A Review of Richard Bauckham’s “Bible and Mission”

Summary

BibleandMissionIn Bible and Mission, Richard Bauckham seeks to respond to postmodernism’s rejection of universal metanarratives in favor of particulars by demonstrating that the Bible consistently moves from the particular to the universal, and thus, particulars are the means by which God achieves the universal. In other words, Bauckham wants to show the reader that the Christian faith is not just another universal truth claim that can be dispensed with in favor of particular or diverse expressions of religion, but that the Bible contains a series of God-ordained particulars that open the door to His universal kingdom. By establishing this movement from the particular to the universal in the Bible, Bauckham hopes to provide the reader with the ability to read the Bible in a way that takes seriously its missionary direction by taking both the particular and universal seriously, and achieving the latter via the former (11).

This missionary direction that Bauckham explains by describing the movement from the particular to the universal in the Bible helps Christian communities set off from their own particular situation and follow the direction toward the biblical universal that is not found apart from or at the expense of other particulars but within them. Within these particulars, people move toward the biblical universal- the achievement of God’s kingdom in the whole of His creation. This is what Bauckham defines as mission: the universal direction of people within different particulars (languages, people groups, situations, time periods, geographic locations, etc.) toward the coming Kingdom of God. By viewing mission this way, the particular and universal must be taken together, because it is by the means of the particular that the universal is realized. This view of mission counters the postmodern claim that universal truth systems necessarily devalue and decimate expressions of particulars. If Baukham’s claim that the Bible achieves the universal through particulars is true, this postmodern claim as it is applied to Christianity will be proven unequivocally false.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Bauckham successfully defends his thesis in Chapter 2, where he traces the universal narrative of redemptive in the Bible through God’s choice of particulars such as Abraham, Israel, and Jesus. Through these examples, Bauckham illustrates that God brings about the universal (His kingdom) through particulars. These particulars were never ends in and of themselves, but were means by which God chose to achieve His universal rule. Jesus Christ, who lived as a particular person, at a particular time, and a particular place, is the ultimate “particular” who opens the door to the universal kingdom of God to all people, at all times, in all places. This chapter is the strongest section of the book because Bauckham clearly demonstrates that the hermeneutic of mission (the movement from particular to universal) that he advocates emerges from the Scriptures themselves.

A second strength of this book is Bauckham’s application of this movement to modern Christianity and mission. As the Bible embodies this theme of the particular moving toward universal, so must Christian mission. Bauckham defines the mission of the church as a continual witnessing to the particulars of the Bible, including Abraham, Israel, and other individual stories, but ultimately the person and work of Jesus Christ, and demonstrating how they point to the universal kingdom of God. Futhermore, the work of the church is to help people in particular cultures, people groups, nations, and languages not replace their particulars with the universal, but to embody and move toward the universal kingdom of God within their particulars. The church as witnesses are to “mediate the particularity of the Biblical story and the universality of its claim” (100).[1]

A major weakness of Bauckham’s book is the lack of explanation of what such an embodiment of the universal within a particular looks like. The principle itself is enlightening, but Bauckham could achieve greater clarity by means of illustration. Perhaps an example or two of a people group who retained cultural distinctives while embracing the universal truths of the biblical message would suffice. However, whether or not Bauckham is referring to cultural distinctives must be assumed, because he does not clearly describe what he means by a “particular embodiment of the universal.”

A second weakness is Bauckham’s lack of explanation and application in his critique of global capitalism as a metanarrative that challenges the biblical movement of particular to universal. He makes a convincing argument that global capitalism makes the rich richer and poor poorer while devastating particulars in its wake (again, one must assume what Bauckham means by ‘particular’s in this case), and he rightly calls Christians to avoid syncretizing their faith with the metanarrative of global capitalism. In this section, he states that believers should primarily bear witness to Jesus by their “sheer nonconformity” to this system (108). However, he does give any examples of what sheer nonconformity to global capitalism looks like. Does this mean Christians are to try to avoid consumer-culture or techno-idolatry? Does it mean Christians ought to buy fair-trade coffee, avoid buying clothing or other items made in third-world countries, or avoid the stock market? At this point, Bauckham leaves the reader without clear answers.

Application

Despite the fact that I have considered two weaknesses of Bauckham’s work to be lack of example and application, this could be a strength of the book by means of making the reader think and apply to his or her situation. In fact, Bauckham’s book presents a ‘universal’ of its own right, a hermeneutic of mission moving from the particular to universal that must be applied within many different particulars. In my ‘particular,’ I can make the following applications.

First, I can counter the claims of postmodernism by pointing to the fact that Christianity does not “oppress” particulars (diversity) by the universal, but rather achieves the universal by through particulars. Second, I can be more resolute in my involvement in cross-cultural ministry to identify my own cultural particulars within Christianity (ex. Western culture) and make sure I don’t define those particulars as a part of the universal to enforce on other expressions of faith. Third, I can be diligent not to equate Christianity with global capitalism by seeking to not conform to consumer-culture or worship the idolatry of wealth. Any values of the world that are counter to the message of the cross, even if they promise “flourishing,” I must reject. Fourth, I must bear witness to the universal kingdom of God by studying and re-telling the biblical stories, especially that of Jesus of Nazareth, over and over again.

Conclusion

Bauckham achieves his goal in the book of establishing a hermeneutic for mission arising out of the Bible’s own movement of particulars to the universal. He demonstrates this hermeneutic by viewing the particulars that God chose to bring about His universal rule, and calls the church to emulate this view of mission as they constantly embody the coming kingdom of God through particular peoples, groups, languages, and nations. Through telling the stories of the particular people, nations, and the Messiah God sent to establish His rule, the church acts as a vice-regent in bringing about God’s universal kingdom to all people in all places at all times.

[1] Emphasis mine.

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