MTh in Missiology (subject to validation)

Christians in the UK and throughout the world need, more than ever, a clear understanding of what ‘mission’ is, and instruction and training in how to engage effectively in that mission. Edinburgh Theological Seminary intends to offer a taught MTh in Missiology (subject to validation by the University of Glasgow) in 2018-19. We would be delighted to hear from anyone holding appropriate qualifications who would like to apply for this degree programme. You can find the relevant details on the ETS web site.

We would love to have you study with us!

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The ESV Bible Expository Commentary (forthcoming)

I am delighted to see for the first time tonight the announcement of the twelve-volume ESV Bible Expository Commentary, with selected volumes now available for pre-order. I was honoured to be invited to contribute the commentaries on Colossians and Philemon (included in Volume 11).

Details of individual volumes can be found at the following links (currently only volumes 7, 11 and 12 are listed on the Crossway web site and on Amazon):

Volume 7

Volume 11

Volume 12

I am grateful to the editors and publisher for the privilege of contributing to this series. I look forward eagerly to seeing the physical book in due course.

Logos Free Book of the Month, January 2018

If you use Logos software, be sure to pick up the Free Book of the Month for January. This month you can get Todd Wilson’s expository commentary on Galatians in the Preaching the Word series free of charge. If you wish to pay a couple of dollars more, you can have a volume by Ray Ortlund from the same series too. There is also an offer on a three volume set of Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s sermons on Acts 1-8 Today is your last opportunity for these offers, so don’t miss out! And look out for another offer tomorrow! If you don’t already have the Logos Basic software so that you can read these books, you can download it completely free here.

Transcending Mission, by Michael Stroope

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Words matter. This is the fundamental conviction of Michael Stroope in his major new book, Transcending Mission (published by IVP Academic in the USA and IVP/Apollos in the UK). Stroope has written an important call for linguistic precision with respect to ‘mission’. In fact, Stroope makes the case that the term ‘mission’ (along with related terms such as ‘missionary’) is so compromised by its history and is used so imprecisely in modern literature that it should be abandoned in favour of language more firmly rooted in the Scriptures and in the history of Christianity.

I think it is fair to say that this is a bold and provocative thesis, but Stroope makes his case with great care and clarity. This book should be read by everyone who is concerned about precise and appropriate use of language in ‘Mission Studies’.

After a prologue reflecting on personal experience and perceptions of mission, Stroope begins his work with an introduction, showing how ‘mission’ has been used in many different ways. He identifies seven different meanings of the term (10-11), and recognises that there might be others. He then discusses the related terms ‘missions’, ‘missio Dei’ (Latin for ‘mission of God’), ‘missional’, ‘missionally’, noting that the language is used in ways that are confused, confusing, indeed ‘murky’ (27), so that there is a fundamental problem with the language. He states,

Mission, birthed and developed in the modern age, is itself inadequate language for the church in the current age. Rather than rehabilitating or redeeming mission, we have to move beyond its rhetoric, its practice, and its view of the world. The task is one of transcending mission. (26)

The first part of the book is composed of four chapters. In the first chapter, Stroope identifies different stances towards mission, namely ‘partisans’ and ‘apologists’. Partisans are, he says, ‘activists for mission’ (35).

The aim of the Partisan is to convince and move people toward commitment to or support of contemporary mission activities and missionaries. They proclaim mission and missionary as biblical without qualifying statements or accompanying evidence (35).

Apologists, on the other hand,

recognize the obvious absence of mission in Scripture and seek to establish justification for the term. These interpreters acknowledge that the use of mission and missionary cannot be assumed, so they mount a defence of their use. Unlike Partisans, Apologists do not rush past terminology without giving some definition to their use or making a case for mission and missionary (37).

Stroope then evaluates the various ways in which people justify their use of the category of mission. He claims that they ‘either construct a biblical foundation for mission, interpret the whole of Scripture via a missional hermeneutic, or identify mission themes’ (37). In each case, though in different ways, Stroope regards these approaches as inadequate.

