Book Review: The Mission of God, by Christopher Wright

Review
10.25.2010

Reviewing a book about missions by Chris Wright makes me feel a little like a grown-up Pinocchio writing a critique of Geppetto’s toy-making skills. Chris was very much involved in introducing me to the mission of God and to the God of mission when he served as a curate in my parents’ church when I was between the ages of 3 and 9.

I still have pleasant memories of Chris leading a Holiday Bible Club in Cage Green Hall, Tonbridge and sharing the gospel in a clear and faithful way. And Chris and his family were the first ones to embody the reality of overseas missions for me. I remember sitting by the lake at Ashburnham Place talking with Chris’s nine year old son about his family’s upcoming move to India. I remember saving some of my pocket money as a ten year old to put into a “Bible Church Missionary Society” box that sat in my father’s study, excited at the possibility that my pennies might be used by the Lord over 4000 miles away where Chris was training pastors.

About fifteen years later I heard Chris give a series of talks at “New Word Alive” on Deuteronomy, and was struck by the missional reading of an Old Testament book that I had previously thought of as being a bunch of rules.

All that is to say, I owe a deep personal debt to Chris Wright.

The Mission of God is the culmination of decades of thought and teaching that Chris has done on the relationship between the Bible and missions—rather, mission. He’s been thinking about the material in this book longer than I’ve been thinking about anything. It’s also a mammoth book, weighing in at 535 pages plus indexes. And so, in this brief space I will not be able to do much more than briefly outline some of the content and engage with some of the more controversial questions that Wright raises.

SUMMARY

In the introduction Wright describes how he used to look for the “biblical basis for missions” but grew to prefer to explore “the missional basis of the Bible” (22). Mission is not just one of a hundred different biblical themes that we might explore; the Bible is fundamentally about mission, and is even the product of that mission. We are not just people who “do missions” for God, but God himself is a missionary God, and we have the immense privilege in being incorporated into and involved in the mission of God.

The book then explores God’s mission and our place in it in four parts.

Part I: “The Bible and Mission”

Part one, “The Bible and Mission,” takes up the question of a missional hermeneutic. Central to Wright’s approach to missions is to use the term “mission of God” not merely to refer to what has commonly been called “overseas missions.” Rather, everything that belongs to the overarching purpose of God constitutes his mission, his “long-term purpose or goal”—like a company might draw up a mission statement (23). This broad approach to God’s mission then opens up a similarly broad approach to our place within it.

Wright critiques the fact that so much missiology has been built upon one text, Matthew 28:18-20. If the whole Bible is fundamentally missional, this kind of approach hardly makes sense. Wright argues that we must have a missional hermeneutic of the whole Bible that is informed not only by the great imperatives of the Great Commission and Great Commandment, but also the great indicatives which all reveal to us the identity and saving purpose of the Great God for his whole creation (60).

The Bible is a book which has a mission, and that mission is God’s mission: to confront us with “the reality of this God, the reality of this story and the reality of this people” (54, his emphasis).

Part II: “The God of Mission”

Part two, “The God of Mission,” stares more closely at the identity of God, focusing on how the uniqueness of God implies the universality of mission.

Monotheism is not, as some reconstructions of the religion of Israel would suggest, a growing development in Hebrew theology. Rather, “there was a radically monotheistic core to Israel’s faith from a very early period, however much it was obscured and compromised in popular religious practice” (73). This unique God reveals himself through a unique people in the Old Testament, but his intentions in this were always universal.

