Chris Wright on the Great Commission

At Belfast Bible College, we had the pleasure and privilege of having Chris Wright speak at our Celebration of Studies last Friday and then at a half day conference on “The GREAT COMMISSION: what does it really include?”

 

Chris Wright @ BBCChris was exploring a biblical theology of mission, engaging along the way with contested ideas of mission, and criticisms of his own approach as outlined most fully of course in his magnum opus The Mission of God.

Some notes and observations of the half-day conference: – and these do not therefore represent exactly what Chris said but one person’s interpretation ..

Both terms ‘holistic mission’ and ‘missional’ are useful but both can easily become too anthropocentric – they revolve around ‘us’ and what we must do. They do not in and of themselves resolve the question of what ‘holistic’ and ‘missional’ actually mean – they mean different things to different people.

Based on the Great Commission of Mt 28, Chris unpacked some key themes. The Great Commission if framed within the lordship and presence of God. It is both cosmic (all of creation – See Eph 1:9-10 etc) and  Christocentric (based on the Messiah’s saving work).

Mission is God’s activity, not primarily ours. It has both a global scope and cosmic scope. The mission of the church needs to reflect the scope and size of God’s mission.

As a foundation for understanding mission, Chris went to the 5 marks of mission first articulated by the Anglican Communion in the 1980s / 90s. In brief they are:

  1. Evangelism (proclaim the good news of the kingdom)
  2. Teaching (teach, baptise and nurture new believers)
  3. Compassion (respond to human need by loving service)
  4. Justice (transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation)
  5. Creation care ( strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth)

All intrinsically flow from the Lordship of Christ

Chris broke these down into 3 themes that he unpacked in turn:

A. BUILDING THE CHURCH

Including 1 and 2: evangelism and teaching

1. Evangelism

Is a call for people to submit to the lordship of jesus. Gospelizing is proclamation of the good news. Mission work is telling the story of Jesus and its call for response of repentance and faith. Christians are to be baptised in the name of Jesus and are to follow him as Lord, not other gods or idols. The gospel of Jesus is at the heart of all Christian mission.

This is in contrast to some understandings of ‘holistic mission’ where it means everything else apart from evangelism. (see photo). Holistic mission should never be shorthand for social justice or other activity divorced from evangelism.

Neither should it be the case where “mission” becomes just one option in the buffet bar of Christian activity: some are into evangelism, others not .. Rather Chris was arguing for the centrality of the gospel as an integrating centre.

2. Teaching

A big obvious reality from Scripture is that teaching is part of the mission of God: Jesus is the Rabbi. Paul the teacher / missionary. The OT is one huge story of theological education (after Andrew Walls). A unravelling teaching programme about God, ethics, identity, holiness, faith, covenant, creation and so on that forms an indispensable platform for understanding the significance of the NT.

[I like to see the whole NT as theological reflection on the OT in light of Jesus]

Chris linked to Paul and Apollos: BOTH were vital in the mission of God. Paul is the evangelist / church planter, Apollos is the teacher. Both are about mission work and extending the lordship of Christ in the world. Therefore both evangelism and teaching are part of the Great Commission

(including theological education – the challenge for theological education is to ask how much is it intrinsically missional?;  how are teaching and modules serving God’s mission in the world?)

For Pastors, weekly preaching is part of the Great Commission. It is not some sort of ‘secondary’ task to mission / evangelism.

This does NOT diminish the necessity of global cross cultural mission .. but traditional ‘mission work’ does not summarise or represent the true scope of the Great Commission.

B. SERVING SOCIETY: COMPASSION AND JUSTICE

Chris put compassion and justice under the heading of ‘Serving Society’.

To the objection that “Is this really part of the Great Commission?” he argued how each is naturally linked to the Lordship of Christ. Jesus commands and actions to show compassion on the poor only echoes texts like Deut.10.12-19 and God’s desire for compassion and justice. When God is “godding’ – he is by default with the weak poor and needy. This is who God is and what he does. Likewise, Jesus’ in Matthew describes what true obedience to God looks like – and it is not to neglect the weighty matters of the Torah – issues like justice (see Micah 6.8). His disciples are to be “the light of the world” – meaning people whose attractive deeds shine with goodness and mercy. Like in Isaiah 58:7-8 where light is good deeds done in the name of the Lord. Just as Israel was to be a nation of light and justice, so Jesus’ new community of the kingdom is to be a renewed community of the King – the light of the world.

