ANZAMS II Conference, 28-29 November 2001
Christian views about the witness of the Hebrew Bible to the intentions of Yahweh for all peoples, and the role of the people of Israel in relation to those intentions, are not surprisingly shaped by the assumptions and concerns of debates within the Christian community. What is meant by the idea of “mission” also affects what we look for and what we find. Theologies of Scripture, and assumptions about the role of the Great Commission in the purposes of God, encourage readings that emphasize consistency and uniformity with little reference to context or development through time. A radical sense of discontinuity between the testaments can devalue evidence of missionary responsibility. Contemporary attitudes towards active and passive forms of evangelism look for support here as elsewhere.
While we cannot but approach any text with assumptions and questions, one would like to think that it would be possible to allow the text to challenge the interpreter more than lend support to externally formulated views. This paper surveys ways in which the Old Testament has been interpreted in select missiological writing, and invites discussion as to where we might go from here - particularly if missiology and ethics were to become serious partners in the hermeneutical task.
In his lectures on theology of mission at the Bible College of New Zealand in the 1980s, Ian Kemp drew attention to debates about the extent to which there was a missionary motif in the Old Testament. He noted that while for Blauw, the Old Testament lacked deliberate missionary activity and mission lay in the future, Verkuyl could not understand “why various writers make such a point of avowing that the Old Testament makes absolutely no mention of a missionary mandate.” Similarly contrasting views have been noted between Harnack and Bavinck. Such differences of opinion should not be surprising given different understandings of the nature and importance of Christian mission, and the range of ways in which the Christian community relates to the Jewish Scriptures. David Bosch’s treatment of mission in the Old Testament in Transforming Mission was limited to 4 pages in a section on the New Testament, and his view that “There is, in the Old Testament, no indication of the believers of the old covenant being sent by God to cross geographical, religious and social frontiers in order to win others to faith in Yahweh” has been seen as unduly narrow.
Yet Bosch certainly
believed the Old Testament highlighted themes of importance to Christian
mission, and among commentators on biblical theology of mission there is
attention is commonly drawn to the universal concerns of Genesis 1-11, the
importance of the promise to Abraham, the engagement of prophets with Israel’s neighbours, and the vision in parts of Isaiah and some
Psalms of Israel’s role as a “ light to the nations.”
The complex relationships between
Part of the issue is the understanding of the word mission itself. If it is just about the concept of sending, then that can be found practically everywhere – purely lexical studies do not tell us very much. The God-given purpose of the Church can be considered in terms of its worship, its community, and its responsibilities towards its environment, both people and creation. It is a distortion of the nature of the Church to collapse all the valid dimensions of its life into its external mission. Nevertheless, if the value of its worship and community life is not in doubt, it is useful to use the word “mission” to refer to the responsibility of the people of God towards those outside the community of faith.
The indicative issues, which constitute that mission, are various and change over time. In studying mission theology during the period 1948 to 1975 Rodger Bassham took identified five areas of analysis: a) theological basis; b) church-mission relations; c) evangelism and social action; d) Christianity and other Faiths; and e) Mission and unity. David Bosch, in a paper published in 1993, the year after his death, took the themes of compassion on the lost and marginalized, martyria – witness in suffering and martyrdom, God as the author and sustainer of mission, and history as concrete events in which God acts. The 2005 Conference of the WCC Commission on World Mission and Evangelism is to focus on “churches as reconciling and healing communities”
The experience of engagement in mission raises other questions. The ability of the Old Testament to address those does not necessarily answer the question of the missionary nature of the Old Testament, but it does reinforce its relevance for some issues arising out of mission. These include attitudes towards other religions and cultures, idolatry (not all of other religious practice constitutes idolatry), attitudes towards other cultures in the community, questions of social justice, political liberation, dealing with creation, the role of God in realizing promises, parallels in the experiences of call and the realities of leadership in a political world. Questions of civil responsibility and economic and social justice in the community are also part of mission. If there are issues of spiritual formation and discernment then experiences of seeking God’s guidance are relevant. If there are moral and justice issues which are understood differently in different times and cultures, then that is of relevance in wrestling with culture issues today.
Of course these are not the only agenda’s that inform the study of the Bible and of the Old Testament in relation to mission. A desire to see a uniformity of purpose across the testaments finds material consistent with a “Great Commission” reading of the New Testament. Concern for justice, active mission, or to affirm more passive models, all colour the missiological reading of the Old Testament.
