Friday, February 2, 2007

The Missionary Nature of the Church--Continuity Between the Testaments

Having discussed the progress of missionary theology, particularly those finding discontinuity between the mission of Israel and the mission of the church, this question remains: Can the mission of Israel be squared with the mission of the Church? Three authors, in particular, within the last decade have presented comprehensive biblical theologies of mission. In other words, they all seek to find continuity between what God was doing with Israel in the Old Testament and what God is doing now with the Church. These three authors are: Kaiser, Köstenberger and O’Brien, and Wright.[1]

Of the three works to be considered, Walt Kaiser is the more well-known Old Testament theologian. Kaiser’s thesis is that the Great Commission was first mandated in the Abrahamic Covenant.[2] God’s promise to bless all the nations through the seed of Abraham is God’s universal mission to all the nations.[3] Thus, Israel had the responsibility to carry out that mission in the same way Jesus would later put that responsibility on the church—“The whole purpose of God was to bless one people so that they might be the channel through which all the nations on the earth might receive a blessing. Israel was to be God’s missionaries to the world.”[4]

In order to prove his thesis, Kaiser illuminates passages that describe Israel’s election, calling and ministry in light of their relationship to the nations (Exod 19:4–6; 2 Sam 7; Pss 67; 96; 117; Servant Songs; Jonah). Each scripture, he says, points to the centrifugal nature of Israel’s missionary calling. From Exodus, Kaiser argues that “the people of God” were to be agents of God’s blessing to the nations.[5] In 2 Samuel 7, Kaiser notes that the promised Seed through David is a reiteration of the Abrahamic covenant; thus, the blessing of the nations is in view. From the Psalms, Kaiser argues that the “praise of God preceded preaching, but both were part and parcel of Israel’s witness to the nations. The point is that there was a call for an active witness (i.e., it was to be centrifugal in its effect, reaching out from the center to others) by Israel to the Gentiles.”[6]

The crux of Kaiser’s argument is his treatment of the Servant Songs in Isaiah. The key to his interpretation is his identification of the Servant. He argues that the “single idea of this corporate figure represents a collective term that points to an individual as wall as to the whole group that the individual represents.”[7] In other words, the “servant” both points to the Messiah and the people of Israel at the same time. However, he has to admit that the references to the servant who “gathers” and “brings back” the nation of Israel cannot refer to Israel.[8] This fact is a weakness in his argument. It is fallacious to assume that a word carries the same meaning in every context it is given. Several references to “servant” in the book of Isaiah refer to slaves or laborers, but Kaiser may be looking only at Isaiah 40–55 where there are no references to slaves or laborers using the word. Nonetheless, Isaiah 49:6 states the servant is to be “a light unto the nations.” Kaiser argues that New Testament was reading this passage when giving the commission to the “ends of the earth.”[9] His conclusion is that Yahweh would lead the “remnant” in the power of the Spirit to witness to the nations unto “the ends of the earth.”[10]

The continuity with the New Testament is obvious. Kaiser is arguing that the expressions of the Great Commission in the New Testament were exactly what God has always expected. At this point, the mission of Israel is identical with the mission of the Church.

Whereas Kaiser was solely concerned with an Old Testament theology of mission, Köstenberger and O’Brien represent two New Testament scholars with a deep concern for a biblical theology that spans both Testaments. Given their particular specializations, their treatment of the Old Testament is fair, they do not try to read the New Testament back into the Old, and scholarly, though much shorter than their treatment of the New Testament. Nonetheless, their contribution to the discussion is helpful.

Köstenberger and O’Brien begin with the biblical discussion of creation. They note that the implication of Genesis 1 is “God’s lordship…over the whole creation including all humankind.”[11] The next event that affects all humanity is the fall. They argue that the remainder of Genesis 1–11 relates the pervasive influence of sin upon all mankind, though they note the promise of the seed in 3:15 and God’s continued covenant with creation after the flood in 9:9–13. From this point forward, they argue, there is an eschatological expectation of an ingathering of the gentiles, but Israel’s mission was to be one of holy dedication to God.[12] Thus, in their discussion of the Davidic covenant, they see the King as representative of the people. It will be through him that the nations are ruled. The eschatological gathering of the gentiles will be to this Davidic king on Zion[13] and will be concurrent with the eschatological restoration of Israel.[14] In regards to the Servant of the LORD in Isaiah, Köstenberger and O’Brien make it clear that the ministry of the Servant will have profound implications for both Israel and the nations. However, they claim there is a “paradox concerning the identity of the Servant” and that “Israel’s role of world mission…was forfeited through disobedience.”[15] However, these statements are inconsistent with their argument. They are arguing that God’s mission for Israel and the nations is tied to the Servant. If they mean by paradox that the exact identity is unclear until an eschatological revelation, then they assuage some inconsistency. If they mean by Israel forfeiting its role in world mission that the nation was not holy, but found itself deserving of judgment, but that God’s plan for the restoration of Israel is subsumed in the mission of the Servant, then they would have been clearer. Other than this concluding paragraph on the Servant Songs, Köstenberger and O’Brien’s argument has been consistent—the mission of Israel is to point to the God whom at a later time will send His Messiah Servant King to bless Israel and the nations.[16] How then do they find continuity with the New Testament?

