2017 Symposium Recap – David Outlaw on Christopher Wright’s Missional Hermeneutic

Kevin L. Hester

As part of the fall 2017 Theological Symposium sponsored by the Commission on Theological Integrity, Dr. David Outlaw, Global Education Specialist with Free Will Baptist International Missions, presented one of the more thought-provoking theological explorations. His reflection on Christopher Wright’s 2006 publication, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative spurred significant discussion and laid the groundwork for re-visioning how Free Will Baptists understand their role of theological education, especially in non-Western cultures.

Outlaw related his own experiences and difficulties in expressing typical Western theological expressions to non-western cultures. His proposal was that Wright’s missional hermeneutic may allow for a more bibliocentric approach to theological education in cross-cultural contexts. He began by reviewing Wright’s work and explaining his concept of a missional hermeneutic. Following some helpful assessment, Outlaw then teased out several possible implications of this hermeneutic for theological education in light of the worldwide Church.

A Missional Hermeneutic

Outlaw communicated his vision of Wright’s idea of a missional hermeneutic as the grand story of God’s redemption expressed in Scripture. He argued that this Biblical metanarrative provides a basis for approaching and communicating truth about God in ways that move beyond proof-texting, avoid alien cultural expressions, and begin with Scripture rather than philosophical speculation. Such a Biblically-centered approach underscores the Bible as the inspired, authoritative source of knowledge about God and helps to promote a Biblical and theocentric worldview.

Outlaw traced Wright’s work in outlining God’s gradual revelation of Himself in Scripture primarily though His actions. These actions in the Old Testament included creation, judgment, and the calling of a people (Israel) to Himself. In these actions God demonstrates his holiness leading to judgment and love leading to redemption. This narrative unfolds in the New Testament, most perfectly with the salvation made known through Jesus. ultimately in His death, burial, and resurrection. At Pentecost, the redemption of God’s people was expanded to all nations. Paul’s preaching and the growth of the early church made it clear that God’s purpose in revelation and redemption was a global one.

Missional Practice

The ongoing activity of the Church should then be understood as the work of God through the Church rather than the work of individuals. The same narrative of redemption presented in Scripture is ongoing throughout the world today. God is building His kingdom in and through the Church and this has implications for the way the Church lives out these kingdom principles in the world today. This calls the Church to be actively engaged in preaching the Gospel. The Church should proclaim a holy, righteous judge who loved us enough to send His Son for our redemption.

But God’s kingdom extends beyond individuals. God cares for all creation and is renewing this creation through the Gospel and through His people. God’s mission cries out for justice as the Church works to eradicate the effects of sin in interpersonal relationships. God’s mission to the world demonstrates the inherent value and equality of all those created in His image. God’s mission also frees redeemed humanity to exercise appropriate dominion over all areas of God’s creation. This recognizes both the appropriate use of natural resources, but also a concern for the preservation of these goods given to us by God.

Moving Forward

While Outlaw reasserted the basic outlines of Wright’s thesis, he did not do so without criticism. While he appreciated Wright’s focus on mission as the work of God, he recognizes that even focusing upon the Biblical narrative will not allow us to fully escape the cultural and hermeneutical grids through which we read and interpret the Bible. He expressed concern over Wright’s perceived overemphasis in ecology, while simultaneously underscoring the truth that the mission of God extends to all creation and will ultimately manifest itself in the new heaven and the new earth.

Outlaw believes that a missional hermeneutic has two overarching strengths in reading the Old Testament. First, it allows the Christian to obtain a fuller picture of how the Old and New Testaments connect with one another as parts of the same story. Second, it allows room for Christians to come to understand Israel (at least historically if not more) as a focus and an instrument of God’s redemption.

Outlaw also believes that such a hermeneutic can highlight the need for missional activity and inform its processes. Rather than starting with a systematic theology, he proposes that Christians working cross-culturally emphasize Biblical theology, training new believers first and foremost in the Biblical narrative of God’s redemption as story. Because stories are part of who we are, it allows Christians wherever they are to see themselves in the light of God’s redemptive purposes. Preaching and teaching then should move beyond reductionist approaches to expository preaching to include the missional moment of God’s redemption as we strive to locate, interpret, and apply a Biblical text.

