Tag Archives: missiology

Visual Timeline of 20th Century Missiology in the West


This is a rough sketch of the history of missiology in the 20th century and how the conversation has evolved in the West. This is strictly a Roman Catholic and Western Protestant conversation. It leaves out the Eastern Church and the global movement of Pentecostalism, not to mention the entire church of the Global South.

Missiology has evolved through three basic forms in this time period:

1. Theology for Missions. This comes from two hundred years of European colonialism and Christendom. The church was thought to be a location to which people were to be brought, and a cultural norm to which people were to be converted. The church existed primarily for the perpetuation of God’s People, and secondarily for the sending of missionaries to bring the Gospel to the heathen in the dark places of the world. The first meeting of the International Missionary Council sparked conversations about the theological and biblical basis for missions. Several books were written tracing the story of the Biblical narrative, demonstrating that God is a missionary God and has called, first Israel, and then the Church to go into all the world and preach the good news of repentance and salvation.

2. Theology of Mission. Two world wars, the uprising of colonies against the empire, and the rise of deconstructionism in mainline universities became the catalyst for a deeper look at the theology of mission. Most ecumenical churches were pulling away from missions in fear of the complicity it shared in colonialism. The IMC was scrambling for a new imagination for mission. Karl Hartenstein proposed the notion of missio Dei at the Willingen Council in 1952. The term, at the time, was merely a place holder term to connote that the mission was God’s, not the church. Missiologists would spend the next two decades debating over what the missio Dei actually meant.

This conversation went in two basic directions. One the one side, led by J.C. Hoekendijk, the concept of missio Dei became engulfed in a progressivist, universalism in which God no longer needed the church, but that God was already present in all religions and cultures. The mission of the church was simply to recognize God at work in the world and to foster God’s movement toward shalom. The IMC was absorbed into the World Council of Churches as the Commission of World Mission and Evangelism.

On the other side, the evangelical movement was formed to preserve both biblical authority and the centrality of Jesus for the Gospel and the church for mission. God is a sending God. God’s mission is to save the world. God the Father sent Jesus. Jesus sent the Spirit to create the church. God sends the church, in the power of the Spirit to go into the world.

3. Missional Church. The late 1980s brought a movement back to center with the voices of Lesslie Newbigin and David Bosch leading the way. Both of these men were missionaries with great experience of contextualizing the Gospel in the field. When they returned to their sending cultures they realized that the “Christian West” was now, itself, a post-Christian culture and the Gospel, the mission field, and the entire study of missiology was in desperate need of revisioning. The realities of pluralism, globalization, and post-modern deconstructionism sparked a flourish of literature in the 1990s and first decade of the 21st century. The missional church understands that God is missionary by nature, creating and restoring the world. The church is constituted by God’s missionary essence and participates in God’s mission.

A vital component to the missional church conversation is that of the Trinity. The resurgence of Trinitarian theology by theologians such as Moltmann, Pannenberg, Jenson, Zizioulas, Boff, LaCugna, Volf, Johnson, and Torrance has helped the church realize that it is constituted by the relationality of God and functions in the provisional knowledge of God’s eschatological promise and hope of a restored world.


Article | Missio Dei – Understandings and Misunderstandings by Tormod Engelsviken

Engelsviken, T. “Missio Dei: The Understanding and Misunderstanding of a Theological Concept in European Churches and Missiology.” International Review of Mission 92, no. 367 (2003): 481-497.

Missio Dei- The Understanding and Misunderstanding – E. Engelsviken – my annotated copy

The Author

Tormod Engelsviken is Professor at the MF Norwegian School of Theology and Editor of Norwegian Journal of Missiology.[1]


Englesviken provides an important exploration of the key terms involved in 20th century missiology in the West–missio Dei, Kingdom of God, and church. He discusses and critiques the two ways in which these terms have been used. On the one side is the Evangelical perspective which understands God to be a sending God and the church to be a primary agent of God’s mission. On the other hand is the ecumenical perspective which is, in itself, a mixture of two views. One view was promoted by Hoekendijk in the 1960s which understood the missio Dei to be God’s universal movement toward peace in the world. The church was incidental to the mission. The other view is closer to the Evangelical view which sees the church as participatory in God’s mission to bring both redemption and peace/justice to the world.

Engelsviken sees hopes of unity in the discussion through the doctrine of the Trinity. Again, however, there are divisions and misunderstandings regarding the role of each person in the Trinity in the missio Dei.

