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I Understand
Volume 8.1 / Missional Theology: An Introduction
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Book Review

Missional Theology

Missional Theology: An Introduction

Book Author: John R. Franke
Publisher: Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020. pp. xii + 180. $23.00, paper or eBook
Reviewed by Jim Dahl, Tyndale Theological Seminary, Badhoevedorp, The Netherlands

Franke has characterized his book as one designed to introduce “an emerging discipline that works at the intersections of practical theology, missiology, and systematic theology in the service of congregational formation for witness” (p. x). As such, it addresses a need that exists in the discipline of theology, that is, to link systematic theology to missions and ministry in a much more integrated manner. This has been done in the area of biblical theology such as in the work of Christopher Wright, but little has been done of this in systematic theology. Unfortunately, this book does not appear to be the one to do this successfully, even though it does emphasize some needed themes and does provide some good ideas.

The author designs to make this book “as accessible as possible to those who are joining this conversation for the first time“ (p. xi). The book consists of five chapters, together with a preface and an epilogue. The basic themes of the book are outlined in chapter 1, “Missional God;” Franke contends that mission, which Franke describes largely in terms of the love of God, is an attribute of God. “The love that characterizes the life of God from all eternity is the basis for God’s actions in the world” (p. 17). This means that mission finds its basis in God himself rather than in the Church. The mission of God—and of the church—is to counteract the sin of humanity, which is described as the seeking after one’s own well-being at the expense of other people, and which results in oppressive societies. The mission of God, then, is to establish “a community of love where everyone has enough and no one needs to be afraid” (p. 19). This is how Franke defines the kingdom of God.

Chapter 2 focuses on “Missional Church.” Here the author argues for the primacy of a communitarian (i.e., a social, relational) view of humanity, rather than an individualistic view. The Church is to embody a new way of living in the world which will bring liberation in this age. In doing so, the Church becomes a demonstration of the gospel, bearing “in its own life the presence of the kingdom” (p. 35).

“Missional Theology” is the title and topic for chapter 3. Such a theology will always be culturally specific, situated in a specific social and historical circumstance (pp. 64–65). It is formed through a dialogue between gospel, context, and culture. Missional theology “is inherently focused on life and practice rather than on intellectual articulation,” though the later is also deemed important (p. 69). Because of contextual nature of theology, it will and should result in a multiplicity of theologies.

Franke focuses on this “Missional Multiplicity” in chapter 4. He contends that “the ongoing engagement of the gospel with cultures of the world results in an irreducible plurality and reflects the missional nature of the Christian community” (p. 99). The author interjects, however, that this does not mean that there should be an “anything goes” attitude to either theology or mission. False doctrines and wrong practices need to be resisted and refuted (p. 103). This happens through the Church’s commitment to the Word of God, which, he claims, has three different forms: revelation which he defines as “truth as God knows it to be” (p.120); Scripture; and tradition or proclamation as he sometimes will call it. Later in the book he explains that the Word of God in all three of its forms “is always an act God performs or an event in which God has spoken, speaks, and will speak” (p. 173). It is the Spirit of God that works through all three forms of the one Word. Apparently, by the process of coming closer to the source of revelation through tradition and through Scripture, the Church can remain faithful. He writes, “in the economy of God the church has been entrusted with bearing witness to the truth of the gospel and it has, through the power of the Spirit, often been faithful to that task even as it has also been guilty of many failures and shortcomings” (p. 121). However, “these failures do not undermine the plurality and multiplicity intended by God in the missional witness of the church” (p. 120). Indeed, this plurality and multiplicity is not something to avoid, but to embrace and to encourage.

Additionally, Franke discusses his understanding of the nature of theology and its epistemological basis in this chapter. He argues that theology has to reject a “strong or classic foundationalism” in favor of a postmodernist approach (p. 131), and so must also reject a totalizing tendency to make a theology that is “universal for all times and places” (p. 135). With this epistemological approach, he states that “the ultimate authority of the church is not a particular source—Scripture, tradition, or culture—but only the living God revealed in Jesus Christ” (p. 134). This kind of approach will produce the multiplicity of theologies referred to above. This, Franke contends, is good: “Plurality is the intention and will of God as a faithful expression of truth” (p. 138).