Such integration of discipleship and acts of compassion and justice are woven though Acts – there was no needy person among them (Acts 4:32-38)

Chris made the often overlooked point here that Paul & Barnabas’s first missionary journey was, contrary to popular assumptions, actually the famine relief visit to Judea as told in Acts 11. Perhaps overlooked because it did not ‘fit’ the popular understanding of ‘mission’ as overseas evangelistic work.

And in a very strong echo of what Bruce Longenecker has exhaustively researched and I posted about here, Chris argued that the ‘remember the poor’ of Galatians 2 is no side issue within Paul’s theology and life. Actually, it is talked about more by Paul than justification by faith. Economic concern for those in need is an integral part of his mission and therefore the Great Commission.

C. CARING FOR CREATION

The third theme of the Great Commission from Mt 28, Chris proposed, is that Jesus is Lord of heaven on earth. This global / cosmic reign of Christ is seen in Colossians 1 where the death of Christ on the cross has a cosmic dimension:

19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

It’s here, Chris said, that evangelicals above all people should be able to integrate things. They are by definition people passionate about Jesus,  the cross and the atonement – and should be able to affirm how this saving work of God has universal dimensions. Put another way, discipleship talked about in the Great Commission has the context of being worked out within a creation that God is going to redeem. This has implications for how discipleship is understood.

Evangelicals need a better doctrine of creation. And here Chris linked to familiar texts such as Is 65, Revelation 21-22; Romans 8; Colossians 1. God’s agenda is one of redemption, rescue, restoration – not of destruction or obliteration of the earth. The end game is a new heavens and earth; the New Jerusalem and God’s presence coming down to earth. The creation has a future ..

This all means that our best view of creation is as tenants – with temporary stewardship responsibilities. Creation care now is prophetic action foreshadowing God’s restoration of creation to come. Creation care – a career in the sciences, in environmental work etc – is a legitimate and valued calling of the Great Commission.

CONCLUSION

‘Mission’ is not done only by missionaries. All of God’s people are to be involved in the mission of God. There is a profound and damaging dualism in much traditional evangelical theology of mission where there is a dichotomy between those who do mission and those who do not. A better way to see things is the church as a body of people who are all on mission, with some at work overseas.

Just as the mission of God is broad in scope, so not everyone can do everything. Some will be missionaries and evangelists, some in creation care, some teachers and preachers, some working for justice and serving those in need.This is not to revert to the ‘buffet bar’ or ‘bag or marbles’ approach to mission where only some do evangelism and others do justice – the lordship of Jesus must be at the centre of all Christian life and witness.

Chris linked to Lesslie Newbigin here in mission best being understood as dimension of the church not as a specific task of the church. In other words, the church exists in mission; and within that existence are many expressions of mission. Just like within Science there are many expressions of the scientific enterprise; or similarly within the Arts.

So, how does this broad framework for understanding the mission of God help you think about your life and work – whatever it is that you do?

Do you find this liberating from old-style dualisms between the sacred and secular?

What do you see as potential weaknesses or dangers of this broad understanding of the Mission of God?

And, reflecting on this more, I wonder if certain jobs ‘fit’ more easily within the 5 marks of mission than others? Chris argued that those at all sorts of work are routinely engaged in ethics and issues that call for justice, truth and rightness and their calling needs to be seen as vocational within the mission of God, just as much as any missionary or pastor involved in ‘spiritual’ work. I agree with this – but do the 5 marks of mission [summarised under ‘Church work’, ‘serving society’ and ‘caring for creation’] still leave out most types of work that most people do day to day?

Yes, if you are a teacher, nurse, counsellor, carer, religious worker, environmental consultant – your work can fairly easily fit in the 3 themes. But I am not sure they really make space for someone working in IT, or accountancy, or business who are not doing church related stuff, nor caring for others pastorally or focused on looking after creation.  I guess I wonder if ‘serving society’ needs to move beyond a pastoral focus, to include bringing positive benefit to society – like creating jobs, giving the opportunity for the dignity of work, training people to develop in life skills and experience and so on.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Questioning Theological Education India style

One of the best conferences I was ever at was the International Consultation on Evangelical Theological Education (ICETE) in Hungary in 2009. It was fascinating and humbling to meet leaders from all over the world and hear their stories of what God was doing, often in and through profound suffering, in their contexts – Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe, Middle East.

Theological Education (TE) is a challenging and complex task – but also a hugely rewarding one. Nothing is more exciting to see someone’s identity, thinking, and life transformed by engagement with the living Word. And then, through that life, to see other lives impacted for the gospel.

