SBL Review (1): Missional Hermeneutics
Missional hermeneutics was a new term to me a few years ago, which I first heard when people told me that I was doing it. Missional hermeneutics, as I now understand it, has been prompted by three things in my context:
1) Thinking through the implications of the Surprised by Hope agenda.
2) Thinking through the authority of Scripture as the authority of God exercised through Scripture (and my encouragement for us to think about justice, beauty and evangelism as the threefold task of the church).
3) When I started my COQG series, I thought I was writing a New Testament missiology, not a New Testament theology. I’m hoping the final volume of this series will be on Mission, so that it’s a series about mission (with theology as its supporting scaffolding), rather than a series about theology (with mission as its outflow). The missional implications in PFG (part IV) are the really important bit of the book.
The central symbol for Paul’s work is the church itself, not coins or buildings or flags or uniforms. For Paul, the heart of the church’s calling is not mission (at least he doesn’t say that); the heart of the church’s calling is unity and holiness. In that sense, the symbol is itself the mission. (Note also that Paul never tells his converts to preach the gospel, and he never imagines that there are very many evangelists at any one time.)
So what is a missional hermeneutic in the reading of Paul? A historical analysis of Paul’s letters indicates that they were trying to keep the church focused on trying to think Christianly, so that the vocation to unity and holiness might be sustained, and the world would see the signs of the lordship of Christ at work. Consider the texts. Phil 2:14-16: I think this is about “holding fast”, not “holding forth”, the word of life, but it doesn’t much matter; the thing we’re supposed to do is to live holy lives and shine out in consequence. Paul is bringing together the exodus story, Daniel 12 and Isaiah 49 to show that the church is the means by which the servant’s mission to the world is being accomplished. (Romans 15:8-9 is a pretty clear rebuttal of the currently popular apocalyptic reading of Paul: God has acted in Christ in fulfilment of ancient promises.)
Clearly, there are some objections to this whole narrative approach: firstly, objections to narrative in general, and replacement of it with a sin—> redemption—> heaven narrative (which really ought to have been debunked by now), and secondly, objections to the whole thing as an ecclesial power trip (even though sufferings and Sermon on the Mount living are an integral part of it). But assuming we can move past these, there are two huge challenges to the wider Mediterranean world in Paul’s missional hermeneutics, both for philosophy and empire. For philosophy, Paul’s physics are different, because the structure of the world is different. His ethics are about living as the new creation. And his logic is different too, producing a new way of knowing (though with both continuity and discontinuity with the old), based on the new creation. For empire, Paul wants to get to Spain to ensure that the fourth beast is confronted by the one like a son of man.
I’m in deep agreement with your reading of the story, and of Paul. But I want to go further, because I don’t know (either from your paper or the book) what such a community would look like on the ground, for two reasons. One: your reading engages with empire, politics, philosophy and Judaism, but not with the world where craftsmen needed food, slaves had to sleep with their masters, violence was common, farmers might have their property requisitioned, and so on. A missional hermeneutic in the scriptures begins, not with a conversation about belief, or religion, or ethics, but in a rooted context of suffering and pain, over how the story has gone awry. Or what about Jesus and suffering? Why is there so much stuff about unity and holiness, but not about suffering? Shouldn’t the cruciform nature of the community be at the centre of the reconstruction? And two: what about holiness? Why do you sexualise it (epithumia as “lusts” rather than “coveting”, and few mentions of greed)? When Paul talks about holiness, he’s talking about something which addresses every area of life, including economics and a huge amount of everyday life issues (see the list of Leviticus 19), not primarily in sexual chastity (although it includes sexual chastity, of course).
So what does Paul’s missional hermeneutic look like?
1) We need to ask ourselves where our communities bear the pain of the world, and do all in our power to subvert them.
2) A community that images Jesus will be a cruciform community, and our unity will be about solidarity with suffering, and our holiness will be forged in pain.
3) Our holiness will be as wide-ranging as the calls for justice in the laws of the covenant. The new community is a call to re-envision all of life, including welcome of strangers, farming, economics, justice, food, overturning divisions between gender, race and social status. This is what it means to shine like lights in a crooked world.
My question is different: does the proactive chain of mission stop with Paul? Is it, from Paul’s perspective, “As the Father sent Abraham, and Israel, and the Messiah, and now me, I am not sending you”? And I suspect there are some other defining characteristics of the ekklēsia: justice and peace, for instance. Or take suffering and evangelism. Why was there harassment and persecution of these earliest believers? Because they were challenging the status quo, and had to answer the charges of being subversive, which became an apologetic evangelism, if you will. I take the point about Paul not directly commanding his converts to evangelise, but is there not also a sense of being sensitive to unbelievers around them (1 Cor 14)? Or imitating Paul (1 Cor 11:1)? Or living at peace with all and doing good to all? We don’t hear much of a call to evangelise the world in Tom’s book.
