Reading the Bible Missionally (Michael Goheen) -- Review

READING THE BIBLE MISSIONALLY. Edited by Michael W. Goheen. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016. Xiv + 343 pages.

Over the past few decades many in the Christian community have begun to realize that mission isn’t only something done cross-culturally, but forms the center of the church’s identity. It is, by nature, missional, because God is engaged in mission. Among the leading figures in this rediscovery of the church’s missional identity was Leslie Newbigin, a British missionary and at one time a Bishop of the Church of South India. The missional conversation, which had its roots in Newbigin’s writings, as well as the work of Karl Barth, first took root within the Evangelical world. In time the reach of the movement expanded to include more liberal/mainline churches. In fact, the idea has spread so widely that some wonder whether the word missional has any real meaning. That is, however, a conversation for another day. In this review, I take up a book exploring what it means to read the Bible missionally.  

The book Reading the Bible Missionally is a collection of essays written by participants in the missional conversation, several of whom are biblical scholars.  They invite us to consider how we might read the Bible from a missional vantage point. That is, they want to not only ask the question of what the Bible says about mission, but rather read the Bible through a missional lens. The contributors to the book, led by the editor, Michael Goheen, believe that if read missionally, one will find in scripture an overarching narrative that connects both Testaments.  Such a reading will enable us not only to better understand the Bible, but better understand the church and its relationship to the world.

The fifteen essays that make up the book have their origins in a conference focused on developing a missional hermeneutic that was held at Calvin Theological Seminary in 2013. The conference included four keynote addresses. Christopher Wright focused on the missional reading of the Old Testament, N.T. Wright on the New Testament, Michael Goheen on preaching, and Darrell Guder on theological education. Each of these addresses are contained in the book, along with a number of other essays that emerged out of workshops that were held at the conference. 

The fifteen chapters of the book are divided into five sections. The first section explores the idea of a "missional hermeneutic." These chapters explore history, mission, theology, and intercultural studies. The premise of the book is established in the opening chapter written by Michael Goheen, who also serves as the editor of the book. He asks the question of why mission does not serve as the organizational principle for reading scripture. There are a number of trends that have emerged in recent years that suggest the possibility of bringing mission and biblical studies into conversation, but the process isn't easy. The good news is that a growing number of biblical scholars are entering the conversation, some of them involved in this book, including Christopher Wright and N.T. Wright. So, what is a missional hermeneutic? Ultimately it is one in which the mission of God stands at the center of our reading of scripture. Goheen writes that "the heart of a missional hermeneutic is the recognition that God chooses and covenants with a particular people to fulfill his universal purpose of restoration (pp. 15-16). Several chapters explore the particulars of this premise.

In part two of the book, a series of writers explore a "Missional Reading of the Old Testament," with the conversation set up by a chapter written by Christopher J. H. Wright, who invites the reader to envision how the Old Testament gives account of God's mission in the world, as seen in the creation stories and the covenanting with Abraham. Wright notes that "the creator God's mission is nothing less than to bless the nations of humanity. So fundamental is this divine agenda that Paul defines the Genesis declaration as 'the gospel in advance' (Gal. 3:8)" (p. 113). This section includes two chapters that explore specific texts—Deuteronomy and the Psalms.

The section focusing on the Old Testament is followed by one on the New Testament. It is introduced by a chapter written by N.T. Wright, followed by explorations of James (Joel Green) and Colossians (Dean Flemming). Wright declares that the purpose of the New Testament is to "sustain and direct the missional life of the early church" (p. 175). Wright makes clear his hermeneutical vision that seeks to read the entire Bible as a coherent narrative. Thus, reading from Genesis to Revelation, the story is "told in terms of the vocation of Abraham's family to be 'the light to the nations,' the people through whom the creator God would bless the whole world" (p. 176). Read missionally then, "the New Testament is about the one God claiming the world through Jesus, already now, in advance of the Parousia and the final coming of the final kingdom" (p. 179). Wright gives a fairly clear description of a missional hermeneutic that connects the entire Bible to the story of God's mission of restoration and blessing. 

The fourth section takes the missional task in a "practical" direction, focusing on preaching. This section builds on the previous three sections. Goheen writes that "we preach Christ to form a distinctive community for the sake of the world" (p. 247). The final section, focuses on theological education, arguing for a rethinking of the current model so that it better reflects this missional calling. In other words, the focus is on learning outcomes. What is the purpose of theological education? Darrell Guder writes that "the proper outcome of missional theological education built and shaped by a missional hermeneutic, is that the community of equipped witness in a particular context will live out their lives intentionally as Christ's witnesses wherever and however God sends them" (p. 289). If Guder offers a more theoretical vision, Michael Goheen focuses more specifically on the curriculum side of things. The question here concerns what would be the unifying core of a missional theological education. 

A book like this will always be uneven, but it can also be useful. As a reader, I found N.T. Wright's chapter on the narrative arc of the biblical witness quite helpful. At the same time, we have to be careful that we don't impose a schema on scripture that is foreign to it. I like the idea that there is a missional vision that underlies scripture. A canonical reading of scripture fits such a vision, so that scripture doesn't end up as nothing more than an anthology of ancient religious and cultural texts. 

As I read through the book several questions emerged. First and foremost, I was concerned about the gender/cultural background of the contributors themselves. This is a conversation about missional hermeneutics, while I understand that the organizers of the conversation want to broaden the concept of mission beyond simply cross-cultural encounters, it seemed odd that every contributor is white and male. In fact, the theological education enterprise that many of the contributors are affiliated with features a faculty this is entirely white, with one woman faculty member. This raises questions as to whether the missional enterprise is an expression of a white male vision of the church. Surely there is at least one biblical or missional scholar who is female or a person of color who could have been invited to participate. By and large the contributors to the book are evangelicals, though Barth does seem to have some influence on some of the participants. It is also largely Reformed in orientation. So, perhaps another conversation could be held with a broader selection of contributors, especially women and scholars and practitioners from the Global South.

Having noted these concerns, the book is still a valuable resource that reminds us that the Bible is more than simply an anthology of ancient religious texts. It is the story of God’s mission in the world, from creation to ultimate redemption. Thus, the conversation about Bible and mission continues. 


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