This came back to me when the latest edition of Evangelical Review of Theology (ERT) landed on my desk this week. Most of the articles are addresses given at the subsequent triennial ICETE conference, this time in Kenya 2012. Since Kenya was too distant and expensive to get to, reading these papers was the next best thing!

And they are good stuff – rigorous and creative reflections on the task of TE globally. This is no congratulatory back-patting, but searching self-questioning on how to see men and women transformed and equipped through the experience of doing theology in their own (very different) contexts.

The theme of the conference was “Rooted in the Word: Engaged in the World”. Contributors include Chris Wright and others from different parts of the world.

I hope to come back to a couple, but a wonderfully imaginative and searching piece is written by an Indian woman, Havilah Dharamraj, who is Dean and head of OT in the South Asia Institute of Advanced Christian Studies in Bangalore:  ‘We reap what we sow: engaging curriculum and context in theological education’. You can read it and other articles here

She uses this picture, drawn by two Catholic women artists from a village in South India. Indian JesusIn the village, a certain species of tree is worshipped within animistic religion. The artists also make the tree central to worship, but it is Christ on the tree who is the object of worship.

As she notes

“His arms align the branches into symmetry. His feet are embedded in the trunk, with his heart in a straight line with the heart of the tree. Working under the tree is depicted the community of faith that harvests this Tree of Life, making its seed available to the world”

Her overall argument is the need creatively to ‘curry up’ how we read the Bible in engagement with our local context by greater awareness of what we do NOT teach (the null curriculum) and what we don’t realise we are teaching (the hidden curriculum).

She tells a powerful story of reading the book of Ruth in dialogue with the appalling treatment of Hindu widows abandoned into prostitution and poverty by their families in the sacred city of Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges.

By teaching the book of Ruth with little or no contextual engagement in India, its message is not really heard or applied. But reading Ruth in dialogue with a documentary on Hindu widows, helped students to read Ruth in powerful new ways that are also fully consistent with the original radical message of that most wonderful of OT books.

Without such contextual ‘sowing’ we will reap little. She returns to the image of the tree at the end of her article.

All TE should be strongly rooted in the Word. [And Chris Wright’s article is a long and passionate exhortation for a deeply biblical form of TE].

But if TE stays there, it will be like a winter deciduous tree: still alive, growing, sap still being pumped, but withdrawn into itself. Bare and leaf-less. Not really engaged with the world outside.

And what she says here can apply to any church just as much as TE. When a church becomes withdrawn, self-focused, serving only the needs and hopes and fears of its own members, it also is like a winter tree.

“But how much more attractive a tree which brings forth life its fruit in its season, whose leaves also do not wither! How much more attractive, how much more complete, how much more alive, how much more engaged in service. What are seminaries going to be, deciduous or evergreen? We harvest what we sow.”

Transforming the World Series (3) a holistic gospel for a holistic mess

This conversation is a re-post from a series I’ve kindly been invited to contribute to over at Jesus Creed

You expect that the fourth chapter of Transforming the World?: the Gospel and Social Responsibility (edited by Dewi Hughes and Jamie Grant) is going to be good because it’s by Chris Wright. And it does not disappoint; it’s better than good and is called ‘Biblical Paradigms of Redemption: Exodus, Jubilee and the Cross’

It tackles the crucial question of how the ‘physical’ nature of OT salvation events like the exodus and Jubilee ‘apply’ within NT faith.

Let me put it this way:

Is the gospel entirely a message about getting right ‘spiritually’ with God? Is Christ’s work on the cross a purely spiritual victory?

If your answer to those questions is ‘Yes’ then it’s likely that you will see ‘social responsibility’ and ‘doing justice’ as good, important activities but secondary to the ‘pure gospel’.

Chris Wright wants to hold these things together within a whole biblical theology and here’s how he does it.

The Fall narrative in Genesis 1-11 says these things about the entrance of sin into the world:

  1. Sin affects all dimensions of the human person: physical; spiritual; rational and social
  2. Sin affects human society and history
  3. Sin affects the whole environment of human life

So while every person is a sinner, sin also affects social and economic relationships, as well as our ecological relationship with the earth. And here’s the key point he’s making – just as the effects of sin are complex and widespread, so is the redeeming work of God.

And Chris goes to the Exodus and to Jubilee to make this point. I’ll just mention the Exodus which had the following dimensions:

  1. A political dimension
  2. An economic dimension
  3. A social dimension
  4. A spiritual dimension

Chris’s point: ‘exodus-shaped redemption demands exodus shaped mission’. And this means our commitment to mission must involve the same ‘broad totality for human need that God demonstrated in what he did for Israel.’