This is my simple drawing of the questions.

Missio dei misunderstandings P188



The theocentric perspective was, of course, not new in the 20th century. It can already be found in Martin Luther’s thinking about mission. The American Lutheran missiologist, James A. Scherer says, “For Luther, mission is always pre-eminently the work of the triune God – missio Dei – and its goal and outcome is the coming of the kingdom of God. Luther sees the church, along with God’s word and every baptized believer, as crucial divine instruments for mission. Yet, nowhere does the reformer make the church the starting point or the final goal of mission, as 19th-century missiology tended to do. It is always God’s own mission that dominates Luther’s thought, and the coming of the kingdom of God represents its final culmination”.2 Here, already, we encounter the three concepts that form a dynamic triangle in post-war missio-logical thought: missio Dei, the kingdom of God and the church. Much of the discussion is centred on how they relate, and the answers given diverge strongly. (481)

“Here, however, it is necessary to point out that the fact that the term missio Deiis used or implied does not mean that there today is one single understanding of the term within the CWME. In a comment on the CWME mission state­ment, the secretary of the Commission, Jacques Matthey, correctly refers to the two quite different understandings of the term. One draws especially on John 20:21, which one could call the “classical” way to refer to missio Dei, where God’s mission is primarily carried out through the church. The other understanding is where God is seen as active in the secular political and social events of the world and where it is the role of the church to discern what God is doing in the world, and then participate in it. The latter understanding which, as we have seen was dominant in the WCC in the 1960s, is still a quite common understanding in ecumenical missiology.”[2] (491)

“I believe the key to understand the seemingly different understandings of mis­sio Dei in this document lies in the phrase, “within God’s overall mission”. God’s mission is seen as larger than but including the mission of the church. How the two are related to each other in terms of salvation is, however, not clear and would probably still be a hotly contested question.

At this point, the evangelical documents are unambiguous. This may easily be seen in the way they develop the work of each of the three persons in mission, maintaining the proprium of each without excluding the others.

Firstly, it is especially God the Father to whom the creation and preservation of the world are ascribed. This again forms the basis for the worth of humans and their stewardship of creation in terms of ecological responsibility, and concern for other people in terms of loye, peace and justice. “Our missiology centres on the overarching biblical theme of God’s creation of the world, the 54

Father’s redeeming love for fallen humanity as revealed in the incarnation, substitutionary death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and ultimate­ly of the redemption and renewal of the whole creation”. We notice here that salvation is seen as much more than “salvation of souls”. Rather, it includes the whole creation, and is thus similar to the understanding in the ecumenical statement, but with the significant difference in that here it is more directly tied to the redemptive work of Christ.

Secondly, the evangelical documents strongly tie the understanding of the salvific work of the Son to the historical redemptive work of Jesus Christ by referring repeatedly to the historical realities of his life, death, resurrection and exaltation, and strongly emphasizing his uniqueness: “The Lord Jesus Christ is the unique revelation of God and the only Saviour of the world. Salvation is found in Christ alone”. This uniqueness is not only expressed in positive terms but also in exclusivist terms: “In the face of competing truth claims, we proclaim with humility that Christ is the only Saviour”. The Millennial Manifesto says, “Recognizing the dangers of universalism, religious pluralism and syncretism, we proclaim the uniqueness of Jesus the Messiah…as con­fessed by the Church through the centuries”.

Thirdly, the person and work of the Holy Spirit is emphasized in the evangel­ical documents. He is seen as “the agent of mission” and “source of power”,leading the church into all truth and calling the believers to holiness and integrity.”[3] (492-493)

[1] https://wipfandstock.com/author/37246 (accessed September 2, 2013)

[2] {Engelsviken, 2003 #437@491}

[3] {Engelsviken, 2003 #437@492-493}

Book | Translating the Message by Lamin Sanneh

20130823-170558.jpgSanneh, Lamin O. Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture. 2nd ed. American Society of Missiology Series.Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009.

The Author

SannehLamin Sanneh is the D. Willis James Professor of Missions & World Christianity at Yale University. He, a naturalized U.S. citizen, is descended from the nyanchos, an ancient African royal house, and was educated on four continents. He went to school with chiefs’ sons in the Gambia, West Africa. He subsequently came to the United States on a U.S. government scholarship to read history. After graduating he spent several years studying classical Arabic and Islam, including a stint in the Middle East, and working with the churches in Africa and with international organizations concerned with inter-religious issues. He received his Ph.D. in Islamic history at the University of London.