The second chapter looks at ‘mission interpretations’ of Scripture (73).Stroope cites statements from many recent scholarly publications that employ the language of mission. He argues that this is not helpful because the terminology is anachronistic, suggesting a modern concept with its various connotations, and because mission language ‘diminishes the place of more theologically rich and biblical concepts, such as covenant, reconciliation, witness, and love’ (105).

In chapters three and four, Stroope proceeds to consider studies of the history of early Christianity. He notes that while ‘mission’ and ‘missionary’ are frequently employed by authors to describe the life and work of figures such as Columba, such terminology is entirely absent from the early sources. Much more typical are descriptions such as ‘bishops, pilgrims, servants, and apostles‘ (107). Stroope further claims,

The retrospective reading of mission into Scripture and history as described in these first four chapters presents difficulties, but these are not the critical problem. These are the symptoms that point to a more serious malady. The decisive issue is not an anachronistic reading of mission into Scripture and history but the mentality, worldview, or framework this reading imposes (174).

In the second major part of the book, Stroope traces the development of the use of ‘mission’ terminology, considering the way that the church’s understanding of pilgrimage developed from a personal spiritual exercise into a call for corporate, invasive expansion of Christendom, prompted particularly by the preaching of Pope Urban II (1042-1099) with respect to the ‘pilgrimage to liberate Jerusalem’ (181), otherwise known as the Crusades (chapter five). In chapter six, Stroop discusses the absence of mission language with reference to Francis of Assisi and Ramon Llull, arguing that ‘mission’ is not the appropriate category for their activities. ‘Mission’ is first employed, according to chapters seven and eight, in the writing of Ignatius of Loyola, with respect to the Society of Jesus and the expansion of Christendom.

The final part of the book recounts how the language of mission used by the Jesuits was adopted by Protestants. In fact, initially, according to chapter nine, it was not adopted, but due to various influences ‘in the course of two centuries, mission moved from questionable language to an established tradition’ (316). Chapter ten examines two significant twentieth-century events, the 1910 Edinburgh Missionary Conference and the commission which published Re-thinking Mission, to identify changing attitudes to mission. Stroope notes growing unease with the associations of the language of mission.

The final ‘epilogue’, ‘Toward Pilgrim Witness’, presents Stroope’s constructive proposal for alternative language, drawing on biblical terminology that was also employed widely in the church.

This is an impressive book. Stroope writes clearly and draws on a wide range of important scholarly literature. Stroope’s concern for precision in our use of terminology is a crucial issue. How can we talk about engaging in mission if we have not yet come to a clear understanding of what ‘mission’ is? And does this terminology come with baggage that we may not appreciate or accept, but that nonetheless affects the way the terminology is heard? Stroope’s careful linguistic and historical study helps us to appreciate better the possible unintended connotations of ‘mission’ language.

I have a great deal of sympathy for Stroope’s argument. I think that there is a strong case for using biblical and ancient terminology as much as possible and his suggestion of ‘pilgrim witness’ seems promising. I must give it more thought. But, in the meantime, I also want to ask whether the widely used vocabulary of ‘mission’ can at least be made more serviceable by ensuring that each person that uses it takes particular care to define it as they use it, and to explicitly reject the negative connotations that the language may suggest to others.

Quite apart from whether one agrees with his conclusion or not, Stroope’s work has made a very important contribution to the study of ‘mission’ and his book should be required reading for serious students of ‘mission’.

I am grateful to IVP Academic for a free review copy of this book.

What can an academic essay tell you about a person?

Recently I have appreciated some very useful discussion with a number of colleagues about training for pastors and church planters, particularly those working in urban contexts with ‘working class’ communities. There are several good posts available, including those you can read here and here. The conversation has given me much to think about.