So neither a ‘spiritualizing’ nor a ‘politicizing’ interpretation of the exodus will do. Both are valid in what they affirm, but insufficient in terms of what they omit. Neither option represents a holistic gospel.

Spiritualizing the Exodus:

While the NT has much to say on the spiritual significance of the exodus in light of Christ, a gospel that reduces the cross only down to rescue from slavery to sin is an incomplete gospel.  The Exodus also has much to say about deliverance from external powers of injustice, violence and death. The cross too is the victory of God over his enemies and deliverance of his people from their power (Col 1.13-14; 2:15).

And here’s the rub – a spiritualizing interpretation assumes an astonishing change in the character and concerns of God from OT to NT.

God is passionately concerned for justice, good politics, compassion for the poor, overcoming exploitation and selfish abuse of power and corruption. Yet suddenly in the NT, is he only concerned with spiritual sin and is this all that the cross really deals with?

This, says Wright, has more than a hint of Marcionism. And it puts our mission out of shape. The pressing problems of human society become, at best, secondary to God’s mission to get souls to heaven.  “The result is a kind of privatized pietism, or one that is cosily shared with like-minded believers, but has little cutting edge or prophetic relevance in relation to wider society.” (82)

A Politicizing Interpretation

But neither will it do, as some have tried to do, to politicize the Exodus and the cross.

Where salvation = freedom from economic, social and political oppression. Redemption is rewritten to be present whenever liberty and justice are advanced. And so the spiritual dimension is diminished or even ignored.

But any hermeneutic that marginalises the need for people to come to know and love and serve the living God is seriously distorting the Biblical narrative which points to Israel’s (and humanity’s) spiritual need – a need that is only met in the forgiveness of sins accomplished by the suffering Servant of Yahweh.

And so Chris’ final comments: it is around the cross that mission needs to be shaped. And the atonement is both personal and cosmic. ‘To preach the wider dimensions of God’s redemptive mission … is not “watering down” the gospel of personal salvation’(91). And so the cross needs to be at the centre of our mission.

What do you think of this closing statement?

It is a mistake, in my view, to think that, while our evangelism must be centred on the cross (as of course it has to be), our social engagement and other forms of practical mission work, have some other theological foundation or justification. The fact is that sin and evil constitute bad news in every area of life on this planet. The redemptive work of God though the cross of Christ is good news for every area of life in earth that has been touched by sin – which means every area of life. Bluntly, we need a holistic gospel because the world is in a holistic mess. By God’s incredible grace we have a gospel big enough to redeem all that sin and evil has touched. And every dimension of that good news is good news utterly and only because of the blood of Christ on the cross. (92)

Transforming the World? The Gospel and Social Responsibility (2)

A second ‘quotable quote’ from this book, Transforming the World?: the Gospel and Social Responsibility, edited by Dewi Hughes and Jamie Grant.

I’m trying to prepare a series of 10 guest posts or so for Jesus Creed in June.

Rather than replicate what will come there (discussion of 9-10 chapters or so), I thought I’d post a few quotable quotes to give a flavour of a thought-provoking series of essays in what is a very good and important book.

I’m cheating a bit with this example for a couple of reasons. First, I am quoting two quotes. Second, one of them is quoted in a chapter by Alistair Wilson ‘The Compassion of the Christ’ and is actually written by Chris Wright in The Mission of God, p.319.

It actually forms part of a curious bit of Wilson’s conclusion. He begins to criticise Wright’s 8 point proposal in that book for how to respond holistically to HIV/AIDS. Of eight responses, only one, says Wilson, involves specific presentation of the biblical gospel. His problem seems to be this:

Effective biblical instruction must be the foundation of a church’s response to the human tragedy it faces. As we observe Jesus’ portraits in the Gospel narratives, we find him devoting himself to the proclamation of the kingdom of God as least as much as he devotes himself to dealing with illness or hunger (see Matt. 9:35). Thus, recognition of the centrality of the message of the gospel is a significant aspect of what it means to have compassion as Jesus had compassion. (p.109)

But he qualifies this criticism of Wright three times.

– He agrees that Wright’s whole book is an extended exegesis of the biblical material.

– He agrees with Wright that a pietistic emphasis on evangelism accompanied by a lack of action is a travesty of the gospel.

And thirdly he cites approvingly this quote by Wright.

