Friday, February 2, 2007

The Missionary Nature of the Church--Discontinuity between the Testaments

The modern missionary movement began with William Carey’s An Enquiry in to the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen (1792). He argued that the Great Commission had not been fulfilled by the apostles and urged Christians to be active in converting unchristian peoples. Thus Carey inaugurated a movement of not just missionaries, but of theologians looking to the scripture to validate their practices. As time progressed, theologies of missions matured. Initial attempts at theologies of mission were apologetics for the practice of missions. Later theologies began to look at the Bible as a whole to define mission more holistically—as God revealed His mission from Old to New Testaments. Though defenses of Christian missions did not ignore the Old Testament, it would not be until the 20th century that systematic expressions of biblical Christian missions would be published. As they began to be published, theologies of mission found great discontinuity between the plan of the Old Testament and the plan of the New Testament, especially given the advent of Dispensationalism and higher criticism.

In 1962, Johannes Blauw, in response to an assignment by the International Missionary Council, published The Missionary Nature of the Church. By his own admission, his work presented the missionary theology of the decades leading up to his day.[1] In penning three short chapters on the message of universalism in the Old Testament, Blauw admits that missionary scholarship had shamelessly prooftexted the Old Testament to support the missionary enterprise. He points out that theologians had pointed to a few Gentiles who follow YHWH, to the Servant Songs of Isaiah, and to Jonah as passages supporting the mission of the Old Testament. Blauw desires an Old Testament theology that is more comprehensive in nature, however, rather than developing such a theology, and rather than calling his work prooftexting, he points to the same passages and calls them the “highlights” of an Old Testament theology of mission.[2] Nonetheless, Blauw finds an inherent eschatology in the message of the Old Testament. This eschatology points to a Messianic figure to whom all the nations will be given.[3]

Given Blauw’s concern for a united universal message of the Old Testament, he posits a large amount of discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments. Granted, his concern is not to write a theology of mission, but to expose the thinking of his day, he does not find a centrifugal mission commanded or expected within the Old Testament. And though he questions the resulting lack of unity created by the theology he reveals,[4] he argues that the centripetal nature of the Old Testament is trumped by the centrifugal nature of mission in Judaism during the “inter-testamental period.”[5] In other words, the practice of Judaism after the Old Testament canon is closed is discontinuous with the theology of the Old Testament, though continuous with the practice of the New Testament.

George W. Peters, in discussing the particulars of his Old Testament theology of missions, finds that the Old Testament expects Israel’s mission to be intimately tied to the salvation of the nations. However, Peters overtly states the centripetal nature of mission in the Old Testament: “Never was there a time when the nations did not have access to God, although God mediated His revelation through Israel. It was the responsibility of the nations to inquire and to seek God.”[6] Self-admittedly, Peters takes a “Christocentric” approach to theology.[7] Everything, including the Old Testament, is interpreted through the final revelation—the New Testament. Therefore, his findings concerning the Old Testament theology of missions are incomplete, yet foundational, for the complete revelation in Jesus Christ: “Jesus…did not contradict or destroy but modified, enriched, expanded, and in many ways transformed and glorified the Old Testament.”[8]

Peters’ examination of the Old Testament is more thorough than Blauw’s. Thus, by 1972 missionary theology begins showing signs of maturity. Peters begins by noting the universal nature of the primeval history. God created all mankind, all mankind sinned in Adam, and God promised a savior to all mankind in the protoevangelium (Gen 3:15).[9] When God calls out Abraham and creates the nation Israel, Peters argues that God was being particularistic in method, but remaining universalistic in promise.[10] Furthermore, while “[t]he Abrahamic covenant makes Israel the people of God…the Mosaic covenant makes Israel a nation and servant of God.”[11] In other words, Peters argues that Israel had divine privilege as God’s servant which they fail to accomplish. Thus, the mission of Israel as God’s servant (Isa 40-55) is left unfinished. God’s universal promise had not failed, only the special privilege of Israel is lost, but the mission of Israel will be restored at a future time of grace and repentance.[12]

Ultimately, for Peters, the missionary message is of the Old Testament is found in the universal implications of the promise to Abraham, and through him the nations with Israel, and of the psalmody and prophets focus on the nations. Israel was to serve God as a model for the nations, but Israel gave way to the ideal Servant—the Messiah.

