Book Review – The Mission of God by Christopher Wright

Wright, Christopher J. H. The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2006.

Publisher: InterVarsity Press
Author: Wright, Christopher J. H.
ISBN-10: 0830825711 | ISBN-13: 9780830825714
Binding: Hardcover

(See the Preface to this Review HERE for an Abridged Version)

Thank you IVP for providing a review copy!

Introduction:

This is a book that’s rather hard to classify. It’s either a biblical theology of mission or it’s a missional reading of the Bible. For Christopher Wright, The Mission of God is both. Much of the book arises from one of his classes at All Nations Christian College where he often founded himself telling his students, “I would like to rename [this class]: from ‘The Biblical Basis of Mission” to ‘The Missional Basis of the Bible.’” I wanted them to see not just that the Bible contains a number of texts which happen to provide a rationale for missionary endeavor but that the whole Bible is itself a ‘missional’ phenomenon” (22, his italics).

Probably one of the most helpful parts of this book for a reviewer is the fact that Wright himself provides some criteria for determining whether his goals have been met in this book. His purpose is to provide a valid framework for hermeneutics and biblical theology. A while back Wright presented a lecture on the topic of a missional framework for hermeneutics. Anthony Billington in response posed this concern,

Does this or that particular framework, do justice to the thrust of the text in its biblical-theological context? Or does it distort the text? (68, from Billington’s unpublished written response to Wright’s Laing Lecture at London Bible College, October 1998).

Wright considers these questions to be very important and Part I of The Mission of God seeks to answer them before moving on to apply this missional hermeneutical framework to the contours of scripture. And these are the questions upon which this review will be based, along with a couple others. What kind of book is this?

Part I: The Bible and Mission

This first part of The Mission of God, only two chapters, is the shortest of the four sections in the book. But it is also a very important part of the book, laying some essential ground work for what follows. What we find here is a discussion of the need for a sort of “Biblical apologetic for mission” (24, to borrow one of the section headings). But past such endeavors have often failed. It has become very common in the history of Christian mission to rely solely on Matthew 28.18-20 for the biblical basis for mission. But there are problems with such a stance. And Wright so keenly states, If you put all your apologetic eggs in one textual basket, what happens if the handle breaks?” (34). Some observe that the “Go” of this passage is not a command or that using this passage as a sort of time table for Christ’s return is a dubious enterprise indeed, not to mention the fact that many highly critical scholars do not accept this passage as an authentic saying of Jesus. This one passage cannot bear the weight all by itself.

But Wright recognizes that even if we find a hundred more passages for a missional apologetic, we still potentially fall into the trap of proof-texting. A list of sporadic Bible references related to missions can hardly be considered developing a missional hermeneutic or “[providing] an adequate whole-bible grounding for mission” (36). Christopher Wright seeks to do both. A global hermeneutic with multiple readings of scripture is needed. Different people and different cultures recognize different aspects of the text as important. But multiple readings do not equal relativism. Just the opposite. Such an approach actually helps us come closer to authorial intent. Not every Christian recognizes every element of the text. But multiple readings are also not enough. We must move from this multiplicity of readings to “a hermeneutic of coherence” (40, his italics), a coherence that is grounded in the person of Jesus Christ.

“[T]he words of Jesus ‘opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures’ (Lk 24:45). In other words, Jesus himself provided the hermeneutical coherence within which all disciples must read these texts, that is, in the light of the story that leads up to Christ (messianic reading) and the story that leads on from Christ (missional reading)…. That is a missional hermeneutic of the whole Bible” (41).

But there is more to a missional hermeneutic. Wright holds that such a framework has a theological foundation as well. If, as Christians believe, scripture is divine revelation, then it logically follows that the Bible is missional. Scripture as God’s revelation is the product of, as Wrights title so aptly says it, “The Mission of God.” Scripture is the result of mission.

Part II: The God of Mission

It is difficult, if not impossible, to open up scripture and not encounter the living God. Part II deals with three “If’s.” Each one deals with a crucial aspect of Wright’s purpose. They are theological issues that must be dealt with and shown to be true for a missional reading of scripture is to be accepted. Each of these conditionals follows by an apodosis that Wright seeks to show to be true from scripture. If YHWH is the one true God, who wills to be known, Christians should take time to consider that mission? If Jesus truly is the Messiah and the embodiment of YHWH’s identity and mission, empowered with authority over heaven and earth with the name above every name, the believer has no option but to follow him in the same mission of God to reveal himself to all people in the earth. If the conflict between the Father and the Son, Jesus the Messiah, against all human and satanic effort for idolatry, then Christians must actively become involved fighting all such misplaced worship.[1]

All three of these should not be “big if’s.” Any Christian ought to be able to affirm them in a heart beat. And some might wonder if Wright’s following three chapters of indepth exegetical discussion over one hundred seventeen pages are even necessary for making his case. Yet where do we find mission discussed in the Academy? The subject’s appearance is rare at best. The people who show up on the back cover of the dust jacket illustrate this. The book blurbs all come from people who already have vested interest in mission.

