What do We Mean by The Mission of God?

A while ago, I wrote a post entitled Missiology is Meaningless which suggested that missiology was too broad a term to be used without qualification. Terms like missiological reflection and missiologically informed are tossed around, but they can mean very different things to different people, depending on their starting point. Lately, I’ve noticed the same thing with the term mission of God and its Latin version missio Dei. People talk about doing things in the light of the mission of God without ever really defining what they mean by the term, despite the fact that mission of God or missio Dei is open to a wide range of interpretations and definitions.

A nearly ubiquitous concept in mission theology today is the phrase missio Dei. The idea of a single mission rooted in God’s nature at the very least stands in heuristic tension with the manifold and often competing ventures launched by churches and other organizations dedicated to missionary outreach. It is customary now to talk about the wide variety of ends to which the term missio Die has been ut since it came into general circulation shortly after the 1952 Willingen conference of the International Missionary Council. As we will see, these different applications of the term draw on more than one set of scripture passages, as successive attempts have been made using this or related terms to establish a biblical foundation for the theology of Christian mission. John Flett has closely examined the origins of the term missio Dei. He concludes that the undoubted attractiveness of this formulation in the postcolonial era has obscured its basic incoherence, due to the illusory or nonsubstantial way mission theologians have related this concept to the doctrine of the Trinity.

From Comprehending Mission: The Questions, Methods, Themes, Problems, and prospects of Missiology (American Society of Missiology) by S. H. Skreslet pp. 31,32. Emphasis mine.

I’m not sure I agree entirely with this statement, but I have to admit that the more I see the phrase missio Dei being used without being unpacked, the more I feel that the phrase is losing any useful meaning.

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4 replies on “What do We Mean by The Mission of God?”

I’m wondering whether the author you quote is trying to obscure his basic incoherence through nonsubstantial references to the Trinity…

I don’t think so. The missio Dei is often tied into the doctrine of the Trinity via John 20:21 among other texts. I like your comment though!

It’s interesting this author is addressing attempts at unpacking the phrase in search of a biblical foundation for mission. I wonder if he has considered that just the opposite may be true — that instead, there is a missiological foundation for the Bible. i think missio Dei has been defined and explained aplenty — yes there is a plethora of definitions. But most authors begin with their parameters of usage. If people pick up on one or another and start talking jargon, we may just need to get comfortable with that and assume it will eventually distill down to a common understanding — like ecclesiology, for example. Everyone has a theology of the church and chances are they don’t all align, but eventually we’ve been able to have conversations (even intelligent ones) without constantly having to redefine our terms. As for standing in “heuristic tension” with those who have engaged in outreach activities it’s important to note that there is a difference between the theology of missio Dei and the pragmatic activities of any well-meaning doer of the Word. Yet, I can’t argue with an author I haven’t read. In terms of obscurity due to an illusory and non-substantial relationship with the Trinity I’d also have to disagree. I believe there are solid works that connect the dots, including a great book by Dr. Damen So entitled: The Forgotten Jesus and the Trinity You Never Knew. Just my thoughts….. for what they’re worth.

HI Dawn,

Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure that it is practical to assume that our understanding of missio Dei/i> will eventually ‘distill down to a common understanding’. In almost sixty years since the phrase was introduced into the modern missiological lexicon, there is no sign of that convergence – indeed, I’d argue that the opposite was true.

As for standing in “heuristic tension” with those who have engaged in outreach activities it’s important to note that there is a difference between the theology of missio Dei and the pragmatic activities of any well-meaning doer of the Word. Precisely – this actually proves the author’s point!

It’s a shame you haven’t read Skreslet. It’s a new book, but it is without question the best review of missiological literature that I have seen. If it doesn’t join Bosch as a standard missiology text book, I will be very surprised. I will be doing a short review of it in the next week or so. Given the breadth of literature that Skreslet works through, I have no difficulty assenting to his view that the link between missio Dei and Trinity has not been adequately explored or elucidated. I agree that Damon So’s book is excellent; but he gives less than four pages to the issue of world mission and Trinity and he raises more questions than he answers (not least because of his lack of interaction with Paul). There are better treatments of Trinity and mission out there than So’s (and I’m sure he would acknowledge this), but the plethora of approaches and definitions mean that the phrase is still open to such a wide variety of interpretations that it is hard to know what people mean by it.

My chapter in “International Development in Kingdom Perspective” (available for download http://www.academia.edu/1988657/MISSIO_DEI) unpacks this in a little more detail, though the references I cite are probably more interesting than my paper!

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