Having summarized Millar’s critique of Chris Wright and examined his minor concerns with The Mission of God, I now want to look at the substance of his critique. I do believe his major concerns warrant more attention, though I’m not sure they are all equally valid. I also want to offer a few other thoughts on Wright’s work, giving a few criticisms that Millar does not give.
Evaluating Millar’s Six Major Concerns
Millar’s first three concerns are closely related in that they have to do with how Wright interprets Scripture (both hermeneutics and exegesis) so I will discuss them together. Here are his first three criticisms in summary form:
(1) There is an absence of the Bible at key points.
(2) Millar says that there is a persistent exegetical carelessness in the book, which is uncharacteristic of Wright.
(3) Wright is unwilling to allow the NT to shape how we read the OT.
First, the second point seems a bit overstated. While certainly Millar cited some examples where Wright does seem to have misinterpreted passages (e.g., making Acts 6 primarily about physical help or social action, when the emphasis was clearly on the word and prayer), saying that there is a “persistent exegetical carelessness” in the book seems a bit strong. He may have not have been as careful as an exegete of specific passages, but surely others he simply exegetes and interprets them differently.
Secondly, Millar’s critique in points (1) and (3) seem to highlight one of the key issues for Wright’s work: the relationship of the OT and the NT. His lack of discussion of how the NT interprets and uses the Exodus, Jubilee, and exile themes is quite damaging to his thesis. This lack of an explicit explanation of the OT/NT relationship is likely what causes the absence of Scriptural support at key points.
To be clearer, the way the New Testament uses the exile and Exodus paradigm seems to primarily focus on the spiritual implications for the NT church. Though Wright may assert that we can’t cancel out the physical dimensions of the Exodus, the question remains why the NT authors do not seem to understand its significance in that way? While Wright is an OT scholar, surely more interaction with the NT at key points would have been helpful.
(4) Wright contends that evangelism is ultimate, but not primary.
This criticism is probably a little harder to pin down, as Millar cites a quote from Wright in which he says that mission has not been completed if the cross has not been proclaimed. I.e., the difference between “ultimacy” vs. “primacy” may be somewhat difficult to determine in his book. I think really what Millar is criticizing is Wright’s approach in which “everything mission.”
So he argues that Wright suggests that evangelism is simply one a number of the things that the church may rightly do, but it is not above any of the others in terms of hierarchy. While certainly Wright does not accept a hierarchy, he does seem to give it somewhat more importance than certain other aspects of what may be included in “mission,” as he doesn’t say that mission has not been done until plants have been cared as he does say about the proclamation of the cross. I believe that this criticism is really a subset of a larger issue that Millar did not mention, which I will bring up at the end.
(5) Millar argues that there is a weak doctrine of sin and judgment in the book.
(6) Millar notes that the word “gospel” is not present in the index, nor is it featured in the book itself.
These two criticisms naturally fit together. Regarding sin, I’m not sure that Millar paints Wright in completely fair terms, as he does talk about the various dimensions of the sin problem (vertical, horizontal, environmental, historical, etc). It’s probably fair to say that because Wright is seeking to correct a view which only ever talks about the vertical dimension of sin, he spends more time on the horizontal and environmental side of the discussion. This seems like a classic case of swinging a little far in one’s emphasis, rather than a complete lack of a doctrine of hell, as Millar seems to suggest.
Regarding the lack of “gospel” being present, of course, I believe this has to be a damaging criticism. Considering not just the emphasis on the gospel in the Epistles, but also the fact that Jesus came “preaching the gospel of the kingdom,” surely some attention should be given to that. And surely the discussion of the good news of the kingdom leads to a discussion of the already/not yet, which would help with some of the OT/NT issues that have already been pointed out.
Two Other Thoughts on Wright’s Work
(1) Wright never makes any distinction between the church or the people of God as institution versus organism.
In my opinion, this is the most glaring failure of Wright’s work. He simply never addresses this point. He simply assumes that what can be said of the “mission” of individual Christians as part of God’s people can be said of God’s people as a whole, that is, in the church.
This seems to me to be the issue behind many of the issues that Millar brought up. That is, he criticizes Wright for not discussing Acts 1:8, Matthew 28:19-20, or other key “mission” texts. Wright does this because he wants to show how mission is not only throughout the Bible but the basis for the existence of the Bible. And that’s a good emphasis because it shows us that there is a much larger story going on in which we have a part to play.
But it’s dangerous because it disconnects the current mission of the church from what we see in the New Testament about how the apostles and the early church understood their mission.
In particular, in a world full of need, it gives little help to the church in figuring out how, as the church, God’s people should be involved in what God is doing. There is an institutional/organized component to the church in the New Testament, as we see the instructions about elders, deacons, worship, offerings, etc. The mission of that group seems to be considerably more narrowly focused than that of individual Christians. And Wright simply fails to ever acknowledge this distinction, and I find that to be a glaring problem.
(2) Is participation in God’s holistic mission the best way of formulating the way we are part of God’s mission?
Wright defines mission in this way: “Fundamentally, our mission, if it is biblically informed and validated, means our committed participation as God’s people at God’s invitation and command in God’s own mission within the history of God’s world for the redemption of God’s creation.”
And so he sees, for example, the fighting of disease as part of the redemption of God’s creation. Accordingly, fighting disease is part of the church’s mission in his view.
This is a much larger discussion than I can get in to now, but it seems to me that “participation” may not be the best way of framing this. Or, to be more precise, our participation in the world of redemption itself may not be the best way of explaining our mission.
The New Testament (and even the Old Testament in many places) seems to indicate that our manner of participation is that of witness: we testify to the work of redemption that God is doing and will do. The primary means of this in the NT is through verbal proclamation. The church’s diaconal or mercy work certainly testifies to God’s interest in people as whole people, not disembodied spirits. But the language of testimony or witness to God’s work of redemption seems to keep God in his role and the church in his role.Read More