Mission World - July 2023

Mission and the Interpretation of the Bible

Last year, more than ten and a half million books about Christianity were published. That is more than double the number of books published in 2000 when only 4,800,000 were published! The increase in Christian periodicals was even greater over the same period, from 35,000 in 2000 to 88,000 in 2022. Allowing for the broadest definitions of mission, a considerable number of those books and periodicals were about mission and the use of the Bible in the work of mission.1 In light of this astounding growth in publications about mission, I would like to consider the question: How do missionaries use the Bible as an instrument in the work of mission? In other words, how do missionaries interpret the Bible?

Some of the more influential conservative missionary movements rely on sets of clear principles or “fundamentals”. These ensure that their message is simple and clear. “Let the Bible speak for itself for the Word of God does not err.” These evangelists can command a following of millions through television broadcasts and books that warn of famines and natural disasters that will usher in the end of the world. They strongly oppose what they would call theological liberalism wherein, as they would say, “anything goes”. They would also consider inter-church and interfaith dialogue as leading to religious relativism. They question historical-critical approaches to the Bible because these stress the humanity of the sacred texts and allow for diverse and, what they would consider, questionable readings of the Bible.

Towards the end of the 60s and into the 70s, there were theologians and Bible scholars in Latin America and beyond who sought to free themselves from the domination of European theology. The influence of educationalists like Paulo Freire,2 who began to explore how people, especially the poor of Brazil, could free themselves from the control of the dominant classes and begin to name reality for themselves, had a profound impact on Christian theology and mission. Fr Gustavo Gutierrez’s ground-breaking work, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation, in 1971, and especially his stress on God’s “preferential option for the poor”, has made many missionaries re-assess their own praxis or ways of living out their call to proclaim the Gospel. It has also meant that the way the Bible is read and interpreted within the contexts of cross-cultural mission has opened up new forms of communal reflection, which demand a critical analysis of how we are taught to view the world and how we are taught to read the Bible.

In addressing conservative theology “principles” and in light of the critical praxes of liberation theology, missionary movements over the past few decades have entered into dialogue with a whole range of theological perspectives that confront the reality of systemic racism, neo-colonialism, gender discrimination, and ecological crises. We will briefly consider these in future articles as we explore further dimensions of world mission.

Columban Fr Tom Rouse lives and works in New Zealand.

1 The Status of Global Christianity, 2022, in the Context of 1900–2050, Todd M. Johnson and Gina A. Zurlo, eds. World Christian Database (Leiden/Boston: Brill, accessed January 2022).
2 Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1968.

Mission Intentions

July - For a Eucharistic life: We pray that Catholics may place the celebration of the Eucharist at the heart of their lives, transforming human relationships in a very deep way and opening to the encounter with God and all their brothers and sisters.

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