Book Review: The Essence and Implications of Missio Dei, by Peter Pikkert
Peter Pikkert, The Essence and Implications of Missio Dei: An Appraisal of Today’s Foremost Theology of Missions. Alev Books, 2017. 85 pages.
At the Third Lausanne Conference in Cape Town, South Africa in October 2010, John Piper expressed concern about an emerging social gospel emphasis in the evangelical missions movement. He memorably exhorted delegates, “What I want us to be able to say—could Lausanne say, could the global church say?—‘For Christ’s sake we Christians care about all suffering, especially eternal suffering.’” What made Piper’s statement so memorable is how it clarified succinctly what is at stake in the decades-old debate within evangelical missiology between proponents of holism and those of prioritism. Holists argue for a holistic understanding of the church’s mission that encompasses social concerns and elevates them to the same level of importance as spiritual concerns. Prioritists insist evangelism, discipleship, and church planting should take priority in the church’s mission.
THE MISSION OF THE CHURCH AND MISSIO DEI
In his swift, little book, The Essence and Implications of Missio Dei, Peter Pikkert roots this social gospel trajectory in evangelicals’ embrace of the theological concept missio Dei. Mainline Protestants developed the concept of missio Dei during the post-war period of the twentieth century—though the term had been in use with a somewhat different meaning for centuries—as a way of breathing new theological life into their declining missions enterprise. The main feature of missio Dei involved a shift in focus from missions as the church’s activity to the all-encompassing mission of the triune God. Participation in the missio Dei came to mean being active in the world within the myriad of ways God himself might be active—what amounted to a secularized vision for Christian missions. Some of missio Dei’s early articulators, such as the Dutch missiologist J. C. Hoekendijk, stressed God’s direct approach to the world—rather than through the church—relegating the role of the church to the margins of missions entirely.
With little to offer the mainline churches, missio Dei nearly disappeared but was soon revived by more conservative evangelicals advocating for a holistic theology of mission. Pikkert identifies and focuses his critique on the works of three such evangelical missiologists: Christopher Wright—who played a leading role at the Cape Town gathering, David Bosch, and Scott Sunquist. Throughout the book, Pikkert adopts an irenic and charitable tone, carefully distinguishing the views of these evangelical missiologists from their mainline predecessors—and sometimes even from one another. Nevertheless, Pikkert detects a set of common themes that transcend missio Dei’s mainline and evangelical iterations: conflation of the church’s mission to preach forgiveness of sins with God’s all-encompassing mission to restore creation; emphasis on love as God’s chief attribute at the expense of his holiness; a de-emphasis on the judgment of God and the reality of hell; and a politicized approach to social transformation.
Pikkert is right to be concerned about the social gospel trajectory of the holistic missions paradigm. Readers of Wright’s The Mission of God and The Mission of God’s People who appreciate his thick exegesis as well as his sweeping biblical theology may nevertheless be unsettled by how his discussion of creation care in the first of these books is given top priority in an early chapter of the second book. Gospel proclamation, on the other hand, finally turns up in chapter eleven of The Mission of God’s People. Far from being stressed as a priority, gospel proclamation nearly becomes an afterthought!
Such an inversion of mission priorities cuts against the grain of clear New Testament instructions to Christians to make disciples of all nations. Holists critique prioritists’ reliance on such texts as Matthew 28:19–20 as simplistic prooftexting. They argue instead for a vision for the church’s mission based on a missional reading of all of Scripture. Certainly, prioritists should welcome robust Old Testament exegesis and biblical theology informing their theology of mission, yet a biblical-theological approach toward the New Testament’s sending commands is only likely to make the implications of those texts stronger.
THE MEANING OF MISSIO DEI
As helpfully as Pikkert’s book connects the dots between missio Dei and shifts in evangelical missions priorities, one question hangs over his argument: Is missio Dei really the driving force behind the redefinition of the church’s mission or is it merely a convenient vehicle for those advancing a holistic missions agenda? Pikkert himself points to the difficulty of pinning down a definition of missio Dei due to the variety of models that claim the term. Beyond Hoekendijk’s cosmocentric and Wright’s more Christocentric models, other missio Dei models emphasize God’s sending or his mission to save people from sin.