Conclusion

The strength of Outlaw’s presentation is found partly in Wright’s work and partly in Outlaw’s experience with communicating Christ cross-culturally in Asia, Europe, North America, and Latin America. Outlaw’s cultural lens and his work contribute authority and wisdom to his words. Such a perspective allows him a unique position from which to gauge the sometimes hidden cultural components of the Christian message. Nowhere does he call us to leave off theological thinking. In fact, he argues that such a response would be unhelpful. Instead, he simply asks that we recognize the cultural components of our understanding of the Gospel and to begin, not with theology, but with Scripture. Only when we have grasped God’s unfolding of Himself in the time and space of this world as he builds His kingdom will Christians be able to find their own place in this world and in God’s story.

David Outlaw: A Consideration of Christopher Wright’s Missional Hermeneutic

Addendum: Another Favorite Book from 2017

W. Jackson Watts

Usually I manage to read a book or two during the holidays. Recently I read one I had wanted to read for years, but finally had an excuse to read it due to its pertinence to a  current research project. It was Alister McGrath’s The Genesis of Doctrine: A Study in the Foundation of Doctrinal Criticism. Though I had not read this book in time to be included in our Commission members’ recent post on our favorite books from 2017, I thought I would briefly comment on it since I found it incredibly stimulating and theologically significant.

McGrath is the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford. He has held numerous other notable professorships throughout the years, and has published voluminously in the fields of historical theology, and especially in the relationship between science and theology.

This volume is a project in “doctrinal criticism.” On its face this may sound threatening to some. But McGrath is not trying to pick apart Christian doctrine. He is not only a scholar, but a committed Anglican Christian. Doctrinal criticism here refers to an attempt to evaluate the nature of doctrine as a historical phenomenon. He wants to consider how doctrinal statements are developed, communicated, and what they presuppose. He is especially interested in how our understanding of the past and its authority comes to bear on contemporary views of doctrine.

To put McGrath’s project in his own words, “The discipline of doctrinal criticism seeks to evaluate the reliability and adequacy of the doctrinal formulations of the Christian tradition, by identifying what they purport to represent, clarifying the pressures and influences which led to their genesis, and suggesting criteria—historical and theological by which they may be evaluated, and if necessary, restated” (vii).  Let me try to add my gloss to the background against which McGrath is working, then return to his argument.

When we consider the nature of the biblical text, we recognize that it does not present itself in the form of a contemporary systematic theology textbook. Instead it is divinely given in the form of poetry and prophecy, wisdom and narrative, oracle and history. There are no doubt places in the New Testament that appear to be part of early creedal formulations. However, by and large the theological heritage we have has come to us by way of post-canonical interaction with the apostolic doctrine, and believers formulating those teachings in a contextually appropriate way.

These claims in no way diminish the truthfulness of Christian doctrine. But they do put our treatment of key doctrines such as justification by faith or the Trinity in a historical perspective. We know that there were early church councils which contributed significantly to how doctrines have been formulated, and then transmitted by way of witnesses throughout the ages. We know that theological errors, in part, are what required the church to clarify particular doctrinal views. Recognizing the historical and social context of doctrinal development then gives us a better understanding of how our statements came to be what they are, and helps us evaluate them afresh and anew in light of the biblical text.

McGrath is motivated in part by a desire to avoid reductionist accounts of doctrine. One of the main examples he uses of such reductionism is George Lindbeck, the very influential Yale theologian. Lindbeck’s seminal book on the subject is The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (1984). McGrath appreciates some of Lindbeck’s aims and concerns, but he spends the early portion of his book showing where Lindbeck himself fails to understand the complexity of Christian doctrine.

