative Will of God. This creative Will of God will restore creation to its lost order, and restore to creation its true form and harmony in the Word of God. That is shadowed forth in the divine law promulgated in the Old Testament….

(3) That new order, the new economy, or rather the eternal Economy of God for His creation, came into the world in Jesus Christ. In the Incarnation the Word of God entered into His own disordered world; the Light shone into the darkness; the divine economy entered within historical and creaturely existence. In other words, the Covenant Will of God broke into our world and is completely fulfilled in Jesus Christ both from the side of God and from the side of man….

(4) In Jesus Christ, therefore, in His Incarnation and in the whole course of His obedience, there has taken place in the divine economy a restoration of alienated man to fellowship with God, a conversion of rebellious humanity to the obedience and love of God. In other words, in the whole human life of Jesus the order of creation has been restored; in the midst of our disordered, sin-disrupted existence, there has been lived a human life in perfect order and proportion to the Will of God….

(5) Order in the new creation is to be regarded as a third dimension…. We are not simply concerned … in the Christian Church with the Will of God in love and grace, and then with the obedience of man in love and fellowship. We are concerned with these two, but with the two as fulfilled and completed in Jesus Christ, in the obedient ordering and perfection of His human life as an oblation of all praise and thanksgiving to God the Creator and Father, and therefore of our sharing in His obedience through the power of the Spirit.

(6) Thus order in the New Testament refers to the concrete ordering of our human life and being in the obedient Humanity of Jesus Christ. All order in the Christian Church is a participation in His obedient Humanity—whether that order be an ordering of its daily life, daily worship, or daily fellowship, or daily mission. The whole of the Church’s life is ordered through participation in the ordered life of Jesus Christ, the New Adam, the Head of the New Creation.[1]

In Torrance’s typically dense and compacted style, he unfolds the biblical narrative in terms of order (creation), disorder (sin), and new order (new creation). This narrative sequence is more complex than this threefold schema would imply as it progresses through election of Israel, the function of the law, the prophetic witness, etc. Nevertheless, it is a helpful summary to the end of “ordering” the church’s missional theology and practice in a “scientific” way, one that faithfully corresponds to the nature of God’s own mission as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In one sense, the ultimate terminus of the biblical narrative is a new creation that is co-extensive with the old, when the kingdom comes and God’s will is done on earth as in heaven. On the other hand, that terminus has already broken into the present — not in extensive but in an intensive way — in Jesus Christ. As Torrance explains, all that the new creation will one day be is now concentrated in Christ. He is the new creation, the new order, the fulfillment of the missio Dei in his very person. Having dealt with our sinful disordering in his death on the cross and having inaugurated the new order in his resurrection from the death, Jesus Christ is not only the God who creates new order from disorder but also the Man who has reached his ordered telos as image-bearer of God. As the incarnate Word, Christ is himself the order commanded by God and the corresponding obedience perfectly enacted by man.

Restated in missional terms, Jesus Christ is not simply the divine agent who accomplishes the missio Dei from the side of God, he is also the human agent in whom the ultimate goal of that missio has been fully realized on the side of mankind. By thinking out missiology in terms of the incarnation, in other words, the missio Dei comes to be understood in a twofold sense: both the saving act that comes from God to humanity as well as the obedient response of humanity to God, including the humanity’s movement from being the receiving object of reconciliation to also being an participating subject in the ministry of reconciliation.

This way of theologizing mission thus puts the vicarious humanity of Christ in center stage. This has the advantage of overcoming the breach between the missio Dei and the world (in the union of God and humanity in the person of Christ) while also giving meaningful place to the church’s role in fulfilling that mission (understood as a participation in the humanity of Christ). It also provides a truly scientific grounding for a theology of mission by establishing the obedient humanity of Christ as the primary criterion by which the church’s mission must be measured. Inasmuch as missiology conforms strictly to the missio Dei manifested in the humanity of Christ, it will be a theologically-sound, biblically-faithful, and practically-fruitful theology of mission. This is in many ways simply another way of saying that the church’s mission must be wholly governed by the gospel.

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[1] T.F. Torrance, Conflict and Agreement in the Church, vol. 2 (London: Lutterworth, 1960), 13-16.

Missio What?: The Theological Confusion Over a Critical Concept in Missiology

One of the most critical concepts in contemporary missiology is that of the missio Dei, the mission of God. Its importance is underscored by John Flett who writes:

Early in the twentieth century, many legitimate criticisms were being issued against the missionary enterprise. World War I and the loss of the claimed spiritual authority of Western civilization, the maturation of the so-called “younger” churches, the West’s own encounter with secularism and pluralism, the fierce reactions to colonialism, the growth of indigenous nationalist movements and related resistance of the non-Christian religions to Christian expansion – all challenged the right of cross-cultural cultural missions to exist. Against these criticisms, missio Dei supplied a theological redoubt for the missionary act by placing it within the maxresdefaultTrinitarian being of God. This established a critical distance between “mission” and every contingent human form.

