Missional pneumatology: is the Spirit active outside the church?


Submitted by Andrew on Mon, 02/06/2014 - 20:38     
The piece I wrote last week on the difficulties that post-charismatics can have finding an honest place for the gifts of the Spirit in a justice-oriented “missional” framework provoked a rather aggrieved response from Michael Frost on Facebook. That appears to have been largely a matter of misunderstanding, for which I must take some responsibility. It was cleared up, more or less, in the comments. But as part of his response, in order to show that the missional movement has a strong pneumatology, Michael put up a series of excerpts from his chapter in a book called Following Fire, edited by Cheryl Catford. There is much in this material that seems uncontroversial—or perhaps better, controversial in a good way. This paragraph, for example, sums up rather well at least part of what I was trying to say in my misunderstood post:
But if the Holy Spirit is present in a local congregation then surely he would be saying more to us than that we are loved by the Father. Certainly the Spirit’s work is that of building up the assurance of the individual disciple, but we must adopt a stance that reckons the Spirit’s voice also calls us to champion justice, to demonstrate mercy and to announce the Lordship of Jesus and that these callings have practical, local outworkings.
But one section stands out—to my mind—as being seriously problematic if we are going to maintain continuity with a biblical understanding of the Spirit and mission. Under the heading “The Spirit Beyond the Church” Michael makes the following assertions.

1. Modern missiologists have abandoned “in-out, sacred-profane dichotomies”, therefore they are having to “explore in what ways the Holy Spirit is involved both in and beyond the church”. Mission is no longer “institutionally restricted to church activity”.

2. Another way of saying this is: “Mission belongs to God, not the church.” Michael argues that this was the original intention of those who developed the missio Dei idea.

3. We must, therefore, take account of the activity of the Spirit “in history and cultures outside of the church”. The Spirit “can be speaking to us through the anti-globalisation movement, the environmentalist movement and various movements for indigenous autonomy”.

4. The task of the missionary is less to bring God to those who do not have God but to “discern with others the action of the Spirit within a particular context and culture”.

I don’t have the whole chapter, and no doubt there is more to the argument than is presented in these excerpts. Nevertheless, the claim he makes seems clear enough and I don’t see any problem with evaluating it as it stands. Given the previous misunderstanding, I should probably stress that this is not intended as a critique of, or complaint about, the missional movement per se. Generally speaking, my disagreements have more to do with hermeneutics than with objectives and practices.

Dichotomies and the covenant community

Whether or not it is the case that missiologists have abandoned “in-out, sacred-profane dichotomies”, the Bible maintains a consistent and fundamental distinction between those who are in the covenant community and those who are outside it. This is not immediately the point at issue, but it is an important presupposition, and it must be methodologically questionable to base such a significant “doctrine” on the postmodern “deconstruction of dualism”. A reaffirmation of the unity of the sacred and the profane, of spirit and body, is fully compatible with the insistence that God calls a particular people apart for his own purposes.

What was the original missio Dei idea?

According to Christopher Wright, the original point of the missio Dei concept was that mission is “grounded in an intratrinitarian movement of God himself”. The Father sends the Son, together they send the Spirit, therefore mission is “a participation in and extension of this divine sending”. However, as the phrase became popularized in ecumenical circles, there developed a tendency to use it in a “seriously weakened” form to refer “simply to God’s involvement with the whole historical process, not to any specific work of the church”. So for Wright missio Dei has continuing theological value only insofar as it reinforces the point that God is “totally, covenantally and eternally committed to the mission of blessing the nations through the agency of the people of Abraham” (emphasis added).1

David Bosch puts forward the same analysis in Transforming Mission, highlighting in particular a pneumatological modification of the original missio Dei concept: “Thus, in its missionary activity, the church encounters a humanity and a world in which God’s salvation has already been operative secretly, through the Spirit.” This was a development “contrary to the intentions of Barth and also of Hartenstein, who first used the term”. He quotes Rosin’s view that missio Dei was a “Trojan horse through which the… ‘American’ vision was fetched into the well-guarded walls of the ecumenical theology of mission”.2

This would suggest that Michael is correct to say that the missio Dei idea was originally a critique of the “dominant church-centric missionary paradigm” but wrong to use it to affirm the “presence of the Spirit active in history and cultures outside of the church”. Mission has to be understood as God’s mission—so that, as Wright says, “the only appropriate response is obedience”—but that doesn’t alter the fact that God has chosen to carry out his mission in the world through the family of Abraham. In other words, not restricting the Spirit to “church-centred activity”, which is what Michael wants to do, is a distortion of the original idea. It is exactly the pneumatological modification that Bosch describes and seemingly regards as illegitimate.

