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.
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.
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.
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.