Mission may not always begin with evangelism. But mission that does not ultimately include declaring the word and the name of Christ, the call to repentance, and faith and obedience has not completed its task. It is defective mission, not holistic mission.

I think this exchange highlights the continuing tensions of how to frame the relationship of the gospel and social action. Wilson seems to be uncomfortable with how Chris Wright is framing a holisitc gospel, yet he’s also an honest and good enough scholar fairly to acknowledge Wright’s whole argument and he can’t find much to disagree with.

Is that how you read this? Comments, as ever, welcome. 

Capetown 2010

If I said ‘Capetown 2010’, would you know what I’m talking about? [no connection to the World Cup]

It is the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization running from 18-25 October.The first was in Lausanne in 1974 and the second in Manilla in 1989.

The official blurb states:

Cape Town 2010, held in collaboration with the World Evangelical Alliance, will bring together 4,000 leaders from more than 200 countries to confront the critical issues of our time – other world faiths, poverty, HIV/AIDS, persecution, among others – as they relate to the future of the Church and world evangelization.

I’ve more than a passing interest in evangelicalism (I teach a MA course on it, have written a book about it, and teach at an evangelical institution), it’s safe to say that Capetown 2010 is a big deal in the evangelical world.

Lausanne 1974 was of huge significance. While I was much too young to know anything about it at the time 🙂 it played a major role in reconnecting evangelism and social action in a re-shaped, less fundamentalist, and more culturally engaged evangelicalism – a trend that is still being worked out today in emerging, missional and incarnational conversations about church and mission.

As a young Christian I found myself identifying with the Lausanne Covenant and for the first time getting a sense of the global nature of the church. John Stott, played a key role and I grew up as a Christian reading his books.

As stated above the big issues this time are different. Most participants are rightly from where most Christians are – the Global South. There will be more laity; more women. The topics will revolve around issues of globalisation, other world faiths, HIV/AIDS / training leaders and so on.

I confess to an innate scepticism about many Christian conferences & events. I wonder how much actual impact many of them have after the buzz of a day or two.

But Capetown 2010 is a unique event with a unique capacity to bring together men and women leaders from all over the world; to think through together both beforehand, during and after, the challenges of reaching the world with the gospel and about issues that increasingly affect us all. It’s worth checking out resources already available and ones that will become available.

It’s also an event worth praying for. Chris Wright is the chairman of the Lausanne Theology Working Group. Back in February I asked him about Capetown in our interview. His words can be a good guide as to what to pray for:

You are chair of the Lausanne Theology Working Group and are involved in the upcoming global congress in Capetown in October 2010. What are some of your hopes for that congress?

Lausanne, of course, is committed to world evangelisation, that is in its bloodstream. I would hope that Capetown will result in many positive partnerships among people who are committed to the gospel and living the gospel in the world. I hope that Capetown will continue to affirm the holistic and integral understanding of mission that is there in the Lausanne Covenant – that evangelisation is not just preaching, it is also living and demonstrating; it is words and works. I also hope that Capetown will have an energising effect on Christian community, that it will give people a fresh sense of the importance of sharing the gospel with the world and that there are huge needs in the world that we need to be exposed to. There are millions of people who have never even heard of Jesus; that there are millions of people who have no part of God’s Word in their own language. There are enormous realities of the needs of the lost world of those who do not yet know Jesus that I hope that Capetown will inspire the church take up.

My other hope for Capetown is that evangelicals will be willing to take a self-critical look at themselves and hear the prophetic word of Jesus to ‘Repent and come back to me’. For unless God’s people are living in God’s ways and look a little more Christ-like, then what is the world supposed to want become Christian for? We can’t be bad news and preach good news. We actually have to be the good news that we are preaching. If we are going to share Jesus with the world we have to be like Jesus and that includes loving our neighbours as ourselves, loving our enemies, non-retaliation, humility, seeking justice, compassion for the poor – all the things the Bible tells us we ought to be doing.

The Church has got to be the church?

Yes, that’s right. One of the phrases of Lausanne is ‘The Whole Church Taking the Whole Gospel, to the Whole World’ which is a wonderful slogan (which is not unique to Lausanne). The difficulty is that it can make the church just like the postman. If the postman who delivers the letter to your door was committing adultery the night before, to you that does not matter as long as you get the letter.  However, the church is not just a delivery boy for the gospel, the church is supposed to be the embodiment of the gospel. We are to be a reconciled community of fallen sinners who have come to love one another through the Lord Jesus Christ. The quality of life of the church is to be a demonstration of the gospel alongside the delivery of the gospel.