A common thread running through much of the discussion is the perception that ‘academic’ assessments are not helpful for people working in such contexts. I have no doubt that some assessments, indeed some of the assessments I myself have set for students, have been less useful than they might have been. But I still believe that academic essays can demonstrate the strength or weakness of skills that are as important for church planters in urban contexts as for anyone else, and indeed can help to form such skills. I want to try to show that in this post.

Before I proceed, though, it is important to state clearly that there are some qualities and skills that are impossible to cultivate or evaluate adequately in an academic context. To take one example question from a post on the Faithroots blog,  ‘Do you model a godly family life?’ cannot, I suspect, be evaluated by any kind of assessment method, but only by a long-term friend or pastor. That means that holistic education and training can only be achieved by means of cooperation between academic institutions and churches.

I would also want to argue that, when both tutors and students engage in the process effectively, preparing an essay is truly an opportunity for growth through mentoring and modelling. Some of the most rewarding experiences I have had with students who are writing essays are occasions when a student asks to see me long before the essay submission date and asks for guidance on the significance of the question, or on how to develop a clear structure, or on what kinds of sources to use. Such conversations bring joy to my heart! And I am delighted to offer guidance (without telling the student what to write!). I am reminded of the narrative following the ‘Parable of the Soils’ in Mark 4:10-20. What distinguishes the disciples and others in this text from the crowds is not that they understood the parable better (they apparently did not, v. 10; compare the parallel passage in Luke 8:9: ‘His disciples asked him what this parable meant.’), but that they realised that they did not understand and came to Jesus to address that issue. While this is clearly not an exact parallel (!), I think that students will get most out of an essay when they approach their tutor to discuss the issues about which they are unsure.

It is also important to banish the myth that ‘academic’ means ‘abstract and unnecessarily complicated’. Some academic writing certainly qualifies for such a description (and that has led to the popular usage of the word, as indicated in a dictionary). But that is not an inherent characteristic of academic work. Academic work is simply work that demonstrates the scholarly standards of the academy. One of the essay topics I set recently was ‘What does Paul mean by “the gospel”?’ I don’t regard that question as particularly esoteric! Many lecturers, particularly those working in the context of training Christian workers, will set assignments with an eye to the issues that matter in the life of the church. Likewise, I am most likely to award good marks to students when they express themselves in clear sentences and paragraphs. Complicated and confusing language deserves no extra reward!

With those qualifications made, what can an academic essay indicate about a person?  And how can it serve as an opportunity for developing important skills and character traits? Here are ten suggestions. I will express these in terms of what have been called ‘transferable skills’. This means that if a person can demonstrate these skills in one context (an essay), they should be able to demonstrate them in other contexts with appropriate adjustments.

An academic essay can help answer the following questions:

  1. Can this person answer the specific question that has been asked?
  2. Does this person demonstrate a competent understanding of the key information relating to the required topic?
  3. Can this person meet deadlines?
  4. Can this person communicate effectively within set constraints?
  5. Can this person express their thoughts clearly and unambiguously?
  6. Can this person read texts carefully?
  7. Does this person value accuracy and check facts?
  8. Does this person seek out a variety of perspectives on a subject from credible sources prior to coming to a conclusion?
  9. Can this person disagree with others respectfully, while representing their views fairly?
  10. Does this person reach considered judgements based on careful consideration of evidence and arguments, giving due acknowledgement to sources from which they have learned?

Are these the only characteristics required of a pastor or church planter or missionary? No, absolutely not! But are these characteristics of great importance for a pastor or church planter or missionary? I would suggest that they are. And an academic essay is a reasonably efficient, relatively objective and consistent means of evaluating whether or not a particular person displays them or not.

Now, before I am misunderstood, let me say that I will give careful consideration to suggestions of alternative forms of assessment and to the matter of appropriate assessment load. I am grateful for ideas that have been shared by colleagues in various kinds of ministry. And I am all for pitching both teaching and assessment at a level appropriate for the current educational level of a particular student or group of students. All I ask here is that readers consider whether essays (or exegeses or book reviews, etc.) can, in fact, be quite valuable forms of assessment for anyone who wishes to work effectively in Christian ministry of any kind.

