The Relationship of Theology and Missiology

A theology of mission by definition establishes a relationship between theology and missiology. David Bosch reflects on this relationship in his book Witness to the World: 

“Paul, after all, combined his extensive missionary activities with corresponding intensive work in the area of theology. His theology exercised a decisive influence on his practice; conversely, the way in which he tackled practical issues has a clear bearing on his theology. It is, after all, precisely on the frontier where faith meets disbelief that theological reflection takes place in its most dynamic form. Martin Kahler thus correctly remarked, as far back as 1908, that mission indeed is the mother of theology.”

It is often ignored that Paul the missionary and theologian suffered for his obedience to God’s call and that factored into his work and thinking. 

David Hesselgrave, in his introductory remarks in Theology and Mission, discusses the clear and necessary relationship between theology and mission: 

“Theology and mission go together. Without theology the mission of the church dissipates. Without mission the theology of the Bible stagnates. But it is one thing to believe that this is true, and quite another thing to keep the two conjoined and complementary. Pragmatism, professionalism, intellectualism and ecclesiastical and educational structures conspire to keep theologians and missiologists apart, and to keep sound theology and creative missiology in separate compartments.” 

Bosch insists that “no mission is possible without theology.”  Mission must be grounded on theological convictions developed from the Word of God in response to the evident spiritual needs in a given missionary situation. In fact, all missionary work is based on some kind of theology, whether it is explicitly stated and believed or merely tacit knowledge that lurks beneath the surface. It is necessary to examine both the explicit and implicit theological convictions that drive mission, to measure these convictions against God’s word and to reformulate the narrative that motivates us to action. 

In the middle of the twentieth century, one German theologian lamented that theology is often unaware of the concrete realities of a church in mission and this has had a profound effect on the nature of much theology. He writes: “Theology has remained sterile and impervious with respect to missions. Theology restricted itself in large part to defining and establishing the content of the witness, but did not allow itself to be addressed by God in sufficient measure to achieve a missionary dynamic.” This is no longer the situation since theology has embraced the global mission of the church and theologians from the global church actively interact with each other. In order for theology to remain dynamic, it must be done in relation to the on-going mission of the church. 

Theology is most dynamic when it is in active relationship with the mission of the church. Conversely, missions must carry out its work in relation to the theological principles that are developed by the theologians of the church. David Bosch asserts: “Theology and practice ought to stand in a relationship of dynamic, creative tension. The practice of mission constantly needs the critical guidance of the theology of mission, whereas the latter, in its turn, has to take the practice of mission seriously into account, naturally without, in the process, elevating mere efficiency to the highest norm. In this way we have to continue trying too narrow the gap between missionary theology and practice.” Theology and missiology, Bosch thinks, tend to be antagonists rather than mutual components of the mission of the church, complementing each other. This antagonism has been detrimental to both theology and mission which, seen in their true light and in their proper function, necessarily complement each other. 

Andrew Kirk says that “theology will fulfill its destiny in missiology” and will reach its greatest heights as it participates in and reflects upon the mission of the church and the church in mission. Theological creativity, he says, reaches its peak when it is contributing to the mission of the church. Missiology, on the other hand, has often been relegated to the fringes of theological studies and work. Kirk suggests that missiology should “no longer be an addendum to theology, but must rather become its starting point” Theology expounds the principles by which the mission is to be carried out. It is God’s mission and He has His own way of accomplishing His will and purpose. Mission looks to theology for a standard by which it can measure its effort and to realign its goals, priorities and activities. 

Some have placed the blame for the separation of theology and mission in the evangelical tradition on Reformation Protestantism. The Reformation produced good theology but it failed to generate and sustain a missionary dimension to the church. What prevented Reformation theologians from seeing the necessity of a missiological dimension to their theology? Lesslie Newbigin observes: “For a thousand years when Christendom was sealed off by Islam from effective contact with the rest of the world, and was contracting, not expanding, it lived in almost total isolation from non-Christian cultures. In this situation the illusion that the age of missions was over became an integral part of Christianity.” Donald McGavran gives us further insight into this particular failure of Reformation theology. He writes: “The Protestant theologians were concerned with establishing a biblically correct form of Christianity in Northern Europe, and later in North America. World evangelization did not enter into their doctrinal statements in any but the smallest measure. So, until this day, the discipling of all the peoples of the earth has remained peripheral to the main currents of Protestant thought.”

  Karl Barth, Swiss Reformed theologian, believes that missions should flow directly from a Christological theology, because it is Jesus Christ who is the “actual revelation of reconciliation.” The reconciliation event is the source of missions. Barth’s missiology, according to Scott, is found primarily in his Church Dogmatics, Vol. IV, Book three, parts 1 and 2, “Doctrine of Reconciliation.” To Barth, if the church is to remain the church, it must be a church in mission. He writes: “Certainly a church which is not as such an evangelizing church is either not yet or no longer the church, or only a dead church, itself standing in supreme need of renewal by evangelization.” “In mission the church sets off and goes…taking the essentially and most profoundly necessary step beyond itself…to the world of men to which…the Word…is still alien.” Since we are “not of this world” we are often viewed with suspicion and are often persecuted or suffer because of this. 

Barth does not see missions as the special interest of a select auxiliary but the work of the whole church. “The community itself,” he asserts, “and as such is the acting subject in foreign missions…or else it is not the Christian community.” The whole church is to be actively involved in missions. The whole community is a missionary community.

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