Following David Bosch’s now standard treatment, “mission is not primarily an activity of the church, but an attribute of God. God is a missionary God.” The Father sent his Son and Spirit into the world, and this act reveals his “sending” being. He remains active today in reconciling the world to himself and sends his community to participate in this mission…. The concept allowed theorists to acknowledge the legitimate charges laid against mission, while supplying an inviolate justification for the task itself. For Bosch, the importance of this “decisive shift,” as illustrated by its being “embraced by virtually all Christian persuasions,” cannot be doubted.[2]

In other words, missio Dei is a critical component in our missiological thinking because it provides a firm biblical and theological foundation for the missionary endeavor. In an ever-increasingly relativistic and pluralistic world, it is crucial that the Christian message be undergirded by the conviction that its exclusive claims are not the product of Western colonialism or ecclesiastical pride but flow from the redemptive plan and activity of God himself. The church must be on mission, because God is on mission.

Flett continues, however, by noting a serious flaw in how missio Dei is often interpreted and worked out in practice:

However, such exuberance is just one side of the story. Commentators describe the concept as, at once, “pivotal” and “confused.” Reference to the doctrine of the Trinity establishes a requisite formal framework, but “God’s mission” fails to draw on this doctrine for its material substance. The resulting vacuity renders missio Dei an elastic concept capable of accommodating an ever-expanding range of meanings. For Wolfgang Gunther, missio Dei functions as a “container term, which is filled differently depending upon each individual author.”… Wilhelm Richebacher illustrates the problem when he observes that missio Dei is used by some to “justify the Christocentric definition of all the mission of the church as distinct from religious propaganda, and by others to do just the opposite, i.e., to propound a deity that bears witness to itself in other religions and thereby counters the absolute claims of Christianity.”…

When compared with the phenomenological underpinnings of missions that were normative at the dawn of the twentieth century, missio Dei is, in truth, pivotal. Without any link to a specific act, however, “mission” soon expanded to encompass the entire horizon of divine and human history. Following Stephen Bevans and Roger Schroeder, missio Dei is “the very mission of God in creation, redemption and continual sanctification.” Every act of God, since God is by nature missionary, is properly described as mission.

Mission, when it did not reduce to a vague involvement within the sociopolitical sphere, very soon became a distilled image of the church’s general direction within history, with the effect, for Hoedemaker, of providing “theological legitimation to the ecumenical emphasis on the church.” Mission was reduced to the being of the church in her mundane operation of word and sacrament, and via an ever-increasing assortment of other practices internal to the church herself. Anything the church did could now be classified as mission. With this, as Stephen Neill famously said, “If everything is mission, nothing is mission.”…

The Copernican turn of missio Dei is not something from which the Christian community can depart. Any other conception of the ground, motive, and goal of mission apart from missio Dei‘s Trinitarian location risks investing authority in historical accident and human capacity. Both the decisive force and fatal flaw of missio Dei rests in its relationship to the doctrine of the Trinity. As propounded to date, the concept is deficiently Trinitarian, and the wide range of its contemporary problems is a direct result of this single lack. Reference to the Trinity distanced mission from every particular human act, but, as now a divine attribute, uncertainty arose over the practical transition from divine being to the human missionary act. Missio Dei‘s vacuity emerges at this precise point….

Missio Dei provides a Trinitarian illusion behind which all manner of non-Trinitarian mediations operate with sanctioned impunity. The Trinitarian formula is pure preamble. This explains plains how a wide variety of seemingly incongruous positions can all lay claim to the name missio Dei.[2]

According to Flett, the reason why missio Dei is incapable of properly grounding Christian mission is due to its inherent lack of a Trinitarian ground and grammar, as T.F. Torrance would put it. God is inherently Trinity — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is who he is by his very nature. When, therefore, we fail to develop our understanding of his redemptive mission with his Trinitarian nature, (i.e. when we separate his act from his being), we will be unable to properly discern how God personally and directly carries out his mission via the church in the world. God redemptively relates to the world as Father, Son, and Spirit, and thus a failure to connect the latter to the former will leave us with a gap which can only be bridged by human activity. If the Triune God is reduced to a simple transcendent monad, then he effectively becomes walled off from creation, and thus his mission effectively becomes dependent in some way on the church. The problem arises, then, that the church becomes sovereign in determining the meaning and methods of its mission rather than subjecting itself to and participating in the mission of God, the very thing that missio Dei was meant to guarantee!

There is a great need, therefore, to develop a fully Trinitarian missio Dei — or perhaps a missio Trinitatis — in order to make missio Dei theology clear and effective. This is simply another way of saying that we need to develop a kataphysic or scientific missiology, one that strictly submits and conforms to the object of its inquiry, namely, the mission of the God who in Christ and by the Spirit has reconciled the world to himself.

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[1] John G. Flett, The Witness of God: The Trinity, Missio Dei, Karl Barth, and the Nature of Christian Community (Grand Rapids, Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2010), Kindle Locations 131-195. For references to sources referenced in the text, see Flett.

[2] Ibid.