The universal intentions of God’s election of Israel are fulfilled when God himself enters history in the person of Jesus Christ, and acts as creator, ruler, judge and saviour. In Christ Jesus universal mission is opened up to be spread through all nations

Part III: “The People of Mission”

Part three, “The People of Mission,” explores what it means to be God’s chosen, redeemed, covenant, holy people. A biblical theology of mission cannot begin at Pentecost; instead Wright begins with the Abrahamic covenant as “arguably . . . the single most important biblical tradition within a biblical theology of mission and a missional hermeneutic of the Bible” (189). In God’s promises to Abraham in Genesis 12, we discover that the unique God’s intention through his particular people is to reach all. Through the blessing of one man and his one seed, all nations would be blessed through the New Covenant. This covenant is fundamentally missional. “Mission is an unavoidable imperative founded on the covenantal lordship of Christ our King. Its task is to produce self-replicating communities of covenantal obedience to Christ among the nations. And it is sustained by the covenantal promise of the perduring presence of Christ among his followers” (355).

Part IV: “The Arena of Mission”

Part four, “The Arena of Mission,” explores God’s intentions for all nations and cultures and the whole of creation. Namely, God’s election of a particular people opens up into God’s grand, cosmic plans for his whole creation through the coming of the Messiah.

It is in this final section that it becomes most evident that Wright is constructing a very broad model of mission.

Since God’s mission (his overarching plan) encompasses the whole earth—human, animal and environment—so should the Christian’s mission. And because God’s mission as applied to humanity involves the restoration of human beings spiritually, rationally, physically, and socially, so should ours.

So, as Wright offers a vision of “holistic mission” he is truly offering a vision of cosmic proportions, as we are caught up into the mission of God himself.

POSITIVE CONTRIBUTION

There is so much that could be said in admiration for this book, not least regarding its sheer scale and readability.

I love the overall approach of the book. Wright is right that we mustn’t see missions as some kind of small theme in the Bible, but rather as central to God’s purpose.

And there is so much Bible in the book. The nine page, four column Scripture index makes this abundantly clear. The deliberate emphasis on the Old Testament is a helpful corrective to missiologies that neglect three quarters of Bible and also to readings of the Old Testament that neglect mission.

It is also wonderful to have a book that is both broad in its scope and also emphasizes the non-negotiability of such central gospel truths as penal substitution (312 ff.), the centrality of the cross, and the necessity of evangelism.

There is also a huge amount of missiological wisdom in the book. Typical of this wisdom is how Wright encourages evangelism that rightly recognizes the dignity of every divine image-bearer we might seek to evangelize. “Anything that denies other human beings their dignity or fails to show respect, interest and informed understanding for all they hold precious is actually a failure to love” (424). Yet Wright doesn’t swing too far in this direction; he continues, “Not that love means accepting everything your neighbor believes or does. Paul did not accept the religiosity of the Athenians, but he did seek to relate to them with polite respect, even while challenging their assumptions.”

While there is much to admire, there are also some serious causes for concern.

How can that be the case when the book is steeped in Scripture and the unfolding purposes of God? We shall first examine Wright’s biblical-theological method, and then raise some concerns about the conclusions he reaches.

QUESTIONS ABOUT WRIGHT’S BIBLICAL-THEOLOGICAL METHOD

1. Where is continuity, and where discontinuity?

A missiology that focuses upon the Old Testament is certainly a valid approach, but it requires a very careful exploration of the lines of continuity and discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments.

Wright employs polemical language to dismiss those who see the “physical” model of the Exodus in the Old Testament fulfilled “spiritually” in the New. Within two pages they are accused of “press[ing] a spiritualized application of the exodus” and “airbrush[ing] the socioeconomic and political dimensions of the original historical event” (ital. his). They “misuse the typological method” with “a twist of Platonic dualism.” They undermine the “organic continuity between Old and New Testament” and make the Old Testament “like a booster rocket that, once the space capsule is launched, drops off and falls away into redundant oblivion.” Instead, they ought to see that “the biblical narrative is like a tree. We now enjoy the spreading branches and abundant fruit of the New Testament fulfillment. But the Old Testament is like the inner rings of the trunk…still supporting the structure on which the branches and fruit have grown” (278-279).

Such language is powerful, but by choosing different metaphors, one could launch an equally scathing critique of positions that see too much continuity.