Lindbeck chided propositionalists for focusing merely on the truth claims of doctrine, and experientialists for focusing solely on the emotional or experiential aspects of doctrine. Yet Lindbeck offered his own reductionist account with his “cultural-linguistic” model of doctrine. McGrath’s critique is fair, but pointed.

McGrath’s alternative, which is an effort to help readers appreciate the breadth of Christian doctrine, includes four theses about doctrine. First, doctrine functions as a social demarcator. Second, doctrine is generated by, and subsequently interprets the Christian narrative. Third, doctrine interprets experience. Fourth, doctrine makes truth claims (37).

Space does not permit me to explore or fully define each of these, but if one reads these theses carefully they can see that McGrath is trying to avoid reductionisms when it comes to defining what doctrine is and how it has functioned historically.

I suspect most Free Will Baptists will focus primarily on point number four. As important as this is, if we think carefully about the lived experience of the church today and in the past, we realize doctrine is even bigger and more significant than simply in what it affirms to be true or false.

What we believe does in fact set us apart from other groups (thesis 1). It helps distinguish our views from other, potentially harmful views, and provides social cohesion. We believe our doctrine does arise from the narrative of Scripture (thesis 2), yet it also enables us to reread Scripture in light of our doctrinal heritage (think here about the idea of “the hermeneutical spiral”). And we also believe that Christian doctrine makes sense of our experience. It gives us a language, concepts, and categories to make sense of what happens to us, and what is happening around us.

I can’t say enough about the depth and extent of McGrath’s work. I admit it is probably to be seen as more of a graduate-level treatment of doctrine, and so it probably isn’t the place to start for those looking to simply refresh themselves on Christian doctrine.

However, for those who may be wondering about how modern Christian thought has come to be what it is, and perhaps those interested in historical theology or philosophical hermeneutics, this may just be a book for you.

 

 

Symposium Recap – Jeff Cockrell on the New Perspective on Paul and Its Effects

by Rodney Holloman

“What value, if any, is there in this new perspective?” was the question asked by Dr. Jeff Cockrell as he began his presentation. I chuckled as this is what I am normally thinking when approaching this area of study and I appreciated him acknowledging this concern at the beginning.

He began with an overview of Luther and the Reformers’ view of the perspicuity of Scripture and how the plain sense of Scripture is given in the reading of the Scriptures themselves. Using three of the Reformation Solas (sola gratia, sola fide, and sola scriptura) as guideposts for the next section, Cockrell gave the background of some of the major figures in the New Perspective on Paul followed by what he termed the “emergence of the New Perspective.” Continue reading Symposium Recap – Jeff Cockrell on the New Perspective on Paul and Its Effects

Our Favorite Books in 2017

by Theological Commission

Members of the Commission for Theological Integrity enjoy a good book as much as anyone. This year has afforded each of us the opportunity to read a number of titles, some published more recently and others published in prior years. This post features a couple of favorite books by each Commission member. Note that while our mention of these books doesn’t represent a blanket endorsement of their entire content, we felt they were significant, interesting, and/or enjoyable. We commend them accordingly unto our readers.

Kevin Hester

Since this year was the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I read several books on this topic. I reread two classics: Timothy George’s Theology of the Reformers and Roland Bainton’s, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Of particular interest on this topic was Zondervan’s Five Solas Series: Christ Alone (Stephen Wellum), Faith Alone (Thomas Schreiner), God’s Glory Alone (David VanDrunen), God’s Word Alone (Mathew Barrett), and Grace Alone (Carl Trueman), all of which are to be commended for theological clarity and attention to the continued practical relevance of these Protestant principles.

One of the more interesting books I read related to the Protestant Reformation was Matthew Levering’s Was the Reformation a Mistake: Why Catholic Doctrine is not Unbiblical (Zondervan, 2017). Unlike most Roman Catholic apologetics, this one was aimed squarely at Evangelical Protestants. Levering, in a rather irenic spirit, strives (unconvincingly) to demonstrate the biblical background of nine Roman Catholic doctrines including: justification, Mary, monasticism, purgatory, the Saints, and the papacy among others. Continue reading Our Favorite Books in 2017

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