On the church's eternality and "church as mission"

"The Church is Catholic, that is, universal. First, it is universal in place, because it is worldwide. This is contrary to the error of the Donatists. For the Church is a congregation of the faithful; and since the faithful are in every part of the world, so also is the Church: 'Your faith is spoken of in the whole world' [Rm 1:8]. And also: 'Go into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature' [Mk 16:15]. Long ago, indeed, God was known only in Judea; now, however, He is known throughout the entire world. The Church has three parts: one is on earth, one is in heaven, and one is in purgatory.

"Second, the Church is universal in regard to all the conditions of mankind; for no exceptions are made, neither master nor servant, neither man nor woman: 'Neither bond nor free; there is neither male nor female' [Gal 3:28].

"Third, it is universal in time. Some have said that the Church will exist only up to a certain time. But this is false, for the Church began to exist in the time of Abel and will endure up to the end of the world: 'Behold, I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world' [Mt 28:20]. Moreover, even after the end of the world, it will continue to exist in heaven [Sed post consummationem saeculi remanebit in caelo]."

This is Thomas Aquinas's all too brief discussion of the church's catholicity in his exposition of the Apostles' Creed. Yesterday on Twitter I quoted the last section, on the eternality or temporal catholicity of the church, with some comments following it. Specifically, I wrote, "This text is ground zero for returning to the Bible to counter the argument that the church—God's people— is constituted by mission."

I got a lot of helpful replies, mostly pushing back or challenging my challenge to the claim that the church is constituted by mission. As I said later, the tweets weren't intended primarily to be polemical; I was preparing to teach Thomas's text in class, and so I jotted some thoughts down on Twitter before heading off. And though John Flett's The Witness of God is on my shelf, I've yet to read it, so I can't speak substantively to where our disagreements might lie, if anywhere.

But let me float a few questions to the church-as-mission folks, for greater clarity of understanding, at least on my side of things.

First, what motivates the claim that mission constitutes the church? Or, put differently, what are the stakes? One reply requested a less polarizing approach to this question. My response was and is this: I'm trying to lower the volume in our ecclesiological rhetoric. My sense is that, in recent decades and perhaps the last century, talk about mission has become over-inflated relative to its material importance to the doctrine of the church as such. What I'd like to say, simply, is: Mission is a crucial feature of the church, though it neither defines nor constitutes it. Or perhaps: Mission constitutes the church militant, but not the church triumphant. My question is: What would be lost if we say "the mission is consummated with the kingdom's coming in full, yet the church endures in the new creation as God's elect and holy people," etc., etc.?

Second, is there biblical support for the church's "sending" being something other than or beyond what is spelled out in Matthew 28:19-20 and Acts 1:8? That is, is God's people "sent" prior to Christ's sending of the apostles (and the apostolic church) or following his second advent? Where in the Bible suggests that?

Third, all the counter-proposals I saw (on Twitter: again, Flett excepted) very quickly became metaphorical in the extreme and/or reductive to the point of emptying the concept. That is, "sending" is interpreted in terms of Gregory of Nyssa's epektasis, the never-ending journey into the infinite life of the triune God's eternal, inexhaustible fellowship. (My friend Myles Werntz posed this idea.) Well, okay ... but what work is "sending" doing there that epektasis isn't already doing? Why hold on to "sending" when we have another term or concept that is perfectly adequate to the job? Others suggested something like the church's never-ending task in the eschaton of worshiping God or testifying to one another about God's grace and love. Sure, those are traditionally (and biblically) the description of what it is we'll be doing in the kingdom; but what conceptual connection exists between those activities and "being sent"? All kinds of descriptions of life in resurrected glory exist in the church's tradition, and few to none include or require language of "sending." (Cf. Dante's Paradiso.) So what, again, does "sending" add materially to the description? "Sending" cannot and should be reduced to "asked/called to do stuff"/"tasked with actions from and for God." Why not advert, say, to cultic language, in which we will all be priests, ministering in the one temple of the one new world of God? You don't need "sending" language for that.

So on and so forth. But my fourth and last query gets to the heart of the matter, I think, which is this: My push-back on church-as-mission is meant, theologically, to de-center ecclesiology that (a) makes Israel secondary or subordinate to the missionary church and/or (b) conceives of election and peoplehood as essentially instrumental, coordinated as a means to some greater end. My counter—and this will be the article, God willing, I write sometime in the next few years—is that divine election to peoplehood is in part an end in itself. Israel is called to be holy, set apart from the nations, to witness to the divine glory and grace, and to be a divine blessing to the nations: yes and amen. But Israel is also called by God simply out of God's inexplicable, unpredictable love for Israel, and therefore out of God's bottomless desire to bless the children of Abraham, the friend of God. Pentecost and ekklesia open up the people of God to the gentiles through faith in Israel's Messiah, and indeed, that was always God's intention for the world; hence the mission to the nations, Christ's sending of the apostles to every corner of the earth as his witnesses. But when the mission is completed—when the gospel has been proclaimed to every nation and people under the sun, when "the full number of the gentiles has come in" (Rom 11:25)—then all Israel will be saved, and will live as God's people under God's reign in God's new creation, no longer sent, but gathered in the city of God where God dwells with them, they as his people, he as their God. But "peoplehood" will not be defunct as a concept in the same way as "mission," for the saints in glory will not be a mere aggregate of individuals, but the corporate bride of Christ, the holy Israel of YHWH, from everlasting to everlasting.

