Book Reviews

The Witness of God

John G. Flett, The Witness of God: The Trinity, Missio Dei, Karl Barth, and the Nature of Christian Community (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), xv + 328. $36.00

Reviewed by Deanna Ferree Womack (March 14, 2011)

The Witness of God aims to transform doctrinal theology, missiology, and the life of the church through the subversion of prevailing theological dichotomies. John Flett – habilitant at the Kirchliche Hochschule Wuppertal/Bethel, Germany – defines the cleavage between church and mission as “a problem of God,” which derives from a perceived breach between God’s being and act (4). His book discloses the insufficient Trinitarian content of missio Dei theologies and draws from Karl Barth to produce a constructive redefinition of missio Dei. This work is predicated on the argument that the English translation of Die Kirchliche Dogmatik fails to convey “Karl Barth’s thick theological description of mission” (ix). Attention to the nuances of language leads Flett to retranslate English clauses that omit or blur Barth’s original emphasis on the missionary nature of the Christian community. This illumination of Barth’s missionary thinking, widely under-recognized by Barth scholars and missiologists, is but one of Flett’s valuable contributions in this volume.

The first half of Flett’s book provides historical clarification of missio Dei‘s contemporary roots within missionary theology. Chapter one introduces the central theme of the church’s missionary action as a reflection of and response to God’s missionary nature. Paving the way for a criticism of missio Dei‘s Trinitarian deficiency, this chapter’s analysis of Arius, Augustine, and the Cappadocians demonstrates that the abstraction of divine ontology from economy is not endemic to Western missiology. The second chapter investigates theological influences behind ambiguous articulations ofmissio Dei. First, the identification of God’s sending nature distanced mission from colonialism without accounting for God’s movement into the economic Trinity. Second, missionary orientations to the kingdom of God included “classic” views of the church mediating reconciliation and the “ecumenical” focus on God’s action in political revolutions. Succumbing to anthropocentrism, both sides advanced a dichotomy between divine and human agency and failed to relate “the Trinitarian basis of mission to the church’s activity” (57). Third, although missio Dei recognized the church’s missionary nature, the “church could exist without reference to mission” (62). Attempts by Martin Kähler, Hendrik Kraemer, and J. C. Hoekendijk to eliminate church-centric approaches merely inverted this dichotomy, making the church dispensable.

The following two chapters disprove the customary view of Karl Barth as the originator of missio Dei and its Trinitarian framework. Chapter three describes Barth’s opposition to the German missionary focus on natural theology andvölkish contextualization which, in turn, contested the Anglo-American civilizational approach. While Emil Brunner, Bruno Gutmann, and Sigfried Knack concurred with dialectical theology’s criticisms of Anglo-American propaganda, “they remained deaf to any suggestion that a focus on Volk constituted a Germanic domestication of the Christian gospel” (85). Barth’s 1932 lecture at the Brandenburg mission conference rejected this “point of connection” emphasis as based on human capacities. In essence, both German and Anglo-American positions depended on the doctrine of creation. Barth’s lecture, however, did not establish a Trinitarian grounding for mission or point to God’s missionary nature. “Barth’s attempt to dislocate mission from creation is precisely the approach against which missio Dei theology reacts” (122).

Chapter four argues that Karl Hartenstein, the initiator of missio Dei terminology, “neither mediated Barth to Willingen nor developed a Trinitarian grounding for mission” (152). Hartenstein affirmed the church’s missionary nature but defined mission, in opposition to Barth, as a temporal activity ending in the eschaton. The Trinitarian language of missio Dei first appeared in a North American preparatory study for the 1952 IMC Willingen Conference headed by Paul Lehman. This study disputed christocentric views of mission and accentuated the triune God’s acts in social and political movements. By marking culture as the realm of God’s missionary action, this document avoided Barth’s distinction between God and creation. Beyond this reference, it lacked substantive Trinitarian content. At Willingen, Trinitarian doctrine also served to unite ecumenical and classic approaches. Both positions upheld “the fundamental Trinitarian breach of being and act, with the eschatological approach emphasizing the former and the ecclesiological approach emphasizing the latter” (162).

In light of this Trinitarian deficiency, the second half of the book develops a constructive redefinition of missio Dei. Chapter five contests the divorce between theology and mission by engaging Barth’s references to mission. Flett contends, “This is not to pretend that mission is some master key, but it is to repudiate any distance between mission and Barth’s decisive theological contributions” (165). For Barth, any focus on human mediation separates who God is in himself from God’s movement into the economy. His dispute with Brunner conveys this opposition to anthropological missionary forms tied to an improper division of God’s being and act.

In chapter six, Flett maintains that the Trinity’s missionary nature unites God’s internal life with God’s relationship to the world. “A revised Trinitarian theology of mission must begin with the identity of the one who lives his own proper life in reconciling the world to himself, and it is in his acting for the redemption of humanity in sending his Son and Spirit that ‘we have to do with His being as God’ ” (201; cf. CD II/1, 261). God’s life for humanity counteracts any being-act breach and bridges the gap between divinity and humanity. Rather than the classic (God-church-world) or ecumenical (God-world-church) descriptions of missionary movement, a “better epigram of this relationship would be: God – God/human – human. God does not choose between the church and the world: God, in Jesus Christ, chooses humanity” (213).