Basic hermeneutical distinctions are important – including between what is normative and what is descriptive, the dynamic between what people should have done and what they did do, between enduring themes and the particularities of history, between the story of particular groups, and that of the wider world at the time. And behind the hermeneutics must also lie the necessary tools of Old Testament scholarship generally.
As discussed in my
paper as printed from ANZAMS in 2000,
the issue of mission in the Old Testament can also be explored around the
question of the reason for the election of the people of
This is an important
debate and Newbigin’s critiques are telling; yet
problems remain. “Bearing the witness of the Spirit” may be a useful
overarching descriptor, but it is still reading a type of mission
responsibility into the life of
If we want a picture
Walter C. Kaiser Jr’s views on the missionary obligation of
Kaiser like Verkuyl is concerned that the relevance of the Old Testament to Christian mission is not given its due. His book is a tidy summary of the key elements in the Old Testament portrayal of “others”: Genesis 1-11; the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3; discussion of Moses and Pharaoh, the call to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” Exodus 19:4, Psalms 67 and 96, accounts of Gentiles who believed, the Servant Songs in Isaiah, and the story of Jonah.
These issues and passages are important, but the assumptions which are associated with them need to be explored. There is not a strong sense of development over time, or of taking account of different circumstances. A desire to demonstrate consistency in God’s purpose across the testaments is one thing, but Kaiser appears to want to demonstrate that consistency not simply in terms of how one might understand God’s purposes over a long historical period and in different circumstances, but in a uniformity of what people of God ought to be doing in all circumstances. One looks for a theology of the purpose of the people of God that is less anxious to support both a particular view of the nature of Scripture and a particular view of the nature of mission. Others with a “high” doctrine of Scripture and a strong commitment to mission have not found it necessary to come to the same conclusion as Kaiser. Köstenberger and O’Brien consider that the tradition of interpretation which “claims that God gave Israel the task of missionary outreach, and that the failure of the nation to engage in this role is part of the reason why he had to come up with a better plan” is “unsatisfactory both exegetically and theologically.” They quote Goldsworthy’s comment that “It does not appear that being a nation of priests was ever understood as meaning a nation of evangelists and foreign missionaries.”
The debate is reminiscent of discussion about the attitude of the Reformers to mission. It remains hard for some Protestant traditions to accept that the early Protestant leaders were Reformers and not people with the missionary vision of William Carey. It seems difficult to realize that the 19th century missionary movement is not necessarily normative, or that in history people who seek to be biblical in relation to a certain set of circumstances do not have the answers for all other times and places.
is another Evangelical who has written on the Old Testament and
The themes Wright
develops in his later publications can be found surveyed in a 1984 article on
the Bible and religions.
Wright is less interested in the question of mission as obligation for
In his article in
Scott Moreau, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions,
Wright concedes the lack of a Jewish mission across cultural and geographical
boundaries, but locates the significance of the Old Testament for mission
particularly in the mission of God and the promise of the Abrahamic
covenant with its balancing of universal concern and particular experience. He
does not put
Wright notes the
importance of the Exodus and jubilee as historical and institutional expressions
of redemption and of justice, and the relevance of wisdom literature “with its
strong creation base and its adaptation of the wisdom of cultures to the faith
of Yahweh” as a resource “not directly tied to the redemptive-historical
Elsewhere Wright draws attention to the missionary implications of a radical monotheism, implications that carry over to the New Testament when affirmations about Yahweh are applied to Jesus. Prophetic calls provide “fertile soil for Christian reflection on the challenge of missionary vocation” – though the point of commonality is the discernment of God’s will and response to it, not the particularity of the tasks. The incorporation of individual foreigners are a pointer to the promise of blessing to the nations through Abraham.
We cannot answer the question of the missionary nature of the Old Testament in terms of global assertions about the support or lack of support that might be found for a particular vision of what Christian mission ought to be. It is more fruitful to explore relevance; to break down the issues that arise when Christians in different circumstances seek to know and do God’s will in their time. It perhaps should be theologians as much as anyone who set forth the contribution of the Hebrew Bible to the universal purposes of God. It may be ecologists who remind us of the dimensions of creation that are a legitimate and necessary Christian concern. The experience of the particularity of the love of God, and the universality of God’s compassion remain a challenge for the Church whose commitment to mission outside of itself can never be taken for granted, whatever our theological tradition. Justice within the community itself is not an irrelevant consideration for Christian organizations and churches, not just society. As Wright has noted, the wisdom literature is important for affirming ways in which culture can be incorporated in faith. It can be added that in the realm of ethical decision making the placing of wisdom values alongside the starker judgments of the Deuteronomistic tradition helps us explore issues where the solutions are not given, but have to be worked and thought through. Wright seems to suggest that it is the distinctiveness as much as the particularity of the ethical decisions which are important giving hermeneutical room to move, yet taking the traditions seriously in themselves.
