This is the 4th in a series of posts taken from a paper I offered at this year’s American Society of Missiology gathering. It was offered as part of the ongoing project, “The Future of the Discipline of Missiology,” led by Dr. Craig Van Gelder.
Toward A Mission-Shaped Vision Of Theological Formation: Implications Of The Missio Dei For Theological Education
Previous posts in this series:
Before seeking to tease out implications of the doctrine of the missio Dei for theological education, it will be helpful to begin with a brief survey of its origins and the variations that have developed. 1
The term missio Dei itself, translated as either “mission of God” or “sending of God,” is attributed to an article by German missiologist, Karl Hartenstein, published in 1934. 2 Beyond the simple use of the term however, the “connection between missions and the doctrine of the Trinity,” 3 was a notion that Karl Barth, whom Hartenstein knew personally and engaged theologically, had begun to write about two years earlier. 4 Details and debates about further contributions could by explored, 5 but suffice it to say that the International Missionary Council conference of 1952 in Willingen, Germany is widely regarded as the landmark event that gave rise to the shaping and advance of the doctrine of the missio Dei.
According to the most thorough historical account by H.H. Rosin, “The use of the expression ‘God’s mission,’ amply displayed in the Willingen draft documents, and slightly present in the Willingen statement on The Missionary Calling of the Church, at least in some reminiscences, is the decisive factor for the genesis of the Latin formula ‘missio Dei.’” 6 Timothy Tennant notes,
It was at the Willingen conference in July 1952 that a new model of mission was proposed that clearly articulated that God’s redemptive action in the world precedes the church, meaning that the church should not perceive itself as the starting point for mission activity in the world. The defining phrase that was later used to conceptualize this view of mission was missio dei. 7
Finally, David Bosch adds, “Since Willingen, the understanding of mission as missio Dei has been embraced by virtually all Christian persuasions.” 8 It was from here that through subsequent councils, gatherings, and publications that the doctrine of the missio Dei began to infiltrate the arenas of theological and ecclesial reflection.
While the doctrine of the missio Dei has come to occupy an increasingly important role in Western theological reflection at large, it has by no means been a unified one. Craig Van Gelder and Dwight Zscheile helpfully condense a thick discussion of variations in an understanding of missio Dei by noting that the basic question is whether or not the missio Dei should be
…understood primarily in relationship to God’s work of redemption and thereby see the church as the primary way in which God works in the world – a specialized way of understanding God’s work in the world? Or should the missio Dei be understood as the broader agency of God in relation to all creation and God’s continuing care of that creation – a generalized way of understanding God’s work in the world? 9
Students of missiology will no doubt be well acquainted with these debates, but these variations need not distract from our focus here. For, irrespective of some of these meta-questions, it is agreed that the Church plays a key role in the missio Dei. As Darrell Guder has commented,
The church does not do mission, it is mission. By its very calling and nature, it exists as God’s ‘sent’ people (missio=sending). Its worship, its proclamation, its life as a distinctive community, and its concrete demonstration of God’s love in acts of prophetic and sacrificial service are all witness to the good news whose sign and foretaste it is to be. Such is the consensus of missio Dei theology… 10
What occupies our attention here isn’t an emphasis on how exactly the mission of God carries forth, but that God has a missionary nature and purpose. 11 It is this missionary nature and purpose that I suggest bears significance for our understanding of the nature, purpose, and practice of theological education.
- For a recent and fuller treatment of these perspectives, see, Flett, John G. 2010. The Witness of God: The Trinity, Missio Dei, Karl Barth, and the Nature of Christian Community. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. ↩
- Ibid., 131. ↩
- Ibid., 11. ↩
- Barth, “Die Theologie und die Mission in der Gegenwart,” Zwischen den Zeiten 10, no. 3 (1932), 189-215. In Flett (2010), 11. ↩
- See, Van Gelder, Craig, and Dwight J. Zscheile. 2011. The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, Ch. 2, esp. 30-36. ↩
- Rosin, H. H., and Interuniversitair Instituut voor Missiologie en Oecumenica (Netherlands). Afdeling Missiologie. 1972. Missio Dei: An Examination of the Origin, Contents and Function of the Term in Protestant Missiological Discussion. Leiden: Interuniversity Institute for Missiological and Ecumenical Research Dept. of Missiology, 10. ↩
- Tennent, Timothy C. 2010. Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-First Century. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 55. ↩
- Bosch, David Jacobus. 1991. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 390. ↩
- Missional Church in Perspective, 30. The authors offer a further description of sub-types of these variations as well as an integrated view, 56-57. They then seek to build off of the integrated view by offering their own explanation, Ch. 4. ↩
- Missional Theology for a Missionary Church, 5. ↩
- A fair question to pose at this point is how one way of understanding the missio Dei impacts our reflections on the nature, purpose, and practice of theology/church/theological education vs. another. In other words, how would the application of a specialized understanding of the missio Dei to the discussion of theology differ from the application of a generalized, or some other, understanding? This is a needed line of inquiry, but beyond the scope of this paper. My aim here is a more modest assessment of the significance of God’s missionary nature for how we conceive of theological education generally speaking. Generalized and specialized understandings of the missio Dei would call for additional nuancing, but would not, I submit, undermine the scope of the proposals set forth here. ↩