Chapter seven describes the form of the Christian community, and focuses on the subjective realization of reconciliation. Flett disputes common understandings of Christ’s prophetic office as provisional and of the church’s mission as temporal and eschatologically irrelevant. Through the Spirit, Christ is actively present in the world as the true witness, thus overcoming the gap between the already actual and future fulfillment of the parousia. This connects missionary service with eternal life. Further, without the church’s active movement into the world, “she is only apparently the body of Christ, having withdrawn herself from the sphere of his and the Spirit’s presence” (242). Such witness is the church’s one visible distinction from the world. Her solidarity with all of humanity in its need for reconciliation makes the Christian community not a cultural church, but a boundary-crossing missionary community.

The final chapter clarifies the redefinition of missio Dei formulated in previous chapters. This rearticulation is necessary, considering the depth of the book’s theological argument and its breadth of historical and theological resources. According to Flett, the missionary act belongs to the triune God’s reconciliation of the world, and it flows from the Christian community’s fellowship with the living God whose action for the world is not ancillary to this being. “The Father’s begetting the Son is a deliberate act…[that] belongs to God’s life from and to all eternity…The resurrection reveals the Son of man to be the Son of God from all eternity” (288). The Spirit subjectively actualizes humanity’s reconciliation, impelling the church to follow Christ into the world. This active service is not constrained by particular historical or cultural patterns, but the church may freely develop missionary forms through engagement in the world and within the bounds of the divine-human relationship. The book’s concluding word, while brief, signals that instead of appealing to human selfishness and fear, the missionary act is sustained by joy.

In response to charges of christomonism that some leveled against Barth, Flett upholds Barth’s treatment of Christ’s act as always in relation to the acts of the Father and Spirit in their eternal belonging to God’s being. Flett restores balance to divine ontology and economy, but his book focuses more attention on the community’s relationship with Christ and the Holy Spirit than with the Father. Chapter six, for example, includes sections on “The Unity of the One Son” and “The Witness of the Spirit,” but offers no concerted treatment of God as Father. I do not claim the book gives undue emphasis to the Son and Sprit. Indeed, I applaud its attention to pneumatology, an area sometimes neglected in Reformed theology. Flett also establishes that the missionary message proceeds from the Father in his sending of the Son. Nonetheless, the church would gain a deeper sense of her missionary calling from a thorough exposition of God’s missionary nature as Father of Jesus Christ, adoptive parent of the Christian community, and Creator of the universe.

Flett’s guiding principle that mission opposes propaganda carries great transformative power. This negates any anthropological or ecclesial focus preventing the church from pointing beyond herself. Noting the connections between propaganda, imperialism, and colonialism, Flett advocates a new form of mission that should shatter Western conceptions of mission as evangelistic or justice-oriented work in foreign contexts. Mission is the essential nature of the Christian community in all places, and this active movement into the world takes an anti-imperialist form. The book thus opens new avenues for reflection on mission as a force for reconciliation in post-colonial societies. Despite Flett’s largely European and North American bibliography, his missio Dei theology might be a means for transcending the perceived East-West divide in global Christianity. Engagement with Asian, African, and Hispanic/Latino(a) views of missio Dei is critical, and such work would both enhance and challenge Flett’s argument.

One dichotomy The Witness of God does not address is the distance between theological scholarship and the church. A reformulated missio Dei theology with this much potential to transform the Christian community must reach beyond the academy, but bridging this gap remains a considerable hurdle. Additionally, while propagandistic forms of mission undoubtedly derive from faulty articulations of missio Dei, a robust Trinitarian theology of mission may not necessarily lead to corresponding missionary practices. The church’s temptation to tell her own story still remains, regardless of her theology’s adequacy. Perhaps Flett’s reminder of the Christian community’s need for continual reformation is instructive in this regard. Finally, the book’s standard of free missionary forms according to the divine-human fellowship guards mission from becoming an empty term, yet concrete examples of missionary practices might have enriched the text.

Notwithstanding these concerns for engagement, John Flett’s rearticulation of missio Dei will better equip the Christian community for this essential task. Indeed, as Flett claims, “Because mission is located in the doctrine of the Trinity, it must again return to theological curricula, must become central to the teaching ministry of the local congregation, and must inform liturgical practice” (296-97). Pastors may not find the book’s theological language accessible, but this book will prove worthwhile for those who desire an academically rigorous theology to guide their ministry. It is essential reading for Barth scholars and missiologists, and deserves careful attention from scholars of doctrinal theology and ecclesiology. Flett’s book also provides students of theology and church history further insight into twentieth century ecumenical and missionary discussions, and its rich footnoting is an invaluable resource for further study. The Witness of Godwill challenge readers from all disciplines to move beyond theological preconceptions to grapple with the abstraction of theology from mission, the cleavage of the triune God’s being from divine acts in the world, and the separation of mission from the church’s eternal fellowship with God.

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.