Interview with Chris Wright

During his recent visit to Dublin, Chris Wright spoke at our annual student retreat. It was a brilliant weekend of great craic and great bible teaching from Chris. There has been lots of appreciation, discussion and talk among students ever since his visit. God used him to make a big impact. I also took the chance to interview Chris – so here is this fledgling blog’s first EXCLUSIVE 🙂 Chris is not afraid to challenge the (Western) status quo. What strikes you from this interview?

Chris, you’ve been here in Ireland speaking about The Mission of God and the work of the Langham Partnership. From your first-hand experience of global Christianity, what are some encouragements that you praise God for and what are some challenges that you observe?

I’m praising God for the phenomenal growth of the Christian community around the world in places like Africa. Latin America and Asia. The church in the West in now a minority of the world church (perhaps about 25%). The great majority of the world’s Christians now live in countries that we used to think of as the mission field but we need to stop thinking that way.

The challenges are that as church growth happens rapidly it can also be very shallow. Shallowness is not just a feature of the church in the majority world, it is universal. There are a lot of shallow Christians in the West as well. One of the results of shallowness, as Jesus pointed out, is that people become very vulnerable to false teaching and to the cares and temptations of the world. There are forms of alleged Christianity in parts of the world which are corrupted by syncretism with the cultures that surround them, whether that be a complete disconnect with biblical teaching about God’s presence in the world with his people in suffering or about a sort of ‘sanctified covetousness’ which regards success in the kingdom of God as identified with wealth, prosperity and health and so on.

Yet, some of that I think is a very debased form of Christianity flourishes alongside forms of Christian faith that believes in the miraculous power of the Spirit of God to change things, to liberate people and to bless people. So, it’s like Jesus said; when the kingdom of God is working, you get wheat and weeds in the same field. So, there is simultaneously that which is of the Spirit of God (and is positive and healthy and good) and that which is very definitely from a different spirit and not healthy.

Another challenge is that there is a need for the evangelical community around the world to ask itself what it means to be evangelical, not only in belief but also in behaviour in terms of commitment to the Bible, to the Lord Jesus Christ, to serving his kingdom and not just to a form of religion without the power of it.

What then are some of the challenges the growth of the church in the Global south poses to the church in the West? What are some of the idols that we face?

One is to for the church in the west to recognise its own relativity and to see that we are simply a part of the body of Christ. We are no longer the ‘home church’ or the ‘elder church’ and we need to have a greater degree of humility and spiritually in our attitude and in our practice towards our brothers and sisters in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere.

Another is to recognise that idolatry takes many forms. The Western church, I think, is very much polluted by its syncretism with idols of consumerism and a materialistic lifestyle. There is almost no difference between the way evangelical Christians live in America and Britain and the way everyone else lives. We worship the same gods as our culture. There is also syncretism with the idolatry of national pride and militarism – the putting of our hopes and security in the government and the army – which is syncretism of Christianity and patriotism. And that can be very powerful and becomes very destructive of relationships with other parts of the world that suffer some of the effects of west self-aggrandisement and empire building. These idols within western Christianity can also be the despair of our brothers and sisters in the majority world. They look at the western church with love and gratitude for its missionary outreach in past centuries, but also with a degree of bafflement that there is so much in western Christianity which is corrupted and detrimental to the best interests of the body of Christ. For example, we live with vast inequalities. A quarter of the world’s population live on less than a dollar a day, about 25% of those will be Christians – our sisters and brothers. Yet, we are not impacted by this because they live far away.

Your book The Mission of God has caused plenty of discussion academically, within the missionary world and the Christian ‘blogosphere’. In it you speak of the big narrative of Scripture and how vital it is for us to understand our mission within the overall mission of God. What are some practical implications for churches and individuals who really ‘get this’?

I’m encouraged that some people have told me that when they read the book it’s meant a whole paradigm shift for their Christian faith. I think it has something to do with recognising that if we are not living by the Bible’s story we are actually living by some other story which is actually a myth. Because we know that people in other religions, like Hindus and so on, have their gods and we know we don’t believe their story, the trouble is that we think that ‘I’ve become a Christian and I’ve got my swipe card for heaven and I’m out of here’. In the meantime I just live in this world the same way as anyone else in the culture does. What we don’t realise it that we are living by the myths of Enlightenment modernity, consumerism, individualism, and all the unseen idols which run quite contrary to the Bible story.