Where do we find the Spirit in scripture?

If Michael is arguing that the Spirit is as active outside the church as inside it and not merely that the Spirit speaks to the church through what is happening in the world, then I think we have a quite fundamental departure from the biblical witness.

In both the Old Testament and the New Testament the Spirit is given to the covenant community as the transforming, empowering, renewing presence of God. I’m not at all sure how you would argue otherwise. It’s possible that the Spirit is seen as the power of God in creation and in the giving of life, though I think it makes more sense to say that the “wind of God” hovered over the face of the waters (Gen. 1:2) or that the “breath of God” gives life to living creatures (Ps. 104:30). Cyrus is “anointed”, but there is no mention of the Spirit, and besides, he is anointed for the purpose of liberating the covenant people (Is. 45:1). Cornelius has an experience of God before his conversion, but the Spirit falls upon the household when they believe Peter’s story about what has been happening in Jerusalem (Acts 10:44).

This is not to say that God does nothing in the world without the agency of his people. He sends the Babylonians to punish injustice and faithlessness in Israel. He sends Cyrus to release the captives. An angel of God visits Cornelius and tells him to go and fetch Peter. But it is stretching the biblical evidence too far to say that there is a mission of God going on in the world apart from the church that we need to catch up with. These exceptions only really underline the fact that the biblical God acts for or against or through his people. The Lord judges the nations, granted, but not by his Spirit, and he does not invite his people to participate in the work. If I’m missing something important here, let me know….

Contextual sensitivity in mission

It seems to me that we can gain contextual sensitivity in mission without such a radical revision of biblical pneumatology. For a start, I would have thought that a sensible biblical anthropology would encourage us to recognize that non-Christian cultures and communities may have legitimate insights into what is good and right and godly. As Paul argues, God created people and put them in societies so that “they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way towards him and find him” (Acts 17:26-27). He was very much aware that there were righteous Gentiles out there, who would put the people of God to shame on the day of God’s wrath (Rom. 2:14-16).3 But I don’t think Paul would ever have attributed this to the activity of the Holy Spirit. Having the Spirit is not about being good or bad, right or wrong, just or unjust, oppressed or oppressor. It is about being part of the covenant community.

Michael admits that this argument about the activity of the Spirit outside the church creates difficulties: “there is no clear solution as to how to live with the mystery of the particularity of the Spirit present within the church, and his presence in non-Christian traditions and cultures”. Calling it a “mystery”, I would argue, merely sanctifies what is really just a theological problem of his own making.

So what’s the point?

So this seems to me a misstep—and a surprising misstep on the part of someone who makes so much of the five-fold gifting of the church. I don’t see that the Bible envisages any mission of God apart from the agency of the family of Abraham, and the “Holy Spirit” is the name we give to the transforming, empowering, renewing presence of God to that end. It is people who are in covenant relationship with the Creator who exhibit the spirit (deliberately not capitalized) of their God. God is the Holy Spirit so that he can be experienced in power by his people. That’s pretty much the extent of it.

As far as I can see, there is nothing to be gained by claiming that the Spirit is at work outside the church. The various correctives and realignments that Michael wants to introduce into the missional conversation can be articulated in other terms, without compromising the “exclusiveness” that is central to the biblical understanding of the work of the Spirit. So, for example, we do not need to argue that the Spirit is immanent in creation in order to remedy a “debased view of the earth”, as Michael does in the fifth section on the Spirit and creation. Everything he wants to say is already entailed in the foundational biblical teaching that God created the heavens and the earth. Yes, as a matter of polemics I can see why it might seem a good idea to relativize the importance of the church in this way, but the price paid in terms of biblical and missiological coherence is too high.
  • 1. C.J.H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative, 62-63.
  • 2. D.J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (1991), 392.
  • 3. Cf. A.C. Perriman, The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom, 58-60.


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