Missio Dei and Bible Translation

By Eddie Arthur


Though at first it might seem straight­for­ward, it is ac­tu­ally quite dif­fi­cult to de­fine ex­actly what Chris­t­ian mis­sion is. It is of­ten said that the terms "mis­sion" and "mis­sion­ary" are not found in Scrip­ture, though these are just Latin equiv­a­lents of the Greek verb apos­telo and its cog­nates. His­tor­i­cally, the Latin term "mis­sion" was first used to de­scribe the ac­tiv­i­ties of the Tri­une God as de­scribed, for ex­am­ple, in John 20:21. The term "mis­sion­ary" was first used in its cur­rent sense for en­voys of the Pope and the royal fam­i­lies of Spain and Por­tu­gal, who were sent to con­vert Na­tive Amer­i­cans to Catholi­cism and to bring them un­der the sway of the Eu­ro­pean nations.[i] Over the last 200 years, the evan­gel­i­cal con­cept of mis­sion has tended to be de­fined by peo­ple such as William Carey and Hud­son Tay­lor and has fo­cussed on the "Great Com­mis­sion" of Matthew 28.

How­ever, even to­day there is no clear con­sen­sus in the evan­gel­i­cal world as to ex­actly what con­sti­tutes mission.[ii] Be­cause of this, rather than try and ex­am­ine mis­sion from the point of view of hu­man ac­tiv­ity, we will start by look­ing God and how his char­ac­ter has an im­pact on our un­der­stand­ing of mission.


Prob­a­bly the sim­plest and most im­por­tant state­ment that can be made about God is that he is Trin­ity: one God in three per­sons; Fa­ther, Son and Holy Spirit. That be­ing said, the sim­ple state­ment is preg­nant with all sorts of mean­ing and has con­fused Chris­tians down through his­tory. Be­cause of the per­ceived dif­fi­cul­ties in un­der­stand­ing the Trin­ity, teach­ing about it has of­ten been side­lined in Chris­t­ian his­tory, so that Karl Rah­ner could write:

"...​despite their or­tho­dox con­fes­sion of the Trin­ity, Chris­tians are in their prac­ti­cal life, al­most mere 'monotheists'".[iii]

Evan­gel­i­cals have tended to mir­ror the gen­eral Chris­t­ian ne­glect of Trini­tar­ian thought, rel­e­gat­ing it to chap­ters in sys­tem­atic the­olo­gies or spe­cial­ist aca­d­e­mic works. When they have con­sid­ered the Trin­ity, Evan­gel­i­cals have tended to con­cen­trate on the dis­tinc­tions be­tween the Fa­ther, Son and Spirit and their spe­cific roles in the his­tory of redemption.[iv] How­ever, over the last few years there has been a resur­gence in study and writ­ing about the Trin­ity which has tended to fo­cus on a dif­fer­ent as­pect of the Trin­ity, the con­cept of the 'So­cial Trinity'.

The 'So­cial Trin­ity' em­pha­sises the love which flows be­tween the three per­sons in com­mu­nion and is a pri­mar­ily re­la­tional view of the Trinity.[v] This con­cept of the Trin­ity has a long his­tory and can be traced back to the fourth cen­tury Ca­pado­cian Fa­thers and their no­tion of peri­chore­sis or the mu­tual in­ter­de­pen­dence, def­er­ence and in­ter­nal­ity of the Trini­tar­ian persons[vi].

A fo­cus on the so­cial na­ture of the Trin­ity shows us that lov­ing re­la­tion­ships lie at the heart of things and that they pre-date the cre­ation of hu­man­ity. The Tri­une God did not need to cre­ate hu­man be­ings in or­der to be in re­la­tion­ship – but he did choose to cre­ate us.

Gen­e­sis chap­ters 1 and 2 show that the di­vine pur­pose in cre­ation was that hu­man be­ings should live in com­mu­nion with God and with one an­other, while ex­er­cis­ing care over God's good creation.

Gen­e­sis 3 de­scribes how the com­mu­nion that ex­isted be­tween man and God and within hu­man­ity was bro­ken at the fall. The next eight chap­ters of Gen­e­sis give a graphic de­scrip­tion of the out­work­ing of these bro­ken relationships.