I want to talk about hermeneutics a bit. I was trained to think through all the differences of the NT, but then took a job in a seminary and had to think through how to present the coherence of the NT witness. What helped me was a series of conversations with missiologists, who were trying to grasp the mission of the church in highly diverse contexts. They helped me grasp the essential unity of the NT, as well as the diverse contextualisation within it, which helped me help students as I taught them. Anyway: Tom notes in his paper that Paul doesn’t really use the idea of mission, and implies (with his unity and holiness focus) that mission is about being, rather than saying or doing. But it is also the case that this united and holy community exists at multiple levels: ekklēsia in the early letters almost always refers to a local gathering in a particular place, but in Ephesians and Colossians it is a cosmic unity, the body of Christ. So reconciliation must happen, not just between individuals, but between human groups. There’s a profound sense of newness in the inclusion of the Gentiles, with the deeper unity between apparently irreconcilable groups of people in Christ being a significant part of what the NT is about. The church is not just united and holy, but sent: the church is called to cross cultural boundaries. So if a missional hermeneutic can teach us how to build unity and holiness across all these boundaries - race, class, politics, economics, etc - it has an enormous contribution to make.
I’m tempted to just say, “I agree.” But one or two points could be made in response.
1) Exegetically, I’m just saying that I’m surprised by the counterintuitive reality that Paul doesn’t tell people to evangelise their neighbours (although that isn’t at all to say that Paul would be worried about it!) My point is exegetical: Paul just doesn’t talk about it. And if we start saying, “well, I have this bigger vision, so it must be Paul’s as well” - that gets a little tricky. Holiness is evangelistic; think about the way Galen said that he respected Christians (although he thought they were mad!) because a) they believed in the resurrection of the body, and b) they didn’t sleep around.
2) With respect to Sylvia’s critique on pain and suffering: yes, I agree I didn’t talk about that much in the book - but one of the oddities of writing a book like this is that everyone jokes about the length, and then tells me that I didn’t mention this, and this, and this. And also: when the banking crisis happened, I was the only one in the House of Lords who brought up the case of the poor. So yes, all of that absolutely matters.
3) For Jim: we have to tell the difference between the differences that make a difference, and the differences that don’t make a difference. Paul doesn’t tell the Corinthians to just get along about the issue of incest, but he does when it comes to other issues. (Those who know Brownson’s work will spot the reference here.)
Q: Does Paul urge evangelism indirectly (e.g. 1 Cor 10:32-11:1)? NTW: Maybe.
Q: Is Col 4:5-6 about evangelism? NTW: Sort of, but it’s more about loving your neighbour.
Q: On the basis of the Incredibles maxim, “when everything is missional, nothing is,” can you each say what mission isn’t? NTW: worship. SK: [??] JB: Mission is everything, because it’s participating in the missio dei. MG: What Jim said.
Q: What can be done about denominational fragmentation? NTW: [??] SK: Deconstruct our ecclesiastical hierarchy.
Q: What can be done about the holy huddle? NTW: Learn to get disrupted by newness.
Q: What about practices in the church? NTW: My book Virtue Reborn is about this, as is chapter six of PFG. The big problem is when people think doing things is works-righteousness.
Q: How we discern the differences that make a difference from those that don’t, and when we have, how do we embrace the Other? NTW: I’m a bit allergic to that language of “embracing the Other”, because I don’t see why Derrida and Levinas should dictate the conversation; Volf’s language of exclusion and embrace is better. The only way of discerning the difference is to keep going back to serious wrestling with Scripture: 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, and so on. Adiaphora have to be triangulated with subsidiarity and authority - and the decision as to whether something is indifferent or not cannot be decided at a local level. (Churches without supralocal structures are likely to be catastrophic.)
Q: Are we making a mistake by asking the state - the beast! - to do the work of justice instead of the church? NTW: It’s got to be both: the state, which is a servant of God and one of the powers which has been reconciled by Christ (Rom 13; Col 1:15-20), and the church. Paul tells truth to power with immense respect, once he finds out that he’s talking to the high priest (Acts 23:1-5), and of course Jesus, while speaking truth to power, says that Pilate has been given power from above (John 18-19).
Q: Sylvia, did you mean that you wanted an extra chapter on suffering, or for all the chapters to have been written differently? SK: The latter. NTW: You’re right. And if we’d had the same discussion five years ago, I would have done something about it.
Anyone guess which one of those questions was mine?