Wright’s conditionals are expanded in each of the following three chapters. The first of these show quite clearly that from the exodus to the exile, Wright shows that YHWH intentionally revealed himself to Israel in order than they might be his witness before the world. This is monotheistic mission. Through out the Old Testament, the point is YHWH alone is God. In the exodus, Israel sees Egypt’s gods shown to be nothing before YHWH. He alone is God not only in the grace of the exodus but also in judgment of the exile. He is fully sovereign over all of Israel’s comings and goings, while continually loving them with plans for salvation and peace.

This God’s revelation of himself in Jesus the Messiah comes to the forefront in chapter four. Wright seeks to affirm a high Christology in the New Testament. He argues the New Testament usage of κύριος (Lord) in reference to Jesus directly relates the identity of YHWH with Jesus. Through the New Testament Jesus is described as fulfilling the same functions, which YHWH perfected in the Old: creator, ruler, judge and savior.

Wright gives an excellent example of the first of these in 1 Corinthians 8.4-6. “For us, there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.” In his argument, Paul is dealing with the question of meat sacrificed to idols. In these verses, “Paul throws the full weight of the Shema—the great Jewish monotheistic confession—at the problem” (111). Paul does two things. He aligns Jesus with YHWH using the title κύριος, maintaining his monotheism and then also describes “all things” as having their existence because of Christ.

Chapter five sets its sights on idolatry. It is clear from Wright’s argumentation that his conditionals progressively build on each other. He concluded chapter four stating, “Monotheism is missional because it generates praise and also because it globalizes praise—the praise of the one true living God, known through his grace, his judgment, and above all his Messiah” (134). These words provide Wright with a fitting segue into the issue of idols and demonic forces.

The question before him in the chapter is whether the other “gods” actually exist. Do the idols to which Israel turned throughout the Old Testament have any spiritual power behind them? Well, yes and no. “If asked in relation to YHWH, the answer has to be nothing….But if the question is asked in relation to those who worship the other gods … then the answer can certainly be something” (139). Wright’s point is that compared to YHWH, surrounding nation’s gods cannot be said exist. But because that actual people worshiped these, “Only excessive pedantry would complain that since Marduk [the god of Babylon] did not have any real divine existence it is meaningless to say that anybody worshiped him” (139). These gods were part of the culture and life of the people who worshiped them and in that sense they are real.

Wright delineates three categories for describing these gods. For example, such gods in the Old Testament were often part of the created order, such as Sun god of Egypt whose authority was challenged in the plagues. Other times they are simply made from stone or metal from human hands. Indeed other times, the gods are not physical in nature. Such spiritual powers as demons exist, but according to Wright,

“The relative scarcity of texts connecting gods and idols to demons and the abundance of texts describing them as human constructs is surely theologically significant. The contrast ensures that we keep the balance of responsibility for the sin of idolatry where it truly belongs—with us human beings” (163).

The missional response to idolatry exposes the gods for what they really are. They cannot compare with the living God who is transcendent and supreme over all creation. “The prophets and apostles set us a clear example … which at the same time engaging with cutting relevance in particular and local contexts into which they were sent. Our mission demands no less” (188).

Part III: The People of Mission

Part three focuses on a section of scripture from Abraham’s calling in Genesis 12 to Revelation 22 to show that the whole of scripture is a narrative of God’s people being called and responding to mission. Wright is not exactly limiting his discussion. But in order to put this missional narrative, he needs to put it in perspective. That means taking a quick look at Genesis 1-11 where, “Not only has the story run into the ands of abandoned Babel but even the line of Shem, in whom hope seems fixed for the future has run almost to a dead end in the barrenness of Sarah and the death of Terah in Haran” (200). The story following is one of covenant—a covenant people that began with Abraham whom God intended to use as the “vehicle of blessing to the nations, and what is entailed in that original great commission” (189). Wright correctly recognizes that we cannot escape the missional and universal thrust of the Abrahamic Covenant.

