The Bible and World Mission
I wish to look briefly at how churches, missionary organisations and scholars have used the Bible to uncover what is called the biblical foundations of mission.
Most theories of mission appeal to the Bible in one way or another. Many tend towards a proof-text approach wherein specific passages or stories of the Bible are used to support a particular understanding of mission. An example of this is Donald McGavran’s Church Growth movement (Understanding Church Growth, Eerdmans, 1970). This theory states that the primary mission of the Church is to proclaim a gospel message that stresses the salvation of souls through reconciliation with God. This approach has had a profound influence through the growth of megachurches and the influence or work of televangelists. These people do not consider that they have any social responsibility for the world at large, yet many still make large sums of money through their clever spiels and manipulations of the Bible.
Other proof-text approaches are less dogmatic and have more respect for the complex nature of the Bible and a sense of social responsibility. These people, such as those who support the 1974 Lausanne Covenant, believe strongly in ‘the divine inspiration, truthfulness and authority of both Old and New Testament Scriptures in their entirety as the only written word of God’. But then later, the Covenant goes on to say: ‘We share … (God’s) concern for justice and reconciliation throughout human society and for the liberation of men and women from every kind of oppression’.
On the other hand, there are thematic approaches. For Catholic biblical scholars, Donald Senior and Carroll Stuhlmueller (The Biblical Foundations of Mission, SCM Press, 1983), mission is a major theme of the whole Bible. Their concern is to highlight the core elements of the biblical witness by reading the texts within their own historical and literary contexts. Then each chapter in their popular and widely read book concludes with a comment on the implications for ‘discussing church mission’. In the final chapter, where they attempt to bring together the insights from their studies of each section of the Bible, they admit there are areas, such as the use of scripture in inter-religious dialogue, that need further study. Still, they urge church leaders to become steeped in the Sacred Scriptures to become sources of inspiration in today’s Church.
Another scholar, David Bosch, presents another variation in the broader ambit of thematic approaches. In his highly influential book Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Orbis Books, 1991), he calls into play a process whereby he highlights what he calls the ‘evocative images’ that inspire mission. He takes up ‘six major “salvific events” portrayed in the New Testament’ - incarnation, cross, resurrection, ascension, Pentecost, and Parousia - as a framework for presenting the outlines of his vision for the future of mission (pp. 512-518).
While there is an extraordinary number of Bibles still being published and distributed (93 million per year by mid-2022, according to the ‘Status of Global Christianity, 2022, in the Context of 1900-2050’), our concern would be with how these Bibles are being used to promote the cause of world mission. Is it simply to further the purposes of manipulation, control and financial gain? Or are we witnessing a deeper interest in what the Word of God, in all its complexity and power, has to say about the future direction of Christian mission? I hope it is the latter.
Columban Fr Tom Rouse lives and works in New Zealand.
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