Calvin Seminary recently hosted the A Missional Reading of Scripture conference. The conference brought together Christopher Wright, Tom Wright, Mike Goheen, and Darrell Guder along with a well-rounded group of workshop leaders to facilitate dialogue on how a missional reading of scripture impacts various aspects of living as God’s people. In part 1 of this reflection, I posted some of my summaries and responses to what grabbed my attention from the first day of plenaries and workshops.
This post reflects the happenings of Day 2 at this conference. I did not stay for the panel discussion at the conclusion of the conference – though I heard I really missed out on a meaningful and encouraging dialogue. Word from Mike Goheen (@MikeGoheenSays) is that audio from the conference will be available on Calvin Sem’s website some time next week.
Thursday Morning Plenary – Tom Wright: Missional Reading & the New Testament
Differentiating between his Wednesday evening and Thursday morning talks, Wright focused more specifically on how God’s mission is conveyed through the New Testament. Wright conveyed that the NT was written in order to sustain and direct the missional life of the early church – not to present a coherent set of ideas. He lamented that too often the study of the NT has been reduced to synthesizing coherent themes that appear to be present, rather than in recognizing the missional contexts in which it was written.
Wright asserted that the basis of the NT mission is the creational, covenantal, and eschatological monotheism of the God who loves the world and desires that it will flourish. From this basis, Wright contended that “Mission is not about persuading people that we have a new better and superior religion.” Rather, mission is rooted in the reality that the One God has done what he always promised to do, and therein he upstaged all others that would claim to be gods. The NT tells the story of this One God claiming the whole world in Jesus Christ now, in advance of the coming of the kingdom.
Pointing to Galatians 4, Wright demonstrated how Jesus, God the Son, is the mission of God. All other sending takes place in him. The sending of the Son, leads to the sending of the Spirit, leads to the discovery that we are God’s children adopted by God and therefore heirs of this sending. Right from the start: Paul is asserting that our choice is the missionary Trinitarian God or some form of paganism. The sending God – Father, Son, and Spirit – who adopts us and sends us is who the NT reveals.
As he prepared to turn to highlight how a few specifc aspects of the NT reveal this vision together, Wright declared: “We read the NT not to cull the few verses that make us feel comfortable, not to provide us with a systemic theology, but to sustain the church in going about our God given mission.” (As I continue reflecting on the conference this statement is perhaps the most memorable idea conveyed in the whole time there.)
Acts points toward how in Jesus heaven and earth have come together completely – so we can now say there is a bit of humanity in heaven in the bodily presence of Jesus Christ. And then in Acts 2, Babel is reversed and we now have a bit of heaven on earth. It is temple theology – the temple is a bridgehead into the world that had rebelled against God. Salvation is not an escape from the world, it is a sending into the world. Acts soon depicts the apostles forming a counter-temple movement on the steps of the temple. The place where heaven and earth come together is no longer a building, it is in Jesus. And as the story continues, Jesus extends this presence through his people.
Wright also points to John, particularly the farewell discourses (John 13-17), calling them essential for missional theology, and displaying how Jesus prepares his disciples to be sent out into the world – they are one’s out of whom living waters will flow, they are ones who will suffer on account of him, and it is in their unity that the world will see and believe Jesus and the one who sent him. Drawing from his written works on Paul, he also highlights a few ideas from these writings, particularly Ephesians & Romans. Though Paul never says “Get on with the work of evangelism”, he wants them to live in such unity as a community that they shine like lights in the world’s darkness so that the world can see that there is a new way to be human that can only come enter into by following Jesus Christ.
While I am still trying to process, all that Wright conveyed in such a short space, his declaration about why we read scripture – to sustain the church in ongoing mission – has really stuck with me. Too often, we read scripture because we think we need to, or that’s what good Christians do, or because we will have a rich spiritual experience of God’s presence if we do. But if we accept the premise that the NT was written in response to people immersed in situations and contexts of missional engagement, then it seems that the way we read them ought also to be directed toward mission. How does this text shape us and form us to be God’s people here and now? That seems like a very different approach to reading/teaching/preaching the text than we typically take.
Thursday Morning Workshop: Chuck DeGroat – Missional Spirituality
DeGroat started his workshop with a compassionate and personal reflection through the lens of St. John the Cross who responded to the question “How are you?” with “I am well, but my soul lags far behind.” He continued to frame this conversation with insights from Peterson’s Contemplative Pastor including the notion that the busy pastor is not a sign of commitment, but of betrayal marked by laziness and vanity. DeGroat suggested that scripture paints a different way of being God’s people and particularly of being leaders in Christ’s body. Ackowledging some of the historical names – dark soul of the night, way of the cross, etc, DeGroat outlined a eucharistic way, following the framework of Nouwen’s Taken, Blessed, Broken, Given (Life of the Beloved).
