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Review: The Mission of God (C. H. Wright)

The mission of Israel was to live as God’s people in God’s land for God’s glory. But what of the Christian living in the twenty-first century under the New Covenant? How should the story of Old Testament Israel influence our reading of Scripture, and by application transform how we live? In clarifying his missional hermeneutic for the whole bible, Wright begins with a definition of terms. Most crucial is the acknowledgement that mission is not ours; mission is God’s. For Wright, a Christian worldview asserting that there is one God at work in human history and that (from the point of view of humanity) ‘mission’ means our committed participation in his purposes for the redemption of his creation is essential.
Using this as the basis of a hermeneutical framework, we read the bible in light of God’s election of Israel, the centrality of Jesus Christ, and God’s calling of the church (as the newly constituted people of Israel united in Jesus Christ).

When it comes to scripture establishing our authority to carry out mission (and the command that we should do so) we find in the story of the Old and New Testament the imperative of mission as appropriate, legitimate, necessary, and indeed inevitable. Through its presentation of the reality of this God (YHWH – the biblical God), this story (the universe-encompassing grand narrative from which we get our worldview), and this people (the identity of Israel, including their anticipated future) we find a missional hermeneutic that is not simply a call for obedience to the Great Commission nor a reflection of the missional implications of the Great Commandment; for behind both we find the Great Communication – the revelation of the identity of God, of God’s action in the world, and of God’s saving purpose for all creation. For every Christian today this demands the recognition that the church was made for mission, and this (being entrusted with making YHWH known) is a fundamental part of the identity-transformation that salvation brings.

In his exploration of the monotheistic faith of Old Testament Israel, Wright unpacks how knowing YHWH (and making him known) has formed the primary driving force behind mission since it was first commissioned to Abraham in Genesis 12. Human beings are invited to know YHWH as God, with the knowledge that he can be known and he wills to be known. In fact, Wright proposes that the bible is itself a product of God’s mission; the text itself is a living record of mission in action. Ultimately those who have come to know subsequently bear the responsibility to both live in ethical obedience to YHWH, and to declare to the nations who it is they have come to know.

The two par excellence accounts of this unfolding grand narrative are the exodus, and the return from exile. In the story of the exodus, YHWH reveals himself as Israel’s gō’ēl thereby declaring himself to be responsible for Israel’s redemption, restoration, and liberation from all shackles (political, economic, social, and spiritual). In following this trajectory chronologically forward, Wright sees this model of liberty and return (restoration) worked out further in the provisions of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:8-12). Wright argues that YHWH never intended Jubilee to remain within the confines of theocratic Israel but rather the strong eschatological implications are picked up clearly by the New Testament authors. Wright states that the new community of Christ, now living in the eschatological age of the Spirit are to live lives marked by jubilee ideals such as social and economic equality. Obedience to YHWH is surely part of the missional declaration to the nations that they have been redeemed. Jesus too endorsed the moral priorities of the Old Testament, thereby upholding the Scripture-based missional priorities of God’s people.

Wright argues that it would be vastly inadequate to see the Christian’s mandate for missions as beginning in the New Testament; rather he sees Scripture’s four point narrative of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Future Hope as the mission of the biblical God. The story reached its climax in Jesus Christ; about whom the New Testament authors intentionally make use of scriptures in a way that unequivocally identifies him with YHWH. In asserting these identifying claims of Jesus as Creator, Judge, and Saviour, Wright demonstrates that New Testament salvation is as Christ-shaped as Old Testament salvation was YHWH-shaped.

In part III the foundation of the entire framework for Wright’s biblical theology of mission is God’s covenant with Abraham. Wright summarises:

“Having been chosen, redeemed and called into covenant relationship, the people of God have a life to live – a distinctive, holy, ethical life that is to be lived before God and in the sight of the nations. This too has crucial missional relevance, for… there is no biblical mission without biblical ethics.”

It is in Genesis 12 that Wright sees the launch of God’s redemptive mission. This is not to be read simply as the nations being blessed by Abraham (and his offspring) in some purely passive way though. Rather it is in the nations having turned away from all forms of idolatry and coming to know the God of Abraham that they will indeed share in Abraham’s blessing as they identify with the whole biblical grand narrative and acknowledge their inclusion in and through the story that began with Abraham. The Abrahamic covenant too weaves its way through to the New Testament where it finds fulfilment in Jesus Christ. Through his survey of the Pentateuch, the historical books, the Psalms, and the Prophets, Wright leads the reader along the bible’s grand narrative to see how the nations will not only come to experience God’s blessing, but become the agents of it. Finally, it is because of God’s self-revelation in the person and work of Jesus Christ (Abraham’s seed) that the Abrahamic covenant can truly be viewed now as both “the gospel in advance” and “the Great Commission in advance”.

As people who have now come to share in Israel’s identity, and who have grasped that the whole bible communicates the mission of God, we cannot avoid reading scripture through the hermeneutical lens of YHWH’s grand missional purpose of saving a ‘particular’ people for ‘all’ nations. The result must be our living in ethical obedience to the God of the whole canon, but also recognising the bible’s demand for our participation in this unfolding story as citizens of the missional people of God.

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