But is this universal thrust of the Abrahamic Covenant continued through the rest of the Old Testament? Wright argues it is. And he provides ample evidence. From Exodus 9.13-16, “This is what the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, say: Let my people go, so that they may worship me, or this time I will send the full force of my plagues against you and against your officials and your people, so you may know that there is no one like me in all the earth. But I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth” (223, my italics), all the way through the Old Testament to Isaiah 45.22-23, “Turn to me and be saved, all your ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity a word that will not be revoked: Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear. They will say of me, ‘In the LORD alone are righteousness and strength’” (238). From here, Wright provides a quick survey of the synoptic gospels, Acts, Paul’s letters, and most especially Revelation, where the centrality of Abraham continues to reverberate through the New Testament as well.

On these passages and the many others in between, we do not find the proof-texting that so often appears in missions literature, instead meticulous exegesis of each passage pours from the pages. Wright goes through the historical and literary context of each section of scripture he discusses, showing in detail that the focal point of these texts is the mission of God to be known through the whole world, making every thing that went wrong in Genesis 1-11 once again right. Consistently through the whole chapter, being the Old Testament scholar that he is, Wright give significantly more space to Old Testament texts for his discussions.

But this universal aspect of the Abrahamic Covenant is not the end of the story. There is a sense of “particularity” that Wright desires to emphasize as well in Genesis 12.1-3. “The nations will not be blessed without some form of self-involvement in the process (the form of the verb). And they will not be blessed without reference to what God now promises and plans for Abraham (the accompanying pronoun).” The implication is that Abraham and his descendents function as God’s instrument of blessing to the nations comes. This is the election of God’s particular people. They are elected first and foremost for mission, not merely salvation. And its trajectory, just as before can be seen through out scripture from beginning to end (262-264).

In the following two chapters (8-9), Wright provides his readers with two models for God’s mission. God’s plan for redemption is modeled in the Exodus and it is modeled in Jubilee. In both cases, Wright puts forth a call for a holistic view of mission, a view that focuses solely on spiritual redemption at the expense of the political, economic, and social. He takes evangelicals to task for ignoring the social implications of God’s redemption (276-281). As soon as he’s done with them he takes aim at Liberation Theology.

So my objection to the politicized interpretation of the exodus is not that it is hermeneutically wrong to use the exodus as evidence for God’s passionate concern for justice…. The problem is not with what it says but where it stops. An interpretation that limits the relevance of the exodus to the political, social, and economic realm, or prioritizes such issues at the expense … of the spiritual question … is simply not handling the text as a whole and is therefore seriously distorting it (284).

The solution blends all aspects, social and spiritual, together into one interpretive framework.

This is missions framework that then must lived out practically and holistically. That means both social action and evangelism must go hand in hand. Wright believes that the question of priority of one or the other is in a sense flawed because the word priority suggests “that all else is ‘secondary’ at best” (317). But that brings us back to the same problem of potentially disregarding one for the sake of the other. For Wright, this issue must be seen in the same light as the question whether “the chicken or the egg” came first (319).

Part IV: The Arena of Mission

This is the final part of Wright’s book, focusing on the third aspect of God’s covenant promises. In the previous sections, God and God’s people have been discussed. In the following chapters, the focus will be on the land and though the extension of the covenant through Jesus Christ, the entire earth. Here we find discussions of Mission and God’s creation (chap12), specifically the sub-human creation, Mission and God’s Image (chap. 13), God’s vision for the nations described in the Old Testament and finally (chap. 14), and God’s mission to the nations that we find in the New Testament (chap. 15).

Chapter twelve, with its focus on the land, argues that with the expansion of God’s promises from Israel to humanity, an expansion from the land to the entire earth. In fact, this is exactly Paul’s point in his sermon in Athens. The implication of such an expansion is that it must include the dignity and sanctity of the earth as a part of God’s creation. Wright argues on the basis of the creation account and numerous following texts two points. He holds that creation is valued by God and then also that all of creation, both human and sub-human, is a part of God’s mission “field.” By implication then, creation is our mission field as well. But this is more than a place where mission happens or is done as the phrase “mission field” typically means. Specifically, the earth must be redeemed and restored in God’s mission just as humanity is. One of the major texts for this view is Romans 8.18-25, where the earth groans in anticipation of its own restoration at the Messiah’s return.

What exactly does this mean for God’s people right now in the present? “Creation care is a prophetic opportunity for the church” (416). It means that we must treat the earth in the same “already/not yet” sort of manner that we find ourselves living. According to Wright, we need to be treating the creation in such a manner that anticipates the “new creation,” just like we live our lives by his Holy Spirit in anticipation of our wholly redeems resurrected bodies.

