Four Recent Proposals for Missional Theological Method

A Missional Method for Constructive Theology (Part 5)

So far, I have sketched my question, thesis, and working definitions of missional, and missiology. In this post, I briefly survey recent proposals for missional theological method from Stephen Bevans, Paul Chung, Stan Nussbaum, and Jason Sexton.1

Stephen Bevans: Missional Systematic Theology

Catholic missionary-theologians Robert Schreiter and Stephen Bevans have, for longer than anyone else, worked to develop a consciously missiological vision of constructive theology. Their now classic works, Constructing Local Theologies (1985) and Models of Contextual Theology (1992) are standards in the missiological study of contextualization, and both theologians have lived with one foot firmly in systematic theology and the other in missiology.2 In a 2008 article, Bevans characterizes his career, patterned on Schreiter’s work: “I am trained in systematic theology and still see myself as a systematic theologian, but I do theology from a definite missiological perspective, developing into a mission or missional systematic theologian.”3 In this article, his missional development is on full display as Bevans presents the revised curriculum at Catholic Theological Union and, in particular, his class on the doctrine of God as a case study in “missional systematic theology.” The class, called “Witness and Proclamation: The God of Jesus Christ,” comprises four elements, which actually form a pedagogy for missional theological education; by the same token, they constitute the theological method Bevans imparts to his students. As the trinitarian focus of missional theology already suggests, the doctrine of God is perhaps the easiest to develop as a case study, but Bevans goes beyond suggesting that the typical missional account of the Trinity is the proper point of departure for constructive theology, or even that it is paradigmatic for developing other loci missionally. Too briefly put, he commends (1) the method of practical theology (praxis-theory-praxis), (2) sensitive intercultural and interreligious dialogue based on rootedness in one’s own culture, (3) emphasis on the priority of the mysterious presence of the Holy Spirit in history and in the mission of Jesus, and (4) a social, relational account of the Trinity that warrants 1–3.

Paul Chung: Mission as Constructive Theology

The most ambitious endeavor to develop a missional theological method so far is Paul Chung’s 2012 volume, Reclaiming Mission as Constructive Theology: Missional Church and World Christianity. He develops a richly hermeneutical and anthropological account of missiological theology with which I am extremely sympathetic:

Mission as constructive theology is not isolated from other theological disciplines, but entails an interdisciplinary implication for theology in engagement with cultural anthropology, comparative study of religion, and cultural theory of interpretation. I argue that we must reclaim mission as constructive, public theology in a hermeneutical-practical manner for the sake of embarking on innovative initiatives in missional theology. In other words, missiology as a hermeneutical-practical discipline provides an academic locus for the interdisciplinary investigation of God’s mission, the church, congregational study, and culture. It employs the methodologies of theology, hermeneutics, anthropology, history, intercultural relations, and communications.4

Though missiology is an “academic locus” in mission as constructive theology, Chung unfortunately still characterizes missiology as “a complementary science to other theological disciplines.”5 This phrasing fails to capture the integrative vision he otherwise holds forth, which is the critical aspect of his proposal for the present study. Chung, in other words, takes a huge step toward a participatory, interdisciplinary missional theology that is anthropologically intercultural, narratively hermeneutical, and publicly constructive. In the course of the book, though, the anthropological dimension remains underdeveloped from a missiological viewpoint.

Stan Nussbaum: Missiology as Queen of Theology

“What we missiologists are asking for is not a bigger slice of the pie, it is a total restructuring of theology as a discipline,” states Stan Nussbaum with admirable candor.6 His proposal begins by characterizing modern and postmodern theological models. Modern theology is a pyramid with the doctrine of God at the base, and other doctrines are the truths built on top—truths that practitioners (including missiologists) can apply. Postmodern theology is a menu of competing methods that disparately match theological constants with components of the life context. Unlike modern theology, postmodern theology does not attempt to construct a comprehensive system, because it rejects all metanarratives. By contrast, Nussbaum advocates a missional model:

The missional model of theological structure has the coherence of the modern but unlike the modern, it starts with the reign of God, that is, God’s interaction with the world, rather than God’s attributes in timeless detachment. The proclamation of the kingdom replaces the doctrine of God as the first topic of theology, and engagement with the world replaces philosophy as the standard of theology.7

Whereas modern theology focuses on “timeless truths” to the detriment of narrative, and postmodern theology focuses on “timely connections” without metanarrative, missional theology is concerned with the metanarrative of God’s already/not yet reign.8 Nussbaum believes that if theologians would begin with the reign of God—the metanarrative of mission—rather than the doctrine of God or the context, “they would reconfigure their discipline, crown missiology the queen of theology, and inject mission into the heart of church identity and life.9 He is aware that his caricature of the alternatives is exaggerated and provocative, but he also knows they are near enough to basic tendencies in theological method to merit consideration.