Those are the stakes as I see them. But what say y'all?


  1. Thanks, Brad. This is a discussion of significant interest to me—in fact, I have a sticky note over my desk reminding me to develop an account of post-resurrection mission. It languishes on the wall among other random thoughts, none of which tend to get much attention. So I really will be grateful to read your article in the next few years, as it may actually compel some real work on the issue. For now, my brief responses:

    1. What motivates the claim that mission constitutes the church? Or, put differently, what are the stakes?

    Two things primarily. One is the need to address the decline of the Western church theologically, i.e., the realization that the inadequate theological basis of both Western ecclesiology and Western missions is demonstrated in the demise of post-Christendom churches. Missional ecclesiology wants to root the existence of the church in God's purposes _because_ its existence seems to have been (or become) rooted in its own purposes (more on which under question 4). The other is the desire to correct missiology (including the theology of mission), which has been both simplistic and non-Trinitarian in much of the history of Protestant missions.

    2. Is there biblical support for the church's "sending" being something other than or beyond what is spelled out in Matthew 28:19-20 and Acts 1:8?

    I'm a little puzzled by the question—it sounds a bit like the tendency toward a simplistic account of mission that I mentioned above. Missional theology tends to proceed methodologically on different ground that proof-texting, which is certainly the way the so-called Great Commission has been used to convince the church-without-missions to do missions since the time of William Carey. For an example of biblical theology that traces the motif of God's mission throughout the Bible over against an essentially Great-Commission-obedience view of mission, see Christopher J. H. Wright, _The Mission of God_. Beyond the need to thicken an account of "biblical support," however, is the point that missional theology is just as interested in "theological support," namely, a Trinitarian basis for mission. So, the your question is deferred to another level: Is there biblical support for the "Trinity" other than or beyond what is spelled out in the verses that designate the Father, the Son of God, and Holy Spirit? Many (including me) see the Johanine "Great Commission"—"As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world" (John 17:18 // 20:21)—as a foundational text not least because the High Priestly Prayer places the "sending" of the church in direct analogy with the sending of the Son by the Father, suggesting a Trinitarian theology of mission that would rely on the development of Trinitarian theology in the first place. Concepts such as "eternal procession" and "opera ad extra," then, begin to bear on your overall question.

    1. 3. All kinds of descriptions of life in resurrected glory exist in the church's tradition, and few to none include or require language of "sending." (Cf. Dante's Paradiso.) So what, again, does "sending" add materially to the description?

      You may be overlooking the fact that missional ecclesiology is not especially hung up on the language of "sending," because "sending" is only one token of _participation in God's purposes_. For missional ecclesiology, the question is not whether, once "sending" is restricted semantically to geographical movement in the process of evangelization, the church is by nature and eternally moving across geographical boundaries to evangelize. Obviously not. It is, rather, a matter of teleology: will the church, whose life is participation in the eternal processions of the Triune God, participate in the purposes of God (and, one must add, does God continue to have purposes beyond "being glorified and enjoyed) in eternity? Many of us see the "cultural mandate" of Gen 1:28 as part and parcel of God's mission, in which humans are sent to participate, and I suspect the eternity of which you speak will involve an ongoing participation in—a being comissioned for, sent to share in—God's creative work. In my mind, that adds quite a bit (to say the least) to a medieval vision of paradise.

      4. Does missional ecclesiology fail to de-center ecclesiology that (a) makes Israel secondary or subordinate to the missionary church and/or (b) conceives of election and peoplehood as essentially instrumental, coordinated as a means to some greater end?

      (a) Absolutely not. Missional ecclesiology has its roots in a theocentric turn to the doctrine of the _missio Dei_—precisely the insistence that the mission is God's, not the church's. It is a rejection of ecclesiocentrism. Again, for example, Wright is an OT theologian, and you'll see no subordination of Israel in _The Mission of God_. Moreover, the calling of Abraham is another foundational text, precisely because the Western church has quite evidently heard the call to be blessed but not the concomitant commission to be a blessing. As for (b), no and yes: not "essentially instrumental," if that means the church is _merely_ a means to some greater end and, therefore, useless to God apart from its instrumentality; but, yes, still _essentially_ a means to some greater end, which the purposes of God beyond my/our own blessing must always be. In other words, why should being essentially a participant in God's purposes be mutually exclusive with being essentially loved and valued by God regardless of our "instrumentality"? In any case, I see no evidence on the landscape of the American church that the relatively marginal movement called missional theology has so over-corrected Western ecclesiology that now the church is at risk of failing to see that part of its incorporation in the family of Abraham is the goodness its own blessing.