I look forward to ongoing constructive discussion regarding how best to train people for Kingdom work.

New Beginnings 

Happy New Year to all my readers!

Last year was my first year of writing a blog. It has been a good experience, from my perspective. It has provided an opportunity to share ideas on a range of subjects, mainly relating to books and reading.

One of the fascinating aspects of opperating the blog has been to see the locations of readers. According to the statistics provided by WordPress, at least one person from more than ninety different countries has looked at the blog at least once in the past year. I love the sense that the blog provides a connection, albeit an anonymous one, with people all over the world.

Since I began writing blog posts in January 2017, the blog has received several thousands views. But as the clock turned to midnight and 1 January 2018, all the statistics for day, week, month, and year turned to zero. The slate was wiped clean. There is a new beginning. 

It brought Paul’s words to mind:

If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here. (2 Corinthians 5:17)

What an opportunity! A new start! I pray that each reader of my blog will know that experience this year.

For a Christian, while this new start is objectively true, there must also be a conscious choice to look to the future. Elsewhere, Paul writes:

One thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.(Philippians 3:13-14)

I had the privilege of preaching from Revelation 7:9-17 yesterday. The vision of a vast, multi-cultural, multi-lingual crowd gathered to declare the praise of ‘our God and the Lamb’ is thrilling and deeply encouraging for life and service in the present moment.

Today is a new beginning for me in that it is formally my first day of employment with Edinburgh Theological Seminary. I look back on my time working with Highland Theological College over a total of twelve years with great affection and thankfulness, and I pray that the ministry of HTC will go from strength to strength. Now, I look forward with great anticipation to working with new colleagues and new students at ETS, in the hope that I can make a contribution to the work of mission through theological education and training. I look forward to seeing how God will will work out his purposes in the coming year.

I would like to thank everyone who has visited my blog during the past year, and I hope these readers – and others – will visit the blog from time to time during 2018. No doubt there will be a few posts about mission, biblical studies, and books.

Whatever 2018 holds for you, I offer my good wishes and the prayer that you will know grace and peace from the ‘Lord of the years’ during this year. 

Alistair

Globalchurch, by Graham Hill

Graham Hill has done a great service to the church in writing GlobalChurch. In this substantial volume, Hill intends to help Christians (and particularly ‘Western’ Christians) to listen to the voices of authors from the ‘Majority World’ speaking about the character of the church and her role in ‘the mission of God’ in the world, voices that might otherwise have been overlooked or ignored. This is not the last word on the issues addressed, but it is a very valuable contribution to the discussion.

This handsomely-produced hardback book, published by IVP, receives warm commendations from distinguished missiologists Scott Moreau (Wheaton) and Amos Yong (Fuller), and from Scot McKnight who wrote the Foreword. In the course of over four hundred pages of text, Hill, who teaches and serves as vice principal at Morling College, Sydney, covers a remarkable array of topics, divided into three parts and sixteen chapters. You can see the full table of contents on the publisher’s web site. The three parts are entitled ‘Salt: Reshaping Our Conversations’; ‘Light: Renewing Our Mission’; and ‘City: Revitalizing Our Churches’. These headings, and, to a certain extent, the book as a whole, build on Hill’s earlier book (now republished in a second edition), Salt, Light, and a City.  Chapter titles include: ‘Glocalizing Conversations’ and ‘Contextualizing Mission’. The first chapter title introduces one of the key concepts in the recently-coined (and, I think, rather inelegant!) term ‘glocal’. This term (popularised, according to Hill, by Roland Robertson, p. 26). Hill explains that this term is used to highlight the interconnection between global issues and local contexts. In this book, Hill explores how global theological issues are worked out in Majority World contexts.