One could say that Wright fails to see the dynamic way in which the New Testament reality fulfills the Old Testament history. Instead he causes the new wine of the gospel to stagnate in its old wineskins, strangling its bouquet. Instead of a caterpillar finding its fulfillment in the butterfly free to take to the air, Wright insists that the butterfly be grounded as it is forced to drag around the worn out body of the caterpillar in its unmetamorphosized state.

The fact is that neither set of metaphors proves anything. What is needed is a careful examination of how the Old Testament paradigms are picked up and employed in the New Testament. Yet Wright fails to provide this.

I would argue that the New Testament suggests greater discontinuity than Wright allows. The exodus is clearly picked up in the New Testament as a paradigm of our salvation from slavery to sin. Yet it is nowhere picked up as a mandate for Christian political and socioeconomic activism. On the contrary, Jesus insists that his disciples refused political resistance because his kingdom is not of this world.

2. What aspects of the Old Testament narrative are given more weight?

There is also an imbalance concerning which Old Testament events or institutions are seen as the model for New Testament mission.

So, Wright sees the exodus and the exile as models of the mission of God. But if we picked other key themes or events, it’s not clear that we arrive at precisely the same conclusion.

If we take, for example, the function of the law, the Levitical code, and the lessons of the Old Testament prophets, we would see a picture in which our personal guilt before God is a far more central problem than our bondage to the enemies of God, though this is certainly related to that central problem.

The basic problem here is that Wright doesn’t seem to allow Jesus and the apostles’ interpretation of the Old Testament to guide his own interpretations. For instance, he insists on giving equal primacy to the political, economic, and social aspects of the exodus, even though the Jesus of the Gospel records does not. Why does Jesus say that he came, and how does he fulfill the salvation events of the Old Testament? We should ask him:

  • He came to preach: “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out” (Mark 1:38).
  • He came to call sinners: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (2:17).
  • And he came to save his people from sin in a new exodus: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (10:45).

Strangely, Wright describes this very emphasis on salvation from sin as a “spiritualizing” of the Old Testament (276). In so doing, does he unwittingly end up choosing his own interpretation over Jesus’?

3. An overly “horizontal” reading of sin

A biblical theology of the mission of God needs to examine Genesis 3 in closer detail than Wright provides. Genesis 1 to 3 sets up the context into which sin comes, and from which the Lord seeks to redeem a people.

The two most substantial treatments of the fall in the book come in the exploration of idolatry in chapter 5 and in the image of God in Chapter 13. In Chapter 5, Genesis 3 is explored for about a page (164-165) in which Wright rightly describes sin as idolatry that blurs the Creator/creature distinction and thus attempts to displace God from his throne. Chapter 13 explores the spiritual, mental, physical and social effects of sin (429-430).

What is missing from both accounts, and from the whole book, is a careful exploration of how God sees sin. Sin certainly has many destructive effects within the world, but what we see so clearly in Genesis 3 is not merely the horizontal results of sin: we see God’s response to it. It is not merely that we are “alienated, fearful, suspicious and hostile” towards God, but that he acts in holy anger towards us.

Once this is in place, we will continue to see this world as broken in all its relational complexity. But we will rightly see of all of that in relation to God, and we will see that our primary need is to be restored to him.

Further, a focus on the horizontal rather than the vertical effects of sin seems to pervade much of the rest of Wright’s reading of the Old Testament.

So, to return to the theme of the Exodus: even as Wright uses the Exodus as a central model for the mission of God, I fear that he has overlooked the central event in the Exodus, namely, the sacrifice of the Passover lamb and the sharing of the Passover meal. For Wright, Passover is seen purely as a reminder that God’s redemption is social: God judges the genocidal Egyptians by destroying their own firstborn (267). But the Passover lamb is strikingly absent from this description. Once we see the centrality of the lamb, we recognize that the Passover is a reminder first and foremost that those who are redeemed would fall under the same judgment as the enemies of God were it not for a substitutionary sacrifice. Yet Wright sees the Exodus as “decidedly not deliverance from their own sin” (277). This seems to miss the centrality of the Passover lamb within the Exodus event, and also in the annual Passover festival. The explanation of the Exodus and the Passover celebration which the Israelites were to hand down clearly focuses on the lamb and what it represents: “And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the LORD, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians’ ” (Ex. 12:26-27; ital. mine).