Although we are
warned against applying the New Testament to the Old, in fact the New gives
clues that can be helpful to making sense of the older traditions. The problem
with Kaiser may be less his application of New Testament visions of mission to
the Old Testament, than what his understanding of the New Testament happens to
be. Wright is more open to ideas of development and fulfillment, but does not
see those as evidence of God changing his mind. His concepts of mission include
the social, ethical and ecological as well as the worship of Yahweh.
There are other perspectives still we might note.
First, what do the
most Jewish of the Christian documents tell us about the ideal
Secondly it has to be asked if the problems Kaiser, Wright and others have identified reflect too much the questions of “sending” churches concerned with self-justification in the light of the Old Testament. New Zealand Maori could identify with the Old Testament references both to a promised land, and to the experience of conquest. The relevance of the Old Testament can be very different when seen from the side of the colonized and missionised. Godfrey Phillips was probably not the first to raise the possibility that the Gita might be the Indian Christian’s Old Testament and to explore the way in which the real world of the Old Testament spoke more clearly than the abstractions of parts of the New.
Finally, we need to
ask what difference it makes exegeting the Old
Andrew, M. E., and Anglican Church in Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia. Distance Education Formation & Training Unit. The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand. Wellington [N.Z.]: Deft, 1999.
Bassham, Rodger C. Mission Theology, 1948-1975 : Years of Worldwide Creative Tension--Ecumenical, Evangelical, and Roman Catholic. Pasadena, Ca: William Carey Library, 1979.
Blauw, Johannes. The Missionary Nature of the Church; a Survey of the Biblical Theology of Mission. [1st ] ed. New York,: McGraw-Hill, 1962.
Bosch, D. J. "Reflections on Biblical Models of Mission." In Toward the Twenty-First Century in Christian Mission. Essays in Honor of Gerald H. Anderson., edited by James M. Phillips, and Robert T. Coote, 175-92. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993.
Bosch, David Jacobus. Transforming Mission : Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, American Society of Missiology Series ; No. 16. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1991.
Christians and Churches Called to Reconciliation and Healing (PR-01-31) [Press Release]. World Council of Churches Media Relations Office, 2001 [cited 11 September 2001].
Goldsworthy, G. "The Great Indicative: An Aspect of a Biblical Theology of Mission." Reformed Theological Review 55 (1996): 2-13.
Hunsberger, George R. Bearing the Witness of the Spirit. Lesslie Newbigin's Theology of Cultural Plurality. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998.
Kaiser, Walter C. "Israel's Missionary Call." In Perspectives on the World Christian Mission, edited by Ralph D. and Steven C. Hawthorne Winter, 25-34. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1981.
———. Mission in the Old Testament : Israel as a Light to the Nations. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2000.
Kemp, Ian S. "The Missionary Motif." In Theology of Mission Class handout, Bible College of New Zealand. Henderson.
Köstenberger, Andreas J., and Peter Thomas O'Brien. Salvation to the Ends of the Earth : A Biblical Theology of Mission. Leicester, England, Downers Grove, Ill.: Apollos ; InterVarsity Press, 2001.
Legrand, Lucien. Unity and Plurality. Mission in the Bible. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1990.
McDaniel, Ferris L. "Mission in the Old Testament." In Mission in the New Testament : An Evangelical Approach, edited by William J. Larkin, and Joel F. Williams, 11-20. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1998.
Phillips, Godfrey E. The Old Testament in the World Church with Special Reference to the Younger Churches. Vol. 2, Missionary Research Series. London: Lutterworth Press, 1942.
Ridder, Richard R De. "The Old Testament Roots of Mission." In Exploring Church Growth, edited by Wilbert Shenk, 171-80. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983.
Roxborogh, John. "Is "Mission" Our Only Mission? Revisiting the Missionary Nature of the Church." Aotearoa New Zealand Association for Mission Studies Inaugural Conference Bible College of New Zealand, 27-28 November 2000 (2001).
Senior, Donald, and Carroll Stuhlmueller. The Biblical Foundations for Mission. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1983.
Verkuyl, Johannes. Contemporary Missiology : An Introduction. Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1978.