Even Georg Vicedom, Hoekendijk’s contemporary, parted with Hoekendijk in his emphasis on the role of the church and the mission of God as discipleship. In other words, it may be fair to say that a particular version of missio Dei is to blame for the drift toward holism but that the term itself retains some usefulness. Indeed, a clear distinction between the eschatological mission of God to restore his creation and the mission of the church to proclaim the gospel to the nations can prove missiologically helpful. Missio Dei, then, functions much like the missiological term “contextualization” or even the term “evangelical,” the precise meanings and relative values of which are contested.
In addition, Pikkert risks overcorrection at certain points. In one section, for example, Pikkert underappreciates an aspect of Bosch’s critique of traditional evangelical missiology. In Witness to the World, Bosch laments evangelical missionary practices that minimize or altogether bypass the role of the church. Pikkert rightly points out how Bosch fails to offer examples, but for many international missionaries, examples quickly come to mind. One thinks of large events that aim to rack up converts with no plan to gather believers into local churches or teach them all that Jesus commanded. Other examples include church planting methodologies focused more on rapid reproduction than on giving meaningful attention to what it means to be the church. Healthy church principles such as discipleship that occurs in the context of the local church and incorporates the whole counsel of Scripture are often downplayed as hinderances that slow down the work. Prioritists, it turns out, can be just as neglectful of the role of the local church.
LEARNING MISSIONS METHODS FROM THE BIBLE
As a theologian and Bible teacher who spent most of his adult life in the Middle East, Pikkert is a practitioner who understands the discussion concerning holism and prioritism goes beyond academic missiology. The brevity of his treatise may be owing to his desire to influence those serving and making decisions at the point where theory and practice meet: churches and pastors, missions organizations and their leaders. Even for those less interested in the ins and outs of missio Dei, the final chapter of Pikkert’s book puts forward a set of constructive principles based on New Testament commands worth commending to every missionary and church planter:
- Look to the apostle Paul as a model for the missionary task (1 Cor. 11:1; Phil. 4:9).
- Proclaim the gospel clearly (Col. 4:3–4).
- Live a transformed, “imitable” life consistent with the message preached (Eph. 4:1).
- Focus on building up a local church (1 Cor. 14:12).
- Expect opposition (Phil. 1:12).
- Disciple, train, and relinquish responsibility (Matt. 28:19; Titus 1:5).
- Trust the Holy Spirit to lead the national church into all truth (John 16:13).
By God’s grace, we sought to hold to such principles in the small Central Asian church where I served as an elder for the better part of a decade. Comprised of college students, refugees, the poor, and other people from the social margins, the church floats like a rickety ship among the breakers of a hostile culture. The church’s leaders and its members strive in the power of the Holy Spirit to make disciples who persevere despite rejection by family and the surrounding community, threats to their livelihood, the loss of marital prospects, and the like. We rejoice when we see these disciples grow in their commitment to the Word of God and when they themselves emerge as faithful disciple-makers.
The idea of saddling this community of brothers and sisters with the expectation that they present a prophetic public witness on creation care, for example, seems as far removed from their immediate concerns as it does from the concerns of the New Testament apostles. Their social witness—to the extent they can have one—involves simply securing their right to gather amid a hostile culture. Individual members may care deeply about the environment and should care as Christians, but it hardly seems wise for this local church as an institution to spend its prophetic capital on creation care when millions of its surrounding neighbors are headed toward eternal suffering in hell. A thousand institutions—including in this Central Asian nation—are carrying the banner of creation care, global debt relief, and affordable housing; only the church of Jesus Christ carries the banner of good news for those needing rescue from eternal suffering.
 Keith Whitfield, “The Triune God: The God of Mission” in Theology and Practice of Mission, ed. Bruce Riley Ashford (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2011), 20–21.
 Henning Wrogemann, Theologies of Mission, Intercultural Theology 2 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018), 89–91.
 I am grateful to Doug Coleman for suggesting this analogy.