How­ever, de­spite the dam­age which is set out in the early chap­ters of Gen­e­sis, God's pur­pose for cre­ation re­mains in­tact. In John 17:20-21 we see the Son pray­ing to the Fa­ther that union within hu­man­ity, and be­tween mankind and God, would be re-established.

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will be­lieve in me through their mes­sage, that all of them may be one, Fa­ther, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may be­lieve that you have sent me.

How­ever, this unity can­not is not eas­ily acheived. To re­store unity where there is now bro­ken­ness im­plies a rec­on­cil­i­a­tion which can only be achieved at a high price: the death and res­ur­rec­tion of Jesus Christ. This is cap­tured clearly in Colos­sians 1:20:

and through him to rec­on­cile to him­self all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by mak­ing peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

In Eph­esians 2, Paul ex­presses the way in which the death of Christ on the cross has brought rec­on­cil­i­a­tion to hu­man­ity and cre­ated a new community:

For he him­self is our peace, who has made the two one and has de­stroyed the bar­rier, the di­vid­ing wall of hos­til­ity (Eph. 2:14)…

God, then, has a mis­sion in the sense of an over­ar­ch­ing pur­pose, rather than an in­di­vid­ual task to per­form. His pur­pose across his­tory is to re­store the re­la­tion­ships which were there in the orig­i­nal cre­ation. His pur­pose is to re­deem, re­new and recre­ate the world. The Trini­tar­ian God de­sires to see a peo­ple liv­ing in com­mu­nion with each other and with him­self. And to bring about rec­on­cil­i­a­tion in a bro­ken cos­mos, the Fa­ther sent the Son and Spirit and in turn the Son sends the Church to par­tic­i­pate in car­ry­ing out the mis­sion. Mis­sion, then is a di­vine ac­tiv­ity, in which the church is called to participate.

"... mis­sion is first and fore­most God's own mis­sion. God sends him­self be­fore he sends his church. There is a cen­trifu­gal force in God's very be­ing as the Son and the Spirit spi­ral out from the Fa­ther to bring heal­ing to the world. Mis­sion is first of all God send­ing his Son in the power of the Spirit to rec­on­cile the world to him­self and the and the mis­sion of the church is noth­ing less than the gift of shar­ing by the Spirit in the Son's mis­sion to the world on be­half of the Father."[vii]

With these thoughts in mind, we can, per­haps, de­fine mis­sion. Chris Wright does so in these words:

"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."[viii]

Features of the Church's Mission in the Light of the Mission of God

Mission is God's

The Tri­une God is the in­sti­ga­tor of mis­sion and, through the sac­ri­fice of the Son and the em­pow­er­ing pres­ence of the Spirit, he is also the one who guar­an­tees the suc­cess of mis­sion. How­ever, true to his re­la­tional na­ture the Tri­une God in­vites us to par­tic­i­pate in mis­sion with him. Our par­tic­i­pa­tion in God's work is a gift from Him.

"Those who have come to know the life of God through the mis­sion­ary ac­tiv­ity of the Son are them­selves given the priv­i­lege of be­com­ing 'co-mis­sion­ar­ies' with God."[ix]

It is im­por­tant to stress that we are in­vited to join in mis­sion. Our mo­ti­va­tion should spring out of our re­la­tion­ship with God and our de­sire to serve him, not be­cause we are pro­pelled by a bur­den of guilt. Frost and Hirsch catch this nicely:

"Many well-in­ten­tioned church lead­ers have sim­plis­ti­cally pre­sented the words of Jesus "Go there­fore and make dis­ci­ples of all na­tions" as some re­mote or­der barked by a stern sergeant-ma­jor. If Jesus said it, we should do it! But Bosch points out that mis­sion­ary ser­vice that is mo­ti­vated by blind obe­di­ence to an im­per­sonal or­der from Jesus is built on a flimsy foun­da­tion. If our com­mit­ment to mis­sion is only based on Jesus' "or­der" in Matthew 28, it makes mis­sion an oblig­a­tion for us rather than an act of love and grace. It's not un­like a woman who com­plains that her hus­band never brings her flow­ers. When the guilty hus­band rushes out and buys her a bou­quet and pre­sents it to her, she is still dis­sat­is­fied, be­cause it wasn't that she wanted flow­ers in par­tic­u­lar. What she wanted was for him to be mo­ti­vated by his de­vo­tion for her so as to buy a gift. When we en­gage in mis­sion only be­cause we feel guilty that we haven't pleased Jesus and his or­der in the so-called Great Com­mis­sion, we sat­isfy nei­ther Jesus, nor our own sense of call­ing. Rather, says Bosch, mis­sion emerges from a deep, rich re­la­tion­ship with Jesus. The woman whose hus­band never brings her flow­ers doesn't want flow­ers. She wants him and his devotion."[x]

Be­cause mis­sion is God's ac­tiv­ity, it is in­ap­pro­pri­ate to sug­gest that God needs us to ac­com­plish his pur­poses. He takes plea­sure in us serv­ing him and work­ing with him. But we must never sug­gest that God is some­how weak and con­strained, un­able to reach the na­tions with­out our help.

God's mis­sion is greater than any­thing we can imag­ine, plan for or achieve. But he in­vites us to par­tic­i­pate. Be­cause its scope is so far be­yond us and our only ca­pac­ity is in him, we can only par­tic­i­pate well if we are in con­stant re­la­tion­ship with him.

Equally, it is in­ap­pro­pri­ate for us to de­fine the ul­ti­mate goals of mis­sion. This is not to say that we can­not set goals for in­di­vid­ual pro­jects, or for those ac­tiv­i­ties over which we have some sem­blance of con­trol. Ap­pro­pri­ate goal set­ting and mea­sure­ment of re­sults is a nec­es­sary tool for our learn­ing as well as a re­quire­ment of many of the part­ners we work with. How­ever, we must never lose sight of the fact that, first and fore­most, our re­spon­si­bil­ity is to be obe­di­ent to the call of God on our lives. With Paul and Apol­los we can plant and wa­ter, but it is God who pro­duces the fruit (1 Cor. 3:6).

"Fol­low­ing Jesus is about obe­di­ence, not suc­cess. Ul­ti­mately, trans­form­ing peo­ple and so­ci­ety is some­thing only God can do. All we can do is dis­cern what God is do­ing and obe­di­ently join in".[xi]

"Obe­di­ence is not a for­mula, nor is it a means to an end, usu­ally as­sumed to be suc­cess. Per­haps it's a more West­ern ideal, even an Amer­i­can les­son, to put num­bers and goals to min­istry and heap at­ten­tion only on those who ac­com­plish this—all oth­ers need not apply.

If I start defin­ing suc­cess in min­istry, then I start defin­ing how God should and/or will work in a sit­u­a­tion. I am tak­ing away from His mys­tery, His sov­er­eignty, and His will; in fact, I am wrest­ing power away from Him when I draw that box or map of how this should play out".[xii]

Or as an­other writer puts it:

In the end, this is the most hope­ful thing that any of us can say about spir­i­tual trans­for­ma­tion: I can­not trans­form my­self, or any­one else for that mat­ter. What I can do is cre­ate the con­di­tions in which spir­i­tual trans­for­ma­tion can take place, by ...​develop­ing and main­tain­ing a rhythm of spir­i­tual prac­tices that keep me open and avail­able to God. [xiii]

When we in­vite peo­ple to be in­volved in God's mis­sion, be that in print, on the web or face to face, we call them to dis­ci­ple­ship. We must be very care­ful to keep the cor­rect bal­ance be­tween hu­man and di­vine ac­tion in mission.

Mission is More than the Great Commission

For many evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians, mis­sion and the Great Com­mis­sion of Matthew 28:16-20 are vir­tu­ally syn­ony­mous. Mis­sion, it is said, in­volves mak­ing dis­ci­ples and we should avoid any­thing which dis­tracts us from that goal. For an or­gan­i­sa­tion like Wycliffe Bible Trans­la­tors, this par­a­digm means that we need to in­dulge in a lit­tle ver­bal gym­nas­tics to jus­tify all that we do. Mis­sion is dis­ci­ple mak­ing, and you can't be a dis­ci­ple with­out ac­cess to the Bible, so Bible trans­la­tion is a nec­es­sary part of mis­sion. Equally, you can't read the Bible with­out lit­er­acy, so lit­er­acy can be jus­ti­fied even if it isn't di­rectly re­lated to dis­ci­ple mak­ing or mission.