These same truths are then applied to the expansion from Israel to humanity in God’s great mission. This chapter describes humanity created in God’s image and our call to serve God in mission toward the restoration of that image. Like creation, this sort of action for humanity is also a prophetic opportunity for the church to be a witness to God’s future acts. In particular, HIV/AIDS becomes one of Wright’s central focuses. Insightfully, Wright recognizes that HIV/AIDS is a horribly excellent representative for what evil is and does: its origin is mysterious, it invades life and inevitably leads to death, it brings with it terrible pain and suffering, sucking the life out of peoples very bodies, and it spreads through humanity’s most intimate relationships, thriving on the imbalance of genders and the results of the fall in Genesis 3. AIDS shows no respect for anyone’s innocence but attacks even those who are faithful to their husbands and even the unborn. It is the ultimate creator of widows and orphans and

“it is ‘a disease that affects every facet of the human condition on earth—labor, productivity, procreation, pleasure, faith, education, physical health, metal health….crushes the very soul….A disease that affects every generation of the population” (437, Quoted from “holistic Mission,” Lausanne Occasional Paper o. 33, ed Evvy Hay Cambell, 2004, available at www.lausanne.org).

But it is also in the face of such an evil that we also find our greatest hope, the resurrection with Christ.

The final two chapters, fourteen and fifteen, concentrate on the nations—the nations surrounding Israel and the nations to whom the apostles went out toward baptizing in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Wright argues that in the Old Testament the nations function as witnesses of God’s deals with Israel while at the same time also participating in God’s plan as well. He argues that God deals with Israel in many of the same ways he dealt with plenty of other nations, in fact in Amos 9.7, we find that God led Israel out of Egypt just as he led “the Philistines from Caphor and the Arameans from Kir” (465, Wright’s translation). The function in the nations in the New Testament is much clearer in the New Testament. Because Jesus is the crucified and risen Messiah, it is time for the nations to hear the good news, the gospel. The image with find in Revelation of all of people from every tongue, tribe and nation is difficult to argue with regarding the missional goals for the gospel of salvation. And we find that in revelation 21 & 22,

Purged by judgment and the destruction of all wickedness and evil … the nations of the world will join in the praise of God for his salvation…. And the river and tree of life, from which humanity had been barred in the earliest chapters of the Bible’s grand narrative, will, in its final chapter, provide the healing of the nations…. The curse will be gone from the whole of creation (Rev 22.3). The earth will be filled with the glory of God and all the nations of humanity will walk in his light (Rev 21.24).

Such is the glorious climax of the Bible’s grand narrative. Such is the triumph of the mission of God (530).

Epilogue and Conclusion:

Throughout The Mission of God Wright seeks to show that God’s mission is the redemption and restoration of both humanity and his whole creation completely in every realm of life whether spiritual or social. Traveling the pages of both Testaments, he built his case of detailed exegesis of specific passages. With all of this in mind, we must return to the question initially posed. Does this framework distort the text? No, Wright has given more than ample evidence that God’s mission to humanity is the continuing narrative thread throughout the entire Bible. This missional reading does not cover every aspect of scripture, but it provides an excellent map for recognizing and understanding the essential thrust of the biblical narrative.

Wright concludes his book with one more conditional statement, which also provides a fitting conclusion to this review, “If, then, it is in Christ crucified and risen that we find the focal point of the whole Bible’s grand narrative, and therein also the focal point of the whole mission of God, our response is surely clear” (535). If Wright is correct. If God’s mission is the redemption of humanity through Christ’s death and resurrection, then how else can we respond except to join Him in The Mission of God.[2]


[1] All three of these are paraphrased from pages 71-72.

[2] I also found what appears to be a typo on page 198 in the quote of The Message of Mission, “[T]heir search for security, unity and technological master founders in disarray…” Whether this is an error from the original source or not is unclear, but it seems that it should read, “flounders in disarray” instead of “founders. I have been informed that this is a valid usage of the word “founders” though one that my guess is British, not American, which is why I missed understood it.

7 thoughts on “Book Review – The Mission of God by Christopher Wright

  1. In your repeated footnote (a typo?), why do you think “founders” is a typo? See this definition including the USAGE NOTE. Does the context make it clear whether the meaning here is “to fail utterly, collapse” or “to proceed in confusion”? You have at least not given enough context to clarify this.

  2. I wrote my biblical theology of mission for a missio dei class in seminary. wanna see it? It is lacking only in that for some bizarre reason I failed to interact with either CH Wright or Glasser.

  3. This sounds similar to John York’s book Missions in the Age of the Spirit (Logion Press, 2000) that states that the Bible should be read missiologically.
    His book take us through Missio Dei in Scripture, church history, and missions endeavors of the day. An excellent read written by a veteran missionary of more than 25 years who served as the director of the Africa Theological Training Service.

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