Topics covered in the chapters include ‘liberation’, creation care, and theological education. I found Hill’s discussions of theological education helpful and challenging as I reflect on my own work in that area. How should I teach so that mission lies at the heart of all that I do with the students?

Each chapter follows a fairly standard pattern: First, there is an introduction to the topic, usually rooted in an account of the experience of some individuals. This section is concluded with the statement ‘This chapter asks, What can we learn from how Majority World Christians …‘.  Then Hill proceeds to the main discussion of the topic, drawing on the writings of authors from (or sometimes with strong associations with) the Majority World. Hill then closes each chapter with a series of ‘Concluding Reflections’. These reflections function as calls to action based on the earlier discussion. Hill makes good use of section headings and numbered lists, so the material is quite easy to follow.

At the end of the book, Hill includes three appendices. The first describes the GlobalChurch Project website. This resource is well worth a visit and includes many interesting videos and other resources. The second appendix is a study guide for use by churches, classes and small groups. The third appendix is a list of the names of notable Majority World authors with brief comments on their contexts and contributions. This is a very useful feature for readers who are beginning to discover these authors.

Hill writes in an easy style and I enjoyed reading the book. The book’s register lies somewhere between a typical popular work and a typical academic work. Hill provides careful surveys of scholarship and rich bibliographical information in his footnotes His writing style, however, is relatively informal (he frequently uses contracted phrases, such as ‘they’re’, ‘it’s’ and ‘we’ll’, all on p. 374) and he often uses the language of exhortation (‘we must …’) that gives a sermonic flavour to substantial portions of the book, particularly the ‘Concluding Reflections’.

This book has many strengths. The topics that Hill discusses are of crucial importance not only to missiologists but to Christians everywhere. But the introduction to Majority World thinkers is particularly important in these days. No reader of theology should remain content to ignore the voices of theologians from less familiar parts of the world. I also appreciated Hill’s evident passion for the mission of the church.

There were a few matters, on the other hand, where I had some reservations. Generally, there are matters of nuance. There were a few places where Hill appears quite certain that ‘we must’ do certain things, I wondered if he skipped rather quickly over significant differences among writers on mission regarding the nature of ‘mission’. So, for example, when Hill states that ‘Contextual mission must be integral and transformational’ (p. 54), I wondered whether some missiologists would want to say, ‘Wait a moment! What do you mean by these terms?’. But Hill’s discussion tends to assume that view rather than enter into debate.

Also, Hill is quite eclectic in drawing from authors of various perspectives. This is particularly evident in his chapter on ‘Liberating People’, where he draws on various authors associated with ‘Liberation Theology’. Hill is correct that there is much to learn from engaging with Liberation Theology, and he also offers some important critical comments on some features of this strand of theology (pp. 91-94). But readers should be aware that the Majority World authors included in the book represent a very wide range of viewpoints. Likewise, while most Christians will enthusiastically affirm the importance of the role of the Holy Spirit in Mission, not all will be ready to regard every expression of charismatic or Pentecostal Christianity as necessarily a sign of the Spirit’s activity (compare Hill’s comment, ‘Seventy-six percent of all renewalists in the world live in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Clearly, the Spirit is empowering the global church for mission.’ p. 435). Hill explains that he holds to a charismatic theology, having originally been involved in a Reformed church. This combination of influences is evident in various interesting ways. Hill himself shows discernment on certain expressions of Pentecostal thinking (e.g., p. 144) and he nuances his statements more in some places than in others. Perhaps this is inevitable in a work of such grand scope.

Despite these slight reservations, I am very grateful for GlobalChurch. I learned a great deal, even when I was not in complete agreement. This book should be read by every Christian and Christian leader who wishes to listen carefully to the insights of Majority World Christians. I hope to see much more engagement with the work of Majority World Christians in future as a result of Graham Hill’s important book.
(Many thanks to IVP for providing a review copy of this book.)