How­ever, as we have seen, God's mis­sion - to which we are in­vited - is much broader than mak­ing in­di­vid­ual dis­ci­ples. In this con­text we do not need to seek for proof texts to de­fend the place for Bible trans­la­tion. Seen from the per­spec­tive of the mis­sion of God, we are freed up to en­gage joy­fully in Bible trans­la­tion, lan­guage analy­sis, lit­er­acy and other ac­tiv­i­ties, as these are all part of restor­ing the unity within the hu­man com­mu­nity which God wishes for.

Mission Involves Communities

The West­ern mis­sion move­ment has been deeply in­flu­enced by the highly in­di­vid­ual na­ture of the so­ci­ety that gave it birth. Be­cause of this, we have tended to op­er­ate in a con­text which sees the sal­va­tion of in­di­vid­ual souls as the high­est pri­or­ity of mis­sion and the suc­cess of mis­sion mea­sured by the num­ber of peo­ple mak­ing decisions. How­ever, when we con­sider that mankind is made in the im­age of the re­la­tional, Tri­une God, we are forced to con­front the West­ern con­cept of the in­di­vid­ual head on. Al­though the mod­ern West­ern world is ob­sessed with in­di­vid­u­al­ism, a Trini­tar­ian the­ol­ogy is a the­ol­ogy of relationships[xiv] and com­pels us to be in­volved in one an­other's lives.[xv] Men and women can­not achieve the close­ness of the peri­choretic life of the Trin­ity but the life of the com­mu­nity must take prece­dence over the val­ues of in­di­vid­ual achieve­ment and com­pe­ti­tion. In Viv Thomas' words, "The in­di­vid­ual is not the centre"[xvi].

The mis­sion of the Tri­une, re­la­tional God is to rec­on­cile all things in heaven and earth and this must in­volve the cre­ation of com­mu­ni­ties who will live out the re­al­ity of the king­dom of God in time and in eter­nity. Peo­ple are not sim­ply saved from some­thing; they are saved into a com­mu­nity (see Acts 2: 42-47).

When we think about a mis­sion­ary ac­tiv­ity such as Bible trans­la­tion, we need to re­mem­ber that all of those who are in­volved, how­ever tan­gen­tially, are part of a com­mu­nity. If we are first and fore­most the Body of Christ; then mega-donors, lead­ers, ad­min­is­tra­tors, trans­la­tors, part­ners, mem­bers of lan­guage com­mu­ni­ties, etc. are all in­di­vid­u­ally mem­bers of that Body. In God's eval­u­a­tion of our ef­forts can our work be deemed to be suc­cess­ful if any mem­bers of that Body are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the process as dis­hon­our­ing, de­mean­ing or marginalizing?.

What­ever West­ern cul­ture may in­sist upon, mis­sion in­volves Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ties re­spond­ing to God's call in or­der to see the com­mu­nity of Chris­tians in­creased and grow.

"It is not the church that has a mis­sion of sal­va­tion to ful­fil in the world; it is the mis­sion of the Son and the Spirit through the Fa­ther that in­clude the church, cre­at­ing a church as it goes on its way."[xvii]

Bible Translation is About More than Getting People Saved

If mis­sion is sim­ply about mak­ing dis­ci­ples, or even mak­ing con­verts, then the role of Bible trans­la­tion is sim­ply to pro­vide what is needed in or­der for peo­ple to make a de­ci­sion for Christ. But what hap­pens to peo­ple once they do be­come Chris­tians? Are they left on their own to work out what how to make this new faith work? No, they be­come part of a Chris­t­ian com­mu­nity which func­tions within the lan­guage and cul­ture of the lo­cal sit­u­a­tion. The trans­lated word does bring the knowl­edge of Christ to in­di­vid­u­als, but it also plays an im­por­tant role in pro­mot­ing and al­low­ing the de­vel­op­ment of au­then­tic lo­cal Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ties. Trans­la­tion, by bring­ing God's word to a lan­guage com­mu­nity, is in ef­fect, a part of the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion process.