Wright, Chris. Christian Mission and the Old Testament: Matrix or Mismatch [cited 25 November 2001]. Available from http://www.martynmission.cam.ac.uk/COldTest.htm.
———. Living as the People of God : The Relevance of Old Testament Ethics. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983.
Wright, Christopher J H. "The Christian and Other Religions: The Biblical Evidence." Themelios 9, no. 2 (1984): 4-15.
———. "Old Testament Theology of Mission." In Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, edited by A. Scott Moreau, 706-09. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2000.
 Ian S Kemp, "The Missionary Motif," in Theology of Mission Class handout, Bible College of New Zealand (Henderson).
 Johannes Blauw, The Missionary Nature of the Church; a Survey of the Biblical Theology of Mission, [1st ] ed. (New York,: McGraw-Hill, 1962).
 Johannes Verkuyl, Contemporary Missiology : An Introduction (Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1978)., 94.
 Richard R De Ridder, "The Old Testament Roots of Mission," in Exploring Church Growth, ed. Wilbert Shenk (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983).
 David Jacobus Bosch, Transforming Mission : Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, American Society of Missiology Series ; No. 16 (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1991)., 17.
 Chris Wright, Christian Mission and the Old Testament: Matrix or Mismatch ([cited 25 November 2001]); available from http://www.martynmission.cam.ac.uk/COldTest.htm.
 Lucien Legrand, Unity and Plurality. Mission in the Bible (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1990)., 8-27; Donald Senior and Carroll Stuhlmueller, The Biblical Foundations for Mission (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1983)., part 1, 9-138.
 Andreas J. Köstenberger and Peter Thomas O'Brien, Salvation to the Ends of the Earth : A Biblical Theology of Mission (Leicester, England, Downers Grove, Ill.: Apollos ; InterVarsity Press, 2001).
 Ferris L. McDaniel, "Mission in the Old Testament," in Mission in the New Testament : An Evangelical Approach, ed. William J. Larkin, and Joel F. Williams (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1998).
 Rodger C. Bassham, Mission Theology, 1948-1975 : Years of Worldwide Creative Tension--Ecumenical, Evangelical, and Roman Catholic (Pasadena, Ca: William Carey Library, 1979).
 D. J. Bosch, "Reflections on Biblical Models of Mission," in Toward the Twenty-First Century in Christian Mission. Essays in Honor of Gerald H. Anderson., ed. James M. Phillips, and Robert T. Coote (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993).
 Christians and Churches Called to Reconciliation and Healing (PR-01-31) [Press Release] (World Council of Churches Media Relations Office, 2001 [cited 11 September 2001]).
 John Roxborogh, "Is "Mission" Our Only Mission? Revisiting the Missionary Nature of the Church," Aotearoa New Zealand Association for Mission Studies Inaugural Conference Bible College of New Zealand, 27-28 November 2000 (2001).
 George R. Hunsberger, Bearing the Witness of the Spirit. Lesslie Newbigin's Theology of Cultural Plurality. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998)., pp.82-112.
 Ibid., p.97.
 Walter C. Kaiser, "Israel's Missionary Call," in Perspectives on the World Christian Mission, ed. Ralph D. and Steven C. Hawthorne Winter (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1981).
 Walter C. Kaiser, Mission in the Old Testament : Israel as a Light to the Nations (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2000).
 Köstenberger and O'Brien, Salvation to the Ends of the Earth : A Biblical Theology of Mission., 35.
 G Goldsworthy, "The Great Indicative: An Aspect of a Biblical Theology of Mission," Reformed Theological Review 55 (1996)., 7.
 Christopher J H Wright, "The Christian and Other Religions: The Biblical Evidence," Themelios 9, no. 2 (1984).
 Christopher J H Wright, "Old Testament Theology of Mission," in Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, ed. A. Scott Moreau (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2000).. See also Chris Wright, Living as the People of God : The Relevance of Old Testament Ethics (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983)..
 Wright, "Old Testament Theology of Mission.", 708.
 Chris Wright, Christian Mission and the Old Testament: Matrix or Mismatch ([cited 25 November 2001]); available from http://www.martynmission.cam.ac.uk/COldTest.htm.
 Godfrey E Phillips, The Old Testament in the World Church with Special Reference to the Younger Churches, vol. 2, Missionary Research Series (London: Lutterworth Press, 1942).
 M. E. Andrew and Anglican Church in Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia. Distance Education Formation & Training Unit., The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington [N.Z.]: Deft, 1999).