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Petros Vassiliadis
Ass. Prof. of the University of Thessaloniki

Reconciliation as a pneunatological mission paradigm
(Some Preliminary Reflections by an Orthodox)

I. The development of the Christian theology of mission

The reinforcement of Pneumatology into the missiological reflections has clearly marked a new era in the history and the theology of mission, thus creating a new “paradigm shift” in our understanding of our calling in Christ in the power of the life-giving Spirit.

All started with the trinitarian extension of the article-base of the WCC in its 3rd General Assembly in 1961 in New Delhi. With regard to the theology of mission the decisive turning point was the 1963 World Mission Conference in Mexico, after which the mission agenda was enriched by a new understanding of mission, mostly represented by a variety of terms like witness or martyria, dialogue, liberation, etc.(2)

This is not to say that Churches no longer organize evangelical campaigns or revival meetings; in fact, many Christians are still asked to take up conversion as their top priority mission. What I mean is that all Churches on the institutional level are coping in one way or the other with the questions of many contexts, many religions, many cultures and systems of values. Rather than proclamation alone, all Churches are exploring in their own ways a different understanding of “Christian witness.” In addition to the earlier models of evangelization of the whole world, as well as of mission as proclamation and conversion in their literal sense, i.e. besides preaching Jesus Christ as the “the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6), as the sole saviour of human sin (Acts 4:12), the Church began to address human sin in the structural complexities of our world, and started ministering the socially poor and marginalized of our societies in their contexts, and above all entering into a constructive dialogue with people of other faiths.

It was then that we rediscovered in the Christianity the Church understood her mission in a broad variety of ways. Let us remind ourselves in brief of the development of the mission theology throughout the history of the Church, with the help of the pioneer analysis of David Bosch’s epoch-making work, Transforming Mission. Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission.(3)

The Early Church began as a charismatic movement. It had no property, no program and no institutional center. The first Christians wanted to affirm their identity in a hostile world by remembering Jesus Christ and anticipating the end. Their mission was simply inviting others to join the movement and prepare themselves for the end of this age.

As Christianity spread throughout the Greek speaking world, Christian ideas of mission were influenced by Greek philosophy. With no preoccupation with the immediate return of Jesus and settled into this world, the Church inevitably acquired a concrete mission to save the world by lifting human nature up into the Divine. As sign and symbol of God’s presence in the world, called people to a mystical communion with God. If one has to distinguish a biblical text as a foundation for the mission of the Church in this period that was certainly John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave his only-begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” God loved us and Christian mission was to love and worship God.

When Christianity entered into Western Europe it borrowed from the legacy of Roman civilization and became legalistic. The medieval European Church focused upon the sinfulness of human beings and insisted on the promise of salvation through belief in Christ. As a consequence the Latin Church understood mission as an obligation, rather than as a devotion. Its prominent feature was that Christian civilization and its mission was to sustain its power and expand its influence around the world. The biblical foundation for the mission theology of the Medieval Latin Church would certainly come from Luke 14:23, “The master said to the servant, Go out into the roads and the lanes, and compel the people to come to my house, so that it may be filled.” The Latin Church launched crusades to carry out its message. What, however, came out of this missionary attitude was the spread of Christian civilization, rather than the Kingdom of God.

As the centuries passed many people and religious leaders became critical of the imperial assumptions of Western Christianity. Protestant reformers (Martin Luther, John Calvin and others), challenging such a legalistic understanding of Christian mission, emphasized a theology, which stated that God offers a gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. They insisted that human nature was sinful and fallen, totally dependent upon Divine grace. There were many biblical texts used by them to support a variety of understandings of mission. When they emphasized faith they quoted Romans 1:16, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” When they recaptured the urgency of the early Church and its anticipation of the coming rule of God, they quoted Matthew 24:14, “And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come”.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, the universalistic understanding of mission eventually prevailed throughout Christianity and focused upon only one text: Matthew 28:18-20 “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always to the close of this age”. Mission understood in this way was ultimately grounded in the command of Jesus to “go forth,” but no effort was undertaken to discover the trinitarian nuance of this verse. With a theology reminiscent of the Medieval Church Christians have been engaged in mission out of “obedience.” Mission, thus, was taken as an order, rather than as an invitation. That is why this “Great Commission” was usually understood as a “holy burden.” God saved humankind and demanded all peoples, the argument goes on, to believe.

Unfortunately, although the “Great Commission” did mobilize hundreds of Christian missionaries to found schools and hospitals and do many good works in the name of God, it also created problems. It often generated an exclusiveness, which refused all other expressions of Christian witness. Thus, the “Great Commission,” became the most quoted biblical text in the modern ecumenical movement. It is not a case for mission based on the Gospel as “good news,” but of mission out of obedience to God’s command.

Furthermore, Great Commission mission thinking also borrowed heavily from the 18th century Western Enlightenment. As David Bosch noted, modern missionaries accepted most of the modern intellectual/scientific agenda: the separation between subject and object, the confidence that every problem and puzzle could be solved, and the idea of the autonomous individual. Enlightenment thinking nurtured a lofty view of human nature as “reasonable” leading Westerners to develop superior attitudes towards “primitive peoples”. It caused missionaries to deal with peoples of other cultures and even Christian traditions – including the Orthodox – as inferior. God’s mission was understood to have depended upon human efforts, and this is why we came to hold unrealistic universalistic assumptions. Christians became so optimistict thatthey believed to be able to correct all the ills of the world.

In recent years modern mission theology is changing! Christians in the ecumenical era after a great deal of serious reflection – in many respects due to Orthodox theological input – are not only questioning all the above assumptions of the Enlightenment; they have also started developing a more profound theology of mission. One can count the following significant transitions: (a) from the missio christianorum to the missio ecclesiae; (b) the recognition later that subject of mission is not even the Church, either as an institution or through its members, but God, thus moving further from the missio ecclesiae to the missio Dei, which, however, Western Christianity limited for some period to Christ alone (missio Christi).

Some would imagine that the biblical foundation for this new Christian mission theology can perfectly be either 1 Peter 3:15-16: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence”, or 2 Cor 5:18b: “God has reconciled us to Himself through Christ, and has given us this ministry of reconciliation.”


2. Cf. Common Witness. A Joint Document of the Working Group of the Roman Catholic Church and the WCC, WCC Mission Series, Geneva 1982; also I. Bria (ed.), Martyria-Mission, WCC Geneva, 1980. Even the Mission and Evangelism-An Ecumenical Affirmation, Geneva 1982, WCC Mission Series 21985, is an attempt to correctly interpret the classical missionary terminology. A comprehensive presentation of the present state of the debate in J. Matthey, “Milestones in Ecumenical Missionary Thinking from the 1970s to the 1990s,” IRM 88 (1999), pp. 291-304.

3. What follows is my summary of D. J. Bosch, Transforming Mission. Paradigm Schifts in Theology of Mission, Orbis Books New York 1991.

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