Theological development is contextual and is frequently a reaction to a crisis in culture. As far back as the ecumenical councils of the first six centuries of the church, theology has responded to context and always will. Those early formulations of dogma came in the midst of political tensions often instigated by an emperor who had been influenced by a particular theology.
In the modern era, neo-orthodoxy reacted to the crisis in post WWI Europe as it wrestled with the reality of how culture arrived in such a place. Similarly, fundamentalism countered modernism in post WWII America as it set out to preserve the fundamentals of the faith in a milieu of scientific and theological challenges. Likewise, a unique American dispensationalism emerged, in part, due to the Cold War in an attempt to set the United States in the context of the book of Revelation with the hope of the imminent return of Christ to rapture the church from turmoil.
Theology’s preoccupation is looking for meaning about God in the here and now. It attempts to make sense out of our circumstances in light of a particular view of who God is. In this way, a missiological theology is a response to the need for church to effectively engage cultures around the world with the stories of Jesus. It is ontologically theocentric and functionally missional. In this essay, I’ll attempt to layout three key ideas that make up the ontology of missiological theology: wonder, discovery, and curiosity.
Missiological theology is best understood as a historical-contextual-narrative theology imbued with the true and real stories of Jesus that are relevant today. Even more so, missiological theology is a theology of wonder, discovery, and curiosity. By wonder, missiological theology marvels at the majesty of God. His glory is the manifest purpose of missiological theology just as it was the manifest purpose of Jesus. He said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you . . . I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:1b-5). That glory is ultimately revealed in John’s Apocalypse,
“Worthy are you, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created.” (Revelation 4:11)
Paul also writes of the glorious God who, in accomplishing His purposes, has chosen us according to His will to be a part of His family, and to seek the spread of His glory around the world:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.” (Ephesians 1:3–6)
The wonder of missiological theology is most acutely seen when the Word becomes flesh (John 1:14). What is in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer the “miracles of all miracles” (DBWE), God’s glory is revealed to us. In a most spectacular appearance, the God-become-human invades our history so that we might know His story, the grand story where every ethnic group, in a beautiful tapestry as God’s image bearers, unite in wonder and marvel at His awesome sight.
Missiological theology is not overly concerned with philosophical formulations about God. Rather, it discovers the God who is simply revealed in Scripture and creation, for it is this God who speaks for Himself. Like Gregory of Nazianzus, missiological theology asks, “For what will you conceive the Deity to be, if you rely upon all the approximations of reason? Or to what will reason carry you, O most philosophic of men and best of Theologians, who boast of your familiarity with the Unlimited?” (Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 28.7). In response, missiological theology wonders in astonishment at the God of creation who self-revealed in the Word become flesh (John 1:1-2) and continues to reveal Himself as He truly is (Rev 1:13-16) and will be (Rev 19:11-15).
Additionally, missiological theology is on a quest of discovering what God is doing in the world. His will, according to Paul, is to reconcile all things in Christ (Eph 1:10). Missiological theology understands that purpose will be accomplished. God will do what He has set out to do. The glorious picture painted by John points to the completion of that mission:
And they sang a new song, saying,
“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:9–10)
In the midst of a world in unremitting political, economic, and societal turmoil, God continues to make Himself known and beckons to His adopted sons and daughters—kingdom and priests as John calls us—on this great mission to also make Him known. Like Paul in Athens who sees God in the writings of philosophers (Acts 17:28), missiological theology looks for God in culture to discover how He is revealing Himself, then joins with Him on this mission.
Missiological theology is consumed with the amazement of God whose mission we join as co-laborers (1 Cor 3:9). As His co-laborers discovering His work in the world, missiological theology is curious. More precisely, it is curious about people: their stories (history), beliefs (religious and non-religious), and customs (culture). Missiological theology has an insatiable drive to hear and learn about others. It is inquisitive in its observation of the artifacts that animate a culture. It is implicated in as much as it is in proximity to people in its desire to know them. It is reflective as it considers the connecting points between God and those created in His image.
In its curiosity, missiological theology is gospel-oriented and interested in the clear communication of Jesus in such a way that He naturally connects to cultures whose boundaries He established (Acts 17:26). It produces that “ah ha moment” in the life of a cultural actor and results in identifying with Jesus’ life and work. Simply stated, missiological theology’s curiosity is the theologically, culturally, historically, and religiously informed communication of the person, works, word, and will of God. Such communication is faithful to the unchanged, true stories about Jesus that are meaningful to people in their particular contexts. Missiological theology does not change, adapt, or contextualize Jesus’ stories to make them relevant. It looks for the connecting points between His story and the story of culture (Cooper 2021).
Missiological theology is differentiated from biblical or systemic theologies in that missiological theology is concerned with the missionary nature of God in Scripture and the world. In its wonder, discovery, and curiosity, missiological theology considers Scripture’s grand narrative of God’s relentless missionary pursuit of relationships with His creatures in His mission to unite all things in Christ (Eph 1:10). This is the hermeneutical key to missiological theology. David Bosch claimed, “God’s very nature is missionary” (1991, 390) and missiological theology captures God’s missionary nature as expressed throughout the 66 canonical books of the Bible as well as in His activity in the world (Ps 19). It sees a thread of God’s self-revelation beginning at creation in Genesis and ending with the consummation in Revelation (Cooper 2021). Ontologically, its very nature reflects a passion for God’s glory, God’s mission, and God’s people.
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