Peters, in his “Christocentric” interpretation of the Old Testament, finds great discontinuity between the mission of Israel and the mission of the Church. Prima facie, his argument appears to be for continuity between the two, that God’s mission to the nations has never changed. This may be true, but in dividing the methodology of the Old and New Testaments, Peters is arguing for discontinuity. He seems to be arguing that God’s plan was always for the ideal Servant, but he cannot help from ascribing the servant songs to Israel initially. However, could the mission of Israel ever bring salvation to the nations? Peters thinks so: “Thus universality of salvation pervades the entire Old Testament. It is not peripheral but rather constitutes the intent of the Old Testament revelation because it constitutes the dominant purpose of the call, life and ministry of Israel.”[13] Yet, in the same concluding section he argues that [in Christ] “man can now find perfect satisfaction for his spiritual and moral needs and fulfillment of his potentialities.”[14] Both of these statements cannot be true unless there is discontinuity between the mission of Israel and the mission of the Church.

Whereas Peters represents an evangelical theology of mission purporting discontinuity between the mission of Israel and the mission of the Church, Donald Senior and Carroll Stuhlmueller represent a post-Vatican II theology of mission. Furthermore, whereas Peters and Blauw argued from a scriptural perspective, though not denying scripture, Senior and Stuhlmueller take a primarily historical approach to a biblical theology of mission. In other words, Stuhlmueller, who authored “Part I, The Foundations for Mission in the Old Testament,” defines the historical religion of Israel in order to see how they formed their theology in response to their situation.[15] Therefore, he finds discontinuity even within the Old Testament, pitting Yahwist against the Deuteronomist, Isaiah against Ezekiel. For Stuhlmueller, the foundations for mission in the Old Testament stem from a common commitment to Yahweh.[16]
What one finds is Senior and Stuhlmueller is not so much a biblical theology but a theology of history.[17] The implications of God’s interaction with Israel, and later through Christ, lead to a theology of mission that is ecumenical, focusing on personal and social transformation. Thus, Israel serves as “the exemplary role of God’s people among the nations [which] was a vocation that the church received from Judaism and one that would be thoroughly transformed by the missionary consciousness of the New Testament.”[18] Therefore, these authors posit large amounts of discontinuity between the mission of Israel (even within its own mission) and the mission of the Church.

Neither Blauw nor Peters nor Senior and Stuhlmueller are making the same distinction between the mission of Israel and the mission of the Church. However, they reveal a tendency to see discontinuity between how God desired his people to carry out his mission in either Testament. We will refrain from judging this discontinuity as either good or bad at this time. However, with Blauw, and especially Peters, one finds a desire to reconcile the message of the Old Testament with the practice of New Testament missions. One might argue that Senior and Stuhlmueller have the same end in mind, but they do not approach the text with integrity, by trying to understand a unified message within scripture; rather, they come to the text with an agenda. They place the historical events over the words of scripture in trying to defend post-Vatican II ecumenical and liberation agendas.[19] Thus, the best representative of those finding discontinuity between the Mission of Israel and the Church is Peters.

[1]Blauw, The Missionary Nature of the Church, 11–5.

[2]Ibid., 29–34.

[3]Ibid., 52.

[4]“The question still remains whether one does not fall short of the unity of the Bible if one does not, with the ancient Church, acknowledge that the New Testament is hidden in the Old Testament, and that the Old Testament is opened up in the New.” Ibid., 53.

[5]Ibid., 55ff. Cf. Roger Hedlund’s monograph followed through with a more detailed analysis of the Old Testament. His primary texts are almost the same as Blauw’s (he titles one of his chapters “High Points in Isaiah”), yet Hedlund was able to incorporate the scholarship of George W. Peters on the Psalms. Nonetheless, Hedlund’s conclusion on the Old Testament was the same as Blauw’s—the intertestamental period served as a foundation for New Testament missions. Up to that time, Israel’s mission had been centripetal in nature. Roger E. Hedlund, The Mission of the Church in the World: A Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), 141–8.

[6]Peters, Biblical Theology of Missions, 23.

[7]Ibid., 30–1.

[8]Ibid., 83.

[9]Ibid., 83–7.

[10]Ibid., 89–101.

[11]Ibid., 112.

[12]Ibid., 113.

[13]Ibid., 129.

[14]Ibid., 130.

[15]Donald Senior and Carroll Stuhlmueller, The Biblical Foundations for Mission (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1983), 16–32.

[16]Ibid., 80.

[17]Ibid., 326

[18]Ibid., 338.

[19]See their “Introduction.” Ibid., 3–4.

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