Reflecting on being taken, he asked whether we realize and experience that we are taken by God, chosen by God – and much more personally, that God desires us. God’s grand reclamation project is God saying to us “Where are you?” Asking what rhythms we have established to listen to God blessing us, DeGroat simply recited several of the statements scripture makes about us as God’s people: my treasured possession, holy nation, royal priesthood, beloved, children of God. In the midst of our busyness, we too often don’t have ears to hear God lavishing his love upon us. This way leads in brokenness. Quoting Rohr, “You learn nothing from succeeding after the age of 30, only from failing.” Brokenness becomes necessary for us in following Christ. We can’t skip the wilderness; “you can’t take the helicopter from Egypt to the promised land.” And then we are Given for the sake of the world. Because we have been taken, blessed, and broken, we are available to be given to the world. The eucharistic way has formed us so that we move through pain with graciousness and generosity. “We become new Edens, new temples where heaven engages the world – we become people full of compassion, generosity, healing.” DeGroat then closed his presentation by relaying the framework that emerged from City Church’s journey along this eucharistic way.
The challenge and the invitation in DeGroat’s presentation exposes one of the more challenging aspects of the misisonal church movement: How to sustain and deepen intimacy with God while being sent. The frequent anecdotal accounts of people who have engaged missionally within their communities but then burnout or become disillusioned when they enter the wilderness ought to give all of us who serve in leadership pause. Our spiritual well-being – those disciplined rooted rhythms of remembering and experiencing the love of God for us personally – is essential to nurturing our identity as God’s dearly loved children. We cannot make disciples without continuing our journey as disciples. DeGroat’s suggestion of the eucharistic way points to how that might be engaged with open hands (to borrow another of Nouwen’s images).
Thursday Afternoon Plenary: Darrell Guder: Missional Hermeneutics in Theological Education
Guder had the daunting task of an afternoon plenary on the final afternoon after an already full and (perhaps, overly-) stimulating conference. Guder started by noting how Calvin not only preached the gospel weekly, but also expounded on the scriptures daily and wrote a commentary on every book of the Bible except Revelation. Calvin immersed himself in God’s word. This immersive practice formed the contrast for Guder between what theological has been and what it can become.
In admittedly broad strokes, Guder summarized that origin of theological education within the development of the western world in Europe and the rise of the clergy class, designed in part to provide religious services for the nobility and to meet the religious needs of the masses. Subsummed within departments and schools of religion, theological education has accomodated itself to the professionalization of the clergy class and sought to model itself in similar trajectories to schools of law and medicine. Guder contended that this orientation continues to draw theological education away from what it could be in service of the missional mandate of God’s people.
To see what alternative approaches might look like, Guder suggested that we need a reorientation toward the purpose of the apostolic ministry. This ministry was not about the generation of a perpetual apostlic class. Nor was it’s purpose found in the salvation of souls. Rather, the apostolic ministry finds its fulfillment in the formation of missional communities who embody the calling of Jesus Christ.
Turning to Ephesians 4 and the language of living your life in a way that is worthy of our calling Jesus Christ, Guder offered a reorientation for theological education toward assisting the communities of God’s people to tangibly live in ways that our worthy of our calling. Missional hermeneutics is therefore about equipping the church to engage it’s mission more faithfully within their context. Whereas, the assumption guiding the intellectual endeavor of theological education in Christendom was that the institutional church and its theology was an end in and of itself, the guiding principle in this proposed vision is that theological education is directed toward equipping the church for its missional engagement.
In a way much of what Guder is proposing relies on an assessment of Christendom, particularly as it developed in Europe, that appears from our vantage point to be starkly unconcerned with mission in ways that would be identified as “mission” today. While the current context has changed dramatically and we now find mission outside our doors, the structure and assumptions of the theological education have remained substantially rooted within the Christendom paradigms. Without taking cheap shots at Christendom, I think Guder is onto something about the paradigm shifts – and whether the shifts in the academy have recognized or gotten ahead of the shifts in missional context.
It seems to me that one of the implications of Guder’s presentation is to see the role of theological education not only as equipping the church to live worthy lives in our current contexts, but to take a proactive role in discerning and preparing the church to anticipate challenges that are coming. To be fair, I think this is already happening in terms of delivery methods – Calvin Seminary’s Distance MDiv, Tyndale’s In Ministry MDiv – and even in terms of focus, the Pioneer track (MDiv) at Wycliffe College (Toronto). The challenge and opportunity comes in, I believe, in at least two ways. One, in discerning how how theological education centres can extend their equipping work in ways that are not so tightly bound to degree-based programs and are therefore more accessible to equipping “lay leadership” within the church. Can we equip the people of the church to live into mission more fully as a community of disciples? Calvin Seminary’s Renewal Project may just be one example of what this could look like. But I imagine there are others out there. And second, I wonder what it would look like for theological education to assist the people of God to carry out their vocations in other fields and settings more deliberately as part and parcel of God’s mission. The Surgenetwork (Phoenix) and other initiatives seem to have taken the lead on this approach. What role can theological education centres play in delivering and enhancing the capacities of these types of initiatives to more fully equip “ordinary” Christians to participate more fully in the mission of God?