The mis­sion of God points to the cre­ation of com­mu­ni­ties who will wor­ship and show the glo­ries of God through their lan­guage for all of time and eter­nity. In the light of what God is do­ing, we are all lin­guis­tic mi­nori­ties, but we all have our part to play in bring­ing to­gether this amaz­ing world­wide move­ment of in­dige­nous ex­pres­sion. Part­ner­ship is then a gen­uine the­o­log­i­cal ne­ces­sity. We are not start­ing from the point of view of some peo­ple who have God's word and oth­ers who don't. We are all work­ing to­wards be­ing the peo­ple and com­mu­ni­ties that God wants us to be. We can­not make as­sump­tions of su­pe­ri­or­ity or lead­er­ship based on eth­nic or lin­guis­tic values.

Mission is Shaped by the Cross

At the heart of God's mis­sional en­gage­ment with hu­man­ity is a pro­found hu­mil­ity and a will­ing­ness to suf­fer re­jec­tion and pain. We see this all the way through the Old Tes­ta­ment nar­ra­tive as God reaches out to his beloved peo­ple who re­peat­edly re­ject him to fol­low af­ter other gods. The prophecy of Hosea, who mar­ried an adul­ter­ous wife, cap­tures the com­mit­ment, hu­mil­i­a­tion and pain of the cre­ator faced with his un­grate­ful creation.

This will­ing­ness to suf­fer on be­half of hu­man­ity reaches its cli­max at Cal­vary. Paul cap­tures the ex­tent of God's cos­mic hu­mil­ity in his poem of praise in Philip­pi­ans 2:

6Who, be­ing in very na­ture God,
did not con­sider equal­ity with God some­thing to be grasped,
7but made him­self noth­ing,
tak­ing the very na­tureof a ser­vant,
be­ing made in hu­man like­ness.
8And be­ing found in ap­pear­ance as a man,
he hum­bled him­self
and be­came obe­di­ent to death—
even death on a cross!

It is true that Christ's hu­mil­i­a­tion was fol­lowed by his ex­al­ta­tion' but suf­fer­ing and death were an in­escapable part of God's mission.

Jesus taught that his fol­low­ers would also suf­fer if they were faith­ful to him and Paul out­lined an im­pres­sive list of hard­ships that he went through. The sub­se­quent his­tory of the church has been an il­lus­tra­tion of this bib­li­cal prin­ci­ple that suf­fer­ing and sac­ri­fice is a part of spread­ing the Chris­t­ian Gospel. As Ter­tul­lian said, "The blood of the mar­tyrs is the seed of the Church".

How­ever, in our pre­sent age (par­tic­u­larly in the West­ern world), we tend to de-em­pha­size this as­pect of dis­ci­ple­ship. The idea of sac­ri­fice and suf­fer­ing do not fea­ture very highly in a world in which Chris­tian­ity is of­ten pre­sented as a way to worldly suc­cess and the avoid­ance of pain.

When we in­vite peo­ple to be in­volved in God's mis­sion, we must not min­imise the fact that it will in­evitably in­volve some sort of sac­ri­fice. Those who pray, give or go will al­most cer­tainly find them­selves fac­ing some sort of hard­ship if they are truly in­volved and truly effective:

"Prob­lems arise when this bib­li­cal vi­sion be­comes dis­torted through a one-sided fo­cus on progress and con­quest which ig­nores the re­al­ity of set­backs, suf­fer­ings and pe­ri­ods of de­cline and loss which seem to form an in­te­gral part of the wider di­vine pur­pose in the world."[xviii]

Mission Will Be Successful

We have the as­sur­ance in Scrip­ture that God's mis­sion will be suc­cess­ful. We can be fully con­fi­dent that his work will be com­plete. This doesn't nec­es­sar­ily mean that our con­cep­tion of what his work is will suc­ceed in every way, but we can be con­fi­dent that God's Mis­sion is a 100% sure ven­ture. We should be en­cour­aged by that.