The Exodus is a great model of New Testament redemption precisely because in it we see how God’s people, though deserving of the same judgment as God’s enemies, are redeemed through the sacrifice of a perfect substitute. This is why the New Testament presents Jesus as the Passover Lamb. Yet Wright seems to miss, or at best ignore, all this.

4. The insistence on flattening primary and secondary issues

In seeking a middle ground, Wright ironically falls into the fallacy of the excluded middle. Wright wants to find a middle position between a liberal mission that is all social action and an extreme evangelical mission that is all evangelism and no social action, or at least a concept of mission in which evangelism is seen as primary and social or political action is secondary.

Wright respects those who hold to the priority of evangelism but he resists the terms “primacy” and “priority” because it “implies that all else is ‘secondary,’” and we know from our sports that “second is nowhere… the language of priority and primacy quickly tends to imply singularity and exclusion” (317).

This is another point at which Wright’s characteristic carefulness falters, and he seems to let old-fashion pragmatism drive his thinking instead of Scripture. Surely as Christians we have to be able to say that some things are more important than others without denying the importance of those things that are secondary. Does Paul’s insistence in 1 Corinthians 15 that some things are of first importance relegate the first 14 chapters of the letter to being of no importance at all?

FROM METHOD TO CONCLUSIONS

Our methodology radically affects our conclusions. I would suggest that these four flaws in Wright’s approach result in a mis-definition of God’s mission. Insofar as he turns discontinuities into continuities and flattens canonical trajectories, Wright ends up decentering the distinctively Christian aspects of God’s mission and gives just as much emphasis to the things that even non-Christians would want from God. This further results in a concept of the church’s mission which focuses too much on what is peripheral and not enough on what is central.

In response, I would argue that the mission of God is not about shaping the church around Israel, but seeing the fulfillment of Israel in a kingdom that is not of this world. The mission of God fulfills all of the Old Testament, not just some of it. It is about peace with God first, and one another only as we are reconciled to him. It has a trillion implications that range from the very central to the very peripheral with all their consequential variations in importance.

In order to flesh out this big-picture critique, allow me to highlight a few of Wright’s specific conclusions that cause some concern.

1. What Is the Christian Mission?

First, by raising other aspects of mission to the level of primacy, Wright’s conception of Christian mission demotes evangelism to “first equal.”

In his portrayal of holistic mission throughout the book, Wright has an imaginary talking partner: an advocate of a more traditional and narrow missiology in which the gospel is defined exclusively as the salvation of individuals from hell and to heaven, and mission is defined exclusively as sharing that gospel of individual salvation. This view of missions is the one he grew up with:

I write as a son of Northern Ireland. That has to be one of the most “evangelized” small patches on the globe. As I grew up, almost anybody I met could have told me the gospel and “how to get saved.” Yet in my Protestant evangelical culture, the zeal for evangelism was equal only to a suspicion of any form of Christian social concern or conscience about issues of justice. That was the domain of liberals and ecumenicals, and a betrayal of the pure gospel. So the proportionately high number of the evangelizers and the evangelized . . . certainly did not produce a society transformed by the values of the kingdom. On the contrary it was . . . possible to hear all the language of evangelistic zeal and all the hatred, bigotry, and violence coming from the same mouths. (321)

There is not space in this review, or the expertise in this reviewer, to unravel the intertwined social, political, religious, cultural and ethnic complexities of the tensions in Northern Ireland. But surely it must be reductionistic to lay responsibility for these tensions at the feet of Christians for regarding evangelism as more important than social concern, or even to say that a more “holistic gospel” would have made any difference.

