Mission: at the heart of theology

This post continues a series looking at The Shape of Practical Theology by Trinitarian theologian Ray S. Anderson. For other posts in the series, click on a number: 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 89, 10. 11, 12131415.

We ended last time noting that Incarnational Trinitarian theology unites theory and practice with its focus on the person (being) and work (mission) of Jesus Christ. Rather than incidental, mission is at the very heart of this theology.

The Exhortation to the Apostles, James Tissot
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Fundamental to this understanding is the realization that in Jesus Christ (the God-man) the various dualisms that infect less than adequate theologies are swept aside. With Jesus there is no separation between being and doing; between the holy (spiritual) and sacred (physical); or between the heavenly and earthly. This realization has profound implications for the life (being and doing) of the church, as Ray Anderson notes, referencing the Christ-centered, Trinitarian theology of Thomas F. (T.F.) Torrance:
[T.F.] calls the church back to its roots as a fundamentally missionary church with a particular vision and a specific task to perform in the world. As a missionary church it is crucial that it remains faithful to its missiological task and vision.  (p. 33, emphasis added)
Rather than an optional add-on, or the calling of only an elite few, Torrance viewed mission as central to the very being and thus the essential doing of the church. How did T.F. come to that conclusion? Largely, as Anderson notes, by holding to a "Trinitarian hermeneutic" in interpreting Scripture. This means reading the Bible through the "lens" of its central truth: the being (and thus the will) of God revealed in the person (being) and work (doing/mission) of Jesus through the Holy Spirit. In Jesus we see who God is, what God wills and thus what God actually is doing in the world. This has profound implications for the church, which is formed by the Spirit as the Body of Christ on mission in the world.

St. Paul Preaching in Athens by Raphael
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
In making this important point, Anderson gives the example of the apostle Paul, who prior to his conversion to Christ on the Damascus road had been a Pharisee. The Law of Moses had served as the principal hermeneutic (point of reference) for all things in Paul's life and ministry. But post-conversion, and in the midst of Spirit-led participation in the mission of God through Christ, Paul gained an entirely new hermeneutic. Anderson comments (p.39):
[As Paul] proclaimed the gospel of a crucified and resurrected Messiah, he witnessed the convicting and transforming power of the Holy Spirit.
Paul's theology was radically re-shaped in the crucible of mission. His hermeneutic became the present activity (ministry) of Jesus, in the Holy Spirit. He learned through practical experience, which informed his reading of Scripture, that with the outpouring of the Spirit on "all flesh" at Pentecost, the Law of Moses (including circumcision, Sabbath observance, etc.) no longer was the focus of the Spirit's activity, let alone required for salvation. Paul learned that Jesus himself is the substance of the righteousness to which the Law points. It was the ministry of the Spirit (which Paul viewed as the ministry of the risen/ascended Christ) that led Paul to declare that circumcision no longer was a criterion of salvation (Acts 10:47; Galatians 5:6).

The stunning truth of the nature of the triune God was for Paul a living reality encountered in the midst of sharing, through the Spirit, in the missional activity of Jesus in the world. Paul came to understand the being of God by participating in the doing (mission) of God. As Anderson notes, it was the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost that, for Paul, provided "the theological praxis for a doctrine of the trinity" (p. 39). Anderson comments further:
When we remember that Paul's ministry and the writing of [Paul's earliest epistles] preceded the writing of the four Gospels, we see the emergence of a trinitarian theology from within the mission theology. To be sure, what came to the early disciples following Easter as a commission directly from the risen Lord was part of the oral tradition that Paul would have learned immediately following his conversion. Yet more than any other witness to the resurrection, it was Paul who carried out this commission of Christ and so was led to develop a theology of the continuing mission of Christ through the Spirit. The praxis of the Spirit of the risen Christ constituted the "new school of theology" for Paul. As he proclaimed the gospel of a crucified and resurrected Messiah, he witnessed the convicting and transforming power of the Holy Spirit [see, for example, 1Thess. 1:5, 9-10].
[For Paul], a theology of Pentecost is the beginning point for a theology of Jesus Christ because the Holy Spirit reveals to us the inner life of God as the Father of Jesus and of Jesus as the Son of the Father. To receive the Spirit of God, wrote the apostle Paul, is to "have the mind of Christ" (1 Cor. 2:10, 16).... Practical theology is grounded in the intratrinitarian ministry of the Father toward the world, the Son's ministry to the Father on behalf of the world and the Spirit's empowering of the disciples for ministry. (pp. 39-40)
From this perspective. we understand that participation in the mission of God must never be approached as merely one of several optional church programs. Rather mission, which is our participation in the doing (mission/ministry) of the triune God in the world, is at the very heart of what the church is about---in both its being and doing. Therefore, the question the church must always be asking itself is this: How may we participate here (in this particular place and time) in the ongoing missional activity of the Father, in the Son, through the Spirit? Asked another way: How may we share in this intratrinitarian ministry? In his book Anderson helpfully offers "real world" examples of what that participation looks like in the face of contemporary issues and challenges. We'll look at some of those as this series proceeds (stay tuned!).