Nation, I am not going to lie to you – I love me some good missional theology. While scholars who are missionally-minded come from various disciplinary sectors (cultural theology, missiology, biblical studies, ecclesiology, historical theology), they often read each other’s work. Nevertheless, usually we feel “at home” especially in our own discipline. Thus, I was pleased to see Dean Flemming (New Testament scholar) write a book called Recovering the Full Mission of God: A Biblical Perspective on Being, Doing, and Telling (IVP, 2013). As you might imagine from the title, Flemming walks the reader through the Bible from beginning to end, showing the robust, multi-dimensional nature of the Gospel that is meant to bring good news to all of life. The power and grace of God are displayed not only in words, but also in action. Furthermore, it is put on display in the “being” of the people of God – who they are as transformed people, servants and apostles of Jesus Christ.
This is not the only book of its kind out there. I noticed that Flemming draws often and deeply from the work of Christopher Wright. However, Wright is an Old Testament scholar and his work excels especially in that testament. Flemming offers special insight into the New Testament perspective, and Flemming has previously published works in this area on Philippians and Revelation (if memory serves me correctly).
Flemming’s work is also insightful given his own experiences. He talks about growing up in an environment where he was taught that “sharing Jesus” was primarily a verbal phenomenon (like sharing an evangelistic Bible tract). However, later in life he became a Bible teacher in the Philippines.
I suddenly felt as though I had been dropped into a sea of human need…Many of my Christian friends there were struggling with how to biblically approach issues like grinding poverty, dehumanizing injustice and pervasive corruption…Words alone were insufficient to bring the hope of Christ to that setting. (p 13)
In another context, as an educator in Western Europe, Flemming found that verbal evangelism was inadequate in such a post-Christian context. Flemming, throughout the book, makes it clear that words matter, and verbal proclamation is fundamentally important, but he noticed in Europe “More often people are initially attracted by lives that have been genuinely transformed by the love of Christ. The text they read in our lives and loving relationships can nurture an openness to hear why we live and love the way we do” (13). Flemming admires this lifestyle witness, but feels that many Europeans are not doing enough with their words. You can see the problem here between words and works in regards to the mission of God.
Flemming’s work is timely. It almost seems like a response to Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert’s What is the Mission of the Church? where these co-authors critique the social-centered approach of missional theology. (See discussion here.) But Flemming does not actually mention that book. Instead, at the end of Flemming’s work, he interacts with and tries to push against Duane Litfin’s 2012 book Word Versus Deed: Resetting the Scales to a Biblical Balance where Litfin argues that “evangelism” should be narrowly defined in verbal terms. Here is Flemming’s assessment.
To be fair, Litfin’s overarching concern is that we don’t get too far in the other direction – that we don’t neglect the verbal dimension of our mission and only emphasize deeds. And I applaud that concern. But I cannot agree with his conclusion that, from a biblical standpoint, ‘the gospel can only be communicated with words.’ [Litfin, 35.] That sells short both the gospel and the task of evangelism. (260)
Flemming has the right academic training, personal experiences, and literary skill to compose an engaging argument against the narrow perspective supported by those who critique missional theology. Just one more thought – is there something to the idea that Flemming and Chris Wright have spent significant time travelling outside of the West? I think so.
Bottom line – this is a book worth reading.