For the earth will be filled with the knowl­edge of the glory of the LORD, as the wa­ters cover the sea.

Visit Ed­die Arthur's blog: kouya.​net

Sources Cited in the Text

[i] Neill, S., 1964.  A His­tory of. Chris­t­ian mis­sions. Pen­guin Books, Lon­don (p.121)

[ii] Win­ter, R.D., 2009. Un­der­stand­ing the Po­lar­iza­tion be­tween Fun­da­men­tal­ist and Mod­ernist Mis­sions. In­ter­na­tional Jour­nal of Fron­tier Mis­sions 26, 5-11. (p.10)

[iii] Rah­ner, K., 1970. The Trin­ity. Burns and Oates, London.(p.10)

[iv] Daugh­erty, K., 2007. Mis­sion Dei: The Trin­ity and Chris­t­ian Mis­sions. Evan­gel­i­cal Re­view of The­ol­ogy 31, 151-168.(p.151) "when Evan­gel­i­cal mis­si­ol­o­gists de­fend the im­por­tance of the tra­di­tional doc­trine of the Trin­ity for mis­sions, the fo­cus is of­ten on the in­di­vid­ual roles of the Fa­ther, Son and Holy Spirit. While this is cer­tainly le­git­i­mate, it falls short of a treat­ment of the Trin­ity as such."

[v] Ac­cad, M., Cor­rie, J., 2007. Trin­ity. In: Cor­rie, J. (Ed.), Dic­tio­nary of Mis­sion The­ol­ogy. In­ter Var­sity Press, Leices­ter, pp. 396-401.

[vi] Volf, M., 1998. Af­ter Our Like­ness: The Church as the Im­age of the Trin­ity. Eerd­mans, Grand Rapids.(p.206 ff.)

[vii] Parry, R., 2005. Wor­ship­ping Trin­ity: Com­ing back to the heart of wor­ship. Pa­ter­nos­ter, Mil­ton Keynes. (p.58)

[viii] Wright, C.J.H., 2006. The Mis­sion of God: Un­lock­ing the Bible's Grand Nar­ra­tive. In­ter Var­sity Press, Not­ting­ham. (p.22)

[ix] Edgar, B., 2004. The Mes­sage of the Trin­ity. In­ter Var­sity Press, Leices­ter, (p.191).

[x] Frost, M., Hirsch, A., 2009. Re­Je­sus: A Wild Mes­siah for a Mis­sional Church. Hen­drick­son Pub­lish­ers, Peabody MA. (p.50)

[xi] My­ers, B.L., 1999. Walk­ing with the poor : prin­ci­ples and prac­tices of trans­for­ma­tional de­vel­op­ment. Or­bis Books, Mary­knoll, N.Y.(p.163)

[xii] http://www.missionaryconfidential.com/disappointment-avoidance/

[xiii] Bar­ton, Ruth, H., 2006 Sa­cred Rhythms: Ar­rang­ing our Lives for Spir­i­tual Trans­for­ma­tion,  IVP Books, Leices­ter. (p. 12.)

[xiv] My­ers, B.L., 1999 (p.24)

[xv] Cun­ning­ham, D.S., 1998. These Three are One; The Prac­tice of Trini­tar­ian The­ol­ogy. Black­well Pub­lish­ers, Ox­ford. (p.183)

[xvi] Thomas, V., 2004. Pa­per Boys: A vi­sion for the con­tem­po­rary church. From de­liv­ery to dance through God as Trin­ity. Au­then­tic, Mil­ton Keynes. (p.44)

[xvii] Molt­man quoted in: Daugh­erty, K., 2007. Mis­sion Dei: The Trin­ity and Chris­t­ian Mis­sions. Evan­gel­i­cal Re­view of The­ol­ogy 31, 151-168. (p.163)

[xviii] Smith, D.W., 2003. Against the Stream: Chris­tian­ity and Mis­sion in an Age of Glob­al­iza­tion. In­ter Var­sity Press, Leices­ter. (p.55)

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