Written by Susan Disston
Wednesday, 17 July 2013 00:00
In the missional approach to thinking theologically, the mission of God is used as an interpretive motif for understanding the triune God. Through this missional motif we meet the God of the Bible whose mission is being achieved through God’s people—in and through the work of the church—for the sake of the world. The church participates with God in God’s initiative of love to redeem the world through Jesus Christ (Jn. 3:16). “Missions is about simultaneously entering into the inner life of God as a missionary God as well as entering into the world where the triune God is actively at work.” (Tennent, Invitation to World Missions, 61)
Missional theology’s “translation principle” flows from the idea that in the incarnation of God the Son, the triune God entered into the world and engaged in translation before God sent the church into the world with the gospel message. God used human flesh as the medium of translation. In so doing, the divine character of God was made known to us in the language of humanity, a language that we understand or, at least, relate to. We see this articulated in John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning…. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (Jn. 1: 1-2, 14) We see it also in Jesus’ teaching in response to the disciples’ entreaty to be shown the Father, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (Jn. 14:9)
As in any translation from one language to another, the particulars of one language are translated into the particulars of another language. In the incarnation, Jesus came to the world in a particular place, at a particular time, and to a particular culture that existed amid diverse other cultural, political, and ethnic groups. In the incarnation, we find a culture-specific revelation of God the Son.
The translation principle proposes that, in the same way, the gospel message is always a culture-specific message, and hence, the expectation that Christians can arrive at a “culture-neutral message” is erroneous. Instead the gospel message is, by God’s design, infinitely translatable. Rather than requiring assimilation to a cultural norm (a so-called “Christian culture”), bearers of the gospel can call people to into the kingdom of God as participants in creating their own expressions of authentic faith in Jesus Christ in their particular locale. This makes Christians both “indigenous” to their native culture where they reside and “pilgrims” in the world, that is, denizens of no particular culture except God’s kingdom.
It also means that no particular cultural expression of Christianity takes precedence over any other. In fact there is a movement within the missional conversation toward a deeper ecumenism that finds common ground in the historic Christian confessions rather than in any particular cultural expression of the gospel or church. The great benefit of this is that this movement has the potential to bless all the cultures of the world. “Being in conversation with the global church will not only serve to enrich our own (Western) theological perspectives, but, more importantly, it will also lead us to a deeper understanding of …the apostolic faith that forms our common confession.” (Ibid, 43).
Biblical’s missional curriculum emphasizes the importance of the translation principle and its implications for communicating the gospel with cultural awareness and sensitivity. It shares the missional conversation’s movement toward Christian unity that respects diversity because it finds its center in shared historic confessions rather than in a so-called Christian culture. Four of the six goals of the master of divinity program capture the importance of theological education that is engaging culture: both locally and globally. As one graduate wrote, “I am seeking to build a method for theology that is rooted in a relationship with God and that thrives on dialogue. I believe theology should breathe life and unity among God’s people.” This graduate and others are joining lively conversations and engaging in the translation work of effectively communicating the gospel to people in their midst.
Dr. Susan Disston is the Assistant Dean of Curriculum and Assessment at Biblical Seminary and teaches in the Doctor of Ministry program.