Jason Sexton: Systematic Theology as Missional Theology’s Missing Ingredient

Finally, Jason Sexton argues that “in its current shape, much of missional theology seems to be developing with an overwhelming and perplexing disregard for systematic theology.”10 This is the case because missional theology dislikes abstractions and systematic constructs, without which (properly understood) missional theology is guilty of methodological irresponsibility. Sexton believes that systematic theology actually has a missional form (the coherent shape of the gospel), a missional content (the whole gospel), and missional aim (articulation of the gospel). In short:

Theology must be understood and constructed as a missional enterprise. Mission must also not be thought of as taking shape in any other way than the way it most naturally does—systematically—accounting for all reality under Jesus’ lordship and in relation to him as the foundation of our faith. Systematic theology takes shape both whilst on mission and as part of the church’s mission.11

Sexton is interested in revising missional theology systematically and not the reverse. His claim is that systematic theology is always already missional by nature. This does not take into account the history of Western theology or the particular character of missional theology, but it does put a finger on missional theology’s methodological lacuna and reiterates the fundamental question: if missional theology seeks something like a coherent, comprehensive articulation of Christian theology, how should it proceed? If it is not enough to be merely “systematic,” what constructive method might serve missional theology’s commitments?

***

All four of these proposals contribute something to the development of a missional method for constructive theology. Bevans highlights the importance of sensitive intercultural and interreligious dialogue based on rootedness in one’s own culture. Yet, what, methodologically, would be the basis for this cultural sensitivity? Chung indicates, in partial answer to this question, the importance of an interdisciplinary method. But what, specifically, do anthropology and intercultural studies offer? In my view, the missiological conception of worldview stands out among other resources. Similarly, what would it mean to crown missiology as the queen of theology as Nussbaum proposes? The competing narratives of postmodernity are irreducibly cultural. Every rendition of the metanarrative of God’s mission must inevitably confront two methodological problems: its own cultural influences and the worldviews with which it engages (not to mention the worldviews represented in theology’s scriptural sources). Likewise, any account of all reality, which Sexton identifies as the subject of a properly systematic missional theology, calls for profound cultural consciousness.

Across the board, the sort of methodological basis that a missiological conception of worldview can provide proves indispensable for the development of the truly praxeological, interdisciplinary, narratological, and systematic theological method that recent missional proposals call for. Subsequent posts will explore a conception of worldview that might serve a missional theological method.


Notes

  1. When I wrote this survey, Sexton’s book, The End of Theology: Shaping Theology for the Sake of Mission (Philadelphia: Fortress, 2016), had not come out. I will undoubtedly review it separately.
  2. Robert J. Schreiter, Constructing Local Theologies (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1985); Stephen B. Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology, Faith and Cultures, rev. and exp. ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002). See also Robert J. Schrieter, “Cutting-Edge Issues in Theology and Their Bearing on Mission Studies,” Missiology: An International Review 24, no. 1 (January 1996): 83–92; Stephen B. Bevans and Roger P. Schroeder, Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today, American Society of Missiology Series 30, Kindle ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004).
  3. Stephen Bevans, “DB 4100: The God of Jesus Christ—A Case Study for a Missional Systematic Theology,” Theological Education 43, no. 2 (2008): 107.
  4. Paul S. Chung, Reclaiming Mission as Constructive Theology: Missional Church and World Christianity (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2012), Kindle locs. 358–63.
  5.  Ibid., Kindle loc. 395.
  6. Stan Nussbaum, “A Future for Missiology as the Queen of Theology,” Missiology: An International Review 42, no. 1 (January 2013): 58.
  7. Ibid., 61.
  8. Ibid., 62–63.
  9. Ibid., 63.
  10. Jason S. Sexton, “Missional Theology’s Missing Ingredient: The Necessity of Systematic Theology for Today’s Mission,” Mission Studies 32, no. 3 (2015): 384–97.
  11. Ibid., 391.

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