So we need to become more aware that our lives are to be lived within the framework of creation, the radical implication of the Fall and sin, but we still live in God’s earth and God’s mission and plan is to redeem it. The plan of God is revealed in Colossians and Ephesians, it is to bring all things in heaven and earth under the redemptive work of the Lord Jesus Christ. There is a cosmic dimension to our faith as well as a personal dimension. I think that when people see that it gives them a greater sense of meaning and significance to their own lives as they actually live within a different story and with different values and priorities to the world around.

It means, I think, that one turns upside down the questions people ask when they become a Christian in the Western context and say ‘How can I fit God into my life?’ We need to ask instead, ‘How can I allow God to fit my life into his purpose?’ so that God becomes central, not my life. So we don’t ask ‘How can I apply the Bible to my life?’ we ask instead ‘Where does my life fit into God’s story in the Bible?’ I don’t think ‘How can I make the gospel relevant to the world?’ because God is actually going to change the world to be the shape of the gospel. So it turns upside down and inside out a lot of our thinking.

The final point in relation to the church is that it ought to mean that the church as a community of believers should recognise that they have been called into existence for the sake of God’s mission. Therefore, a church has to exist in mission. Not just by sending out missionaries to far off places around the world but by being salt and light in the community where they are. Mission is the very mode and existence of the church, it’s not just an extra thing we do, it is the very way we are.

In your recent book, The God I Don’t Understand, you tackle four ‘hard to understand’ questions of faith. It’s an autobiographical book in some ways, a personal book. In a world of such suffering, gross inequality and of natural disasters like Haiti and in light of violent judgement of God in the Old Testament – how can we believe in the goodness of God?

The title of the book is quite deliberate, The God I Don’t Understand. People ask me ‘How do you understand this and that?’ The whole point of the book is that there are certain things that I don’t understand! I’m quite serious about this. I want to say that it is okay to know and love God without knowing all of the answers. This is true of human relationships. Those of us who are married know that we can know and love and trust our wives or husbands without necessarily understanding everything that they say or do. This came to me again with Haiti. I feel angry, I ask God. ‘Why is that, yet again, it is where the poorest people live that these tectonic plates shifts and the earth groans and people get killed? Why do you allow that?’ That does not mean that I don’t believe in God’s existence. It means that I’m puzzled and angry about something that I don’t understand. But then I think about it in terms of human relationships. Would I rather, in human life, know someone I love in a marriage relationship – with whom sometimes I get angry and do not always understand – rather than have nobody at all? Would I rather have the non-existence of a relationship than a relationship which sometimes causes me pain? I think most people would say that they would rather have a relationship where there is pain, and puzzlement and anger that no relationship at all. Therefore I have to say I don’t find Haiti or the Tsunami a reason for doubting the existence of God, but rather a source of pain and puzzlement as to why God allows such things to happen.

On the issue of evil, the book does address suffering, the Canaanites, the cross of Christ, and the end of the world. In each case, I try to explain the things that I think the Bible does explain and leave as matters of mystery (sometimes as puzzling mystery and sometimes as glorious mystery in the case of the cross) and leave those as the Bible does – as things that God has chosen in his wisdom that it is better for us not to fathom.

Changing focus to the world of contemporary evangelicalism: you are chair of the Lausanne Theology Working Group and are involved in the upcoming global congress in Capetown in October 2010. What are some of your hopes for that congress?

Lausanne, of course, is committed to world evangelisation, that is in its bloodstream. I would hope that Capetown will result in many positive partnerships among people who are committed to the gospel and living the gospel in the world. I hope that Capetown will continue to affirm the holistic and integral understanding of mission that is there in the Lausanne Covenant – that evangelisation is not just preaching, it is also living and demonstrating; it is words and works. I also hope that Capetown will have an energising effect on Christian community, that it will give people a fresh sense of the importance of sharing the gospel with the world and that there are huge needs in the world that we need to be exposed to. There are millions of people who have never even heard of Jesus; that there are millions of people who have no part of God’s Word in their own language. There are enormous realities of the needs of the lost world of those who do not yet know Jesus that I hope that Capetown will inspire the church take up.

My other hope for Capetown is that evangelicals will be willing to take a self-critical look at themselves and hear the prophetic word of Jesus to ‘Repent and come back to me’. For unless God’s people are living in God’s ways and look a little more Christ-like, then what is the world supposed to want become Christian for? We can’t be bad news and preach good news. We actually have to be the good news that we are preaching. If we are going to share Jesus with the world we have to be like Jesus and that includes loving our neighbours as ourselves, loving our enemies, non-retaliation, humility, seeking justice, compassion for the poor – all the things the Bible tells us we ought to be doing.