      I hope this initial pushback, badly in need of clarification as it may be, is helpful to you. Thanks again for raising the question.

    2. Hi Greg,

      I really appreciate your comments here. Unfortunately, I think we're almost completely talking past each other. I'm aware of the use of "mission" by Wright et al, as well as the larger shift to missio Dei language. And that's all fine. But what I see in your comments here is a constant elision or blurring of two concepts, that of mission and that of "being a participant in God's purposes." But the reason why I keep using the language of "sending" is because that's what missio (in Latin) and apostoleo (in Greek) *mean*: to send, sending, sent, etc. The semantic shift from "sending" to "having been sent" to "having been sent with a purpose" to "the purpose for which we have been sent" to "that purpose"—which "mission" appears to mean in the discourse now, that is to say, the cosmic, salvific purpose(s) of God to bless and redeem all of creation in and through the people of God—is perhaps justified as a matter of theological terminology (I'm fine with development of concepts and doctrine, etc.), but it obstructs clarity about the actual matter in question. What I'm talking about is *God sending*, specifically, God in Christ sending the apostles/apostolic church into the world. And my question is: Is there language in the Bible that speaks in the same way—that talks about *God sending*—outside of or beyond the concrete sending of the gentile-incorporating ekklesia into the world by the risen Christ?

      I'm not looking for proof-texting. I'm trying to get around what appears to me to be sloppy or generic talk of "mission" that can include an idea so large as "participation in God's purposes"—which, at the risk of repeating myself, does not require the language or conceptuality of "sending" to be complete and meaningful in and of itself.

      And, yes, the sending of the apostolic ekklesia is rooted in the Father's sending of the Son. But that is an economic activity, rooted in the immanent eternal generation of the Son. Is the mission-as-church claim committed to the further claim that life in the kingdom for the people of God will be a kind of analogy to the eternal generation of the Son? And that *that* will be the "missio" of our eschatological life?

      If not, I return to the original question: *Why* do we *need* to say that the church's *sending* by Christ is continued in the new creation? I still don't understand what is lost by not saying that, or what is gained by saying it, or on what basis, biblical, traditional, or theological, we ought to say it.

      (Lest my tone be unclear, no emotion here; just trying to clarify what's at issue. Thanks again for the reply.)

    3. Hmm. I wonder whether we're more making different assumptions than talking past each other. I suppose I'm assuming the semantic shift you refer to is justified as a matter of theological terminology and, therefore, generates an overlapping usage of "mission" and "sending" that is not sloppy (but rather justified). If, in other words, the specific uses of the word "send" in the context of NT apostolic mission are connected theologically with God's purposes, why wouldn't that word then be used validly in relation to a broader range of terminology and concepts that are also connected theologically with God's purposes? I agree that is would be a lexical mistake to read everything that _missio_ has come to mean theologically back into NT uses of "sending," as a matter of translation. But as a theological move (akin to typology, now that I think about it), that is what should happen, right? The "go" of Matt 28 becomes a fulfillment of the "go" of Gen 12, both a commission, both an election, both bound up with the purposes of God. Should "sending" not be read into the Abraham story, then? Is that the wrong word? Why? I don't see that as theologically imprecise. Why wouldn't any narrative instance of participation in God's purposes, once it is construed theologically as such, provide language that might refer to participation in other instances where that language is not found? We do that all the time with words that become concepts that then frame the reading of other texts, right?

      I wouldn't say missional ecclesiology is committed to any one further claim regarding post-resurrection life. But, yes, I think it is a legitimate question whether being "in Christ" is merely an "economic" participation (particularly since the immanent/economic paradigm is not a theological given) or, if it is, on what basis one might conclude that there is no further "economic" activity post-resurrection in which the church would continue to participate.

      Interestingly, since you've allowed a distinction between very delimited "sending" language and the general/sloppy "mission" language, I find it pretty easy to say we don't need "sending" language per se. For me, though, the question is whether it makes sense to account for our eschatological participation in the ongoing purposes of God, i.e., mission generally, and therefore why we wouldn't allow the language of specific narratives in which the theology of mission is rooted to play a part in that account.

      It seems to me, though, that you're not _only_ looking for "necessary" language but also want to give an account of eschatological life in which "mission is completed" and God's people are "no longer sent," with the implication that, as with Abraham, the other part of the calling is all that will remain: "called by God simply out of God's inexplicable, unpredictable love for Israel, and therefore out of God's bottomless desire to bless the children of Abraham, the friend of God." In other words, you seem interested in demonstrating that "sending" refers only to a contingent activity with a clear terminus, whereas the being loved and blessed dimension of election is non-contingent and eternal. I'm just saying, it's not clear to me that participation in God's purposes, which have included contingent activities such as "sending" in your strict usage, come to an end in eschatological life. And if not, it's not clear to me why the narratives that portray those contingent activities shouldn't provide very appropriate (if not strictly necessary) language for discourse about ongoing participation in God's eternal purposes.


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