No doubt, there are many ways in which one would hope to see the salt and light of Christians in Northern Ireland would reform the society’s values, but there are also clear examples in which positive change has occurred—changes that have not occurred in mainland Britain. For example, the British state has sanctioned nearly 7.3 million murders since the 1967 Abortion Act; but not in Northern Ireland where the Act does not apply. Yet strangely, in a book championing social justice as a coequal partner to evangelism in Christian mission, Wright doesn’t mention abortion once. I fear that when we start making things that non-Christians will love co-centers of mission along with evangelism, even some forms of social justice will remain too unpopular with non-Christians to be championed by Christians. It’s fine to talk about AIDS and recycling, but abortion must be avoided.

Wright may have seen the primacy of evangelism over social action more clearly if he considered more of Jesus’ evangelistic warnings. Jesus repeatedly talks about the dangers of hell. Just in Matthew’s gospel, one can find references in 5:22, 29, 30, 8:12, 10:28, 13:42, 50 18:9, 22:13, 23:33, 24:51, and 25:30. Both the words heaven and hell do appear next to each other in the Mission of God’s index, and “heaven” has 42 entries and “heavenly” receives 17. But “hell” receives only one. And the one reference to hell says nothing about the importance of evangelism, but, ironically, simply warns those who do not care for the poor (306). What about all those who do not hear the gospel? Nowhere in this book are they presented as being in danger of hell. On the contrary, physical death is presented as the “ultimate” and “the most terrible” of enemies (439).

A 500 page book on mission that doesn’t stare—in fact, doesn’t even glance—at the reality of hell for the unevangelized has lost its bearings. It has fallen into the danger of elevating other undeniable human plights to the level of importance and centrality that should be accorded only to our need to be reconciled to God and saved from the eternal death of his wrath. We can see with our eyes the horrific images of children dying of famine, evil regimes destroying their own citizens, AIDS epidemics devastating whole societies, wars ravaging whole nations, the environmental horrors that might be unleashed by unchecked global warming, and so on. But we can only hear and imagine the reality of billions of souls heading towards unending torment in hell, without experiencing the loving presence of their perfect Creator, but knowing him only as the Judge whom they have made their enemy. And only the gospel holds out to them the unending bliss worshipping and enjoying their beautiful Creator, Saviour, and Lord as they see the glorified wounds of the Risen Lamb. If we truly stared at these eternal realities, we would view the gospel and its power to save individuals from hell as rather more central to Christian mission than healing the sick or planting trees. Do understand, I’m not just comparing the physical with the spiritual, I’m comparing the temporary with the eternal.

Wright fears that, unless evangelism is removed from the position of primacy within Christian mission, everything else will be removed altogether. My fear is that unless evangelism is recognized as uniquely central to Christian mission, we may end up making the lives of people in this world more comfortable while they continue down a road that leads to hell.

2. What Is the Gospel?[1]

Similarly, Wright’s conception of the gospel is as inclusive as his definition of mission.

So, according to Wright, mission is not merely preaching the gospel, but also social, political and environmental action.

And, according to Wright, the gospel itself is not merely the good news of salvation for sinners from the consequences of their sin: “Bluntly, we need a holistic gospel because the world is in a holistic mess. And by God’s incredible grace we have a gospel big enough to redeem all that sin and evil has touched” (315).

Of course, one must not deny the cosmic significance of the gospel. As Paul says, “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). But once again, to suggest that the gospel has implications for the whole of creation does not mean we need to deny that the gospel has a center. Wright acknowledges this, and is clear that “the very core of biblical faith [is] the cross of Christ” (312). He then goes on to expound the huge dimensions of the redemptive work achieved in the cross “to deal with the guilt of human sin…to defeat the powers of evil…to destroy death… to remove the barrier of enmity and alienation between Jew and Gentile…and to heal and reconcile his whole creation” (312-313).