This naturally gives rise to the question of the Church’s unity, even in the midst of its multiplicity. That unity comes from continuity to “its historical and global expressions” (pp. 146–47), and to holding to a series of “constants” that have characterized the Church throughout her history. These constants primarily focus on the “the centrality of Jesus and the ecclesial nature of Jesus’ disciples in their missional activity,” but can also include topics such as eschatology, salvation, anthropology, and culture (pp. 154–55). Interestingly, he writes, “Christian solidarity is not to be found in set, uniform answers to these concerns but rather in the common questions they raise” (p. 155). This is because “we will not find ultimate truth in abstract notions or theories but rather in the person of Jesus Christ and the way of life he invites us to follow” (p. 159). In fact, he states that “those who want to make certain kinds of truth claims” in theology constitute a significant challenge to Christian unity (p. 144). Ultimately, however, the unity of the Church is found in her common commitment to her mission. Thus, “The end of missional theology is a community in solidarity with Jesus Christ and each other that participates in the mission of God by living God’s love in and for the world” (p. 166).

The epilogue, the author states, gives “a sort of executive summary of the book” (p. 168).

The fundamental problem with this book is it argumentation. There are various aspects to this, and each affects the strength of the book. Sometimes there seems to be a complete lack of argumentation. This is the case for two of the main concepts of the book: the basic problem of humanity and the statement of the mission of God. In each case, the author states his definition of these important aspects, but no argumentation or evidence is provided for how these convictions were formed. Having assumed these definitions, the author then selects various texts or authors that support them. Without arguments for their validity, however, these definitions remain at best controversial, and at worst, unconvincing. That, in turn, weakens his whole proposal. The same could be said about his definition of theology, which defines the discipline as being more oriented toward practice than truth.

In other instances, his argumentation consists of refuting an extreme form of an opposing view rather than offering evidence or arguments for his own view. This is the case when he advocates for a postmodern approach by simply arguing against a strong, classical foundationalism. In doing so, he not only ignores other types of epistemologies such as critical realism, but seemingly makes his own choice an arbitrary one.

At other times, he exhibits a dogmatism that causes him to ignore historical realities. Such is the case with his contrast between an “individualistic perspective” on salvation, in which “salvation has often been viewed primarily as the redemption of particular individuals for a heavenly future,” and a more “cosmic scope” of salvation, which involves “the work of rescuing the whole world” (p. 22). This ignores the reality that in the history of missions, it has been those missionaries who, while believing in the first view, also established literacy programs, schools, hospitals, and community health initiatives. This is also the case when, in his last chapter, he contends that the common “questions” which centered around topics like Christology unite the Church, rather than the answers to those questions. The Christological controversies of the early Church present the opposite case.

There is also a very selective use of evidence and sources. While the author states that he is aiming for brevity, and that there is certainly more that could be written, he does not deal with evidence that would stand contrary to his proposals. This can be seen in his discussion of the nature of mission as that of “liberation” as well as the relative lack of discussion in his treatment of the nature of sin and salvation, among other things. In all of this, there is a dearth of nuance in the author’s proposals and arguments. Granted that he aimed for brevity in this book, but making such sharp and needless dichotomies between issues such as these does not lend strength to the book’s argumentation.

At times one wishes that the author would expand his discussions a little, elaborating on what he has written. This is especially the case in the several instances in which he notes that his stance on revelation and commitment to postmodernism does not entail an “anything goes” approach, nor does it prevent strong convictions or the refutation of mistaken views. Here, it would have been very helpful if he would have explained how one can do that, given his commitment to plurality and multiplicity.

While the book bills itself as a theology, theological topics are weakly covered, often by neglecting to define or describe what is meant by these doctrines. There is little discussion of the nature of sin other than the definition given; little discussion of the nature of salvation, which seems to consist mainly in the example set by the life of Jesus; little discussion of anthropology—mainly, that a human being is an individual created for community; little discussion of the nature of the Church, other an emphasis on the sent people of God and on her mission; and no real discussion of eschatology. This thin theological content robs the book of a strength that a more robust theology could provide.

There is also a fundamental inconsistency to the book. The author complains that the Church has been too influenced by Western culture, forgetting, apparently, that postmodernism and neo-orthodoxy are also Western constructs, and they, too, tend to be “totalizing” in certain aspects.

Finally, the book leaves some doubt about its purpose. The subtitle of the book declares that it is an introduction. In the preface, the author states that he is writing it for people that are new to this discussion. However, the book seems to presuppose a knowledge of previous discussions, of other authors, and of theological and philosophical positions of which the beginning reader most likely would not be aware. That, and the lack of more theological content, makes the achievement of this purpose doubtful.

Nevertheless, the author’s conviction that mission should be moved from the periphery of theology—and of the Church—to its center is very commendable. His emphasis that God is a missionary God, and, therefore, that the Church must be missional, is very good. His concluding thought, that “the end of missional theology is a community in solidarity with Jesus Christ and each other that participates in the mission of God by living God’s love in and for the world” (pp. 165–66), is a worthy goal, but it more likely can be better achieved by a more traditional and robust theological approach.

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