The Church has got to be the church?

Yes, that’s right. One of the phrases of Lausanne is ‘The Whole Church Taking the Whole Gospel, to the Whole World’ which is a wonderful slogan (which is not unique to Lausanne). The difficulty is that it can make the church just like the postman. If the postman who delivers the letter to your door was committing adultery the night before, to you that does not matter as long as you get the letter.  However, the church is not just a delivery boy for the gospel, the church is supposed to be the embodiment of the gospel. We are to be a reconciled community of fallen sinners who have come to love one another through the Lord Jesus Christ. The quality of life of the church is to be a demonstration of the gospel alongside the delivery of the gospel.

A final question: You are back in Ireland. What are some of your impressions?

I’m encouraged by the growth of Irish Bible Institute. I’m also encouraged by the growth in evangelical witness both within Ireland and from immigration. It is tremendous that the third largest denomination in the country is the (Nigerian) Redeemed Christian Church of God. You almost see God smiling ‘If those Irish Christians can’t get it together I’ll send a few African Christians to cheer them up.’ God moves people around the world. From that comes fresh growth life from people who actually believe the gospel and want to live it and preach it. Consumerism seems to have replaced a very religious culture. If the empty idolatries of mammon have now disappointed, the challenge for Irish Christians is to continue to point people to the living God.

Interview with Patrick Mitchel, 30 January 2010.

The God I Don’t Understand 15: End Times

The final chapter (and our final post) of Chris Wright’s book is on ‘The New Beginning’

He begins by saying that heaven is NOT home, it is a stop en route to a resurrection body and life in a renewed earth. The new creation (Rev 21:1) will be a different reality with both continuity and discontinuity (and its pretty hard to press the details too far here)

Discontinuity includes:

– no more sea (Rev 21:1)

– no more death, mourning, crying or pain (Rev 21:4)

– no more sin (Rev 21:7-8)

– no more curse (Rev 22:3)

But there is also continuity with the present order. The place is described as a GARDEN CITY:

Wright brings out the strong parallels here between Genesis and Revelation. The latter fulfils and completes the former.

– Gold and precious stones are in both places: Gen 2:12 – Rev 21:11, 19-21

– Eden is watered by 4 rivers: the city by the river of life

– Eden’s tree of life now reappears, spanning the river of life, and all now have access to it

The location is a city, the new Jerusalem – and we get into some theology of the city here. The heavenly city is a picture of the earthly city redeemed. This city has security, space and beauty. It is rich in all the things we long for in city life.

What is going to be in the city? Here Wright argues for a biblical holism instead of Greek dualism. In the biblical worldview everything is sacred. There is no ‘spiritual’ versus ‘earthly’ dualism. The new creation is much more concrete and earthy than many imagine.

But what about 2 Peter 3:10 and the obliteration of the earth by fire? He argues the best manuscripts point to the fire ‘exposing’ or ‘laying bare’ the earth, not burning it up (as in the KJV – which is not based on the best Greek texts). So this fire is more one of revealing all before the judgement of God, not a literal destruction of earth.

What actually ‘continues’ into the new creation? The best of human culture (see Is 60:5-11; Rev 21:24-27). A human world cleansed of all sin and imperfection and one that will develop and grow in ways that cannot be imagined as human life proceeds honouring and glorifying God.

The creation itself will no longer ‘groan’ (Rom 8:22) but will be liberated and at peace.

Who will be there? People from all the nations, reconciled through the cross. A redeemed and renewed humanity. Enjoying resurrection life (and resurrection bodies); the perfect presence of God; and the blessing of creative work in the service and worship of God.

Of course all this is in vision and symbolism. It is beyond our grasp fully to comprehend. The picture is one to inspire and encourage. Wright says it sets his pulse racing and imagination soaring. This is Christian hope. And this hope has profound implications for the present. He concludes saying that:

i. All our work now contributes to the content of the new creation. Work matters, society matters, justice matters .. this world is not just an arena for evangelising souls, all we do has eternal significance.

I agree with this – but when you start pushing, it actually is very difficult to say ‘how’ life in the here and now impacts the future. Stephen Williams has argued that the strongest biblical motive for Christian life in the present is simply love: love of God and of neighbour.

ii. All our behaviour here must be governed by the standards of the new creation. God’s people are called to be signs and witnesses of the glorious life to come in the here and now.

The book closes with a question about the new creation:

‘Are you investing your life and work in it and living now by its standards as a citizen of the city of God?’