Towards an Ongoing Understanding of Mission.


And Jesus came and said to them, “… Go therefore and make disciples of all nations”. (Matt 28:18-19) Matthew’s Gospel places these words in the mouth of the resurrected Jesus. We embrace this call to participate in the Mission of God in Baptism. Christians are to “witness to and preach the gospel not only because of Christ’s command, but especially because (we) Christians are caught up in that overflowing fountain of the triune God’s love and mercy toward the world.” [1] This article is a theological reflection on mission and its current understanding as the Mission of God – Missio Dei.

Throughout Christian history mission has been understood and practiced in different ways – influenced by the Gospel, the signs of the times, historical and cultural studies, the experience of mission, and the current theology. Our secular, postmodern culture “opens up rather than shuts down the possibility of faith and of a new and exciting understanding of Christian mission.” [2]

Mission of God – Missio Dei

At the 1932 Brandenburg Mission Conference Karl Barth [3] presented a paper stating that mission was not primarily a human activity of witness and service, the work of the church. He insisted “it was primarily God who engages in mission by sending God’s self in the mission of the Son and the Spirit.” [4]

This led to the understanding of mission as the Mission of God – Missio Dei. [5]  Missio Dei is “God’s dynamic process” in which we as church are invited to participate rather than seeing the church and ourselves as having a mission.[6] This paradigm is a new framework in which to rethink our former understanding of mission. David Bosch writes, “Our mission has no life of its own: only in the hands of the sending God can it truly be called mission, not least since missionary initiative comes from God alone.” [7] Newer understandings of the Trinity emerged in the latter part of the 20th century, coming from a concern to relate the Trinity to the life of the church and the world. In the Catholic tradition the “general renewal in Trinitarian theology can be traced back to Karl Rahner’s 1967 essay on the Trinity.” [8]

As the Trinity is central to our Christian faith, these newer understandings have the potential to transform our own relationships and those of the Church with the world and the whole of creation. Catherine LaCugna writes, “Living Trinitarian faith means living God’s life: living from and for God, from and for others… Living Trinitarian faith means living together in harmony and communion with every other creature in the common household of God, ‘doing all things to the praise and glory of God’.” [9]

LaCugna writes further, “The doctrine of the Trinity affirms that the ‘essence’ of God is relational, other-ward, that God exists as diverse persons united in a communion of freedom, love and knowledge.” [10] Given that God is a God of mutual and equal relations then the fundamental nature of all reality is relational. [11]

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[1] Stephen B Bevans, “Revisiting Mission at Vatican II: Theory and Practice for Today’s Missionary Church” in David G. Schultenover, ed., 50 Years On: Probing the Riches of Vatican II (Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2015), 206.
[2] John C. Sivalon, God’s Mission and Postmodern Culture: The Gift of Uncertainty (New York: Orbis Books, 2012), 32. Sivalon is a Maryknoll priest. He served as a missioner in Tanzania and now lectures in the USA.
[3] Karl Barth (1886-1968) was a theologian in the Swiss Reformed Church tradition.
[4] Bevans, Stephen and Roger P Schroeder, Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today (New York: Orbis Books, 2004), 290. Bevans and Schroeder are American born SVD priests.
[5] Steven Bevans, “Partnering with God: Reimagining Mission for Today”, Bevans, downloaded March 2020. Missio Dei, or the Mission of God “has a long history in Christian theology, with roots in the Scriptures, in writings of earliest theologians of the church through the Middle Ages, and appearing also in the seventeenth century in the Trinitarian theology of the French School.” 5.
[6] Sivalon, God’s Mission and Postmodern Culture: The Gift of Uncertainty, 35.
[7] David Bosch. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991), 390. Bosch (1929-1992) was a theologian and missiologist. He ministered in South Africa and was a member of the Dutch Reformed Church.
[8] Bevans and Schroeder, Constants in Context, 291.
[9] Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (New York:  Harper Collins, 1991), 400, 401. LaCugna (1952-1997) was an American Catholic theologian.
[10] LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life, 243.
[11] Denis Edwards, The God of Evolution: A Trinitarian Theology (New York: Paulist Press, 1999), eBook, Chapter 2.

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