Those finding discontinuity between the mission of Israel and the mission of the Church argue that God had a particularistic modus operandi concerning Israel in the Old Testament, but a universalistic method concerning the nations in the New Testament. Though Köstenberger and O’Brien are arguing that the mission of Israel was not centrifugal, they argue that God’s intention for the nations and Israel’s understanding, via Scripture, of God’s intention remained consistently universalistic. Israel’s concern for the nations was eschatological, when the Messiah Servant King would come. Thus, both the Old and New Testament mission is to point to that Messiah Servant King and His ministry. This is unlike Peters who argues that Israel failed in its mission, and thus God went to plan B—the mission of the Church.[17] Therefore, Köstenberger and O’Brien present a biblical-theological continuity between the mission of the Old Testament and the mission of the New Testament.

Another author seeking biblical-theological continuity between the Testaments is Christopher J. H. Wright in The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. While Köstenberger and O’Brien took a diachronic approach, Wright is undoubtedly synchronic in his presentation. This is not to say that Wright employs the categories of Systematic Theology, but he discussed different motifs in the mission of the Bible. This systematic treatment is what makes him unique among the major works on the biblical theology of mission. However, he considers the same biblical data as Kaiser or Köstenberger and O’Brien, though in much more depth. Nonetheless, his chapter entitled “God and the Nations in Old Testament Vision”[18] provides the meat for the following discussion.

Wright interprets the Biblical Narrative between “the primal and ultimate states of the nations” (Gen 1–11 and Rev 22).[19] He argues that not only did God create the nations, but they served as witnesses of God’s dealing with Israel. Furthermore, the nations could be sovereignly judged or blessed, but the message of the Old Testament is that the nations would enjoy the blessings of Israel by being eschatologically joined with God’s people. Wright does not see a division between Israel and the nations, but “one people belonging to God.”[20] Therefore, both Israel and the nations will be united as one people in the worship of YHWH. So for Wright, “the distinction [between Israel and the nations] would ultimately be dissolved as the nations flowed into unity and identity with Israel. Only the New Testament gospel would show how that could happen. And only New Testament missions would show how it did and will continue to happen.”[21] Wright finds continuity in the mission of God between the Testaments, but he, like Köstenberger and O’Brien, saw the Old Testament pointing to a future gathering and restoration.

[1]A fourth author could be considered. David Filbeck exclaims, “To me, of course, the overall meaning of the biblical text—that “ordered progression”—is missions, the flaming center” in the universal Gospel of hope (Carl E. Braaten 1977), the missing dimension in theological interpretation. Indeed, it is this missionary dimension, so often neglected in modern theological interpretation, that unifies both Old and New Testaments and coordinates their various themes into a single motif.” David Filbeck, Yes, God of the Gentiles, Too: The Missionary Message of the Old Testament (Wheaton, IL: The Billy Graham Center, 1994), 10. His work is excellent; however, Kaiser notes a hint of discontinuity in his findings between the universal mission of God in Genesis 1–11 and the particular mission of Israel in the rest of the Old Testament. Cf. Filbeck, God of the Gentiles, 75; Kaiser, Mission in the Old Testament, 28.

[2]Kaiser, Mission in the Old Testament, 13.

[3] Note that “promise” is one of the central motifs of Kaiser’s Old Testament Theology.

[4]Ibid., 20.

[5]Ibid., 24.

[6]Ibid., 35. Original emphasis.

[7]Ibid., 56.

[8]Ibid., 57.

[9]Ibid., 60–2.

[10]Ibid., 63.

[11]Köstenberger and O’Brien, Salvation to the Ends of the Earth, 27.

[12]Ibid., 36–7.

[13]Ibid., 40–2.

[14]Ibid., 42–4.

[15]Ibid., 49–50.

[16]Ibid., 52.

[17]Interestingly, Köstenberger and O’Brien accuse Kaiser of this same discontinuity. Ibid., 35, n. 18. This critique may hold some merit, but Kaiser is arguing that the mission of the New Testament is the same as the mission of the Old. The fact that Israel does not keep its end of the bargain does not necessarily imply that Kaiser viewed the New Testament as plan B. I think he is pointing, like Köstenberger and O’Brien, to the one through whom the nations will be blessed—the coming Messiah Servant King. Nonetheless, Köstenberger and O’Brien may be lumping Kaiser into a dispensational mold he would not be comfortable with. Cf. Kaiser, “An Epangelical Response” in Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church: The Search for Definition, ed., Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 360–76; Kaiser, “The Davidic Promise and the Inclusion of the Gentiles (Amos 9:9–15 and Acts 15:13–18): A Test Passage for Theological Systems.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 20 no. 2 (Jun 1977): 97–111.

[18]Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2006), 454ff.

[19]Ibid., 455.

[20]Ibid., 498.

[21]Ibid., 500.

No comments: