Review and reflection: Chris Wright, 2010, The Mission of God's People - a Biblical Theology of the Church's mission

, Zondervan, 301pp with index.
This is an enormously helpful and refreshing overview of the Bible. It is written around the theme of what the Bible as a whole has to say about why the people of God exist and what it is they - the church - are supposed to be and do in the world. Before getting into more predictable chapters on the subject with more NT basis, we have: People who Know the Story they are Part of, People who Care for Creation, People who are a Blessing to the Nations, People who Walk in God's way, and People who are Redeemed for Redemptive Living - a chapter that is very much based in OT. In expounding 'People who Walk in God's way' on the basis of God's calling Abraham (Gen 18:19) Chris helpfully shows how ethics - walking in God's way - connects calling and the outcome of that in mission, being a blessing to the nations. "Ethics is the purpose of election and the basis of mission" (p93). The blessing to the nations chapter steps back from Paul to Abraham and shows how God blesses the nations through him and his descendants in faith, and how this fact is expounded by Paul. That blessing depended on covenantal obedience, and ever since Abraham is properly expressed in a missional church. Abraham is a model for our mission in several respects. The chapter (13) on living and working in the public square is an important one and the questions arising from it received some attention at the Lausanne III conference. It establishes that the vocation of many of God's people is serving the state and thereby advancing God's purposes and blessing many. Ironically, for Joseph, Daniel and Esther this was not Plan A in their lives, but they responded to their circumstances and worked constructively and conscientiously for the foreign government with great effect, while preserving their own integrity. For most of us it means simply being "good citizens and good workers, and thereby [being] good witnesses. Work is still a creational good. It is good to work, and it is good to do good by working." (p234) But this and the blessing to the nations chapter stop short of addressing the question: What is the mission of God's people in relation to mediating God's abundant provision in creation to the millions of very needy people who live both ignorant and deprived of that provision? This is in my view a glaring deficiency. It's a question that is important i) ii) iii) for the obvious reason of people's needs, because much of the world's economy is concerned with it (mining industry, agriculture, forestry, energy, finance, most manufacturing industry), and because the many Christians involved in it will find practically nothing in sermons or Christian literature on the subject from a creation base.

The reason for the last is that academics and clerics by default control virtually all Christian discourse, and these matters are effectively outside their field of view, so nothing much else gets written or published. Affirming the virtues of work in today's economic and social context needs to address the roles of science, technology and resources. The Bible isn't blind to these matters - cf Gen 1 & 2 re food, also Deut 8:6-9 for instance on mineral abundance, concluding in v 10-18 re wealth creation, the basis of the human economy (which also clerics and academics are very weak on). Was all that just Caanan?? That is why I wrote my 2006 book Responsible Dominion, on the basis of 30 years in the resources sector. The subject is right off the radar of most Christian discourse, though many Christians work in the mainstream human economy (but don't write theologically-based books). It seems to me that there is rather a lot of scope to address the matter. The Lausanne III statement could conceivably do so. Something explicit and strong in the Lausanne statement would encourage and enfranchise many of God's people whose vocation is guided more by instinct than articulated theology and ethics. It needs something more than just an implication that the heroes of planning, financing and doing major resource initiatives

are stopping slightly short of mortal sin! These matters are clearly encompassed in chapters 1 to 4 of the book, but not actually addressed, let alone expounded. There are hints in two subthemes: blessing the nations, and seeking the welfare of the city - which is developed into a sound theology of work. Ch 3 makes some very good points, but leaves out any treatment of the above matters (and I would strongly challenge a couple of details). God's mission for his church surely includes the production of food, materials and energy that he has already made provision for in his creation - blessing the nations. To focus on 'creation care' rather than say 'creation appreciation and utilisation' overlooks this. In chapter 15 (p268) there is some strong rhetoric about environmental issues - "a vast and interrelated impending catastrophe of loss and destruction" which will resonate agreeably with the green fringe. Beyond the overblown hype, the points made are sound. But some critical questions are not raised: does the environmental damage arise from activities which should not be done, or which should be done better, more carefully? Is there an alternative? To what extent should we accept that there will be significant changes to the land air and water of God's creation in fulfilling God's commission in early Genesis? If, so, how much change is acceptable or appropriate? To state the most obvious: 6500 million people will not get fed if there is no agriculture, nor housed if there is no forestry, nor furnished with communications and transport if there is no mining. None of these occur without environmental implications, though oddly while those of agriculture dwarfs the others, mining is possibly the highest profile in people's minds. This page of purple prose also reinforces the point that can be made about most books: an author can make strong statements credibly on his/her own specialty, but at the fringes of their discourse strong assertions on matters evidently beyond their expertise are often fatuous. But having got up a head of steam Chris does not slow down. Two pages further on he says that "environmental action is a means of defending the weak against the strong, the defenceless against the powerful, the violated against the attacker, the voiceless against the stridency of the greedy." Fine rhetoric, and occasionally true, but more often it is pushing ecocentric over human values. He links this to Psalm 145, which certainly tells us that God is "loving toward all he has made" and "righteous in all his ways" but it's hardly a mandate for environmental action, even if that were unequivocally aiming to serve people as he suggests. In fact he nowhere supports this assertion, which seems to be lifted out the lexicon of the left and is out of character in the book. But these pages amount to overstatement rather than error - there is plenty of room for much more care of creation than is common. Chris makes it clear (p271) that he is (correctly) reacting against the church putting "a veneer of uncritical blessing on whatever social or economic enterprises take place in the public arena". It needs to be "more prophet than chaplain", which is nicely put and very true if accompanied by the qualifications he sets out. But it also slightly begs the question: how does the church encourage virtuous enterprise in serving human need? And shouldn't the prophetic critique apply equally to environmental groups and ideologies which subordinate those needs to pantheistic folklore? I would argue that the sanctimonious effusions of some Christian environmental groups disenfranchise much of the church and emasculate God's mission. As usual when the prophetic role of Christians is commended effusively, the qualifier of competence is overlooked. Of course we should not "adopt a posture of elevated superiority, for we know our own sinfulness" (p 271). We should also have regard to individual competence in engaging economic, social, ethical and environmental issuesfor instance, or we are in danger of achieving the exact opposite of what we desire, we look stupid, and we bring the gospel into disrepute. This section leads helpfully on to recovering the wholeness of the gospel, including reuniting "the individual [with] the cosmic and corporate dimensions of the gospel". "The bad result of breaking up this 'whole' is that Christians who are evangelized by truncated versions of the biblical gospel have little interest in the world, the public square, God's plan for society and the nations, and even less understanding of God's intention for creation itself." (p274) Amen! If only he had paused to expound that last clause! There is a huge job to be done right now, and the blinkered "creation care" message without the utilitarian dimension actually disempowers Christians from rising to the challenge, and tends to create churches full of wimps rather than

entrepreneurs and investors. How many of the engineers in our churches are encouraged to see their roles as part of God's mission rather then despoiling "the environment" - that meaningless abstraction which often betrays the extent of our buying into the green agenda. Because of its connotations, arguably Christians should never use the term - always God's creation, complete with its material abundance. Sustainable development has been advanced (albeit inadequately) by secular thinkers and agencies, but the church has been left behind with simply the green and wishy-washy fringe of it. A related question is the church's credulous acceptance of an over-hyped representation of environmental problems which implicitly counters any utilitarian approach to God's creation rooted in the OT. Where is the Christian writing which expounds God's abundant provision in creation in terms of meeting human needs on a vast scale - for food, materials and energy? Where is the exhortation to Christians to throw themselves into this on a creation stewardship basis? Of course very many Christians are involved, against a patronising incomprehension from church teaching. But they - and others addressing those food, materials and energy needs - account for a large chunk of the world's economy (even if it's often OTT in the west with indefensible consumerism). This is more than just a theology of work, which chapter 13 covers well. The prosperity "gospel" is helpfully dispatched in strong terms (p280). Meeting world needs for food, materials and energy is not simply a justice and compassion matter (though it is that too), but it needs to be based in a proper understanding of God's very abundant provision in his creation and its implications for us in science, technology, engineering and investment. That even needs to inform individual share investments in superannuation funds, and so on. However, returning to the book itself: despite the important deficiency outlined, it is a wonderfully comprehensive and helpful treatment of the subject which I expect will be very widely used. It ties together much biblical theology in a practical and inspiring way, and I hope it will give a whole new and more biblically-comprehensive perspective on the churches' role for many readers. Hopefully a second edition will tone down the environmental rhetoric and fill out the gap for those of us with a strong sense of vocational calling to apply God's created abundance in the real world. Ian Hore-Lacy 12/12/10 1900 words

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