But I’d love to ask a few questions that push things further: What is at the center of Christ’s work on the cross? Are these five areas of God’s redemptive mission all equally central to that mission?

As D.A. Carson has so clearly put it,

But I think it can be shown (though it would take a very long chapter to do it) that if one begins with the centrality of penal substitution, which is, as we have seen, grounded on a deep understanding of how sin is an offense against God, it is very easy to see how all the other so-called “models” of the atonement are related to it. . . . It is very difficult to establish the coherence if one begins anywhere else.[2]

It seems that when one sees the cross at the center of the gospel, and penal substitution at the center of the cross, it makes sense why the gospel can also be a term in the New Testament that focuses on the central effect of the good news: the salvation of sinners from hell and into a restored relationship with God through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Consider, for example, the following passages:

  • 1 Corinthians 15:2-3: By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.
  • Romans 1:16: I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.
  • Ephesians 1:13-14: And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.

In sum, while Wright may be correct to draw attention to the cosmic dimensions of the gospel, he fails to give sufficient weight to what is most central to the gospel itself: the penal, substitutionary death of Christ which accomplished the salvation of all those who turn from their sin and trust in him.

3. What is the church?

Wright argues that “Holistic mission cannot be the responsibility of any one individual. But it is certainly the responsibility of the whole church” (322). And that seems to be the purpose of the church according to Wright: to have enough people so that they will be able to spread themselves across the whole breadth of the mission of God.

Further discussion of Wright’s ecclesiology must be left to Bobby Jamieson’s review of Wright’s recent book, The Mission of God’s People. Suffice it to say here, it seems strange to me that if the renewal of creation, political action, and social justice are all essential aspects of the church’s mission that we find so little about them in the New Testament letters addressing New Testament churches. Instead, we find a great deal about preaching the gospel, living holy lives and growing in discipleship. What we find is in fact a living out of the Great Commission.

Further, Wright seems to contradict himself somewhat about whether the Great Commission is the center of Christian Mission. Early in the book we read,

A missional hermeneutic, then is not content simply to call for obedience to the Great Commission (though it will assuredly include that as a matter of nonnegotiable importance). . . . A missional hermeneutic of the whole Bible will not become obsessed with only the great mission imperatives, such as the Great Commission, or be tempted to impose on them one assumed priority or another (e.g. evangelism or social justice or liberation or ecclesiastical order as the only “real” mission). Rather we will set those great imperatives within the context of their foundational indicatives, namely, all that the Bible affirms about God, creation, human life in its paradox of dignity and depravity, redemption in all its comprehensive glory, and the new creation in which God will dwell with his people. (60-61)

That seems to suggest that the Great Commission is a pretty small piece in a jigsaw that would be incomplete without it, but which has plenty of other pieces.

However, later we read, “The Great Commision is the command of the new covenant” (354, emphasis mine). “Mission then, as articulated in the Great Commission, is the reflex of the new covenant. . . . Its task is to produce self-replicating communities of covenantal obedience to Christ among the nations” (355).

What’s going on here? Perhaps if we try to suggest that the Great Commission is one among many aims within the mission of the church, rather than the center, one of two things will happen. Either it will fall off the edge, as other things will be much more popular with the world and much easier to achieve. Or, as we keep reading our Bibles, it will not let us off the hook, but will keep returning us to the center.

I pray that this would be the case not only for the writings of Wright, but for the understanding of the church as we continue to reflect upon the mission of God and our place within it.

[1] For a great article which considers the New Testament use of the word “gospel” and its implications for our definition of the gospel, see  http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/files/2010/10/for_the_fame_of_gods_name.excerpt.pdf

[2] See http://s3.amazonaws.com/tgc-documents/carson/2007_forum_penal_substitution.pdf

By:
Mike Gilbart-Smith

Mike Gilbart-Smith is the pastor of Twynholm Baptist Church in Fulham, England. You can find him on Twitter at @MGilbartSmith.