In Part One, I summarized Gary Millar’s talk that he gave at the 2013 Gospel Coalition Conference. I had intended to write one more post analyzing it, but I believe that it will take two more posts to do so. In this one I plan on looking at Millar’s summary of Wright as well as his four minor concerns, to be followed in the third post by a consideration of his six deeper concerns.
Why I’m Interested in Wright
Some might be wondering why I am interested enough in Chris Wright’s work to type out all of this regarding Millar’s critique. Besides the obvious point that I like to read and write both academically and as a hobby, I feel like in some ways that Chris Wright’s thought has been with me on my own theological journey for a number of years.
I was first exposed to his book in college, and I greatly enjoyed The Mission of God. At the time, I found it to be an eye-opening look at biblical theology. That is, the way he showed how God’s mission to reach not only my suburban upbringing, but also the nations, was present throughout the Bible—New and Old Testaments—was powerful in my understanding of Scripture and the church’s task. I was also thinking through some of the things I had seen within a context of cultural fundamentalism (as opposed to simply being committed to the fundamentals of the faith), in which the proclamation of the gospel seemed to be the only thing that mattered. Works of justice and mercy—whether specifically run by the church or not—didn’t seem to get a lot of airtime.
So when I read Chris Wright, and he sought to demonstrate how God’s concern for the physical extended throughout all of Scripture alongside of his concern for men’s souls, I could not help but be interested in his approach. This was happening at the same time that I was beginning to travel more and have my eyes opened to the situation of the poor in many places around the world.
Several years later, after finishing seminary and heading towards ordination in the PCA, I found myself interacting with Kevin DeYoung’s work, particularly What is the Mission of the Church? as well other Reformed approaches to some of the same questions that Wright had raised. I could sense doubts about Wright’s approach beginning to arise, though I still saw great benefit in parts of his missional survey of Scripture. I later blogged my way through The Mission of God’s People, and then read through The Mission of God again. I was once again impressed by many aspects of it (many of the same ones that Millar highlights), though I was unsatisfied by other aspects.
So with that background in mind, I want to take a look at Millar’s critique and consider whether or not his criticisms hold water.
Millar’s Summary of Wright: Fair or Not?
On the whole, it seems to me that Millar’s summary of Wright represented his approach fairly. My concern is that Millar seemed to take quite a few jabs at Wright’s work during the summary. While obviously he was anticipating the critiques he would bring later, it seemed to hinder getting a fair presentation of exactly what Wright had written. In particular, his jab at the end of his summary that Wright’s book was not very clear was a bit odd. I found the book quite clear at most points. Even if there are serious issues of disagreement, that doesn’t mean it isn’t clear, only that it may be in error.
Assessing Millar’s Four Questions/Observations
Though not Millar’s deepest concerns, they clearly are important to him, as they resurface at the end in his scathing summary critique of Wright. Of these four concerns, in my admittedly not as well-informed opinion, only one of them rings completely true.
On Overstating the Case: Millar suggests that Wright at times overstates his case. I agree. To argue that the Exodus and the Jubilee are the major paradigms for mission in Scripture seems overstated. At the very least, if Wright is going to make that case more strongly, he would need to show how the NT writers relied on those two paradigms in their own understanding of their mission. I am not saying, of course, that for something from the OT to be valid, it must be repeated in the NT (I agree strongly with the covenant theology expressed in the Westminster Standards). But at the same time, Wright isn’t just saying that the Jubilee and Exodus are paradigms or helpful windows into mission in the OT. He is saying they are primary paradigms. Such a claim needs further evidence from within Scripture itself so far as I can see.
On the Missional Hermeneutic: Millar strongly criticizes Wright’s use of the term “missional hermeneutic.” He thinks it is unclear, and therefore not helpful. As I have read Wright, he is saying this: there is not so much a biblical basis for mission as there is a missional basis for the Bible. That is, as God’s revelation to his people, the Bible exists because God has a mission to redeem and renew all things.
Therefore, when we read Scripture, we need to view it, and all its contents from that perspective. Even the most common of stories in the Old Testament was written for the purpose of advancing God’s mission, and so we need to be aware of that and make that clear when we preach and teach it.
I understand that Millar’s problem lies more with the term “hermeneutic” than with “missional.” We can talk about a “grammatical-historical” hermeneutic and know that we need to read Scripture using the tools of grammar and history in order to do our exegesis, putting Scripture in its proper context. Millar doesn’t see how “missional hermeneutic” can be considered a method in any clear manner. But in the sense that I described above, I don’t find it unclear, though obviously it must still work in concert with proper principles of biblical interpretation.
On Having an Aversion to Going Anywhere: I found this critique a bit puzzling. Millar cited no statements from The Mission of God that explicitly illustrated such an idea from Wright. If I understood Millar correctly, his flow of thought seemed to go like this:
(1) Wright deemphasizes texts such as the Great Commission in favor of seeing mission from the whole Bible. (2) Wright sees everything as mission. (3) Accordingly, Wright must not think relocating for the sake of gospel ministry is important.
I’m not sure that is a fair reading of Wright’s work. As I will explore more later, I do think he needs to spend more time on the NT and how it discusses mission. But nonetheless, as I read Wright’s focus on the nations initially, I couldn’t help but be encouraged all the more to go to the nations. It is possible that I misread him, but I never got that sense.
That’s not to say that I don’t have deep concerns about his “everything is mission” paradigm, as that does seem to undercut gospel proclamation (more on this later). But to say that he has a “deep aversion” to going anywhere doesn’t seem to flow from what Wright himself has written.
On Using Straw Man Arguments: I do see Millar’s point here. But I’m not sure that is exactly what Wright was doing in some of the examples Millar provided, for one main reason.
While there may not be one single person who holds to all of the various extremes that Millar cited (only using Matthew 28, seeing no implications for politics or daily life from the resurrection, et al), there are certainly people who have advocated one or another of them in some way. Growing up, I certainly heard plenty of sermons on mission from Matthew 28, but very few from the Old Testament. Now scholarly circles may have done better in this area, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Dispensationalists could very well be said to cancel out much OT teaching (not just on mission) with NT teaching, seeing radical discontinuity there. So I’m not sure that these arguments are truly straw-men arguments. They might not be the best arguments, but that doesn’t mean they are straw-men arguments.
Now I would imagine that at some points Wright uses arguments that don’t perfectly describe the positions of his opponents. We all fail in being completely clear, so I don’t know that it’s particularly helpful in a 535-page book to bring out a few small examples of such things.
So thus far, while Millar, as far as I’m concerned, has not proven his case very well. But in the last post, I’ll look at his deeper concerns, which is really where the primary discussion will come.
In terms of previewing my perspective, I do think Millar’s six larger concerns are both more serious and generally more accurate. I’m not convinced however, that they truly advance the conversation or hit at some of the things that might ultimately help Wright’s project to be refined biblically.Read More