He was a professor at Harvard University for eight years before moving to Yale University in 1989 as the D. Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity, with a concurrent courtesy appointment as Professor of History at Yale College. He has been actively involved in Yale’s Council on African Studies. He is an editor-at-large of the ecumenical weekly, The Christian Century, and serves on the editorial board of several academic journals. He is an Honorary Research Professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies In the University of London, and is a life member of Clare Hall, Cambridge University. He serves on the board of Ethics and Public Policy at Harvard University, and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Alabama. He is the author of over a hundred articles on religious and historical subjects, and of several books. For his academic work he was made Commandeur de l’Ordre National du Lion, Senegal’s highest national honor. (http://divinity.yale.edu/sanneh)


Sanneh’s main thesis is that translation is the process of entering the vernacular and allowing the Gospel to find its own voice within the host culture. It is a helpful revisioning of the standard polemic against the colonization of Christendom to the Global South. See this post for a rebuttal.


“This way of understanding the matter implies a reappraisal of the issue of missionary interference in other cultures, which may partly be resolved by taking into account vernacular primacy in translation. It can be argued that mission is fundamentally consistent with indigenous cultural integrity, especially when we view mission as the missio Dei. There is a radical pluralism implied in vernacular translation wherein all languages and cultures are, in principle, equal in expressing the word of God. In this regard, the biblicism of extreme Protestantism, inherited from the reformers of sola scriptura, relegated Western theological commentaries to a peripheral place in translation, thus suppressing in the mission field an important source of the diffusion of Western cultural and intellectual values. By that procedure, such missionaries acted to shield indigenous cultures from Western religious and intellectual dominance. Equally important, such stress on the Bible as alone sufficient to effect God’s purpose conferred on the vernacular an autonomous, consecrated status as the medium of God’s word, a consecration often more in tune with indigenous attitudes toward language than the attitudes of missionaries toward their own culture.

Two general ideas stem from this analysis. First is the inclusive principle whereby no culture is excluded from the Christian dispensation or even judged solely or ultimately by Western cultural criteria. Second is the ethical principle of change as a check to cultural self-absolutization. Both of these ideas are rooted in what missionaries understood by God’s universal truth as this was revealed in Jesus Christ, with the need and duty to work out this fact in the vernacular medium rather than in the uniform framework of cultural homogeneity. This introduces in mission the logos concept wherein any and all languages may confidently be adopted for God’s word, a step that allows missionaries and local agents to collaborate, if sometimes unevenly, in the missio Dei. Doing the history of mission is enunciating the concrete facts of the inner workings of this theological dynamic. Consequently, translatability, still an insufficiently studied theme, is of immense fruitful potential for the historian of religion.” (208-209)

main thesis

“One major consequence of the thesis of this book is to reopen the whole subject of mission and colonialism, with an indication of the fresh lines of inquiry now open to us. Modern historiography has established a tradition that mission was the surrogate of Western colonialism, and that–more germane to the thesis of this book–together these two movements combined to destroy indigenous cultures…I wish in this book to present another point of view, which, however tentative, should help restore some objectivity to the subject and bring it forward once more as part of the active field of scholarly endeavor.”

“The historian interested in change will find much to confirm that interest, and more besides, for the vernacular paradigm enabled local converts to acquire the new skill of vernacular literacy linked to the assurance of the familiar medium of mother tongues. This produced profound confidence in local converts to whom the Christian initiative passed, much in the way it did from Jerusalem to Antioch and thence to Athens and Rome. The historian is thus confronted with a signal fact about Christianity in the sense that its continuous translatability has left it as the only major world religion that is peripheral in the land of its origin; and yet what it lacks in the predominance of its birthplace it has more than made up for in the late fruits of its expansion.” (4)


Listening to God in Everything | A Response to Lamin Sanneh’s Translating the Message

I am currently reading Translating the Message by Lamin Sanneh. His thesis is that translation is the process of entering the vernacular and allowing the Gospel to find its own voice within the host culture. It is a helpful revisioning of the standard polemic against the colonization of Christendom to the Global South. However, it reminded me of a conversation we had in my Congregation class with Dr. Keifert this Spring. The following illustration is my note page from Keifert’s response to the question, “isn’t it translation (a reference to Sanneh’s work)?” I looked at it again today and was reminded of the deep theological and ecclesial significance of listening.